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Published: February 10th 2020
SITE OF THE LONG GONE DEPOT IN GRANTS, NMBRONCO BILL WALTERS
The depot in Grants no longer exists. AMTRAK does not even stop there anymore. This is where it once stood though. A closer examination may have located evidence of a pedestrian walkway crossing the tracks. It was getting late though, and I did even look for it.
Not much is known about William Walters in his early years. Apparently his introduction to the cosmos came in 1869, perhaps in Austin, Texas. He boomed along as one of a hatful of raucous children born into a family of some prominence. Both of his parents went up the flume in Austin when Will was about eleven years old. He was subsequently kicked around among siblings until he wore out his welcome with the last one and finally rode off to become a cowboy. At some point he arrived alone and on foot in a state of extreme penury at a roundup in New Mexico. They had no work for him, but they fed him anyway, and the next morning they offered him a horse to ride. He could tell with one glance that the horse was a regular outlaw that none of the other cowboys could ride the beast. They all gathered at the corral to watch him try and were prepared for a good laugh when he got bucked off. The foreman later noted that before the youngster mounted that horse he plucked some hair from its mane and tied off the rowel on his
Bronco Bill and Johnson boarded the train as passengers here before they robbed it.
spurs. After a lively few moments he rode that horse down and was hired on the spot. From that morning on he was known as Bronco Bill, and never had trouble finding work again. He was a superb horseman. Along the way to becoming a top hand speculation exists that he once worked for the Santa Fe Railroad on a painting crew. He did not like the railroad because they treated him like any other Chinaman. Even for a top hand the life of a cowboy could become wearisome. It was hard to advance in that line of work, and sometimes hard to keep a regular job. In between jobs it was convenient for some to rustle cattle, particularly in remote areas. He rattled along working on both sides of the border and occasionally found himself under indictment for rustling. Usually he managed to escape custody and make his way back to the wild country before he could be convicted or lynched. Still he spent a fair amount of time in the crowbar hotel as a guest of the law. He had become an outlaw of some distinction, but was still a top hand and bound by the code that
BELEN ROBBERY SITE
The robbery took place about four and half miles south of the Belen Depot. There is a street crossing there which makes it easy to find. Red Pipkin held the horses in the copse of cottonwoods to the right. The holdup would have taken place near but before the engine reached those trees.. The escape route led up a dry wash about three miles west of the robbery site.
you do not steal from the brand you work for.
By 1898 Bronco Bill found himself in a leadership role among a group of young cow thieves. Among them were Daniel Moroni “Red” Pipkin, Ammon Edward “Ed” Colter, William “Kid” Johnson, and Jim Burnett. Together they conceived a plan to attain quick wealth by robbing a train. The train that Bronco Bill chose for them to rob happened to be a Santa Fe train at the depot in Grants, New Mexico, and it might be that the reason why he chose to rob that particular one was due to his animosity to that railroad. Most likely he chose that train simply because it was most handy to his present location. As plans were being made Jim Burnett got cold feet because robbing a train was a disruption of the U. S. Mail, and that was a hanging offense. He notified the railroad of the attempted robbery plans at Grants on March 29, 1898 and the railroad posted more express guards to that particular run. When the outlaws stopped the train they found themselves in a fierce ambuscade. Colter was shot and raised such a loud uproar about it that
I discussed the gunfight with a member of the tribal council who told me where it took place. It was not, however, on land within the boundaries of the Alamo Reservation. He told me to get permission for access to the site from Laguna Pueblo. Such a thing was not possible due to time constraints on this trip. This photo captures Table Mountain in the mid distance. It was as close as I could get.
the robbery was called off and the bandits left empty handed. It turns out that Colter’s wound was a minor affair, and he quickly recovered from it and left the gang. Jim Burnett simply disappeared. Speculation was that he was murdered by his pals for ratting them out and got left somewhere out in the wilds for the buzzards and coyotes. Bronco Bill’s Gang was now down to three: himself, Kid Johnson, and Red Pipkin. On May 24, 1898 they knocked over the train at Belen, New Mexico and made off with booty amounting to about twenty thousand dollars. Bronco and Kid boarded the southbound train at the depot in Belen. The train chugged merrily along for a couple of miles or so before the bandits could make their way forward to the engine and force it to stop. They disconnected the passenger cars and went forward another couple of miles to a point where Red was holding their horses out of sight. He would not have been far away, but was still close enough to lend a hand with any gunplay that might develop. For his participation in the robbery Red was given several sacks of silver dollars amounting
FRANCISCO X VIGIL
Gravesite of Chief Deputy Francisco X Vigil in Los Lunas.
to about three hundred dollars. He was not seen and was not known to have been a participant. There is a dry wash to this day about three miles west of the robbery site that leads to the top of a low but rugged bluff. Red split off from the others at the top of that bluff and made his way back to his family in Ramah. To avoid suspicion Red buried his silver dollars beneath a tree near the top of the bluff. In later events he was unable to locate his stash and those silver dollars were not found until the 1990s.
Bronco and Kid Johnson rode hard to the southwest until they reached the Rio Salado and then turned upstream toward the Laguna Alamo Reservation. By afternoon they had reached a trading post on the river and made quite an impression there with their bulging money belts and generous demeanor. Bronco Bill was always a likeable guy. They had some lunch and bought some supplies, and figured they had made a clean getaway. They proceeded at more leisurely pace to a rocky canyon at the base of Table Mountain and set up camp for the night.
SANGRE DE CRISTO CHURH IN LOS LUNAS
Vigil's grave is in front of this church.
A Navajo named Wuerro happened to observe them hiding the heavy bags of silver among the rocks and decided to creep in after dark and steal them. In the meantime pursuit was not far behind. Chief Deputy Francis X. Vigil from Valencia quickly took up the chase with a deputized pal named Daniel Bustamante. They took up the chase in such a hurry that neither one of them took time to grab a rifle. They just had their six-shooters as firepower. They struck a likely trail along the river and followed it to the trading post where they soon discovered that sure enough the bandits had just been there a few hours earlier. Vigil hired two Navajo scouts to help keep them on the right trail because night was not far off. The scouts eventually encountered Wuerro and he guided them to the bandit’s campsite. Everybody hunkered down to wait until morning. During the night Wuerro told the scouts about the hidden silver. While it was still dark Deputy Vigil instructed the scouts to sneak in and steal the bandit’s horses, which they did. With the horses out of sight they came back for the loot, but day was breaking
DAN PIPKIN SLOWLY SINKING INTO THE MUD
Pipkin's grave is in extremely muddy ground. The headstone has now sunk below the land surface so you can no longer read the inscription. Somebody needs to prop it up I guess.
by then. Vigil and Bustamante were trying to creep in close enough to be within six-shooter range, but Bustamante was spotted. He challenged the bandits to surrender but was still out of pistol range. In the ensuing gunplay Vigil and Bustamante were both killed because they were in good rifle range, and Bronco Bill and Kid Johnson were both wounded. Wuerro opened fire from behind and Bronco Bill was wounded a second time before he could turn around and kill Wuerro too. The scouts wisely remained hidden but made off with the stolen horses and the silver. For that reason their identities have not been made known. Wuerro was regarded as a sort of a hero, and he was, for his part in the fight. Vigil and Bustamante were buried where they fell dead, but when word of the fight became known their families insisted that the bodies be dug up and returned for proper burial. Bustamante made it back to his family in Santa Rita (now known as Riley), but Vigil only made it back as far as Los Lunas. The guy driving the wagon stopped off at a store there for lunch but Vigil’s decomposing corpse stunk so
DOUBLECIRCLE HORSE CAMP
The gunfight where Bronco Bill was taken into custody and Johnson was killed took place in the grove of cottonwoods beside Eagle Creek in the mid-ground. The photo was taken from the road. It was too muddy to walk over there in my house slippers.
bad it disrupted the church service across the street. The priest came out and insisted that the offending body be buried immediately, and it was. Los Lunas is just across the Rio Grande River from Valencia. Vigil’s grave is in front of the Sangre de Cristo Church in Los Lunas. It was close enough, and is in sacred ground.
The bandits patched themselves as best they could, took with them what they could carry and limped off afoot. It must have been a tough journey for them before they could acquire other horses, saddles, and tack. Rumors persist that the stolen loot has never been found. It seems likely that Bronco and Johnson took part of it when they limped off and hid the rest near Table Mountain. I hope that is what happened, and that the two scouts watched them hide it, and then they made off with that loot as well as the horses and silver. Some of Bronco Bill’s pals in later years claimed that he would slip off alone once in a while and when he returned he was flush with cash. The missing loot is just part of the romance of history. After the
The gravesite is along the north side of the Hatchita Cemetery beside a fenced enclosure surrounding other graves. I knocked back a little Old Crow with his ghost. He was grateful for it, and glad of the visit.
gunfight at Table Mountain the manhunt for the bandits intensified. A couple of intrepid lawmen named Jeff Milton and George Scarborough took up the chase. They were hired by Wells Fargo and had trains at their disposal to assist in the pursuit. Red Pipkin had rejoined the merry band, to help with the horses, and attend to camp chores during the wounded pair’s recovery from their wounds. In July of 1898 the three of them surfaced at a Mormon dance in Geronimo, Red and Johnson both were Mormons and thought they ought to be welcomed there, Bronco Bill was an accomplished fiddle player and loved to dance. The Mormon girls all knew those interlopers were bad men and wanted nothing to do with them. The rejection stung Bronco Bill and he became a little unruly. Their behavior at the dance aroused suspicion and soon the intrepid lawmen had picked up a hot trail. They followed it to the Double Circle Horse Corral at McBride Crossing on Upper Eagle Creek in remote Greenlee County. They held all of the cowboys there at gunpoint so the presence of the law could not be reported, and waited for the outlaws to show up. On the morning of July 30, 1898 Jeff Milton and posse man Jim Bennett went down the creek a ways to try and scare up some fish for breakfast. They heard a gunshot and rushed back to camp in time to see George Scarborough attempt to arrest Bronco Bill. They shot they heard was Red and Johnson who had stopped to kill a peacefully snoozing rattlesnake beside the trail. Bronco Bill knew he was caught and went for his gun hoping to buy time for his pals to getaway. Scarborough shot him in the chest, but Johnson had come within range by then and opened fire himself, so Scarborough shot him too. Both outlaws were badly wounded and Red was over by the rock where the dead snake was. Red’s horse bolted and scampered off when the gunfire broke out. He got off a couple of shots in the general direction of the horse camp but suffered a minor injury from a flying rock chip and decided to scamper off himself. Johnson was howling with pain from his wound. He was shot through both hips. Everybody thought that Bronco Bill was already dead, but when Jeff Milton grabbed him by the ankles to drag him over to some softer ground for burial the jarring caused him to cough up some blood and he spluttered back to life. Johnson died the next morning and was buried at the horse camp. A hungry bear came along a few days later after the cowboys had returned to their duties, dug up Johnson’s remains and ate him. Cowboys finally gathered his scattered bones and brought them to the Double Circle Ranch headquarters and buried them in the cemetery there. Bronco Bill recovered enough to make it back to Stafford. In due course he made a full recovery but never regained full use of his right arm. He was convicted in the killings of Vigil and Bustamante, but not charged with the death of Wuerro. He was eventually sentenced to life up at the Territorial Prison in Santa Fe. Most prisoners there were pardoned out after about seven years, but Bronco Bill’s parole was denied even though he was a model prisoner. In 1909 he escaped from custody and walked all of the way to Albuquerque before he could change out of his jail clothes. He was finally caught by an alert officer down in Isleta and returned to Santa Fe. Things went merrily along for Bronco Bill, as they had before, until his parole finally came through in 1917. America was gearing up for World War 1, Bronco Bill volunteered to go fight in it for Uncle Sam if they would just let him out to do it. The army had better sense than that, but Bronco Bill finally was released because the need for soldiers was so great that there were no longer enough prison guards left to do the job safely. Bronco Bill returned to his old job with the Diamond A Ranch near New Hatchita, New Mexico. He was no longer a top hand because he had lost the use of his arm, but he could still wrangle the windmills. In 1916 a new type of self-lubricating windmill became available which made his job easier. In 1921 Bronco Bill was up on a derrick and sudden gust of wind came up. The vane spun around and knocked him off his perch. He hit the fill pipe on the way down and it broke his ribs, and punctured a lung. Some pals found him and took him into town. They tried to make him comfortable, but he died four hours later. He was 52 years old and still regarded as a top hand. He was buried the next day in the Hatchita Cemetery.
Red Pipkin was the only surviving member of the gang. He became an undersheriff up in Gallup and was an effective lawman because he had been an outlaw himself; he knew other outlaws, knew their ways and habits, and their hideouts. He was so badge heavy though, and such thug and bully that he finally had to be fired for assaulting a church woman. After that he made his way as a head buster for the mining companies around Gallup during the labor unrest. Red died in 1938 and is buried in Block 4, Row 7, Number 792 at Hillcrest Cemetery. He lies in muddy ground and the headstone has sunk deep enough in the mud that it can no longer be read. Somebody ought to prop it I suppose.
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