By: James Dickman
Close to the one-horse town of Wilcox, Wyoming, about six miles west of the old Rock Creek train station, Butch Cassidy a chiseled-jawed bank and train robber, bit the end off of his long thin panatela cigar and spit it out. Cupping his hand, he lit up his smoke and took long slow draws, letting the puffs drift upward like a ghost. He sat tall on his bay Appaloosa horse, his mission clear in his mind. Butch and his “Hole-In-The-Wall” gang were bent on robbing the Union Pacific Overland Flyer, which was purportedly carrying large sums of gold, cash, bank-notes and other valuables. In this early morning of June 2nd 1899, Butch raised his binoculars and looked down the tracks and spotted the train approaching. His pulse quickened. Butch was experienced in matters of robbing. He had taken care to have supplies and fresh horses stashed along the Outlaw Trail. What could go wrong?
There was just one hitch. Word of Butch and his gang’s exploits was catching up with them, and trainmen were carrying firearms to guard the passengers and any cargo from bandits. If Butch or any of his outlaws were caught by a posse, they’d soon find that Old West frontier justice usually meant swinging from the end of the hangman’s noose or a bullet between the eyes. In this rugged, untamed land of jagged peaks, and prairie, hardy pioneers, cowpunchers, strong women and wild, profane and godless men won the West.
Behind Butch stood the wooden bridge, and below it ran a creek that was filled with rushing water from the recent storm. He turned on his leather saddle and let out a long, shrill whistle. The Sundance Kid scurried over to the tracks and flashed the red and white danger signal light to the engineer of the oncoming train. A perfect place for a holdup, Butch thought.
Butch grinned broadly, pulled down his binoculars, and directed the other outlaws to take cover and bide their time. As a kid, he dreamed of owning a big spread, maybe even running some cattle. He kept telling himself a few more bank and train jobs and he could retire, even share some of his wealth with the hardworking ranchers taken down by the big time cattle barons. But he was only kidding himself, and he knew from the get-go that he was not the settling type, nor did he take kindly to authority.
The Union Pacific train screeched to a stop, the hiss of steam escaping between the iron wheels and tracks. Three of the masked bandits jumped aboard the locomotive. After a quick but spirited struggle, the outlaws hauled down the engineer and his fireman.
Butch quickly sized up the trainmen. “Good morning gents.” Butch drew out his forty-five caliber, single action Colt revolver and pointed it at the fireman. “You’re being robbed. You can save everyone a lot of fuss if you would just tell us where the safes are.”
The engineer, wearing stained and faded Levi’s and a surly manner, spat at Butch. “You steal from us, mister, and you’ll be forever on the dodge.”
“That might be so,” replied Butch, “but I’m the man holding the gun, and it’s now pointing at you, friend.”
Sundance cracked the engineer over the head with the butt of his pearl-handled revolver, then placed it back into his low-slung holster. “Well, that’s plum rude of you. My friend here asked you real polite where the dough was stashed.” Sundance’s eyes were livid.
Butch waved Sundance back. “A man with that type of nerve deserves to live.”
One of the masked outlaws, a tall Texan with a gunslinger’s gait, strode over to Butch and drawled in his ear. “The train conductor told us a there’s a second locomotive close behind with soldiers on it.”
Butch flung his cigar to the ground. “Shit.” Butch looked over at Sundance. “Kid, you, me and the gang are going across the bridge. We gotta make sure that second train ain’t getting across.”
“I’ll have two of the guys lay the dynamite. The rest will ride the train over. All we got is a thirty-second fuse,” said Sundance, his eyes alarmed.
“If we don’t make it, there’s gonna be one helluva mess down in that gully.” Butch thumbed back the hammer on his revolver. “Gents,” he said to the engineer and fireman, “we’re in a hurry.”
“You thinking about killing us?” asked the fireman, his hands shaking.
Butch removed his rabbit fur felt hat, gave it a shake, and angled the brim low across his brow. “That’s mighty kind of you to take concern with our doings. Get your rig going.”
The engineer was rubbing the lump on his forehead and said to his fireman, “Go on, you heard the man, stoke the coals and let’s get her across.” The train started with a chug and a chuff towards the bridge. Part way over the train trestle, Butch saw one of his men lighting the dynamite fuse with what looked like a cigar.
“Damn’t Kid,” Butch said to Sundance, “you guys been stealing my cigars again?”
“With today’s stickup, get yourself some rarefied ones, not those dried out buffalo turds you’ve been smoking,” said Sundance, grinning.
The train wheezed, then stopped. “Hey mister trainman, it’s a short fuse. Get a rolling, or we’re all gonna be kindling,” Butch said.
“I’m working it,” shouted the fireman frantically shoveling the coal into the fire. “I gotta wife back home.”
“Well, either I’m gonna kill you or the blast will. Now, get this damn train across,” Sundance shouted.
The train’s wheels ground into the tracks and squealed forward. “C’mon, c’mon,” yelled the fireman. Slowly, the train picked up speed as the fuse burned lower and lower. Just as the last car trundled over, a tremendous roar of dynamite ripped into the train trestle, illuminating the dark sky. Chunks of the trestle shot skyward as a cascade of smoke and debris choked the air.
Butch looked over at the gaping chasm in the train trestle. “Listen up gents, I want you to uncouple the passenger cars. No sense in folks getting unnecessarily killed. Pull up to that ridge ahead, we’re gonna look at the mail and express cars.”
When the train topped the ridge, Butch said to Sundance, “Gag and tie up our friends here. We’ll need to put some distance between us and the local sheriff.”
Afterwards, Butch and Sundance approached the mail car and were joined by two of the outlaws. “You call the mail clerk out?” Butch asked.
“Told us to go to hell,” said the short, squat robber.
“Dynamite the door,” Butch said, taking a step back.
The short man stepped forward and placed a stick of dynamite by the door sill, lit it and moved away. With a boom, the door blew inwards and the squat robber and tall Texan armed with a sawed-off shotgun pushed the crumpled door aside and went into the mail car. When they came back out, the Texan, shaking his head, was holding the mail clerk by his collar, his legs dangling in the air. “Nothing of value in there, boss.”
“Why is it always the last one? Blow the express car,” Butch said, walking over to it.
Sundance ordered the train clerk out. No response. He raised his pistol and shot out the express car windows. “I said come on out.”
From deep within the express car, a shaky voice called, “I can’t. My name’s Charles Woodcock and I work for Mr. EH Harriman, and he entrusted me—”
Butch interrupted Woodcock. “Would you just shut up and open the door?”
“Mister, I don’t know who you are, but Mr. Harriman, the owner of the Union Pacific railroad, personally gave me this job and I just can’t,” said Woodcock.
“Well, you may never see Harriman again because you’re about to get yourself killed,” Butch said.
Sundance looked over to Butch, “Dynamite?”
“Yep,” replied Butch.
After the door had been blown clean off, Butch and Sundance walked into the express car, both pointing their pistols. Woodcock’s face went white. He was a prim, lanky man and his spectacles lay on the tip of his long nose. In his lap, a small mutt yapped at the outlaws.
“C’mon Woodcock, we’re not gonna kill you because we like dogs,” said Butch. “You know the combination to the safes?”
Woodcock patted his brow. “I…I must’ve forgotten it. Let me think—”
Butch interrupted, “No need, Woodcock.”
“Dynamite.” said Sundance.
“Yep,” Butch nodded. “It’s been that kinda morning.”
Later when Butch and Sundance hauled the stolen loot to the horses, Butch fired up a cigar and said, “Hey Kid, one day the sun’s gonna be shining on us, we’ll be counting all our dough and leave all this behind, maybe settle down in South America.”