Bury Me Face Down…
The Steins holdup, only 15 years before New Mexico's statehood,
dramatically showed that not everybody hereabouts was ready to settle down.
by Bob Alexander
Editor's note: As New Mexico celebrates its 100th birthday in 2012, we continue to present glimpses of the Land of Enchantment's colorful past. This month we feature an excerpt from Desert Desperadoes: The Banditti of Southwestern New Mexico, by award-winning Western author Bob Alexander. Published in 2006 by our Gila Books imprint, Alexander's rollicking yet scrupulously researched account of our area's outlaws vividly depicted just why they called it the Wild West. We revisit Desert Desperadoes (you can read a previous excerpt in our October 2006 issue) in this centennial year as a reminder of how wild New Mexico remained even near the turn of the century that would usher in statehood. Here, Alexander recounts an episode in the lawless career of Tom Ketchum (often mistakenly called "Black Jack") that brought the Texas outlaw and his brother to our still wild-and-woolly corner of the Old West.
Though it wasn't their first stab at outlawry, 34-year-old Tom Ketchum and his brother Sam, nine years his senior, rode their bone-weary horses to the neighborhood of Steins Pass during the afternoon of Dec. 9, 1897.
The hell-bent Texas brothers were accompanied by another set of dubiously disposed fellow Texans, Will Carver, Dave Atkins and a really neophyte bandit, Edwin "Ed" Cullen, sometimes called by his comically acquired nickname, "Shoot'em-up-Dick." Outside the little railroad stop and out of anyone's prying eyesight, Tom Ketchum called a board meeting for his little gang; robbing a train was on the agenda. Finalizing the individual roles to be played in the plot, the hijackers went to work.
About sundown, Dave Atkins and Ed Cullen eased into town approximately two hours ahead of the scheduled Southern Pacific's Number 20, which, if on time, would arrive at 8:35 p.m. Sam Ketchum, adopting an unassuming posture, ambled in shortly after his wily compadres, likewise and according to design, ahead of the train's arrival. Outlaws Tom Ketchum and Will Carver were not idle, and a couple of miles from the railroad stop, had dragged dead brush into two bonfire piles, one on each side of the track. Then, they returned to Steins and began to implement their business model for a highhanded crime.
Sam Ketchum, Ed Cullen and Dave Atkins, rudely displaying their Colt's six-shooters, pried open the closed post office's till, and hijacked the station agent, Charley St. John. Their take for big-time crooks was pitiable: two bucks from the mail drawer, and slightly under $10 from frightened St. John's petty-cash box. Meanwhile, Tom Ketchum and Will Carver were industriously cutting the telegraph wires, then returning to their improvised beacons of brush and brambles. Everything, thus far, was falling into place according to the game plan.
There was, though, a catch! Unbeknownst to the diligently working highwaymen, railroad detectives were anticipating a robbery somewhere along the line, and had for some time been acting accordingly. Lawmen were scouring the area on horseback, and shotgun-wielding guards were riding the rails. The train bearing down on Steins that particular evening was carrying, in addition to regular express messenger Charles J. Adair, two special armed sentinels, C.H. Jennings and the son of Wells, Fargo and Company's proficient investigator John N. Thacker, Eugene, who was making his maiden voyage as a dedicated double-barreled fightin' man.
As expected, the train slowed and then stopped at Steins. The conductor and brakeman were quickly grabbed by the three scowling robbers, and ordered under death's penalty to maintain silence. Then the trio jumped into the locomotive's cab and made acquaintance with engineer Tom North, who with six-shooters jammed into his quivering and nauseous belly, was instructed to continue down the tracks until between two fires, then immediately stop. Which he did. The second stop was not on the schedule, a fact right fast noticed by those in the express car, who up until that time had been enjoyably and nonchalantly eating their supper-time sandwiches. Spitting out the salami, the inside boys grabbed their shotguns, extinguished the coal-oil lamp, opened the heavy sliding door and in the darkness made ready to meet the outside boys — with a thunderous surprise.
When he had stopped the locomotive as curtly ordered, but unknown to the crooks in command, Tom North discreetly set the engine's air-brakes, thus completely immobilizing the train. Unable to uncouple the express car as planned, the badguys had but one profitable course left: move on down to the express car and make entry. Therein was exposed the leak in their plan. The bonfires cast a brilliant light outside, dangerously exposing the outlaws, while darkness in the express car concealed the positions of the heavily armed defenders.
With six-shooters and Winchesters the robbers peppered shots into the car, and were stridently answered with earsplitting blasts and wickedly cascading buckshot. For a half-hour the gunbattle fiercely raged, until finally cold hard reality sank in. The fortified trainmen suffered not a bothersome scratch, and every one of the perturbed robbers, in one body part or the other, had been perforated by a least one pellet. Perhaps this is about the time badman Tom Ketchum whipped out his handkerchief to wipe sweat or blood away from his brow; what's not conjecture is that lawmen later found the hankie, bearing trimly embroidered initials "T.K."
Unknown to the wounded bandits, the trainmen's shotgun shells were running low. The tenacious guards knew once that well ran dry, their last choice was but dismal: Fork over loot or die. Perhaps both. These were mean men. Then Miss Lady Luck stepped in, opportunely for the booty protectors, inopportunely for overwrought Shoot'em-up-Dick. Wildly fishing for more Winchester cartridges from his belt, Ed Cullen leaned way, way too far forward, exposing his face and head. A steely-eyed shotgun man earned himself a brand-new nickname, "Shot'em-up-Jennings." Tenderfoot train robber Ed Cullen reeled backwards, an unsympathetic collection of buckshot weighted in his forehead, mumbling as he fell, "Boys, I'm dead." He wasn't wrong!
Unable to dislodge the gritty guards, the Ketchum boys, Dave Atkins and Will Carver jumped on horses stolen in southeastern Arizona Territory and hightailed it. Eventually posses were notified and rushed to the scene, finding Shoot'em-up-Dick's brain matter oozing onto the railway ties. The lifeless form was first moved west to San Simon, but then back east to Lordsburg for a coroner's inquest the next day. The outlaws temporarily were lost in the lonesome Bootheel, before slipping across the jurisdictional line into southeastern Arizona Territory's Texas Canyon — a nesting spot for nefariously inclined cowboys and outlaws about 120 miles south of Steins.
A posse quietly paused at the entrance of Texas Canyon, checked loads in their Colt's six-shooters and Winchesters, then cautiously advanced toward the ranch of an unsavory character, John Cush, aka John Vinadge. Riding in single file up the defile were Jeff Milton and George Adolphus Scarborough, both deputy US marshals, the first posted at Tucson, the latter at Deming; Wells, Fargo and Company's special agent John Thacker; Cochise County Sheriff Scott White; Samuel F. "Sam" Webb, collector of customs at Nogales; near-legendary New Mexico Territory lawman Cipriano Baca; and no doubt about eight or 10 others not now known. Reportedly, Tom Ketchum and his boys watched from a secreted vantage point as the lawmen proceeded toward Cush's ranch headquarters, a bushwhacking site so perfect "that they could have killed two or three of the posse with one shot if necessary."
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