The Passing Of Peg-Leg

By Andy Adams in 1906

Sangre de Cristo Mountains

Sangre de Cristo Mountains

In the early part of September, 1891, the eastern overland express on the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad was held up and robbed at Texas Creek. The place is little more than a watering-station on that line, but it was an inviting place for hold-ups.

Surrounded by the front range of the Rockies, Peg-Leg Eldridge and his band selected this lonely station as best fitted for the transaction in hand. To the southwest lay the Sangre de Cristo Range, in which the band had rendezvoused and planned this robbery. Farther to the southwest arose the snow-capped peaks of the Continental Divide, in whose silent solitude an army might have taken refuge and hidden.

It was an inviting country to the robber. These mountains offered retreats that had never known the tread of human footsteps. Emboldened by the thought that pursuit would be almost a matter of impossibility, they laid their plans and executed them without a single hitch.

About ten o’clock at night, as the train slowed up as usual to take water, the engineer and fireman were covered by two of the robbers. The other two — there were only four — cut the express car from the train, and the engineer and fireman were ordered to decamp.

The robbers ran the engine and express car out nearly two miles, where, by the aid of dynamite, they made short work of a safe that the messenger could not open. The express company concealed the amount of money lost to the robbers, but smelters, who were aware of certain retorts in transit by this train, were not so silent. These smelter products were in gold retorts of such a size that they could be made away with as easily as though they had reached the mint and been coined.

There was scarcely any excitement among the passengers, so quickly was it over. While the robbery was in progress the wires from this station were flashing the news to headquarters. At a division of the railroad one hundred and 56 miles distant from the scene of the robbery, lived United States Marshal Bob Banks, whose success in pursuing criminals was not bounded by the state in which he lived. His reputation was in a large measure due to the successful use of bloodhounds. This officer’s calling compelled him to be both plainsman and mountaineer. He had the well-deserved reputation of being as unrelenting in the pursuit of criminals as death is in marking its victims.

Within half an hour after the robbery was reported at headquarters, an engine had coupled to a caboose at the division where the marshal lived. He was equally hasty. To gather his arms and get his dogs aboard the caboose required but a few moments’ time.

Everything ready, they pulled out with a clear track to their destination. Heavy traffic in coal had almost ruined the road-bed, but engine and caboose flew over it regardless of its condition. Halfway to their destination, the marshal was joined by several officials, both railway and express. From there the train turned westward, up the valley of the Arkansas River. Here was a track and an occasion that gave the most daring engineer license to throw the throttle wide open.

The climax of this night’s run was through the Grand Canyon of the Arkansas River. Into this gash in the earth’s surface plunged the engineer, as though it were an easy stretch of down-grade prairie. As the engine rounded turns, the headlight threw its rays up serried columns of granite half a mile high — columns that rear their height in grotesque form and Gothic arch, polished by the waters of ages.

As the officials agreed, after a full discussion with the marshal of every phase and possibility of capture, the hope of this night’s work and the punishment of the robbers rested almost entirely on three dogs lying on the floor, and, as the rocking of the car disturbed them, growling in their dreams. In their helplessness to cope with this outrage, they turned to these dumb animals as a welcome ally.

Denver and Rio Grande Railroad in Colorado, 1898.

Denver and Rio Grande Railroad in Colorado, 1898.

Under the guidance of their master, they were an aid whose value he well understood. Their sense of smell was more reliable than the sense of seeing in man. You can believe the dog when you doubt your own eyes. His opinion is unquestionably correct.

As the train left the canon it was but a short run to the scene of the depredation. During the night the few people who resided at this station were kept busy getting together saddle-horses for the officer’s posse. This was not easily done, as there were few horses at the station, while the horses of near-by ranches were turned loose in the open range for the night. However, upon the arrival of the train, Banks and the express people found mounts awaiting them to carry them to the place of the hold-up.

After the robbers had finished their work during the fore part of the night, the train crew went out and brought back to the station the engine and express car.

The engine was unhurt, but the express car was badly shattered, and the through safe was ruined by the successive charges of dynamite that were used to force it to yield up its treasure. The local safe was unharmed, the messenger having opened it in order to save it from the fate of its larger and stronger brother. The train proceeded on its way, with the loss of a few hours’ time and the treasure of its express.

Day was breaking in the east as the posse reached the scene. The marshal lost no time circling about until the trail leaving was taken up. Even the temporary camp of the robbers was found in close proximity to the chosen spot. The experienced eye of this officer soon determined the number of men, though they led several horses. It was a cool, daring act of Peg-Leg and three men. Afterward, when his past history was learned, his leadership in this raid was established.

Branding Cattle

Branding Cattle in 1891.

Peg-Leg Eldridge was a product of that unfortunate era succeeding the Civil War. During that strife, the herds of the southwest were neglected to such an extent that thousands of cattle grew to maturity without ear-mark or brand to identify their owner. A good amount of horses, a rope, and a running-iron in the hands of a capable man were better than capital. The good old days when an active young man could brand annually fifteen calves–all better than yearlings–to every cow he owned are looked back to this day, from cattle king to the humblest of the craft, in pleasant reminiscence, though they will come no more. Eldridge was of that time, and when conditions changed, he failed to change with them. This was the reason that, under the changed condition of affairs, he frequently got his brand on some other man’s calf. This resulted in his losing a leg from a gunshot at the hands of a man he had thus outraged.

Worse, it branded him for all time as a cattle thief, with every man’s hand against him. Thus the steps that led up to this September night were easy, natural, and gradual. This child of circumstances, a born plainsman like the Indian, read in plain, forest, and mountain, things which were not visible to other eyes.

Blood hounds

Blood hounds

The stars were his compass by night, the heat waves of the plain warned him of the tempting mirage, while the cloud on the mountain’s peak or the wind in the pines which sheltered him alike spoke to him and he understood.

The robbers’ trail was followed but a few miles when their course was well established. They were heading into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Several hours were lost here by the pursuing party, as they were compelled to await the arrival of a number of pack horses; so when the trail was taken up in earnest they were at least twelve hours behind the robbers.

In the ascent of the foot-hills, the dogs led the posse, six in number, a merry chase. As they gradually rose to higher altitudes the trail of the robbers was more compact and easy to follow, except for the roughness of the mountain slope. Frequently the trail was but a single narrow path. Old game trails, where the elk and deer, drifting in the advance of winter, crossed the range, had been followed by the robbers. These game trails were certain to lead to the passes in the range. Thus, by the instinct given to the deer and elk against the winter’s storm, the humblest of His creatures had blazed for these train robbers an unerring pathway to the mountain’s pass.

Along these paths, the trail was so distinct that the dogs were an unnecessary adjunct to the pursuing party. These hounds, one of which was a veteran in the service, while the other two, being younger, were without that practice which perfects, showed an exuberance of energy and ambition in following the trail. The ancestry of the dogs was Russian. Hounds of this breed never give mouth, thus warning the hunted of their approach. Man-hunting is an exciting sport. The possibility, though the trail may look hours old, that any turn of the trail may disclose the fugitives, keeps at the highest tension every nerve of the pursuer.

All day long the marshal and posse climbed higher and higher on the rugged mountainside. Night came on as they reached the narrow plateau that formed the crest of the mountain, on which they found several small parks. Here they made the first halt since the start in the morning. The necessity of resting their saddle stock was very apparent to Banks, though he would gladly have pushed on. The only halt he could expect of the robbers was to save their own horses, and he must do the same. Forcing a tired horse an extra hour has left many an amateur rider afoot. He realized this. Knowing the necessity of being well mounted, the robbers had no doubt splendid horses. This was a reasonable supposition.

Near midnight the marshal and posse set out once more on the trail. He was compelled to take it afoot now, depending on his favorite dog, which was under leash, the posse following with the mounts. The dogs led them several miles southward on this mountain crest. Here was where the dogs were valuable. The robbers had traveled in some places an entire mile over lava beds, not leaving as much as a trace which the eye could detect. Having the advantage of daylight, the robbers selected a rocky cliff, over which they began the descent of the western slope of this range. The ingenuity displayed by them to throw pursuit from their trail marked Peg-Leg as an artist in his calling. But with the aid of dogs and the dampness of night, their trail was as easily followed as though it had been made in the snow.

This declivity was rough, and in places, everyone was compelled to dismount. Progress was extremely slow, and when the rising sun tipped the peaks of the Continental Range, before them lay the beautiful landscape where the Rio Grande in a hundred mountain streams has her fountain-head. With only a few hours’ rest for men and animals during the day, night fell upon them before they had reached the mesa at the foothills on the western slope. An hour before nightfall they came upon the first camp or halt of the robbers. They had evidently spent but a short time here, there being no indication that they had slept. Criminals are inured to all kinds of hardship. They have been known to go for days without sleep, while smugglers, well mounted, have put a hundred miles of country behind them in a single night.

Posse in the Old West

Posse in the Old West

The marshal and party pushed forward during the night, the country being more favorable. When morning came they had covered many a mile, and it was believed they had made time, as the trail seemed fresher. There were several ranches along the mainstream in the valley, which the robbers had avoided with well-studied caution, showing that they had passed through in the daytime. There are several lines of railroad running through this valley section. These they crossed at points between stations, where observation would be almost impossible either by day or night. Inquiries at ranches failed on account of the lack of all accurate means of description. The posse was maintaining a due southwest course that was carrying them into the fastnesses of the main range of the western continent. Another full day of almost constant advance and the trail had entered the undulating hills forming the approach of this second range of mountains. Physical exertion was beginning to tell on the animals, and they were compelled to make frequent halts in the ascent of this range.

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