Excerpt from “Arizoniana” by Marshall Trimble, the state’s official historian.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are believed to be the only outlaws who actually saw themselves portrayed in a motion picture. It happened when they stopped off in New York City on their way to South America. They also had the dubious distinction of seeing themselves gunned down by a posse. It must have been rather disturbing to hear the audience cheer their demise. Incidentally, their real names were Robert Leroy Parker and Harry Longabaugh.
The Bill Smith gang was one of the meanest band of desperados that ever rode the owl-hoot trails of Arizona and New Mexico. Hollywood overlooked them and I reckon the name had something to do with it. So, I’d like to bend yer ear a while and tell a story about Smith and his wild bunch.
Captain Burt Mossman, of the Arizona Rangers, knew Smith about as well as anyone and according to him the outlaw chieftain had once been an honest cowpuncher who’d gone bad. According to Cap Mossman, nobody seemed to know why Smith turned his back on the law. Something he didn’t spurn, as we shall see, was the chivalrous cowboy code of honor. He stood about six feet tall with a slender, muscular frame with dark eyes and thick, coarse hair. The only flaw in his handsome features was a gap between his two front teeth. He was about 35 years old when he decided to turn outlaw. The ex-cowpuncher gathered around him a band that included three brothers and four other fearless border hombres. During the winter of 1900, the Bill Smith gang terrorized southwestern New Mexico, holding up travelers, and robbing stores. The brazen outlaws raided ranches and rustled livestock in broad daylight. Their fame spread far and wide. Before long, they were being accused of every killing and foul deed that occurred in the territory.
Finally, in desperation the citizens of southwest New Mexico grew weary of lawful efforts to apprehend the gang and formed a vigilante committee that numbered several hundred (New Mexico didn’t have a territorial ranger force until 1905.) The man-hunters were in the saddle constantly scouring the rugged country along the Arizona-New Mexico line. Persistence paid off as the relentless pressure soon drove the lawless bunch into Arizona. A new base of operations was set up in the remote Blue River country along the eastern border.
When word spread that the Smith gang was now operating in eastern Arizona, Mossman dispatched four Rangers to the White Mountain area.
In early October, members of the gang were seen around Springerville. According to informants they had robbed a Union Pacific train in Utah. On the way back to their lair on the Blue River, they stole a bunch of horses.
Rangers Carlos Tafolla and Duane Hamblin of St. Johns, along with Apache County Sheriffs Deputy Will Maxwell and three others, went out in pursuit.
Despite a raging snowstorm that buried the White Mountains under a thick white blanket, Tafolla and Maxwell picked up the outlaw’s trail. Realizing they might lose the trail if they went back to get the rest of the posse, the two lawmen decided to take the band alone. They were attempting to sneak up on the camp when one of the horses snorted and turned towards the pursuers. The surprised outlaws quickly reacted and dove for cover.
The two lawmen found themselves caught out in the open looking down the rifle barrels of seven desperate men not over 40 feet away. Tafolla, a cool hombre under pressure if there ever was one, called out:
“Bill Smith, we arrest you in the name of the law and the territory of Arizona, and call upon you and your companions to lay down your arms.”
Those were brave words considering the odds and the advantage but the Ranger was determined to play out his hand. Smith and Tafolla had known each other from the early days when they were both cowpunchers. Smith called out:
“Tafolla, we know each other pretty well. We have spent many an how of weary toil and hardships together. I liked you then and I like you now. For your own sake, for the sake of your wife and your babies, I would spare you now. I would also spare your companion. Give me the benefit of one day and I will leave here and never trouble this country again. But do not try to take me, for by God I will never be token-neither I, nor any member of my party.”
The fearless Ranger glared back at the outlaw chief:
“Bill, this friendship between you and me is a thing of the past. As for sparing our lives we may thank you for that and no more. For 30 days we’ve followed you, half starved and half frozen. Now we stand together or fall together. The only request I have to make of you-and I make that for old time’s sake-is: if Maxwell and I shall forfeit our lives here, you will send to Captain Mossman the news and manner of our death. Let him know that neither he, nor the other members of the force, need feel ashamed of the manner in which we laid down our lives on this spot this day.”
The knightly parley was over. A furious fusillade of gunfire echoed through that snowy basin and when the smoke lifted, the two lawmen lay dead in the snow. Tafolla and Maxwell were game to the end. Each had emptied their Winchesters before cashing in. Smith and one other outlaw had gunshot wounds. Captain Mossman was at Solomonville when word arrived of the deaths of the two brave lawmen. He quickly organized a posse and recruited two Apache trackers from San Carlos. They picked up the trail and followed it until another blizzard obliterated the tracks. Since the outlaws were the only survivors that day and they made a getaway, how did the Rangers learn the details of the fight and the chivalrous manner in which Carlos Tafolla and Will Maxwell died? Well, it was like Cap Mossman said, Bill Smith turned his back on society and became one of the most ruthless desperados of his time. Yet, in spite of that, he maintained an honorable code that bonded men of the old West. True to his word, Bill Smith wrote a letter to the Arizona Rangers detailing those last brief moments in the lives of two brave men. I reckon Hollywood let a good story get away.