The Project Gutenberg eBook of Sam Bass

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Title: Sam Bass

Author: Eugene Cunningham

Illustrator: W. M. Allison

Release date: April 26, 2023 [eBook #70645]

Language: English

Original publication: Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1926

Credits: Roger Frank and Sue Clark


Sam Bass

By Eugene Cunningham
Author of “Beginnings of Great Cities,” “The Luck of Lombardy Bart,” etc.

A second Robin Hood was the romantic Sam Bass to the cowboys of Texas—but quite another matter was he to the railroad companies and the peace officers for whom he and his gang made life miserable.

The trace wound through the rolling wooded prairies of “the Nation,” where clearings were carpeted with rustling dead leaves and dry grass. The light spring wagon bounced over ruts, though the team was wearied by a long day in harness and the wagon’s pace was slow. The driver was a cowboy—just a lean brown cowboy with nothing to set him apart particularly from any of a thousand others in this year of ’77, when Texas trail herds were moving north and ever north in the great hegira that was to stock ranges from the Nation to the Selkirks with Texas longhorns.

The black-haired man on the seat beside the driver was shorter—five full inches below six feet—and powerfully muscled of shoulder. Twenty-six years old, he was, with a face that might have belonged to a boy for all the brown mustache at which he now tugged thoughtfully, as restless dark eyes looked around in half a dozen ways at once.

Suddenly the driver, who had been moving restlessly on the box-seat, jerked in the travel-worn horses so that they fairly sat down upon their haunches.

“I been a-smellin’ smoke for five minutes!” he muttered. “I wonder now if⸺”

One lean brown hand, the left, gripped the lines. The right had curled about the sinister black butt of a long-barreled Frontier Colt.

“I smell it, too!” nodded his companion tensely. “Hell! I see it. Yonder!”

A light film, that was barely detectable against the treetops a hundred yards ahead, showed faintly gray.

“An’ that damn’ axle a-squeakin’ like a dyin’ shote!” snarled the driver. “Reckon they heard us?”

He was furious-faced, glaring at the lacy smoke-film as at sign of an enemy. But the dark, stocky man was on the ground with a snaky wriggle, and he took with him the .44 Winchester carbine that had been hanging in its scabbard from the wagon-seat. He vanished into the bushes, and with an oath the driver flipped the lines in loops about the brake-handle and leaped down to follow.

He was not so good a woodsman as the other, so his progress, to be noiseless, must be slower. He met the dark-haired man coming back grinning. There was something tight-lipped, rather grim, about that smile which showed large, white teeth.

“Soldiers!” he whispered. “They’ve already heard us. We just got to go on and trust to luck. They’re sneakin’ into the brush right now to look us up.”

They went back to the wagon quickly, mounted to the seat again and drove on. Fifty, seventy-five yards forward; then from the brush on each side of the trace burst blue-clad men, afoot. A smart, boyish lieutenant stepped up to the front wheel.

“Who are you?” he demanded.

The driver looked sidelong at his companion, who grinned down at the officer.

“Why,” he drawled, “we’re a couple o’ cowboys a-goin’ home to Santone. Our names wouldn’t mean nothin’, I reckon. Been—” vaguely he waved his arm to indicate the vast spaces behind him—“up north with a trail herd. Charlie Howell’s trail herd.”

Cavalrymen had edged closer to the wagon by this time, glancing in curiously at the jumble of bedding and clothes-bags. The black-haired man who had done the explaining to the lieutenant gave them no heed; still he grinned down, quite frankly and friendly, upon the officer.

“If you don’t mind, Cap’n,” he said, “we’d like to camp along with you-all tonight. By gosh! Wish we could make a trade with you to ride with us till we get clean out o’ the Nation!” He laughed infectiously. “Two nights back, me’n Bill, here, we camped with a bunch we overtook. We never got what you might call a good night’s sleep. I seen wild-lookin’ fellows, but the tall one a-leadin’ that gang he took the prize. We was sure glad to get away next mornin’ an’ I don’t mind sayin’ we sort o’ figgered so’s one o’ us was always facin’ their way.”

“The Nation isn’t much of a health resort,” nodded the lieutenant, smiling in his turn. “Well, come along. We’ll see that you have a good night’s sleep tonight, anyway.”

The wagon moved on, with the cavalrymen accompanying, into a wide clearing where the twenty-odd soldiers of the detachment had bivouacked. After supper the two cowboys sought out the lieutenant, who alone had a tent. He was lonely, being the only officer with the detachment; also he had been thinking over the reference to a hard bunch somewhere to the north. The cowboys found him ready to talk.

“We’re up here scouting around for some train-robbers who held up a U. P. train at Ogallala, Nebraska,” he told them, as they sat smoking outside the tent. “There were six, altogether, in the gang. We heard that two were killed shortly after the robbery at a little place called Buffalo Stage up in Kansas.”

“Hell! Them fellows’ll never come down this way!” cried the taller cowboy, he who had driven the wagon, with much emphasis. “Not much!”

The dark-haired man shot a furious glance sidelong at the emphatic one.

“An’ why not?” he snapped. “Don’t ever’ Tom, Dick an’ Harry that’s on the dodge head for the Nation? You think with them fancy boots o’ yours, Bill! Reckon ol’ Lengthy’s gang, that was so free with hard looks for us, is a bunch o’ Sunday school superintendents, mebbe? Could you get up in court an’ swear that they wasn’t this gang that stuck up that train?”

“Mebbe you’re right, Frank,” nodded the driver meekly.

“How many were in this gang you camped with?” Thus the lieutenant, leaning forward eagerly.

“Why, the tall fellow an’ three ornery lookin’ customers. That is, they hadn’t had a wash or shave for a right smart while. Horses looked like they’d been hard rid⸺”

He was rolling a cigarette, the black-haired man. Now he looked up sideway at the lieutenant, as he put away Durham and papers, with the ready grin that showed his white teeth.

“Prob’ly didn’t look no worse, at that,” he smiled, “than me’n Bill here!”

The lieutenant laughed with him, then sobered abruptly.

“Well, I’m glad you fellows happened along,” he remarked. “I think I’ll have a look at your back-trail tomorrow and see if I can have a talk with Lengthy and his friends. Four, eh? By Jove! That would be the tally, now, if they killed two in Kansas!”

Behind the spring-wagon rolling south again with dawn, the cavalry camp had vanished. The troopers were in the saddle, heading north to investigate “Lengthy.” The black-haired man turned on the box-seat and his white teeth showed; he shook with noiseless laughter.

“An’ he’s goin’ to have a look at ‘Lengthy!’ he exploded suddenly. “Oh, Lawdy! I sure wish him lots o’ luck!”

“Well, he pitched a big scare into me, just the same!” nodded Jack Davis, sourly. ‘When he says he’s a-lookin’ for train-robbers, Sam, I could count the bars on the winder!”

“He never scared me half as much as you did!” grunted Sam Bass, irritably. “You blame’ fool! You like to make him suspicious o’ us!”

“Do you reckon they are a-lookin’ for us?” Jack Davis was plainly uneasy at the thought. “Hell! Mebbe we better not figger on goin’ to Denton, Sam! We got twenty thousand between us. Let’s head for South America.”

“No!” Sam Bass’ square jaw was set and his mouth tight beneath the brown mustache. “No, sir! There’s folks in Denton I want to show a few. They always said I’d never amount to nothin’, a-runnin’ around the country like I did, clean down to Dallas, to race the Denton Mare. I want to parade down the street a-throwin’ twenty-dollar gold-pieces over the bars. We’ll have a look, though, before we ride in.”

Jack Davis, whose nerves were tense from uncertainty these days, and who shared none of Sam Bass’ pleasure at nearing Denton, nodded gloomily.

“’S a good idee,” he said. “But me, I wisht we was high-tailin’ it for South America.”

To which Sam replied with a glint of white teeth beneath his mustache, as they squatted on the edge of the bottoms, waiting for dusk and his trip to the house of a certain good friend.

If Sheriff Everhart and certain others of the oldsters in the community had looked askance at Sam and his wild ways, almost without exception the younger generation had been always on his side. As the owner of that little sorrel beauty, The Denton Mare, he had been known far and wide; known and liked immensely.

It was not, altogether, that he was a rider without peer; a dead shot with Winchester or Colt; leader in any daring enterprise of “the boys,” a master cowboy. Nor was his popularity born wholly of generosity and a certain rough chivalry, though these qualities he had in large measure. Others have had the every characteristic of Sam Bass, yet have waked no such fierce loyalty as this stocky, dark-eyed cowboy knew; such admiration in Cowland, where he is a heroic figure even today.

From friends in Denton Sam learned that an Ogallala man, an ex-express messenger, had suspected the six cowboys of the train robbery, though the Officials had not been suspicious of them as, in the days after the robbery, they mingled with sheriffs and marshals and railroad detectives in Ogallala. He had trailed the party southward, this ex-messenger, and spying upon their camp had heard them discuss the crime; had learned their plans, their real names; had even seen them handling bright new gold-pieces of the year 1877. His knowledge he had communicated to the officials. The law wanted Sam Bass and Jack Davis—wanted them hard.

So to Jack Davis, hiding in the elm-bottoms, Sam Bass took back the story of the search and the large reward offered for them. To the authenticated report of the death of Collins and Heffridge, two of their gang, he added the account of the killing of another, Jim Berry, in his home town, Mexico, Missouri, where Berry’s shining new gold-pieces had connected him with the robbery.

“That leaves just three out o’ the six,” said Sam. “Seems Ol’ Dad Underwood never went to Missoury with Jim Berry. Anyway, they never got him.”

“I told you we’d better hit for South America!” complained Jack Davis, whose bump of discretion seems to have been well-developed. “’Tain’t too late now. Let’s high-tail it, Sam. We can’t buck all this.”

“Ah, what’s to be scared of?” scoffed Sam, those large white teeth showing in his famous grin. “Don’t I know this-here country like the palm o’ my hand? Don’t be losin’ your nerve, Jack! We’ll just stick here an’ be damned to ’em to catch us.”

But Jack Davis was beyond persuasion. He never had thought such a hornets’ nest would be aroused by that U. P. robbery. While planning it, Collins had stressed the large chance of their never being recognized. To be “on the dodge” in the face of such widespread and earnest search broke Davis’ nerve. So from the elm-bottoms outside of Denton, Jack Davis rode hell-for-leather; rode out of the picture entirely. Whether he made South America, or started afresh under another name in the States there is no authentic report. But certain it is that neither he nor Old Dad Underwood ever paid the penalty, officially, for the crime.

Sam Bass, who had left Denton that spring a likable, bull-headed, but honest cowboy, came home a famous outlaw, fit to mention with Jesse James and the Youngers. Nor did he lack apologists. Texas had always held itself somewhat aloof from national affairs; what a man did elsewhere seldom worried the Texans, so long as he obeyed the code in their midst.

Now it was complained that Texan authorities were pulling Nebraska chestnuts from what might well be a hot fire; that Sam Bass was being persecuted in this state when he had committed no crime whatsoever against the sovereignty of Texas.

Meanwhile, moving through the well-known county with a surety, a prescience, almost, that baffled his pursuers, Sam Bass gained a following. Attracted by his reputation—perhaps by thought of that not-yet-spent ten thousand in shiny gold-pieces of ’77—men appeared unobtrusively in the elm-bottoms.

So came Henry Underwood, with Arkansas Johnson, Sebe Barnes, Jim Murphy, young Frank Jackson, Pipes Herndon; later, two or three others not so well known joined the gang. Daring, dangerous men, some of these, men with records as gun-fighters, as hard characters when “on the prod.” But Sam Bass was their undisputed leader.

Not long could such a group be content to ride into the little hamlets of Denton and Dallas and Tarrant Counties, to “belly up to the bar” and amuse themselves with occupations so mild as the mere downing of Old Jordan and shooting at marks—in or out of the saloons—and talking of past doings. The logical thought came to Bass that he could be hunted no more than he was. He had committed no crime in Texas, yet Texan officers chased him. He had the name; it would cost him little or nothing to get the game.

The gang’s first job was the robbery of a Texas and Pacific train at Eagle Ford, some seven miles west of Dallas. It was a simple job to stop the train near the sleepy little farming village and go through it. Thereafter, two or three similar robberies were executed with no features particularly interesting. Considering the numbers in Sam Bass’ gang, the profit was small, averaging perhaps five hundred dollars per man in each robbery. It is not his train-robberies which give the interest to the career of Sam Bass upon which his tradition rests, but the masterly fashion in which for months he tied sheriffs’ posses and Texas Rangers into knots.

Illustration: It was a simple job to stop the train

John B. Jones was Adjutant-General of Texas during 1877–8 and so commanded the Texas Rangers. Jones was an able and experienced officer, and the train-robberies of Sam Bass, which were becoming very frequent, roused him to unusual energy. Having visited Denton, Dallas and the surrounding country personally, he organized a new company of thirty Rangers at Dallas, giving the command to Captain June Peak.

To this company was given the specific duty of capturing the Sam Bass Gang, but figuratively, if not actually, Sam mocked Captain Peak and his clumsy, inexperienced recruits. It is said that, counting Rangers and sheriffs’ posses, at least a hundred men now took the trail of Texas’ train-robber premier. Yet tradition has it, also, that during his time “on the dodge” Sam himself was rarely, if ever, driven out of the three adjoining counties of Denton, Dallas and Tarrant. The wooded nature of the country in this locality made it simple for him to elude the blundering officers.

Not always did the gang hold together, now. Bass’ second-in-command, the daredevil Arkansas Johnson, was killed at Salt Creek in Wise County by Captain Peak’s Rangers. Then Pipes Herndon and Jim Murphy were captured. Sam himself, with Sebe Barnes and young Frank Jackson, were the only members out of jail, and they hugged the elm-bottoms of Denton County. The handwriting on the wall became clear now. This dodging might go on almost indefinitely, but the nerve-racking strain was telling on them all; they were weary of it. Sam decided to leave his beloved north Texas and in Mexico or some other foreign country make a new start.

To General Jones, by this time, the intent to capture or kill Sam Bass had become an obsession. We may shrug away mention of stool pigeons and traitors as necessary units of police equipment, but by Texans generally, and especially by the cowboys, who regarded Sam Bass as one of themselves, the methods of General Jones were given no fancy names whatever.

Jim Murphy was the tool chosen by Jones. To Murphy, then in jail awaiting Federal trial for robbery of the mails, Jones went with the offer of freedom on condition that he execute a certain plan which would result in Sam Bass’ betrayal into the officers’ hands. Murphy, to give him the tiny modicum of credit one may, at first rejected the proposal, even though life imprisonment seemed its alternative. But Jones was persistent, and finally threats and promises together overcame Murphy’s remembrance of Sam Bass’ many kindnesses to the needy Murphy clan.

Jim Murphy was arrested and then released on bail.
He jumped his bond at Tyler and then took the train for Terrell.
But Major Jones had posted Jim and that was all a stall;
’Twas only a plan to capture Sam before the coming fall.

So runs a verse of the old ballad. With the clear, unquibbling judgment of the outdoors, it tells unmincingly the tale of Jones’ plan to trap Sam Bass.

Murphy, having been released on bail supplied by certain men in Jones’ confidence, jumped his bond and a great hue-and-cry was raised. As had been planned, it preceded Jim Murphy to Denton, where he rejoined Sam Bass, Sebe Barnes and Frank Jackson. But friends of Bass and Barnes had written warning that this looked to be a snare; that the bondsmen were probably creatures of General Jones. Confronted with these letters, for his very life Murphy played his part in masterly fashion—without, however, convincing Sam and Barnes. The white-faced, protesting traitor read murder in their hard eyes and restless gunhands.

Frank Jackson, barely twenty-two years old, had become with Arkansas Johnson’s death, Sam’s right-hand man. Now Frank took Murphy’s part, declaring his belief in the traitor’s good faith. But there were tense moments in the dusky elm-bottoms, with Sam and Sebe Barnes glaring murderously at the trembling Murphy, before Frank Jackson flung down his ultimatum: they must kill him before they killed Murphy.

It was decided to rob a bank and then strike out for Mexico. So, early in July, 1878, the four riders left Denton County forever, heading south. Just outside of Waco the four made camp and looked over the town. In a saloon frequented by cattlemen, so tradition has it, Sam Bass flung down a twenty-dollar gold-piece upon the bar, with a bitter sentence that sums up all the pros and cons of such a life as his, weighing all the tinsel glory against the myriad hardships of the outlaw’s lot.

“There goes the last U. P. goldpiece,” he grunted, watching moodily as it spun toward the bartender’s waiting hand. “An’ a lot o’ good they done me!”

Sam decided that a job in Waco would be too dangerous to attempt, hence the quartet mounted their horses again and jogged on south, steadily nearing the state capital at Austin, where Jones sat waiting for word from his tool.

To Jones came a hastily scrawled note postmarked Belton, saying that Sam Bass moved toward Round Rock in Williamson County, there to rob the bank. Then ensued action upon the quiet capital grounds!

There was a Ranger company stationed at San Saba, under the veteran thief-taker, Lieutenant N. O. Reynolds. One of the headquarters detachment killed a horse getting to Reynolds, while Jones himself, having dispatched R. C. Ware and two other Rangers to Round Rock, followed the next morning.

Upon coming into Round Rock, Jones warned local officials that the Bass Gang was coming. In the Texas of that day these words were enough to insure feverish activity in any town, small or large. On no account, Jones insisted, were the town officers to attempt an arrest before the arrival of Reynolds and his Rangers.

Friday, July 19, 1878. Reynolds’ Company E. Frontier Battalion, Texas Rangers, had made the one hundred fifty miles from San Saba to old Round Rock at top speed and in early afternoon pitched camp outside of town. Sam Bass, with Barnes, Jackson and Murphy, were also camped upon the town’s outskirts. The outlaws rode into town for a last check-up of the robbery’s details. Murphy, sensing the final scene so soon to be played, upon some pretext dropped behind. So Bass and Barnes and young Frank Jackson came up to Copprel’s store together. As they went inside they were noticed by the two local deputy sheriffs, Moore and Grimes.

They stared hard at the three dusty strangers, but apparently without thought that the trio were the famous outlaws they were awaiting, upon whose heads were placed rewards by states and railroads and express companies. When Sam Bass’ broad shoulders had disappeared within the door Moore turned to Grimes.

“I think those fellows got guns on,” he said.

“I think so, too,” nodded Grimes. “I’m goin’ in an’ search ’em.”

He went in, a hero and a martyr, in a way; but history as written by the cool and practical judgment of rangeland in fifty years makes him, also, and more so, pretty much “plain damned fool.” For he took none of the mechanical precautions of the wary peace officer confronting strangers. As Grimes stepped inside, Moore trailed him to the door and stood blinking.

At Grimes’ entrance the trio at the counter whirled instinctively. For a long instant deputy sheriff and outlaws eyed each other.

“I think you fellows got guns on,” said Grimes, a trifle belligerently. “I’m goin’ to search you,” he added, in the dead silence that greeted his speech.

Something about the silent group must have struck a warning note within him. For now, gun hand going toward Colt butt, he began to back toward the door, where Moore still stood gaping at the play inside.

“Sure, we got guns!” snarled Sam Bass suddenly.

As if the phrase were a signal, his gun and Barnes’ and Jackson’s flashed out. There was a rolling roar, deafening in the confined space of Copprel’s store, as three Colts flung heavy bullets into the luckless deputy. Grimes staggered under the triple impact, but continued to back out. Moore had leaped aside and Grimes reached the sidewalk, to crash forward upon his face. After him sprang the outlaws, sensing a trap, scenting disaster. Moore was shot through the lungs as he snatched belatedly at his Colt.

Ranger Dick Ware was sitting in the barber shop almost next door, waiting for a shave. The heavy three-in-one report from the store jerked him to his feet. Automatically his Colt came out and he stepped into the street, to come almost face to face with the outlaws, who stood staring down at the bodies upon the sidewalk.

An utterly fearless man, this Ranger Dick Ware, worthy exponent of all the heroic traditions of the service. Odds of three to one might well have sent a genuinely brave officer back indoors to fire from cover. But Ware ran toward them, his .45 flipping up. There was a hitching post on the sidewalk and bullets from Bass’ gang knocked splinters from it that struck Ware in the face. But he came on, firing rapidly. A bullet struck Sam Bass’ cartridge belt, broke two shells, and mushrooming, tore his right kidney to ribbons.

General Jones, at this moment coming up-street, heard the staccato rattle of the firing and came on the run as Bass and the others backed toward their horses. Jones had but a small-calibre double-action Colt, but he entered the duel blithely, joining Dick Ware. The other two Rangers who had come to Round Rock with Ware now ran up also, while from doorways up and down the street appeared armed citizens to open fire upon the trio by the horses.

Barnes was shot dead, Bass was mortally wounded. Only young Frank Jackson now stood erect, and, with bravery equal to Dick Ware’s, he kept up the outlaws’ end of the firing while with left hand he unhitched Sam Bass’ horse. Bullets fairly rained around him from all directions as he helped Bass into the saddle, then sprang upon his own animal.

Out through Old Round Rock galloped the two frightened horses, Bass reeling in the saddle, Frank Jackson holding him up. Jim Murphy, the traitor, pale, shaken, stricken by we know not what torture of remorse, or, perhaps, none at all, saw the two escaping.

For the rest of that day Bass and Jackson vanished from sight. Posses and Ranger detachments scoured the vicinity, but not until Saturday morning did Rangers find Sam Bass, alone, near death, lying beneath a large oak. He admitted his identity and made no resistance.

Jackson had insisted upon remaining with his dying leader, but Bass—game, unselfish to the last, the cowboys’ ideal now as he had been in brighter days—was equally insistent that Frank save himself. So, having made Bass as comfortable as possible, unwillingly Jackson escaped.

Taken into Round Rock, Bass received the best attention local medicos could administer. But he died on Sunday, July 21st, his twenty-seventh birthday, steadfastly refusing to give the names of associates or friends. Upon the tombstone set to mark his grave was carved the inscription:

Born July 21st, 1851
Died July 21st, 1878
A brave man reposes in death here.
Why was he not true?

Frank Jackson, after Sam Bass’ death, asked only for an opportunity to meet the traitor, Jim Murphy. But the latter evaded him and finally committed suicide. So the famous Bass Gang was finally broken up, but the memory of Sam and Frank Jackson, of Sebe Barnes and Arkansas, and of the traitor Murphy, is green today in Texas.

A few years ago, the writer was returning to Texas from New York, in company with a San Angelo cowboy. We unloaded the Mercer roadster on the Mallory dock at Galveston and started for El Paso. Coming into a land of wide prairies near Menard, vast and bleak under the pitiless December wind, we encountered three lean riders in two gallon Stetsons and Fort Worth boots and stopped to pass the time of day, the Durham and the quart. When we had gossiped a while of range affairs and with benumbed fingers wrapped tobacco in those huge, thick brown papers colloquially known in Cattle Land as “saddle blankets,” we said “so long” to the cowboys and they jogged on.

The tall puncher in the checked mackinaw began to sing in a high, dolorous tenor, swaying to his pony’s running-walk:

“Sam Bass was born in Indiana, it was his native home;
And at the age of seventeen, young Sam began to roam,
He first came down to Texas, a cowboy for to be,
A kinder hearted fellow, you seldom ever see!”

Beside me, mechanically Morg took up the old ballad that every Texan knows, that I had not heard for years; sang it to the last verse, which deals with Jim Murphy’s treachery:

“And so he sold out Sam and Barnes and left their friends to mourn.
Oh, what a scorching Jim will get when Gabriel blows his horn!
Perhaps he’s got to heaven; there’s none of us can say;
But if I am right in my surmise, he’s gone the other way!”

“He was a great guy, Sam,” opined Morg, Twentieth Century cowpuncher. “Hadn’t been for that blanked illegitimate, Murphy, he wouldn’t have been caught, either!”

Transcriber’s Note: This story appeared in the May, 1926 issue of Frontier magazine.