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An isolated train station on the stark western Nebraska frontier was the target. A group of six not-so-successful stagecoach-robbing outlaws, dubbed the Black Hills Bandits, had put the Union Pacific’s eastbound express No. 4 in their crosshairs, hoping for their first big score. 

The serene moonlight that drenched the handful of structures at Big Springs that early autumn night belied the tumult soon to take place.

Minutes before the train’s scheduled arrival time of 10:48 p.m. on Sept. 18, 1877, the masked gang sprang into action, unleashing their well-rehearsed plan. Two of the men burst into the tiny station house, surprising agent George Barnhart, who found himself staring down the barrels of four cocked revolvers. The masked gunmen forced the railroad employee to disable his telegraph equipment and then hang by the trackside a red signal lantern, intended to stop the train.


As the train came hissing into the depot, rifle-wielding gang members approached the locomotive and captured engineer George Vroman and his fireman, firing a shot to encourage compliance. Several cars back from the engine other masked outlaws nabbed conductor M.M. Patterson as he stepped from the train, headed toward Barnhart’s office.


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Next on the gang’s agenda was to locate and appropriate the treasure they suspected was aboard. Two of the outlaws ushered Barnhart to the express car and had him knock on the door. The oblivious express car messenger, Charles Miller, opened the door slightly. In an instant Barnhart’s escorts burst through the door and disarmed Miller at gunpoint.

The robbers grabbed more than $400 in cash from the car’s way safe and then turned to the through safe, only to discover it secured with a combination lock Miller said could not be opened until the train reached Omaha. Though the messenger insisted he didn’t have the combination, one of the gunmen threatened and pistol-whipped him until convinced he was telling the truth.

Posing out of the saddle in 1876 are (from left) Sam Bass, Joe Collins, John E. Gardner and Joe’s brother Joel Collins. Bass and Joel Collins turned outlaw. (Robert G. McCubbin Collection, colorized by Brian Walker.)


The outlaws had resigned themselves to robbing passengers, when one noticed three heavy boxes stacked in a corner. Miller claimed ignorance as to their contents, so the curious gang member tumbled the top box to the floor, and out showered $20 double-eagle gold coins straight from the San Francisco mint. Each box held 1,000 such coins. The Black Hills Bandits had finally struck the mother lode. Scooping up loose coins, they dragged the boxes onto the platform.

While two outlaws secured the $60,000 cache, the others proceeded to part first-class passengers from some $1,300 in cash, four gold watches and even a train ticket to Chicago. In the process the robbers fired at least one shot, slightly wounding passenger Andy Riley. Then, as slickly and suddenly as they had begun the heist, the six outlaws vanished into the Nebraska night.

Barnhart repaired his telegraph and alerted Cheyenne of the robbery, the largest ever to hit the Union Pacific. News spread fast across the country. The Omaha Daily Bee ran a detailed account the next evening, Sept. 19. A day after that the St. Louis Globe-Democrat declared in a pessimistic subhead And the Robbers Will Never Again Be Heard Of. Accounts varied as to the number of robbers, from seven to as many as 15. Rumors of James-Younger Gang involvement ran rampant.

In reality there were a half-dozen robbers, led by Joel Collins, a onetime trail boss from Texas who had turned to crime in the Black Hills of Dakota Territory. The wounded Riley recognized Collins, despite the outlaw’s mask, from a past cattle drive. The other robbers were Sam Bass—who had come up the trail with Collins the previous fall and would gain greater notoriety—Bill Heffridge, Jim Berry, Tom Nixon and Jack Davis. 


After the robbery the gang rode back to their camp just outside Ogallala, some 20 miles east, burying the loot somewhere along the way. While townspeople gossiped excitedly about the robbery, the six ostensible cowboys feigned unconcern and even caught naps.

At first little more than a whistle-stop on the Union Pacific Railroad some 330 miles west of Omaha, Ogallala had grown with the influx of cattle herds and blazing of the Western Trail in 1874. By 1876 Ogallala had its second hotel, the Spofford House (built by the Leech family), and the cowpunchers had a choice of saloons for cutting the trail dust. On the night of the train robbery the gang members reportedly threw down drinks at William Tucker’s popular Tuck’s Saloon before heading to Big Springs.

While the robbery undoubtedly surprised Union Pacific officials, they were quick to respond. “The loss, of course, falls upon the Union Pacific Express Co., an organization that is part of the railroad company,” the Omaha Daily Bee reported. Edgar M. Morsman, superintendent of the Union Pacific Express, went to Ogallala in hopes of finding someone to help apprehend the bandits and recoup his company’s money. 

A talk with one of the Leech clan, general store owner Millard Fillmore Leech, convinced the superintendent to look no further. Born in small-town Tionesta, Pa., in 1850, Leech had migrated west with father David and settled in Ogallala in 1873. As a would-be detective, M.F. Leech had a number of things going for him. He knew the countryside and most everyone in the area, had already been to Big Springs to survey the crime scene and had reportedly tracked moonshiners while living in Tennessee.


After hiring Leech and gathering as much information as possible, Morsman issued the following telegram to all railroad stations in the region:

“It is believed that the robbery was done by six cowboys under the leadership of Joel Collins, as they have suddenly disappeared from a cow camp near Ogallala in which they had been hanging out for several days.…As Collins was from Texas, it is thought they will head southward. A reward of $10,000 will be paid for their capture, or a pro rata amount for the capture, dead or alive, of any one of them. Post conspicuous notices.”

After the Big Springs, Neb., train robbery, store owner M.F. Leech tracked the gang solo. (Nebraska Historical Society.)

Multiple posses soon set out to scour the region for Collins, Bass and the others. Leech later said he asked the Union Pacific to provide him with a posse, but it refused. So, with few leads or clues, he set out alone.

Within a day of their return to Ogallala the bandits had realized it was best to get the heck out town. So as not to raise suspicions, they had attached themselves to a cattle drive headed south. The gang apparently stayed with the drive for one or two days before splitting off. M.F. Leech was in pursuit.

“I was 24 hours behind them, but as they rode in a body, I had no trouble with their trail,” he told The New York Times in 1895. “I made 60 miles that day and about 11 o’clock p.m. came up with them on the bank of the Republican River.” The date was likely Sept. 22.


In his interview with the Times, Leech weaves a sensational tale that in places stretches credibility. Among other previous exploits, for example, the storekeeper claimed to have lived with a band of Sioux Indians, arrested Mountain Meadows Massacre ringleader John D. Lee and scouted for Brig. Gen. George Crook during the Great Sioux War of 1876. While certain details remain sketchy, however, there is no question Leech went in pursuit of the Black Hills Bandits.

As Leech tells it, on discovering the outlaws’ night camp, he staked his horse on the opposite bank of the Republican, crossed the river and crept up on the half-dozen sleeping men. Slipping in among them, he spotted a large sack full of stolen gold coins, but it was too heavy to drag away. After recrossing the river to fetch a knife from his gear, he returned to camp, intending to slice open the bag and take the gold piecemeal. 

In the interim, however, the outlaw sleeping beside the loot had shifted position and thrown an arm over the sack. Considering himself fortunate not to have been discovered thus far, Leech chose not to push his luck any further. He returned to his horse and got some shut-eye.


In the morning Leech climbed a cottonwood and watched as the outlaws saddled their horses and continued south. The Ogallala merchant turned detective then mounted up, rode to a nearby ranch and enlisted a herder to carry a letter to Union Pacific officials. His dispatch indicated he had spotted the robbers near Young’s Ranch on the Republican, and they were crossing the border into Kansas, headed toward Buffalo Station on the Kansas Pacific. Leech then resumed his mission and picked up the outlaws’ trail.

The gang went into camp on Beaver Creek in Smith County. Once again Leech staked his horse on the opposite bank, then waded the stream and inched up close. “I got near enough to hear them talking of robberies and murders they had committed in the Black Hills,” he said. The gang agreed to split into pairs and meet up weeks later in Dallas. Then they divvied up the spoils. 

“They were sitting in a circle,” Leech recalled, “and ‘Joe’ [sic] Collins had his saddle flap across his knees, upon which he stacked up the $20 gold pieces. He would stack up six stacks and then give a stack to each.” The men exchanged addresses, after which Collins had them stand, raise their hands and swear never to be taken alive.

On Sept. 24, as Collins, Bass and cohorts broke camp, Union Pacific officials in Ogallala pored over Leech’s intelligence-filled dispatch. That evening, as Leech reached the banks of Sappa Creek, he decided to swing by the house of a local widow who served meals to passing cowboys. He was approaching her house when two of the gang strode into view. 


Whirling his horse, Leech came face to face with two more outlaws afoot. The creek afforded his only escape. Dropping alongside his horse to duck bullets, he spurred it across a convenient ford—directly into the outlaw camp. Leech managed to build up a fair lead while the bandits scrambled for their own mounts. Riding deep into the surrounding brush, he waited them out.

As these cat-and-mouse antics played out, Union Pacific Superintendent Silas H.H. Clark sent a wire to Fort Hays, 60 miles east of Buffalo Station:

“Robbers with plunder have been discovered near Young’s Ranch on the Republican River. There are six of them—one party now making south. Send sheriff and strong party from Ellis north to intercept them, and if General Pope calls for special train, furnish it at our expense, please. Also use your own judgment in helping to catch the thieves.”

Ellis County Sheriff George Bardsley immediately set out north for Fort Hays. Meanwhile, Maj. Gen. John Pope, commander of the military Department of the Missouri, telegraphed all posts he thought might help in the pursuit, including Forts Hays and Wallace in Kansas and even Fort Elliott in Texas, some 300 miles south of the action. He also arranged for a locomotive and car in which to transport a posse. 

As the fugitives continued their hopeful trek to freedom, splitting into pairs as agreed to reduce the odds of capture, Sheriff Bardsley, 16th U.S. Infantry Lieutenant Leven Allen and a party of 10 soldiers boarded the special train at Fort Hays bound for Buffalo Station.

Leech’s letter had set the wheels in motion. Union Pacific officials had zeroed in on the bandits, an entire military department was on the alert, and every lawman in the region was on the lookout. It would be an understatement to say the Black Hills Bandits were in a heap of trouble.

Arriving at Buffalo Station around midnight, Sheriff Bardsley, Lieutenant Allen and the party of soldiers camped not far from the depot. Just after 8 the next morning, September 26, Joel Collins and Bill Heffridge ambled into the station on horseback leading a heavily laden pack pony.

After exchanging pleasantries with station agent Bill Sternberg, the men asked where they could buy supplies. Sternberg had received the alerts about the robbers and immediately grew suspicious. As he engaged the men in conversation, fate intervened, as one of them dropped an envelope addressed in block letters to Joel Collins. Appearing unconcerned, Sternberg excused himself and stepped away to alert the sheriff. Accounts differ as to how events unfolded from that point.


According to some reports, Sheriff Bardsley let the men purchase their supplies and ride off before he decided to give chase. The posse apprehended them just south of the station. Author Rick Miller, in his thoroughly researched 1999 book Sam Bass & Gang, suggests Bardsley’s performance was less than stellar and that if not for Lieutenant Allen and his troopers Collins and Heffridge may have waltzed on down the trail to Texas.

When told they fit the description of train robbers, Collins and Heffridge at first feigned surprise and agreed to return to the station for further questioning. Moments later, however, after whispering between themselves, they reached for their revolvers. As the guns cleared leather, the soldiers opened fire, dropping both outlaws from their saddles. Hays City officials soon received a terse telegram:

“Have killed Collins and his pal. Have two sacks of gold; can’t tell how much, about 80 pounds.”

The haul came to $19,456.60—almost exactly a third of the take from the train.

On a dreary open plain near a western Kansas train station, just eight days after the robbery, the gang’s ringleader and one other member had met swift frontier justice. 

On BERRY’s heels

With Collins and Heffridge out of the picture, M.F. Leech turned his attention to tracking Jim Berry, who, based on the gang’s campfire chat, would head to his hometown haunts near Mexico, Mo. Tom Nixon initially traveled with Berry, then split off, possibly bound for Canada. Soon after arriving in Missouri, Leech met with a reporter from the Mexico Weekly Ledger, who provided this colorful description of the detective:

“He was a short, wiry-looking little fellow, dressed in a very outlandish manner. He had on an old pair of shoes, almost worn-out pants, a new hat and a loose coat with the tails cut off. The only thing in his appearance that would strike a casual observer was that brilliancy of his eye. He had an eagle eye, surely; under his coat he had a long ‘45’ caliber pistol with two belts full of cartridges. He was evidently “fixed” for anybody.”

Independently of Leech, Audrain County Sheriff Harrison “Harry” Glasscock had followed up on tips Berry was back in town and on a spending spree, foolishly using $20 gold pieces from the Big Springs train robbery. Glasscock got to him first, on Oct. 14, emptying a load of buckshot into the fugitive’s leg when he resisted arrest. 

As a doctor tended to Berry, the outlaw confessed his involvement in the Union Pacific heist. Though the wound didn’t appear serious, within a couple of days Berry’s leg turned gangrenous.

In his 1877 book Hands Up! Omaha journalist Alfred Sorenson cryptically detailed Berry’s fate:

“Deputy Sheriff Dave Burley, of Omaha, on the day of the arrest of Berry proceeded to Jefferson City, Mo., and obtained a requisition for Berry to take him to Nebraska to be tried for his crime. The officer arrived in Mexico the day after Berry had been called to a higher tribunal on a requisition from the angel of death”.

That angel came calling at the Ringo House in Mexico on Oct. 16.


As the curtain fell for Berry, Sam Bass and Jack Davis plodded south across Kansas in a well-worn buggy they had acquired. Narrowly avoiding detection, they arrived in Texas in early November. Davis urged Bass to accompany him to safer climes, but Sam chose to remain in the Lone Star State and resume his life of crime. 

With a new gang he robbed four trains and two stagecoaches, though they never made off with more than $500. Regardless, Texans and others viewed him as a Robin Hood type, robbing from the rich rail barons. They sang a cowboy ballad in his honor for decades afterward. Davis went to New Orleans and, like Nixon, managed to elude authorities. Not so Bass. Texas Rangers shot him on July 19, 1878, as he and cohorts cased a bank in Round Rock. 

Two days later, on his 27th birthday, Bass drew his last breath—just 10 months after the Big Springs robbery.

Thanks to M.F. Leech and his dogged pursuit, the Black Hills Bandits merit little more than a footnote in the annals of Western history. While the Big Springs robbery was the gang’s first big success, its members had pulled off a number of stagecoach robberies and during one botched attempt had killed a popular driver named Johnny Slaughter. 

Robin Hood and his Merry Men they were not. Leech, by contrast, was a law and order pioneer of the Plains if not officially a lawman. It is long overdue for someone to take pen in hand and write the “Ballad of M.F. Leech.” 

John Flood of Winchester, Va., is the director of Big Legends [], a genealogy and Western American history research firm that produces books and DVDs. In 2014 he visited the Big Springs, Neb., robbery site, and he is writing a biography of M.F. Leech, due out in 2018. For further reading he suggests Sam Bass & Gang, by Rick Miller; Hands Up!, by Al Sorenson; and Sam Bass, by Wayne Gard.

This story originally appeared in the June 2017 print edition of Wild West.

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