Death of a “bad” man along the San Pedro, Part 4

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Battle of Stone Corral – Wounded John Sontag in hay. Pictured above him are from left: Samuel Springley, Hi Rapelji, rancher Luke Hal Deputy
Sheriff George Witty, Deputy U.S. Marshal William English, Tom Burns, U.S. Marshal George Gard, reporter Jo P. Carroll, reporter Harry Stuart.

By John Hernandez

The claims wound up in Federal court. In April 1894, an agreement was made and the lawsuit was dismissed. Southern Pacific and Wells Fargo paid Gard $3,000 which he shared, giving Jackson $1,000 and Rapelji and Burns $500 each while keeping $1,000 for himself. Witty, Hall and Perkins divided $2,000.

On September 19, 1894 George Witty filed a civil suit in the Tulare County Superior Court claiming he alone arrested John Sontag and was entitled to the full amount of the $5,000 reward. The case was heard in Los Angeles Court in October 1895.

Burns was one of the witnesses for the defense. After the last day of testimony, while waiting for their train to leave town, Burns and Witty and some of the other witnesses were all drinking in the same saloon.

Witty overheard Burns tell his drinking partners that Witty had impeached himself on the stand. Witty was insulted by the remark and they exchanged heated words. Later as they were boarding the train, another argument broke out between them.

On the train, Witty made some derogatory remarks about Burns and the other defense witnesses. It was deliberately said loud enough for Burns to hear.

Burns rose from his seat and approached Witty who was now standing. They began arguing. As the exchanges became more intense, Witty turned and walked away to the platform outside of the train car.

Burns followed him and as soon as he was outside pulled his gun and shot at Witty narrowly missing him. Witty rushed Burns and they began wrestling for Burn’s gun. Burns fired again striking Witty in the hand. Witty was battling for his life.

As they struggled, they fell over the railing, off of the swiftly moving train. They both landed hard on the ground knocking them unconscious.

When the train arrived at the San Fernando Depot, friends of both Burns and Witty realized they were not on the train. They then caught a train back to Los Angeles.

Along the side of the tracks near Glendale, they spotted Witty lying on the ground alongside the tracks. They had the conductor stop the train and rushed to Witty’s side. Witty was bruised and battered with a gunshot wound to his hand.

He was semi-conscious. He was loaded on the train and taken to Los Angeles where he was hospitalized. Burns, it turns out, was dazed after the fall. When he was able, he walked to Glendale. He had believed that he had killed Witty during the fight and was taken to Los Angeles to turn himself in to authorities.

No charges would be filed against Burns. To add insult to injury, the judgment in Witty’s lawsuit was ruled in favor of the defendants. Witty was ordered to pay $82 in court costs to the defendants.

Burns returned to Arizona where he worked as a bounty hunter and railroad detective. He was also hired to run down cattle rustlers. He once tracked a horse thief from Florence, Arizona to New Mexico. He killed the horse thief and returned to Florence with the stolen horse. Along the border he engaged in a number of shooting scrapes with rustlers and smugglers, the last one occurring around 1899.

While working as a detective in Willcox, Arizona, he was investigating a Southern Pacific train robbery in Cochise County. Burt Alvord, the Constable at Willcox, was a suspect.

Burns was gathering evidence against Alvord and the gang responsible for the robbery. One night, Alvord attempted to kill Burns.

Alvord had heard that Burns was making inquiries about him. One evening he went looking for Burns and ran across him in one of Willcox’s saloons. Alvord had been drinking earlier. When he saw Burns he drew his six gun and aimed at him. Just as he pulled the trigger, a man standing next to him slapped his arm into the air.

The bullet went into the ceiling. Burns quickly reached for his gun but was grabbed by some of the men he had been drinking with.

Alvord had also been wrestled to the ground. Burns and Alvord were separated and later were allowed to go to their respective homes. A short time later, Alvord was arrested for the train robbery along with his co-defendant Bravo Juan.

While in jail, Billy Stiles another law man turned train robber, broke them out of jail. Burns left the area shortly after this and headed north.

Burns punched cows in the Tonto Basin and the San Pedro Valley. In August of 1899 in Pinal County, a housewife accused him of raping her.

The charge was never brought to court. Along the way Burns was gaining a reputation as a “bully.”

He was unpopular among the cowboys of the San Pedro River Valley. In the town of Mammoth, Arizona, Burns had been involved in a shooting incident with a Mexican known as Gaibee.

One story said that Gaibee had been looking for Burns when he entered a saloon and saw Burns behind the bar. Gaibee took off his big sombrero and held it close to his body slowly drawing his pistol and hiding it behind his sombrero.

As Gaibee walked towards the bar, Burns who had already drawn his gun brought it up from behind the bar and shot Gaibee twice. Gaibee would survive the shooting but the incident would turn the local cowboys against Burns.

The cowboys in the area believed a different version of the story where Gaibee had not had his gun drawn and felt Burns had taken unfair advantage of him. From that day on, Burns was not liked in the area.

It did not help that Burns tended to be obnoxious and was known to start trouble especially when drinking.

Although Burns was not liked, he had a reputation as a crack shot and a man not to be trifled with. The cowboys avoided him when they could.

In 1901, Burns was working on the Tom Will’s ranch near Mammoth, Arizona. Burns took a disliking to a young cowhand that also worked at the ranch.

One night they had got into a fist fight at dinner in the bunkhouse which the other cowboys eventually broke up. While out riding Burns would make threats to the young man and on another occasion they exchanged words and a few punches.

On Saturday, June 15, 1901, Burns and the other cowboys were working on an irrigation ditch. Burns and the young cowhand got into an argument over work.

Burns took his shovel and swung it at the cowboy hitting him in the head and cutting his scalp badly. The young cowboy ran to the house with Burns in pursuit. On the way to the ranch house, Burns was intercepted by Tom Wills and was told to pack his things, that he was fired.

Burns retorted, “I will leave as soon as I kill that son of a bitch.” He ran around Wills to the house. In the meantime, the young man had armed himself. When Burns rounded the corner and approached the cowboy, he still had the shovel in his hands.

The young cowboy had a gun and immediately shot Burns twice, the first bullet striking him in the heart, killing him instantly. The man who California newspapers claimed was the “most famous gunfighter in Arizona” at the time was now dead.

The newspapers reported the young cowboy’s name as “Wallace,” then “Willis.” Eastern newspapers called him “Kid” Wallace. The Florence Tribune named him as Miller Wallace.

The Tucson Citizen had a report from a young lady who lived near Mammoth that the name of the man who shot Tom Burns was Willis Miller. The story would make national news.

A coroner’s inquiry was held and Willis Miller was exonerated immediately, the verdict being he had acted in self defense. Tom Will’s influence in testifying for the coroner’s jury may have helped Willis.

Tom was well liked and respected in the area. He would be elected Pinal County Sheriff in 1902. As for Miller, little is known about him following the shooting. Burns body had been turned over to the cowboys at Wills’ ranch.

On the way to the graveyard, Burns’ coffin was in the back of a wagon. The cowboys would mount it like a horse and dig their spurs into the sides of the coffin shouting and cursing Burns.

Some cowboys jumped and danced on the coffin shouting, “We’ll dance him into hell.” One newspaper said of Burns: “He was about 40 years old and a good type of cowboy. He was well known all over Arizona and his fate is regarded as the inevitable result of the life he led.”

Some newspapers said he had 13 notches etched on his pistol. The man who had helped capture California’s most infamous train robbers, survived many shooting scrapes with rustlers and smugglers, and been called “the most famous gunfighter in Arizona” by a California newspaper had messed with the wrong San Pedro Valley cowboy.

If you missed Parts 1, 2 and 3, you can find them online at, and

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