On the evening of February 15, 1900, five men hitched their horses outside the train depot in Fairbank, Arizona. The town, a stop on the train route from Nogales to Benson, was quite a bustling community then, as all the mail and express business from nearby Tombstone was handled there. The five men were "Bravo Juan" Tom Yoas, Bob Brown, (alias Bob Burns), brothers George and Louis Owens, and "Three Fingered Jack" Dunlop. They looked like working cowboys, and according to some, acted as if they were drunk.
The sight wouldn't be out of the ordinary on an Arizona evening, but the reality was these men were not drunken cowboys, they were bandits, and they aimed to rob the train. Planning for the raid had commenced days prior, they knew the route, they knew the cargo and they knew what protection the Wells Fargo Express car touted.
There were multiple guards or "express messengers" who accompanied the valuable goods hauled by the Southern Pacific Railroad. Each had schedules and rotated, but one man, in particular, had to be avoided if the bandits planned on an easy job, he was a 38-year-old lawman who had made a name for himself along the American Southwest, his name was Jeff Davis Milton.
Through careful planning and crooked lawmen, the crew had determined a date Milton was not supposed to be riding the train. As the five lounged or stumbled around the depot, anxiously awaiting that distant whistle, they were confident. This would be easy, a cakewalk. Just as the evening sky darkened, the train pulled into the station. The usual crowds were gathered, a stagecoach awaited the passengers and the station hands prepared to unload cargo.
As the train slowed to a halt, with steam rising with a hiss from the various valves and orifices, the freight car door slid open, behind it and unbeknown to the approaching bandits, was Jeff Milton, who had taken the place of another messenger who was ill. Milton said hello to the Wells Fargo clerk and began unloading some packages. Just then, through the crowd of passengers and workers, a voice yelled, "Put your hands up." Jeff and the clerk thought it was a joke and continued about their business, but the next shout came from a Winchester rifle.
The shot took Jeff's Stetson from his head. This was no joke. Milton thought to reach for his .45 but remembered he had left in on the desk behind him. The only weapon within reach was a 10 gauge Winchester Model 1887, but what he saw next rendered the shotguns useless. The thieves had gathered bystanders in front of them and had the barrels of their .38-55 Winchester repeaters poked out from the human shields.
Again one of the criminals shouted, "Hands up, and stand aside!" Jeff couldn't stand there unarmed and let them take the money he was entrusted to protect. He grabbed the shotgun and told them, "If there's anything you want, come and get it." The gunmen opened fire. Bullets tore through Milton's shirt and slammed into his left arm and side, wood chips and sparks from lead hitting steel flew wild, and the deafening roar of rifles cracked in the desert.
Milton fell to the ground. Through the haze of black powder smoke, the robbers saw him fall, blood oozing from his wounds. "Three-Fingered Jack" Dunlop and Tom Yoas rushed the car, but Milton raised the shotgun and fired, sending 11 pellets into the chest of Dunlop and the rest into the rear end of Yoas.
While the others dove for cover, Milton stood and slammed the steel door closed. Bleeding and writhing in pain, he wrangled the keys from his pocket, locked the safe and tossed the keys away. Every move sent searing hot pain through his body and as the life drained from him, a black haze began to cut through the lingering gunsmoke and slowly close in. He ripped a piece of his shirt off and used it as a tourniquet, tying the cloth around the upper part of his mangled arm, he tightened it, restricting the flow of blood pouring and squirting from his wounds. Moments later the darkness closed in and he collapsed.
The bandits circled the train car riddling it with bullet after bullet. As if by Divine intervention, Milton had fallen between two heavy trunks, which had shielded him from the blitzkrieg of rifle shots. The desperate criminals were not taking any more chances, worried that Milton might have survived the barrage, they sent the terrified clerk into the car. He told them Milton was dead and only then did they enter. Their efforts, however, proved to be fruitless. Expecting no resistance, they hadn't brought any means of opening a safe and were forced to rob their hostages.
They left with a little over $40. Jack Dunlop would die from his wounds the following day and the other four criminals would be captured within a few days of the robbery. Jeff Milton was rushed to a doctor and survived his wounds. His left arm took the brunt of the rifle fire, and though doctors didn't have to amputate, he would permanently lose the use of it.
The Fairbank fight is one of those stories that can fully define a man. In Jeff Milton's case, he was guarding other people's money, and even though he could've gotten through the ordeal without a scratch by merely stepping aside, it wasn't his nature. He had a job to do, and he did it.