As it is with so many bad ideas, the San Miguel Valley Bank Robbery began as just crazy talk. Drunk talk. Four cowboys, young and wild, had just been paid for a season of ranch work. Flush, itchy and untethered, what to do now? First, drink and talk shit. Then, drink and talk shit about what they would do next. The usual answer for young cowboys when their seasonal pay ran out was to rustle cattle. One of the boys, Matt Warner, did not like that choice. He pointed out that cattle raiding was just work of the usual kind with shakier prospects of a payday in it and the real possibility of fell consequences. “I don’t know about you boys,” he said, “but what would make me want to go robbing is because I want to live well and not have to punch cows. I want to eat well and drink well, to ride a fine woman and spend time with pretty horses. What I would not want to do is end up in the Territorial Prison.” The elder of the McCarty brothers said, “We could rob a train!” Both McCartys seemed lit up now. The cowboy called Parker regarded them, then glanced at Warner. “Too complicated.” He said. Taking Parker’s meaning, that the McCartys were idiots, Warner backed Parker, saying, “Too hard on the horses.”
Warner was the horseman, Robert Parker was his sometime partner, sometime able apprentice. Together they owned a racehorse that had been making them some money locally. Their plan had been to invest their ranch work pay in at least one more, possibly two more, racehorses.
“How about a bank?” Parker suggested.
Eventually, the sheriff of Telluride was tried and convicted for accepting a bribe to be out of town on the day of the robbery. Different accounts claim the boys took either $24,000 or $27,000 from the San Miguel Valley Bank. Either way, that would be comfortably north of half a million in today’s money. It was never recovered and none of the boys were ever charged with the theft. Yet by a strange, stray note in the music of chance, everyone knew who they were.
They had arranged, three of them, to outfit themselves in brand new flash cowboy duds. From five gallon hats and bright red bandanas for masks down to boots and spurs, everything crackling new. They rode into the middle of Telluride, dashed into the bank, emerged with the money, made a helluva lot of noise, lunged at pedestrians as if to ride them down, shot rifles into the air and dashed off. Mesmerized by the oddly theatrical display, and in the absence of the sheriff to pull them together, the town folk ran for cover. The ultimate success of the enterprise was said to have been assured by a fourth member of the gang who was waiting, halfway to Robbers Roost with a relay of fresh fast horses.
But something unforeseen and unforeseeable happened just outside of Telluride. The rancher Henry Adsit, the one the boys had lately been working for, was on his way into town, passed Parker, Warner and Tom McCarty on their way out of town. Since the boys had returned their masks to being neckerchiefs, he recognized them instantly and gave a friendly greeting.
Robert Leroy Parker changed his name to Butch Cassidy, fooling no one. Eventually, one of the McCartys was hung for something else. In his memoir, Matt Warner said that Rancher Adsit’s recognition had been the hinge of his life. Before that, he had been a wild boy who might still have chosen any sort of life. After that, he could only ever be a bandit.