It was a typical freezing winter night at Montello, Nevada. The Central Pacific Railroad engineer saw a swinging red light ahead. Wondering why, he stopped the train near the water tower. He climbed down from the cab and masked men took him prisoner. Other robbers rounded up the train's conductor, fireman, and brakeman. The four CPRR employees were forced into the water tank house and tied up. Walking back to the Wells, Fargo & Company's express car the bandits ordered the door opened. They didn't know they were about to tangle with Aaron Y. Ross, the company's messenger on this run.
Ross cracked open the door just a little and, when he saw a pistol staring him in the face, slammed the door shut and locked it.
Running to the opposite door, the robber shouted, "Open the door and jump out. We're going to rob the train. Hurry up there, damn you."
Ross replied, "Just wait 'till I get my boots on."
"Never mind your boots, get out here and be quick about it. You can pull your boots on after we get through with you."
No answer came from the express car. Then a voice from outside told Ross if he didn't open up they were going to burn him out and murder him. The gunmen crawled under the car to the other side and demanded he open the door and jump out.
Not a sound came from the car. This meant a change in plans and the bandits each stood at a corner of the car and fired toward the center. Now that's a real crossfire and it's a wonder one of them wasn't hit. Ross, however, took a bullet in a finger, one in his hip, and a third near his watch pocket.
He heard them trying to uncouple the car from the rest of the train and fired two shots toward the end of the car. A westbound train approached and slowed but its engineer, when threatened with guns, throttled it on down the tracks. The robbers then turned back to the problem of Aaron Y. Ross.
One of the men climbed to the top of the express car but the messenger was ready. He fired where he figured the gunman was on the roof and heard him drop down to the platform. All was quiet for a while as the holdup men put their heads together to discuss another way of getting the messenger to open the car.
They went to the water tank and untied the engineer and brakeman. While a head of steam was building in the engineer, they persuaded the brakeman to uncouple the Wells Fargo car. They pushed the baggage car down about two lengths. Next, they uncoupled the engine from the express car.
Asking again that Ross open the door and hearing no reply they fired a few shots into the car and began trying to break in the doors with coal picks. They soon gave up that chore and ordered the engineer to back down on the express car. When the mail car struck the express car both doors sprung open but Ross was ready. He pulled the doors back together and latched them.
The train robbers went looking for some kind of fuel with which to burn out Ross. Not successful, they asked the messenger again if he was going to come out. Again, silence.
The engine and baggage car were backed down the track but it was not a hard bump at all.
Setting their sights on possibly another train that might offer easier pickings, they asked the engineer how long until the next train and he told them about thirty minutes. With that, they searched the four trainmen but found only ten dollars in the wallet of the conductor. They took it and rode off to the east.
Within days, the gang was rounded up by Nevada and Territory of Utah lawmen in Millard County. Ornis Nay and Frank Hawley (also known as Jack Todd) were wounded in a shoot out. Sylvester Earl, Erastus Anderson, and Frank Francis surrendered to the authorities. Another member of the gang, John Brently, was shot and killed by Aaron Y. Ross during the robbery.
Here's the score for the bandits: The five men, between them, spent more than 46 years in the Nevada State Prison at Carson City, and the sixth lost his life - all for ten dollars.
Messenger Ross, for his courage, loyalty, wounds, and fighting spirit, received $150 from the Central Pacific and Wells, Fargo and Company paid his medical bill. Later, the express company presented him with a gold watch and $1,000.
Sources: "The Montello Robbery," by Phillip I. Earl, Northeastern
Nevada Historical Society Quarterly, Summer 1972; Weekly Elko Independent,
Elko, Nevada, January 28, 1883, February 4, 1883, January 28, 1883, and
March 4, 1883. Photograph of Aaron Y. Ross courtesy of the Wells Fargo
History Room, San Francisco, California.