“PLAYING DEAD”

— FACING DOWN THE ODDS —

Wells Fargo express messenger Jeff Milton knew the gunshot wound to his arm did a lot of damage. But when told doctors planned to amputate it at the elbow, he nixed the idea. It wouldn’t be the first time Milton spit in the eye of adversity. 

Wells Fargo Agent

A few days earlier, Milton stood his ground in a shootout at a small train station at Fairbank, Arizona. 

The night of February 15, 1900, seemed peaceful enough when the Southern Pacific rolled to a stop. Milton pulled open the door of the express car to offload cargo scheduled for delivery to Tombstone and nearby towns.

Before taking the job as a shotgun messenger, he worked as a Texas Ranger, a deputy sheriff, a police chief, U.S. Deputy Marshal, and a U.S. Customs border patrol agent.

Born Jefferson Davis Milton in Marianna, Florida, in 1861, on the family plantation. He was the son of Confederate Governor John Milton, who committed suicide after the Civil War.

Milton saw a small crowd gathered on the station platform, not realizing it included several gunmen poised to stage a robbery.  

A few days earlier, former deputy sheriffs Bill Stiles and Burt Alvord devised a plan to rob the express car carrying either the U.S. Army payroll for soldiers at Fort Huachuca or a shipment of gold and silver bullion.

To help carry out the scheme, the pair recruited Bob Brown (or Burns), George and Louis Owens, Bravo Juan Yoas, and “Three Fingered’ Jack” Dunlop.

Aware of Milton’s gun skills, Stiles and Alvord decided to rob the train on a night he wasn’t working. But on this particular Thursday night, Milton agreed to stand-in for an express agent who couldn’t fulfill the assignment.  

One of the gunmen hollered at Milton to get his hands up and fired a shot. According to one account, Milton grabbed his sawed-off shotgun just inside the doorway but hesitated for fear of hitting an innocent bystander.

Gunfire flashed against the night sky. Milton crashed to the floor with a shattered shoulder. Despite the wound, he retrieved the shotgun just as Three-Fingered Jack climbing into the railcar.

Milton fired. Dunlap grasped his chest and dropped. One of the pellets struck Yoas in the leg or backside and he limped to his horse and galloped away.

Blood poured from Milton’s shoulder. Struggling through the pain and close to passing out, he managed to kick the door of the express car closed. 

Milton removed the key to the express box from his pocket and hurled it behind a pile of cargo packages. Hearing the gunman at the door, he sprawled on the floor in a pool of blood and played dead. 

The gunmen searched his pockets and the desk drawer but couldn’t locate the key. Frustrated and unable to find a way to open the bolted down Express box, they had no choice but to leave.

The took the injured Dunlap with them, but a posse found the gang member abandoned on the road, a few miles from Tombstone. 

He died within the week, but not before revealing the names of his outlaw associates, who were later captured and sent to prison.

The shoot out cost Milton his arm. But not his resolve.

Four years later, he worked as an agent for the U.S. Immigration Service, assigned to stop the smuggling of Chinese aliens through Arizona and California, a job he held until 1932.

He died in Tucson on May 7, 1947, at age 86.

Milton’s body was cremated and his ashes spread across the Arizona desert where he spent much of his life.

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