In a barren cemetery at 15,000 feet in the Andes, Froilan Risso, sitting beside a battered concrete marker, is telling the story that was entrusted to him by his father, of how two famous gringo bandits sought refuge in this desolate town decades ago, died in a blazing gun battle and were buried here in this very spot.
“The army had them surrounded in a house and the whole village was watching,” Risso said, as gusts of wind whipped dust off the naked brown hills, cutting through the graveyard like a machete. “The shooting lasted several hours, and the bandoleros were badly wounded in their arms, and they knew they were going to die. So they faced each other and killed each other. Like suicide.”
He is talking, it seems, about Butch and Sundance.
He is supplying, it seems, the answer to one of the great enduring mysteries of the Wild West.
How and where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, whose real names were Robert Leroy Parker and Harry Alonzo Longabaugh, met their deaths has been the subject of speculation in books and in film ever since the two desperadoes fled to South America at the turn of the century and disappeared.
At 54, Risso is one of the oldest villagers in this impossibly remote mining town, reachable from the Bolivian capital of La Paz only by a 14-hour train ride and three more hours by Jeep over treacherous terrain. Risso is the designated keeper of the story of the shootout, an oral historian in this Quechua-speaking region where few people can read or write and no one lives to old age. Risso says his father, who as a young man witnessed the gunfight and oversaw the burial, solemnly gave him the story, to be passed on for eternity.
“My father said that someday someone would come and ask about these people,” Risso said, as he chewed on a wad of coca leaves. “He said, ‘Tomorrow or the day after, we don’t know when, someone will want to know what happened to these gringos, and this is what you are to tell them, and this is where you are to say they were buried.’ ”
When Risso is asked why he had not told the story to anyone until two historians recently found him, his weather-beaten face breaks into a nearly toothless grin.
“No one ever asked me,” he said. “Why did you take so long to get here?”
The final chapter of the American Wild West was written here, in the hills of South America. This is the place to which many of the most notorious desperadoes fled after the advent of the telegraph and telephone made tracking them too easy in the United States. There is no doubt that Butch and Sundance came here to rob banks and mining company payrolls, and to and generally kick back and raise hell. What there has been great doubt about is whether they met a death anywhere near as dramatic as the one portrayed in the final seconds of the 1969 movie that first paired Robert Redford and Paul Newman and that made the Butch-Sundance saga an American legend.
The legend appears to be true, or close to true. The story of the shootout in this desolate village on Nov. 7, 1908, has been painstakingly unearthed in the last six years by husband-and-wife historical researchers Daniel Buck and Anne Meadows, using newly discovered Bolivian army documents and old mining company records, and using the remarkable, convincing testimony of Froilan Risso. Buck and Meadows are researching a book and a movie.
Are the two gringos buried here Butch and Sundance? Almost certainly. Final proof is awaited. There are still bones to be picked.
Old bones, with stories to tell.
These days, the cemetery where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are supposed to have been buried is protected by a sagging adobe wall with a low archway in the middle.
Risso and other town residents said the grave, located behind the arch, used to have a chain with two locks around it, as well as a cross, but no one knows who put them there. The cross was destroyed and someone stole the chains about five years ago. Because few here can read, no one knows what the words said, and all that remains is a crumbling cement mound.
Last December, a group of researchers, including Meadows, Buck and Clyde Snow, the famed forensic anthropologist, arrived here to investigate and try to retrieve the bones of the outlaws for forensic reconstruction and DNA tests.
Risso took the investigators to the grave, where, after gingerly digging about 9 feet at the site under the marker indicated by Risso, they unearthed the bones of two non-Indian males, laid end to end, killed by gunshot wounds.
Snow said he was skeptical when Risso first told his story.
“Risso said, “This is where my daddy said the gringos were buried,’ and showed us where to dig, and sure enough we found some sort of gringo bones,” Snow said. “It raised his credibility about 100% for me.”
The digging also turned up several brass buttons, three gold teeth in one of the skulls, the sole of a shoe or boot and scraps of clothes.
To the consternation of villagers, the investigators received permission from the local judge to take some of the bones to the United States to conduct the tests. The investigators have formally promised to return the bones by July 1.
Snow, in a telephone interview from Oklahoma, said he could not say for certain that the bones are those of Butch and Sundance, but said the “probabilities seem to be in their favor.”
He said the skull that would be of Sundance showed “trauma very consistent with being shot in the face, right under the nose,” fitting the army description of how he died.
Snow is working on two lines of study: He wants to compare the DNA of the bones with the DNA of known distant relatives of Butch and Sundance (neither had children so there are no direct descendants), and he hopes to complete a facial reconstruction from the skull they think is Sundance’s. That is the skull that was in better condition.
Buck said that he expects results from the forensic tests within a few weeks. Whether they show that Butch and Sundance died in San Vicente or not, something has been gained by the years of investigation.