Texas Rangers

Book Excerpt: "Lone Star," T. R. Fehrenbach, 1983 p. 586-590.

The choice in west Texas in these years was not between law and order and what would later be called police brutality, but between armed anarchy and a climate in which due process could take place. The story of the Texan Frontier Battalion, as well as the Special Force, must be viewed in this light.

Major John B. Jones, whom Richard Coke appointed to command in northwest Texas, was the least known of the great captains. This was not because his results were not even more spectacular than McNelly's, but because Jones was a type that west Texas took less easily to its heart. He was essentially an east Texan, whose father established a horse ranch in Navarro County, southeast of Dallas. He was a superb horseman, and a member of the very-Southern gentry, rather small but handsome, and altogether elegant. He was described by one of the neighboring Groce family: "I can see him now, the perfection of neatness; dark, well-kept suit, white shirt, black bow tie, heavy black mustache and hair, smooth olive skin, piercing, twinkling, sparkling, penetrating black or dark brown eyes that seemed to see through your very soul, and seeing sympathized as he understood."

The Major was the subject of many a fictional characterization, and altogether one of the most dangerous men to criminals who ever lived. Coke appointed him to command six companies of Rangers in 1874 because the Governor knew him from the war. Jones had enlisted in Terry's Rangers as a private and emerged recommended for major. He was older than the run of Ranger; McNelly was dead at thirty-three. Webb paid him the superb compliment, by saying Hays, Ford, McCulloch, and McNelly were captains only, while Jones was a great general.

He was a man of perception and education, who could see the whole frontier for what it was, and understand his over-all mission as clearly as the evils of the day. He took the field with his companies, riding through the dust of west Texas, drinking scummy green water from stagnant holes, which he boiled for black coffee. He did not drink or smoke; he never raised his voice, and his favorite beverage was reputed to be buttermilk. It is recorded that a few men mocked him, but all of them eventually ended up in jail or dead. He was not popular even with his own people, because, unlike the rough-and-ready McNelly and Hays, he was a disciplinarian rather than a camp democrat.

Jones' first problem was to protect the frontier from the Kiowas and Comanches; Quanah Parker and other chiefs were still at large when he took the field. Jones did this job with expertise. He stationed his companies, each with seventy-five men, in strategic sites affording maximum range and protection. He made them stay constantly on patrol; unlike the army, none of his force was tied up in fiddling detail or on barracks chores. He intercepted the small war parties the army could not prevent from slipping through. In six months, Jones' command fought fifteen actions, killed fifteen Indians and wounded ten, and recovered considerable livestock. On June 12, 1874, Jones himself, with twenty-six men, met one hundred Comanches at Lost Valley, near the Young County line. Jones did not try to be a hero; he sent a runner to Fort Richardson for help. He also contented himself with protecting white lives, while Mackenzie played the hero in the Far West. This was the measure of the man, and it only comes through in the magnitude of his decisive results.

The northwest frontier was safe by 1875. West of San Antonio, however, the Apaches still marauded, and the Rangers, in conjunction with General B. H. Grierson, moved southwest into the land of greasewood, buttes, and sage. During 1876 and 1877, Apache raids did much damage through the Big Bend country; but Rangers, the Army, and the Mexican army from below the border joined forces to pursue the marauding bands. In October, 1880, the last Mescalaero war chief, Victorio, was killed below the line by Mexican troops. The sun of the eastern Apaches, like that of their ancient Comanche enemies, had almost set.

The society of Texas had been frayed by a generation of border war, the vast bloodletting of the Civil War, the moral and social erosion of Reconstruction, and now, by the explosion of the cattle kingdom into the vacuums left by the Indians to the west. Jones' Battalion's position needs clarification. The frontier, for thirty years, stood along a clearly defined line from north to south; suddenly, in 1875, this frontier acquired immense breadth and depth. The compressed cattlemen burst toward the west. The nature of the cow frontier did not bring immediate settlement, or cohesion, or anything approaching the orderly advance of civilization behind the farm line.

Overnight, the Rangers' mission changed from Indian fighting to a task of policing this turbulent frontier-in-depth. It was an infinitely more difficult job, and also more delicate, because now the enemy was not so clearly defined. Coke, instructed both Jones and McNelly to be careful handling citizens; Jones, over-all, had the greater success. In March, 1877, Jones forbade the search for and pursuit of Indians, and ordered his captains to drive toward the "suppression of lawlessness and crime." Thus the Ranger force turned inward; it positioned itself generally between the farm and cow frontiers. At the time Jones planned his moves, these regions were actually more lawless and chaotic because of the sum of the years than they had ever been before.

In six years, the Texas Rangers closed the wild frontier. They did not entirely end all aspects of the Old West; on heritage of violence so deeply implanted could be so quickly erased. The Rangers changed the social climate from anarchy, where every man looked to himself for protection and his six-gun for judge and jury, to one that was simply violent, but over which the laws of organized society could preside. In this new war, Jones himself was more the general than the hero many of his individual troops became. He damped the terrible Mason County war, and the bloody Horrell-Higgins feud at Lampasas by a combination of diplomacy and force. Jones' policy was to arrest the leaders-men no sheriff dared touch-then hammer out a truce. He, like McNelly at Cuero, could not make complete peace between Germans and Anglos at Mason, or between the divisive political factions in Lampasas County. He could put a lot of angry people in jail, and produce an atmosphere in which the courts could arrest murderers and get them to the gallows in due time. He could send Lieutenant Dolan to Kimble County, which was run by thieves, arrest forty-one men, and scare the rest away. He could, and did, use brilliant generalship in plotting the demise of bandit Sam Bass, Texas' first popular Yankee following the Civil War. Jones kept his own counsel, made deals, worked through informers and spies. He even has his own man in Sam Bass' gang when he ambushed the outlaw at Round Rock. He did what he had to do, kept accurate records, and kept the Governor informed.

Three salient characteristics marked the Ranger force. First, in the border wars it had developed an enormous espirt, a genuine mystique. Every young Ranger, usually poorly educated and functionally illiterate, knew the legends of McNelly and Jack Hays. Their numbers were so few that in most cases., they were always beset by odds almost equal to those faced by McNelly at Las Cuevas. One Ranger sometimes had to cow a cattle camp, or three Rangers an entire tow. They lived among a rough society, in which moved thousands of actual killers and thieves. Some Rangers were certainly killers and thieves themselves-but before they took the oath. No force, probably, was ever so little scarred by scandal in its great years. But gratitude from the state-McNelly was simply let go when his health failed, with a complaint from the Adjutant General filed for eternity with his mounting medical bills-lived by audacity as much as gun skill and wits. Their mystique, and growing legend, won them through, in situations where men lacking in either would have given up or died.

Second, the Rangers were ruthless. Killing was almost casual on this particular frontier; almost every grown man has seen blood shed. The Rangers gave due notice, fair warning to the criminal kind, then they struck. They could not, in retrospect, have acted effectively in any other way. They did not worry too much about prisoners in some cases-the nearest jail and court was often a hundred miles away. They did not ride the range seeking war, but if someone offered it, they gave it back until strong men quailed. They were not bullies, unless demanding order was bullying. A favorite cowboy sport was riding off the range and shooting up a west Texas town. Horses were pushed into saloons, lights shot out, mirrors smashed by bullets. If a Ranger was present, he sometimes shot these joyous spirits out of the saddle; there were some who felt that this punishment was a bit severe for the crime.

On one occasion recorded in west Texas history, a group of cowboys showed ingenuity in treeing a town. They hopped aboard an incoming passenger train and arrived shooting from its windows. They were liquored, happy, and shouting they were the toughest hombres in the West. Three Rangers in this town, Toyah, told them once to quit, then opened fire. Four "town treers" bit the dust, and one was dead. The Ranger had three maxims: never wear a gun unless you know how to use it; never draw it unless you intend to use it; never shoot except to kill.

They rarely called the play, but their orders were to finish it. As officers of the law, they never issued an order twice.

Third, the entire frontier ethos gave the Rangers a great contempt for deviousness, including the deviousness of the Anglo-American law. A bullet cut a straight line. Local politics, and the law itself, hampered Ranger work in cleaning up the country. When McNelly, on one of his last missions, courageously brought in King Fisher and a half-dozen of his men, who had terrorized the entire country from Castroville to Eagle Pass, the courts set them free. Fisher and his men were certifiably guilty of murder, but not convictable under the technicalities of the law. The Rangers had no patience with this; and a great impetus was given an old Mexican practice, the ley de fuga. Ranger records indicate a large number of men killed trying to escape, or resisting arrest.

Direct action had always gotten the Texan, except during the sobering lesson of the Civil War, what he wanted and felt was right. McNelly's action at Goliad, where certain prominent cowmen in their range wars had taken to hiring killing done by strangers, was illustrative of the Ranger and whole frontier-Texan mind. Even if the hired, nonlocal killers were apprehended, the real instigator of the crime went free. McNelly wrote to a leading citizen, who was known to hire gunmen, that the next time such an incident occurred he would come to town and shoot the leading citizen dead within two hours. McNelly's contemporary good citizens slapped their thighs with glee. This attitude, and not anachronistic views arising out of later times and different conditions, must be applied. The Rangers brought order in the years between 1874 and 1880, and law could not be far behind. In bringing it, the records how they killed some scores of men, arrested some hundreds of others, and as important, drove thousands out of the state.