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Books: The Texas Devils

4 minute read

THE TEXAS RANGERS by Walter Prescott Webb. 583 pages. University of Texas. $10.

They fought grim odds and knew no fear, They kept their honor high and clear, And, facing arrows, guns, and knives, Gave Texas all they had—their lives.

The Texas Rangers, after facing arrows, guns, and knives for one complete century of incredible carnage, were abolished in 1935. But they survive in song and story, cinema and television as strong silent lawmen who all look like Gary Cooper or Lyndon B. Johnson. They are more factually commemorated by Historian Walter Prescott Webb (The Great Frontier) in this famous volume, republished now (with a foreword by President Johnson) for the first time since 1935. But the facts, though they strongly suggest that the Rangers did not always keep their honor high and clear, nevertheless indicate that the organization at worst was a necessary evil, at best an instrument of civilization.

Set up in 1835, on the eve of the war for Texas’ independence, the corps provided socially useful employment for the local gunslingers—since they were bound to shoot somebody, it might as well be enemies of Texas. The gunslingers, delighted to be doing for pay ($1.25 a day) what they would normally have done for pleasure, proved remarkably effective, and in 1848, when the U.S. declared war on Mexico, they went roaring across the border like a platoon of panthers. Unhappily, the Texas Devils, as the Mexicans called them, were so blind-crazy for blood that they often made more enemies than they killed. In Mexico City, for instance, when a Mexican made so bold as to murder a Ranger, the victim’s friends went on a shooting spree that in one day deposited 80 corpses on the streets of the conquered capital.

McNelly of the Tex-Mex. At war’s end, with no more Mexicans to kill, the Rangers were temporarily disbanded. But in 1874, the corps was reconstituted in two battalions—one assigned to the frontier to arbitrate range wars, the other posted to the Tex-Mex border to control cattle rustling. The leader of the border patrol, Captain L. H. McNelly, is generally acknowledged as the greatest Ranger of them all. He mounted a scarum series of across-the-border raids against Mexican rustlers, and then capped his campaign with perhaps the most famous action in the history of the corps: the Las Cuevas War. At the head of an “army” of 30 Rangers, McNelly “invaded” Mexico, blitzed the main staging area for all rustling operations, fought off 450 armed men and forced the Mexican authorities to return 75 head of stolen cattle.

Unhappily, McNelly died at 33, and somehow the Rangers were never quite the same again. As the assignments became more routine—preventing prizefights, harassing fence cutters, jailing drunks in gusher towns—the quality of the men who performed them seemed to decline. By 1900 the force was notoriously corrupt, and during World War I the Rangers became little more than terrorists, a racist army supported by the state for the purpose of intimidating Mexicans on both sides of the border.

“Put Up Them Guns!” Yet right down to the end of its existence, the corps produced memorable men and moments. Captain Bill McDonald was a white-haired curmudgeon who stood ready to “charge hell with a bucket of water.” Once, accompanied by a lone Ranger, he actually did charge a barracks containing 20 armed and rioting U.S. soldiers, and forced them to “put up them guns!” Another time, when a citizens’ committee called for a company of Rangers to quell a mob, Captain McDonald arrived alone. When the citizens protested that only one Ranger had been sent, he replied: “Well, you ain’t got but one mob, have you?”

And then there was a Ranger named Ray (“Pinochle”) Miller. When captured by Mexican bandits who decided “to ‘dobe-wall him,” he shot the firing squad with a camera before it could shoot him with bullets. Flattered and fascinated, the bandits began posing for photographs and drinking straight shots of sotol, a distillation of yucca that makes tequila seem like celery tonic. When they were suitably swacked, Sergeant Miller took a flying leap to the nearest horse and “hit the Rio Grande so hard he knocked it dry for 50 feet.” He left his camera behind. No matter. No film in it, anyway.

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