The Devil's Odds

The Devil's Odds
St. Martin's Press. To Be Released Feb. 28, 2012

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Beyond The Last Divide


Texas Ranger Captain John R. Hughes (1855-1947) at the far right---the model for Zane Grey's Lone Ranger.

One might ask what a Texas Ranger Captain has to do with literature. Bear with me, for good writing is where you find it.

John Hughes was born in Illinois and came to Texas on his own when he was about fifteen after having been a horse trader in the Indian Territory. In 1886 a gang of rustlers stole several horses from his own and neighboring ranches. Hughes tracked the men for two months and recovered the horses after killing two of the thieves. This exploit earned him the attention of Ranger Ira Aten. The next year, Aten asked Hughes to help him track down Judd Roberts, a brutal convicted murderer who had escaped from the authorities in Central Texas. When the pair accosted Roberts in Kansas, a gunfight ensued and Roberts was killed. That fall Aten succeeded in convincing Hughes to join the Rangers, an association that was to continue until his retirement in 1915.

By 1893 Hughes had risen to sergeant in Company D of the famed Frontier Battalion, Late that same year he was promoted to head the company after the murder of its captain, Frank Jones. In 1901 the Frontier Battalion was abolished and the Ranger Force was reorganized into four companies. Hughes was appointed once more to head Company D, which was to be headquartered in Brownsville in deep South Texas and had the task of patrolling the Texas/Mexican border. A quick study, he soon became fluent in Spanish and cultivated an extensive network of informants on both sides of the Rio Grande. He also had good relationships with the Mexican police, and it was during the early years of the 20th century that he became know on both sides of the river as the "Border Boss." Historian Bill O'Neal, in his authoritative Encyclopedia Of Western Gunfighters, credits Hughes with eight official killings in the line of duty. I suspect that there were more. On several occasions he vanished into Mexico with murder warrants on American criminals who had fled across the border, only to reappear some weeks later with no official report ever filed.

He was known as an easygoing man with a robust sense of humor and was very popular with the men under him. He always cautioned his men to use prudence and common sense. His favorite maxim was said to be, "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread." I suspect that the modern-day Ramboesque school of law enforcement exemplified by John Wayne/Sylvester Stallone movies would have disgusted him.

After the 1901 reorganization, Rangers were required to make a formal report for each complaint they received. Around 1903 Hughes got a telegram telling him that some ruffian was hoorawing the town up at Eagle Pass and the local authorities couldn't handle him. Eagle Pass was quite a ways upriver, and the trip took several days. When Hughes returned, he made what is probably the most famous police report in Texas history. I can see him in my mind's eye sitting at an old-time roll-top desk, writing with the stub of a pencil by the dim light of a kerosene lamp. Down at the lower corner of the form the Rangers were provided was a blank marked "Disposition," which meant how was the complaint disposed of---arrest, etc. Perhaps it was Hughes' famous sense of humor that lead him to do what he did with this space. Or perhaps he really thought the word "Disposition" referred to the subject's temperament. At any rate, this is what he wrote:

"Mean as hell. Had to kill him."

Given the context, if that isn't literary, I don't know what would be.

Captain Hughes never married, though he was engaged in his early years. His fiance died of typhoid fever in one of the periodic epidemics of that terrible disease that swept through the country in the 19th century. Each year, on what would have been their wedding day, he traveled back to Rockport to put flowers on her grave.

Somewhere along in his later life, Hughes penned what I consider the only example of cowboy/frontier verse that rises to the level of literature. I say that because, unlike the authors of so much of what passed for poetry in the western anthologies of that era, Hughes didn't strain for high-toned imagery and Homeric metaphor. Instead, he wrote four simple lines that embody the authentic thoughts of an authentic man of this time and place.

"When my old soul hunts range and rest
Beyond the last divide,
Just plant me in some strip of West
That's sunny, lone and wide.
Let cattle rub the headstone round;
Let coyotes wail their kin
Let horses come and paw the mound,
But don't you fence it in."

In 1947, suffering from a half dozen disorders and wracked with pain, yet still too tough to die, Hughes took his own life with the same old single action Colt he'd used to dispatch so many desperados. His funeral was held on a fine, sunny day in late spring. The old man was the last of the frontier Rangers, and his passing marked the end of an age. As might be expected, the services attracted a considerable crowd. And as might also be expected, the politicians flocked round his coffin and said all the Rotarian things that politicians say at such times. After the long-winded tributes were finished, he was laid to rest in the State Cemetery in Austin, which is surrounded by a tall fence of iron bars.


12 comments:

  1. What a wonderful picture of the man - and his times. Providing his poetry, and summing up his end, gives even the most casual reader of this post great insight into this tough man who lived in tough times and proved tougher. It is characters like this that created the legend of Texas, and the legend of the lawman. Nice post, Milton! Seeing as I had not heard of Hughes prior to this, you also gave me a great lesson in history. Guess it must be the teacher in you!

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  2. But just think how much better a lawman Hughes would have been had he undergone sensitivity training, used the word "alleged" fifteen times in his written reports, and referred to a murderer as the "perpetrator."

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  3. Wonderful post and blog! It reminds me of some of the old stories of the country of my birth. Ever come across Herman Charles Bosman and T.V. Bulpin?

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  4. No, Scylding, I haven't. Mail me at my private address and we will talk about you doing a piece for this blog on them if you would like--with credit to you, of course.

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