by TOM LEA
CATTLE thieves started to plague the ranges of Southwest Texas immediately after the end of the Civil War. The stealing began as a consequence of the severe winter of 1863-1864, when huge numbers of strayed cattle from north of the Nueces drifted before the punishing winds into the south tip of Texas. Owners could do little toward recovery of this stock; most of it was left unclaimed, untended, bearing its increase. Uncounted thousands of cattle so far from home ranges and so close to an international boundary were an open invitation to theft; a traffic in stolen livestock sprang up. Any foot-loose horseman could drive cattle wearing any Texas brand across the river into Mexico and get two to four dollars cash for a cow that cost nothing but the effort to deliver it. Scattered thievery soon became wholesale depredation. A spawn of border ruffians, operating mostly from lairs south of the Rio Grande, began to raid and terrorize the ranches of the border country as far north as the Nueces.
The risk was very small. Texas suffered a sorry lack of means to enforce law and to put down the disorder that followed in the wake of a ruinous war. The Texas Rangers were disbanded, abolished by order of the Reconstruction regime. Local law administrators were powerless to provide peace officers who would even attempt to cope with the brigands adrift along both banks of the convenient river. The only real presence or semblance of force against unbridled border lawlessness were garrisons of United States troops. And, as Rip Ford, exTexas Ranger and ex-Confederate colonel, wrote later, “It might have been the powers of government remembered the course of Texas during the Civil War, and left her to take care of herself in the emergency brought about by Mexican raiders.”
To this sorry lack of means for the enforcement of law in Texas there was joined a cynical lack of interest on the part of Mexican authorities in stopping thieves from bringing stolen Texas cattle to Mexico. The old hatreds and mistrusts between the two races were still alive and needed only a little fanning to burst again into flame.
Plunder of the ranches along the Texas side of the river soon assumed the guise of race war. The operations of the brown-faced marauders were so surprisingly successful they were soon bragging, “The gringos are raising cows for me.”They justified themselves, if they had any qualms, by saying that the cattle and everything else between the Nueces and the Rio Grande originally belonged to Mexicans, that they had every right to take back their own. They called the cattle they stole “Nanita’s" cattle, meaning “grandma’s.”Grandma’s cattle brought quick cash money.
The raiding of Texas ranches and the theft of almost incredible numbers of Texas livestock were continuous from 1865 until 1878. In the years when raiding was at its height, Texas stockmen estimated that as many as 200,000 head of their cattle were stolen annually. By 1875, there remained in the region between the Rio Grande and the Nueces only one fourth to one third the number of cattle there had been in 1866.
The raiding was often accompanied by brutal murder. Isolated ranchmen had no recourse, no projection, but that which they could furnish themselves. “Old and young were subjected to every form of outrage and torture, dragged at the hooves of horses, burned and flayed alive, shot to death or cut to pieces with knives, their homes and ranches looted and destroyed.” Defenseless travelers were ambushed; the roads over the lonely prairies became too dangerous to travel without armed escorts.
Not all the thieves drove away the stock they stole. Gangs of hide-peelers killed cattle on the range, skinned them, and hauled the hides to market — a thievery practiced with greater dispatch, if less profit, than delivering herds of cattle on the hoof. Hide-peelers displayed unspeakable cruelty in their operations. Many of them used the media luna, a scythe-like knife in the shape of a half-moon mounted on a long shaft, handled from horseback to hamstring cattle. The knocked-down animals were sometimes skinned while still alive. Randlers pursuing hide-peelers would come upon suckling calves bawling by their mothers’ raw carcasses still warm and jerking with signs of life.
In the midst of this trouble, rancher Richard king was no novice at defending himself. He fought the gangs of spoilers by every means he could muster, from firearms to political pressures, but the thieving was so stealthy and endless, the raiding so malign, it threatened the survival of his ranch.
From a post-war roundup of stock on the Santa Gertrudis in 1866, R. King & Co. had estimated it owned 84,000 head of cattle. Yet at the division of the property in 1869, King and Kenedy managed to gather just 48,664 cattle which, added to an estimated 10,000 head ungathered, made a total of 58,664. This startling decrease, after three years in which few cattle were sold and in which an undisturbed breed herd would ordinarily double in size, was some indication of the plunder in progress even before the raiding reached its full fury. During the next three years, from 1869 to 1872, Richard King claimed loss by theft of 33,827 head of cattle.
Losses like these came in spite of constant vigilance. Since its first establishment in 1854, the ranch on the Santa Gertrudis had been forced to maintain its own defense. A band of Kineños commanded by their foreman, Captain James Richardson, had stood guard against thieves for years. There was nothing new in keeping the brass cannon at headquarters loaded or in manning the lookout atop the commissary, high on the rise in the prairie. As the livestock thefts increased regardless of his vaquero patrols, King bought “some thirty stands of Henry rifles and a supply of ammunition.” He hired extra riders, probably as many as a dozen, who were handy with the Henrys. And while foreman Richardson and his riders patrolled, King built fence. A visitor to the ranch in 1872 said that Captain King calculated “it would cost $50,000 to fence his ranch, and that he would be repaid in one year by the prevention of these thefts and proceeded to fence his ranch, . . . and has now built 31 or 32 miles and has 8 or 9 miles now under way. This is directly a preventative against theft. Guard stations to he placed on each of the four sides of this enclosure.”
Direct action, in trying to keep thieves off his ranch and in fighting them with guns when they came anyway, was not enough. King paid agents along the Rio Grande and even in Mexico to spot, stolen cattle bearing his brand. He hired men to ride after this stock to try to bring it back. He found that once the cattle had crossed the river, attempts at recovery were futile.
Facing conditions like these, ranchmen on the north bank of the river banded together in 1870 as the Stock Raisers Association of Western Texas, to help each other gun for thieves, to find and return each other’s stolen stock, to prosecute in court every criminal that could be caught, and to bring pressure on the state and national governments for protection. Mifflin Kenedy presided over the first meeting; he and King not only supported but led the activities of the organization. Among these was the advertisement of the stockmen’s registered brands in the local newspapers, so that the legal owners of cattle wearing such brands might be unmistakable. The list of brands used by Richard King, followed by a long array of brands he held by purchase, appeared regularly.
In 1869, official hide and cattle inspectors appointed by the Army post commanders on the Rio Grande were authorized to examine all cattle and hides in the commerce crossing the river. The inspectors gathered facts and figures, but were armed with no power whatever to check the traffic they daily observed. A too earnest pursuit of their duties proved unhealthy for reasons clearly discernible in a typical Matamoros hide yard dealer’s instructions to his help: “Shoot the first damned gringo son of a bitch who comes here and attempts to look at a hide.”
When the thievery increased rather than diminished, and especially when it became clear that there was some connection between the official Mexican Commander of the Line of the Bravo and the depredation north of the Bravo, United States Army details were at times ordered into the field to pursue reported raiders. As usual, regulation soldiers on limited scouts were incapable of countering the nonregulation elusiveness of brush-riding bandits. What the border needed, and missed sorely, was a troop of Texas Rangers.
BOTH the Mexican government and the U.S. government set up investigating commissions in 1872. In 1875, a Permanent Committee of Brownsville citizens prepared and printed an exhaustive account of the depredations suffered at the hands of Mexican thieves and bandits; a Congressional Committee of the 44th Congress in 1876 drew up an even longer list, of specific murders, burnings, losses, thefts to which the south tip of Texas had been subjected. Yet all this documentation produced little more than prime source material for the writing of history in a later day. At the time, the reports brought no comfort and very little direct aid to the ravaged citizens above the Line of the Bravo.
In January of 1874, Governor Richard Coke, elected by the people of Texas and not by the ballotstuffing of Carpetbaggers, had taken the reins of office from E. J. Davis. A Democratic legislature had already abolished the Texas State Police; late in 1874, the Texas Rangers had been re-established, to the relief of every decent citizen in every frontier county of the state. In the spring of 1875, an extraordinary officer named L. H. McNelly, former Rebel, one of the few men with a fine record in the Texas State Police, was commissioned as a captain of Texas Rangers to enlist a company for special duty on the lower Rio Grande.
On April 18, 1875, authorities at Austin received a telegram from Sheriff John McClane of Nueces County:
IS CAPT MCNELLY COMING. WE ARE IN TROUBLE. FIVE RANCHES BURNED BY DISGUISED MEN NEAR LA PARRA LAST WEEK. ANSWER.
Captain McNelly came, made short work of the villainous excesses of “disguised men,” then late in May led his rangers south to Brownsville.
His arrival there coincided with a burst of activity on the part of cattle thieves in the area. Their chieftain, General Juan Cortina, happened to be gathering livestock in Texas to fill a contract for the delivery of 3500 beeves to Spanish army garrisons in Cuba. A ship was waiting at Bagdad; Cortina was watching it load.
McNelly hit like a bolt of lightning from a clear sky. Early in the morning of June 12, on the Palo Alto prairie fourteen miles north of Brownsville, the ranger captain with twenty-two of his men struck a band of about a dozen bandits driving three hundred stolen cattle toward the river. In the blazing fight one ranger was killed; not one of the thieves got away alive. Next day the bandits’ dead bodies were hauled in and dumped on the market square in Brownsville. As a public notice, it was a statement bandits could understand, published in their own language. The bodies were quickly identified as some of Cortina’s more notorious bravos; the display aroused a great wrath across the river. And after ten long years of banditry unpunished, the dead bodies left for relatives to claim on the market square of Brownsville that day in June aroused an entirely unaccustomed caution on the part of men who made their living stealing cattle.
The 31-year-old Leander H. McNelly was a leader exactly formed for ihe work he found on the border. With less than fifty men, in less than a year, he broke the back of a long war with hundreds of organized brigands. He burned himself out at it, dying young from the tuberculosis his life of exposure and hardship brought him. But while he lasted — there were never any like him.
He had a soft voice, an even temper, and a coldsteel disdain for personal danger. Beneath this unassailable cool steadiness burned a flame that made him a brilliant leader, a fire that warmed the hearts of the men he led, that kindled them with respect for him in camp, with emulation for him in a fight. The men he enlisted to follow him were all young and they did not stay unless they were daring. There were only a handful of Texans; their captain preferred to recruit from backgrounds remote from any locale of ranger duty. The basic requirements for service were unflinching bravery and disregard of hardship; skill with firearms and horses came next. McNelly was a demanding master who made his demands by example. The western frontier seems not to have had at any time a more fearless band of disciplined fighters than McNelly’s border company of Texas Rangers.
The only way McNelly could catch bandits — he never had more than forty rangers to patrol the whole area — was to be in the right place at the right time. To be there, it was necessary to have advance information, and the only way to get that information was from spies or captives. McNelly used both.
The bandits had their informers among the rancheros in Texas. Fighting fire with fire, McNelly set about acquiring spies among the bandits in Mexico. He said, “I made inquiry about the character of the men who composed the various bands on the opposite bank and I found they were organized into bands of fifteen or twenty or thirty. . . . I made inquiries into the personal character and reputation of the individuals of the bands and I selected those whom I knew to be tricky.” To these tricky ones McNelly offered more money than they could make by raiding, a regular salary of sixty dollars a month plus additional rewards depending on the number of thieves identified with any foray for which the spy furnished advance information. McNelly said he found the informers “reliable and trustworthy. I did not propose to interfere with their own individual stealing. I gave them liberty, when I was not in their neighborhood, to crossover with their friends, and get cattle and return again.” The money required to pay these spies was clearly outside any ranger service budget; some of the members of the Stock Raisers Association wore furnishing McNelly with a war chest. At the time, Richard King was supplying the rangers with beef. He doubtless supplied more, including his own network of informers and contacts with border characters whom McNelly could trust.
McNelly also got information from the thieves he captured. Fighting ruthless enemies, McNelly used ruthless methods. Among the recruits he took into his company was a strange figure named Jesús Sandobal, who from his knowledge of the language and of the country was given charge of forcing information from prisoners. Sandobal often hanged them afterwards. His cruelty stemmed from vengeance: the ranch he owned in Texas had been destroyed and his wife and daughter violated by raiders. McNelly used “Casuse” Sandobal as a harsh instrument in a harsh operation. The border war with cow bandits was at no time, on either side, a tournament of chivalry.
FOR five months following the fight on the Palo Alto prairie the rangers had no major encounter with any big band of raiders. During that time MeNelly’s men caught scattered thieves and recovered herds of stolen livestock north of the river, while McNelly entertained the growing conviction that the only way to end the border’s trouble was to hit the heart of the matter: to strike with full force south of the river.
Through his spies McNelly learned that the principal lair of the organized brigands was a fortified ranch called Las Cuevas belonging to a General Juan Flores, located in the brush three miles south of the river, twelve miles below Rio Grande City and Ringgold Barracks. The proximity of Las Cuevas to a post of newly arrived troopers belonging to the Eighth Chivalry at Ringgold suggested an augury for the operation McNelly began to plan. lie lost no opportunity to meet Army officers and to work at an Army promise for coöperation with a ranger thrust across the Rio Grande — where it would do the most good. Though the Army was hampered by its usual instructions not to violate neutrality by pursuing bandits into Mexico, field officers stationed on the border lent the ranger captain a sympathetic car.
Early in November, McNelly learned that Las Cuevas was to be the gathering point of eighteen thousand head of Texas cattle which Mexican traffickers in stolen livestock had contracted to deliver to purchasers in Monterrey within ninety days. He made this information known to the Army; on November 12, McNelly had seen the commander at Ringgold, Major A. J. Alexander, and had gotten a promise from him that he would “instruct his men to follow raiders wherever I will go.” Alexander’s promise was backed by a similar commitment from his superior in command at Brownsville, Colonel Potter. Sharpened with this prospect and alerted for the expected raiders bringing stolen herds south toward Las Cuevus, McNelly took the field planning to pursue the raiders into Mexico, when necessary, and to wipe them out with United States Army help.
Events did not conform to McNelly’s plans.
While he and his men were in the brush near Edinburg fifty-five miles dow nriver late in the afternoon of November 17, a scouting company of the Eighth Cavalry found a gang of bandits chasing a herd of cattle into Mexico at the Las Cuevas crossing. In the firing, two thieves were killed and another wounded, but the troopers did not cross the river in pursuit. Instead, they made camp on the Texas riverbank, to await further orders.
No dispatch rider was needed. That evening the old wilderness warfare on the remote Rio Grande partook of a new time: a telegraph line now ran along the river close by the cavalry camp. A field telegrapher was soon in communication with Ringgold Barracks and Fort Brown. And the wires went on to Washington.
During the night, Colonel Potter at Brownsville ordered Major Alexander at Ringgold to reinforce and to assume command of the encamped troops at the Las Cuevas crossing; at dawn another cavalry unit came from downriver and joined the force.
There were at least a hundred troopers perched on the riverbank doing nothing when Captain McNelly, riding alone, came into the camp at noon on November 18. He quietly announced he intended to go into Mexico after the stolen cattle as soon as his rangers arrived, and he dispatched a messenger for them. They rode the fifty-five miles to the Las Cuevas crossing in five hours.
The telegraph wires had already tangled the troops with Army red tape and with second thoughts on the part of the command. When McNelly asked the senior officer present on the riverbank, Major Clendenin, for troops to go with the rangers into Mexico, the request was refused, though Clendenin said, “If you are determined to cross, we will cover your return.” Knowing the odds his rangers faced on the other side of the river, McNelly replied that not one of them could get back alive without the aid of the troops.
McNelly shoved off that night. Five men swam their horses to the other bank; the others, including McNelly, crossed three at a time in a leaky Mexican scow. At four o’clock in the morning on November 19, the ranger company stood gathered in the dark on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande: thirty men, five mounted, each man carrying only pistol and rifle, with forty rounds of ammunition for each weapon, and a little broiled goat meat prepared before the crossing. With this force McNelly expected to attack a fortified ranch he knew was defended by at least ten times his own number. He expected no quarter from them and he expected to give none. He took the risk believing that his action would bring the United States Army into Mexico and into decisive war against the brigands.
Standing in the dark before daybreak he said. “Boys, the pilot tells me that Las Cuevas Ranch is picketed in with high posts set in the ground with bars for a gate. We will march single file as the cowtrail is not wide enough for you to go in twos. The mounted men will go first, and when we get to the ranch the bars will be let down and I want the five men on horses to dash through the ranch yelling and shooting to attract attention and the rest of us will close in behind and do the best we can. Kill all you see except old men, women and children. These are my orders and I want them obeyed to the letter.”
At first dawn they arrived before the heavy picket posts they thought enclosed Las Cuevas. McNelly inspected his little invasion force in the dim light. “Boys,” he said, “I like your looks all right —you are the palest set of men I ever looked at. That is a sign you are going to do good fighting. In the Confederate army I noticed that just before battle all men get pale.”
Gate bars were let down. The rangers charged in yeiling and shooting, killing four men surprised while chopping wood for breakfast fires. In the growing light, the guide suddenly told McNelly that he had made a mistake, that he was in the wrong rancho, that this was a place called the Cachattus, that the Las Cuevas headquarters was a half mile up the trail.
By the time the rangers had made their way on to Las Cuevas itself, more than two hundred mounted Mexican soldiers were dashing into the stronghold, stirred up by the shooting they had heard at the outlying rancho. McNelly formed a line and opened fire but soon decided to withdraw. “Our surprise is gone,” he explained. “It would be suicide to charge them with only thirty men. We will go back to the river.”
At the river’s edge, McNelly had no thought of recrossing to the Texas side. Posting two pickets in the brush, he hid the rest of his men under the cover of the riverbank, hoping the Mexicans would come in pursuit — and still hoping to bring United States cavalrymen into Mexico for a fight.
The bandits were not long in coming. About twenty-five horsemen dashed from the brush expecting to catch their enemies swimming the river. The rangers charged up from the riverbank and opened fire, advancing. After a hot exchange the horsemen wheeled hack into the thickets. They left a dead man on the open field. When the rangers moved up firing to where he lay, they found they had killed the bandit chief himself, the dueño of Las Cuevas, General Juan Flores. McNelly tucked Flores’ goldand silver-plated pistol into his own belt and ordered the rangers back to the cover of the riverbank.
Meanwhile, Captain Randlett of D Company, Eighth Cavalry, had crossed the river with forty troopers. At the beginning of the action McNelly had shouted across the river—in carefully exaggerated distress — while his men were charging up the riverbank and out of sight, “ Randlett, for God’s sake come over and help us!" Randlett had decided that the rangers were “in danger of annihilation” and had come over to keep the Army’s promise.
When the rangers got back to the river and found Randlett with his troopers ready on the Mexican side, McNelly tried to persuade Randlett to go with him to assault the ranch. The Army captain replied he was not unwilling to stay on the Mexican riverbank until his commander, Major Alexander, arrived on the other side and could give orders, but he refused to consider McNelly’s proposal for a move inland.
They did not find it necessary to leave the river to find a fight. The enemy returned in force to avenge the death of Flores. At intervals from eleven that morning until nearly five that afternoon, the Mexicans came charging. Each time the rangers and the troopers beat them back.
At five o’clock, Mexicans suddenly appeared with a white flag of truce. They presented a note which was interpreted at great variance by Randlett and McNelly in separate reports later.
Randlett said the truce proposal promised that the stolen cattle would be returned to Ringgold next day, that every effort would be made to arrest the thieves, that a withdrawal of American troops was requested. McNelly said the note as written demanded that the troops vacate Mexico — and only promised to consider any Texan complaint afterwards. He said that Randlett was ready to agree to such terms but that he, McNelly, refused to leave Mexico until the stolen cattle and the thieves were brought to him. The Mexicans then asked a cessation of hostilities for the night. When this was arranged, McNelly and Randlett moved back to the riverbank. It was dusk; Alexander had arrived at the campfires across the river. He ordered Randlett and his troopers out of Mexico immediately.
As night came on, the handful of Texas Rangers stood alone in Mexico, and stayed alone. An overwhelming force of brigands and soldiers enveloped them. Yet with the bearing of a man who led a fireeating regiment, not a company of thirty, McNelly in the truce arrangements had agreed to give the enemy “an hour’s notice before I commenced active operations.” In the dark of the long night he had his men dig a trench by the riverbank.
THE next morning, November 20, the wires on the poles along the other side of the river made a high hum. The affair at Las Cuevas had reached Washington, Through channels, Colonel Potter at Fort Brown received orders which he relayed to Major Alexander, “Commdg. in the Front”:
ADVISE CAPT MCNELLY TO RETURN AT ONCE TO THIS SIDE OF THE RIVER. INFORM HIM THAT YOU ARE DIRECTED NOT TO SUPPORT HIM IN ANY WAY WHILE HE REMAINS ON THE MEXICAN TERRITORY. IF MCNELLY IS ATTACKED BY MEXICAN FORCES ON MEXICAN SOIL DO NOT RENDER HIM ANY ASSISTANCE. KEEP YOUR FORCES IN THE POSITION YOU NOW HOLD AND AWAIT FURTHER ORDERS. LET ME KNOW’ WHETHER MCNELLY ACTS UPON YOUR ADVICE AND RETURNS.
The clatter of the telegraphers reached past the Army, into the State Department. The United States Consul at Matamoros was wiring the United States Commercial Agent of Camargo, standing in readiness at Ringgold:
I UNDERSTAND MCNELLY IS SURROUNDED AND TREATING FOR TERMS OF SURRENDER. IF SO GO TO HIM IMMEDIATELY AND ADVISE HIM TO SURRENDER TO THE MEXICAN FEDERAL AUTHORITIES AND THEN YOU GO WITH HIM TO THIS CITY TO SEE THAT NOTHING HAPPENS ON THE WAY. INSTRUCTIONS HAVE BEEN SENT FROM HERE TO AUTHORITIES IN CAMARGO TO ALLOW YOU TO ACT IN THE MATTER. ANSWER.
Copies of both these communications, accompanied by every official pressure, were hurried across the river to save the “doomed” rangers.
At four o’clock that afternoon, McNelly notified the Mexicans, according to his truce agreement to give one hour’s advance warning, that he was advancing to attack unless his demands were met. He demanded the delivery of the stolen cattle and the thieves who stole them, with no legal dodges nor any excuses for delay. The ruffians facing this man with the lethal eyes, this hombre de verdad, gave in. They agreed to deliver to Rio Grande City at ten o’clock the next morning all the stolen stock that could be rounded up and all the thieves that could be caught. With that promise, McNelly withdrew— “reserving the right, if I saw proper, to go to Camargo and take the cattle.”
The next morning McNelly took ten rangers to Rio Grande City to get the cattle; he was fairly certain he would get no thieves. Instead of cattle, he got a note. The jefe in Camargo wrote: “Because of excessive work on hand, I do not send you the cattle today, but early tomorrow morning . . .” McNelly wrote a note in return, which ended: “As the Commanding Officer of the United States forces is here awaiting your action in this matter, I would he glad if you would inform me of the earliest hour at which you can deliver these cattle and any of the thieves you may have apprehended.”
The Commanding Officer was not “awaiting” and would have done nothing about it if he had been. But McNelly’s acute mention of the United States Army was not lost upon the jefe in Camargo, who forthwith changed the schedule of his excessive work on hand. He wrote a note informing McNelly that the cattle would he delivered at three o’clock that afternoon.
Seventy-five stolen cattle close-herded by twentyfive Mexicans armed with Winchesters and pistols came to the river’s edge at three. McNelly with his ten men, armed, had come over on the ferry to meet them. McNelly asked the drovers to put the cattle on the Texus side, as agreed. The caporal refused, saying it was impossible until the cattle “were inspected.” McNelly told his interpreter to tell the caporal that the cattle were stolen from Texas without being inspected and they were going back that way. The caporal said no. McNelly rapped out an order. The startled drovers were instantly looking down the barrels of the rangers’ cocked guns. One of the men holding one of the cocked guns said later that McNelly told the interpreter “to toll the son of a bitch that if he didn’t deliver the cattle across the river in less than five minutes he would kill all of them, and he would have done it too, for he had his red feather raised. If you ever saw cattle put across the river in a hurry those Mexicans did it.”
In the herd that came back at last, after the long years in which herds moved only one way, there were thirty-five head of cattle wearing the brand of Richard King.
The McNelly rangers brought an abrupt change of demeanor to the outlawry on the border. The stealing of cattle from Texas, formerly such an attractive pursuit, lost its appeal. It began to be dangerous. Though the raiding continued for another five years, it became desultory and increasingly furtive. The wholesale depredation ceased, the outrageous open traffic in stolen livestock came to an end with the affair at Las Cuevas. The raffish practitioners of border banditry and the purveyors of border race hate lacked the guts to hunt a fight with men like L. H. McNelly and his rangers. When the rangers hunted them, they quit.