Most everyone has heard the story in one form or another. Some say it's a myth. Others claim it's as certain as Noah's flood and Sherman's march to the sea. Doesn't really matter because the tale speaks to the truth. The definitive version is sometimes attributed to one man, but I've always felt like it pertains to us all. Of the countless variations told and celebrated since I was a boy, this is the one I always liked best:
The sheriff paced up and down the rail depot, waiting for a train. A few days before, a riot had broken out in his Spindletop-era boomtown. His bootstrap resources overwhelmed, he placed a frantic call to his governor in Austin. Don't worry, he was told. We're sending the Rangers down to sort it out. He hung up the phone and breathed a little easier, hoping he could hold off the mob and the looters just a while longer.
Finally came the day of the sheriff's salvation. He stood at the railhead, chain-smoked handrolls, and compulsively checked his pocket watch. He finally heard the whistle, then the squeal of the brakes. He stubbed out his cigarette with the toe of his boot and waited for the train to coast to a stop.
He waited for a dozen or more confident, well-armed, hard-eyed men to climb down from the passenger car, assess the situation, and then decisively restore order. Several unlikely candidates emerged with their luggage in hand and, without any eye contact, drifted away from the station. The sheriff's resolve faded as he noted that the last man to exit had a silver badge stuck to his dusty lapel.
He couldn't believe his eyes. Had he not explained the seriousness of his situation to the governor? Surely there were more officers. The tall, raw-boned traveler could pass for a cowboy if not for his tie. His slacks were tucked neatly into the shank of his boots. His spurs were probably packed away in the saddlebags he had slung over his shoulder. He seemed oblivious to the sheriff's despair as he offered him his hand. His duster fluttered open to reveal twin engraved Colt .45's hanging on each hip.
"Only one Ranger?" the sheriff said.
"Well, there's only one riot," the Ranger said.
That's one story. There are countless others that belong to the hundreds of men who are part of a proud tradition close to two centuries old. I am only one Ranger out of those who came before me and those who will ride on ahead. Only one story belongs to me.
All rise! I snapped out of my trance when the bailiff demanded our attention. I stood as I've done a thousand times before. Soon the judge swept in, his black robes flowing. He had an academic look about him, accentuated by the horn-rimmed glasses that saddled the bridge of his nose. When he peered over the top of his specs and scanned the courtroom, I sensed a tinge of arrogance that told me he liked his job. He'd probably learned to sleep well at night with the power he lords over people. I never did.
Normally the judge and I are allies, equal partners in the justice system. My kind round them up and the judiciary sorts them out. The owlish New Mexico judge and I didn't come close to seeing eye-to-eye on this case, though we were both deeply disturbed by the crime. I could tell by the way he set his jaw and spoke through clenched teeth that he was angry about what happened. But me, I was torn apart.
I squirmed in a creaking chair that in no way was designed to accommodate my six-foot-five-inch frame. I've spent years in these places, and they all have the same stale feel. The architects had tried to warm this Albuquerque courtroom. There were plenty of lacquered wood paneling and trim to imbue a reverent air; acoustic ceiling tiles to absorb random wailing; microphones everywhere to make sure everybody heard the horror of what was being said; padded seats in the jury box like you'd find in a fancy movie theater. But the designers failed. This was a sad, cold place where every day the countless variations of human tragedy played out their last act. Build courtrooms as fancy and modern as you like, I'd rather be anywhere but inside one. Especially on that day in February 1992.
Sitting at the defendant's table in his prison coveralls was a deeply troubled twenty-eight-year-old man on trial for a senseless, unpremeditated double homicide. Local authorities had found two boys shot to death in the desert, and they wanted this third one to pay for it. Both victims were homosexuals, which allowed the prosecutors to up the ante and classify the offense as a hate crime. Local authorities had apprehended two suspects. One proved to be the faster talker. The other sat in chains in front of this judge. The defendant and I flinched when the judge pounded his gavel.
I've put hundreds of people in the defendant's predicament, but never in New Mexico, a place that has always been special to me. In the 1950s, I cowboyed on the Bell Ranch in the state's northwest corner. I worked cattle operations like it on the sea of grass that stretches across the Southern Plains. I broke horses, branded yearlings, and rode fence as I entered manhood, steeped in the culture and legends of the American West. While Eisenhower was still president, economic circumstances dictated that I had to leave that world behind.
Thirty years later I returned to the lonesome places, the Big Country of southwest Texas. I make my living there now and I don't expect I'll ever leave it. While I watched this trial run its course, though, I was hundreds of miles out of my jurisdiction, hundreds of miles from home.
I didn't know it, but I was about a year away from retiring in protest. I didn't see that coming any better than I had imagined my appearance at a murder case in New Mexico.
I was struck, despite years of my best efforts to connect with the defendant, by how little we had in common. The only thing we could agree on was that he had probably thrown his life away.
I knew better than most how ruthless the justice system could be. The judge was going to drop the boom on that kid. Still I prayed for the court's mercy. In fact, I took the oath and testified to several reasons the defendant deserved it.
In 1992 I was an active officer in the oldest and most legendary law enforcement agency in the United States. As a Texas Ranger, I have always understood that I was part of a rich, proud tradition. I'd drain the last drop of blood from my body to uphold it. The Rangers have been the most effective, independent law enforcement agency in history. We evolved perfectly attuned to our time and place—for Texas has long been a sort of human Galapagos, an unsettled country of conflicting cultures and social contradictions, a rugged, ragtag region born with wars raging on two disputed borders. Young Texas battled her enemies for five straight decades, pausing only to send her sons to fight in America's wars. The Tejanos, the pioneers of Mexican descent, fought horse Indians for over a century before Anglos ever set foot in this country. Such violence created a special breed.
Unlike most of the American West, the Texas frontier wasn't settled by trappers, miners, and mountain men. The family farmer settled Texas, often in neighborhoods claimed in blood by the Comanche, Kiowa, and Lipan Apache, setting the stage for one of the most desperate and horrific racial and territorial contests in human history.
West of the Colorado River the rain played out. After the farmers defeated the plains tribes, the droughts rose up and thunderheads gave way to clouds of pale dust. Such harsh conditions bred the best and worst of humankind. Weary of all the bloodshed, the people demanded order before law. In a tradition dating back at least a thousand years, the young and the brave hunted down their people's enemies wherever they were. In the 1870s, such men wore a silver star cut from a Mexican cinco peso coin. In 1966, I pinned one on my chest.
Change came quickly for the Rangers during my tenure. Texas evolved into an urban society. My children's generation seemed to care less about traditions that were sacred in the house where I was raised. In the 1960s, the long-disputed Texas/Mexico border erupted in the fight for civil rights. The drug culture gave rise to drug lords, ruthless killers with more money and power than many Third World countries. Nothing in my Depression-era upbringing on the High Plains had prepared me for any of this. And yet there it all was, snarling at every Texas Ranger straddling the past and present.
Mix all that social commotion with your run-of-the-mill crimes in the Texas borderlands—contraband whiskey and dope smuggling, armed robbery, gambling, prostitution, livestock rustling, burglary, gangs, and murder—and you can see why my plate was full.
Then this New Mexico murder case took possession of my life. Suddenly I was way out of my league. I should have been consoled by the many blessings that came my way. How many country-boy cops make it to the movies? I played the sheriff in Tommy Lee Jones's production of The Good Old Boys. I had a cameo role as an air force officer in Blue Sky. I posed for one of the most successful covers of Texas Monthly magazine. I was featured in articles in Life and Rolling Stone. I spent three weeks preparing Nick Nolte for the lead role in Extreme Prejudice. His costume for that movie was an exact replica of how I dressed every day for work. I didn't care much for the movie, but, by God, Nolte looked great. Folks began to recognize me after all this. I looked around and it appeared that I had become a little bit famous. My job as a Ranger laid all of that at my feet.
In the mid-1980s I was transferred to the Big Bend country. I patrolled the largest and by far the most beautiful jurisdiction of any Ranger in the state. My family had everything we had ever hoped for. My wife and I bought a home with a view at the base of the Del Norte Mountains. She earned two master's degrees and settled into a fulfilling career in education. After overcoming the tragic accidental death of his best boyhood friend, my oldest son was thriving in the Marine Corps. My youngest boy was a student athlete and scholar, and would soon join me in law enforcement.
My career was at a pinnacle. My life seemed full. I felt like I had accomplished something in this world, that my work had made a difference. I looked out my window and saw God's hand at work all around me in the form of an ocotillo cactus in full bloom after a rare summer shower or a black chin hummingbird damn near pecking at my nose. And I was a part-time movie star, too. Who could ask for more?
But being a good Ranger exacted a price. The phone always rang. I slept little. I drove a lot. I spent days away from home on manhunts and stakeouts. I slept under a canvas saddle bedroll as often as I did next to my wife. I missed far too many important moments in the lives of my handsome sons. As I sat in that New Mexico courtroom awaiting the judge's ruling, I was crippled with guilt. I couldn't help but wonder if maybe my job had asked too much of me; if maybe I'd been away from home too often; if I loved being a Ranger more than being a husband and father.
I don't believe this judge listened to a word of my testimony. I guess I don't blame him. As is so often the case, the crime contaminated the lives of people beyond its initial victims. I understood the anger of the families who lost their loved ones. I was certain that their terrible grief held more sway with the bench than my pleas for mercy. The judge glared at the young defendant and ordered him to rise.
It was a tough year for my family and me, but I would soon see worse. We were losing the War on Drugs. The crimes on the border grew more violent. My cherished Texas Rangers were about to be diminished by political meddling, a slap in the face to me and my fellow officers and to the Ranger tradition itself. Before my head cleared, a trusted colleague who I thought was my friend—and who had once been such a comfort to me when my family was in crisis—betrayed me. Because of our close association, his crimes cast a long shadow over my reputation at a time when I leaned on it most.
Worst of all, my wife and I had to watch helplessly as the justice system was unleashed against our home. As the judge leveled his stare at that lost young man, I remember thinking that maybe it wasn't healthy for a kid to grow up in a world where his dad's best friends carried guns as often as they wore shoes. Having failed at balancing the two most important roles I chose to play in this life, I should be the one to pay for that.
The young man staring a death sentence in the face was Don Joaquin Jackson. He was my oldest son.
A lot happened between coming of age on a farm on the Southern Plains during the Great Depression and waiting to learn if my boy would go to the electric chair or spend his best years in a New Mexico prison. The weight of this and all those other burdens combined would drive me from a world I loved more than my own life. But even this is not the end of the story. I got through it. I went on.
On my first official day as a Ranger my captain ordered me to report at five A.M. sharp to his ranch home outside of Carrizo Springs, Texas. Captain Alfred Allee Sr. was almost sixty-five years old by then. He had been a Texas Ranger since 1931. But he was still a human dynamo of energy, grit, and swagger. In my day we would say that he was a hell of a man. I don't know how that plays anymore.
I slid into the passenger seat of Captain Allee's tan unmarked 1966 Plymouth Fury I Pursuit state vehicle as he hugged his wife, Miss Pearl. Then, with his jaw set for business, he stormed my way. He groaned as he squeezed behind the steering wheel, bit down hard on a cigar, and cranked all eight throbbing cylinders of that 383 cc V-8 Commando engine. Each piston sat cocked and locked at a stout 10:1 compression ratio. A Carter AFB four-barrel carburetor perched atop the gasping intake manifold, mixing the most potent combination of air with 105-octane gasoline back when some cops used to run down bootleggers by goosing the gas tank with a healthy splash of airplane fuel.
The Pursuit Commando engine didn't idle as much as it boiled like a witches' brew. Dual sets of points ensured that the spark plugs fired long and hot. Dual exhausts shot the spent fumes beyond the rear bumper with a menacing hum. Once the engine ignited, Captain Allee reined back 330 wild horses chomping at the bit to run. He slammed the transmission into drive and stomped his polished boot on the accelerator, and one of the most powerful automobiles to roll out of Detroit exploded out from its parked position. The sudden thrust nearly gave me whiplash.
"Let me show you some of this country," Captain Allee said as he rocketed down the two-lane blacktop at triple-digit speed toward the breaking dawn. I already understood that he intended to introduce me to the thirty-nine-county jurisdiction of Ranger Company D. The surprise was that he meant to do it before noon. He never bothered to mention that we were on our way to a riot. Nevertheless, new to the job, I had arrived nervous. I felt only terror by now.
Captain Allee blew past the cars on the road as if they were parked. He was giving me all sorts of good practical advice based on his three decades of Ranger service, but it wasn't really registering. For all its power, the Plymouth Fury Pursuit didn't handle well. The frame was cursed with a long, narrow, unstable wheelbase, and was burdened by too much American steel fabricated with nine welds to the inch. The rudimentary suspension system waffled under all its weight. There were no power steering and no power brakes. You didn't drive the Pursuit; you sailed it. There was an art to keeping it between the lines at high speeds. At Allee's rate, safe navigation was nothing short of a miracle. Although I was proud to have made Ranger, I had hoped that the position would last for more than one day.
Captain Allee was passing yet another rancher petering along in a lumpy old Dodge pickup when another vehicle emerged from around the bend heading straight for us. I clamped both hands on the dash to brace myself for a head-on collision and glanced over at my captain.
His boot never touched the brake. Instead, he moved his cigar to the other side of his mouth and plowed ahead at 120 miles per hour. The distance between us closed in three frantic beats of my heart. Captain Allee refused to yield. The other car, horn blaring, swerved onto the shoulder at the very last second. I saw clearly the horror in that man's eyes at the peak intensity of the Doppler effect.
I whipped my head around as the driver skidded into the bar ditch. He fought to keep his rear bumper from overtaking his front grill and hurling his vehicle into a death roll. After a few hundred yards he finally came to rest and stayed there.
Captain Allee tooted his horn to signal his displeasure. The sun was nearly up now, driving a gray haze to horn depth on the Black Angus cattle grazing in the South Texas pastures. It was a beautiful day. And I was still alive to enjoy it. Captain Allee said nothing as he hurled on at blinding speed, still puffing on that stubby cigar. We had thirty-eight more counties to see.
"Never let the sons of bitches bluff you out, Joaquin," he said after several minutes of silence.
"Amen to that, Captain," I said. I had already accepted the fact that I was in for a long, wild ride. Captain Allee chomped his dentures around a fresh spot on his disintegrating cigar and plunged deeper into the ranch country that had spawned his special breed.
Looking back after retirement on my career as a Ranger, I still recall the value of Captain Allee's advice. Whenever personal and professional problems closed in on me, I always heard those few calm words echo in my head. Never let the sons of bitches bluff you out, Joaquin. I'd like to think that I never did.