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University of Texas Press
One Ranger A Memoir
Authors: H. Joaquin Jackson with David Marion Wilkinson
Publishers: University of Texas Press
Price $24.95 (£12.99)
Publication Date: Feb 2005
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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
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
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.
Table of Contents
Table of Contents
Chapter One. Ice in August
Chapter Two. Rider through the Storm
Chapter Three. Order before Law
Chapter Four. The Ghost and the Great Bear Hunt
Chapter Five. The Reconquest of Aztlan
Chapter Six. The Things I Carried
Chapter Seven. For Love and Horses
Chapter Eight. Earth, Fire, Water, and Blood: I
Chapter Nine. Earth, Fire, Water, and Blood: II
Chapter Ten. My Heroes Have Always Been Rangers: The Captain
Chapter Eleven. A Goat and a Guitar
Chapter Twelve. Just Folks
Chapter Thirteen. My Heroes Have Always Been Rangers: Just a
Chapter Fourteen. Desperadoes and Dumbasses
Chapter Fifteen. With Friends Like These
Chapter Sixteen. Moving Pictures
Chapter Seventeen. A Slow, Cold Rain
Chapter Eighteen. Saddle My Pony, Boys . . .
Chapter Nineteen. El Último Grito
Appendix One. In Black and White
Appendix Two. Letter from the Reverend
POLICE (Law Enforcement)