summer of 1927, most of the highways in West Texas remained unpaved. The Pecos
River and other streams, assuming they held water at all, had to be splashed
Three high-topped cars with spoke wheels clattered east on the
Old Spanish Trail, between Fort
Stockton and Ozona,
a roadway improved from the days of the stagecoach only by mule-drawn graders.
Inside the cars sat three men who had travelled this route many times, often on
horseback. In one of the flivvers rode J.D. Jackson of Alpline,
cattleman and former Texas Ranger. Former Ranger James B. Gillett drove another
of the cars, one hand on the wheel, the other hand busily pointing out landmarks.
Riding with Jackson was a younger man, Eugene Cunningham, a journalist. Another
former ranger drove behind them. They were headed for the West Central texas town
of Menard for
a reunion of old rangers. At not even 20 miles an hour, they had plenty of time
for talk before they got there.
“Ever run into Ben Thompson?” the reporter
asked Jackson, hoping for a story about the English-born gambler, gunman and one-time
Austin city marshal gunned down in a San
Antonio saloon in 1884.
“Knew him when he and his younger brother,
Billy, drove a water wagon in Austin,”
In 1887, he went on, he and the other rangers in Company
E had been assigned to guard the construction camp as the Texas and Pacific Railroad
pushed across West Texas. The tracks went down as straight as the terrain permitted,
but a lot of crooked men followed the rails.
One day a man came up to
the captain’s tent at the ranger camp near Monahans
and said a gambler had skinned him for $500 or $600 using loaded dice.
cap’n told me to go down into the construction camp – it was a rough place, full
of tinhorn gamblers and tent saloons – and get this fellow’s money back, then
kick the gambler out of camp.”
When Jackson walked into the worker’s camp,
he recognized the gambler, but did not let on just yet that he knew him.
says you better give this fellow back his money,” Jackson told the gambler.
“Like hell I will!” he said. “You rangers may have the authority to arrest me,
but you can’t make me give back the money.”
“Better give it back to him,
Mr…” Jackson said, pausing significantly after the word “mister.”
gambler gave the lawman a hard look and then asked what the ranger had started
to call him.
“I told him I used to watch a couple brothers driving a water
wagon in Austin,” Jackson said.
think I’m Bill Thompson, don’t you? Well, I’m not! But if you’re going to raise
so much trouble over the money – here! Take it! But I’m not Bill Thompson.”
took the money with his left hand, leaving his gun hand available for any sudden
developments. The gambler indeed was Billy Thompson, a young man with two killings
to his credit and wanted in connection with a third.
“Thanks for returning
the money,” Jackson said. “But you’ll have to go to the cap’n with me.”
Jackson walked a reluctant-but-not-resistant Thompson to the ranger camp and explained
the situation to the captain. Shrugging at the news, he said he had heard there
were papers out on Thompson, but didn’t have them.
“Go out and carry out
the order I gave you,” the captain snapped to Jackson. “You’ve just executed half
The old ranger smiled at the memory of what happened next.
“Well, it was funny,” he told Cunningham. “Mostly, a man feels downright indignant
about being kicked out of a place, but Bill Thompson seemed to get a world of
satisfaction about jumping down the trail ahead of a boot toe that morning.”
luck held until Sept. 6, 1897 when he died of natural causes in Houston.
© Mike Cox
- July 17, 2013 column
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