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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

The Shooting
in Donley County

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

O.H. Finch first saw the Texas Panhandle in 1892 from the caboose of a freight train hauling two cars of bulls from Burlingame, KS to his father’s ranch in Donley County, the Bar Ninety Six.

Reaching Panhandle City on the Santa Fe, the 12-year-old Finch and his father took the Fort Worth and Denver train to Washburn. From there, they rode to Salisbury, the nearest post office to their vast ranch.

More than a half century later, Finch wrote about his experiences in a now-scarce, self-published family history, “The Lives and Times of a Family Named Finch.” In his book, he told of an incident that convinced him Texas remained the Wild West.

When their train stopped for breakfast at Clarendon, Finch and his father walked from the depot to a restaurant across the street. As they ate, Finch recalled, “My eyes popped open wide when a man stepped out of this place with two guns, one hanging on either side. It was Jim Green, sheriff of the county.” (Elected Nov. 4, 1890, Green actually served as Precinct 2 constable.)

Finch had never seen, as he put it, “a wild and woolly Texan.” Then 36, Green had dark hair, brown eyes and a dark complexion. He stood 6 feet. His hat, boots and the fact that he had once ridden as a Texas Ranger made him seem ever taller to the boy from Kansas.

But Green’s career as a state lawman had gotten off to a shaky start.

“When he with other Rangers got into his first encounter with law breakers, and the shooting started, he could not stand the gaff, and he broke and ran,” Finch wrote, crediting the story to Will Beverly, the 1890s foreman of the Rowe Ranch in Donley County. “His fellow Rangers chided him but they knew he wasn’t a coward.”

Indeed, Green asked for another chance to “show that he could take it.” When that next opportunity came, the young ranger “shut both his eyes and began to shoot.”

To what extent shooting blind affected his marksmanship went unsaid, but the ranger survived the encounter and “proved his mettle many times afterwards.”

Green served in the Rangers for 18 months, leaving effective Aug. 31, 1882. He had worked under Company B Capt. George Washington Arrington and later for Company C Capt. Sam McMurry. After leaving the Rangers, he stayed in law enforcement, though it’s unclear where he wore a badge prior to his election in Clarendon.

Finch didn’t recall the date in his book, but on July 5, 1892 the former ranger got one last chance to prove that he had long since stiffened his backbone when it came to doing his job as a peace officer.

That came when the Bell boys – Bob, Jean and Wally – arrived in Clarendon on the morning train. The three brothers were, as Finch characterized them, “notorious gamblers in Amarillo.” And they had a standing grudge against the former ranger.

In a scene later repeated in many a Western, the three hardcases removed themselves to one of the town’s saloons and began boozing it up. The boys made no attempt to conceal their identity. In fact, they let it be known, as county singer Marty Robbins sang decades later in his classic ballad “Big Iron,” there was an ex-ranger who “wouldn’t be too long in town.”

When Green walked into the saloon that morning, Finch wrote, “the shooting began.”

The ex-ranger, no longer needing to work his pistol with his eyes closed, put a bullet into one of the Bells before another of the brothers shot him. From the wooden floor, the dying Green shot again and killed another of the brothers. Now only Wally still stood, and he found it expedient to vacate the saloon.

“This caused a lot of excitement since three men were killed before breakfast,” Finch understated.

A Donley County history published in 1975 devotes only two paragraphs to the shooting but tells the story a little differently:

“Green and the Bells had some trouble over Green’s shooting Bill Bell in May of that year and the brothers called his hand. All three drew and fired. Robert Bell fell dead but Eugene shot Green. Another unforeseen fatality occurred when a stranger who had just arrived on the early morning train entered the swinging doors of the saloon just in time to catch a stray bullet and was killed instantly.”

That man was George Bingham Grissom, a Texas and Southwestern Cattlemans Association inspector. Born in Tennessee in 1858, Grissom came with his family to Denton County as a youngster. Following his death in Clarendon, his body was shipped to Denton County for burial in the Bolivar Cemetery at Sanger.

The final resting place of the ex-ranger who overcame his fear of gun play only to die with his boots on has not been located. Neither has the grave of the man he killed.

© Mike Cox - January 6, 2012 column
"Texas Tales"
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