The sheriff of a South Texas county overrun by Mexican bandits sent the following telegram to Ranger headquarters in Austin on Apr. 18, 1875: “Is Capt. McNelly coming? We are in trouble. Five ranches burned by disguised men last week. Answer.”
Although the sprawling spreads south of San Antonio had been plagued for years by hit-and-run rustlers, previous losses paled in comparison to the current crime wave. Led by Juan Cortinas, part-time revolutionary and full-time thief, well-organized bands were driving hundreds of cattle every week across the Rio Grande for shipment to Cuba.
In spite of his delicate appearance, which made it possible for him to impersonate a woman during the Civil War, Leander McNelly was definitely the man for the job. If anyone could clean up South Texas, it was the hard-as-nails Ranger who enforced the law by waging all-out war.
His first official act was to dissolve the trigger-happy private posses, whose random retaliation threatened to ignite a full-scale conflict on the border. The vigilantes shook their heads in disbelief but meekly obeyed. If McNelly wanted to go up against Cortinas and his giant gang of at least a thousand with only 40 Rangers, that was his business.
At Brownsville in early June, McNelly received a tip that a steamship was waiting offshore for 400 head of stolen steers. Resolving to intercept the delivery, he requested 22 volunteers for the high-risk mission.
Sixteen year old Berry Smith, youngest member of the company, eagerly stepped forward to the dismay of his dad, a veteran Ranger. The elder Smith begged the captain to leave the boy behind but lost the argument when his superior let the youth decide.
McNelly’s standing though unwritten order for raids against Mexican marauders was the same as for Indian operations. Any apprehended on the wrong side of the river had better say a fast prayer.
No matter how lean his troop, McNelly always had room for Jesus Sandoval, an interrogation specialist that never failed to extract the truth. Decades later retired Ranger William Callicott described his sure-fire technique: “Old Casuse would put the rope over the bandit’s neck, throw it over a limb, pull him up and let him down on the ground until he would consent to tell all he knew.”
A Cortinas spy was dragged into camp on the second day and turned over to Sandoval. Within minutes, the human yo-yo readily answered every question put to him. When McNelly was convinced the captive had nothing more to say, he walked away, a silent signal to Sandoval to finish the job.
A number of suspects, maybe as many as six, were given the same treatment. The last poor devil, seized on Jun. 11, spilled the most important beans before he too was hanged. He revealed the exact route 18 rustlers were taking for their rendezvous with the Cuban smugglers.
The Rangers rode all night before finally picking up the bandits’ trail at sunrise. Mistaking the strangers for an army patrol, the Mexicans chose to stand and fight instead of fleeing for the border. They herded the cattle across a shallow lagoon and waited for their pursuers to come within range.
Sizing up the situation in an instant, McNelly instructed his second-in-command to head straight for the rustlers at a steady pace and not to fire until he reached solid ground. In the meantime, the captain took six men and cut off the only avenue of escape.
The rustlers realized too late what was happening but still tried to make a run for it. On the open prairie their slower horses were no match for the Texans’ superior steeds, and one by one they were shot out of the saddle.
Preferring to die on his feet, the last Cortinista dismounted and hid in a thicket. During the subsequent search, McNelly came face-to-face with the Mexican, who rushed him with a Bowie knife. “The Captain leveled his pistol,” the old Ranger Callicott recalled, “and placed the last shot he had between the bandit’s teeth.”
After collecting the dead, the Rangers discovered their lone casualty. Berry Smith had stumbled upon a wounded rustler playing possum, and curiosity cost the teenager his life.
The army sent a wagon to pick up the dead bandits and dumped their bodies in the public square at Brownsville. McNelly invited everyone to view the gruesome spectacle and to see for themselves that cattle rustling was a capital crime.
The exhausted ranks planned to devote the rest of the day to serious drinking, but McNelly put the saloons off-limits. He did not want any drunks disturbing the dignity of the funeral for their fallen comrade.
Grieving Texas Rangers and two companies of soldiers from Fort Brown escorted Berry Smith to his final resting place. As Callicott remembered so many years later, “The U.S. regulars fired a farewell shot over his grave and today our Ranger boy sleeps on the Texas bank of the Rio Grande.”
Bartee’s three books “Texas Depression-Era Desperadoes,” “Murder Most Texan” and “Texas Boomtowns: A History of Blood and Oil” are available at barteehaile.com. And look for his fourth book “Unforgettable Texans” this summer!