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Famous Ranger haunted by scandalous skeleton

Under the assumed name of George Washington Arrington, an Alabama fugitive enlisted in the Frontier Battalion of the Texas Rangers on Sept. 1, 1875.

John C. Orrick, Jr. grew up fast going off to war at 16 and fighting at both battles of Manassas/Bull Run, Harpers Ferry, Antietam and Gettysburg. He spent the closing months of the Civil War as a guerrilla and sometimes spy with Mosby’s fabled Rangers.

Like so many restless veterans north and south, Orrick had trouble readjusting to civilian life. He joined the mass exodus of ex-Confederates to Mexico but arrived too late to offer his services to the French puppet Maximilian.

In June 1867, the same month the Mexican emperor was executed by a peasant firing squad, Orrick killed a black businessman in cold blood. He admitted his guilt in an interview with his hometown newspaper, telling the editor that “he would allow no damn negro to call him a damn liar.”

The wanted man fled Alabama never to return. For two long years, he roamed Central America careful to stay far off the beaten track. Then at last he decided that it was better to be a fugitive in Texas than in the tropics.

The grim young man, who walked down the gangplank at Galveston in 1870, called himself George Washington Arrington. The tight-lipped stranger took whatever job he could find, working in a Houston sawmill, farming in North Texas and punching cattle on intrastate drives over the next five years.   

In the summer of 1875, Arrington met by chance Major John B. Jones, commander of the Frontier Battalion of the Texas Rangers, in Brown County. The two got to talking, a rarity for both, and the southerner with the distinctive drawl expressed a desire to enlist.

Arrington came clean about his past, the trouble back in Alabama as well as his war record. Impressed by his combat credentials and unfazed by the murder charge, Jones agreed to a tryout as a scout. 

The 46-year-old Ranger may have seen his younger self in the applicant. Each was below average in height and skinny as a rail – one biographer described Arrington as “rather small, almost frail” – and no-nonsense men of action who kept to themselves.

On the first day of September, Major Jones told Arrington he was hired and assigned him to Company E of the Frontier Battalion. Under the watchful eye of Capt. Neal Coldwell, the new but obviously experienced recruit tracked hostile Indians in west-central Texas and hunted outlaws in the Rio Grande Valley.

Arrington was promoted twice in 1877 – first to sergeant and later to lieutenant – and within a year made captain. Major Jones rewarded him with his own company operating out of Coleman.

In deference to his rank, Arrington’s men called him “Cap” though never to his face. Walter Prescott Webb explained why in his classic The Texas Rangers: “He was a strict disciplinarian, never took his men into his confidence, and discharged them for infraction of his rules. Many of them disliked him because of his unyielding nature.”

Arrington stayed six months in Coleman whipping Company C into shape before receiving orders to move north to Fort Griffin. After killing the crooked sheriff, vigilantes had Shackelford County all to themselves and badly needed a dose of real law and order.

While Arrington was bringing the nightriders to heel, reservation Indians were running amok in the Panhandle. On government-approved hunting trips to Texas, small bands would slip away from their military escorts and raid isolated ranches.

When Washington ignored repeated protests from Lone Star authorities, Arrington was sent to investigate. In September 1879 east of present-day Crosbyton, he established the first Ranger camp in the Panhandle and wasted no time in taking the army to task.

Arrington figured out that AWOL braves from the Indian Territory were not causing all the trouble. Tribes far to the west were picking the Panhandle clean, and he resolved to track them to their source.

In the dead of winter, Arrington and a dozen other Rangers picked up the trail of an Apache raiding party. Their pursuit of the retreating band took them, to quote the captain’s report, “into country that was at the time unknown to white men.”

Although Arrington did not realize it until later, the trek took the Texans into the New Mexico Territory. Low on supplies, they turned back only to run straight into a blizzard and below-zero temperatures. But the discipline the stern captain had instilled his troops enabled everyone to survive the month-long exploration.

Eighteen months later, Arrington resigned from the Rangers and put down roots in the Panhandle. He resumed his career in law enforcement in 1882 as sheriff of Wheeler and 14 unorganized counties, a post he held until 1890.

Until the day he died in 1923, Cap Arrington always had a pistol within reach. Whether it was a healthy fear of his enemies or paranoia about the Alabama murder charge, the old Ranger never stopped looking over his shoulder.

Dan Blocker, Carolyn Jones, Buck Owens, Bob Wills and forty others are all waiting for you in “Texas Entertainers: Lone Stars in Profile.” Order your signed copy today by mailing a check for $26.30 to Bartee Haile, P.O. Box 130011, Spring, TX 77393.

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