Ranger gets governor off the hook

Under the pretext of compensating him for the theft of his horses, Mexican soldiers lured a Rio Grande rancher to their side of the river on Jan. 12, 1914.

Forty miles north of Laredo and a stone’s throw from Hidalgo, Mexico, there once was a poor imitation of a town called Palofox. Clemente Vergara lived on the bluff above the border crossing and used a small island in the shallow Rio Grande as a natural corral for his horses.

Dolores Vergara looked out her window on a January morning in 1914 to see government troops in full uniform driving 11 head of her father’s horses into Mexico. She immediately sent word to the elderly rancher, who had gone down to Palofox after breakfast.

Vergara hurried to Hidalgo and hunted up the commander of the local garrison. Although nothing usually escaped the notice of the eagle-eyed officer, he flatly denied any knowledge of the brazen daylight robbery leaving the exasperated rancher to return home empty-handed.

The following day, three figures called out to Vergara from the opposite bank. If he would come on over, they promised to make good his loss.

Accompanied by his young nephew, Vergara rowed across the river in a small skiff. The instant the craft settled on the foreign shore, he was grabbed by the trio and brutally beaten. The terrified boy eluded capture and watched from the thick underbrush as the thugs dragged away his unconscious uncle.

Vergara’s wife and daughter located their battered loved one the next morning under armed guard in the army barracks at Hidalgo. Dolores later described his condition: “My father had two cut places on his head, a cut on the nose and a bruise on the left side of his face. The wounds had never been dressed and the blood was clotted in his hair.”

The worried women stayed the night in Hidalgo and were awakened early the next day by a surly soldier, who told them Vergara had been taken to Piedras Negras. He added in a menacing manner that they would be well-advised to go back to Texas.

The frantic females reported the kidnapping to the county authorities, but they were stonewalled by tight-lipped Mexican officials. Gov. Oscar B. Colquitt also tried his luck, but with Mexico in its usual state of chaos he too hit a brick wall.

For help in breaking the diplomatic bottleneck, the governor contacted William Jennings Bryan, who showed scant interest in saving the life of an expendable citizen. The secretary of state did express grave concern that the Texan might go off half-cocked and provoke an international incident and warned him against sending the Rangers into Mexico to rescue the rancher.

In the middle of this fruitless exchange between Austin and Washington, a number of Lone Star newspapers reported on Jan. 25 that Vergara had been hanged the day after his abduction. His unburied body was supposedly still swaying in the breeze a week and a half later.

On Feb. 8, Gov. Colquitt received a telegram from Capt. J.J. Saunders of the Texas Rangers that caused him to shudder at the potentially serious implications. “Have just returned from Hidalgo,” read the wire. “Have the body of Clemente Vergara on Texas soil.”

Did this mean Saunders had gone into Mexico against the wishes of the secretary of state to retrieve the rancher’s remains? According to a detailed account in the Laredo Times, that was exactly what it meant.

The quick-thinking Ranger promptly set the record straight. He apologized for giving the governor the false impression that he had illegally snatched Vergara’s body out from under the very noses of the uncooperative Mexicans. Instead, acting upon an anonymous tip, he found the corpse conveniently waiting on the Texas bank of the Rio Grande.

Saunders also provided an ingenious explanation for the “misleading” telegram. He dictated the message to the American consul, who had been up all night and in his exhausted state got it all wrong. The text should have read, “Have just returned to Laredo. Recovered Clemente Vergara’s body on Texas soil.”

No one really believed the Ranger’s second version, but that was beside the point. He had neatly gotten the grateful governor off the hook with the secretary of state, while at the same time protecting his own posterior.

As for the murderers of Clemente Vergara, they never paid for their cold-blooded crime in a court of law. But if persistent rumors were true, the killers were unofficially punished.

Some months later, Texas Rangers caught two of the cutthroats not far from Palofox but mysteriously misplaced them on the way to jail. Back in those days, the border had its own brand of justice.

Read about Bonnie and Clyde and other Thirties outlaws in “Texas Depression Era Desperadoes.” Order your copy for $24.00 (tax and shipping included) by mailing a check to Bartee Haile, P.O. Box 130011, Spring, TX 77393.

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