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Texas Trails: Bass Outlaw's Rowdy Reputation

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Feb. 9, 2012 - History has always been of two minds about the Texas Rangers and their role on the frontier. The view most cherished and perpetuated comes from scores of dime novels, movies and television shows that portray the Rangers as rough-hewn white knights on horseback, making any number of law breakers, renegades and rustlers rue the day. There is plenty of that kind of action in the actual history of the Rangers to make it stick.

The historian Walter Prescott Webb reaffirmed that view in his pioneering history of the Texas Rangers, but subsequent histories have revealed a darker side to their activities. This can probably be best illustrated by the sound of a gunshot followed by the words, "Put your hands up." Mexicans and those of Mexican descent on both sides of the Texas border have told tales for years of Ranger ruthlessness and murder. When dealing with a frontier law enforcement group living in a time and place where danger lurked every which way, as it did when the Rangers were formed, stories can be told to reinforce either view. As usual, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

The man who most exemplified the dual nature of the Texas Rangers in the late 19th and early 20th Century was man named Bass Outlaw, not to be confused with Sam Bass, the outlaw. Bass Outlaw, the sometimes Texas Ranger, was from a well-respected family in Georgia, but he was by all accounts a bad sheep in a family of otherwise good Outlaws. Bass may have fled murder charges in Georgia and come to Texas with the express purpose of becoming a Texas Ranger. We can wonder why a man on the run from a murder charge would be so eager to become a lawman, but it's plausible and maybe even likely.

Outlaw did not become a Texas Ranger by being mean and drunk, but he was often both. Assigned initially to E Company, Outlaw advanced through the Ranger ranks on the basis of physical courage and outstanding marksmanship -- qualities held in high esteem by Ranger commanders. He appeared to be a man with a bright future, but it turned cloudy, as Outlaw tended toward tantrums and drunken indiscretions of the violent kind. Fed up with Outlaw, his bosses transferred him to D Company in the rugged Trans-Pecos region of the state.

At first, the change of scenery seemed to coincide with a change in Outlaw. He took a leave from Company D to accompany a load of silver from Mexico to Marathon. When the owner of the Fronteriza mine company asked Ranger captain John B. Jones for "three of the toughest men in Texas" to guard the silver, Bass Outlaw was one of the men he recommended. He behaved himself well on this mission, but that changed when the trio made it back to the mine. He had a few drinks and then lined some Mexicans up along the wall and shot one of them dead.

With considerable difficulty, John R. Hughes and Walter Durbin, the other two men who had guarded the silver with Bass, disarmed him and then hunkered down from what they expected to be a siege from outraged locals. Instead, the group that confronted the Rangers thanked them for killing a bad hombre. Outlaw said the man had pulled a knife and no one doubted it, but the incident was a foreshadowing of more trouble to come.

After another particularly unpleasant (but not fatal) confrontation in an Alpine saloon, Bass Outlaw was discharged from the Rangers and sent packing. He got his final pay from the Rangers and stayed in the area to hunt for some loot that bandits he had helped capture supposedly hid along the Rio Grande. He ran out of money without finding it, and soon departed the area.

Despite these many serious and frequent transgressions, former Ranger Dick Ware, now a U.S. Marshal, hired Outlaw as a deputy. Not in that capacity, but while still working for Ware, Bass Outlaw inexplicably started shooting outside an El Paso brothel one day. When Ranger Joe McKidrick show up to investigate the commotion, Outlaw shot him in the head and killed him.

Constable John Selman, best known to history as the man who shot and killed John Wesley Hardin, arrived on the scene only to be shot at by Outlaw. Selman fired back and hit Outlaw in the chest but he took two bullets to his right leg in the process.

Taken prisoner by another Ranger and transported to a nearby saloon to die, Outlaw asked that his friends be gathered beside him as he passed. His last words were, "Where are my friends?" There weren't any. The gravedigger and a minister were the only people to show up for his burial.


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