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Encounter with the

Texas Rangers, 1876

It was May 25, 1876. A band of forty Texas Rangers rode out of Laredo and headed north to the infamous Nueces Strip. Their mission was to find, kill or capture John King Fisher, leader of a band of cattle rustlers and cut-throats that had been terrorizing the area. The Rangers were members of a select group known as the Special Force.  Led by the legendary Leander McNelly, the Special Force was tasked with bringing law and order to an area of South Texas that lay between Corpus Christi and the Mexican border.

Texas Rangers, 1882
McNelly had hand-picked each member of the Special Force that had been organized a year earlier. Each was expected to provide his own horse, armament and gear. In return, the state provided meals, ammunition and a small salary. The tactics they used to accomplish their mission, including crossing the Mexican border in pursuit of their quarry and summary execution, did not always follow the letter of the law, but they were effective. The Special Force was dissolved in 1877 and its members absorbed into other units of the Texas Rangers.

"'Drop that gun!' yelled McNelly. 'Drop it, I say, or I'll kill you.'"

Napoleon Augustus Jennings was a member of the group of Texas Rangers who rode out to capture John King Fisher. We join Jennings’ story as the Rangers arrive in Laredo:

"It was May 25, 1876 when we arrived at Laredo, and we camped near the town for three days. Then we continued our journey on toward the Nueces River. . . [It was here that] we learned first about the desperado, King Fisher, and his notorious gang of horse thieves, cattle thieves, and murderers.

Fisher lived on Pendencia Creek, near the Nueces, in Dimmit County. He had a little ranch there, and about forty or fifty of his followers were nearly always with him. These men, too lazy or too vicious to work for themselves, preyed upon the substance of the toiling settlers. They stole the ranchmen's horses and cattle and robbed their corn cribs, and they did not stop at murder to further their ends.

. . . Fisher was about twenty-five years old at that time, and the most perfect specimen of a frontier dandy and desperado that I ever saw. He was tall, beautifully proportioned, and exceedingly handsome. He wore the finest clothing procurable, but all of it was the picturesque, border, dime novel kind.

. . . He was an expert revolver shot, and could handle his six-shooters as well with his left hand as with his right. He was a fine rider, and rode the best horses he could steal in Texas or Mexico. Among the desperadoes, the stolen horses were known as ‘wet stock’ that is, horses which had been stolen in Mexico and swum across the Rio Grande to Texas, or vice versa.”

Finding Fisher’s ranch house, the Texas Rangers split into two groups and approach from different sides:

“There were only nine of the desperadoes at the house at the time, but a precious gang of outlaws and cutthroats they were. Here are their names: J.K Fisher, known as ‘King’ Fisher; Burd Obenchain, alias Frank Porter, wanted for murder and cattle-stealing, as desperate a ruffian as ever the Texas border knew; Warren Allen, who shot a Negro in a barroom at Fort Clark for drinking at the same bar with him, and then deliberately turned and finished his own drink and ordered another; Bill Templeton, horse thief; Will Wainwright, Jim Honeycutt, Wes Bruton, Al Roberts, and Bill Bruton. All of them were ‘wanted’ for numberless crimes.

A few weeks before we arrested them, King Fisher and Frank Porter, by themselves, stole a herd of cattle from six Mexican vaqueros who were driving the herd for its owner, near Eagle Pass. Fisher and Porter rode around the herd and killed every one of the six Mexicans. The vaqueros were all buried together, and I saw the place where they were buried. It was known as ‘Frank Porter's Graveyard.’

. . . at a prearranged moment, all of us dashed for the house at full speed, six-shooters in hand. A fence was in our way, but the horses went over it like hunters after the hounds, and before Fisher and his men perceived us we were within a hundred yards of the place.

Most of the desperadoes were playing poker under the shed-like extension in front of the ranch house. They jumped up and started for the house proper to secure their arms, but before half of them succeeded in getting inside the door, we were around them and our six-shooters were cocked and pointed at their heads.

'You'll have to surrender or be killed!' cried McNelly to Fisher, who stood halfway out of the door, with the lieutenant of his band, one Burd Obenchain, but known to his companions as Frank Porter.

Fisher did not move, but Porter half raised his Winchester, and coolly looked along the line of Rangers.

Captain Leander McNelly
of the Texas Rangers
'Drop that gun!' yelled McNelly. 'Drop it, I say, or I'll kill you.'

Porter looked McNelly squarely in the eyes, half raised his rifle again, and then slowly dropped it to his side, and with a sigh leaned it against the side of the house.

'I reckon there's too many of yer to tackle,' he said, calmly. 'I only wisht I'd a-seen yer sooner.'

The other men gave up without a struggle. They were badly frightened at first, for they thought we were members of a vigilance committee, come to deal out swift justice to them and hang them by lynch law. They were agreeably disappointed when they discovered we were the Rangers, officers of the law of Texas.

. . .We took the men with us at once to Eagle Pass and put them in jail there. We tied the feet of the prisoners to their stirrups and then tied the stirrups together under the horses' bellies. We also tied the desperadoes' hands to the pommels of their saddles and led their horses.

Before we started, Captain McNelly told us, in the hearing of the prisoners and of Fisher's wife-a pretty girl, with wonderfully fine, bold black eyes-that if any of our prisoners attempted to escape or if an attempt was made to rescue them, we were to kill them without warning or mercy. That is, or was, known on the frontier as La ley de fuga, the shooting of escaping or resisting prisoners. It was well understood among the outlaws, and was a great protection to the officers who were compelled to escort prisoners over long distances through the sparsely settled country. The knowledge of this condition of the border prevented members of a desperado gang from attempting to rescue prisoners, for such an attempt meant instant death to the captives."

   This account appears in Jennings, N.A. A Texas Ranger (1898, republished 1992); Gillett, James B., Six Years with the Texas Rangers (1925, republished 1963).

How To Cite This Article:
"Encounter with the Texas Rangers, 1876" EyeWitness to History, (2007).

John King Fisher was never convicted. Five years after his encounter with the Texas Rangers he was appointed a deputy sheriff of Uvalde County in southwestern Texas. He was serving as acting sheriff in 1884 when he and a companion were killed in a shoot-out that erupted after a quarrel with the owner of a vaudeville theater in San Antonio. He was 30.
Leander McNelly, leader of the Special Force, was plagued with tuberculosis from early childhood. He died of the disease in September 1876 at age 33.
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