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Rawhide Ranger, Ira Aten

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Ira Aten (1862-1953) was the epitome of a frontier lawman. At age twenty he enrolled in Company D during the transition of the Rangers from Indian fighters to topnotch peace officers. This unit--and Aten--would have a lively time making their mark in nineteenth-century Texas. The preponderance of Texas Ranger treatments center on the outfit as an institution or spotlight the narratives of specific captains. Bob Alexander aptly demonstrated in Winchester Warriors: Texas Rangers of Company D, 1874-1901 that there is merit in probing the lives of everyday working Rangers. Aten is an ideal example. The years Ira spent as a Ranger are jam-packed with adventure, border troubles, shoot-outs, solving major crimes--a quadruple homicide--and manhunts. Aten's role in these and epochal Texas events such as the racially insensitive Jaybird/Woodpecker Feud and the bloody Fence Cutting Wars earned Ira's spot in the Ranger Hall of Fame. His law enforcing deeds transcend days with the Rangers. Ira served two counties as sheriff, terms spiked with excitement. Afterward, for ten years on the XIT, he was tasked with clearing the ranch's Escarbada Division of cattle thieves. Aten's story spins on an axis of spine-tingling Texas history. Moving to California, Ira was active in transforming the Imperial Valley from raw desert into an agricultural oasis. Unmistakably he was public spirited and committed to community betterment. Relying on primary source documents to build a platform for this meticulously researched and comprehensive biography with 1000 endnotes and 100 remarkable old-time photographs, Alexander gives us Ira Aten in the round--evenhandedly--the true story of a Ranger tough as rawhide.

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Chapter 1 “When he got a little older”

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Chapter 1

“When he got a little older”

Ten-year-old David “Dock” Davis fidgeted. He was idly kicking Texas dirt, shifting weight from one scuffed brogan to another as he held the team’s reins. Dock’s instructions had been short and simple: stand by with the family’s wagon in front of a hardware store on

Georgetown Avenue. Whatever he did, he wasn’t to let those mules stray. Perhaps he waved to a fellow ten-year-old, James Warden, who likewise was in Round Rock with his father, sitting beside him while their wagon’s wheels churned July’s powdery dust. For sure,

Dock knew when his papa returned to their wagon he’d be the proud owner of a spanking new pocket knife. Daddy had promised. William

F. Davis’ word was good, always. Twelve-year-old Jefferson Dillingham was not anticipating presents—from anybody—he just wanted to finish unloading that wagonload of feed at Henry Highsmith’s livery stable. After all, the hour hand was nearing four o’clock and it was a Friday afternoon. Near Brushy Creek on the worn road passing through Old Round Rock, the initial town site, for-the-most-part now unoccupied due to the railroad passing it by, thirteen-year-old

 

Chapter 2 “We buried him on the side of a road”

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Chapter 2

“We buried him on the side of a road”

The killing of Sam Bass had catapulted young Ira Aten right to the brink of a sensational story. Frank Aten’s buttons were no doubt popping off his store-bought shirt: He had been accepted as a grownup, at least adult enough to stand quiet at the bedside of a dying desperado. Owing to worthwhile efforts of a hardworking, productive, and overall munificent population, Williamson County’s pioneering folks—in the main—fittingly earned their rightful spot in the Texas history books. But, if truth be told, Round Rock’s day in the sun is best remembered due to dogged Texas Rangers interdicting Sam Bass’ ill-advised bank robbing scheme and that gruesome gunfight on Georgetown Avenue. Texas Rangers, a year earlier, had also cut short another miscreant’s misadventures, and he also owned a tie to Round Rock, albeit a somewhat tenuous link.

John Wesley Hardin, like Ira, was a country preacher’s son.

Unlike Ira, John didn’t pay attention to dad’s good advice—most especially that part about turning the other cheek. When it suited him, or when he was drunk, Wes Hardin could be downright mean.

 

Chapter 3 “We’ll do the shooting”

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Chapter 3

“We’ll do the shooting”

Upon becoming a Texas Ranger, Ira had bitten from a hard plug; now it would be Captain Sieker’s turn to see if he could chew. There would be no manual to study. There would be no end-of-semester test to take. The training program was straightforward: Ride with more experienced Texas Rangers, young as they were, learning the job from their tutelage. They were also full of advice, of a personal nature. Private Forbes, “who drank and smoked and everything else that went with the Frontier,” proffered his opinion: “Now, Aten, you haven’t got any bad habits and I am going to give you a little advice.

Now, don’t drink, whatever you do, don’t drink. Look at me. Smoking is a useless habit. Don’t bother anybody much. Just one of those useless habits. You don’t smoke and I would advise you not to do it.”

Even one of the experienced noncoms cautioned: “Aten, don’t take up the habits that we have, that can’t do you any good. I see where it has been my downfall all my life. I might have been Governor of

 

Chapter 4 “But few honest men in this town”

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Chapter 4

“But few honest men in this town”

Sheriff Tom Oglesby had sent an urgent dispatch to Captain Sieker stating that trouble was anticipated at Carrizo Springs, Dimmit

County, the province adjoining his bailiwick’s southeastern borderline.1 Apparently, Ranger Ira Aten was at Company D’s headquarters the evening of February 6, 1885: “About sundown one evening, a man rode into our camp on the Leona river below Uvalde. He was wild-eyed and his horse was well spent. He gave us a wild story about

Mexican bandits who crossed the Rio Grande, driving off cattle after killing their herdsman.”2 Immediately Captain Lam Sieker ordered

Lieutenant Jones and seven Texas Rangers to saddle, Ira Aten among them. Taking rations for ten days and well supplied with ammunition, the detachment set off at a gallop. That done, Captain Sieker, complying with orders from Austin, hopped a train that very night, rushing to San Antonio for a high-level confab with officialdom.3

The distraught Maverick County Sheriff had simply been overwhelmed. Bandits and bandidos were shamelessly jumping back and forth across the meandering Rio Bravo, with not even the slightest fear of apprehension.4 Earlier in neighboring Dimmit County, the sheriff, Joe Tumlinson, had grown tired of bureaucratic inaction. In the words of Adolphus Petree :

 

Chapter 5 “We opened fire and they returned it”

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Chapter 5

“We opened fire and they returned it”

Accurately focusing the lens of objectivity in an Old West context is often tricky. Sometimes, troublesome as it may be, the exercise is steeped in ambiguity. Conclusive findings are customarily thwarted—or at the minimum skewed by perspective. Unwinding absolute truths regarding nineteenth-century episodes taking place in the Texas/Mexican borderlands is particularly niggling. Texas

Ranger Private Ira Aten would soon find himself at the epicenter of such an installment.

Governor John Ireland’s dander was up. Escaped convicts were on the loose, and Texas Rangers were on the hunt. Particularly the search was zeroing in on South Texas, the section of ground standing between the fugitives and their supposed freedom if they could but splash across the Rio Grande, gaining entry into Old Mexico.1

Supplementing investigative work expected of the short-staffed

Texas Rangers, the governor had also hired and put special detectives on the case. Company D’s Captain Sieker was likewise responsive, advising his boss, Adjutant General Wilburn King, “I arrived here [Uvalde] this morning having recd. a telegram from the Gov. to be on the alert for the men who turned the convicts loose. I have ordered Lt. Jones to be on the lookout for them on the head of the

 

Chapter 6 “If you pull it, Jack, I’ll kill you”

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Chapter 6

“If you pull it, Jack, I’ll kill you”

In accordance with orders from Austin headquarters, Company D’s main camp was shifted from San Ambroisa Creek back to Uvalde

County.1 It would seem Lam Sieker, too, could see the rationale in repositioning Company D Rangers due to hardened feelings. He notified AG King in writing: “All I could do at my present camp [San

Ambrosia] would be in a negative way….”2 Sieker’s “negative way” was but gobbledygook: Rangers would brutally settle the score, he feared.

Certainly the captain’s assessment may have been on target.

Remembering that little law enforcement axiom, “you might beat the rap, but you can’t beat the ride,” the unforgiving Texas Rangers of Company D acted. On August 1, 1885, in Laredo for court, Sergeant Ben Lindsey and “3 men” arrested Pendencia and Tomas Herrera, “charged in Dimmit Co. with resisting officers.” The tables in these Texas Rangers’ minds had been turned back upright. The entry in Company D’s Monthly Return for August is curt. “Delivered them to Shff. Webb Co.,” who would himself soon be ousted from political office. Whether or not Private Ira Aten was one of those “3 men” is indistinct. He was, however, later in the month particularly identified as conveying prisoner Tobe Edwards, charged with Theft of a

 

Chapter 7 “Curling steel tendrils”

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Chapter 7

“Curling steel tendrils”

Before striking out horseback for Lampasas County under secret orders from AG King, Private Aten had to tend to unfinished business that not even the adjutant general could override. Ira Aten was under subpoena to testify in the Braeutigam murder case in which

Jack Beam was the defendant.1 Par business in court proceedings for lawmen is adjusting to the standby mode—sometimes for hours, sometimes for days. In this instance, The State of Texas vs. Jack Beam,

Gillespie County Criminal Case No. 418, there was not a long and unnecessarily drawn-out trial. As result of a Plea Bargain, defendant Jackson Beam entered a plea of Guilty to Murder in the Second Degree. The District Court Judge prepared legal clarification for the jury. They would, within the legally prescribed parameters, determine defendant Jack Beam’s fate.2 Shortly, the jury foreman, F.

E. Luckenbach, stoically read the panels’ unanimous sentencing verdict: “and assess his punishment at confinement in the penitentiary for nine years.”3

 

Chapter 8 “To make a killing, is why I want Aten”

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Chapter 8

“To make a killing, is why I want Aten”

If Ranger Aten took a brief holiday hiatus it has escaped notice. A rising winter sun on January 1, 1887, shone down on Ira and a fellow Ranger scouting in Edwards County near Bullhead (Vance community). Successfully and safely the duo latched on to a suspected cow thief wanted in Uvalde County.1 Ira’s doggedness and pure grit were not traits solely recognized by the Texas Rangers’ headquarters.

Others had taken note. The sheriff at Mason County, forty-one-yearold John Calvin Butler, was one. Butler’s second in command was P.

C. Baird, the ex-Ranger and veteran of the Green Lake shoot-out. On the fourth day of January the chief deputy made his and his boss’ wants known to the adjutant general at distant Austin. “If you could favor me with Ira Aten’s services a short time I could do the work without any trouble, as he is not Known in this Section…. I have a hard set to deal with and will very probably be compelled to make a

Killing, is why I want Aten….”2

 

Chapter 9 “Wild boy among the villains”

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Chapter 9

“Wild boy among the villains”

An infectious disease, until it is stamped out for keeps, undergoes periods of incubation between outbreaks. For North Texas the outburst of another fence-cutting epidemic broke forth during the spring and summer of 1888. Ranchman R. A. Davis had decided it was finally time to fence his Ellis County (Waxahachie) pasture— one thousand acres. Laboriously, and at no little expense, holes were dug, cedar posts planted and tamped, and four strands of barbed-wire were tacked in place. It was a fine fence—for two days.

Knights of the Nippers went to work under the cover of darkness, and by morning Mr. Davis surveyed their handiwork. Methodically working between every other post the gang of cutters had snipped wire in 3,500 places. Typically, along with the cutting were the not-veiled threats. Should the dear Mr. Davis opt to rebuild he just might find it would be a recurring nightmare, nippers would persistently nip, his pasture might be burned, and if that was not good enough, his earthen water tanks drained—depriving cows of hydration and health. Cattleman Davis was stubborn. He rebuilt.1

 

Chapter 10 “Would as soon go to a fight as a frolic”

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Chapter 10

“Would as soon go to a fight as a frolic”

Through a grab bag of Motions, Continuances, and Changes of

Venue, the Brown County fence-cutting cases bounced back and forth between Brown and Bell Counties (Belton). Factionalized politics and tinkering legalese forestall easy clarity. For the most part, it may be said, absent concrete acceptance of jurisdictional responsibility the cases were pushed south on the docket on or about January 14, 1889. Afterwards, the criminal actions—the wire-cutting cases—withered to nothingness, dying on the judicial vine.1

Though he had closed and opened the year at Camp Leona, by

February 2, 1889, Sergeant Aten and a five-man detachment had established themselves at Barksdale in the southeastern quadrant of Edwards County, roughly forty miles north of Uvalde.2 The scenic grandeur of the Texas Hill Country was something to behold, but Ira Aten and his men were not on a sightseeing trip. At once they went to work, first, locating and arresting John Sweeten for

 

Chapter 11 “Venison is better than no meat at all”

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Chapter 11

“Venison is better than no meat at all”

Fort Bend County, geographically blessed with rich Brazos River bottoms gradually giving way to alluvium soils in the flatlands as the winding watercourse amplified, was near perfect farm country—in the western slice of the county, productive cattle growing country, too. Herds of insect-resistant Brahmans stood near belly deep in salt grass, fattening, dependably dropping droop-eared calves for replacement and the market. Cotton crops thrived throughout the area. Fields of rice flourished in the marshlands. In the semi-tropical coppices stalks of sugar cane prospered. During the fall as winter overtook northern states, flights of honking and quacking and colorful wildfowl flocked for refuge in this Gulf Coastal region’s wetlands. If 1889 Texas yet owned an Old South plantation culture, its heart beat at Richmond, the county seat. Fort Bend County’s eastern neighbor was Harris County and her unremittingly expanding metropolis of Houston, just thirty miles away. Fort Bend County’s southwestern flank bordered Wharton County, home to the bustling town of Wharton, which would also play an integral role in the biographic profile of Sergeant Austin Ira Aten—and the Texas

 

Chapter 12 “Celebrated Xmas day by killing the two Odles”

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Chapter 12

“Celebrated Xmas day by killing the two Odles”

Sheriff Aten had advised Captain Sieker that Fort Bend County would have a Jaybird government. He was right. Woodpeckers, what few were left, resigned public office and moved on, most leaving the county for good. A tip-off to either Ira’s sense of humor or political tilt may also be drawn from his missive to Sieker. Sheriff Aten was hopeful of maintaining peace for his county, but with the scheduled murder trial of Kyle Terry yet docketed at Wharton, he wasn’t as sure: “The next peckerwood & Jaybird riot will be at Wharton, if any more.”1 Captain Frank Jones, too, was reasonably confident the

Fort Bend County feud was winding down, unless or until Kyle Terry or Judge Parker showed their faces, then “there is no doubt but that they will be killed….”2

Though it may knock sideways preconceptions about sheriffs in the Old West era, most of their time was devoted to administrative and tax collecting duties—when not actively engaged serving the District Court’s every whim. Overseeing the jail was a headache.

 

Chapter 13 “He fell like a beef”

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Chapter 13

“He fell like a beef”

For whatever reason Ira forewent establishing himself in Dickens or Crosby Counties, but he did opt for settling in one of those “line of counties higher”: Castro County. Although it may seem that the 1876 state legislators had been on a drunken spree or fertility drugs when it came to birthing new counties, such had not been the case. Their rationale was fitting. In one fell swoop, for economy’s sake, freethinking lawmakers had created fifty-four separate counties in or just below the Texas Panhandle, aka the Llano Estacado.

There was at the time insufficient population to actually organize the counties with installation of local governmental officials, but that would soon change. Railroads were advantaging themselves of

Texas’ liberal land grant policies. Once the steel ribbons were laid, locomotives and boxcars would be chugging across the grasslands.

Commerce would come—then the jaunty homesteaders.1 Lawmakers would bet—and were betting—the farm on that.

 

Chapter 14 “I’ll break them up on lawyers’ fees”

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Chapter 14

“I’ll break them up on lawyers’ fees”

A new year blew in with its characteristic winter blast. Castro County citizens, many yet living in dugouts, burrowed deep anticipating a desired thaw. Springtime would bring forth the warmth, but not a welcoming respite for many Dimmitt area folks. With the good weather came the bad. Cow thieves were at work, again. A sparsely populated range—mostly unfenced—was prime territory for those bent toward building their herds with running-irons, that nondescript piece of steel that could be used to duplicate a brand. In honorable hands the straight iron with a curved hook could be used to properly mark livestock of an absentee owner gathered during a roundup. In devious hands it was a tool of the trade, good for artfully blotching an old brand, or copycatting a new one.1 Panhandle brand burners were hard at work, that spring of ’93.

Something else was hard at work, too: grasshoppers. Hardly any rains had fallen during 1892, and now if hardscrabble farmers weren’t handicapped enough, hordes of pesky and ravenous insects invaded Castro County chewing the profit from plowed fields. Particularly Ira Aten noted the tribulations of those earliest Panhandle years: “1891, ’92, and ’93 were all dry years. I kept planting every year and nothing came up until about ’93; and then Millet, johnson [sic] grass, and maize all came up together.”2 Scratching a living from the ground was a hard go. Law enforcing paid little better. The loss of even one cow or calf, for the everyday folks, was not trivial.

 

Chapter 15 “I’ll shoot you right through the middle”

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Chapter 15

“I’ll shoot you right through the middle”

Ira mulled over A. G. Boyce’s proposal. At first Imogen was not enthralled with the idea. It would necessitate relocation. More troubling from her perspective was the fact her husband was being promised the moon and was not being courted for his cow sense, but for his gunmanship. In fact the clever Mr. Boyce was glossing over that pesky aspect and had promised “that he did not intend to manage the ranch very many years, as he was getting old, and that when he retired he would have worked me [Ira] into the general management.”1 Clearly nearly everyone in the Panhandle saw Ira as a standup lawman, but in the cow camps he wasn’t necessarily seen as an expert stockman—not by all: “Aten wasn’t much of a cowman.”2

Yet, for Sheriff Aten the offer was tempting. Not unwisely Ira hedged his bet. He would stand for reelection and then decide.

For a majority of Castro County voters there was no dispute; their man was the incumbent. On November 6, 1894, Ira Aten by virtue of the election had his sheriff’s contract renewed. For this goround. Ira’s political tenure was short. It has always been best to quit at the top of one’s game. In January 1895 Sheriff Ira Aten tendered his resignation to the Castro County Commissioners. Did he have a temporary replacement in mind? Sure, his deputy brother-in-law

 

Chapter 16 “Never worked harder in my life”

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Chapter 16

“Never worked harder in my life”

Detailing the intricate, tiresome, mundane, and obligatory tasks linked with an out-of-state relocation is not necessary. Especially not for advancing—winding down—the thrilling story of an ex-Texas

Ranger and man who had served as a frontier-era sheriff in two Texas counties, throwing in the ten years he spent as a rawhide-tough ramrod on the largest cattle ranch in the Lone Star State—maybe even the world.1 It was a distinction none could claim.

The door is near swinging shut on Ira Aten’s law enforcing life, but it is not quite closed. Divesting himself of property held in

Texas, Ira chose to build a comfortable home and establish himself near Imperial, Imperial County, California. Mr. Aten had opted for that location because although the town of El Centro was not there yet, the always resourceful Ira had “got a tip it was going to be here

[there].”2 From the get-go Ira Aten exhibited his enthusiasm for life, a man seemingly never at rest—at home or work.

 

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