The Buzzard's Water Hole Gang and Captain Bill McDonald, Texas Ranger
[From J. Marvin Hunter’s Frontier Times Magazine, June, 1950]
(EDITOR'S NOTE — Captain Bill McDonald was a noted Texas Ranger.and made quite a reputation for himself as a law enforcement officer in the 1890's. The book, "Captain B. W. McDonald," by Albert Bigelow Paine, published in 1909, contains many thrilling accounts of his colorful life, and it is from this book that McDonald's version of the mob activities in San Saba county is taken. The writer was living in Mason county, which adjoins San Saba county on the south, at the time those events mentioned in McDonald's book were happening. We personally knew District Attorney Linden, who prosecuted the cases, and also we knew some of the Rangers who were there with McDonald; but there are some statements made that are surprising to say the least. We publish the account just as it appears in the book, which was copyrighted forty-one [years] ago.—Editor)
It was in 1897 that certain citizens of San Saba county petitioned the Governor to send Rangers to investigate the numerous murders which had been committed in that locality—the number of assassinations then aggregating forty-three within a period of ten years.
In fact, San Saba and the country lying adjacent was absolutely controlled at that time by what was nothing less than a murder society. San Saba county, situated about the center of the State, lies on the border of the great southwest wilderness, and is crossed by no railroad. In an earlier day a sort of Vigilance Committee or mob had been organized to deal with lawless characters, but in the course of time the usual thing happened and the committee itself became the chief menace of the community. Whatever worthy members it had originally claimed, either dropped out or were "removed," and were replaced by men who had a private grudge against a neighbor; or desired his property; or were fond of murder on general principles. In time this deadly organization became not only a social but a political factor, and as such had gathered into its gruesome membership—active and honorary—county officials ranging from the deputy constabulary to occupants of the judicial bench. Indeed, it seemed that a majority of the citizens of San Saba were associated together for the purpose of getting rid—either by assassination or intimidation—of the worthier element of the community.
This society of death was well organized. It had an active membership of about three hundred, with obligations rigid and severe. Their meeting place was a small natural pool of water, almost surrounded by hills. It bore the curiously appropriate name of "Buzzard's Water Hole," and here the Worthy Order of Assassins assembled once a month, usually during full moon, to transact general business and to formulate plans for the removal of offending or superfluous friends. Sentinels were posted during such gatherings and there were passwords and signs. These were forms preserved from the original organization; hardly necessary now it would seem, since the majority of the inhabitants were in sympathy with the mob, while those who were not could hardly have been dragged to that ghastly spot. They preserved other things—they kept up the semblance of being inspired by lofty motives, and they maintained the forms that go with religious undertakings; therefore, being duly assembled to plot murder, they still opened their meetings with prayer!
After which the real business came up for transaction. Members in good standing would make known their desires, setting forth reasons why citizens in various walks of life were better dead, and the cases were considered, and the decrees passed accordingly. Sometimes when a man's offense was only that he owned a piece of desirable real estate, a resolution was passed that a committee of fifty should wait on that citizen and give him from three to five days to emigrate, this to be supplemented by a second committee of one whose duty it would be to call next day and make the said undesirable citizen a modest, not to say decent, offer for his holdings. It was not in human nature to resist a temptation like that. The man would be likely to go. He would accept that offer, whatever it was, and he would get out of there before night. The organization acquired a deal of choice property by this plan. When an election was coming on, the society decided who was to be chosen for office, and who for assassination, and committees were likewise appointed to see that all was duly performed. It was a remarkable society, when you come to think about it—a good deal like Tammany Hall, only more fatal.
To break up the Buzzard's Water Hole roost, and to discourage its practices in and around San Saba was the job cut out for Bill McDonald and his Rangers during the summer and fall of 1897.
Captain McDonald began the work by sending over three of his men—John Sullivan, Dud Parker and Edgar Neil—to investigate. There was plenty of trail and the Rangers ran onto it everywhere. It wound in and out in a hundred directions, and gathered in a regular knot around the seat of justice. Perhaps there were town and county officials who were not in the tolls of the deadly membership, but if so they were not discoverable. Sullivan promptly got into trouble with the sheriff by re-jailing a man whom he found outside, holding a reception with his friends, when the State had paid a reward for his capture. Sullivan and the sheriff both drew guns, but were kept apart, and the district judge, who seemed to have been a sort of honorary "Buzzard," holding office by virtue of society favor, undertook to get rid of Sullivan by sending him along way off after some witness supposed to be wanted; though why they should want any witness in acourt like that, would be hard to guess.
Captain Bill himself now came down to look over the field. He had his hands full from the start. When he arrived, the Rangers, Barker and Neil were patrolling the town with guns, while a number of citizens similarly armed were collected about the streets.
"Hello, Dud," he said, "are you-all going to war?"
"Looks like it, Cap," returned Barker.
Captain Bill looked over the armed citizens, and raised his voice loud enough for them to hear.
"Well, Dud, if that's the best they can do," he said, "we can lick em, can't we"?
"Yes, sir, if you say so, Cap."
The armed citizens showed a reluctance in the matter of hostilities and began to edge away. McDonald now got his mail and reviewed the situation, for prior to his coming he had scarcely known what the trouble in San Saba was all about. By and by he went to his hotel. It was about 10 o'clock and he was sitting out in front, when he saw flashes and heard shots across the public square. The mob was shooting up the town for his benefit. Captain Bill seized his gun and went up there. The main disturbance seemed to be in and about a saloon. The Ranger captain pushed into the place alone, compelled every man in the assembly to put up his hands and allow himself to be disarmed. He then required them to appear for examination next morning. They did appear, and were discharged, or course, but, nevertheless, it was evident that a man who would not be scared and who was not afraid to do things, was among them. Members of the society felt a chill of uneasiness. Worthy citizens, heretofore silent through fear of their lives and property began to take heart.
McDonald now interviewed the sheriff and county officials in general and delivered his opinion of them, individually and collectively, concluding with the statement that he would bring Sullivan back as soon as a message and steam would get him. The sheriff replied that Sullivan and he could not stay in the same town.
"Then move," said Captain Bill. "The county will be rid of one damned rascal. It will be rid of more before I get through here."
Captain Bill went to Austin himself, after Sullivan, so that there might be no mistake about his coming. He presented the case to Governor Culberson and got his sanction, then sent word to his men at San Saba to meet them, and he arrived with Sullivan promptly on time. He had expected that there would be a demonstration by the sheriff and his friends, instead of which the streets of the little town were deserted. Perhaps the sheriff and his party had given out that war was imminent and this was the result.
It was clear now that to obtain evidence and convictions under such conditions as they prevailed in San Saba was going to be a long, slow job. With officials incriminated and citizens intimidated; with witnesses ready to come forward and swear anything in defense of the murderers, knowing they would be upheld in their perjury, the securing of good testimony and subsequent justice would be difficult.
The Rangers went into camp in a picturesque spot on the banks of the San Saba river, a mile from town; pitched their tents under the shelter of some immense pecan trees; arranged their "chuckboards," staked their horses and made themselves generally comfortable. Then they posted sentinels (for a fusillade from the society was likely to come at any time), and settled down to business. Evidently they had come to stay. The society postponed its meetings.
Captain Bill now began doing quiet detective work, a labor for which he had a natural aptitude; anybody can see from the shape of his ears and nose; and from the ferret look of his eyes that this would be so. Good citizens took further courage and came to the camp with information. The Ranger captain looked over the field and undertook a case particularly cold-blooded and desperate.
A man named Brown, one of the society's early victims, had been hanged by that mob some ten or twelve years before, and his son Jim, though he had never attempted to avenge his father's death, had fallen under the ban. Jim Brown never even made any threats, but he must have been regarded as a menace, for one Sunday night while riding from church with his wife and her brother, he was shot dead from ambush; his wife, whose horse became frightened and ran within range, also receiving a painful wound.
Captain Bill secured information which convinced him that one Bill Ogle had been the chief instigator in this crime, and that the father and brother of Brown's wife were likewise members of the society and concerned in the plot. He learned, in fact, that the plan had been for Mrs. Brown's brother to ride with her, and for her father, Jeff McCarthy, to carry her baby by a different route to keep it out of danger. The brother, Jim McCarthy, was to stay close to his sister, to look after her horse and keep her out of harm's way while her husband was being murdered. It was due to the fact that Jim McCarthy did not perform his work well that the sister was wounded. McDonald in due course uncovered the whole dastardly plot.
The murderers now realized that trouble was in store for them. Some of the men began quietly to leave the country. Others consulted together in secluded places and plotted to "Kill Bill McDonald." Sympathizing citizens encouraged this movement, and anonymous warnings—always the first resort of frightened criminals—began to arrive in the Ranger camp. Captain Bill paid no attention to such communications; he was used to them. He went on gathering and solidifying his evidence, preparatory to the arrest of Ogle and such of his associates as the proofs would warrant. Ogle, the “tiger" of the society, as he was considered, McDonald had not yet seen, for the reason that the tiger did not live in town, and for some cause had lately avoided those precincts. He arrived, however, in due season. Perhaps the brotherhood let him know that it was time he was taking a hand in the game.
Captain McDonald, one hot afternoon, was talking to an acquaintance on the streets of San Saba, when he noticed a stout surly-looking man, with the village constable, not far away. Now and then they looked and nodded in his direction and presently an uncomplimentary name drifted to his ear.
"Who is that fellow talking to that sorry constable?" he asked.
His companion lowered his voice to a discreet whisper. "That is Bill Ogle," he said, "the worst man in the murder mob."
Captain Bill looked pleased. "Goodbye," he nodded. "I want to see Bill Ogle"
He stepped briskly in the direction of the two men, who seeing him approach, separated and loafed off in different directions. Captain Bill overhauled the constable.
"See here," he said composedly, "I heard you call me a name while ago when you were talking to that murderer, Bill Ogle, who is going down the street yonder. Now, an officer that throws in with a murder mob ain't worth what it would cost to try, and hang, and if I hear any more names out of you I'll save the country the expense of one rope, anyway."
The constable attempted to mutter some denial. Captain Bill left him abruptly with only a parting word of advice and set off down the street after Ogle. Ogle crossed the street and passed through the courthouse to a hardware store on the other side—where a number of his friends had collected.
"Don't go over there. Captain," cautioned his friend, "you'll be killed sure."
"Well, I'll go over and see," Captain Bill replied quaintly, continuing straight toward the mob store.
As he entered there was a little stir, then silence. Evidently those present had not expected that he would walk straight among them. Here he was—they could kill him and put an end to all this trouble in short order. But somehow they didn't do it. There seemed no good moment to begin. Captain Bill walked over and faced Bill Ogle.
"Come outside," he said quietly,"I want to talk to you."
Ogle hesitated. "What do you want to say?" he asked sullenly.
Captain Bill laid his hand on Ogle's shoulder. "I want to say some things that you might not want your friends to hear," he said—and a quiver in his voice then would have been death. "Come outside!"
He applied a firm pressure to Ogle's shoulder and steered him for the door. The others, as silent as death, made no move. They did not offer to interfere—they did not attempt to shoot. They simply looked on, wondering.
Outside, Captain Bill led Ogle to the middle of the street. It was blazing hot and the sand burned through his boots, but he could talk to Ogle out there and keep an eye on the others, too.
"Now, Bill Ogle," he said, in his deliberate calm way, "I know all about you. I know how you and your outfit murdered Jim Brown—just how you planned it, and how you did it. I've got all the proof and I'm going to hang you if there is any law in this country to hang a man for a foul murder like that. That's what I'm here for, and I'm not afraid of you, nor any of the men over there in that store that helped you do your killing. You are all a lot of cowardly murderers that only shoot defenseless men from ambush, and I'm going to stay here until I break up your gang and put your gang and put every one on the gallows or behind the bars, and I'm going to begin with you."
As Captain Bill talked, the sweat began to pour off of Ogle and his knees seemed to weaken. Presently they could no longer support his stout body and he sat heavily down in the hot sand, trying weakly to make some defense.
"Get up," said Captain Bill, "Haven't you got your gun?"
"No, sir, Captain, I haven't."
"Well, you'd better get one if you're going to go hunting for me. And there's the men over there who helped you kill Jim Brown, and your Greaer-lookin' constable and your sorry sheriff. Get your whole crowd together, and get ready and then I'll gather in the whole bunch. Go on now, and see what you can do."
"Yes, sir, Captain."
Ogle made several attempts to get on his feet, finally succeeded, and went back to his friends. Captain Bill immediately set about getting out a warrant for his arrest, but after some delay, found he could not get the papers until next morning. Ogle, in the meantime had been to his friend, the district judge, who now appeared before the Ranger captain with the statement that Ogle, whom he believed to be a square man, had said he wanted to leave the country for fear McDonald would kill him; McDonald, he said, having the reputation of being a killer and a bad man generally.
"Yes, Judge," said Captain Bill, "that's the proper reputation to give me, so that some of your crowd of murderers can assassinate me and your court can deliver a verdict that I was a bad citizen and ought to have been killed sooner, the way you've done about all the rest of the forty-three that have been murdered and no one tried for it in this section. Now, I intend to see that he don't leave this country, unless he leaves it in shackles. He committed murder, and I can prove it. I've got one of the members of the mob as a witness."
"You will stir up old trouble and get things in worse shape than ever," protested the judge.
"If I can't get things in better shape, I'll lay down my hand," said McDonald.
A little later, on the street, Captain Bill saw Ogle approaching. He was armed this time—with a big watermelon. He approached humbly. "Captain," he said, "you've done me a great wrong, and I want you to accept this watermelon."
Captain Bill did not know whether to laugh or to swear. Presently he said: You scoundrel! I suppose that thing is poisoned. I believe I'll make you eat it, rind and all."
Ogle backed away with his melon and presently set out for home. Fearing now he would escape before the warrant could be issued, Captain McDonald instructed Rangers McCauley, Barker, Neil and Bell, members of his camp, to keep watch and if Ogle attempted to leave the county to hold him until he (McDonald) could arrive with the proper papers. These were obtained next morning, about 10 o'clock, and Captain Bill, starting out with them, met his Rangers with Ogle, who had, in fact, attempted to escape. He was taken to jail and a strong guard was set.
Consternation now prevailed among the society and its friends; in the cowboy term they were "milling." Members of the mob were to turn State's evidence; one John McCormick, who had been made a member by compulsion—having run into one of their meetings—had been brought from an adjoining county and would testify; a grand jury composed of exemplary citizens had been secured.
And that was not all. Captain Bill one day went to the district judge, ostensibly for advice.
"Judge," he said,"I want some legal information."
The judge was attentive, and took him to a quiet place. "Now, Judge," said Captain Bill, "you know that the Buzzard Water Hole mob holds its meetings over there once a month, and the monthly meeting is about due. You know that they meet there to kill somebody or to run him out of the country and take his property, and that they've already done such deviltry as that for years."
The judge assented uneasily.
"Well, then," continued the Rangers Captain, "I want to know if it will be all right for me to charge in on that meeting with my Rangers and kill any of them that might make any resistance, and round up the rest and drive them into town and put them in jail—just drive them afoot like a lot of cattle and let their horses be sent for later; would that be all right, Judge?"
The district judge was a good deal disturbed. "No, Captain," he said, "I don't think you'd better undertake that. I should advise against such a move."
"Well, Judge," said Captain Bill, "that's exactly what I propose to do. I'll take chances on the results and I'll bring in the prettiest bunch of murderers you'll find anywhere. Goodbye, Judge, and thank you for the advice."
However, this program was not carried out — not in full. There was no material with which to make it complete. Within a brief time from his talk with the district judge, Captain Bill's purpose was known to every member of the mob. It was a time to take to tall timber and high trees. The society adjourned sine die.
ENJOYING THIS STORY?
The Rangers did, however, visit the Buzzard's Water Hole at the time the mob meeting was due. Not a soul was to be found anywhere. Then knowing certain members of the gang, and having learned the society signals, Captain Bill and his men went riding over the country from house to house, halting outside to call "Hello! Hello! Hello!" which was a signal call between members of the society. In reply to each such call a door opened and a man came out quickly, only to find the Rangers, who inquired if he were going to attend the meeting at Buzzard's Water Hole; whereupon, as Captain Bill put it later, "They like to died," and vigorously pretended ignorance of the meaning of the "Hello" signal. Next morning the Rangers were back in San Saba, and when the news came in that they had been around calling on mob members there was not only anxiety, but mystery for some of these members of the society lived a distance of twenty-five miles away. But a fifty or seventy-five mile ride in a night on an errand of that kind was merely little diversion to a Ranger.
The grand jury's work was difficult. It found indictments against many of the assassins, but the district judge made an effort to annul most of these actions on one ground or another, and to trump up charges against the Rangers. McDonald finally gave this official a lecture which he probably remembers yet, if he is alive. About the same time one of the gang leveled a Winchester at Ranger Barker, who with his revolver shot him five times before he could pull the trigger, and was promptly cleared — all of which had a wholesome effect on the community as a whole.
With the arrest of Ogle, the anonymous letters became very terrible indeed. Captain Bill had brought his wife to the San Saba camp for the winter, and one morning appeared before her with one of these letters in his hand.
"Well, I've got to leave San Saba, "he said.
"Why," she asked. "Has the Governor ordered you away?"
"No, the Governor hasn't, but read this."
He handed her the letter which informed him that if he did not leave San Saba in two days he would be filled so full of lead that it would require a freight train to haul him to the graveyard. Rhoda McDonald read the communication through. Then she said:
"Bill Jess, if you leave here on account of a thing like that, I'll leave you."
"Well," said Captain Bill, sorrowfully; "I seem to be in a mighty bad fix. If I stay I'll be filled with bullets, and if I go I'll lose my wife. I s'pose I'll have to stay."
The examining trial of Bill Ogle was an event in San Saba. Josh McCormick was chief witness for the State, and was a badly scared man, in spite of the fact that the Rangers had taken him to their camp and guaranteed him protection from the members of the Buzzard's Water Hole crowd. Other witnesses on both sides were frightened enough, for nobody knew what might happen before this thing ended. It was the program of the mob forces, of which Ogle and his lawyers were the acting principals, to impeach the State's witnesses and thus break down their evidence before the court as was their custom. Unfortunately for them they selected as one of their perjurers old Jeff McCarthy, father of Brown's wife, himself accessory to the crime for which Ogle was being tried. Captain Bill knew McCarthy's relation to the affair, though the evidence had not been sufficient for his indictment. Furthermore Captain Bill believed that the old man, like McCormick, whose uncle he was, had been forced into the band, and had acted under compulsion throughout.
McCormick was placed on the stand, and told what he knew about the society and its crimes in general, and about the killing of Jim Brown in particular. His absolute knowledge did not extend to the connection of the two McCarthy's with the killing, and they were not mentioned in his evidence. When he left the stand, a number of nervous witnesses, were called by the other side to swear that they would not believe him on oath. Finally old Jeff McCarthy was reached. He was frightened and trembling and in a wretched state altogether. Captain Bill watched him closely while he was making his statement concerning the worthless character of his nephew, McCormick, and the old man shifted and twisted to evade those eyes that were piercing his very soul. Now and then the Ranger Captain leaned toward him and lifted his finger like the index of fate, prompting the District Attorney meantime as to what questions to put to the witness. The old man became more and more confused and miserable, and when at last he was excused he tottered from the stand. He lingered about the place, however, seemingly unable to leave, and by and by, when the court adjourned for the day, McDonald found him just outside the door, with others of his kind.
"Jeff," Captain Bill said in his calm drawl, "you did not tell the truth on the stand; you know every word you said was a lie."
Old Jeff McCarthy gasped, tried to get his words, gasped again and failed.
"I don't blame you so much," Captain Bill went on, "for you were afraid this mob would kill you if you didn't testify according to orders — now wasn't you?"
Again the wretched old man made an effort to reply, but was past speech.
Captain Bill's finger was pinning him fast.
"They frightened you and made you join their gang, didn't they? And now you would like to get out, but you don't know how — ain't that so?"
The old man was on the verge of utter collapse. He backed off and slunk away. After that Old Jeff haunted the Ranger camp and finally when he could stand it no longer made full confession to Captain Bill of his connection with the mob, revealing the mob's secrets, its signs and passwords, the names of its members and its gruesome oath.
"They will kill me," he said, "but I don't care. I'm happier now than I've been for years."
"I don't reckon they'll try that," said Captain Bill. "That thing is about over around here."
They formed a guard, and escorted the old man home, for he was full of fear.
When the court of examination adjourned, Ogle was held without bail. Through the efforts of District Attorney Lynden it was decided to transfer Ogle's case to Llano County for final trial, Lynden making his fight for this change on the grounds that no fair trial could be obtained in the San Saba court.
In Llano County Ogle's case was fairly tried, and he received a life sentence. Two accessories to the killing of Brown, were arrested, but just then war was declared with Spain; the Rangers were hastily ordered off to protect the Rio Grande frontier, where a Mexican incursion was expected, and without Captain Bill to keep up the vigorous action, and a sharp oversight on the witness stand, convictions were not obtainable.
However, the San Saba campaign was a success. The society that murdered men for spite, or gain, or pastime, no longer existed. When the next election of county officials came around the old lot was wiped out clean, and men of character and probity came into power. The roads that led to the Bad Lands were kept dusty with the emigration of men who had formerly gathered at Buzzard's Water Hole, and in their stead came those who would give to San Saba nobler enterprise and worthier fame. Eight Rangers were among the new blood that came to rehabilitate San Saba county, That long winter of '97-98 had not been altogether spent in chasing criminals. Those eight had found wives, or rumors of wives; in due time they were all married, and with eight established resident Rangers, how could any county help becoming as serene and safe as a Sunday-school? Ranger Edgar Neil was elected sheriff; Ollie Perry was chosen constable; Dud Parker, Ed Donnelly, Forrest Edwards and Bob McClure also settled in San Saba, and caused Company B to go recruiting for Rangers.
Bill Ogle is still in the penitentiary at Huntsville, Texas. As late as May, 1908, he wrote to Captain McDonald as follows:"Huntsville, Texas, 5-21-08."Capt. W. J. McDonald,"Austin, Texas.
"It has come to my ears from some of my friends, who have recently visited Austin in my behalf, that you are bitterly opposed to my being released from the Penitentiary. I regret very much that you are taking this stand against me. My friends also told me that one of your reasons of being in opposition to my release was, that you had fears of your own life, should I be pardoned.
"Capt. McDonald, I want to assure you that I have no feeling of bitterness against you, and you may rest assured, that I would never harm you in the least or try to injure you in any way, should I regain my liberty. I feel that in doing what you did, you were doing your duty as an officer.
"My conduct in the Penitentiary ought to be a guarantee to you of my intention to lead a correct life, when I get out, and I feel, that if you will investigate my standing here, and find out what the officers here think about me, you will be convinced of this.
"I trust that you will reconsider this matter, and soften your heart in my case, and you may rest assured, that I will appreciate anything you will do for me as long as life shall last.
"I would be pleased to hear from you, and I hope that you will give me some little encouragement.
"Thanking you in advance for anything you may say or do for me, I am,"Yours respectfully,WILL OGLE."
Captain McDonald's reply to Ogle's letter was, in part, as follows:"Austin, Texas,June 4, 1908."Mr. Bill Ogle,"Huntsville Penitentiary.
"Your letter of the 21st inst, received, and contents duly and carefully noted.
"I note what you say in regard to what your friends say about my opposing your pardon, claiming that in case of your release I had fears of my own life. Now, Bill,...my advice to you is to make a clear, truthful statement, giving all the facts connected with numerous murders committed by this mob, and thereby secure your liberty.
"You know I'm not in the Ranger service now, and it makes no difference to me who is released, and I so notified the Board of Pardons.
"You say you have no feeling of bitterness against me, and that you would not attempt to harm me. You can rest assured that I have no fears in that line, I only did my duty as an officer, as you say I did, and I have no animosity against you; and would not have gone before the Board of Pardons, had I not been sent for.
"I understand that your conduct has been all right while in jail, and in the Penitentiary, and I am sorry that your conduct wasn't better before you got into that mob, because you know that was an awful thing. Now, don't you?
"You asked me to consider this matter, and that you will appreciate it as long as life shall last. I certainly will not utter any protest, unless the Governor asked me what I know about it, and I'll then tell the truth about it."Very respectfully,"W. J, McDONALD."
What Captain Bill had said before the Board of Pardons was:
"I don't know the gentleman that is presenting this talk to you, but I do know the names of a good many of those signers, and I know Bill Ogle is guilty of this murder, and I know that a good many of these other fellows ought to be where Bill is now."