Law of the Land

No institution in the state is as iconic, and for more than a century none has been as resistant to change. But the Texas Rangers have finally made peace with the modern world: They’re more diverse, they’re more high-tech, and they’re more . . . diplomatic. Whatever it takes to battle the bad guys in the twenty-first century.
Captain Clete Buckaloo, who joined the Rangers in 1987 and now heads the unit based in San Antonio.
Photographs by Dan Winters

In 1823 Stephen F. Austin hired ten men “to act as rangers for the common defense” in protecting his colonists from Indian raids. Nearly two centuries later, that group—known as the Texas Rangers—is alive and well, having adapted from being frontier lawmen to an elite investigative force, trading their horses and bedrolls for cell phones and laptops. For the 117 men—and 1 woman—who now make up the Texas Rangers, a typical day looks more like CSI than The Lone Ranger. They have cracked many of the state’s most notorious criminal cases, having succeeded in tracking down serial killers, nabbing drug lords, coaxing confessions from rapists and murderers, and bringing corrupt public servants to account.

The transition into the modern era hasn’t always been easy, and there have been low points along the way, from the sometimes violent role the Rangers played in breaking farm labor strikes in the Lower Rio Grande Valley in the sixties to their sloppy investigation two decades later of serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, from whom they extracted hundreds of false confessions. Still, there have been far more successes than failures, and the Rangers remain one of the state’s most enduring icons. But what, we wondered, is it like to be a Texas Ranger today? Walter Prescott Webb noted in his seminal 1935 history, The Texas Rangers: A Century of Frontier Defense, that the men he interviewed were “masters of brevity when they speak of themselves—as economical of words as of pistol smoke,” and, he warned, “They do not respond to direct questions of a personal nature, and it is best not to ask them.” We ventured to ask the Rangers a few questions anyway.

“HE WAS AN OLD-TIME RANGER …”

There would be no modern Texas Rangers if not for the men who came before them.

LANE AKIN was a Ranger from 1987 to 2003. He now works in corporate security in Dallas: I knew I wanted to be a Texas Ranger when I was ten years old. I was sitting in the Yellow Jacket Grill, in Rockwall—it was 1962 or ’63—when a man came in wearing a pin-striped suit and a big white hat. He walked in such a way that you knew he was an important man. Try as you might not to stare at him, you had to. I can still remember him walking through the door with the sunlight behind him. He was with the Rockwall County sheriff, and of course I knew the sheriff because everybody in Rockwall knew the sheriff. I asked my dad, “Who’s that man with the sheriff?” And my dad said, “That’s Charlie Moore. He’s a Texas Ranger.” I was starstruck.

CAPTAIN CLETE BUCKALOO became a Ranger in 1987. He heads Company D, in San Antonio: I was a narcotics agent for the Department of Public Safety in Alpine when I met Clayton McKinney, in 1980. He was an old-time Ranger—a big, slow-moving, slow-talking, barrel-chested man. He was born and raised in Big Bend, so he knew the border, the river, the crossings, the history. He knew how people thought on both sides of the river, and they respected him and he respected them. I never heard him raise his voice. He didn’t bully people; he earned their trust. Clayton had an airplane, and he would fly us into Mexico and pinpoint airstrips that the traffickers were using. He would actually go into Mexico and steal back airplanes that had been stolen on this side of the river and were being used by traffickers to smuggle narcotics into this country. He thought that was fun.

CAPTAIN TONY LEAL became a Ranger in 1994. He heads Company A, in Houston: When I was a kid, my dad was a field officer for the Texas Department of Corrections, and our house was on the prison farm in Sugar Land. I remember him getting woken up in the middle of the night whenever there was a jailbreak or a manhunt. The Rangers would come to our house needing horses, and I can still remember how much I wanted to go out and ride and help them track down the fugitives. I would listen to my dad getting the horses and the dogs ready, and you know, it’s a very distinct sound those bloodhounds make when there is all that nervous tension in the air. Even back then, I knew I wanted to be a Ranger. I thought those guys were larger than life.

LANE AKIN: When I was in junior high, Charlie Moore came to talk to my class one day. I remember he was wearing not one but two Colt .45’s with ivory grips decorated with small, gold Longhorns. The hammer was back on both of them. I was completely captivated. I was sitting in the front row, and so the barrels of those .45’s kept passing over my toes as he was pacing back and forth telling this story about capturing some bad guys out in a rural cabin somewhere. Finally, when he got through telling all of his stories, he asked, “Are there any questions?” I meekly raised my hand and said, “The hammers are back on both your pistols. Isn’t that dangerous?” He said, “I sure hope so. That’s why I carry ’em.”

DOYLE HOLDRIDGE was a Ranger from 1982 to 2004. He is now a major at the Webb County Sheriff’s Department, in Laredo: You know, back then, most Rangers were just country boys like me. When I came into the Rangers—and you’ll think I’m kidding when I say this—I saw some of those older guys scribbling reports on napkins. They weren’t as polished as the Rangers now, but they had common sense, and they knew how to get the job done.

JOAQUIN JACKSON was a Ranger from 1966 to 1993. He is now a private investigator in Alpine: Charlie Miller started out as a Ranger around 1920. He actually was a bodyguard at one time for Pancho Villa, and he was a tough,

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