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By Bartee Haile

The sheriff of a South Texas county overrun by Mexican bandits sent the following telegram to Ranger headquarters in Austin on Apr. 18, 1875: “Is Capt. McNelly coming? We are in trouble. Five ranches burned by disguised men last week. Answer.” Although the sprawling spreads south of San Antonio had been plagued for years by hit-and-run rustlers, previous losses paled in comparison to the current crime wave. Led by Juan Cortinas, parttime revolutionary and full-time thief, well-organized bands were driving hundreds of cattle every week across the Rio Grande for shipment to Cuba. In spite of his delicate appearance, which made it possible for him to impersonate a woman during the Civil War, Leander McNelly was definitely the man for the job. If anyone could clean up South Texas, it was the hard-as-nails Ranger who enforced the law by waging all-out war.

His first official act was to dissolve the trigger-happy private posses, whose random retaliation threatened to ignite a full-scale conflict on the border. The vigilantes shook their heads in disbelief but meekly obeyed. If McNelly wanted to go up against Cortinas and his giant gang of at least a thousand with only 40 Rangers, that was his business. At Brownsville in early June, McNelly received a tip that a steamship was waiting offshore for 400 head of stolen steers. Resolving to intercept the delivery, he requested 22 volunteers for the high-risk mission.


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