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A.J. Sowell

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
The few photographs of A.J. Sowell show him to be a man of normal weight, but read his book and you have to wonder how he managed to keep trim. He easily could have spent the rest of his life overeating to compensate for his days as a Texas Ranger.
The book is “Rangers and Pioneers of Texas,” first published in 1884. Actually, it’s three books: Stories about early Indian fighters, stories about Sowell’s pioneer Texas family and finally, his recollections of the “Campaign of the Texas Rangers to the Wichita Mountains in 1871.”

The author’s days in the saddle for the State of Texas came during the early 1870s, prior to the formation in 1874 of the Frontier Battalion, the organization that earned the Rangers much of the reputation they still have. The Rangers of 1870-71 were troubled with lack of funds and had poor leadership at the top. Even so, they doubtless saved some scalps along the frontier.

Sowell’s book has a long subtitle, but it may as well be “What We Rangers Ate.” Much of the time, which probably explains Sowell’s preoccupation with food, it was not so much what he and his fellow rangers ate but whether they had anything at all to eat.

“This morning,” he wrote in a typical passage, “we had nothing to eat, as our supply of meat had given out, and we had sighted no game since that we could get a shot at; and it always seems the case.”

Indeed. Read Sowell and you will suddenly start craving a quarter-pound hamburger, fries, and a chocolate shake to wash it down.

One of many instances of lean rations that Sowell recalled came after he and his comrades got thoroughly soaked in a night thunderstorm in Northwest Texas that left them unable to proceed because of high water in a nearby creek and the river that it flowed into.

“The rain was over,” he wrote. “The next thing now was something to eat. We had a little bread; not more than enough for one man, and no meat at all.”

The rangers grabbed their rifles and moved up their side of the creek, expecting to find some game. The company sergeant produced a hook and some line and declared that he would try his luck at fishing.

“We had no doubt but what we could get plenty to eat,” Sowell wrote, “but our amazement was great as, one by one, the hunters returned empty-handed, not even finding a quail or rabbit. Well, here we were: no breakfast, no dinner (as early Texans referred to the noon meal), the sun sinking in the west with but little prospect for supper (as early Texans referred to what modern Texans call dinner.)”

The boys must have been in quite a funk until their sergeant walked back into camp toting a catfish they guessed weighed about a pound and a half. Good as that blue-backed fish looked, it was still a little lean for seven hungry young men.

Even so, the rangers were not about to look a gift catfish in the mouth. The fish soon was roasting over the coals and tasted pretty good, even divided by seven.

In the morning, with nothing for breakfast and still trapped by the flooding, the rangers headed out for another day of hunting. Once again, the sergeant went to the creek with his fishing line.

“But,” Sowell continued, “as the day before, one at a time they came in with no better fortune, and in vain the sergeant whipped the stream with his line, until he gave it up with disgust.”

As the rangers looked around camp, they realized one of their number was still out. Surely bugler John Fitzgerald, the best hunter in their scout, had meat. But as the shadows began to get longer, he still was not back.

Concerned, the sergeant ordered that two shots be fired in case he was lost.

The shooting quickly was answered with a single round, and soon Fitzgerald, hungry and tired, trudged into view. And he had something in his hand – a turkey hen.

Fitzgerald stretched out for some rest while the other boys got a fire ready and cooked the bird.

“It was soon ready and the boys gathered around,” Sowell concluded. In a short time, “There was nothing left of that turkey but the slick bones and feathers.”

Unfortunately, Sowell’s story did not have a happy ending. As he put it, “Next morning we were all hungry again.”

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales"

June 25, 2003 column

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