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Texas Jack

Nathaniel Reed
From the title page The Life Of Texas Jack published at Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1936.

In McAlester, Muskogee, Tulsa or Oklahoma City in the years between the two World Wars, an old man was often seen seated on a stool at a busy street corner, his long hair in braids, a battered Stetson on his head and wearing cowboy boots and a greasy-looking fringed buckskin jacket, literally covered with badges and souvenirs he had acquired in his travels. Always there was an open suitcase, much the worse for wear, on the sidewalk at his feet, containing stacks of a little twenty-eight-page booklet, purporting to be the true story of his life, which you could purchase for a dime each. He was Texas Jack, "the famous bandit" - and he was not the fake many people believed him to be. Few, however, had the temerity to question the authenticity of his published "True Adventures" to his face or to dispute his authorship. If he "wrote" the little paperback that sold thirty-five thousand copies or more, he had the help of some unknown newspaperman who knew how to put a sentence together. It is a collector's item today.

According to the record, Texas Jack was not a killer, but he was a first-class train and bank robber, and unlike other Indian Territory outlaws, he roamed far and wide. Working alone, he stuck up a Santa Fe express in Colorado, robbed a bank at Riverside, Texas, held up a stagecoach at Canyon Gap, Colorado, robbed another Texas bank in 1891 and followed it with holding up a San Antonio stage. Moving into Missouri, he knocked off the bank at Southwest City. In 1894, ten years after his first foray outside the law, he took part in his last robbery, a gang holdup of a Katy train at Blackstone Switch, at Wybark, eight miles north of Muskogee, at 10:10 p.m., November 13, 1894.; a fiasco in which he was so seriously wounded that it brought his outlaw career to an end.

His honest name was Nathaniel Reed, and he was born near St. Paul, in Madison County, Arkansas, March 23, 1862. It was not to escape from abject poverty that he turned to outlawry. Reading between the lines of his book, one gets the feeling that he accepted banditry as a profession in quite the same way in which he regarded medicine or the law.

The Blackstone Switch holdup, although bungled from first to last, due to ignorance, stupidity, cowardice and possibly treachery, is the high point of his career. The Missouri-Kansas-Texas and Iron Mountain (Missouri-Pacific) railroads had been held up and their express cars looted so many times in this section that express officials had placed armed guards on all trains running through Indian Territory. When it was over, the courage and fortitude he exhibited, the incredible suffering he endured, make as moving a page as will be found in all outlaw history.

Five men took part in the planned holdup: Jim Dyer, the leader; Buss Luckey; Will Smith; Tom Root, a Cherokee fullblood; and Texas-Jack. They had someone in Dallas keeping them informed about bullion shipments that were going through to St. Louis. What they didn't know was that James F. "Bud" Ledbetter, a veteran Territory lawman whose exploits became legendary, was in the express coach, and that three crack shot deputies, Paden Tolbert, Sid Johnson and Frank Jones, were also on the train. They went to the switch, the spot selected for the robbery, and rehearsed what each man was to do. They were ready when word came on November 13. After dark, they rendezvoused at the switch as planned. Jim Dyer failed to put in an appearance. At first, they thought he was just late, but as train-time neared and he had not come, they figured something had happened to him. They decided to go ahead as they had planned. Texas Jack took charge. He cut the switchlock. When the train was in sight, he threw the switch.

The engineer saw the red light ahead. He tooted the whistle. What the bandits did not know was that it was a signal to the seven deputy marshals riding in the express car to be ready. The railroad company had been tipped off that a holdup was likely. The seven deputies, among them Bud Ledbetter and Paden Tolbert, had boarded the express car at Muskogee. The train took the siding and slowed to a stop.

Texas Jack says he ran to the express car with sticks of dynamite and told the two express messengers to throw out their hardware, or there would be trouble. Their answer was to begin shooting. The train was composed of a smoker, three coaches and a sleeper. Leaving the others to guard the express car, he went through the passengers with the familiar grain sack. He says he got quite a collection of money and jewelry. With Smith and Luckey, he ran back along the side of the train. When they reached the express car, they found the door standing open. "At this moment I happened to raise my eyes upward and caught a shadow between the two cars. I saw a man with a six-shooter in his hand. He was so close I thought he was going to hit me on the head with it. I bent so as to stoop beneath the sill of the car. He fired, and there was a hot burning sensation in my body. The bullet struck the upper part of my left hip, ranged downward, cutting through the bladder and lower bowels and emerging on the right side of the back part of my thigh. I fired back, but in my upset state was not accurate. Then I discovered that my help had run off and left me. I whistled, which was the signal we had prearranged. Tom Root came to where I was. I informed him I had been hit and told him to guard the car till I got part way to my horse so they wouldn't capture me."

Similar accounts of the robbery appear in the Fort Worth Gazette, November 14; the Vinita Indian Chieftain, November 15; and the Ardmore State Herald, November 22, 1894. Reed's version is almost identical to Sondheimer's, except for the manner in which he was shot. This is how Samuel Sondheimer, a Muskogee merchant, who was on the train, remembered the incident:

Hotchkiss jumped from the engine cab and hid in a small ravine. Then Ledbetter ordered all coach doors opened. A deputy appeared in each of these, pumping lead, and drove the robbers back. But the outlaws had plenty of nerve. They were Texas Jack, Buz Luckey and Will Smith, Negroes, and Tom Root, a bad Cherokee. For nearly an hour they fought, even threatening to throw dynamite into the cars, but Bud and his men stuck to their posts and kept using their rifles.

During the excitement, Jack slipped under cover of some ties piled along the track past the express car. He entered the front of the first passenger coach, carrying a gunnysack and wearing false whiskers, and while the firing was still hot outside, passed through the entire train. As he entered each coach he shouted, `Everybody drop his valuables in this sack or be killed!'

Ledbetter caught one short glimpse of Jack as he was leaving the last coach. That was all Bud needed to crack down on him. Jack fell, badly wounded. Buz Luckey, a big, strong man, picked him up and carried him to his horse. After a few more shots, Smith and Root rushed to their horses, and all rode away. The engineer crawled from hiding, backed the train onto the main line and proceeded to Gibson station to await orders.

S.W. Harman, in his book Hell On The Border, sets the time at 9:57 p.m. and states: "One of the road agents held the engineer and fireman under subjection while two others kept up a careless fire to frighten the other trainmen and passengers.... The $60,000 which confederates had informed them would be shipped on the train had been, by some chance, retained until a later train. As soon as it was learned that there was no booty in the express car, `Nath' Reed went through the coaches, and at the point of a revolver, and with the most fearful oaths, compelled the passengers to `contribute' ... forcing a young passenger to go with him and hold one side of the sack."

It was Ledbetter who shot him, which had a tinge of irony, since they had grown up a few miles from each other in Madison County. They got Texas Jack in the saddle, but he had to stop every quarter of a mile to drain his bladder. He believed he was done for, and so did they. When they were two and a half miles from Blackstone Switch, he said he could go no further. They spread a blanket for him - the night was bitter cold - and he used the grain sack for a pillow. He asked them to come back and bury him when they could do so safely. All knew that with daylight the deputy marshals would be scouring the country for them.

They returned the next evening, expecting to find him dead, but he was still alive. They had brought no food. Water was what he needed more than anything else. They got it for him. This was on Wednesday. He lay where he was until Friday night. Will Smith and Torn Root, the Indian, came again and found him in extreme agony. They built a fire and thawed him out. Tom Root had brought him a jug of buttermilk and a pan of sofkey (Indian corn mush). They also brought discouraging news; during the afternoon they had seen two groups of deputy marshals combing the Verdigris River bottoms, and to the north, a posse of Indians was working the country.

The two men stayed with him all night, doing what they could to ease his pain. Before dawn, they prepared to leave. He told them not to come back; that it was too dangerous. They agreed. An hour after sunup, he saw deputy marshals and possemen searching along the river. They were getting close. At any time they might find him. There was nothing he could do about it. All that day, Saturday, he lay there, and all Saturday night and all day Sunday. That evening, with fortitude born of desperation, he pulled on his boots, and using his rifle as a crutch, he headed east, crawling and stumbling through the brush, dragging the heavy grain sack with him.

It took him all night to make two miles. In the morning, he was too exhausted to continue and was about to crawl into a briar patch and rest, when he heard a Negro catching up his mule. He hobbled up to him and asked if he could get breakfast. The answer was yes. The Negro's wife set him down to a good meal - the first he had had in five days. He tried to get them to take him in for a few days. They refused, surmising that he was the bandit for whom the deputy marshals were searching. They had burned the brakes along the river and had orders to burn the fields of anyone who harbored him.

He went on, hiding or sleeping in the brush by day and traveling by night. He was bleeding less by now, but never out of agony. Finally, he grew so weak that he had to bury the heavy bag containing the loot from the Blackstone robbery under a tree.

Somehow, he found the stamina to hobble on for another eight miles, never making more than a mile or two a day. That a man in his condition, starving, half-frozen, could go on at all was nothing less than incredible. When hope was all but gone, a woman befriended him, hid him in her cotton field and fed and cared for him. Through her he got word to Jim and Pete Dyer, warning them that unless they helped him to get out of the Territory, he was going to give himself up and do some talking that would implicate them in a half a dozen robberies. They had not taken part in the Blackstone job, but Jim Dyer had planned it, and that could be used against him. The threat bore fruit and they arranged with a man driving north in a covered wagon with his family to take him along. Eleven days later, more dead than alive, he crossed the line into Seneca, Missouri. He was a bandit, a criminal. Perhaps he deserves no pity, but his iron will and tenacity must be admired.

Outside of Seneca, he hired a man named Lawrence to care for him. He desperately needed a doctor, but he dared not risk sending for one. Weeks passed. By February he was sufficiently mended to make his way to his brother's farm in Madison Courty, Arkansas. "I did not know what to do," he says. "The fates seemed to be barking at me. I had also got a considerable dose of religion, so I wrote Judge Isaac C. Parker I was ready to surrender, let come what may. This was the eighteenth day of March, 1895."

He and Tom Root confessed their part in the Blackstone robbery and were promised that if their confessions led to the conviction of the other members of the gang they would be freed on parole. For twenty months he languished in the Fort Smith prison, receiving medical attention the while. Jim Dyer, Buss Luckey and Will Smith were finally rounded up. All five went to trial and four were convicted. Jim Dyer's strange conduct in connection with the Blackstone Swtch robbery was revealed for what it was when his attorney, ubiquitous J. Warren Reed, presented evidence that it was Dyer who had tipped off the Muskogee marshal's office that the train was to be stopped, and had been working with the law, rather than aginst it - which undoubtedly was true. He was acquitted. Texas Jack and Tom Root were sentenced to five years, but they were paroled and released, as Parker had promised.

On November 18, still on crutches Texas Jack hobbled out of the Fort Smith prison, a free man, to be met with the news that the famous "Hanging Judge" had just breathed his last. Like Cole Younger and Frank James, he began exhibiting hirnself with carnval companies and Wild West Shows as "Texas Jack, the famous bandit and train robber," giving a moral lecture on the folly of crime, and selling his books. He died in Tulsa on January 7, in 1950, at age eighty-eight. He was the last of the thousands who had faced Isaac Parker - a "reformed" outlaw who outlived them all. He was buried at St. Paul, Arkansas.

Harry Sinclair Drago. Outlaws on Horseback: The History of the Organized Bands of Bank and Train Robbers Who Terrorized the Prairie Towns of Missouri, Kansas, Indian Territory, and Oklahoma for Half a Century. Bramhall House, New York, 1964.

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