A Killer Bullets Couldn't Stop
True West|April 2021
While fighting for the citizens they swore to protect, two horseback-era Texas Rangers were cut down by a deadly killer.
MIKE COX

Maybe in the flag-waving fervor following America’s April 2, 1917, entry in the Great War, 56-year-old Ben Pennington saw joining the Texas Rangers as a patriotic act. Too old for the military, Pennington perhaps thought he could help guard the border from Mexican bandits or German spies and saboteurs. If he could not take on the Huns himself, he could take part in rounding up slackers (draft dodgers) or jailing anyone speaking disloyally of America.

For whatever reason, on October 4, 1917, Pennington enlisted as a ranger under Captain James Monroe Fox in Brewster County. Though new to the Texas Rangers, Pennington had toted a pistol for two decades, a dozen years as marshal of the Central Texas town of Holland, followed by eight years as a Bell County constable. Heavyset with light hair and brown eyes, he stood 5 feet 10 inches.

An easygoing cowboy from San Angelo with light brown hair and blue eyes, 34-yearold Bob Hunt was as tall as Pennington if shorter in overall law enforcement experience. He had first signed on as a ranger in El Paso-based Co. B on June 8, 1915. The following spring, on April 11, 1916, he resigned for reasons not noted on his records. But on August 20, 1918, the affable bachelor rejoined the Texas Rangers as a private under Co. L Capt. W. W. Davis.

Like most rangers, Pennington didn’t talk much about his business, but since first stepping off the train in far West Texas, he had heard the whine of bullets more than once. One of those slugs, though sparing his life, had cost him his right eye. Still, the ranger rode the river for Texas, keeping his one good eye out for trouble. He deserved his reputation for fearlessness.

When Co. L moved from the Big Bend to the El Paso area, the rangers camped for a time near Cline before moving to a farm adjacent to the Rio Grande near Fabens. Known to his comrades as “Old Dad,” Pennington served as company cook, using the farmhouse’s kitchen. The adobe house also served as a makeshift fortification on one occasion when rangers traded shots with suspected Mexican smugglers across the river. A large dinner bell atop the farmhouse provided cover for Pennington, who said to his fellow rangers, “I’ll fight ’em from behind the Liberty Bell, boys!”

In addition to the outlaws plaguing both sides of the Rio Grande, another source of trouble along the border was El Paso’s Fort Bliss. On payday, when the soldiers hit the city’s 250 bars and numerous houses of prostitution, El Paso police often called on the Rangers to help keep the rowdy soldiers in line. Local sentiment was to let the boys have a good time, within reason. The U.S. War Department, however, wanted El Paso and other Texas cities with large military posts to clean up their act. So did Congress, which passed wartime legislation prohibiting the sale of alcohol as a food-conservation measure.

While America dried up in the social sense, as the prickly pear and ocotillo began to bloom in the desert around El Paso in the early spring of 1918, another form of change— albeit one that was quite random—occurred. Seven hundred miles northeast of El Paso, in a biological process that would not be even partially understood for decades, a normally stable avian virus migrated from a bird to a pig. When the pig’s immune system attacked the invader, the virus mutated to survive. Soon the resultant new strain sought a new host.

On March 11, company cook Albert Mitchell reported to the infirmary at Camp Funston, Kansas, a Fort Riley sub post. He had a slight headache, mild sore throat, and low-grade fever. His appetite was off, and his muscles ached. A post doctor put Mitchell on sick leave and ordered him to spend the day in his bunk. By midday, another 106 Camp Funston soldiers were ailing. Two days later the number of sick soldiers at the Kansas camp reached 522.

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