Note: This is a story from my book Highway History And Back Road Mystery.
Tough Texas lawmen are legendary characters who painted the West with broad brushstrokes, their exploits living on long after their mortal souls have departed this earth, and with every retelling, their stories seem to get bigger until the line between fact and fiction becomes obscured. While Texas has produced some justifiably famous heroes, sometimes the tales of the lesser-known peacekeepers are just as colorful. One such man was Sheriff Buckshot Lane of Wharton County, Texas.
Don’t let the name get us off to a wrong start. Though it instantly brings to mind images of wild shootouts, the truth of its origin is much tamer. When he was just a lad, his father perched him on a watermelon, and a family member observed that the youngster’s eyes “looked a little buckshot.” The moniker stuck, and a legend was in the making.
As a young man, Buckshot supported himself with a paper route, delivering the day’s news to houses throughout the county. But when he fell in love and got married, he decided he needed a better income, so he ran for sheriff. Some old-timers claim his campaign slogan was “Vote for me, or get your paper in the mud.” Apparently the threat worked because folks in Wharton County elected Buckshot to office by a huge margin, launching a career of public service that lasted for over twenty years.
Buckshot soon proved the good citizens of Wharton County had made the right choice and earned a reputation for honesty and treating people fairly. This was back before the word criminologist had ever been coined, so Sheriff Buckshot employed a common sense approach to law enforcement that seemed to work just fine. He always said there was a difference between the repeat offender and the “accidental” criminal who made a “dishonest mistake,” and he treated the people he had to arrest appropriately.
Apparently those occasional accidental criminals were sometimes less a thorn in Buckshot’s side than the local politicians, whom he seemed to have an ongoing conflict with. More often than not, when politics got in the way of a good decision, Sheriff Buckshot took the law into his own hands, so to speak.
One famous incident concerned the Kerntleton Bridge on Highway 59. Back in the 1930s, the bridge had a bad alignment that caused several serious automobile accidents. Buckshot petitioned local and state officials to have the bridge rebuilt properly, but his requests were ignored. The matter came to a head in 1935 when three young local citizens were killed in an accident on the bridge. Soon after, the span burned mysteriously, forcing the state to rebuild a new, safer bridge.
Speculation as to who the arsonist was flew about the county, and the district attorney said he would purchase the finest suit available as a reward for whoever turned in the culprit. Sheriff Lane waited for ten years until the statute of limitations had run out on the crime, then promptly turned himself in and demanded his new suit.
Dealing with bootleggers, cowboys, and rough field hands, Buckshot was involved in quite a few gunfights. After one shootout, he counted 52 bullet holes in his car and yet another in the hat he was wearing! Buckshot managed to throw some lead back, and his assailant was taken to the hospital where, as Buckshot later told the story, the bad guy “never got over it.”
Sheriff Lane started out carrying a surplus World War I German Luger pistol, but after a gun battle in which three bullets went through a suspect without stopping him, the lawman switched over to a Colt .45 semiautomatic, appreciating the stopping power of the big slab-sided handgun.
In those days, there was little formal training for lawmen – they were handed a gun and badge and told to get to work. Buckshot was a man of science and taught himself the art of fingerprinting suspects.
When he decided the Sheriff’s Department needed an airplane, the County Commissioners overruled him. Not to be outdone, he taught himself to fly and launched a fund-raising campaign, asking citizens to donate $1 each, with the slogan “A buck for Buckshot.” He promised that everyone who donated would get their name painted on the side of the airplane and soon raised $6,500 to become one of the country’s first flying lawmen.
Decades before John Walsh brought America’s Most Wanted to the airwaves, Sheriff Buckshot Lane had his very own radio show on radio station KULP in El Campo. The sheriff was at the microphone every morning for a fifteen-minute spot, where he was not above warning the local hooligans that he was after them. It was common for Buckshot to say, “Now, Jimmy Smith, you know you’ve got a warrant out for your arrest. Don’t make me come looking for you!” More often than not, the wife beaters, bad check artists, and petty thieves heeded the warning and turned themselves in, not wanting to incur the wrath of Buckshot Lane.
Over time, tales of the flamboyant lawman from Wharton County got out, and national magazines like Time, Life, and the Saturday Evening Post sent reporters to interview the rural sheriff with the big reputation. Before long Buckshot was in demand as a speaker, and between spending his days chasing criminals and his evenings speaking at Rotary dinners and Ladies Club functions across the region, he spent many hours in the air, flying from one duty to another. Eventually he was even given his own column in the Houston Post. There is little doubt that if he had wanted to, Buckshot Lane could have gone on to a career far beyond the boundaries of his little rural Texas county.
But Buckshot wasn’t interested. He never forgot where he came from, and was never happier than when he was cruising the back roads and the parking lots of the local honkytonks on the lookout for troublemakers and keeping the peace for the citizens who trusted the paperboy enough to give him a badge.
Thought For The Day – Happiness is a direction, not a place.