January 03, 2011
Some common misconceptions about the early Texas Rangers include that they were every bit as good looking as Robert Redford and all stood at least as tall as John Wayne. Well, nothing could be further from the truth. And just like dynamite, some of the most explosive Rangers came in small packages. One of these men, Dan Westbrook, was one of the most memorable characters I've ever known.
Daniel Webster Westbrook was born in Menard County, Texas, two days after Christmas in 1895. His father, Bud Westbrook, owned the Cottonwood Saloon and was also a notable livestock man in the area. I think it is safe to say that Dan grew up chasing wild cattle and riding wilder horses. Most of his classmates didn't have a clue who statesman and orator Daniel Webster was--nor would they have cared if they had known--but they all respected the legend of Daniel Boone. So Dan Westbrook grew up being called "Boone" by his friends and classmates.
As a young man Dan helped his father in the ranching business and generally made his living around the Texas Hill Country town of Menard. When World War I broke out, however, Dan anted up and went "Over There" for a little action. He found it in the Army Signal Corps. The Signal Corps taught Dan to send the Morse Code using a set of flags and put him up in an observation balloon to report enemy movements along the front lines. That's right: He was suspended in a balloon so close to the front lines that he could observe enemy troop movement.
Now, one has to wonder that if Dan could see the Germans, couldn't the Germans see Dan? They could. And they did what any other soldiers would have done. They shot at him.
They shot holes in his gondola. They shot holes in his balloon. And they came pretty close to shooting holes in Dan, too. When I asked him if that wasn't tough duty, he just laughed and said, "Hell, son, it was tougher than a Montana boot!"
Where Dan got the saying "tougher than a Montana boot" is anyone's guess. He applied it with equal ease to tough situations, tough livestock, and tough men. He liked a buckskin horse with black feet and a Colt Single Action for the same reason: They were both tougher than a Montana boot.
Of course, the description pretty well had Dan pegged, too. Dan stood just a few inches over five feet tall. At the most, in his prime, he was only about five foot, five inches in height. But he could cover the ground that he stood on, you can bet on that.
PEACETIME WAS TOO PEACEFUL
Coming home from World War I, he soon found that ranch life was getting entirely too peaceful. Dan tried his hand at ranching for a while, and then he took a job as a livestock inspector for the Livestock Sanitary Commission. He got so good at judging livestock that many of the area banks would use him to evaluate a herd before they would make a loan on it.
Sometime around the beginning of the Depression, Dan went to work in law enforcement. Back in those days, the Texas Rangers numbered way less than 100 men, and these 100 men covered the entire state of Texas. To beef up their forces, the state allowed the Rangers to employ investigators and that is how Dan was first hired. As a State Investigator, in an undercover capacity, Dan was sent in to some of the oilfield boomtowns to get the lowdown on who was behind the crime and corruption. Armed with this information, the Rangers would then swoop into the boomtown and make quick work of cleaning it up. When a spot in the regular Ranger force became open, Dan was invited to join.
The state of Texas standard issue were the Winchester Model 94 carbine in .30-30 and the Colt Single Action Army in .45 Colt. The state also had a few Colt 1911s in .45 ACP and .38 Super that an officer could be issued if he wanted them. Dan chose a 1911 in .38 Super. Dan's packing guns, however, were as interesting a collection of firearms as I've known any lawman to carry. His favorite rifle was a Winchester Model 1892 carbine in .38-40 caliber with a barrel that must have measured about 15 inches. He liked it because it was short enough to be handy in and out of a saddle scabbard, and it also fit quite nicely on the dashboard of his Ranger car. The Model 1892 carbine was manufactured by Winchester from 1892 until 1941 and was very popular because of its compact size. The Model 1892 was essentially a scaled-down Model 1886 action that was designed to shoot the popular pistol cartridges of the day. Westbrook's sidegun was a Colt single action, also in .38-40, that was nickel plated and wore stag grips. A good gunsmith had very carefully shortened the gun's barrel and ejector-rod housing to an even four inches and refitted them to the Colt's frame. This extra-short barrel length was handy for a man of Westbrook's short stature. Dan packed this Colt SAA in an A.W. Brill holster that was built in Austin, Texas. This is the style that is currently listed as the 1920 Austin holster in the El Paso Saddlery (Dept. ST, Box 27194, El Paso, TX 79926) catalog.
Now, back in those days, the ammunition manufacturers made a carbine load for the .38-40 that drove a 180-grain JSP bullet at some 1700 fps. And they also made a lead-bullet load at some 800 fps for handguns and older rifles.
Westbrook's shotgun was a Winchester Model 1887 lever action in 12 gauge. This gun had been shortened to riot-gun length and had a quite colorful history. Dan's father had acquired the gun from Capt. Dan Roberts, an early-days Ranger. Dan's mother used the shotgun to kill a man who was trying to break into her house.
Like a lot of the old-time officers, Dan was very reluctant to talk about the killings he had been involved in. "Difficulties" he often called them. Once in passing, Dan made reference to going into a camp after a cow thief who jerked up a chopping ax and came at Westbrook.
"I told him to drop the ax, or I'd shoot him with my Winchester," Dan said. "And a man ought to keep his word."
Throughout his entire career as an investigator and a Texas Ranger, Dan Westbrook's duty sidearm of choice was the Colt SAA.
Along about 1940, Dan's captain was transferred to the Rio Grande border to take over Ranger Company D. Dan went with him. Still a livestock man at heart, Dan's Ranger specialty was livestock thefts, and he often worked the Rio Grande on horseback. Company D also took in the area of Duvall and Jim Wells Counties, which were the lair of the fabled Duke of Duval. Dan took all of that in stride and pretty well corralled the tough ones regardless of their size.
EMENT TO A QUIET LIFE
In 1948, Westbrook retired from the Texas Rangers and returned home to Menard County to again take up ranching. In the 1970s, I would often drive down to see Dan in the company of my good friends Ben Choate and his son Benford. At that time, Dan was living just down the road in the little town of London, Texas. He lived alone in a little frame house that he kept neat as a pin. Ben and I would sit for hours as Dan puffed his King Edwards cigars and told stories of the old days.
Along about this time, Dan noticed that I generally wore some sort of Colt Model 1911 pistol usually in .45 ACP. His comment was off the cuff and consisted of the sentiment that they might be all right if a fellow couldn't afford a good Colt single action. He cautioned me to be sure and shoot the pistol every morning, so that I could be sure that it wouldn't jam. Later on, on one of my next visits, I was carrying my ivory-handled .45 Colt SAA.
"Well," said Dan, "I see you've finally wised up and gotten a good gun."
"Well, Dan," I allowed. "I've had this one all along. And I own several other Colt single actions, too."
Dan darned near spit that King Edwards cigar across the kitchen. "Then what in the world have you been carrying that automatic piece of junk for?" he demanded.
Long ago, Westbrook already had worked it out: If you were going to carry a handgun, it ought to be a Colt single action; if you were going to carry a rifle, it ought to be a Winchester lever action. "Both of them guns are tougher'n a Montana boot, son!"
Some 10 years later, my friends and I followed Dan on his last ride. At the time of his death, he was the oldest living Texas Ranger. Rangers and other lawmen gathered in the little cemetery at Menard, Texas, to say adios. To most of us, he had been a dear friend, an advisor, a confidant. For me, he was the kind of officer that I wanted to be: a man of his word, a friend to the decent folks, a lawman who used force only when it was necessary, and then a big enough man not to brag about it.
If you're ever in Menard, Texas, visit the little cemetery. At the back end, up the hill, stands a tombstone that reads: "Daniel Webster Westbrook. . .Tougher Than A Montana Boot."