Outnumbered 4-to-1 by Comanche and Kiowa warriors, Sergeant E.H. Cobb and his Texas Rangers counted on the newly issued, multishot rifles.
There was scant warmth in the winter sunlight, and Sergeant Edward H. Cobb’s lips must have been chapped and his neck windgalled by 40 miles of hard riding across the sere plains of Wise County, Texas. Cobb, 10 other Texas Rangers and two citizen volunteers had been on the trail of a band of Kiowa and Comanche raiders since leaving camp at Perryman Station early that morning, February 7, 1871. Now, cresting a rise overlooking the North Fork Hickory Creek on the Denton/Wise County line, they finally sighted their quarry, clustered in a patch of low ground almost 600 yards to the southeast. As the weary Rangers gathered around their sergeant and awaited orders, the startled Indians arrayed themselves for battle and shouted dares and abuse at the Texans in a profane argot of trader’s Spanish, broken English and their own languages.
Gazing down on the defiant marauders, Cobb pondered his options. He had already lost one man when a Ranger’s mount played out during the chase, forcing its rider to turn back for camp. Cobb counted 41 braves below, many brandishing rifles. His horses were nearing the ragged edge of exhaustion, and there were perhaps 21⁄2 hours of daylight left. He watched as one brave left the group, cantered up a piece of high ground to their rear and checked to see if any more riders were coming up behind the Rangers before rejoining his comrades with the news that the enemy’s strength was limited to the ones visible on the crest of the rise. Cobb’s men were game for a fight but badly outnumbered. Still, if he let the hostiles escape, he might lose their trail in the coming darkness, allowing them time and distance in which to scourge more settlements or subsequently lay an ambush for his own men when they resumed the pursuit.
Perhaps taking a leaf from the tactical book of his old Confederate commander Stonewall Jackson, the Virginia-born Cobb opted for audacity. Dispatching one of the citizen volunteers eastward in search of potential reinforcements at the closest settlement, Cobb distributed extra ammunition to his men and calmly ordered them to tighten their saddle girths and check the loads in their carbines before leading them down off the rise and toward the brushy banks of the shallow creek bed. The modest depression offered the best defensive ground in the area, and Cobb had already marked it as a fallback position if worse came to worst.
The warriors had been making short mock charges toward the enemy until the Rangers started moving, and as they reached the creek, the tribesmen (half mounted, the rest afoot) withdrew from the low ground and retired several hundred yards upslope on the prairie swell that rose behind them to the southeast. Feeling he had “the bulge” on them, Cobb resumed his advance from the creek and led his men through the waist-high, winter-bitten expanse of buffalo grass that carpeted the prairie. Spurring their mounts across the low ground at a canter and nearing the opposing rise, they rode with carbines poised and their hammers at full cock.
The lawmen were confident of their weaponry as they rode into battle. Most Rangers still carried the state-issued single-shot, breech-loading .50-caliber Sharps carbines, but in an uncharacteristic bout of largesse the Adjutant General’s Office had issued Cobb’s entire Company F of the frontier force with new Model 1866 Winchester carbines. Each of the brass-framed repeaters carried 13 rounds of .44 rimfire cartridges in its tubular magazine. No one on the plains was better armed than Cobb’s patrol on this waning February day. Each Texan carried a revolver and a belt knife as well for close-in work, but except for their sergeant and comrade William Caruthers, none of the Rangers had ever been in combat, and the youngest man in the patrol was barely 16 years old.
Their horses’ hooves threw up clods of earth behind them as the Texans headed upslope. A recent snowmelt had softened the ground, and the already flagging mounts had to work harder as they closed the range on the hostiles, who had deployed online partway up the rise, with their mounted men positioned on the flanks. Young Sittanke and Oska Horseback, namesake sons of prominent Kiowa and Comanche chieftains, led the painted raiders poised on the grassy shoulder. Their presence guaranteed it would be a bitter fight.
The oncoming frontiersmen closed within 80 yards of the line of screaming braves when Cobb saw them readying their bows and guns to fire. He called to his men to halt, dismount and seek cover in the rank grass. Reining to a sudden stop, the Rangers vaulted from their saddles and fell to earth just as a storm of bullets and arrows ripped through their ranks. Incredibly, the Indian volley touched neither man nor horse.
The Texans fired a round apiece in reply, and then the mounted braves quirted their ponies forward in a charge, followed closely by the footmen. Ranger Andrew J. Sowell later surmised the Indians did not realize their enemy was armed with repeating rifles and thus hoped to overrun them while they were still reloading. When Cobb’s men kept working the levers of their carbines and sent two more volleys ripping out within seconds, several braves took wounds and a horse fell dead beneath its rider in front of the white ranks.
Stunned by the Texans’ firepower, the braves split and swerved around the Ranger line to retreat and regroup upslope. They rallied and charged again, the mounted warriors striking Cobb’s flanks while the rest dashed against his center in a head-on rush, lances poised for killing thrusts. Spreading out, the Rangers maintained a steady fire, breaking up the attack and wounding several more Indian mounts. Another such attack quickly followed, and again the smoking Winchesters repulsed the Indians.
Still another attack followed, with .44 rounds claiming a brave and yet another pony. The Rangers and their well trained horses held and remained unscathed by Indian fire.
The tribesmen’s tactics seemed to hinge upon wearing down the enemy’s numbers and firepower before overrunning them in a final massed assault, but the Winchesters’ sleeting fire kept the hostiles from ever getting in close enough to start bleeding the enemy with losses.
At one point, Private Sowell related, two brash young braves mounted a mule in tandem and “made a run together.” Several Rangers fired as one, and the mule dropped in its tracks. “The Indians were thrown to the ground but quickly sprang to their feet and ran back,” Sowell wrote, “neither being hit, though fired at several times.” The tall grass aided their escape, and shortly afterward another brave used it to shield his approach as he crawled to within 60 yards of the enemy line. Swathed in animal hides and wearing a horned buffalo headdress, he rose up from the greenery and, snorting like a bull and screaming wild cries by turns, he ran forward in an effort to frighten and stampede the frontiersmen’s horses. Private A. Judson Wilhoit was nearest to him and fired a shot that raised dust from the headdress and made it “crack loudly.” The warrior kept on coming, his screams rising above the sound of battle. Wilhoit chambered another round and fired again. Having failed to spook the horses and no doubt bearing at least one wound, the faux buffalo hastily retreated. Sowell speculated that the Rangers’ horses were by that time simply too tired to bolt and run at any provocation.
The fight had been raging for almost 90 minutes by then, and the sun was sinking ever lower in the west, a red disk visible through the cloud of powder smoke that shrouded the little creek valley. Sergeant Cobb knew he had been extremely lucky up to that point and ordered his men to remount and assume a new position on the slope of the swell that rose to the northwest of the low ground to their rear. He likely hoped that by forcing the enemy to attack uphill, he might put the glare of the sinking sun in their eyes, thus hampering their marksmanship.
Maintaining a steady fire to hold the hostiles at bay, the Texans remounted and began their withdrawal. The tribesmen thought they were giving up the fight and trying to break contact. Eager to destroy what they presumed to be a beaten and retreating enemy, the Indians closed in. The Rangers’ horses were near collapse, and some of them lagged behind in the movement. Ranger Gus Hasroot was at the rear of the group when he saw a warrior closing on him with lance in hand. Turning in his saddle, he snapped off a shot from his carbine, and the brave slumped dead from his mount. Hasroot’s comrades noticed his predicament and wheeled about to cover him as he caught up with the group.
As the mounted warriors swarmed about the Rangers, the braves on foot caught up with the fight and arrived shooting. Now the Texans began suffering wounds even as more braves fell before their fire in a close-range struggle. Sixteen-year-old Ranger Billy Sorrells felt a pistol ball slam into his left side. Bleeding heavily, he dismounted and kept firing from the cover of his horse until he collapsed in the grass. Seeing this as an omen of victory, Oska Horseback rallied his Comanches and led another charge. Several Winchesters cracked in unison, and the chieftain pitched out of his saddle, dead before he hit the ground. Disheartened, his warriors withdrew. Leadership now fell upon the Kiowa Sittanke, who rode among the braves, exhorting them to launch yet another assault. Sergeant Cobb calmly formed his men in a perimeter around the fallen Sorrells and had them dismount again. They thumbed fresh rounds into their magazines and stood waiting for the next onslaught.
Sittanke led his braves forward in a screaming mass frontal attack. Charging up to within a few yards of the Rangers with a pistol smoking in his hand, he reeled in the saddle when one of the Rangers punched a .44 round through his chest, killing him instantly. Another brave fell dead at the same time, while others felt the lash of wounds. Seemingly certain victory had become yet another costly repulse at the muzzles of what the tribesmen called the Texan “medicine guns.”
With both of their leaders dead and too many braves left killed or wounded, the raiders lost heart and quit the fight, seeking to break contact with the Rangers and disappear into the gathering dusk. Sergeant Cobb led a brief pursuit of the enemy as they fled westward into the dying sun, but faltering horses and a shortage of ammunition soon forced him to abandon the chase. Returning to the battle site, the Rangers lifted the scalps from those slain warriors whose bodies they could find in the failing light.
The men placed Billy Sorrells back in his saddle and were subsequently rejoined by the courier who had gone for help, plus a local settler. As darkness fell, the newcomer led the patrol six miles eastward to the nearest settlement, where he summoned a doctor for the wounded man. His comrades expected Sorrells to die, but he made a full recovery and continued to serve. Private A.J. Sowell went on to author several valuable historical studies of frontier Texas, among them a vivid account of this encounter. Cobb’s company commander later commended the sergeant for his leadership, and the adjutant general published a general order declaring that the people of the state of Texas owed their thanks to the small band of Rangers for their skill and courage. The action became known as the Keep Ranch Fight, in reference to the nearest landmark, an abandoned stockman’s outpost.
Also called simply Cobb’s Fight, the battle was typical of a thousand such encounters fought on the Texas frontier. The Rangers’ February 1871 victory did not end the Indian men ace, but it resulted in the deaths of two noted young leaders and put the Kiowas and Comanches on notice that the newly reconstituted Texas Rangers were well armed and every bit as aggressive a force as that led decades earlier by such captains as Jack Hays and “Rip” Ford. They could no longer prey on the settlements south of the Red River with impunity. Discipline, good leadership and superior arms technology had gained the victory on the banks of the North Fork Hickory Creek.
Today the little town of Sliddell rises on the prairie west of the creek, and a custom motorcycle shop occupies the low ground that hosted the Indians on the Rangers’ arrival. The grass is sparser and shorter than in 1871, but the wind still carries echoes of a time when two warrior races clashed
with equal valor.
Wayne Austerman, historian at the U.S. Army Medical Department Center & School at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, writes often about Texas military history and visited the Keep Ranch Fight site several years ago. Suggested for further reading: Rangers and Pioneers of Texas, by Andrew Jackson Sowell; Lone Star Justice: The First Century of the Texas Rangers, by Robert M. Utley; and The Texas Rangers: Wearing the Cinco Peso, 1821–1900, by Mike Cox.
Originally published in the October 2012 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.