December 23, 1891
Former Texas Ranger Ira Aten rides into the Texas Panhandle town of Dimmitt. He aims to clear up some unfinished business.
That business is in the form of attorney and local land baron Andrew McClelland, who stands just outside a dry goods store at the corner of Broadway and Jones Streets, across from the new courthouse.
Aten dismounts and ties up his horse, then asks Andrew if he still thinks Aten is a liar. “Yes,” Andrew says, but he adds he is not armed. Aten tells him to go get his gun. Andrew goes into the store to get heeled.
Andrew comes back out on the street firing with a pistol in each hand, but his shots go wild. Aten takes his time—witnesses say he holds his revolver with both hands—as he puts a bullet into Andrew’s left arm. Andrew falls on the wooden sidewalk, gets off another shot, then drops the guns, jumps up and hides behind some nearby mules. He then sprints inside the store.
As Aten holsters his .45, a bullet whizzes by, fired from behind the corner of the building just west of the store. Andrew’s brother Hugh has started shooting. Aten returns fire, the bullet going through the corner of the building and hitting his target in the neck.
Hugh is game, firing another round (it misses). Aten fires once more, again through the corner of the building; this time Hugh is hit in the back and knocked out of commission.
Ira Aten’s business is concluded.
Catching Bullets: A Fascinating Sidebar
An Amarillo, Texas, newspaper, reporting within days of the fight, had this to say: “… Aten met the McClellands on the street for the first time since they had insulted him and called him a liar, and asked them if they still said it. They replied that they did. Aten then told them they were —— lying —— ——. Andrew McClelland said he was unarmed, and Aten told him to get his gun. Hugh then said, ‘I am ready for you,’ and started as if to draw his pistol, whereupon Aten drew his revolver and waited for McClelland to produce his, but he did not pull it and Aten returned his pistol to its place. Hugh McClelland then went into his office, drew his revolver, came back to the door and began cursing Aten, who was backing off with both hands up, telling McClelland to shoot, and assuring him that he would catch the bullets.”
Published in the Memoirs of Sgt. Ira Aten, Frontier Times, February 1945
Real Estate Duel
The McClellands bought up land in and around Dimmitt, then sold it at inflated prices, while Ira Aten’s plats at a site south of town were sold for reasonable prices. The two sides argued at a public meeting in mid-1891; insults were exchanged. A few months later, a slate backed by Aten defeated the McClelland-backed candidates in the area’s first election. The McClellands wanted revenge. Ira Aten wanted satisfaction for the insults. The guns went off that December.
The Aten-Bass Connection
Ira Aten grew up in Round Rock, Texas—famed as the town where outlaw Sam Bass met his end.
Did Ira see the shoot-out that resulted in Sam Bass’s death on July 20, 1878?
Some sources say so. Bass biographer Rick Miller doubts it. Most of the townsfolk stayed behind closed doors, afraid of getting shot. It’s likely that the Aten family took the same precaution.
Aten’s father Austin, a Methodist minister, went to Bass’s deathbed the next day and offered to pray with him, but Sam turned him down. Miller believes that 15-year-old Ira probably was outside the room, looking in at that scene.
Throughout the rest of his life, Ira said that talking with the lawmen involved in the gunfight led him to become a Texas Ranger.
Aftermath: Odds & Ends
Immediately after the smoke cleared, Ira Aten surrendered to authorities. He was tried on assault charges in Tulia, about 30 miles east of Dimmitt, and found not guilty in December 1892.
Before his trial, Ira married Miss Imogen Boyce of Austin, Texas, on February 3, 1892. By the spring of 1893, he accepted the sheriff job in Castro County. Imogen helped out; she strapped on a gun and served as the county jailer for a time.
The McClelland brothers both recovered from their wounds. They were charged as well. But before trial, they sold their holdings and went back to their home state of Tennessee.
Aten served as sheriff for about two years. In 1895, he was hired to put together a private police force for the nearby XIT Ranch, which was managed by his cousin-in-law, Col. Albert G. Boyce.
In 1904, at the age of 42, Aten moved his family to the Imperial Valley of California, near the Mexican border. He ran a small spread and rode with various sheriffs’ posses over the years.
In 1923, Aten was elected to the Imperial Valley District board. During his service, that body authorized the Boulder Dam and the All-American Canal, two projects that brought water and power to the region.
Aten died on August 5, 1953. He was one month short of his 91st birthday.
Recommended: Six and One-Half Years in Ranger Service by Ira Aten, published in Frontier Times magazine, and Lone Star Man: The Life of Ira Aten by Harold Preece, published by Hastings House.