“He won’t be back until morning,” Billy Jack said as they rode up to the old cow boss’s pasture at dusk. “Open the gate and let’s go,” he told Michael. “We’ll find the cattle in the moonlight.”

Riding in the shadows, they couldn’t afford to be seen. After closing the gate behind them, the two quietly mounted their horses, readied their ropes, and rode out in search of the fattest cattle—free for the taking. They’d worked for the owner of the cattle and knew the pasture well. They cut four head from the herd—a number the boss wouldn’t immediately notice—then set off on their 125-mile drive to a ranch where an unsuspecting buyer would dole out a big payoff. On the way to sell their take, they stopped at a saloon for a few drinks while their horses and cattle stood outside. “You’ll see, Michael,” Billy Jack said, sitting sideways at the bar, “we’ll sell these calves and be on our way. We won’t get caught.”

This may sound like a scene from a century ago, but Billy Jack and Michael rode in a pickup truck and drove the stolen cattle in a stock trailer. The year was 2010, but cattle theft these days isn’t all that different than what it was in the late-1800s: all a thief needs is a motive and some cow sense. Perpetrators range from day work cowboys, down on their luck and in search of quick cash, to small-time ranchers trying to remedy the loss of money on a cow deal, to large-scale operators trying to deceive an unsuspecting banker. And just like lawmen of the Old West, today’s special rangers utilize frontier skills such as tracking, reading brands, cow sense, and gut instinct—in addition to the latest modern technology—to carry out their duties. Then and now, their goal remains the same, enforcing the eighth commandment: thou shall not steal.

It was said in the Old West, all a man needed to get into the cattle business was a rope, a runnin’ iron, and the nerve to use it. Cattle theft in the West became a serious problem after the Civil War, so much so that groups of cowmen formed associations like the Kansas Livestock Association and the Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association to combat the problem, along with other issues of concern to cattlemen. Some states—like New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming—formed state agencies to employ law enforcement agents especially for cattle theft prevention and investigation.

In Graham, Texas, in 1877, cattlemen organized to keep watch over each other’s cattle and to eradicate cattle theft in the area. The association debuted as the Stock-Raisers’ Association of North-West Texas, and the name evolved into the present-day Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association (TSCRA), encompassing Texas and Oklahoma. One of its founders, ranching legend James C. Loving, was named as secretary. Today, the 140-year-old organization continues to employ special rangers—a group of lawmen—who specialize in investigating cattle theft and other ranch-related crimes. Thirty rangers are stationed across Texas and Oklahoma, as cattle theft is just as concerning for ranchers now as it was in 1877.

Billy Jack and Michael finally made their way to the buyer’s ranch at 3:00 a.m. Impatient and ready to get the deal done, they knocked on the door of the ranch hand’s house, “Hey, we have some cattle to sell. We’ve come a long way. Can you come out?” Billy Jack pleaded. The ranch hand cracked the door and hollered, “Come back around 7:00 a.m., I can’t pay you until the boss is up.” By 7:15 a.m., the boys had returned with their cattle. The ranch hand weighed the cattle and retrieved two checks, one for Billy Jack and one for Michael. This was his job—he did it all the time—but something kept nagging at his conscience and he grew more suspicious by the minute. Why did these cowboys haul cattle this far when they passed a couple of sale barns along the way? Why were saddled horses in their trailer at 3:00 a.m.?

The fact that most cowmen don’t haul cattle two hours to sell them, with saddled horses, in the middle of the night, isn’t something that would raise the average person’s—or even law officer’s—eyebrow. Billy Jack and Michael knew that the TSCRA employs market inspectors at every sale barn who keep records of all cattle going through the barn, and write down all markings, including cattle brands. This makes a sale barn a riskier place to sell stolen cattle. What the thieves didn’t count on, however, is the vast, yet close-knit, ranching community that does their part to combat cattle theft by reporting suspicious activity to law enforcement.

“Boss, I need to tell you something,” the ranch hand began. After he finished the story, his boss sat back in his chair and stared out the window. “It never hurts to check these things out. Let’s call the special ranger,” he finally said.

The TSCRA special rangers carried out their duties much in the same way as the rangers back in 1893 did—when they became commissioned peace officers—checking pastures on horseback, gathering information from the ranching community, and drawing from years of experience, training, and gut instinct.

TSCRA special rangers aren’t the same as Texas Rangers. Special rangers investigate livestock theft and theft of agriculture equipment for its members and are paid solely by the TSCRA. Special rangers in Texas get their policing authority from a commission provided by the Texas Department of Public Safety. The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation carries the Oklahoma special rangers’ commissions. All special rangers have state police authority, enabling them to work throughout their respective states.

The special rangers uniform is much like that of the well-known Texas Rangers—a completely separate law enforcement group funded by the Texas Department of Public Safety—with light colored hats, western shirts, boots, a tooled leather gun belt, and a badge pinned to the front of their shirt. These days, most special rangers carry automatic pistols, often the 1911 Colt .45. Their badges are made from stamped 1947–48 Mexican cinco pesos because of the high silver content in those years.

Today, special rangers use pickup trucks, computers, and smartphones for cattle theft investigations. A specialized computer program helps them search for cattle brands and seller histories. Even social media has its place in modern cattle theft investigations. One special ranger in West Texas used Facebook when a cattle thief jumped bail. A search revealed that the cattle thief posted cattle for sale, listing his current address in another state. That’s all law enforcement needed to find and arrest the thief and bring him back to justice.

From the phone in his office, Special Ranger Doug Hutchison listened to the cattle buyer’s story. “Okay, tell me their names, what they’re driving, and the description of the cattle,” Hutchison said. The buyer rattled off the requested information, then added, “We think something fishy is going on.” As soon as he hung up, Hutchison grabbed his hat, fastened his gun belt, got into his police truck, and headed to the buyer’s ranch to make his report.

As luck would have it, a truck and trailer passed, matching the exact description the buyer gave, going the opposite way on the farm-to-market road. Switching on the red and blue flashing lights mounted inside the windshield in his truck, Hutchison made a U-turn and grabbed his police radio to request a backup trooper from the Texas Department of Public Safety. The truck and trailer slowed, pulled over, and came to a complete stop. Hutchison opened his door, and his 6-foot-7-inch frame unfolded from the truck. He wore a white shirt, his silver badge, and the Colt .45 fit snug in the tooled holster at his side. He walked cautiously and slowly to the driver side window, keeping an eye on the activity in the cab at all times. “Will you both step out of the truck, please?” he asked.

Special Ranger Hutchison separated the two. The DPS trooper had arrived and was keeping Billy Jack out of earshot. Hutchison asked Michael, “Did you two just sell four head of cattle to the ranch down the road here?”

“Yes, sir, we did. They were our cattle and we brought them from our lease pasture near Lometa,” he replied. The same question posed to Billy Jack produced a different answer.

“We brought them from Florence,” he said.

Lometa and Florence happen to be 50 miles apart. Slowly, the boys’ stories began to fall apart. After a long interrogation, Special Ranger Hutchison determined that their stories didn’t add up and that neither was true.

“Do you still have the checks the buyer gave you?” Hutchison asked. Billy Jack and Michael both removed smudged, folded checks out of their shirt pockets and handed them over to the ranger.

Hutchison placed both cowboys under arrest, and he and the DPS trooper handcuffed the two cattle theives for transport to the local jail.

The job of a special ranger has always been a dangerous one. On April 1, 1923, two special rangers, Dave Allison and Horace Roberson, were shot to death by two suspected cattle thieves. The rangers were staying overnight in a hotel in Seminole, Texas, and were set to testify in a cattle theft case against Milt Good and Tom Ross the following day. In the smoke-filled and dimly lit Gaines Hotel lobby on a Sunday evening, Good and Ross stormed in and shot both Allison and Roberson. Despite Roberson’s wife returning fire and wounding the two murderers, Good and Ross got away before eventually turning themselves in. Outrage over the murders and the trials that followed became the talk of Texas cowmen in the months that followed.

As shocking as it is that cattle theft still poses a threat in this day and time, the opportunities are timeless. Cattle still roam in large pastures, often unbranded and unmonitored. Livestock is expensive, making the payoff a big one. But it’s also a huge gamble.

Stealing cattle in Texas is no longer a hanging offense, but the charge is still a third-degree felony that carries a penalty of two to 10 years. But in 2011, one frustrated convicted cattle thief, Roddy Dean Pippin, filed a motion asking to be hanged, wearing his boots and spurs, while sitting on his horse. Pippin had been upset over the amount of time left on his sentence and preferred hanging to serving out the remaining time in a Texas prison. His motion was denied.

In Texas, if three or more people are involved in two or more crimes, the charge can be escalated to organized crime, a second-degree felony, which happened in one notable cattle theft case. A knowledgeable cattleman owned several pieces of property spread over several counties. He simply couldn’t be everywhere at once, so he employed a ranch manager—a trusted employee who had managed one of his ranches for 16 years. The hired ranch manager was a deacon in his church and a respected member of the community.

In 2010, a TSCRA special ranger was called in to investigate when a branded cow was spotted by the rancher’s friend at an out-of-the-way sale barn. The investigation sadly revealed that the ranch manager, along with the housekeeper, the housekeeper’s son, and daughter-in-law organized a way to supplement their income. The ranger surmised the theft had begun several years earlier. The thieves took cattle to far-away sale barns, used the ranch truck, and collected checks in various family members’ names, even that of a toddler. Due to the number of people involved and the number of cattle thefts, the charge of cattle theft in this case was escalated to organized crime. Records showed that in the year prior to the arrests, the ranch manager and his accomplices sold 97 cows for a total of $34,028.40.

Cattle theft can also be in the form of bank fraud, when a rancher knowingly mortgages cattle that don’t exist, or sells the mortgaged cattle without repaying the note. One such case involved a man who would point to a herd of cattle to satisfy his banker that the mortgaged cattle were safely in their rightful pasture, when all the while he’d sold the cattle long ago. The cattle he pointed to belonged to someone else.

“Your stories just don’t add up. Why don’t you tell me where you got the cattle you sold,” Special Ranger Hutchison said to Michael on the way to the jail.

“Well, I might as well tell you. Billy Jack was desperate for some cash and we got them from our old boss,” Michael confessed.

By the time Hutchison and Michael (followed by the trooper and Billy Jack) arrived at the local jail, both cowboys had confessed to both officers. The two checks Hutchison recovered from the thieves totaled $2,068.10.

Billy Jack and Michael pleaded guilty, and ultimately received probation. The victim—their old boss—received total restitution.

Cattle rustlers remain a threat to ranchers as long as cattle roam in pastures. The punishment can be severe, as the act of stealing cattle isn’t simply taking an animal, it’s stealing the victim’s livelihood. Just the same, as long as cattle rustlers roam our free country, special rangers remain in place to protect the livelihood of cattle ranchers, whether the year is 1877 or 2017.

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