Late one winter night, under cover of darkness, two young calves were stolen from a ranch in Alvarado, Texas. Someone cut a wire fence bordering the property, allowing a four-wheeler to trundle onto the pasture. The calves, an Angus and a Black Baldy, were loaded into a goat cage and driven seventy miles west, along Highway 67, to a cattle barn in Stephenville. Witnesses recall seeing two men collect a claim ticket for the animals. One of the men, wearing a wide-brimmed cowboy hat, kept his chin tucked to his chest, concealing his face. His partner, hatless, presented the clerk at the cattle barn with a driver’s license in his own name. Several hours later, the calves were sold at auction—the Angus to the agent of a dairy barn in Blanket, the Baldy to a rancher in Bluff Dale, who planned to use the animal to practice roping. By sunset, before the calves’ rightful owner had even noticed their absence, the men had already received a check for the sum of the two sales and disappeared into the dusk.
Cattle rustling, signature crime of the Old West, has returned to Texas. Rates of cattle theft in the state have risen fivefold in less than a decade. The thefts take many forms. Some resemble the Alvarado case, in which cattle are carried off and sold to a third party. Other times, rustlers will shoot and field strip the animals, then sell their meat to an unscrupulous abattoir. There also exist white-collar variants, whereby cattle are acquired fraudulently or invested in byzantine Ponzi schemes.
Lawmen and rustlers now find themselves reenacting a centuries-old drama, one central to the creation myth of the American frontier. If the cowboy was the great American folk hero, the cattle rustler was his villainous twin. They were both lone figures seeking their fortune in the hinterlands, unbound by government or caste. But the rustler lacked an essential sense of nobility and fair play—he stole what the cowboy earned.
In Texas, when a cow or bull is reported stolen, the case is assigned to one of twenty-seven men, the employees of a trade group called the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association. The TSCRA traces its origins to 1877, when forty ranchers, plagued by rustlers, gathered outside the courthouse in Graham and pooled their money to hire men with guns to protect their herds. The group now serves more than 17,000 businesses and ranching families who collectively manage 4 million head of cattle on 76 million acres of range and pastureland. The armed men in their employ are no longer mercenaries but peace officers, deputized by the Texas Department of Public Safety as Special Texas Rangers, with full, state-sanctioned powers of investigation and arrest. The organization’s central mission, to prosecute cattle theft, remains unchanged.
Cows are raised everywhere in Texas, so TSCRA rangers are stationed throughout the state, each bearing jurisdictional responsibility over a designated area. District 10, a wedge of central Texas encompassing both Alvarado and Stephenville, is the purview of Ranger Wayne Goodman.
I met Goodman two years ago in the lobby restaurant of a hotel in Fort Worth. I was eating a Texas-shaped waffle when the ranger ambled in. Goodman is small and trim, fifty-six, with wire-rim glasses and short gray hair that’s usually hidden—when he’s not indoors or introducing himself to a lady—under a white cowboy hat. He wore full-quill ostrich boots and a pair of beautiful, floral-tooled leather belts, each held in place with two stainless-steel keepers inset with the initials “W” and “G,” leafed in gold. One belt held up his jeans and the other a holstered .45 Colt with glossy white-and-brown grips, hand-carved from the antler of a Sambar stag. (The grips, he told me later, were a birthday gift from his children.) His enormous belt buckle bore the same unusual insignia as the silver badge on his chest: a steer’s head mounted on a five-point star. Goodman walks slowly; he has been bull riding recreationally since his teens, and his gait, like his collar and cuffs, had some starch in it.
I had contacted the TSCRA when I read a story about an uptick in cattle rustling and grew curious about how a supposedly dead crime returns to life. A representative of the organization put me in touch with Goodman. (“You’ll like him,” she said. “He’s colorful.”) He offered to let me ride around with him in his truck for a week, so I made plans to get to Texas. Not long after, I was riding shotgun through the range.
Goodman wanted me to get a sense of how the cattle industry worked, so he took me to a cattle barn in Dublin. As we made our way down U.S. Route 377, a vein in the vast circulatory system of highways that surrounds the Dallas–Fort Worth Metroplex, the strip malls and plasticky housing developments abruptly gave way to scrubland and Bermuda grass. Cattle barns are the industry’s nerve centers, open-air auction houses where ranchers can buy and sell animals. For rustlers, the barns function like pawnshops, a place for them to fence their merchandise.
“These days, we got more rustlers than you can say grace over,” Goodman told me. “It used to be you didn’t catch a rustler that didn’t know cattle, or at least have some kind of agriculture in their background. Now, what with the drought, it doesn’t take much skill. Cows are so thirsty you can lead them into a trailer with just a bucket of water.”
When we reached the barn, a good number of trucks with hitched trailers were queued up, waiting to disgorge their animal cargo. It was early summer, and the hundreds of cows filling the barn kicked up thick clouds of dust. Most of these animals were being sold by calf-cow producers, the mom-and-pop ranchers who had raised them since birth and now found themselves forced by the drought to downsize their herds. Though retail beef prices were high, small-time operators were being squeezed from both ends. The cost of land, water, fuel, and grain had risen steeply, and the big meatpacking companies to which they sell were paying less and less.
The beef industry has always been a creature of monopoly. In The Jungle, Upton Sinclair railed against the beef trust as “the incarnation of blind and insensate Greed. It was a monster devouring with a thousand mouths, trampling with a thousand hoofs.” Today, power has only become more concentrated. Four companies—Cargill, JBS, Tyson, and National Beef—process more than 80 percent of the beef sold in the U.S. In the last thirty years, more than half a million cattle producers have gone out of business. Goodman explained that, in this environment, the theft of any livestock hurts. The loss of a heifer, in particular, means fewer calves in the coming seasons. “When you steal a cow, you’re really stealing a factory,” he said. “Steal two or three head, you’re putting a big dent in someone’s income.”
In the barn’s front office, a blonde woman with big hoop earrings was typing sales data into a computer. She looked up and, seeing Goodman, pulled a face. She nodded toward the star on his chest. “Wayne, don’t you be coming in here. You’ll be scaring off all our buyers.”
“Yup. I go in, thirty people go out the back door.”
After buying a cow at a sale barn, a rancher has until the end of the following day to pay for it or else the cow is considered stolen. Dublin, like all cattle barns, frequently gets stuck with a vanishing buyer or a hot check. As Goodman explained to me, smash-and-grab thefts can be pulled by just about anyone, but fraud cases are usually perpetrated by cattlemen who have fallen on hard times. The woman told us about a rancher from Utah who had just last month stiffed the barn for $20,000 worth of cattle. “He was the nicest guy,” she said, laughing. “A few days later, he called and said, ‘How about I pay you in grain hay?’”
Bidding took place in the sell ring, where ranchers—every one of them hatted, booted, and armored in a rich, red-brown rind of sunburnt skin—sat in a semicircular grandstand of faded upholstered chairs, chatting and watching the action on the floor. The buyers were mostly growers, who would try to put some quick weight on the animals before selling them off to one of the feedlots or directly to one of the big meatpacking companies, or else keep them to breed. The cattle were led out one by one and presented for inspection. An industrial-size fan, positioned near the entrance, blew away the smell and heat rising off the animals’ bodies. On a raised dais, a large, bearded gentleman murmured a nonstop stream of auctioneer glossolalia into a microphone. Each sale lasted seconds, buyers signaling interest with a nod or a raised finger. When I aimed my pen at one of the cows to ask a question, Goodman yanked it down. “Don’t point at nothing,” he whispered, “or you’re going back to New York with livestock.”
Goodman led me up to the catwalk that looked down over the barn. Below us was a great sea of cattle—hundreds of animals, cordoned into different pens according to weight and owner. They sang in chorus, emitting a titanic canon of moos. Surveying them like a lifeguard was a man in a chair that appeared to have been salvaged from the backseat of a minivan and was improbably spot-welded ten feet up a metal wall. After a cow was sold, a woman on a PA called out a pen number, cueing the man in the chair to press a red button, which opened a pneumatic gate connected to the sell ring. The cow would then charge through the gate and into a long alley where a gauntlet of young men armed with bullwhips and sorting sticks guided it into the correct pen. A rancher, reviewing these proceedings with pleasure, approached Goodman to say hello.
“You buying or selling?” Goodman asked.
“Oh, whatever strikes my fancy.”
“We had some rain lately.”
“I know,” the rancher said wistfully. “Makes a man’s eyes get big.”
When a giant longhorn bull came barreling out—“Watch out for this boy,” said the PA lady—the swatters gave it a wide berth. Longhorns, whose namesake ornaments can reach nine feet in width, tip to tip, look like mythical beasts and are the subject of many tall tales. Goodman swore that he once witnessed a longhorn hook a man’s eye socket and throw him twenty feet with a flick of her head.
Looking at the longhorn, the idea of stealing a cow seemed ridiculous. When I voiced this to Goodman, he pointed out that as a form of stolen property, cattle is actually unusually lucrative. Unlike a pawnshop, which typically pays pennies on the dollar for stolen goods, a barn will pay fair market price, less a standard four percent commission.
“You steal six good-sized heads?” Goodman said. “At ninety cents a pound, you’re pulling in at least five thousand dollars. Not a bad paycheck for a night’s work. It makes sense. If you’re a criminal.”
Cattle theft is among the oldest of crimes, and the cattle thief has traditionally ranked among the most despised of criminals. In Exodus, God, imparting the Tenth Commandment, forbids the Israelites from coveting not just their neighbors’ wives, but also their oxen. Later, God singles out livestock thieves for punishment, commanding them to make restitution of five head for every one they steal.
The special stigma surrounding cattle theft carried into the Old West. As in biblical Israel, cattle thieves in frontier Texas suffered sanctions far in excess of their offenses. With government remote and courts unreliable, many people were punished extrajudicially—shot, hanged, or subjected to more creative forms of violence. In an infamous 1876 case, a pair of rustlers, Turk Turner and James Crow, were discovered dead of suffocation near McDade. The thieves had been wrapped in raw cowhides and left in the sun; as the cowhides shrank, the men were squeezed until their eyes popped out of their sockets.
The outward hatred of rustlers masked the fact that, in the state’s earliest days, virtually everyone stole cattle. The Texas State Historical Association still tries to draw a clear line between cowboys and rustlers, insisting in its authoritative Handbook of Texas that the early rustlers were “cowboys who had drifted into dubious practices.” But, more often than not, cowboys and rustlers were one in the same. For much of the open-range era of 1866 to 1890, fences were rare, grass free, and unbranded cattle abundant. Even after Texas became a state in 1845, colossal swaths of pastureland remained in the public domain. “Mavericking”—the claiming of unmarked strays—was common practice for decades. “Cattle rustling had the dignity of history behind it,” wrote historians Joe Bertram Frantz and Julian Ernest Choate in The American Cowboy: The Myth and the Reality. “The cowboy,” they observed, “would never quite get used to the idea that any unbranded calf was not simply common property awaiting the brand of the first rider that came along.” Ambitious cowboys aspired to build their own empires, and it was a popular saying that all it took to get started was “a rope, a branding iron, and the nerve to use them.”
By the 1880s, the cattle industry had become dominated by absentee investors, many of them from the East Coast or Britain, and the informal ways of the open-range era gave way to more rigid administration. Cattlemen asserted ownership of land that was once public and enclosed it with a new invention: barbed wire. In 1875, the year before the wire became commonly employed, nine-tenths of the cattle in Texas roamed on open ranges. Within ten years, the majority of the state was fenced in.
The effective end of rustling coincided, fittingly enough, with the end of the western frontier. Before long, the great cattle drives were over and the cowboy was a relic. Rustlers, stymied by fences, low prices, and increased law enforcement, fell away, too. In 1890, the Superintendent of the Census announced that the frontier was officially closed, an event that would inspire the historian Frederick Jackson Turner to develop his famous thesis, in which he argued that the cattlemen and cowboys, hewing out an egalitarian existence on the edge of civilization, embodied the most American of traits—“that coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and acquisitiveness . . . that dominant individualism.”
Goodman wakes at 5 A.M. and, like his forebears, spends most of his daylight hours roaming the Texas plains. Last year, he put 36,000 miles on his truck, fortifying himself with coffee and the occasional dip from a tin of Long Cut Classic Skoal tobacco he keeps wedged in the center divider. In his backseat are a .30-30 Winchester rifle and various back issues of the Cattleman, a monthly publication put out by the TSCRA. Goodman safeguards the cattle of eight counties, about par for a TSCRA ranger. In addition to looking for stolen cattle, the rangers are charged with investigating the theft of ranching equipment. When I visited him, Goodman had several open cases on equipment theft, including a saddle, a tractor, ninety bales of hay—“The hay case, I’ll probably just close that because there’s no way to identify a bale of hay”—and an antique pistol boosted from a museum in Fort Worth.
While in Texas, I had occasion to meet one authentic, in-the-flesh rustler. A suspect in the Alvarado case had been arrested while walking to his job as a short-order cook and was being held in the Johnson County jail. Goodman was going to transport him to the Erath County jail, a couple of counties over, for questioning and booking.
“This kid’s up to his eyeballs,” Goodman said cheerily as we drove toward Johnson. “Word is it’s him and his half brother was doing it, but no one can ID his half brother. I’m not gonna scream and pound the table. I’m just gonna let the boy hang himself.”
When we reached the jail, Goodman parked in front of the sally port, pulled out his iPhone, and dialed a number.
“Karen? Wayne Goodman. Cow police.”
The port opened, and Goodman walked inside while I waited in the truck. Several minutes later, he emerged with a young man in a wrestling t-shirt (ripped), black jeans torn at the knees, and highlighter-yellow high-tops. The rustler was pale and skinny, with a weak chin and a scraggly goatee. He was very tall, but shackles pulled his wrists to his ankles and gave him a stoop. For the next hour, we drove in silence. I rode in the backseat, and the rustler sat shotgun, chin on his chest, snoring softly.
The interrogation room at the Erath County jail is a small, windowless office with a desk, a couple of chairs, and a dry-erase board. I had planned to wait outside while Goodman asked his questions, but the ranger wouldn’t hear of it. “You’re definitely going to want to see this,” he said.
Placing his hat on the desk, Goodman took a seat across from the rustler and started to recite the Miranda rights, but the rustler stopped him. “I’ll talk to you,” he said.
Goodman proceeded to lay out the facts of the case, about the cows having been taken off the property in Alvarado and the rustler seen claiming the check for the stolen cows. The suspect listened patiently, nodding along. When Goodman was done, the man explained that his half brother had approached him with a story about misplacing his driver’s license. His brother asked for a lift to the cattle barn but hadn’t said where he’d got the cows, and the man hadn’t asked.
“Didn’t think nothing about it,” the suspect said. “For the last two, three years, I’ve known my brother to buy, sell cattle. I always help my brother out. I didn’t think anything of it.”
“You ever go with him to sell cattle any other times?”
Goodman stared at him, tapping the table silently with his finger. “Now,” he said coolly, “I just want to be clear. You did this just once? Sold cattle together just once?”
“Just that one time, sir.”
“You’re sure now?”
“Huh.” Goodman tipped an ostrich-skin boot against the leg of the table and leaned back in his chair. “That’s funny, because there were a couple calves stolen a few weeks later, and those calves were taken to the same sale barn, in Stephenville. Now, I showed the Stephenville people your photo. And they said you were there both times.”
The rustler blinked. “Yes, sir. Yes. Yes, I was there. I remember that now. But I didn’t know they were stolen.”
Goodman leaned forward. “All this looks real bad,” he said quietly, almost sadly. “I ain’t blowin’ sunshine.”
The suspect was silent for a while. Finally, he said: “I got a pretty good idea he took those last two bulls. Two little Black Angus calves.”
“If I talk to your brother, will he tell me this is on you, not him?”
“Probably. Always been the one to take the rap for him.” He sighed. “Hell of a rap. If I’d have known those cows were stolen, there’s no way in hell I’d have gone with him. All my life I’ve been told cattle rustling is a hanging offense.”
“Well, it’s a two-to-ten-year offense,” Goodman said. “Plus a five-thousand-dollar fine.”
“Wow.” The man stared at his sneakers, eyes wide. “God. God. God.”
“You think he’d come clean if he thought it’d spare you?”
“No. My brother looks out for himself. That’s how he is. He’ll take something to the grave with him.”
“You know where I can find him?”
The rustler offered a few places to look and the kind of truck his brother drove. When he was done, Goodman stood up and put on his hat.
“I’ll tell the DA everything you told me, see what he can do.”
“It’s much appreciated, sir,” the man said. “I’m trying. I really am. I won’t go near a needle, won’t go near a crack pipe, but I’ve done pills like crazy. Drinking. Hell, I’ve drunk two bottles of SoCo and a case and a half a day. But I’m clean now. I’m keeping healthy, doing MMA. Mixed martial arts.” The rustler scratched the tattoo on his forearm, a bloody eyeball embedded in a cross.
Later, in the car, I asked Goodman how many rustlers he’d caught had been involved with drugs. “A lot,” he said.
Cattle rustling has returned, but it has also changed; if the essential act has not, its context has. Today’s rustler has no hope of parlaying a few stolen cattle into a business. Rustling is no longer an aspirational crime, but a stopgap, a stay against desperation. A single head of cattle is not the seed of an empire; it’s a payday loan, a child support payment, or cash for pills. Rustling is not, in this sense, an archaic crime at all, but a crime very much of its time and place, adapted to today’s America, in which social classes are established and the frontier, whatever it was once, has collapsed.
We drove through the Texas range, passing churches and fireworks depots and a place called Dinosaur World. In the distance, there was the occasional ranch house dotting the horizon or a big ball of hay, looking dry, proteins leached by the sun. As we got close to Fort Worth, the landscape became crowded, with liquor stores and RV parks and a billboard that showed a man wearing a white lab coat and a cowboy hat above the words THERE’S A NEW DERMATOLOGIST IN TOWN!
The metropolitan area around Dallas and Fort Worth has tripled in population in less than fifty years, with most of the new residents pouring into the pop-up subdivisions that suck away the region’s water. Goodman talked about how, every year, as the suburbs continue to grow, the land devoted to ranching shrinks. “It’s nobody’s fault really,” he said, staring down the highway. “The cities are expanding further and further and you’re losing a lot of land. Just how it is.”
In 2013, the cattle population reached its lowest levels in sixty-three years. Since then, the drought has gone into abeyance, and the numbers have risen slightly, but the trend is one of long-term decline. Feedlots and slaughtering facilities are closing. Many of the larger beef companies are packing up and moving to Kansas and Nebraska and the Dakotas, where weather is more reliable. Some ranchers are culling their herds.
All over, cows are disappearing.
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