Longhorn arm of the law
Rangers like John Cummings and Joe Rector crisscross Oklahoma and Texas, trying to stem cattle rustling, which is on the rise.
Like all good cowboy stories, this one's been told and retold, passed down and around, shaped and honed until it shimmers with firelight and the red-orange blaze of a thousand Oklahoma suns. It doesn't matter if everyone in the room knows the ending. Tommy Morgan's eyes are bright with merriment, and it's clear he's enjoying every minute of this.Skip to next paragraph
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"I was at the Tulsa Stockyards when I saw 'em, and my friend said 'Let's go over there and I'll choke the – out of 'em,' " the rancher says, demonstrating what his irate buddy would have done to the two guys they suspected had stolen 12 saddles – $18,000 worth – from Mr. Morgan's barn. "I was yelling, 'I've got 'em, I've got 'em,' flipping through the phone book tryin' to find someone to call."
John Cummings – the guy he eventually called – grins broadly. He likes this story as much as Morgan does. As a newly minted special ranger for the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, he's part of an elite cadre – a 29-member task force roaming 96.5 million miles across Oklahoma and Texas, investigating agriculture thefts by authority of the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation and/or the Texas Department of Public Safety.
A lot of people think cattle rustling and horse thievery went out with the Conestoga wagon. They didn't. In fact, the problem has been increasing in recent years, especially in Texas and Oklahoma, where, until recently, a three-year drought increased the price of beef and thus thefts. Last year alone, rangers working the region recovered nearly $5 million in stolen property, including 3,716 head of cattle, 144 horses, 10 trailers, and 18 saddles.
It's a job some say is too big, too specialized for mainstream law enforcement to handle. So for the past 130 years, the "good guys in the white hats" – and these guys do wear white hats – have filled the breach, trying to learn new ways to cope with an old crime.
It's tougher than it used to be. Cattle rustlers were once limited to what they could round up and herd off on horseback. Now, fast cars and faster highways allow for rapid transport of stolen goods. A thief can steal a trailer of cattle in Houston and sell them in Baton Rouge by daylight for a cool $20,000. Absentee ranchers, lax branding practices, and auction yards where a man's handshake is a contract compound the problem. Imagine trying to find 20 unbranded Black Angus cattle being sold at any of the hundreds of stockyards across the region. The Oklahoma National Stockyards sees as many as 14,000 head change hands each week.
Today's a good day for Mr. Cummings. Less than a month on the job, the Morgan theft was his first case, and he's just visiting to go over final details – dropping off a disc containing the thieves' confessions and making sure the last of Morgan's saddles are on their way from Florida, where they were eventually found.
Dressed in typical ranger wear – jeans, Carhartt button-down shirt, and a substantial cowboy hat – Cummings eases his stocky body into a worn recliner and makes small talk with Morgan and his wife, Nellie. Though not a rancher himself, too clean-shaven and polite to fit the image of a leathery cowboy, he does run a small cow/calf herd – "just enough to play with." It's clear that his country upbringing, days spent roaming the fields, riding horses, baling hay, and raising pigs for competitions, has served him well. He says because of the way he was brought up, he understands people like the Morgans and respects their way of life – a way of life he hopes in some small way to preserve.