IN a bygone era, Texas cattle thieves met justice at the end of a short rope.
Today, the law goes relatively easy on longhorn larcenists, cutting loose first-time rustlers with automatic probation.
That doesn't sit right with Texas rancher Keith Duncan, who says the state has gone soft on cattle crime.
''If I was to rob you of $15,000, I'd be in a lot more serious trouble than if I stole $15,000 worth of cattle from you,'' notes Mr. Duncan, a tall, sunburned rancher who has lost 19 head of cattle in recent years from his spread near Lometa, in central Texas.
The rise in rustling -- nearly doubled in Texas since 1986 -- is a burr under the saddle of more and more United States ranchers. The Federal Bureau of Investigation's Uniform Crime Reports show that in 1989, US ranchers and farmers reported $22 million worth of stolen livestock. By 1993, $36.5 million worth of livestock was reported stolen nationwide. The surge has spawned ranchers' support of a bill in the Texas Legislature that would provide mandatory prison time for rustlers.
Today's well-equipped livestock thief bears little resemblance to the low-life characters in a Zane Grey novel. Gone are the lonely nights on the range eating biscuits and beans. Technology and the interstate-highway system speed the heist.
Packing cellular phones, CB radios, and long-neck trailers, rustlers can pluck a handful of cows from a herd. Then the thieves truck the loot to an auction a couple of hundred miles away, pocket several thousand dollars, and are in another state before the rancher notices the missing cattle.
The task of rounding up rustlers falls to the Fort Worth-based Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association (TSCRA), which employs 29 field inspectors who work exclusively on ranch and farm theft-related cases. There is no way these so-called cattle cops can patrol all of the 185,000 ranches in the state. Their most effective beat includes sale barns and livestock auctions, where stolen animals are often brought for sale.
The inspectors, who are commissioned peace officers, wear badges and carry firearms. But one of the best weapons against cattle thieves is decidedly old fashioned: the branding iron.
The TSCRA currently registers 120,000 different brands, including the famous Running W, the mark of the sprawling King Ranch in south Texas.
Keith Korenek, a newly hired TSCRA inspector, says of the brand, ''It's just like the serial number on the back of your VCR.''
But despite its importance to law enforcement, fewer cattle raisers are branding their cattle. ''Nowadays, everybody's working two or three jobs just to make a living and they don't have time to brand their cattle,'' Mr. Korenek explains.
MOST ranchers rely on ear tags and ear marks, but Korenek says a cattle thief can easily cut off the tags. ''It'd be a whole lot harder for a thief to sell the cattle if they were branded,'' he says. Korenek estimates that less than a third of the 14.8 million cattle now being raised in Texas carry a brand.
Korenek's first case involved a mule stolen from a rancher in La Grange, Texas. The animal showed up a few days later at an auction 60 miles away and was returned to its owner. The two suspects in the case have been indicted. Korenek sighs, however, acknowledging that they will get probation.
But Korenek did well. Most cattle sheriffs seldom get their cow -- chances of finding a stolen animal are slim. In 1993 only about 12 percent of all the livestock stolen in the US was returned to its rightful owner. Many ranchers are slow to report missing cattle because the animals often escape their pens and wander onto a neighbor's property. The lag time allows thieves to sell the stolen livestock.
Harold Bausch, a rancher from Bandera, Texas, who raises cattle and goats, says he doesn't want to return to the 1870s when towns like Fort Griffin were hanging a dozen livestock thieves per year. But he definitely wants to ''see 'em go to the penitentiary.''
How long should the rustlers stay locked up? ''For as long as they need,'' he says.