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.
"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.
Cummings has a pretty good story to tell himself. He hadn't even received his badge or his gun, a 9-mm Glock, when Morgan called him. In fact, he was still working as director of the Will Rogers Museum in Claremore, a place steeped in the cowboy lore he loved but far away from the wide open spaces that beckoned. After 22 years with the Claremore Police Department, he'd intended to spend the next decade at the museum, but he harbored a secret dream – he didn't want to just help immortalize the cowboy legend; he wanted to become a part of it.
Catching cattle rustlers is less glamorous than many people think. "If we get a lead someone's going to pull a heist, we might set up on a place, but it's like trying to find a needle in a haystack," says Oklahoma City special ranger Joe Rector, a 10-year veteran with the cattle association. He weaves his way out of a thicket of traffic and points his white extended-cab pickup down a bumpy one-lane road. It just takes too much time, he says. With each ranger covering anywhere from 10 to 18 counties, it's more efficient to follow a paper trail rather than a dusty one.
But even if pursuing cattle rustlers rarely involves high-speed chases and Western-style shootouts, the job can be dangerous. In the 1920s, two rangers were assassinated in a hotel lobby the night before they were to testify in court. Nor is it sedate. Mr. Rector recalls chasing a group of thieves who pulled over on the interstate, abandoned the cattle, and left them to stampede down the highway.
Getting caught can mean as much as 10 years in prison, so rustlers have incentive to avoid capture. For that reason, all rangers carry a gun, and some carry more. Rector's arsenal includes three sets of handcuffs that swing from his parking brake, a belly chain, leg irons, nylon rope, and of course, his gun. Don't let the well-oiled, full quill ostrich boots fool you. Rector's a man to be reckoned with – the boots are just for dress.
Rangers keep lists of hundreds of stockyards, along with their sale days. They memorize breed characteristics and pore over auction sheets, looking for anything unusual. Sometimes they work by process of elimination and old-fashioned horse sense, knowing that thieves often unload merchandise quickly. It helps that every ranger is required to have a minimum of five years investigative experience, as well as an agriculture background. "I spent 15 years wearing a coat and tie every day; I don't miss it," Rector says of his time at the Oklahoma County sheriff's office.
Rangers drive from farms to auctions, covering as many as 300 miles a day. It's a lonely job, Rector admits, but the rangers are a close-knit group. The cowboy camaraderie was a big part of the appeal for Cummings, who waited years for a position, taking an $18,000 pay cut to fulfill his dream. "There are unwritten rules for rangers," Cummings says. "If a ranger calls, we go."
"Some say the way we think is kind of old-fashioned," he adds. "But a man ought to be good for his word. It's about trying to carry on the old cowboy way."