Long Ropes and Running Irons


On the open range, ownership of a calf was determined by the brand on the cow. But if the calf escaped the roundup and grew big enough to leave its mother without a brand, or if it were orphaned by causes natural or unnatural, there was no way of proving who owned it, and this simple natural fact led to more trouble and strife than any other one cause in the history of the West.

The orphan was called a maverick. There are numerous legends as to the origin of the name, but all agree that it was derived from that of the well-known Texas family, and that somewhere, at some time, there was a man named Maverick who neglected to brand his increase. Hence a rider happening upon a slick-sided cow or bull would say , "That's one of Maverick's," or simply "That's a Maverick." One version has it that this wily character deliberately refrained from branding and then said, "Anything without a brand is mine." The real story is told by J. Frank Dobie in The Longhorns and again by Robert H. Fletcher in Free Grass to Fences. A South Carolinian named Samuel A. Maverick had come to Texas and was practicing law in San Antonio some years before the Civil War. In 1845 he accepted 400 head of mixed cattle in lieu of cash on a note. Fletcher's account continues:

The cattle were on long, narrow Matagorda Island four miles off the Texas coast. They were in charge of an irresponsible Negro family who seemingly came with the cattle as part of the deal. . . . The Negroes were not very conscientious herders and few calves were branded.

During the Mexican War, Maverick was up to his ears in business and political affairs. He paid slight attention to his island bovines and due to defections by restless members of the herd (who had waded ashore at low tide) they still tallied four hundred after he had owned them for eight years.

In 1853 he had them moved from the island to the mainland where they mingled with the herds of full-time stockgrowers who kept their calves branded and who were forever on the lookout for slicks. When they found one, it was a twenty-to-one shot that it was a Maverick critter, which didn't deter them from slapping their own iron on the beast. And so unbranded cattle became known as Mavericks.

In 1856 Sam Maverick sold his herd. . . . They were the only cattle he ever owned.

Sam Maverick was a Yale graduate, and thus an eastern institution of learning became connected, albeit remotely, with one of the most controversial aspects of life in the Wild West.

Wyoming law defined mavericks as "all neat cattle, regardless of age, found running at large in this territory without a mother, and upon which there is no brand." Whose were they? Popular opinion had a ready answer: the unidentified animal belonged to the first man who dropped his loop on it. A "wide loop." A "long rope." The two terms meant the same thing. They meant trouble and loss for the owners of large herds.

Along with the long rope went the running iron. Respectable cow outfits imprinted their monogram on bovine hides with heavy stamp irons, but a slender rod with a curved tip would do just as well, in expert hands, to inscribe or burn over any brand. There were times and places where the mere carrying of a running iron on a man's saddle was considered prima facie evidence of guilt.

In most respects the honesty of the West was proverbial. Doors were never locked. Word-of-mouth agreements were accepted on transactions involving tens of thousands of dollars. But the West had an elastic conscience when it came to stock mattters—it stretched like a piece of wet rawhide. Worse yet was the unsanctified sense of humor which made lawbreaking, which ought to have been a serious matter, a subject of infinite deadpan jesting on the part of everybody except the victim—unless the thief got caught, and then the joke was on him.

A whole family of yarns grew up around the assumption, which contained more truth than poetry, that no cow outfit on the roundup or on the trail ever willingly killed one of its own animals for meat. For instance there was the one about the Texas cowman who rode up to a neighbor's camp at dinner time, and was invited in with typical plains hospitality.

"Come in, come right into camp, John, and have some dinner," urged the host. "I'll give you something to eat you never ate before in your life."

"What's that?" the visitor asked, falling into the trap.

"A piece of your own beef."

The folklore rang countless changes on the theme, in vintage jests which grew warm with repetition. There was the one about the widow-woman who told her boys, when they brought in meat for the table, to be sure not to take an animal bearing their own brand, for she would as lief eat one of her little children as one of her own beeves. There were not-so-sly allusions to the cowman who was so extraordinarily honest, or who was so extraordinarily tough, that he could eat a steak from one of his own animals without feeling queasy; conversely, there was the cowman who unknowingly ate a bait of his own beef and it made him deathly sick.

Another classic was the yarn about the dishonest foreman, which proceeded from the tongue-in-cheek assumption that the foreman of any large outfit was inevitably dishonest and stole from his employer, who had of course stolen in his turn from somebody else; hence arose this chestnut about the foreman whose employer's brand was a simple letter I. In time the foreman became ambitious and decided to start a herd for himself; he chose for his brand an IC. As years went by he too became rich and respectable, and his foreman, becoming ambitious in turn, started a herd which he branded ICU. Finally, we come to the third foreman. Following in the footsteps of the others, who branded ICU2. Pretty feeble, no doubt, but it remained good for a laugh after countless repetitions over coffee and beans in the cook tent.

An easy way of stealing, before the era of tight brand-registration laws, was for a newcomer to move in on a range and start a brand which was like that of a wealthy neighbor except for the addition of a few lines. There are countless instances of brand conversion; a CY, for example, was readily changeable to an OX.

It was a sagebrush axiom that all it took to start a cow outfit was a running iron and nerve enough to use it. To this day the barroom cynic in any cow-country town, always ready to enlighten the newcomer, is sure to offer half-seriously, half in jest: "Why, don't you know how old So-and-So got his start?"—naming the ancestor of the largest cattle owner in the area. "He got it with a long rope and a running iron." The remark has been made about every cattleman of any prominence from the Rio Grande to the Canadian line, and is so hoary with ancient usage that it is taken without offense. Since it is a well-known psychological principle that humor is generally a denial of some inner discomfort, the discerning will see in this enormous folklore of jests about stealing, the symptoms of guilt.

There were rustlers and rustlers. Their methods varied and so did their community status. The distinctions among the various kinds of rustling were like the difference between professional prostitution and an occasional fling.

Branding a maverick, in the minds of the generality, was a crime without moral turpitude, if a crime at all—like violating the prohibition law or cheating on an expense account. No amount of legislation ever wholly changed this attitude, though a few jail sentences helped. Even under the law it was rated a misdemeanor, not a felony.

But it was one thing to slap your iron on a maverick when you happened on him in the course of a day's riding; this was a temptation few could resist, and men of the sternest anti-rustling persuasion have been heard to admit with the third highball: "Hell, I've done it myself." It was another thing to scour the country deep into another man's range looking for slicks on the pretext that you were merely out hunting strays, and to keep this up day after day. The more you made a business of mavericking the the closer you came to the fine line that separated the mavericker from something worse. "'Mavericking,'" Frank Dobie has said, "graduated into a soft synonym for stealing."

When the natural supply of mavericks was not great enough to satisfy the ambitious mavericker, especially in view of the competition, the next step was to forestall nature by placing your brand on a big calf that was going to become a maverick in a few weeks. You took the chance that nobody would ride by and notice it in the meanwhile; indeed, you took a second chance, for the big calf, displaced by a younger sibling, would continue to hang around its mother for some time hoping to get another suck, and this was a dead giveaway. But what the hell. The country was big, riders were few, and if a stock detective hired by the Association did happen to come along, the likelihood was he would not know who owned your unregistered brand, called a maverick—and suppose he did; you could take care of yourself.

The third step was to make mavericks by separating calves from their mothers until they were weaned. Granville Stuart in My Forty Years on the Frontier, mentions the case of the fortunate ranchman whose cows always gave birth to twins and triplets, while his neighbors' cows hung enviously around his corral lamenting their own childless state. But as rustling went this was pretty crude stuff—settler stuff. Experts would pen the calves in some lonely corral in the foothills, then run the cows a long way off and hold them there until the calves were eating grass. This writer remarked to an old-timer that it must have taken a pretty good cowboy to run a cow off from her calf. "There were good cowboys," he said.

If the rustler stopped there he remained semi-respectable, at least in his own estimation, and he might even have a certain Robin Hood dash. He was well above the line which divided the good bad man from the skunk. But others descended to such methods as slitting the calf's tongue so it couldn't suck, or killing the cow in order to make an orphan of the calf. During Johnson County's time of trouble, calves bearing a rustler's fresh brand were found still hanging about the dead body of the mother cow. Nothing dashing about that.

Finally the rustler might come to burning over other men's brands with a running iron, or "blotching" them so badly they could not be read. He was now a full-fledged thief. Facilis descensus Averno.

Between the practices described in the last two paragraphs and the milder forms of stealing, the elastic conscience stiffened and became uneasy. A man who "made no bones" in later years about having branded any number of mavericks in his day would swear on a stack of Bibles that he had never altered a brand in his life. As for the other kinds of dirty business, we may quote the utterance of a likeable reprobate who was well known in Powder River country.

"I'm a thief and I've been a thief all my life," he declared with disarming frankness, "but there's one place I draw the line; I will not kill a cow to get the calf."

Butchering a steer on the range, burying the hide and taking the meat home to eat was a cheap form of stealing, fit only for thieving Indians and threadbare settlers. It was disapproved more on social than on moral grounds. Another two-bit operation was to separate a calf from the cow, take it home and let the woman and children raise it by hand. This was called "finding a motherless calf."

There was considerable sympathy for the man so poor he had to steal in order to feed his family, even when that man happened to be an Indian. Charlie Russell painted a picture called "Caught in the Act," in which two bundled-up cowboys in the dead of winter have come upon a pair of Indians skinning a beef in the snow. One of the Indians points to his open mouth in the sign for hunger, and the uncertain attitude of the cowboys tell more plainly than words how they are torn between loyalty to their outfit and pity for the half-starved red men.

But the business of butchering beef on the range soon developed into a commercial enterprise, with the local meat market for an outlet. In western Nebraska in the eighties a member of a grand jury considering the case of a settler charged with killing a beef wanted to know whether he had killed it to eat or to sell!

To sum up the code, the man least condemned for rustling was the man who stole in order to build up a herd of his own and get a start, after which he would turn respectable. Most condemned was the thief so low he would cut the rope tying some settler's old bony milch cow to the tailgate of his wagon and steal the cow.

Finally, let us not overlook the curious double meaning which attached to the word rustler. A rustler was a thief. But he was also a man of energy, a hustler who rose early and rode far in order to get ahead in the world. A money-raising committee would be referred to as "the rustling committee." Newspapers called themselves The Bonanza Rustler or The Big Horn County Rustler. When a young boy won a prize for bringing in the largest number of subscribers to a local paper, the item was captioned, "A GOOD RUSTLER." An animal which sustained itself on the range under adverse conditions was a good rustler too, and a man arriving home late with a guest would ask his wife to "go rustle us up something to eat."

Moral confusion, or merely semantic?

But a horse thief was something else entirely. When you said horse thief, you had better smile.

Helena Huntington Smith, Frontier Times, February, 1967

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