A red Ford pickup eases down a narrow, dusty road in the heart of Texas Hill Country, about two hours west of Austin. As he drives, an aging rancher named Buddy Wells gestures toward the grove of cedar elms lining the road. That was the last place anyone saw his cattle.
It’s mid-morning on the outskirts of Medina, Texas, a small, unincorporated community in Bandera County. Wells has enlisted the help of Mike Barr, one of the 30 special rangers working for the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association. They are commissioned peace officers who investigate agricultural crimes, primarily cattle theft, or “cattle rustling.”
It’s been more than a century since gun-slinging outlaws roamed the badlands of Texas. However, even though frontier bandits—from the likes of the Sam Bass Gang to John Wesley Hardin—no longer plunder stagecoaches or make their getaways by horseback, some things haven’t changed.
In a place where beef is the economic lifeblood of many families, the rustler remains the bane of ranchers. In 2014, the special rangers recovered or accounted for nearly 4,000 head of cattle, worth about $4 million. They also recouped millions of dollars worth of other livestock and ranch-related property. This year alone, the rangers have recovered close to 5,000 head of livestock.
Texas is steeped in both the myth and the reality of cowboys and cattle rustlers. Some of these stories are fueled by over-the-top Hollywood Westerns, but others are grounded in historical accounts. It might seem like a strange link to the past, but cattle rustling is just as real in the digital age as it was during Reconstruction.
Special ranger Mike Barr files through papers in his office at the Law Enforcement Center in Fredericksburg, Texas. Most of his work occurs outdoors, meeting and talking to ranchers and other law enforcement officers. Photo: Travis Putnam Hill
In late June 1870, in the humid, coastal marshlands of southeast Texas, a posse of vengeance-seeking ranchers surrounded a house belonging to a freed slave named Joe Grimes. They suspected a gang of horse and cattle thieves, Grimes among them, had holed up inside.
The gang, led by a group of brothers named Lunn, had been slaughtering stolen cattle and selling their hides to unscrupulous buyers, according to Flake’s Bulletin, a weekly newspaper out of Galveston. Locals along the Tres Palacios River reported finding piles containing as many as 800 of the butchered animals. In some cases, these death heaps consisted of only the charred remains of bovine skeletons.
Despite having warrants out for their arrest, the Lunn brothers had managed to evade the Matagorda County Sheriff, so the ranchers took matters into their own hands. Just a few days prior, the citizen posse caught four of the gang members and hung three of them on the spot.
Now the posse closed in on Grimes’ house, where they expected to find at least one of the Lunn brothers. A posse member by the name of Edward Anderson stepped closer, demanding the door be opened. A voice from inside answered: I’m just getting out of bed. I’ll open the door when I get some clothes on. Suddenly, the end of a double-barreled shotgun emerged from the window and blasted Anderson straight to his grave. The posse unloaded a barrage of gunfire. Inside, they found only the body of Joe Grimes, perforated by 14 bullet holes.