At the lower end of the rustling scale was subsistence rustling. One poor homesteader in Eastern Montana stole two of cattle baron Conrad Kohrs’ steers. Confronted by the owner, the man bowed his head and said, “My family was hungry.”
Stern and intimidating at 6’3”, the German-born Kohrs replied, “Well, if they get hungry again, take another one.”
Another western rancher, hearing that a homesteader had stolen a cow, told his hired hands, “If he stole it to eat, tell him to enjoy it and bring me the hide. But if he stole it to sell, by God! bring me his hide!”
It was tough to get a conviction, you practically had to catch a rustler in the act of altering a brand. Even then the thief might convince a jury of his peers it was an honest mistake.
Down in Cochise County in the early 1900s a family named Taylor was building up a herd in a manner contrary to the biological laws of nature but nobody could prove it. Captain Tom Rynning, of the Arizona Rangers came up with a novel idea. He and another cowman roped thirteen young calves that had just been weaned, took a pocket knife and slit open the gullet on each and inserted a small Mexican coin, then sewed them up again. Rynning waited a few months then checked on the calves and they wearing Taylor’s brand.
Taylor was arrested and during the trial, the jury, made up of local cattlemen, were taken to the local corral. The gullets were opened up and the coins were inside.
“You’ve got me this time, boys,” Taylor said.
Taylor and his family were forced to sell their outfit and given 24 hours to get out of the Arizona Territory. Captain Rynning personally escorted them to the border and pointed the way back to Texas.
However, that didn’t always work. A cattleman suspected a neighbor of rustling his cattle so he inserted some silver coins just under the hide of several of his cows. He planned to retrieve the coins in front of witnesses to prove ownership. One day he received a heavy package in the mail. He opened it up and out fell a handful of coins, along with an anonymous note saying, “A big cattleman like you shouldn’t be so careless with his money.”
Over in eastern Arizona a few years ago a rancher named Stump trained a steer to mosey over to the Apache reservation and drive some of their cattle over to his range where he’d re-brand ‘em. When the law caught up with him he tried to lay the blame on the steer.
A rancher up in Mohave County hired a helicopter pilot to hover over and lower a harness that he would attach to a cow he’d just lassoed. The pilot would then haul the cow over to a highway where a truck was waiting.
The victim of this thievery was in the process of talking to the brand inspector about his missing cows when he looked out the window and saw one of his cows fly over his ranch house.
A rancher up in Apache County had registered his IC brand when a new neighbor moved in and registered his brand ICU.
Nobody had to hit him in the face with a wet mop to make him realize his neighbor’s herd was growing in a way contrary to the laws of nature.
“I’ll fix that,” he said so he registered another brand, ICU2. That put an end to his neighbor’s pilfering.
Cattle ranchers liked to say there were actually Eleven Commandments, the last one being Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor’s Cattle.
However, it is also traditional, though probably exaggerated, that a cattleman never slaughtered his own animals, the theory being that this amounted to eating up his profits. The standard joke was that a rancher. Several years ago I wrote a cowboy poem that tells the story of a rancher who invited his neighbor of some thirty-five years over for a Bar-B-Q. I won’t bore you with the whole thing so here’s the punch line:
It was getting purty late in the evening,
And they’d all had plenty to drink,
When Slim laughed and slapped his host on the back,
Saying “Shorty, I’ve got a confession to make.”
“Now we’ve been neighbors
For thirty-five years and I’m confessing to yuh now,
That I’ve never yet in all that time
Eaten one of my own cows.”
Shorty smiled and gazed out upon
Those heaps of broiled Bar-B-Q,
He turned to his old friend and said with a grin,
“Well now Slim, I’ve got a confession too.
“You say you’ve never once in thirty-five years,
Ever eaten one of your own cows.
I reckon tonite makes up fer lost time
‘Cause Slim, you thieving bastard,
you sure are eatin’ ’em now.
Marshall Trimble is Arizona’s official historian and the Wild West History Association’s vice president. His latest book is 2018’s Arizona Oddities: A Land of Anomalies and Tamales. Send your question, with your city/state of residence, to marshall.trimble@