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Range Wisdom

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
Before barbed wire crisscrossed Texas, the general roundup was a fundamental part of the cattle business.

Every fall during the free range days, cattlemen pooled their resources and rode out to gather their stock. Cowboys checked each steer's brand, cutting out each head that belonged to his outfit. After that, ranchers either drove their cattle farther south for the winter, or shipped them to market.

One of the biggest spreads in West Texas was owned by the Concho Cattle Company. The ranch covered major chunks of Concho, Runnels and Coleman County.

The history of the ranch is well told in a master's thesis completed in 1939 by Irene Henderson, a graduate student at what was then Southwest Texas State Teacher's College in San Marcos, now Texas State University.

Unlike most graduate research efforts, Henderson managed to work a lively story or two into her thesis. In large measure, that came from her interviews with one of the principals of the ranch, John Franklin Henderson (1864-1945) -- her father.

One of the stories Henderson told his daughter concerned an early-day instance of what now would be termed forced arbitration.


The tale centers on Bob Price, another of the Concho Cattle Company principals. By all accounts Price was a heck of a cattleman, a boss who proved a fair hand at playing Solomon.

Price was in charge of 10 to 15 cowboys out looking for cattle along the Concho River "this side of San Angelo," as Henderson related.

While his men rounded up cattle, Price rode up on two cowboys locked in a heated argument over a steer with a poorly-burned brand. Most of the time, a poor brand was the result of a botched job during spring branding. Sometimes, a hard-to-read brand meant some hide burner had altered the original brand to facilitate a clandestine change in ownership.

In this particular case, no one suspected an attempt at cattle thievery, but trouble was building like a thunderstorm on a hot, sticky afternoon. Neither cowboy could make out the brand on the steer's flank, but both cowboys claimed it for his owner.

Sometimes a brand could be successfully read by skinning off the hair over the mark with a sharp knife. Whether that had been tried or not, no one was backing down in his contention that the steer in question belonged to his boss. The only other way to determine ownership was to peel back the hide and read the brand in the tissue below. But that could only be done after the animal was dead -- a conclusive but costly procedure.


Knowing that similar disputes had led to killings, Price feared that the situation was getting out of hand. Close as they were to blows or worse, the two wranglers at least had sense enough to ask Price, who had a reputation for fair dealing, to help settle the dispute.

"Whatever I do, you men will be satisfied?" Price asked.

Both said they would abide by his judgment.

At that, Price drew his six-shooter and put a .45 slug in the steer's head. With no other word, he wheeled his horse and rode off. Their ears ringing, the two wide-eyed cowboys had no further cause for argument.

The only remaining issue was whether anyone wanted to cut some steaks or leave the carcass for the coyotes. But two hard-headed cowboys lived to ride another day.



Mike Cox
July 15, 2014 column, originally published March 25 , 2004
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