Cattle Rustlers

            I think that most people in modern day America associate “cattle rustling” with the 1800’s and the old cowboy era of the open range.  They are unaware of the fact that it not only still goes on today, but that it is probably bigger and more widespread than ever. In short, it’s “BIG BUSINESS”.  There are so many big ranches and ranges that are still very remote and it is relatively easy for cattle thieves to access these areas undetected, gather range cattle, load them into trucks and trailers, and be gone without hardly a trace. They can butcher them and sell the meat on a black market, or they can alter the brands, make false documents of ownership, and sell the cattle. There are several ways they have of making a lot of money off stolen livestock and many of them are good at it, like I said it’s “BIG BUSINESS”.  The people that practice rustling are also dangerous people. They protect themselves with guns. They will kill when they have to, and oftentimes people who catch them in the act do not live to tell about it. I became familiar with the fact that cattle rustling occurred in this modern era when I worked for a ranch in Montana in the 1970’s. 

            I was hired as a range rider and lived in a remote area where the only other people there were cowboys that rode the range for other ranches. We seldom ever saw each other, and if we did, it was usually to help each other in some way, or to convey some message that needed our attention, and that rarely happened. We had large tracts of land to cover by horse back, usually alone. We would be gone early in the morning and ride horseback all day attending to the many duties of taking care of hundreds of cattle, such as fixing fence, scattering blocks of salt, fixing water tanks, herding cattle from one area to another so as to avoid overgrazing, doctoring cattle—there was always a critter or two or more almost every day that needed tending to for some health problem such as pink eye, hoof rot, pneumonia, abscesses, puss pockets, scours, and several other problems cattle develop on the range. These animals had to be lassoed or roped, the horse had to hold them till they could be tied down to immobilize them, then the medicine or treatment applied, and then they were released, hopefully to heal. Usually they did get better which saved the owner a great deal of money, because otherwise they would get worse and die or in other ways become a loss instead of a profit. Usually many miles had to be ridden in order to take care of all these responsibilities, anywhere from 5 to 20 miles a day, all on horseback. My point is that if cattle thieves knew the range, and where the riders were or were not, and they knew the roads in the territory, with some planning they could quite easily pick their time and place and get away with a few to several cattle at a time. It is not unusual for some rustlers to load semi-truck loads and be long gone before anybody finds out anything. 

            We knew of some rustling on our range at the far south end where a road bordered it, near the Idaho-Montana line. In my riding I found the place where they were coming in. A high mountain range lay just to the south of this road and our range lay to the north side of the road. I found a vantage point in a rock outcropping a couple of hundred yards above where their trucks were coming in. I figured a man could hide there, his horse picketed down the offside of the ridge so as to be completely hidden and safe, and also close if needed for a fast exit. My idea was to use the rocks for cover and while they were busy with the cattle, shoot their tires out with my rifle before they could even discover where the shooting was coming from, then high tail it on my horse to my truck which would be parked on a road only a few miles away, quickly load my horse in the horse trailer hitched to my pickup, then skedaddle down the road about 15 miles to the highway, and head south to a small settlement and a phone. Here I could make contact with the sheriff and they could set up a road block both on the Idaho side and the Montana side of that aforementioned road the rustlers were using for access to the range. There was no way out of there except by use of that one road—it ran east into Idaho and the highway there and west into Montana and the highway there. We’d have them trapped, caught dead to rights. It was a perfect plan I could hardly wait to tell my boss the plan.

            When he came up one day from the home ranch which was about 60 miles to the north, I unfolded my scheme to him and was pretty sure he’d be all for it. After I’d explained everything he looked at me with those range wise eyes of his, the crow’s feet wrinklin’ up. He talked in a slow even tone, not in a hurry to say it, making sure he had my full attention. He said “NO!  They pack high powered rifles with scopes and if they can get you in the crosshairs, you’re dead.”  I started to re-emphasize how they couldn’t do that from where I would be hidden and he stopped me short and calmly said “NO. I’m not taking that chance with your life”. 

            That was the end of the conversation.  I knew I respectfully was not to say anything more about it. He was not mad at me, or irritated or anything else, he just was not going to take a chance with my life and that was that. That showed me how dangerous these cattle thieves were, and that my death was a possibility. It also showed me he cared about me. Cattle could be replaced, at a cost sure, but that was it. And so that was my one and only experience concerning rustlers, not very exciting to tell (boy did I have plans though).

            However, decades later I met a man who was a “Range Detective” in the state of Wyoming.  His son is my neighbor and he introduced me to his dad one time when he was visiting here. He is no longer a Range Detective—he is retired and lives in Cheyenne, but he shared with me some of the hair-raising experiences he had bringing rustlers to justice. He was left for dead a couple of times by these cattle thieves, but he survived. He is quite the man. He wrote a book about his experiences. If I get permission from him I will give the name of the book and his name. I have a great deal of respect for him and consider him my friend. To sit and talk with him is like going back to the days of the old west because he has lived it, even though in modern times his experiences took place. They could make a movie about it…maybe somebody will.


  • Did anyone ever get the name of the book? Id love to read it!

  • Like the reading about cattle rustling an the loyal hand.
  • Sure enjoy reading your writings! Always descriptive and entertaining. And, serious as the adventure warranted. Thanks for sharing Clark!

    Karey M Clark
  • Sure enjoy reading your writings! Always descriptive and entertaining. And, serious as the adventure warranted. Thanks for sharing Clark!

    Karey M Clark
  • Very excellent and intriguing to read.


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