In her 82 years, Jo Sledge has only expected good from the people she deals with, so, her ordeal that began in the spring of 2011 defies her own imagination.
The thought of the cruelty, deceit, trickery and thievery “they” – and Sledge does not know who “they” are – employed to steal between 30 and 40 head of her black angus heifers is still like a fresh slap in the face. “They” took her cattle all right, and “they” might have taken her peace of mind. But Sledge will be keeping that, thank you very much.
“It either makes you better or bitter,” Sledge said driving out toward her fence line on a rutted path. “I am not going to be bitter.”
Sledge is a widow. In 1982, she and her husband, Marcel, bought three ranches and combined them to their one near May. Marcel died six years ago, if he’d lived a few more weeks, they would have been married 60 years.
Theirs was a long and happy marriage, their life has been blessed, and on the many good days their place with its rough, rambling green pastures and cattle herds is an underscore to that. Their sons think Sledge should travel, or do things she’s always wanted to do, but she argues she would just as soon be “home.”
Sledge’s cattle rustling story is complicated, and many of its main components are missing. The pickup ride to show some of her herd, and yards and yards of good straight fence line around her property is to fill in some of the details, but tell it anyway she might, the who and the why are going to be missing.
“It’s like telling a story about a black hole,” she said. “What can you say that’s going to make sense?”
The only way Sledge knows to begin her story is to tell what happened the night of the full moon in late April or early May of 2011.
“It was so bright that night, I didn’t need a flashlight,” Sledge said. “You could see almost as if it were day.”
About midnight, she’d let her little dog out, and when he didn’t scratch to come right back inside, Sledge, in her pajamas, walked down the drive the 100 yards or so to the road.
“There was the awfullest commotion I’ve ever heard in my life,” said Sledge, fairly shuddering. “At first I thought they might have been hog hunting, but I didn’t hear the dogs bay. Up near Rising Star, someone said a big cat had killed his llama. So you think that, but you know that’s not what it is.”
Cattle were bawling, she said, hurt, pain-filled, terrified noises like she wasn’t sure she had ever heard before. Sledge hurried back up the drive. Her instinct was, she needed to go check and see what it was. She had her jeans pulled on and snapped when she thought that it might not be safe to go out in the midst of whatever was happening.
Sledge waited until morning, and told her ranch hand, David Olin, what she’d heard. Olin wished she would have called him then – and if she ever heard anything like that again, she better, he chastised. Sledge’s sons were just as irritated with her, and most of her neighbors, when they heard the story were too.
Sledge’s defense was she just could not have imagined what she eventually figured out happened. But, counting her blessings, she said, “Now I think, if I’d have gone up there, I wouldn’t have come back alive.”
It was strange, Olin reported back. Someone had laid back the fence, it hadn’t been trampled like a cattle stampede, someone had done it on purpose.
Illegal hunters, Olin and Sledge could only guess.
Good fences, good neighbors
Sledge slows the big old pickup to a stop, and points to the straight fence with steel posts with pride.
“On this side, Bo and Pat Allen are my neighbors. We agreed to share a fence,” Sledge said. “I furnished the material and he furnished the labor. He thought he got the best deal and I thought I did. That’s the way neighbors are supposed to be.”
A couple of miles down a smooth road and back up a dirt road, through two gates, Sledge points to another fence, just as taught, just as straight and just as secure.
“On this side, I tried to do the same thing,” Sledge said, with the owners who had leased out the land.
But that deal hadn’t gone as smoothly. When at last the agreement was made, Sledge did her part. Three years later, when the fence hadn’t been built, and her cattle were straying onto the adjacent property, Sledge went ahead and paid to have the fence built.
It was about two weeks later when the fracas came about, she said.
Where are the cows?
Through the summer of 2011, things weren’t quite adding up for Sledge. It seemed like she should be seeing more cows, but, no, she’d correct herself, they just weren’t coming up.
The summer got drier, the grass got shorter, and to make her decision of whether to feed or sell, Sledge decided to have her herd rounded up. By then, she guessed it had been two months since she’d heard the commotion the night of the full moon.
Slowly and fiercely, the clues of what the fracas was about, became evident to Olin and Sledge.
“I could not have imagined,” Sledge repeats sorrowfully.
Nine of the beautiful Black Angus heifers found in the round up had been over-branded. The Sledge’s neat M (for Marcel) and backward J (for Jo) brands that had been on the heifers’ left hips were mutilated — some smeared so that nothing was readable. Some had a circle around the original brand, and still others distorted the originals in some way.
“Probably, several men had been doing it,” Sledge said. “They used a freeze-on chemical brand. We’ve always used the electric branding iron. The brands they had done were cured and freshly healed; they couldn’t have been there but about two months.”
The heifers were still traumatized, Sledge said. One, with a calf, never got to where she would come up with the others. Olin or Sledge carried feed to her. She died without ever recovering, but she did get her calf raised.
By then, the next bitter truth was becoming apparent. There were between 27 and 30 of the herd missing. Now, Sledge believes the rustlers had been stealing two or three at a time where there was no fence, but, after she got the fence built, they tried to finish what they'd started in one moonlit night.
Maybe the cattle thieves had seen the lights come on at the house and left without loading the last nine. Again, Sledge can’t second guess what “they” did and why. Some of the herd they stole might not have been branded yet.
Those without the Sledge brand, “they” might have sold in a day’s time. No inspector would have allowed the sale of a cow with a mutilated brand, so Sledge figures those heifers were taken somewhere to produce calves that could be sold.
The memory and the might-have-beens are equally horrifying to her.
“If you add it up, it’s a lot of money,” Sledge said, but to her, even though “it’s quite a lot more than I’d make in several years” the money is really the least of it.
All of what Sledge knows, and all the evidence she has, she’s turned over to Texas Ranger H.D. Britton. She’s been told there’s hope “they” will be found. Other victims have assured her investigators have found more with less.
“Whether they do or they don’t,” Sledge said, “God’s been good to me, and I’ve been very blessed. I feel, though, I need to tell this story like it is. I would so hate for something like this to happen to anybody else.
“It’s a terrible thing.”