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SIMPLE CASE OF MISTAKEN IDENTITY

Jay Nixon

Prologue

Lucien Moczygemba and his buddy Eddy Pawelek, two South Texas farm boys of Polish extraction had one single thing in common, if they had nothing else, both were avid wolf hunters.

Wolf hunting in South Texas is not what the name implies. It is not the pursuit of the predatory Gray Wolves by groups of men on horseback following a pack of hounds. No. South Texas wolf hunting is a more sedentary activity. The hunters in groups, take their packs of specially bred and trained wolf hounds out to the pasture of a night, turn them loose and listen to their music as they pursue the wily Coyote over hill and dale.

When the chase has been given ample time to proceed a number of miles, they mount their trusty pickups and race along county roads to a point at which they calculate the hounds will emerge from the brush pastures and loudly signal their packs to come to them. Most comply.

The thrill of the hunt is in hearing the dogs give tongue, each in a voice that is as distinctive to his owner as a photo or finger print. I confess that this activity has never been one of my passions, but to Lucien and Eddy there was nothing finer, and they felt wild and free of the fetters of day to day life, the night they loaded their dogs to go hunting along the San Antonio River.

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We'd been gathering cattle all day in those narrow, dank creek bottoms that lead to the river. It was late spring and the creek bottoms were hot and humid. Not a breath of breeze stirred, and it was easy to wear out a horse every couple of hours. It was hard work on both men and horses.

As the shadows began to get long and the air to cool, we pushed the last reluctant cow and her calf out of the bottoms and into the pasture along the county road. The plan was to rest them in that pasture during the night and drive them down the road three miles to the pens for working, early the next day.

We made a count and tallied 240 cows and their baby calves. Amazingly, all the calves had come out of the brush with their mothers. We'd been at this for nearly a week, and this was the last group on the ranch to be gathered because it was the most difficult. As any cattleman knows, it always gives you a feeling of satisfaction to gather a pasture, clean, so though we were all weary there was considerable laughing and horse-play as we rode the three miles back to the ranch headquarters, leading our remuda of spare horses.

My buddy Jessie Trotter and I both lived in town. As soon as we got unsaddled, the horses fed and taken care of, we took leave of the two hands who lived on the place and started home. It was going to be another long day, tomorrow, cutting and dehorning calves, worming and giving shots, so we were planning to be back ready to begin before sun-up.

On the 23-mile trip back to town, we began talking about the rash of cattle stealing that had been going on in the area in recent weeks. Neighbors all around us had lost cattle and the sheriff and the cattlemen's association didn't have a clue, so far, as to who was behind it.

Jessie was saying that these guys were pretty slick. "They back a trailer into a gate, and then just drive whatever is in the pasture into it, shut the trailer gate, and they're gone," he said. "Ben Peoples lost 12 cows and a bunch of calves just last week not fives miles from the ranch."

That's when it dawned on us. We had just driven 240 cows and their calves into open pasture, right on the road, sitting ducks for the rustler to prey on.

Both of us were quiet for a time. I could just see it in my mind, faceless thieves, on horseback, pushing those cows into a line of trailers and driving off. It was real, I tell you. Jessie was having similar thoughts, though probably not as vivid since they weren't his cows.

I made a decision, right there in the dark, heading down the road at 70 miles an hour. "I think I'll come back out here after supper and just bed down in the car. Those cows right there on the road are just too easy a target. Besides, I need to be there, and that'll give me an early start.

Jessie nodded absently. "Well, if you're gonna do that," he said, "I'd better come with you. You wouldn't know what the hell to do if you were to run on to some cattle thieves." Jessie could be patronizing when the mood struck him.

By the time I had supper and made some phone calls, it was going on to 10 p.m. when I collected Jessie and we started back to the ranch. We both had bed rolls, our rifles and Jessie had brought a granite pot and the makings for morning coffee. On the way back, we told each other how silly this whole thing was, just a useless exercise. Nobody was going to bother those cattle.

But as we drove down that dark, lonely county road, spookily overhung with big trees in many areas, we started talking about what if's. What if we drove around that curve and there was somebody already there, after the cattle. What would we do? The thought was unsettling, especially if there were more than two or three guys. They'd probably armed. Then what?

That's the way the conversation went, until by the time we rounded that curve, 250 yards from the pasture gate, and there was a pickup backed right up into the gate. I don't think either of us was surprised. Disconcerted, yes. Surprised, no.

I got on the brakes and killed the lights. There was a pretty good moon, as we got out of the truck and took stock of the crowd around that gate. One pickup was backed up to the gate itself and another was parked on the other side of the road, facing our way. It was the rustlers for sure, and we had just arrived in the nick of time. But, then, we were back to the question of what to do about it.

We could make out some shadowy figures moving round the truck in the gate. Should we just open fire on them at long range and run them off? That didn't seem practical. People who are stealing cattle and are fired on would be apt to fire back. After a great deal of discussion, we elected to just drive right on down the road, past them, go the three miles to the ranch house and call the sheriff. So much for bravery in the face of the enemy.

As we passed them, we saw that both trucks had side boards, and there was already something in the back of the truck parked at the gate. We saw two guys by the truck and they just waved as we passed talk about gall.

We raced to the house and tried calling the sheriff and the phone was out, which was often the case. No help there. We woke up one of the field hands and told him to get his rifle. It was up to us to stop those thieves.

With our hearts in our mouths we drove slowly back down the road, hoping, really, that our passing had frightened the thieves off. It didn't. They were still there, parked as before. There was nothing else to do but get the drop on them, tie them up and haul them into the sheriff.

I skidded to a stop next to the pickup in the gate. We fell out, rifles at the ready and shouted "Freeze!" which we'd all been exposed to on TV. Even with all the comings and goings, the element of surprise was on our side. Those guys never expected to suddenly be staring down the barrels of three rifles. In seconds, they were flat on the ground with their arms spread, because that's what we told them to do.

In less than a minute, we realized it was only Lucien and Eddy, out running wolves, not cattle thieves at all. We all had a good laugh out of it, but Lucien and Eddy didn't laugh as hard as we did.

The rest of the night was spent listening to the hounds running wolves down on the river. "Listen," Lucien said, with one ear cocked, "That's Old Mable. Hear her. And old Blue, that dog's got a voice like a bugle."

They had coffee and a big basket of food. Nobody bothered the cattle, and I bet Lucien and Eddy never went wolf hunting again without telling the guy who runs the ranch.

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