A Cow Hunter’s Court

The wild, unbranded cattle were everywhere — in the cross-timbers of the Palo Pinto, in the hills and among the post oaks of the Concho and the Llano, on the broad savannas of the Lower Guadalupe and the Brazos Rivers, in the plains and mesquite thickets of the Nueces and the Frio. And through these wild regions, on the outer fringe of settlement, ranged the cow-hunters, as merry and happy a lot as ever courted adventure, careless of their lives.

Of adventure and hazard the cow-hunters had quite enough to keep the blood tingling. They had to deal with wild men as well as wild cattle. Comanche and Kiowa, the old lords of the manor, were bitterly disputing every forward movement of the settler along the whole frontier. No community, from Fort Griffin to San Antonio, escaped their attacks and depredations.

Indian Attack by Frederic Remington, 1907

Indian Attack by Frederic Remington, 1907

Indeed, these incursions were regular monthly visitations, made always “in the light of the moon.” A war party of naked bucks on naked horses, the lightest and most dexterous cavalry in the world, would slip softly near some isolated ranch or lonely camp by night. The most clever and cunning would dismount and steal swiftly in upon their quarry. Slender, sinewy, bronze figures creeping and crouching like panthers, crafty as foxes, fierce and merciless as maddened bulls, their presence was rarely known until the blow fell. Sometimes they were content to steal the settlers’ horses, and by daylight be many miles away to the west or north. Sometimes they fired buildings and shot down the inmates as they ran out. Sometimes they crept silently into camps, knifed or tomahawked one or more of the sleepers, and stole away, all so noiselessly that others sleeping near were undisturbed. Sometimes they lay in ambush about a camp till dawn, and then with mad war-whoops charged among the sleepers with their deadly arrows and tomahawks.

Against these wily marauders the cow-hunters could never abate their guard. And it was these same cow-hunters the Indians most dreaded, for they were tireless on a trail and utterly reckless in attack. It was not often the Indians got the best of them, and then only by ambush or overwhelming numbers. Better armed, of stouter hearts in a stand-up fight, little bands of these cow-hunters often soundly thrashed war parties outnumbering them ten to one.

Then it not infrequently fell out that collisions occurred between rival outfits of cow-hunters, disputes over territory or cattle, which led to bitter feuds not settled till one side or the other was killed off or run out of the country. Battles royal were fought more than once in which a score or more of men were killed, wherein the casus belli was a difference as to the ownership of a brindle steer.

These men were a law unto themselves. Courts were few and far between on the line of the outer settlements. Powder and lead came cheaper than attorneys’ fees, and were, moreover, found to be more effective. Thus the rifle and pistol were almost invariably the cow-hunters’ court of first and last resort for disputes of every nature. Except in rare instances where there happened to be survivors among the families of the original plaintiff and defendant, this form of litigation was never prolonged or tiresome. When there were any survivors the case was sure to be reargued.

Occasionally, of course, in the immediate settlements a case would be brought to formal trial before a judge and jury. While, as a rule, the procedure of these courts conformed to the statutes and was formal enough, rather startling informalities sometimes characterized their sessions. A case in point, of which Shang Rhett was the hero, occurred at Llano. chance for his life, else he probably would not have been brought to trial at all. And even in spite of the prevailing disapproval, there was an undercurrent of sympathy for him in the community.

At that time the town of Llano could boast of only one building, a big rough stone house, loop-holed for defense against the Indians. Under this one roof the enterprising owner assembled a variety of industries and performed a variety of functions that would dismay the most versatile man of any older community. Here he kept a general store, operated blacksmith and wheelwright shops, served as post-master, ran a hotel, and sat as justice of the peace. Indeed, he got so much in the habit of self-reliance in all emergencies, that in more than one instance he subjected himself to some criticism by calmly sitting as both judge and jury in cases wherein he had no jurisdiction. Getting a jury at Llano was no easy task. Often the country for miles around might be scoured without producing a full panel.

Llano being the county seat, and this the only house in town, it somewhat naturally from time to time enjoyed temporary distinction as a court house, when at long intervals the Llano County court met. The accommodations, however, were inconveniently limited — so limited in fact that on one occasion at least they were responsible for a sad miscarriage of justice.

A murder trial was on. One of the earliest settlers, a man well known and generally liked, had killed a newcomer. It was felt that he had given his victim no chance for his life, else he probably would not have been brought to trial at all. And even in spite of the prevailing disapproval, there was an undercurrent of sympathy for him in the community.

Old West Courtroom

Old West Courtroom

However, court met and the case was called. Several settlers were witnesses in the case. It was, therefore, considered a remarkable and encouraging evidence of Llano County’s growth in population when the District Attorney succeeded in raking together enough men for a jury. At noon of the second day of the trial the evidence was all in, arguments of counsel finished, and the case given to the jury. The prisoner’s case seemed hopeless. A clearly premeditated murder had been proved, against which scarcely any defense was produced.

Judge, jury, prisoner, and witnesses all had dinner together in the “court room,” which was always demeaned from its temporary dignity as a hall of justice, to the humble rank of a dining-room as soon as court adjourned. Directly after dinner the jury withdrew for deliberation, in custody of two bailiffs.

The house was large, to be sure, but its capacity was already so far taxed that it could not provide a jury room. It was therefore the custom of the bailiffs to use as a jury room an open, mossy glade shaded by a great live oak tree on the farther bank of the Llano, and distant two or three hundred yards from the court house. Here, therefore, the jury were , the bailiffs retired to some distance, and discussion of a verdict was begun. In spite of the weight of evidence against him, two or three were for acquittal. The others said they were “damned sorry; Jim was a mighty good feller, but it ‘peared like they’d have to foller the evidence.” So the discussion, pro and con, ran on into the mid-afternoon without result.

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