Published on Tuesday, May 26, 2015
By G.R. Williamson
In Texas, one of the quickest ways to be strung up by your neck was to be caught carrying "running irons" rolled up in your bedroll. The mere possession of these rustler's tools meant an on-the-spot trial for the rider that usually resulted in a rancher hollering, "String him up!" No judge, no lawyers, no arguing—just pure and simple justice.
Texas ranchers took their cattle brands seriously, meticulously registering them with stockmen's associations. Most "stock marshals" carried a detailed description of the major cattle brands in a book stored in their saddlebags and could spot a "rewritten brand" with extreme accuracy. It was their job to hunt down rustlers and stop them. Unless the rustlers were kept in check, the ranchers lost control of their herds and anarchy would set in.
Branding irons came in two very distinct types; the long handled, stamp irons that burned the registered brand of the ranch and the other was the short handled running irons used to alter legitimate brands. Regular ranch branding irons were over three feet long while the running irons were much shorter, usually little more than two feet long.
Before the running irons, a saddle cinch ring was used to alter brands. It took some skill but a determined rustler could manipulate the heated ring using a green tree branch. In a pinch, rustlers could also use horseshoes, railroad spikes, or simply pieces of heavy wire that could be bent into shape. Any of these substitutions for running irons produced a messy brand that was easily detected.
A true running iron was a round iron rod, ranging from a quarter-inch to half-inch thick. The working end of the iron was shaped into a hook, a curve, a straight line or sometimes a "V" shape. This enabled rustlers to change an "R" to a "B", an "F" to an "E", an "I" to a "7", or one of many combinations. One of the most frequently changed brands was the "XIT", the brand of the huge North Texas ranch owned by the British syndicate led by Charles B. and John V. Farwell. At its peak, the XIT averaged handling 150,000 head of cattle with fencing covering 1,500 miles. The brand could be manipulated in a number of ways but the most common was altering it into a star with a cross inside.
The XIT and most of the major ranches hired regulators to hunt down rustlers, often referred to as "stock marshals", "stock detectives", or "range detectives." One of the most notorious was Tom Horn, who worked for the Wyoming Stock Grower's Association in what became known as the "Johnson County War." He and his .30-30 Winchester rifle ended the life of a number of rustlers up around Iron Mountain, Wyoming before he was hung for shooting and killing a 14-year-old boy named Willie Nickell with his rifle.
Another infamous regulator was John King Fisher, who was hired as a "stock marshal" by the ranchers in the rough, outlaw-riddled country known as the "Nueces Strip." Barely out of his teens, King Fisher, as he was called, developed a reputation of finding rustlers and "dropping" them on the spot. Ironically, after a few years, Fisher had enough money to start a ranch of his own and promptly hired a gang of rustlers to steal stock and rebrand them. They rustled cattle and horses on both sides of the Rio Grande. Later, strangely enough, he hired a good lawyer and eventually was cleared of all murder and rustling charges. As was typical in the Old West, he was immediately hired as the deputy sheriff of Uvalde County.
Any stock regulator worth his salt made the rounds of all the local blacksmiths. Running irons definitely required the skills of a blacksmith so it was a simple matter of asking the men if anyone had ordered the stubby irons forged. The regulator could take a friendly approach or if necessary threaten the blacksmith if he lied. Sometimes, it was as simple as a bribe paid for information.
The classic story about running irons is told about the self-appointed Judge Roy Bean, who presided over his court at his saloon store in Langtry, Texas. A rustler was brought before his court, charged with re-branding cattle that he had stolen from the Bar S ranch. The rancher's registered brand had been changed to "48" with a running iron. In true Bean fashion, he shot one of the cows in question and had the hide pulled back. Sure enough, the animal's flesh showed a definite Bar S brand with fresh running iron burns over the top of the old, original brand. The convicted man cried all the way to the nearby cottonwood tree, swearing he was innocent. When the noose around his neck was yanked, the rustler's running iron days were over.
Due to the fact that running irons were illegal to possess, very few of the short irons exist today. As a result, collectors of ranching memorabilia will often pay a four-figure price for a set of running irons while an original XIT branding iron can be purchased for a fraction of that price. Just think of the excitement at finding an authentic 1800s gravestone with the inscription of "Done in by a Running Iron."
G.R. (Ron) Williamson is a historian, a western writer and a born storyteller. He has published three non-fiction books on the West, many magazine and newspaper articles, and several Western movie screenplays. His home is in Kerrville, Texas where he lives with his wife and Chihuahua, "Shooter."
His books include Frontier Gambling, The Texas Pistoleers, and Willis Newton: The Last Texas Outlaw.
His books on Kindle include John King Fisher: King of the Nueces Strip and Notorious Gamblers of the Old West. For more information visit his website.