Barney has an eye for cattle
By Lyn Harrington, Toronto, Ont.
Newest and probably oldest of the Alberta Brand Inspectors is that 69-year-young feller, James “Barney” Crockett of Medicine Hat. After nearly 20 years of service as Special Constable with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Barney retired last year. Quick as they could manage it, the Alberta Government had him on the Civil Service list.
“But this is a gentlemen’s job,” he says with a grin, and in a voice which still carries a Scottish burr. “Of course I still come in with mud to the top of my head at times.”
That’s a lot of mud for Barney is 6’2″, though he’s shrinking, he adds sadly. He admits that with such a height he was a “perfect failure as an under-cover man.” With a slight bow to his legs from much riding, he is lean and lithe, “sort of an older Gary Cooper,” is the way a friend described him. But his eye is as keen as ever it was, and he never forgets a face — of a horse or cow, that is.
James Crockett came to Canada about 50 years ago and just naturally drifted west. In 1906-07, he worked for the Stock Association, moving from one roundup to the next with a group of 14 horses and men. He managed a ranch in B.C. for a time, but Alberta lured him. So back he came to homestead about 45 miles south of Medicine Hat.
He’s never been a man for crowds, he says. But a friendlier soul you’d go far to find. And as for interest, there’s nothing that doesn’t interest him. He has collections of horse pictures, of South African spears, of brands, of antlers… And he is a most successful home gardener. His garden has taken prizes in the city.
But he has always taken his work as Stock Detective with seriousness.
Even though it is overplayed in the newspapers, according to Barney Crockett, rustling still goes on. Today thieves are more likely to use trucks, and are traced by tire marks more than by hoof marks. One group operating near Lethbridge rounded up the cattle by saddle horse and drove them into a truck.
“It was easy to catch them,” says Barney disparagingly. “They were novices.”
No novice was the notorious Mike Garrick, whom Barney apprehended in 1936. He’d already stolen 130 horses when Barney clapped a hand on his shoulder in the back room of a restaurant. “By letting him plead guilty, we never did recover the horses. And he only got six years for it.”
And then there was the story of the horse which was recovered. Thieves had cut the hide at the brand mark, and twisted it to form a wattle (a second identification mark) and burned their brand on the flank. Just enough of the original brand remained for Barney to verify his suspicions. That horse went into the Calgary courtroom to testify on his own behalf.
As Special Constable for the RCMP, Barney had most to do with Livestock Inspection, although he was sometimes called out to do other special detail. But the last 6-7 years were exclusively with stock and he very often trained some of the constables in the work.
“But with the frequent shifts, it didn’t do too well,” he said. All the Mounted Policemen are ex-officio stock detectives. But it really takes a lifetime of training. It’s not something you can learn in a year or two.
Not many people nowadays can read brands accurately at a glance, especially the “arbitrary” brands (the fancy ones). It takes a good memory and plenty of experience, to say nothing of knowledge of what you are looking for and how to describe it. For instance, the O Bar O, the Dumbell, or the Bit.
There are numerous regulations to prevent the movement of stolen cattle, and to prevent the disposal of illegal hides. In Alberta every public service vehicle trucking animals must carry a bill of lading to be produced on police demand.
Also there must be a bill of sale for each animal, or proof of ownership at the stockyards. When cattle are moved more than 20 miles on foot through the province, the owner or herder must have a Trailing Permit issued free by the Livestock Commissioner of the RCMP.
Faked bills of sale are part of today’s technique. One chap, who was something of an artist at this, slipped out of town when Barney delayed shipment of some cattle. Barney figured out where he might be, and casually met him on the trail. The other dismounted to chat, and since the day was cold, thrust his head in through the open car window. Of course his coat gaped, and out slid the forged bill of sale.
A “hunch” often comes in handy, Barney declares. He tells of another occasion when he inspected a group of cattle. The brands looked alright. He found no reason for holding them back, but something still bothered him.
“So I checked again with my Brand Book. The fellow had got that brand about a year before — well that was okay. But I finally persuaded my chief to wire Moose Jaw to hold those cattle and let me take another look at them. When I studied them in the stockyards, and compared the brands with the fellow’s neighbours, then I got it. He’d stolen the cattle alright, kept them hid back in the hills, then changed the brand in the spring along with his own cattle. We got those cattle back to the owner who didn’t even realize he had been robbed.”
You’ve often read of the famous shepherd dogs which the RCMP use in their detective work. Well, Barney’s little Pomeranian is a far cry from those husky creatures. Rusty’s a dainty little bundle of tawny fluff with a nose undulled by high altitudes. On one occasion her sharp nose tracked down four men who were rustling cattle and blackmarketing the meat.
Barney again had a hunch. Why was the door of the unused barn locked and the key missing? Once inside he found tell-tale traces but nothing to prove guilt. He was about to give up, when Rusty nosed into a snowdrift. There was the head of a stolen animal. The entrails were discovered in a manure pile, the legs in a coulee. The hide had been sold, foolishly enough — and one of the culprits had actually signed his own name in the record book.
Barney’s new job is not as strenuous as his work with the RCMP but as much as ever he needs to call upon memory and experience and a knowledge of horse and cattle flesh. And he still leans on the occasional hunch. But from that point on, he can just hand the problem over to the RCMP stock detectives, and hope they do as efficient a job as he himself would have done.