The yard, empty save for horses and pieces of furniture strewn around a single-wide trailer, sat just off the highway. Beside it stood a pristine horse barn, its metal sides towering over a desolate stretch of prairie south of Cheyenne.

Jimmy Dean Siler scanned the openings of the barn as he shifted his Chevy pickup to park in front of a pipe-rail gate. His government-issue white truck blocked the exit, so neither horse nor man would have an escape route.

The prairie wind was too strong; he would have to leave his well-worn straw hat in the truck. A .45-caliber Colt pistol, the hammer cocked, rode snugly at his side.

Siler’s black cowboy boots pocked the gravel run of the driveway as he approached the trailer home’s door. He glanced one last time from the barn to grasslands before knocking.

The next-closest lawman might have been 20 miles away. Even a guard dog is a threat to a livestock detective walking alone on someone’s land.

Through Ray-Ban sunglasses he spotted his query: two horses that were the subject on an ownership dispute.

“At least they’re here,” Siler said. “That makes this easier. We can have a look.”

At the trailer’s door, Siler greeted the 22-year-old brother of the man he was searching for. The livestock detective offered a smile, his graying mustache sweeping onto his cheeks, then launched into a line of firm questions. A metal badge hung from his belt, opposite the pistol.

Siler briskly followed the young man down the steps of the trailer’s small porch and away from the relative safety of his pickup.

As the two examined the horses in question, Siler pensively scanned his surroundings. He had written off the small road at the back of the house. Then he saw a Ford F-150 crest the horizon, speeding for him.

Trouble, it came out of nowhere.

***

A grimacing Steve McQueen overlooks Jim Siler’s desk in the lone investigations office at the Wyoming Livestock Board in Cheyenne. Tom Horn, the classic cowboy icon and subject of McQueen’s movie, watches the detective’s every move from a poster beside his desk.

With the faint tones of the band Alabama playing in the background, Siler finished paperwork and used his iPad, adorned with a handcrafted leather case fit for the saddle, to map out his day in the field.

Siler is one of four Wyoming Livestock Board investigators. A self-proclaimed "cow cop,” he’s tasked with enforcing the state’s rustling laws, ensuring people care for their livestock humanely and overseeing the transportation of the animals that cross state lines.

In 1976, he took his first law enforcement job as a military policeman in the Air Force. He served as a detective in the Air Force Office of Special Investigations before leaving the military to work for the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation in 1996.

Nine years ago, he stopped chasing drug dealers in favor of horse thieves and cattle rustlers.

“I’ve got 33 years under my belt, and these are the most difficult cases that you’re going to come across,” Siler said. “We don’t have an APB for missing livestock. Occasionally a high-dollar horse might ruffle some feathers, but for the most part, it just doesn’t work that way.”

The job of livestock investigator conjures up images of a time when the West was wilder and livestock crime was punished with the bullets of men like Tom Horn, a range detective famously suspected of working as a hit man. Horn was eventually sentenced to death in Cheyenne.

Siler keeps the hammer cocked on his Colt for a reason.

“We’re no different today in many ways,” Siler said. “We’re sending one person out to do this work. You’re on your own on someone else’s property, but I’m not Tom Horn.

“I can’t just shoot someone across a fence.”

Siler works six counties in the southeastern corner of the state. His colleagues work from their homes in other parts of Wyoming.

In livestock ownership disputes, Siler is expected to be the voice of reason while dealing with impassioned ranchers.

“They use us more as the, I like to say, ‘cooler,’” Siler said. “We’re the person that says, ‘Let me go talk to your neighbor, ask him if he’s seen any sign of the cattle you’re missing,’ and see what I can find.”

***

At the horse barn south of Cheyenne, Siler is cooling another ownership situation, alerting the father of the horses’ owner to the seriousness of his son’s predicament. News like this is rarely received well in Siler’s business.

The horses are part of a divorce dispute.

The young man said he owned the two horses, but his former girlfriend holds the brand paperwork for the animals.

With the horses posted for sale on Craigslist, Siler wanted to avoid horse theft charges. If the young man sold the horses without brand paperwork, he would be committing a crime similar to that of selling a car without title.

His father and brother could have been charged as accessories to the crime.

For the horses, an illegal sale could mean the end of their time in Wyoming, and for Siler, a lost chance at returning them to their proper owner.

***

Reports of stolen livestock rarely end with the animals’ return.

Too often, cattle rustlers near the state border can steal a few head at a time, take them to a neighboring state and sell them at livestock auctions.

Often, these cases conclude in places like Kansas, a state with miles of feedlots and no brand inspection laws to track cattle on a load-by-load basis.

The job of a livestock investigator is at times a forlorn journey with a next to impossible goal: find a needle in a stack of needles.

Theft cases can take a year to investigate. And sometimes what was thought to be a case isn’t a case at all.

“We’ll have a case going for five months, and then a rancher might call and say, ‘Hey, I don’t know if my neighbor had them or what, but a couple more showed up.’ ”

Rustling may seem like a crime of the 1880s, but the modern form of cattle theft is on the rise. Siler puts upward of 5,000 miles each month on his truck. 

“Right now cattle are of high value,” said Ann Wittmann, executive director of the Wyoming Beef Council. “It’s a real challenge to keep up with theft when the values are high and the stakes are higher.”

Spencer Ellis, owner of the Flying E Ranch, a 100,000-acre black Angus operation near Lovell, said that although chances of recovery are often slim, the investigators are essential to the industry.

“We’ve lost upward of 38 head in a summer,” Ellis said. “Not saying all of those were thefts. It’s good to know we have brand laws and the investigators to keep people straight.”

The cow cops also provide a service to local sheriffs, bringing livestock expertise to the field that a deputy might not possess.

“The sheriff up here is going to immediately call the livestock board,” Ellis said. “They have the books, know the brands, they know the people. They get so close to our operation that they can tell our cattle from our neighbors' just by looking at them.”

For a rancher like Ellis, authorities like Siler are a welcome presence on the range.

“They know cattle. They aren’t just out here crossing T’s and dotting I’s. It makes a guy feel a lot better just knowing they’re there. There is no question about that.”

***

Siler watched stoically as the man slid from the seat of his F-150. The two had met before, but Siler couldn’t remember where.

He launched into his questions, the man shifting quietly from heel to heel as he explained his side.

Something was missing. A quick stroke of Siler's mustache heralded a final attempt to uncover the missing piece of the story.

“Is he paying you for the care of these horses?” Siler asked.

He wasn’t, the man from the truck said. The costs were mounting and both his son and his son's girlfriend were neglecting the obligation.

Siler made a deal. If the father would guarantee the horses stayed put, he could make the rightful owner pay for its care.

“Let (your son) know I’m looking for him and I’ll be in touch to get a look at those brand papers,” Siler told the man.

As long as the father kept his word, no one would be charged with horse theft.

The men shook hands and then Siler walked to his pickup. He'll be back. 

It’s more than crossed T’s and dotted I’s for the cow cop.

Reach general assignment reporter Trevor Graff at 307-266-0639 or Trevor.Graff@trib.com. Follow him on Twitter @TrevGraff.

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