Hooked

Why do ranchers from across the country attend Red McCombs' annual cattle sale? They've all come down with Longhorn fever.

BY THE TIME LOT 34 SAUNTERED into the sales ring at Red McCombs' Longhorn auction, more drool was hanging from the mouths of the buyers than had fallen all day in the cattle pens. Here came the belle of the ball, the reason the three hundred breeders, collectors, and close, personal friends of Red's had gotten out of bed that April morning. The impassioned Longhorn faithful, who had come to his Johnson City ranch from as far away as California, Minnesota, and New York, marveled at the beauty before them. Day's Feisty Fannie, an orange-and-brown brindle with a big, round butt and an eight-week-old bull calf, was what the breeders call a complete package: She had size, color, bloodline, and horns that went for days. But only one of those qualities accounted for the crowd's awe.

It was those horns. From tip to tip they measured 75 5/8 inches. That's more than six feet three, taller than most of the men in the room, and the longest measurement ever on a Longhorn sold at public auction. For all of the larger-than-life symbols of the Texas mythos, here was the largest one yet, in living flesh, blood, and bone. And she was for sale.

After all eyes fixed on the beast, some turned toward the two men most anxious to take Feisty Fannie home. Zech Dameron sat on one side of the center aisle. He's a Dallas family practitioner and a weekend rancher with thirty Longhorns he pastures in Forestburg. Since he started putting his herd together in 1997, he's keyed on one thing. "The three most important things in real estate are location, location, location, and the three most important things in Longhorns are horns, horns, horns," he said.

His rival, Butch Geurin, sat across the aisle, a graying cowman with a detectable bit of Marlboro Man in him. Where Dameron was hatless with a blue shirt and jeans from L. L. Bean, Geurin wore a red-plaid Western shirt and his summer straw. Though he doesn't make his living from ranching either—his fortune came from oil and gas and a cement company he founded in Wichita Falls—he runs two hundred head of cattle on the ranch he grew up on in nearby St. Jo. "A lot of us Longhorn people are true cow people," said Geurin, "but then there's also the docs and the bankers who do it because they like to see that beauty and spend that money. That's what we're up against." The competition between the two wasn't exactly friendly; until recently, Geurin and Dameron were partners. "When I raise cows, I look at the horns, color, calving, conformation, everything. Dameron's all horn," he said.

They had sat for two hot, dusty hours under the blue-and-white sales tent awaiting this moment. That morning Dameron had discreetly allowed that he wasn't interested in Feisty Fannie, that he had earmarked his money for two or three clones of his herd's showpiece, the 77-inch Starlight. But now he leaned forward and licked his lips. Geurin sat still, with his legs crossed and his hands folded in his lap. He had worked out a signal with the ringman taking his bid so that the crowd wouldn't know if he was in or out. But he leered so hard at Dameron out of the corner of his eye he looked like he might fall over.

"Folks, we are setting Longhorn history here today with this cow," announced Kasar "Kaso" Kety, whose job was to talk up the cattle's bloodline during breaks in the bidding. "She has a bull calf at her side born on three-one of oh-two by the bull Overhead. She was sired by the Safari B Bull 1759, with Day's Miss Mischief on the bottom side, and she's a straight Butler blue, boys," he said, referring to the Butler bloodline prized for its superior horns. "What a pair and what an opportunity."

Then Colonel Eddie Wood, the world's only true Longhorn auctioneer, took over. The 79-year-old rancher from Wynnewood, Oklahoma, has sold more than a million Longhorns and may well know more about the breed than any other person alive. "I'll tell you what," he said. "This is one of the highlights in anyone's business, boys. I don't care what you do." He started the bidding at $25,000, but nobody budged. The three ringmen, one for each section of the crowd, crouched frozen and ready. In starched shirts and ties, their eyes darting from face to face, they looked like caffeinated Secret Service men. "All right, hook in, hook in, boys, I'm going to start back where you'll bid, at twenty-five hundred," said the colonel, and the bids started flying: five thousand, seven thousand, ten thousand. The colonel cracked his small gavel to accentuate the call. Fifteen thousand, twenty thousand, twenty-two, twenty-five. He called the figures too fast to tell where they came from. Neither Dameron nor Geurin showed a sign one way or the other. "All right, who's gonna bid me thirty? I got twenty-five; who's gonna bid me thirty?" the colonel barked. Thirty, thirty-four, thirty-nine, forty-four.

"Now we're having a good time, all right now, for-tee-five, we need forty-four and one thousand dollars is four-tee-five thousand." He banged his gavel down. " Four-tee-five, now I need forty- six."

The colonel paused. Spectators looked to Dameron and Geurin for a clue as to who would blink first, but instead of steely eyes trained straight ahead, they saw slack-jawed faces spun toward the back of the tent. There, in a bright red-and-blue lawn chair that nearly swallowed her whole, sat the tiny lady in a brown straw bonnet and pair of Richard Petty sunglasses who had commandeered the proceedings. She was fanning her puckered face with a bidding card numbered 114 and pulling on her husband's sleeve, looking for reassurance. She was the colonel's $45,000 bidder, and for the moment, Feisty Fannie was hers.

EVEN THE MOST FOULMOUTHED, red-faced orange blood in Austin on a Saturday

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