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

June 2002By Comments

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 in September won't approximate the passion of a Longhorn breeder. They're like the chili-cookoff crowd or Jimmy Buffett's Parrot Heads, hooking up at shows and auctions almost every weekend, and wherever they go, the Longhorn silhouette is inescapable: on shirts, ties, and necklaces, inlaid on boots and molded onto bracelets and belt buckles. Silver Longhorns, turquoise Longhorns, leather Longhorns, plastic Longhorns. Many of the devoted have retired to weekend ranches and found themselves with plenty of time to go with their money and land. "Some people golf all the time," said Feisty Fannie's seller, John Stockton. "Some buy $25,000 bass boats and go fishing, and some buy fancy motor homes and go driving. But in Texas, Longhorns are part of our culture." They all lug scrapbooks containing photos of their best cattle, with small-town-weekly news clippings, ribbons, and programs from shows.

Lana Hightower of Van, a onetime bull rider and Miss Iowa runner-up, had such mementos in tow. At the auction she dazzled the crowd in a matching sea-foam blouse and straw hat, with a wide silver concho belt and Longhorn earrings as accents. "These are people who color outside the lines a little bit," she said. "My husband, Gene, and I started ten years ago when he traded orthodontic work for two cows. He just wanted something to eat the grass and to look at. Now I halterbreak all the heifers, and we sell herd sires and show bulls."

None of the breeders can make a living off of their herds. Working cattlemen deride Longhorns as front-pasture ornaments, which the colonel tacitly admits whenever he tells a crowd that a Longhorn will "stop more traffic than a dead body." Despite the frequent boasts that a Longhorn steak is leaner than a chicken breast and that the herds need far less attention than other cattle, the animals have next to no commercial value. That the least useful of the breed, steers, have the longest horns—"All them hormones got to go somewhere," said Stockton—makes perfect sense.

But the allure of the Longhorn is romance, not commerce, and the herds connect these folks to the whole of Texas legend. The history of the breed is a rough reflection of the state's: Just as the proud Texas identity was forged during its nine years as a freestanding country, the traits that distinguish the Longhorn developed when great herds left behind by the Spanish roamed wild through South Texas in the two hundred years before white settlers came to "civilize" the plains. More to the point, the characteristics nature selected in the cattle are the same ones that Texans have always claimed for themselves: self-reliant, resilient, and free, violent and vicious in defense but loyal to their herd and protective of their own.

Red McCombs sees all that and more, specifically—and not surprisingly—a tie to the men he calls the state's first entrepreneurs, the post-Civil War businessmen who bought South Texas Longhorns in San Antonio for $2 a head, drove them to railhead cities like Dodge, and sold them for $25. "That's how the Texas economy got its first leg up," McCombs said.

To the extent that the breed has a leg up now, it can thank McCombs. As the host of the annual auction, he opens up his ranch to breeders and their families from all over the country. As the larger-than-life Texas tycoon sitting atop a multimillion-dollar fortune built on car dealerships, radio stations, and professional sports teams, he attracts attention even to his hobbies, like this auction.

But the debt runs deeper than that. When he bought his 4,400-acre ranch, in 1978, to satisfy a 28-year-old promise to his wife, Charline, Longhorns were part of the Texas myth, but their marketability was scarcely more tangible. It was McCombs who first established a strong price by paying twice the market value for the best cows, and he also introduced Thoroughbred breeding practices to the animals by syndicating their semen and eggs. "What we try to do with our cattle," said McCombs, "is what every father tries to do with his kids and that is to outproduce himself. To make something better than he was."

In the early eighties his auctions were black-tie affairs where cattle were shown in the ballrooms of hotels in big cities like Houston and San Antonio. Partnerships formed on the auction room floors as breeders pooled hundreds of thousands of dollars for partial interests in bulls. But with the late-eighties bust, the profit disappeared. By 1992 the auctions ended, and McCombs sold from his herd primarily at private treaty, the way you might sell a car from your driveway.

"Even if I wasn't making a nickel, I'd still have a herd," said McCombs as he drove his preferred ranch truck, a 1985 Silverado Suburban his family calls Lurch, through his pastures the day before the April sale. "This is people land, not cattle land, and I think I can better utilize it with the Longhorn program I've got here than anything else. Besides, it makes my wife happy."

He resurrected the auctions in 1998 when he saw that a new crop of grandkids didn't comprehend "Pop-Pop's" love for the breed—which just so happened to coincide with an upturn in the economy and a surge in the number of small-ranch purchases. Now the event is a kicked-back weekend at his ranch. The Friday-night barbecue was like an after-church picnic—McCombs doesn't drink, and the short lines at the open bar proved it wasn't that kind of cookout. Of the 450 people who attended, friends and neighbors far outnumbered the buyers: Darrell Royal and his wife, Edith; actress Stephanie Zimbalist and her big brother Skip; Austin humorist Cactus Pryor and his wife, Peggy; country singer Larry Gatlin and his wife, Janis. The closest the affair came to getting out of hand occurred when Gatlin took over for the band, welcoming the non-Texans, then asking them to please hurry home. He thanked Red for the party and "George W. for whipping the bad guys over in Afghanistan. To think that there but for the grace of God and a few old ladies in West Palm Beach who can play fourteen bingo cards at one time but can't read a butterfly ballot."

Of course, not all of the guests were there to socialize. Among the last to leave, after an eleventh-hour strategy session, were Malcolm and Connie Goodman and their buyer, herd consultant extraordinaire Russell Hooks. The Goodmans are closer in type to Dameron than McCombs. They started stocking Longhorns four years ago on two hundred acres they own outside Houston after Malcolm sold a software program that designed oil rigs to Halliburton. He looks at the Longhorns the same way his wife does her world-class collection of Native American art: a connection to the past that's beautiful and, for them, affordable.

Hooks is their guru. "We couldn't do this without Russell," said Connie. "I fall in love with the cows just by looking at those beautiful faces, and Russell will tell me I can't have her because she doesn't have any teeth. I'll say 'How can you tell that when she hasn't even opened her mouth?'"

"You've seen your grandmother without her false teeth in?" said Hooks. "Well, it's the same way with cows. I've been looking at them long enough to tell." Hooks started buying Longhorns for his family's Kirbyville ranch when he was fourteen. In black Wranglers and a glittery black shirt buttoned to the top, he stands out from both the sweater vests and the Western shirts. He looks a little like country picker Ricky Skaggs—but with red hair and less forehead—and has the same reedy voice. "I'll tell you one thing about Longhorns. They're like that bag of potato chips: Once you get started, you just cannot stop," he said.

The morning after the cookout, Hooks took in a Big Red breakfast as he walked by the pens, but he had finished his appraisal of the cattle the day before, when fewer interlopers could look over his shoulder at the notes he wrote in his auction catalog. According to Hooks, his early birding sits fine with the consignors, who worry that a disapproving look from him could mean no bids for their cattle.

Inside the tent the Goodman party took seats to the colonel's left, the side Hooks says he favors when he's calling for bids. They had designs on one cow, not the featured attraction, which Hooks figured would sell too high, but a dun-colored beauty named Yellow Bird with spiraled horns that appealed to Malcolm's sense of art. Hooks calls them "twisty horns." When Yellow Bird appeared, the bidding jumped quickly to Hooks's maximum price of $8,000. With Connie spreading her hands flat on her navy clam diggers to show Malcolm her limit—ten fingers, $10,000—Malcolm took the cow with a $9,000 bid. Hooks looked relieved.

AN HOUR LATER VICKI MOSSER WAS SITTING on the high bid of $45,000 when she took off her glasses to see whom she was bidding against. Bedlam had broken out in the tent. Kety was shouting over the P.A. to be heard above the crowd, who blew "Shews" and "Oh, boys" at the bidding's breakneck pace and hollered to see if anybody knew the little lady.Indeed, Vicki and her husband, Rex, were generally unknown quantities. He had grown up on a farm in Illinois and had recently retired from the steel fabrication company that he had moved to Houston in 1973. Vicki was born in London but lost her accent somewhere in the Midwest. The two of them started building a herd two years ago that they named Vicki's Menagerie, and they bought their first bull, Brown Bomber, at McCombs' last auction. They now owned 87 Longhorns and looked to add another in a most noteworthy fashion.

With the bidding stalled, Vicki buried her face in her hands and prayed that her $45,000 would stick. The colonel was rapping his gavel for order when a voice from across the room yelled, "Forty-six!" and the ride took off again. "Forty-seven!" yelled Vicki, thrusting her right hand high over her head, her left hand crushing a soft pack of Salem cigarettes, and her eyes blazing at the rival to her left. They traded back and forth, forty-eight, forty-nine. The ringmen barked over the howling din as the bidding blew past fifty to fifty-one, fifty-two, fifty-three, fifty-four. With each bid, Vicki looked at her husband to see if he wanted to go higher, then whenever the counter leapfrogged, she threw up that arm. In a blur they raced on. Fifty-five, fifty-six, fifty-seven, fifty-eight.

"All right, little lady, I got fifty-eight, how about fifty-nine?" called the colonel. "It's at fif-tee-nine, will I get fifty-nine? Ma'am, don't lose it now!" She threw her fist in the air, and the crowd bellowed. "Fifty-nine thousand! Will I get six-tee? Six-tee thousand, yes or no . . . it's six-tee thousand dollars. Are y'all done? I want to sell her, boys. Six-tee thousand dollars! Six-tee thousand dollars! Stand up, little lady, and let's give her a hand!"

Pandemonium erupted. McCombs took the mike and compared the moment to the Super Bowl, the World Series, and the Stanley Cup, and the tent looked like a locker room celebration. Everyone wore a grin as wide as their hat brim as they pictured the new seller's market whisking Longhorn prices into the stratosphere. Vicki danced around until she was cornered by a reporter for what is presumed to have been her first interview with the New York Times. Rex pulled himself from his lawn chair and made the rounds, introducing himself to other breeders and taking pats on the back. When order was finally restored, Vicki unwound with a deep draw from a bent Salem.

Outside the tent, Dameron admired Feisty Fannie and her calf in the pen, where they lay oblivious to their fame. "I was going to wait until the bidding got up around thirty, but it got past me in a second," he said, shaking his head. "Nobody even seems to know who those people are." He then talked about growing up in West Texas. "My parents had a ranch in Del Rio but lost it in the Depression. So I grew up in a small town but not really on a ranch. I'm not rural; I'm from Dallas. But I miss all that other." He looked down the length of Fannie's record-setting horns. "You know, if that lady bred this cow with that bull I just sold in Kansas . . ."

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