texasmonthly.com: What made you want to do this story?
Skip Hollandsworth: One day, an editor showed me a short newspaper story about a polite young man named Roddy Pippin who had turned himself into a modern-day cattle rustler. I was flabbergasted. I literally said the phrase “cattle rustler” out loud, over and over, as if I had come across a long-forgotten phrase from another century. Although there were only brief glimpses in that newspaper story about his life, his techniques for stealing cattle, his run from the law (or, as he called it, “the posse”) and, of course, his oddball gang of accomplices, I had no question that there was a huge, dramatic tale to be told.
texasmonthly.com: Did Roddy Dean Pippin seek you out?
SH: No, I wrote him a letter. By then, he was in prison, already serving his long sentence. I had no idea what he would say. A couple of weeks later, I got a letter in which Roddy wrote, “I am sincerely sorry for the bad deeds that I have done in the past by Robbing and Plundering throughout the Texas and Oklahoma Red River Valley. But I would be honored to tell a few of my stories and intrigue the Texas Public.” And then he wrote and said he was spending his days in prison writing short stories about his life as a cattle rustler. For a journalist, that’s like manna from heaven.
texasmonthly.com: What was your biggest challenge in reporting the story?
SH: I realized that this story needed to be, as much as possible, told from Roddy’s point of view. I realized in that first letter he wrote that he was a genuinely great cowboy storyteller—the kind of storyteller who could imagine sitting around the campfire in the days of the Old West and regaling other cowboys with one adventure after another. So I really wanted the reader to hear his voice and his stories (well, as many of them as I had space to print). But that, of course, posed a problem. He was in prison, which meant I was not going to be able to spend hour upon hour with him like I would with someone else. So, to gather as many of his stories as I could, I initially had him write me letters, laying out what he had done during his days as a rustler. I also persuaded him to write me short stories that he had always wanted to write. Then, I would write him more letters, asking him lots of specific questions, which he answered. In that way, I was able to figure out exactly where I wanted the story to go by the time we talked face to face in prison.
texasmonthly.com: What was at the heart of Pippin’s personality? How strongly did you get the feeling that Pippin stole cattle not just to make money, but to live out fantasies of the Old West?
SH: Maybe the best way to understand this story is to see it as the story of Robin Hood—a Robin Hood who lives in the contemporary West. Now, I’m guessing a little about this scenario, but think about this: Here is a kid afflicted with diabetes who grows up dreaming about life as a cowboy. He reads Louis L’Amour novels, buys cowboy clothes, and practices roping in his backyard by studying the techniques of movie actors he watches in old westerns. But he gets laughed at by other kids for being nothing more than a “goat roper” (a phrase used in small towns in the western U.S. to describe wannabe cowboys.) It is not hard to imagine the son of some rich local rancher—a boy who takes for granted everything that he has—humiliating Roddy at the school cafeteria. It is also not hard to imagine other boys laughing at him when he gets hurt trying out for the rodeo team. And, of course, the popular high school girls—or, as they are known, “the buckle bunnies”—completely ignoring him. They find him odd, this boy who politely raises his cowboy hat when he sees them and who talks in the archaic language of the nineteenth century Old West.
He finds himself, after high school, working in basic blue-collar jobs: He does some oilfield work, and he hauls hazardous waste for a chemical company. At two of the jobs, he gets fired because the bosses see him suffer diabetic seizures. He also learns that an older man in town who has spent years working on one of the area’s bigger ranches has been seriously injured and let go without benefits. He watches as some small ranchers, barely making a living, are forced to sell everything they have. Almost always the buyers turn out to be wealthy Dallas–Fort Worth residents who rarely show up at the ranches except on occasional weekends.
Disgust begins to build in Roddy. Here he is, the one person who cares about traditional western life, and he realizes he is forever shut out from it. He realizes he has become part of that lower middle class that inhabits much of the contemporary West.
And so, he comes up with the unlikeliest of plans to take revenge.
texasmonthly.com: You pointed out in your story that to be a good rustler, Pippin needed help. But why did Pippin pick the gang that he did?
SH: Well, his alleged decision to go with Darrell and David and their girlfriends—and you need to remember that so far, only Darrell has been convicted of cattle theft—was something out of comic fiction. Darrell and David were twins who grew up on the fringes of great ranches but who knew nothing about cattle. Nor did they care anything about cattle. They were the classic down-on-their-luck outsiders—think of those bumbling criminals in the movie Fargo (albeit less violent)—who barely made ends meet. But they had also known Roddy since they were little boys, and they felt some sort of affinity for him. I have to say, it’s hard to beat the two scenes in the Texas Monthly story in which Roddy tries to recruit Darrell and David to become part of his gang and then tries to show them how to rustle.
texasmonthly.com: The “cattle detective” who was after Roddy, Scott Williamson, told you that he didn’t like you using the word “rustler” to describe Roddy because that romanticized his thievery.
SH: The story would not be as interesting as it is without Scott Williamson, the field inspector for the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association. Here is a man who literally wears a white hat and who spends his days investigating cattle theft. (Only in Texas, right?) And although he did indeed lampoon my take on Roddy—as this rather romantic figure—the truth is that he and Roddy are very much alike. They both have this deep love for what was once the noble life of the West. Williamson lives it completely. He has his own little ranch (not far from his home), where he goes at the end of each weekday to check on his cattle. He works the land on Saturdays, and on Sundays, he goes to the Baptist church in Seymour, where he teaches a youth Sunday school class. I always wondered if Roddy decided not to rustle cattle off Williamson’s little ranch because he had a great respect for his nemesis.
texasmonthly.com: What was Pippin’s fiction like? Did it give you any major insights into his character that helped you report the story?
SH: For someone who had never before written anything, the fact that Roddy could churn out story after story while sitting in his prison cell is simply amazing. What’s more, the writing is especially vivid, filled with great descriptions of everything from the way he dressed to the way he scouted ranches to the way he actually rustled. His stories included great love scenes with women (perhaps apocryphal, who knows?) and such minute details as the meal he liked to eat before going off to rustling. In fact, when I read in one of his stories about his pre-rustling meal, I asked him specifically in our interview if that was true. And that’s when he told me the anecdote that became the first section of my Texas Monthly story.
texasmonthly.com: What do you think the future holds for Pippin?
SH: It is completely unknown. You’ll see, at the end of the story, the debate from both sides about whether he will die in prison due to his diabetes. Everyone agrees that a prison infirmary can only do so much for a person with severe diabetes like Roddy. And everyone agrees that because of his diabetes, his life expectancy is shortened. But the prosecutor in the case, as well as Scott Williamson, does not believe that his diabetes should be a factor in him getting out of prison before his sentence ends. He did get a very harsh verdict—he agreed to a plea bargain which would keep him in prison for eight years without a chance of parole. And he has gone through many debilitating seizures in the nearly two years he’s been incarcerated. His lawyers believe that if he stays in prison much longer, his body will wear out completely. That is why, I think, Roddy’s quote at the end of the story about just getting the chance to stand outside prison walls one more time will strike some readers as being particularly poignant.