Those days, we had rules we followed, rules we pretended we followed, rules we simply ignored and a few we made up. Crime being the psoriasis of society, the best a cop can do to relieve it is scratch real hard when there’s an outbreak. Among us, some were called cowboys, not meant in the traditional sense, but in the sense that we sometimes enforced justice cowboy-style. This isn’t to suggest we dragged crooks off the streets and fit ’em for a necktie. But some gave us cause.
Back then, in 1968, we worked for Ralph Lamb. We referred to him with a degree of affection—and a great deal of irony—as Uncle Ralph, but more often as The Sheriff. Our wages were a pittance of what cops now make, and our benefits—other than a potential retirement some 30 years later—were nil. Still, the job was worth it, if for no other reason than the stories we recounted while downing a few beers in the vacant lot beside the First National Bank after shift’s end.
We couldn’t make a stop without another unit rolling in behind us as a backup. We looked out for one another. Almost family, you could say. If one had to move into a new house or apartment, we lent a hand. We didn’t have disposable income to pay for plumbing and painting, so whatever the skill we brought to the cause, we offered it—be it carpentry or electrical know-how—for the price of a beer or two. That was us.
The sheriff was different. Layers of management as inflexible as angle iron sat between us and him. He let bureaucrats run the day-to-day operation, and the rest of us rarely saw him. In the four-and-a-half years I worked for him, advancing from deputy to detective to sergeant, I don’t recall him ever addressing me by name. If I was in a group, he invariably greeted us with, “How you boys doin’?” We were, and I believe it was sincere on his part, his boys. Many among us were beholden to him for our jobs. It was the days of the good-ol’-boy system. The first thing a deputy was instructed to do after taking his oath was to show loyalty to the sheriff and register as a Democrat.
I worked with Gary Beckwith, my classmate in the Academy. Riding with him was like having George Carlin in the passenger seat. His badge number, being two or three below mine, made me technically senior partner. We thought the notion of one of us being senior to the other as silly. We were partners in the fullest sense—me the aggressive cop, him the crazy one.
One very cold night, our field sergeant assigned us to paddy-wagon duty. Ours was a converted Chevrolet panel truck with a cranky clutch and a three-speed floor shift. Vice detectives had been running a hooker setup, and we’d transported three loads to the jail, each time with three or more ladies in the back. Gary kept them laughing on the way downtown, and at the end of one run, a hooker born on some Commonwealth island in the Caribbean told us in her queen’s English that the trip to jail was a delight, and in the future she’d demand us as escorts or “there would be hell to pay.”
As shift’s end neared, Gary and I still hadn’t taken a well-deserved helmet-less, 15-minute coffee break. We were headed in the direction of Denny’s by the Dunes when the inevitable occurred. Gary answered the call.
“Cattle loose heading east on Convention Center Drive from the Stardust,” the dispatcher said. “Animal Control en route.”
Gary looked at me with a bemused expression. I looked back. Then we drove off to herd livestock.
By the time we arrived, some two dozen head of cattle were huddled near the entrance of the Convention Center. There was a rodeo coming up, and the animals had made a jailbreak from the old Horseman’s Park at the rear of the Stardust. It was approaching 4 o’clock, the wind was up, and the temperature was in the mid-30s as I pulled the paddy wagon to a stop in the parking lot. Gary informed the dispatcher that we were on the scene. She instructed us to keep the cattle there. How, she never said. And we didn’t have a clue. I’d lived for a time in Tularosa, N.M., and had seen cowboys herd cattle with a truck, but that was on open range. We were in a paddy wagon in a parking lot and lacked the tools of the trade—no rope, no whip, just firearms that couldn’t be used, tear-gas dispensers and batons, which wouldn’t do much good.
At the edge of the herd stood a Texas Longhorn the size of a small trailer, with a horn span the width of one. When it squared up to challenge the paddy wagon, I muttered a profanity. Any steer, but especially one that size, could be as formidable a contestant as a bull. Gary, in character as always, scrambled out of the vehicle, drew his nightstick from its ring in the manner of Lancelot preparing to do battle and faced the huge beast. I threw open my door, stood on the running board and, for the first time since our being partnered up, asserted myself as senior deputy.
“Get the hell back in here, lunatic.” I told him it was too cold to be outside.
He returned to the paddy wagon, slid into his seat and asked, “What now?”
“We wait for the Animal Control unit.”
The Animal Control officer arrived and sized up the situation. His conclusion: “We can’t do anything but head them off if they try to leave.”
I passed his professional assessment on to the dispatcher, who told us to keep the cattle together, that help was on the way. In coordination with the Animal Control officer, we drove back and forth, urging the herd into an ever-smaller circle. Despite our efforts, some steers managed to slip away and trek east down Desert Inn Road. Others lay huddled near the Convention Center entrance to ward off the cold as the longhorn stood guard over them. Whenever he deemed us too close, he lowered his head and bellowed. Somehow, for more than an hour, we managed to keep most of them together. Then, suddenly, as if spirited by a silent command, those that had been lying down rose up and began to mill about.
I called the dispatcher and informed her the cattle seemed ready to stampede.
“Help’ll be there,” she said.
As I cradled the microphone, a small convoy of pickups pulling horse trailers rolled in and stopped nearby. The drivers and passengers stepped out and went to work, swinging open the trailer doors, pulling out the ramps, locking them, and entering the trailers. They led out their finely bred cutting horses, all saddled and ready. The riders mounted and, with reins and ropes in hand, circled their mounts close to us.
Then Ralph Lamb himself spoke.
“We got ’em, boys. Give us a little escort. Some red lights.”
A couple of ropers headed down Desert Inn Road to gather up strays. The rest rode into the herd, following the lead of the sheriff, who had learned the trade as a boy in Alamo, where you were either a cowboy or a stranger. Within three to four minutes, Lamb, his brother Darwin and some five or six of their buddies had the cattle heading west toward Horseman’s Park. Leading the way in the paddy wagon were Gary and me, red lights flashing. We blocked the intersection of Las Vegas Boulevard and Convention Center Drive and watched as the cowboys drove the cattle through. Amazed tourists stood on the sidewalks. Parking attendants cheered as the riders and cattle entered the Stardust property, the sheriff and his brother the last two to cross as the sun behind us broke the horizon.
When I look back on those days and think of the tough times barely making the bills and the pettiness and hypocrisy that prompted me to resign, I think also of the good times, and often of a story I can’t imagine ever being duplicated. The Stardust Horseman’s Park has long been gone, the Stardust itself is no more, and Ralph Lamb, like the Texas longhorn, is now a throwback to a bygone era. Though he never called me by name and perhaps never even knew it, I won’t likely forget his. And I’ll long remember that night and the astonished looks on the faces of those tourists as he rode at the rear of that herd, sitting high in the saddle, swinging his rope like the cowboy life had always intended him to be.