Blood Feud

Hatred and murder between elderly brothers rip apart a West Texas ranch family

A shrewd rancher and businessman, Dad Cardwell became a man of means and a friend of Gov. Coke Stevenson and author and Texas folklorist J. Frank Dobie. After suffering a stroke, he died in 1967 at age 84. His wife died 19 years later at age 95. But even now in Junction, Dad's pointy Vandyke beard, as well as his peculiar and remarkable ways, lingers in memory. He hated tobacco and liquor, wouldn't work on Sunday, wouldn't write a check not divisible by seven, and never cashed thousands of dollars in checks he won in horse races and polo matches because he thought they had the taint of gambling.

He also had a polo field on his ranch, 35 miles out of town. His cowboy polo teams from Junction traveled regularly to compete with military and blueblood squads and acquitted themselves well. Cardwell played polo with the reins in his teeth, winning a spot in Ripley's Believe It or Not as the world's only one-armed polo player. At first impression, the Junction team cowed few opponents.

"They'd always joke about Mr. Cardwell and his Shetland ponies, but while that big thoroughbred was making that nice wide turn, those quarter horses of his would cut on a dime, and he would beat them rather handily," recalls one descendant.

Like his father, Bill Cardwell couldn't abide tobacco or idleness.
San Antonio Express-News
Like his father, Bill Cardwell couldn't abide tobacco or idleness.
Cody Cardwell complained bitterly that he thought his brother Bill cheated him in a business deal.
San Antonio Express-News
Cody Cardwell complained bitterly that he thought his brother Bill cheated him in a business deal.

Perhaps it was because of his handicap, or maybe it was just in the Cardwell genes, but Dad had a tough, even brutal side, both with animals and with his children. "When someone had a wild horse that wouldn't mind, they'd say, 'All he needs is to be Cardwellized,' and anyone who ranched around here knew [what] that meant: Beat the piss out of him," recalls one family member. And Cardwell was only slightly gentler on his extended family, according to one in-law, who asked not to be named.

"The old man was a tyrant. He dominated everything in the family life. And when I talk about him being a mean old bastard, a lot of people will back me up," he says. Others within the family recall him with far more generosity. "He was a stern disciplinarian because that's the way it was back then. He wanted his children to grow up to be good, and he loved his grandchildren," says one family member.

Although both were their father's sons, neither Bill nor Cody was as extreme. Most people in Junction knew them as hardheaded, crusty old ranchers who lived next to each other out on the old family ranch and came to town regularly to drink coffee or trade. Both were large, imposing Western men, each with his own eccentricities and strong opinions, and neither had much give when push came to shove. "They both had big egos, and neither one was afraid of the devil himself," says one Cardwell. Bill worshipped at the Church of Christ, Cody with the Methodists. Bill was older, more like his father, and decades ago had elected to stay home to run the ranch. Like Dad, Bill was a stern man who hated tobacco and alcohol. "He was hard to get along with if you didn't work as hard as he was working. If you were a cigarette smoker, he'd give you mortal hell. And almost every one of his siblings smoked," says Odie Cardwell, Bill's youngest son. But Bill loved guns and had plenty of them around. He sometimes came to Junction with a pistol on his belt, once even venturing into a local bank while packing heat, in what was generally dismissed as an oversight.

Cody had gone off to fight the Germans in World War II and later spent decades working as the manager of the Paint Creek Ranch near Telegraph, which was owned by some rich out-of-towners. Cody was a smoker who didn't mind a drink, and a big talker. "He liked big fish, big bucks, and fast horses," says one in-law.

But in recent years, much of the time, the subject of his complaints was his older brother Bill. The two had been partners in a cattle-raising enterprise on the family ranch. Cody, the absentee partner, thought Bill had cheated him. He went so far as to sue over it, but after an audit, the suit was dropped just several months before the fatal shooting. Whatever problems the brothers had earlier in life were aggravated when Cody retired from running the Paint Creek Ranch in the early 1990s and moved back to his piece of the old family spread. Years earlier, the 10,000 acres had been divided among the children who wanted to keep the land, and it was agreed that Bill would oversee the operation.

"There were five of us, and we pulled it out of a hat. I ended up as neighbors to both of them," says sister Ruth Cherry. "I favored Cody, and he always liked me too, I guess. I never could get close to Bill. Never wanted to."

Bill's chunk and Cody's chunk butted up against each other. The problems were compounded because Bill regularly drove past Cody's house on a right-of-way to tend cattle on an in-law's piece of the ranch. The fatal shooting occurred at this gate as Bill was passing through. The only possible eyewitness to the shooting was Cody's wife, Millie, who may have watched it from a living-room window. She and Cody have since sold their piece of the ranch and moved to nearby Menard.

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