By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
JUNCTION, Texas--In the biblical version of the tale, the older son of the patriarch was filled with spite and jealousy, killed his younger brother, and was then marked by God and condemned to a life of wandering.
In the ongoing West Texas remake, the younger son of the one-armed man, filled with spite and jealousy, killed his older brother with a lever-action deer rifle, called the police, and was charged with murder.
"It's the oldest story in history, going back to Genesis. Cain killed Abel. Brother killing brother. It's very unfortunate, but that's all I can say," says Sutton County District Attorney Ori White, whose office is prosecuting the case. Next month in Sonora, Cody Cardwell, 80, is set to go to trial for the murder of his brother Bill, who was also his neighbor on the vast Cardwell spread southwest of Junction. When the bitterness and ugly talk between the aging brothers finally turned to gunplay more than three years ago, some Cardwell kinfolk were surprised that only one shot was fired.
"I thought it would be like the O.K. Corral. A battle royal," recalled one nephew. And when it ended on May 5, 1997, and Bill lay dead with a hole through his chest, some were also surprised that Cody was the one left standing. "Everybody thought it was going to be the other way around. I think they threatened each other all their lives," says Ruth Cherry, the younger sister of the feuding pair.
"I don't think they were ever the best of friends, over girlfriends or ranching or anything else. They had a difference of opinion about everything," she says. Immediately after the shooting, Cody called the law in Junction.
"You know that trouble old Bill and I been having? Well, it's over," he told the Kimble County Sheriff dispatcher.
Bill was 80 when he died. Cody, four years younger, claims he shot to protect himself, even though Bill, for once, was not armed. An attempt to settle the murder case with a plea bargain fell apart this spring, so on December 6 it is set for trial before a jury in neighboring Sutton County, where the shooting took place. "It's certainly a bizarre, old-timey case. It's different because of the age of the defendant," says Mike Brown, an assistant district attorney who will argue the case. "A murder needs to be tried. There's a lot of hard feelings on both sides."
Junction, which sits 100 miles west of San Antonio on Interstate 10, gets its name from the confluence of the northern and southern branches of the Llano River. It is a quiet ranching town of about 2,600 people where secrets are few and memories are long. Few in Junction will talk openly, especially to outsiders, about the West Texas Gothic involving one of the region's pioneer families. As the criminal trial looms, few facts about the shooting are in dispute. Nor is there much mystery about the long fraternal animosity that led up to it or the family ruin it has caused.
The case has rudely divided the Cardwells, who are found among the lawyers, ranchers, bankers, and schoolteachers of Kimble County. Just one year before the shooting, 75 Cardwells showed up in Junction for a family reunion. That is unlikely to happen ever again.
Some Cardwells believe Cody's account, some don't, and most who talked asked that their names be kept out of it. Although the rift seems beyond mending, some still hope the family will survive intact.
"I've known them both and loved them. They did have disagreements, but I never thought it would come to this," says one in-law. "There are several of us trying to build back the love and the healing. I know the family will get over this. There is too much love. I do not close doors, and I loved both of them."
Some saw the seeds of the violent denouement in the harsh frontier rearing that Bill and Cody got at the hand of their father, O.W. "Dad" Cardwell, at the family's isolated cattle ranch.
"They came from a strange background. Their dad was a one-armed man, and he was extremely rough on all the boys," says one Junction resident.
The one-armed patriarch, who died in 1967, lives on via reputation here, both for his fierce and quirky personality and for his considerable accomplishments as a rancher, horseman, and polo player.
"He was very stern and very religious," he says. Cardwell lost his left arm in a hunting accident when he was a boy, and, as a one-armed man in a two-fisted frontier world, he made sure he would never be seen as a weakling. "He tried to make up for that lost arm by roping and riding as strong as any man with two arms," says his daughter Ruth. About the only thing Dad Cardwell couldn't do was fix a screen.
He and his bride, Mildred, came to Junction in 1910, just three decades after the city was founded. They arrived in a two-horse buggy after an East Texas wedding and began setting up a primitive household on the ranch that O.W. had acquired two years earlier. "Arriving there in the night, with O.W. tending to the horses and talking to the ranch hands, Mildred found the new house without any furniture. Being very tired, she celebrated by just going to bed on an old mattress on the floor," reads a family history written by their son James Cardwell. "Mildred, not having to do washing and ironing back home (colored servants you know) had her hands full with the old rub washboard and pot, plus cooking for the men. Needless to say, along came Mitchell, the first of 11 children," he wrote. "The family applied austere measures, buying little and living within their means. Working hard at everything, trading in cattle and horses, and wolf hunting took up most of O.W.'s time, while Mildred did her best cooking on the old wood stove with beef, venison, wild hog, garden fruits and vegetables. Financial times improved, and along came Bill, Cody, and Bundy," he wrote. Ten of the Cardwell's children grew to adulthood, and three are still living. The fourth-born child, Bundy, died in an accident on the ranch when he was a boy.
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.
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.
One in-law, who asked not to be named, said Cody's declining health--and not a lifelong sibling rivalry with Bill--led to the shooting. "Cody had been diagnosed with cancer. The doctor told him if he didn't quit smoking, he'd lose his kidneys. He quit, and it put him more on edge. I could tell you all kinds of things Cody did that were strange," she says. But, she says, Bill and Cody often worked together without friction, and Bill had faithfully visited Cody when he was in the hospital for cancer treatments. "Cody was very sick and had been forced to retire from the Paint Creek Ranch that he loved. I just feel that if Cody stopped to think, it would not have happened. He was sick that morning."
The lawyers who will face each other in court say the trial's outcome will turn on how the jury evaluates the claim of self-defense.
"Bill's family feels that Cody was the aggressor, that he was the angriest and making the most recent threats. I don't think there was any doubt they were both making threats," says Brown, the prosecutor. "I don't believe the self-defense issue, and I really don't think the jury will believe it either."
Cody declined to talk about the case. His lawyer, Pat Patillo of Kerrville, says that his client shot to protect himself and that Bill was armed. "Bill did have some fencing pliers. Anything could be a deadly weapon. It was more the totality of the situation, Cody knowing his brother, and the difficulties they had, that gave him the mindset that he had to defend himself," he says. He is still uncertain about putting Cody on the stand. "I prosecuted for seven years in Houston, both in state and federal court, and the general attitude of the public is, if you don't talk, you don't walk. I really don't think the presumption of innocence exists with the public," Patillo says.
Also pending in Sonora is a wrongful death suit filed in civil court against Cody by Bill's three adult sons. One of them, Odie, lives in the house his father owned. Odie says he spoke to his father on May 4, 1997, the night before the shooting that turned the enormous Cardwell family inside out. "I said, 'How are things with Cody?' and he said, 'It's not any better. He's blabbing all over town about everything I've stolen from him. He needs to shut up,'" Odie recalls. "I said, 'Dad, when you go to Thelma's place, go around. Don't go by Cody's.' And he said, 'Son, that's easy for you to say,' and I guess it was."