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Killer Wolf
Old Three Toe

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

They called the killer Old Three Toe.

Sometimes, he ate his victims while they were still alive. Occasionally, he seemed to kill purely for fun.

Though roundly hated for what he did, most folks in Hall County grudgingly agreed he had plenty of smarts. In the early 1890s, when working hard from sunup to sunset earned a man a dollar a day, a $100 reward stood for anyone who could bring in the wily killer.

Three Toe did not prowl the South Plains out of meanness, for greed or revenge. He merely followed his instincts. Three Toe was a gray wolf. He killed livestock, not people.

Gray wolves once ranged all across Texas. An adult male could weigh up to 130 pounds. Standing three feet high, with a body stretching out to twice that length, these wolves could run faster than 20 miles an hour.

Long before Europeans came to Texas, wolves preyed on buffalo, deer and antelope, using their powerful jaws first to cripple, then to kill and eat. Sometimes the last two phases overlapped. By the mid-to-late 1870s, with the great North American bison herd nearly hunted out, wolves quickly developed a taste for the cattle that followed.

"Reports from the ranges of West Texas indicate a large increase in the number of coyotes and lobo wolves," the Eagle Pass Guide reported in 1896, "and in the extent of their depredations on stock. It is not sheep and chickens that they now attack, but calves, colts and half-grown horned cattle. When a scalp bill is next presented to the Texas legislature there will be no division among the stockmen as to its merits."

Apparently, however, division on the issue existed in the Legislature. Lawmakers repealed the old bounty law and passed nothing to replace it.

"Since the scalp law has been repealed," the same newspaper reported a few months later, "the stockmen...have found it necessary to form clubs for the extermination of wolves. Trappers are employed and each wolf killed costs the stockmen...about $3."

On the Edwards Plateau, a trapper caught an estimated 150 wolves on one large ranch.

"It pays to have them killed," the border town newspaper continued. "Forest Edwards said a few days ago that of his 7000 sheep he had lost nearly as many by the depredation of wolves as by disease, and that during the fall and winter the wolves had killed not less than 200 out of his flock."

Texans had never been reluctant to draw a bead on a wolf, but when the animals started killing cattle and sheep, ranchers began a war of extermination. Cowboys and herders shot them on sight. Hunters trailed them with dogs, set steel traps and lay out poisoned meat. Many wolves died, but they were a smart species.

One wolf in Hall County had grown particularly wary. He quickly associated the smell of man with the danger of sharp, cold steel. But every creature has the occasional bad day. Once, he missed the scent of danger and approached a tasty-looking cut of fresh meat.

No one heard his scream when the steel jaws of the trap snapped on one of his legs, but a farmer found the trapped wolf the next morning. Before the man could raise his rifle, if indeed he had even been carrying one, the wolf tore its foot from the trap, leaving one toe and a piece of tendon behind.

The close call added to the wolf's education and gave him his nickname, Old Three Toe. The distinctive track he left also demonstrated the impressive extent of his range and appetite.

One rancher in the area lost 40 calves one spring. Old Three Toe's tracks always lay in the vicinity. Soon, Old Three Toe had become the most wanted wolf on the Texas plains.

Instinct drove him to kill, and in the end, another powerful instinct led to his demise.

A Hall County man happened to have his rifle with him when he encountered a pack of wolves, fighting over a she wolf. His guard down in the pursuit of romance, Old Three Toe caught a bullet. And another and another. Not until a slug slammed into his forehead did the big lobo go down for good.

Whether the man who finally settled accounts with Old Tree Toe collected the reward money did not get reported, but he earned plenty of recognition in Hall County. The dead wolf went on display in Memphis with no less fanfare than the bullet-riddled body of a would-be bank robber. Eventually, someone shipped Old Three Toe's hide to a taxidermist, who preserved the snarling, trap-marked lobo for posterity.

The mount stood for years in the town's First National Bank, an attention-getting reminder of the days when wolves prowled West Texas.

Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" October 20, 2016 column

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