Raising Cain Against Abel

There wasn't room enough on the family's West Texas ranch for two feuding brothers. So Cody Cardwell took up arms against his older sibling.

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 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.

Bill Cardwell sometimes came to town with a gun in his belt
San Antonio Express-News
Bill Cardwell sometimes came to town with a gun in his belt
After the shooting, Cody Cardwell called the police to say the "trouble" was over.
San Antonio Express-News
After the shooting, Cody Cardwell called the police to say the "trouble" was over.

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's 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 color in the first degree," says James Watson, who married one of Dad Cardwell's granddaughters.

"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 after an East Texas wedding in a two-horse buggy and began setting up a primitive household on the ranch that O.W. had acquired two years earlier.

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