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Mark Mellon
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meth.jpg
Art by Steve Cartwright 2015

Valley of the Meth Head Rustlers

 

Mark Mellon


 

          "When’d you catch on you lost stock, R.T.?"

          Pargrew kept to seventy, but still whipped up and down one small hill after another. The truck crested a rise. Huebner Valley spread before them, broad, shallow, dotted with mesquite, live oak, and dwarf pine, traversed by meandering creeks that flowed over stony beds, prime cattle country.

          "Me and Bob Ed brought ponies out and did a head count Tuesday. Came up short nine cows and four calves. Boy howdy, that makes me mad, all them prime beeves just gone-"

          R.T. continued in this vein. Pargrew drove into the valley. An occasional gravel or dirt driveway flashed past, but the view on either side was primarily endless iron fences topped by barb wire with nothing behind but hill country scrub, cactuses, and an occasional cow. They passed a wild pig's carcass by the road, legs stiff in the air, bloated in the warm Texas sun. Both men fanned their faces with their cowboy hats to drive away the stench.

          "Someone played hell with his truck's front end. Is this it up ahead?"

          "That's her, all right."

          Pargrew turned onto a dirt road and stopped before the gate. R.T. got out, unlocked the gate, and slid it open. Pargrew drove the truck inside. R.T. shut the gate and got back in.

          "They cut the lock?"

          "Sure enough."

          "Tell you one thing, R.T. Put a TSCRA sign on that front gate. That might have scared them off right there, if you'd had it up."

          "This ain't my land, Alec. I just lease it."

          "Which makes it yours while you hold the lease."

          They reached a clearing.

          "This where you feed them?"

          "Yep."

          Pargrew stopped the truck. They got out. Nearby cattle drifted toward them. R.T. slapped his hand on the truck's hood to alert other cows.

          "You always call them like that?"

          "What's wrong with it?"

          "Nothing, except they probably watched you do it and did the same when they came to steal your beeves."

          R.T. and Pargrew took buckets filled with feed cubes from the truck's bed and scattered them. They squatted on their haunches under a live oak's shade and watched the cattle eat.

          "I still don't understand why you got a section thirty miles from your spread.  You can't be two places at once."

          "Think I ain't told myself that since this happened? I just figured, with the drought broke and beef at a premium, here's a chance to maybe make some real money for a change. And some pissant sumbitch comes along and rustles my stock. Why the-"

          Pargrew patted R.T.'s shoulder.

          "You got a right smart of reasons to be mad, but if you bust a blood vessel, I'll have to take you back to town. Let's look around, see what we turn up."

          Both men stood. R.T.'s body creaked and cracked. They circled the clearing, skirted prickly-pear cactus, dodged sharp lechuguilla spines.

          "You called your special ranger?"

          "Him and the Region 2 Supervisor, too. Both said they want to help, but they're up to their ears in rustlers. The ranger took my report over the phone and promised to come by, but he's so dern busy, it'll be most two weeks."

          "TSCRA's good, but there's only so many special rangers. Looky."

          Pargrew pointed to wide tire tracks in the dusty red soil.

          "Here's where the truck stopped. It was probably a rental, a Ryder or U-Haul, something big enough to hold stock. This is where they put down the ramp."

          He bent low, closely studied the ground, and picked up a cigarette butt. Pargrew pointed to a violet smudge at the butt's tip.

          "There was a woman with them. Your stock branded?"

          "All but the few calves we ain't rounded up."

          "Good you did, but probably not too much help this time. I figure you got rustled by meth heads, amateurs judging by the evidence they left. They can truck the beeves to an illegal slaughterhouse and get two grand for twelve thousand dollars worth of stock.  Two grand buys an ounce of meth, maybe more."

          R.T. drew near Pargrew.

          "I've worked hard and honest my whole life, Alec. Just when I look to get ahead, some sumbitch steals my rightful property. I know it ain't nothing like what you usually figure on earning, but I'll pay five thousand if you catch the fellows what did this."

          Old fashioned, schooled to keep his emotions tightly reined, the pleading was still evident in R.T.'s rheumy eyes.

          "Don't you fuss none, R.T. I wouldn't have dragged out here if I didn't mean to help. Reckon I owe you one."

          The worried look on R.T.'s round, red face since Pargrew picked him up at his ranch disappeared. He wrung Pargrew's right hand.

          "I knew you'd hold up your end, Alec. How do you figure on catching them?"

          "Wait, basically."

          The worried look clouded R.T.'s face again.

          "What do you mean?"

          "R.T., a meth head lives hit to hit. Everything's good while the meth holds out, but once it's gone, he has to scare up money for more. You're an easy touch, at least so far, and most folks don't think too good on hard drugs. Most likely, they'll come again."

          R.T. gave Pargrew a hopeful look, still tinged with doubt.

          "You really think so, Alec?"

          Pargrew nodded. "Soon as the meth runs out. When it does, we'll be ready."

***

          "Through the dark, eternal night

          The blinding, fiery spear of Satan's might

          Shines a light on mankind's plight

          While captive angels scream-"

          Death metal blared from the speakers, shrieking guitars, over amplified bass and drums played at jackhammer speed, the singer guttural as a kitchen sink garbage disposal.  The Dallas Cowboys hammered the Redskins on the flatscreen TV with the sound off. Luke laid out another rail on the glass topped coffee table and snorted half with a cut down McDonald's straw. Already screaming high, the added jolt of almost pure methamphetamine surged through his veins, heightened the music and moment to almost unbearable pleasure. He handed the straw to Keesha, beside him on the sofa. She finished the rail. They smiled at each other in the dim light, pupils dilated iris-wide.

          Slumped in the broken down leather recliner, Sonny chugged Jack Daniels, the sawed off, double-barreled, Russian shotgun in his lap. He sneered when the Redskins fumbled an interception.

          "Damn Yankees never could play worth spit. When you gonna fix me a rail, Luke?"

          "Soon as you can't yourself, I reckon."

          All three laughed raucously. They'd tweaked without sleep ever since the big score. Dazzled and pleased by his wad of cash, Sonny's Mexican had sold him an ounce and a half of uncut meth. Paranoid, reluctant to share, the party was strictly private with no one else allowed inside Luke's rented double-wide.

          Sonny stood up and went to the coffee table, sawed off cradled in his arms.

          "Hey, Sonny," Keesha said. "Keep that thing pointed away."

          "True enough, son. Why don't you just put your toy away?"

          Sonny emphatically shook his head. Curly blond locks twitched under his battered broncbuster hat.

          "No, sirree, bob. You don't know who's gonna turn up, the law, bikers come to rip off our stash, maybe even old Satan himself. Anybody comes, anybody at all, Sonny Triplett's gonna be ready and waiting."

          He sat cross-legged by the table, shotgun by his side, and spooned out meth from the freezer bag onto the glass top. Sonny snorted another massive, long rail. Dallas was three yards away from another touchdown, near the fourth quarter's end.

          "Yes. Do it," they screamed.

          The final touchdown was scored. Spectators at the stadium went mad and so did the meth heads. Keesha fell squealing into Luke's arms. He kissed her extravagantly, threw his head back, and crowed like a rooster. Sonny danced on the filthy carpet, shotgun brandished high.

          "Dallas done whupped them pitiful Skins again. Beat 'em like a runaway slave. This needs some real celebrating."

          "Now, Sonny, don't get the neighbors started."  

          "Don't tell me what to do, Keesha. I ain't your man. Victory has to be recognized."

          He grabbed a box of shells and went outside. Sonny stood wide legged on the dilapidated wood deck, pointed his shotgun high, and pulled both triggers.

          BBBBBDDDDAAAAMMMMMM
          Twin blasts of flame and deafening noise boomed from the barrels.  Sonny's volley was returned in kind as neighbors opened fire. The once peaceful country night was rent by drunken screams as multiple streams of red-yellow tracer fire laced through the air, AR-15s' spit and AK-47s' steady chug in counterpoint to Sonny's shotgun, bullets everywhere like a military firefight. He fired and loaded, fired and re-loaded, each salvo heralded by a blood-curdling scream.

          "Wahoo. It's Sonny Triplett, baddest outlaw Texas ever saw."

          BBBBBDDDDAAAAMMMMMM

          "Badder than Sam Bass. Meaner than John Wesley Hardin. Eviler than Clyde Barrow. Wahoo."

          BBBBBDDDDAAAAMMMMMM

          "Shut the door, Luke."

          Luke closed the door, went back to the couch, and sat with an arm around Keesha’s shoulders.

          "I'm starting to worry about Sonny, Luke.  Ever since he got that there shotgun, he's been even crazier than usual."

          Luke laughed. "Don't you fret, Keesh. Sonny's a good old boy. Ain't we knowed him since grade school? Didn't he score this meth?"

          He shot her a significant, horny look.

          "Besides, ain't you got something better to think about?"

          She smiled and, in one swift movement straddled his crotch. They energetically dry humped. Automatic rifle fire rattled away, punctuated by Sonny's shotgun.

          "Texas sure is free," Luke said.

          "Just wish it weren't so dern noisy."

***

          The portable corral was mounted on wheels and easy to set up once Bob Ed trucked it in from the rental center. Pargrew and R.T. brought two horses in a trailer behind Pargrew's truck. They unfolded the corral and hoisted the panels into place with built-in winches. Bob Ed removed his hat and wiped his forehead with a red kerchief.

          "This is a right smart of trouble, R.T. You sure this'll work, Pargrew?"


          "Hush and round up them beeves, Bob Ed," R.T. said.

          Pargrew and Bob Ed mounted the horses and rode to the section's back end. They systematically combed all six hundred and forty acres, choused drowsy beeves from under shady trees. Finally settled down to the job, Bob Ed skillfully cut out cattle and drove them into the corral. Once inside, the cows were forced into the chute one by one. Metal gates held each animal in place.

          "This beats hell out of flanking them," R.T. said.

          "Sure enough," Pargrew replied.

          He took a bleating steer by the left ear, pulled him close and clamped a metal punch down hard. The cow moaned long and low in pain. Pargrew pulled a lever. The front gate slid open. The cow raced from the chute into the brush. He repeated the process with the next steer. It was almost twilight before the last calf was released. The fierce heat began to lose its edge. Trees were alive with birdsong, purple martins and black capped chickadees. In the west, the broad, deep blue horizon was streaked with pink and purple clouds. R.T. handed Pargrew and Bob Ed cans of Lone Star, kept in an ice-packed cooler for this moment.

          "You boys did a heap of work today. I want you to know, I'm right grateful."

          "That's nice, R.T.," Bob Ed said. "I still get paid too, right?"


          R.T. gave Pargrew a long suffering look.

          "See what I put up with? Rustlers ain't enough, I gotta have me a sassy cowhand."

          "What would you do without me, R.T.?"


          "Rest easier, I reckon."

          They laughed. R.T. gestured at the corral and other equipment Pargrew brought out.

          "Think this'll really turn the trick, Alec?"

          "Put it this way, R.T. You're in right better shape than you were before. What we do now is watch and wait. That is, after we get the corral back."

          They set to work folding the corral and hitching it to the truck.

***

          "We're almost out of meth."

          The once mighty giant freezer bag packed full of crank was a sad shadow of its former self, the white flake dwindled to a small corner.

          "Damn. How'd we snort so much?" Luke said.

          "Guess it's been a while. What in hell day is it, anyway?"

          "I'll check." Keesha consulted her I-phone. "Tuesday the 24th."

          "So we been tweaking for what, six, seven days now? Better crash a while," Luke said.

          "What, be miserable with no money and no meth? That don't sound like no kind of plan at all. I got a lot better idea. Let's drag out to Heubner Valley and steal some beef from old man Debbler."

          "Steal from the same fellow twice?" Keesha said. "That ain't smart, Sonny."

          "Hell it ain't. That old fool don't even know he's lost stock yet, senile like he is. Ain't nobody by that section to hear or see us. All we do is slip in, load up some stock, and slip out again, neat as you please. Ain't nothing wrong with that plan."

          The belligerent, drug crazed look in Sonny's eyes brooked no denial. Neither Luke nor Keesha wanted to argue anyway. Strung out, almost without drugs, and terrified by the prospect of an imminent, horrible crash followed by a seemingly eternal bummer, they grabbed at the chance of easy money and another meth binge like a drowning man for a straw.

          "Sure enough, Sonny. Let's rustle some beeves," Luke said.

          Sonny oscillated from angry to ecstatic.

          "Now you're talking, hoss. So we each do a short line, just to maintain. Then when it's dark, we head to the Valley. Everybody good? Keesha?"

          Keesha gave Sonny an uncertain, fleeting half smile.

          "Yeah, Sonny. I'm down."

***

          Sonny ripped off the Ryder truck in New Mexico with a stolen credit card and forged driver's license. He kept it in the pole barn behind the double wide.  The sides were crudely painted white to cover the Ryder markings. They got into the truck around ten, the last of the speed rattling in their brains. Sonny started the truck, put it into gear, and drove onto the farm road, headed toward the Heubner Valley.

          "You put them feed cubes in the back?"

          "Just like you said," Luke answered.

          Nervous and edgy when they reached the valley as the speed began to fade, Sonny drove even more aggressively than usual, forced the cumbersome truck to sixty-five and seventy.

          "Slow down, Sonny. We'll get arrested sure or maybe crash."

          "Quiet, woman."

          They reached the section. Sonny turned onto the dirt road and dimmed the lights.

          "Cut the lock."

          Luke cut the lock with bolt cutters and opened the gate. Sonny drove inside, Luke closed the gate, and got into the truck. Eyes young and keen, Sonny drove in second gear to the clearing in the dark. He shifted into neutral and shut off the truck.

          "Lower the ramp while I keep watch."

          Keesha and Luke went to the back of the truck, opened the doors, and let down the ramp. Sonny stood nearby, shotgun tightly clenched, keyed by exhaustion, drugs, and adrenaline to a razor edge of taut emotion.

          "Just like Sonny to let us do the work," Keesha murmured.

          "I know, but don't set him off, honey. He's sure enough on the prod tonight."

          Luke got the feed cubes and shook the bag so the cubes rustled. Sonny slapped the truck's fender with his hand. Conditioned to respond to the familiar signal and delighted by food regardless of the unusual hour, cattle roused from their slumbers and drifted groggily to the clearing. With feed cubes as a lure, cattle were led up the ramp into the truck. Luke threw the remaining feed cubes to the clearing's back end to disperse the unwanted stock. Keesha and Sonny pushed up the ramp and shut the doors. Sonny headed toward the driver's side only to be restrained by Luke.

          "Hold on, cowboy. We don't need any screaming tweaker driving. We ain't getting to Delgado's slaughterhouse that way. If the law don't pull us over, you'll damage the stock, wild as you drive. That means I drive."

          Luke's snatched the truck keys away from Sonny. Sonny grabbed for them, but Luke held him at arm's length and fixed him with a steady gaze that offered no compromise. Drug crazed and naturally contrary, even Sonny knew enough to retreat. He went to the passenger side. Keesha put her arms around Luke.

          "You're the real cowboy, Luke, sure enough."

          Luke kissed her. "Let's saddle up and ride."

          They drove away. Unused to being narrowly confined, in the dark, and in motion, the cattle plaintively lowed and thrashed about. Hardened by experience, the rustlers ignored their misery. Luke checked the dashboard.

          "Dern, Sonny, we’re about out of gas."

          "Reckon it's as much your fault as mine."

          "If we want to reach Delgado's, we need a full tank. There's a Sheetz on the I-38 turn-off. We'll gas up there."

          They drove on, the only vehicle on the road. Jaunty, jangling, hot country music on the radio did nothing to calm their nerves, ratcheted to breaking point by withdrawal and the inherent stress of felony grand larceny. Tensed shoulders sagged in relief upon sight of the red Sheetz sign.

          "We done pulled it off again," Luke said.

          They grinned, sustained by hope and a successful score even in the face of crashing. Luke pulled up to a set of pumps and shut off the truck. Sonny handed Luke the stolen credit card. Luke opened the door, got out of the cab, and inserted the credit card into the gas pump slot. Tank full, he put the spout in its holster.

          "Ain't that like a tweaker to rustle stock low on gas?"


          A man stood by Luke, about his age, in boots, blue jeans, a plaid shirt, and canvas cowboy hat. The only distinctive thing about him was the .45 caliber Colt pistol in his waistband.

          "Reckon I don't know what you mean, hoss."

          "Ain't you Luke Ward, the bull rider? Didn't you ride Trail Of Tears at the Fort Worth Stock Show Rodeo in 2012?"


          Luke grinned despite himself.

          "If I'd lasted two seconds longer, I'd of set a record. All I did instead was break my collarbone the sixth time."

          "Nobody said the rodeo's easy, but rustling’s no way to go either, Luke."

          "Just what the hell do you mean, Mister? These beeves are mine."

          The stranger held up an I-phone, the black screen filled with red dots closely grouped in a rectangle pattern.

          "The app says you're lying, Luke. There's a chip on every cow's ear on your sorry ass, stolen rental truck. I tagged them myself. Soon as they jammed together on the screen, I knew you were stealing R.T.'s stock. All I had to do was follow you to the first well-lit place."

          Luke gauged the distance to land a hard, knockout right. The stranger put a hand over his .45, a warning glint in his eyes.

          "Five to ten in Huntsville is a hard row to hoe, Luke, I'll grant you, but it still beats me putting one in your gut. Law's already on the way; you’ll hear those sirens any second. Keep a level head and stand down, son."

          Luke scowled, the perpetual loser's grimace who realizes he's screwed once again, only to glance down and see cowboy boots flash between the truck's wheels. Realizing what Sonny planned, Luke screamed, "No. Don't."

          Sonny whirled around the truck's back end, shotgun leveled, his bleached blue eyes wild and wide.

          "Die, you popo sumbitch," he screamed.

          Sonny pulled both triggers, but from four yards away, the blasts from the sawed off barrels dispersed in a wide, umbrella pattern. Not a shot touched the stranger. He pulled out his Colt .45, locked and loaded, hammer already back. Aim steadied by both hands, he carefully fired a round into Sonny’s head. Sonny fell, dead before he even hit the asphalt, right foot crossed over his left.

          An old woman exited the store, weighed down with plastic bags. She screamed and dropped her bags. Shattered eggs flowed like the blood from Sonny's head. 

          "Damn. Sure enough didn't want that to happen. Now you're in real trouble, Luke. Felony murder."

          Keesha jumped out of the truck. The stranger leveled his gun at her, but lowered it when he saw Keesha was unarmed. Keesha tearfully embraced Luke.

          "Mister, this was never our idea. It's all Sonny's fault, him you just shot."

          "Sure enough," Luke said. "Can't you cut us a break? I'm just a poor cowboy that's gone wrong, that's all."

          The stranger shook his head.

          "No, Luke. A cowboy doesn't steal."

          A police siren's wail broke the country stillness. 


Mark Mellon is a novelist who supports his family by working as an attorney. Recent short fiction of his has appeared in ThuglitCrimespree, and Over My Dead Body!. Four of his novels and over forty short stories have been published in the USA, UK, and Ireland. Roman Hell is currently in print at  www.amberquill.com.  A novella, Escape From Byzantium, won the 2010 Independent Publisher Silver Medal for fantasy/science fiction. A Web site featuring his writing is at www.mellonwritesagain.com. 

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