Monday, July 24, 2017

Last Good Day, by Michael Bracken

Elmo Tiller sat on the open tailgate of his white Ford Super Duty F-450, nursed a cold bottle of Shiner Bock pulled from the ice chest a few minutes earlier, and watched a dust plume approaching. He wore ropers the color of Texas dirt that had long ago molded themselves to the shapes of his feet, well-worn Wranglers that clung to legs bowed from decades of horseback riding, a chambray long-sleeved work shirt with the cuffs rolled back to reveal sinewy forearms the color and texture of worn leather, and a sweat-stained white Shantung straw Stetson that shielded his pale blue eyes from the glaring morning sun. He had shaved before driving down from the ranch house, but tufts of gray bristle nestled where the razor failed to navigate the wrinkled canyons of his face. A blue bandanna hung from one back pocket, a pair of tan deerskin gloves from the other, and a holster tucked into the small of his back held a Glock 27 semi-automatic pistol he’d purchased and registered after earning the concealed carry permit in his wallet.

He turned his attention from the approaching dust plume to the Herefords scattered across the short-grass prairie his forebears had fenced off for pastureland. In addition to the cattle dotting the landscape were several shrubby mesquite trees and some prickly pear cacti, but the only real trees were a few cottonwoods growing near the ranch house at the top of the low rise several miles away. After his most recent visit to his cardiologist, any day Elmo spent outside with his cattle was a good day.

He’d just finished the beer and opened a second when an aging black Dodge Ram 3500 wheeled through the open gate and across the cattle guard, a rusty livestock trailer clunking along behind it. The rancher set the bottle aside and slipped down from the tailgate as a man less than half his age stepped out of the Dodge. Chance Palmer came from a different generation. Though he wore Wranglers like Elmo, he also wore scuffed black steel-toed work boots, a sleeveless black Metallica T-shirt that hung loosely over his emaciated frame, and a black-and-white Tractor Supply Co. gimme cap with the brim broken into a compound curve lower on the left that partially blocked sunlight coming in the side window when he drove. Stringy black hair hung to his shoulders, and that he had not shaved in several days gave his face a dirty, mottled appearance. When he spoke, he revealed rotting black teeth surrounded by the open sores on his gums and lips.

“Mornin’, Elmo.”

Elmo winced at the smell of the other man’s breath and nodded a greeting. He hadn’t had much time to plan for their meeting after Chase called his burner phone that morning and told him special agent Jim Walker had been nosing around his place, but Elmo felt confident he’d thought everything through, beginning with smashing the burner phone and dropping the pieces into the well behind his ranch house.

“I brought four, just like I said.”

Elmo followed Chance toward the livestock trailer. As he did, he glanced in the bed of Chance’s truck, where he saw bolt cutters used to gain access to pastureland and a bucket of feed used to attract cattle.

“No tags, no brands,” Chance said. He scratched one arm and then the other. “I checked.”

Elmo eyed the four Herefords—three cows and one steer—inside the trailer. Deep cherry red, with white faces, chests, and lower bellies, nothing about their coloration appeared unique, and Elmo felt certain the cattle would easily blend with his herd until they became steaks, one indistinguishable from the other.

“Let ’em out one at a time,” Elmo said, “and let me look ’em over.”

Chance swung the tailgate open and dropped the loading ramp. One at a time, he led each of the animals out of the trailer for Elmo to examine. Just as Chance had promised, there were no identifying marks on any of the Herefords—no brands and no ear tags with or without built-in radio-frequency identification. Each animal would pull in about a thousand dollars at auction, but until he transported the Herefords to auction, they would be drinking his water and eating his grass, both of which were in short supply thanks to the drought.

Without sufficient water, grass didn’t grow, cows couldn’t eat, and herds shrank. As the drought continued, fewer head reaching market meant prices went up and, as prices went up, rustling became increasingly profitable. Unemployable cattlemen such as Chance found an easier way to feed their methamphetamine addictions than boosting cars and breaking into homes. Though risking prison time for third-degree felony, all Chance had to do was walk into a pasture with a bucket of feed and attract the attention of a few head of cattle, which followed the feed as he led them up a ramp and into his livestock trailer. On a good night, he could cut the padlock on a gate, get two to four head into his trailer, and be back on the road in less than thirty minutes. And nothing was more inconspicuous on a Texas back road than a pickup truck towing a livestock trailer.

For several years, rustlers dropped stolen cattle at auction houses and returned later to collect whatever money the animals brought at auction, a business run entirely on handshake agreements. When the auction houses tightened up their sale requirements, it became harder for rustlers like Chance to unload stolen cattle.

Then Elmo and Chance found themselves in adjacent Emergency room beds. Elmo had suffered his first heart attack while visiting a feedlot, and after Chance overdosed he had been dropped in the hospital’s driveway by a fellow tweaker. They soon realized they could solve each other’s financial problems.

Chance no longer had a safe way to sell the cattle he rustled, and Elmo’s income had taken a hit as the drought forced him to thin his herd. As owner of the biggest ranch in the tri-county area and a past president of the Cattle Ranchers Association, Elmo was beyond reproach. He could easily mix stolen cattle with his herd and move them through the auction houses for a reasonable profit. Thanks to Chance, he was moving near as many head through the auction houses as he had before the drought began.

Elmo slapped each of the Herefords on the ass, encouraging them to meander across the pasture toward the other cattle grazing there. Each of the animals would pull in about a thousand dollars at auction, so Elmo pulled a rubber-banded roll of twenty one-hundred-dollar bills from his pocket and pressed it into Chance’s hand, paying half the Herefords’ value to the tweaker rustler.

“I can’t have you bringing Walker down on me,” Elmo said, unwilling to risk prison time because he knew his heart couldn’t take it, “so you need to lie low for awhile.”

“Yeah. I guess. Right.” Chance scratched his arms and blinked rapidly. “What’m I going to do about—?”

Elmo cut him off. “Same as you did before.”

As Chance walked away, shoving the cash into his front pocket without counting it, Elmo called his name.

Chance turned. “Yeah?”

Elmo drew the automatic from the holster at the small of his back. He fired once, drilling a hole in the middle of the younger man’s chest.

Then he pulled on his leather gloves and removed the wad of bills from the dead man’s pocket. He stuck the money in a hidden cavity in his truck’s wheel well, replacing a .38 Special he’d purchased off the books many years earlier.

After returning to the dead man, he fired one shot from the .38 into the side of his truck and a second shot into the distance.

He grabbed the bolt cutters from the back of Chance’s truck and walked down to the open gate. After he closed it, he snapped the padlock into place before cutting the lock free. He dropped the pieces to the ground, where they fell through the metal grid of the cattle guard. Short of breath and sweating from the exertion, Elmo pushed back the brim of his Stetson and mopped his brow with the blue bandanna. He opened the gate again and threw the bolt cutters into the back of Chance’s truck as he returned to his F-450. There, he removed his gloves and returned them to his back pocket, settled onto the tailgate, and drained the open Shiner Bock he’d earlier set there.

When the bottle was empty, he pulled out his cellphone.

By the time the sheriff arrived thirty minutes later, Elmo had trouble lifting his left arm. Even so, he stood beside the sheriff without complaint and together they stared at Chance’s body. By then the dead man had begun attracting flies, and twice during the wait Elmo had shooed away an aggressive vulture.

The sheriff, a barrel-chested man only a few years younger than Elmo, wore a badge pinned to his white pearl-snap western-style shirt open at the collar. His dark blue Wranglers had been pressed by his wife that morning, and his black boots had started the day with a high polish.

Elmo handed the man his Glock. “I caught the son-of-a-bitch trying to steal my cattle.”

He explained that he had been protecting his property when Chance tried to shoot him, and that he’d been protecting himself when he’d shot Chance. He knew the sheriff would believe him. He’d helped finance every one of the sheriff’s election campaigns.

The sheriff eyed Elmo’s truck. “Where’s your rifle?”

“Up at the house. I didn’t have time to grab it.”

“You had time to grab beer but not your rifle?”

“I was loading the ice chest when I saw him coming through the gate.”

The sheriff looked toward the ranch house, barely able to see it on the rise. “You saw him from all the way up at the house?”

“My eyesight’s fine.”

Elmo repeated his story when Jim Walker joined them a few minutes later. Dressed much like the sheriff, but sporting a handlebar mustache and wearing a six-shooter at his hip, the whip-thin Walker worked as the Cattle Ranchers Association’s special ranger for the district, charged with investigating livestock thefts and ranch-related property losses. He had arrived sooner than anticipated, but Elmo felt confident from the sheriff’s reaction to his initial telling that his story would hold true.

The sheriff walked the special ranger around the crime scene, pointing out the cut padlock, the bolt cutters in the bed of Chance’s pickup, the empty livestock trailer with the gate open and ramp extended, the bullet hole in the side of Elmo’s truck, and the revolver in the dead tweaker's hand.

Elmo hung back and leaned against the open tailgate of his F-450. He had been feeling poorly ever since cutting the padlock, and now he felt as if a Hereford bull sat on his chest. He’d felt the same pressure twice before, and both times he’d been hospitalized. He patted his pockets with his right hand. In his rush to leave the ranch house that morning to take care of Chance, he had failed to take care of himself. He had forgotten his nitroglycerin pills.

“Hey,” he said, trying to attract the other men’s attention. They were too far away and too engrossed in their own conversation to hear his weak plea for help. “Hey.”

“I’ve been hard on that boy’s ass for a couple of months now,” Walker said, indicating Chance’s body with a thrust of his chin. “I knew he’d been rustling, but I couldn’t figure out where he’s been selling the cattle. None of the auction houses has any record of dealing with him for near on a year.”

The sheriff scratched his chin and said, “Looks like Elmo here solved your problem for you.”

“Looks like he did,” Walker agreed, “but not the way you think. Chance wasn’t picking up cows, he was delivering.”

When Walker turned to address the rancher, Elmo clutched his chest and fell to the ground. As he lay in the blazing mid-morning sun, Elmo stared under his truck across the short-grass prairie at the Herefords, shrubby mesquite trees, and prickly pear cacti dotting the landscape, and ended his last good day knowing he would avoid prison time.

5 comments:

  1. Good tale. Wished it had been longer--had me hooked!!

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  2. Nice work. Felt true. Worked well for me. Joe Rigo

    ReplyDelete
  3. Good story. Loved the way you captured the setting and the people.

    ReplyDelete