Authors: Ben Rehder
Tags: #Texas, #Murder Mystery, #hunting guide, #chupacabra, #deer hunting, #good old boys, #Carl Hiaasen, #rednecks, #Funny mystery, #game warden, #crime fiction, #southern fiction
Duke was nearing a state of frenzy, breathing hard, having a difficult time figuring things out.
Where am I going with them? What am I gonna do next?
He could have handcuffed them together over a tree limb, but that was no longer an option, thanks to the damn game warden. He’d have to come up with something soon, because he needed to hit the road as soon as possible.
He had no idea where he was going to go. But there would be a manhunt, and he wanted to put some serious mileage behind him.
What about a vehicle?
He couldn’t risk taking Marlin’s truck; in fact, he’d have to hurry back and hide it somewhere. He’d have to figure all that out later.
He ordered Marlin and Charlie to cross the fence onto the Macho Bueno Ranch, and then told them both to lie facedown on the ground. That would keep them from running while he climbed the fence himself. He wasn’t taking any chances.
There were only two registered voters with the first name of Sally Ann in Blanco County, and one of them was seventy-eight years old. The other—Sally Ann Riggs—was thirty-three and lived on the same road as Duke Waldrip. Bill Tatum figured it had to be her. If Duke wasn’t home, they’d check her place next.
He and Brad Anderson had strapped on Kevlar vests and were now in Tatum’s cruiser, heading toward Waldrip’s house. They had decided it would be best to wait until Cowan and Turpin could join them—which shouldn’t be more than thirty minutes more—but Tatum wanted to watch Waldrip’s house until then.
“This guy gonna be armed?” Anderson asked.
“Shouldn’t be. We took all his guns during the search. But you never know.”
Marlin kept an arm around Charlie, who seemed to be holding up well. He tried to engage Duke in conversation, hoping it might slow things down.
“Tell me about Searcy,” Marlin said over his shoulder. Duke was ten feet behind him. If Marlin saw a chance to jump him, giving Charlie a chance to escape, he’d take it.
“Shut up!” Duke spat. “I don’t want to talk about him.”
“You killed him, though, right?”
They walked in silence, crossing a dry creek bottom.
Then Duke spoke up. “It was self-defense.”
Even if Duke was lying, maybe Marlin could use this information to his own advantage.
“Then the thing to do is—”
Duke cut him off. “Nobody would ever believe me. I’m an ex-con. Shit, I wouldn’t believe it myself.”
“But Duke, if it was self-defense, you don’t want to—”
“Keep your damn mouth closed!”
Duke sounded even farther behind now. Marlin whispered, “Run when I tell you.”
Charlie looked up at him, eyes hard and determined, and Marlin could see in that instant that the boy was a survivor. Regardless of what kind of life the kid had had and whatever abuse or neglect had been heaped on top of him, he was going to come out all right. Charlie nodded that he understood.
“Quit talking,” Duke said sternly. “No more talking.”
RED STOPPED ABRUPTLY. “You hear that?”
“Voices. Someone yelling.”
They stood in silence, the chupacabra hanging between them.
“Don’t hear nothin’.”
Red waited, but all was quiet. They started walking—and Red heard it again. He looked at Billy Don.
“Yeah, I heard it that time.”
Someone was nearby, on the ranch.
Red looked in the direction the voices had come from. And then he saw the unmistakable khaki-clad figure of John Marlin, two hundred yards away, walking out from a grove of oak trees.
“Shit, hit the ground!” Red hissed.
It took Billy Don a good five seconds to manage that feat, but by the time they were both prone, settled in the tall grasses, the game warden still hadn’t looked their way.
“He’s got a boy with him,” Billy Don said. “And some other guy.”
Red suddenly realized that his face was about ten inches from the chupacabra’s jaws. But that wasn’t his biggest concern right now. His biggest worry was getting caught red-handed on Kyle Dawson’s ranch with the chupacabra. Marlin would take it away in the blink of an eye.
Red lifted the binoculars and studied the group. Something wasn’t quite right. John Marlin appeared to be staggering along … and the other guy, behind Marlin … Christ, he was carrying a gun!
“Christ, he’s carrying a gun!” Billy Don said.
“I can see that.”
They watched as the trio continued tromping through the woods and disappeared into another grove of trees.
“What we gonna do?” Billy Don asked.
Red glanced at the chupacabra, which was still slack-jawed, its tongue hanging out. But how long would it be out cold? If they left it here, would it be gone when they got back? Hell, would he and Billy Don even
it back? “We could go call the cops,” Red ventured.
“There ain’t time for that.”
Red paused, and Billy Don struggled to his feet. “Do what you want,” the big man said, “but I’m going after ’em.”
Red didn’t say anything.
Damn, why does everything always have to get so screwed up?
Billy Don started walking.
“Okay, damn it,” Red said. “Wait for me. And gimme my gun back.”
Tatum slowed when he saw a mailbox with Sally Ann Riggs’ house number on it, trying to sneak a peek through the cedar trees that choked the front property line.
“That’s the woman’s place?” Anderson asked.
“Yep, and I figure we should—”
Hold on a second,
Tatum thought as he took another look.
He stopped the car and put it into reverse. Peering through a small gap in the tree line, he had seen a vehicle that looked like John Marlin’s Dodge truck.
“What’s up?” The Ranger was following Tatum’s line of vision.
The white Texas Parks & Wildlife emblem was easy to spot on the driver’s door.
“I’m just wondering what Marlin’s doing here. Let’s duck in here real quick.”
Tatum backed up farther, then dropped into forward gear and swung the cruiser into the driveway. He parked behind the truck, noticing that the door on the passenger’s side was standing open. Marlin was nowhere to be seen.
Both men got out, and as they approached the truck, Brad Anderson was the first to spot it: Marlin’s rifle lying in the dirt, surrounded by six fresh cartridges.
The men exchanged glances and didn’t need to say a word. They drew their weapons, went to the front door of the house, and flanked it on both sides. Tatum rapped hard with his knuckles. Immediately, dogs began barking behind the house, but there was no sound from inside.
Anderson motioned that he was going around the back, and Tatum nodded. He gave it a minute, then knocked again. Then he tried the doorknob and found it locked. All was quiet.
Anderson appeared at the corner of the house and motioned for Tatum to join him. The Ranger was bent at the knees, and Tatum soon saw why. On the ground, a few feet from an oleander bush, was a pool of blood.
“I’m calling for backup,” Tatum said.
“At least tell me how you scammed Searcy,” Marlin said. “I still haven’t figured that one out. Must’ve been pretty clever.”
Marlin glanced back and saw that Duke was smiling.
“He shot at a decoy,” Duke bragged.
“The one you stole from Howell Rogers?”
“Yep.” Duke didn’t sound contrite at all. “See, I’d take a hunter out to Kyle’s place, let him sit for an hour or so, stare at a few average bucks and get all worked up. Gus’d be about three hundred yards away, hiding over a hill. He had this string tied to a branch, and when he’d pull it, the branch’d move and you could see the decoy.”
“And the hunter would shoot?”
“Not right away,” Duke said, disgusted. “Some of those guys couldn’t spot an elephant in a parking lot. Most the time, I’d have to point it out to them. Finally, they’d take the damn shot. Gus’d pull a second string and the decoy would fall over. We’d wait a few minutes and then go searching for it. But by then, Gus and the decoy would be long gone. We kept blood in a bottle to leave a trail.”
Marlin was appalled that Duke appeared so pleased with himself. “Then what?”
“We’d look around for an hour or two then I’d say it must’ve been a flesh wound. Call the search off.”
Marlin saw where this was going. “Until you called ’em up a few days later.”
Duke whistled. “You catch on quick. I’d tell ’em I found their deer and ask did they want the trophy or not?”
“And of course they did.”
“Damn right they did. Every time.”
“Where’d you get the sheds?” Marlin asked.
Many area ranch owners held scientific breeder permits for whitetail deer. In essence, the deer became livestock, and some massive bucks were grown through selective breeding. Most breeders were willing to sell the antlers that were shed by their prize bucks every spring. As Marlin had seen, it had been a simple matter for Duke to bolt a set of monstrous antlers onto the skullcap from another deer, then cover the whole thing up as the taxidermy job was completed. Marlin had heard of all kinds of scams, cheats, and swindles in the hunting world, but this was one of the most despicable. It was also pretty damn shrewd.
“What about Kyle?” he asked.
“What about him?” Duke replied.
Marlin slowed his pace, hoping Duke would come closer and Marlin could risk rushing him.
“What happened to him? Why’d you kill him?”
“Keep moving,” Duke said.
They were cresting a hill, and Marlin was getting winded from the uphill climb. His legs felt like jelly. Charlie was still doing fine, and Marlin was as proud of him as he had ever been of anybody.
“If you wanna know about Kyle,” Duke said, “you’re gonna have to ask Cheri. She did it.”
Marlin couldn’t keep the disbelief out of his voice. “Cheri killed Kyle?”
“That’s what I’m telling you. It was Cheri’s fault.”
Moments after making the radio call, Tatum and Anderson discovered another disturbing item. They were circling the house, looking for more evidence, when they spotted a sheet of paper a stone’s throw from the rear porch.
They walked to it, and Tatum flipped it over with the barrel of his gun. It was a flyer announcing the disappearance of Oliver Searcy.
Tatum looked to the north, toward the Macho Bueno Ranch. There was no wind today; the sheet of paper hadn’t been blown to this location. Someone had dropped it here, on their way into the ranch. It could have been mere moments ago, and Tatum felt the need to act immediately.
Tatum contacted the dispatcher on his handheld radio. “Be advised that Anderson and I are entering the Macho Bueno Ranch. The responding deputies should enter with caution.”
“We gotta do something, Red!”
The men were shadowing the gunman and his hostages, moving as quietly as they could, ducking from tree to tree. Occasionally, Red would lift the binoculars and take a closer look. There was now no doubt whatsoever that Marlin and the boy were in danger. The man with the gun was keeping his distance, marching them farther into the woods.
“How far you think they are?” Red asked. “Hundred and twenty yards?”
“More like one fifty.”
Billy Don had always been a better judge of distance than Red, something they had learned on their late-night poaching excursions.
“We gotta get closer.” Red had equipped his pistol with a scope for hunting, but a shot that long was out of the question. Even a hundred yards would be pushing it. Fifty would be best, or even less, if they could manage it.
Billy Don gulped and nodded. “Let’s do it.”
“Okay, this’ll do,” Duke said.
They had descended the hill and were now in a low basin beneath some towering pecan trees. The canopy was thick and dense, screening out the sunlight. A couple of bodies could lie here undetected for a damn long time if nobody knew where to look.
Marlin’s arms were twitching, sounds seemed to be muffled, and he didn’t know if it was from his injury or the massive amounts of adrenaline pumping into his system. This was the end of the line. He had to buy some time.
Marlin said, “You’re telling me Cheri—all hundred and twenty pounds of her—dragged Kyle into that cave?”
Duke’s eyes were darting back and forth, as if he was searching for a solution to his problems in the trees or the grasses.
“I don’t believe it, Duke.”
“What do I care? Both of you, get down on your knees.”
Once the gunman disappeared over the hill, Red and Billy Don began closing the distance quickly. They could move without fear of being seen, but they had to be careful to keep the noise to a minimum.
Billy Don was panting hard, his face a vivid red, doing his best, Red knew, to keep up.
“If something happens to me,” Red said between breaths, “you can have my Elvis CDs.”
Marlin refused. He wouldn’t go down on his knees. He knew what would happen then.
“Let Charlie go,” Marlin said. “Please, Duke, let him go.”
“I told you … get down!”
Marlin took a casual step to his left, away from Charlie, hoping Duke would keep the gun trained on him rather than on the boy. He did.
Red didn’t know where weird thoughts came from, and it didn’t really matter, but as he rushed up the slope, possibly about to face death square in the face, he wondered,
Is this what Teddy Roosevelt’s boys felt like, busting their humps up San Juan Hill?
He hoped not. Because he felt like he was going to vomit.
“We can take my truck, Duke. We’ll drive wherever you want, and nobody will stop us.”
Marlin made another small step to the left.
“Won’t work.” Duke was holding the handgun on Marlin, ignoring Charlie. The man’s face was contorted with anguish.
“Sure it will. We’ll be able to hear everything on the radio. We’ll keep to the back roads. I know ’em all. I can get us out of the county.”
“I’m telling you … I want you down on your knees.”
“Don’t get down, Charlie.”
“Down on your damn knees!”
Red and Billy Don dropped to their knees and scurried to the crest of the hill.
Just like Injuns would do,
Red figured. Another weird thought, coming from nowhere. Red had to force himself to focus.
They scooted slowly, and then they could see down the other side into a tree-filled hollow.
Red saw the three of them, Marlin with his hands in front of him, the other man pointing the gun right at him.
“How far?” Red said.
“Sixty … maybe seventy.”
Red longed for his .270. With his rifle, a shot like that would be a no-brainer. But his revolver, even with a scope, well …
“If he shoots, I want you to run, Charlie.”
“Run as fast as you can and don’t stop.”
They were yelling like crazy down there, and Red knew the time was now.
“Do it, Red. You gotta do it.”
Red pulled the hammer back on the big .45 and sighted through the scope.
He couldn’t hold it steady. The crosshairs were jumping everywhere.
Marlin took one more small step to his left. Charlie was now at least fifteen feet to his right. Duke couldn’t shoot and then swing the gun on the boy, not with any kind of accuracy. With luck, Charlie could scamper through the trees and get away. Especially if Marlin was doing everything he could to slow Duke down.
It was time to charge.
“Take a deep breath,” Billy Don said.
“I know, I know.” Red sucked it in and held it. Yeah, that was better. Not perfect—things were still jiggly—but at least he could see the guy in the scope now. Red thought Marlin and the boy were spaced far enough apart that he could shoot without hitting them.
He began to pull back on the trigger.
He felt the resistance, but he moved it, a millimeter at a time.
It was about to give, to set the hammer free and send the bullet home ….
What the hell?
The yell had come from behind him, down the hill.
All three of them heard someone yell, and Duke took a quick look behind him. He couldn’t see anybody.