Authors: Lori L. Robinett
This was not good.
The larger of the German Shepherd mixes took two quick steps forward and then settled his weight on his haunches, ready to pounce. Just as the dog launched himself toward Aidan, there was a loud pop and a thwump.
The scrubby tree on the other side of the ditch shivered in the night. The dogs yelped, tucked tail and ran. Aidan blinked in the darkness, stunned. A gunshot? But who shot?
Beau yelled, “Get down!”
Aidan dropped to the ground, then cautiously lifted his head and peered into the darkness. He spotted Beau, a dark silhouette in the harsh glare of the headlight. Aidan whispered as loud as he dared, “You okay?”
“Yeah.” He’d hit the ground hard and his ribs ached. “What the hell was that?”
Heavy footsteps whipped through the tall green grass. A voice boomed through the night. “Get up slow and keep your hands where I can see them.”
Another voice commanded, “Slowly.”
Aidan swallowed hard, placed his hands flat on the ground and pushed to his feet. Hands raised, fingers splayed, he slowly turned to see Beau doing the same. His heart thudded in his chest and his mouth was dry. Alone on a deserted country road. There were only two of them, but how many of the other guys?
The gruff voice softened. “Beau? Aidan?”
Aidan squinted at the two dark shapes next to Aidan’s truck and slowly lowered his hands. The muscles in his legs bunched, and he fisted his hands, ready to spring if necessary.
Beau demanded, “Who the fuck are you?”
“Easy now. Calm down.” The two figures stepped into the light in front of the truck, the taller one holding out a long gun in front of him with one hand. “It’s me, Frank Donovan.”
The wider man spoke up, “And me, Dave Murray.” The light glinted on the long gun he held at his side.
“You shot at us!” Aidan’s temper flared. He clenched his fists so tight they hurt. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
Beau stepped closer and put a hand on Aidan’s forearm. “Easy,” he whispered. To the men, he said, “What are you doing out here?”
Frank spoke first. “After my cattle were stolen, some of us decided to start a sort of neighborhood watch program. We been takin’ turns patrolling the pastures around here.”
“I didn’t shoot at you,” Dave added. His voice sounded defensive. “I shot to scare those dogs off, ‘cause you looked like you was in trouble.”
Aidan shook his head, his chest still heaving. “We were fine.” He flexed his hands, his fingers aching from being clenched. He peered into the ditch. No sign of the cat. The dogs were long gone.
“You didn’t look fine,” retorted Dave.
Beau sucked in a breath with a hiss. “Frank, you’re better than this. You guys can’t go around taking the law into your own hands. Someone’s gonna get hurt.”
Frank said, “We’ve already been hurt. Those sons-a-bitches took my whole herd. They took my livelihood and I’m gonna be lucky if I don’t lose my farm.” The anger gave his voice a hard edge.
Beau took a step forward and it was Aidan’s turn to put a steadying hand on his friend’s arm. Aidan spoke loud enough for all to hear. “Let’s all take a deep breath. We’re all feeling tense right now.”
Beau gave a quick nod. “Frank. Dave. Be careful. Please.” He jerked his arm away from Aidan and strode to the truck. He yanked the door open, got in and slammed it with enough force to shake the vehicle.
Aidan nodded to the two ranchers. “Y’all be careful now.” He got into the truck and turned to Beau. “Thanks, man. For stopping to get the cat.” His heart still thundered in his chest and adrenaline coursed through his veins.
Beau gripped the steering wheel. “Anytime, buddy. But the next time you decide to run to the rescue of a friggin’ cat, think about your own safety, will ya?” His voice was sharp.
It had been a stupid move. Aidan knew that. Hindsight was always 20/20. He still would have saved the cat, but he wouldn’t have taken his eyes off those dogs. He admitted, “I know. Not smart.” Wasn’t smart of Frank and Dave to wander the dark roads armed, either. Vigilante justice wasn’t the answer, though he’d been tempted a time or two himself.
Beau sighed heavily. “Much as I hate to admit it, if it wasn’t for them two, those dogs would have ripped you to shreds. Then they would have had the cat for dessert.”
Aidan barked a short laugh. “What about you?”
Beau’s face split into a wide grin. “I would’ve made it to the truck while they were focused on you and the cat.”
Lana Sheedy downshifted and applied the brakes, bringing the big semi to a rumbling halt. She waited as two punks in t-shirts and dirty jeans swung open the two gates. She eased the truck forward and glanced in the rearview mirror to make sure she’d cleared the gates. The truck shuddered as she put it in park and pulled the parking brake knob out. The gates clanged shut behind her, loud in the silence of the deep night. When she swung out of the truck, she was greeted by the two young men, muscled and dirty.
“Howdy, ma’am,” the taller one said. His long, stringy hair hung over his face. He reminded her of a rat, with a pointy nose and dark, beady eyes.
She nodded at him, then strode down the length of the trailer and rolled the gate up. The first group of cattle trotted out of the truck and down the chute into the processing area. After the last cow left the back section of the trailer, she swung up into the trailer and tramped through, careful not to slip in the fresh manure, then unlatched the gate to release the next group of cows. Like clockwork, they jostled each other and hurried to the chute. It only took minutes for the front section of the trailer to empty.
The two little pricks watched from the back of the trailer as she reached in and yanked the aluminum ramp free and pulled it out. After the first cow ventured down the ramp, hooves clattering on the metal, the others followed quickly, some leaping the last few feet before hurrying down the chute. It was mostly a quiet process, with only an occasional mooing to punctuate the echoing sound of hooves on the metal floor. The two stockyard employees kept careful track of the animals as they exited the trailer, each holding a clicker to count the cattle as they entered the holding pen.
Lana shook her head as the cattle spilled from the trailer. Poor animals had no idea what they were hurrying toward. When the last cow had clambered down from the upper section, she slid the ramp back into place with a grunt. She swung out of the trailer and reached up for the rope to pull the door down. She secured it, then turned and watched shorter kid shut the gate behind the last of the cattle as they disappeared into the depths of the sprawling metal building.
The shorter kid grabbed a clipboard from the wall and handed it to the taller kid, who peered through his greasy bangs at her. “Name?”
“Sheedy Family Enterprises.” Lana gave him the name and address to send the check after the sale. His lips moved as he scribbled on the form.
The kid ripped a ticket off of his clipboard. “Here.”
“You remember how this works, right?” Lana snatched the check-in ticket from his hand and leaned close. Her top lip curled up in a snarl. “You never seen me or this trailer, right?”
His black eyes met hers for the briefest of moments, then flicked away. “Never seen nobody.”
The shorter kid stared away pointedly, and gave no indication of even being aware of her presence. She glanced down at the form to check his description of the animals. He’d jotted a note about the brand. Circle H. She pressed her lips together to keep from grinning. The boys back at the compound had done a hell of a job with the cattle from the Rockin’ H. They’d stripped the ear tags and rebranded every head in a single night.
She turned on her heel and clambered up into her big rig. As soon as they opened the gate in front of her, she grabbed the shifter and the big machine jerked forward, empty trailer rattling. She pulled around the building and rolled to a stop in the middle of the nearly empty gravel lot. She looked around and, when satisfied that no one was paying attention to her, swung down out of the cab and landed in the gravel with a thump. Again, she glanced around, then strode across the lot to the office.
Inside, she found a mousy woman with dirty blonde hair, buck teeth and eyes magnified by Coke bottle glasses. The woman glanced up when the bell over the door tinkled to announce Lana’s presence. Her eyes widened briefly and she swallowed visibly. “Can I help you?”
“Delivered a trailer load of cattle.” Lana wiped her hands on her jeans. “Need to use your bathroom before I hit the road."
The woman directed Lana down the hallway. After Lana relieved herself, she walked past the woman without another word and quickly pushed out the door. The family’d been using this sale barn to move stolen cattle for nearly a year now, and they had a valuable ally in Bobby Rafferty, the owner. He was a distant cousin and blood counted for a lot in their circles.
Of course, it helped that they had proof that he’d been moving cattle as “certified” with falsified records for years.
As she walked across the parking lot, she gazed toward the east. Fingers of orange reached into the blue sky, pushing away the darkness. Cows mooed in the paddocks, jostling each other as they jockeyed for position at the feed bunks. She glanced at the open shelter protecting the animals from the harsh rays of the sun that would soon be beating down on them. A flash caught her eye and she squinted.
The shorter kid that had helped her unload her shipment was leaning against the barn. He held something in front of his face, but what? She narrowed her eyes and peered at him. His attention was on her rig. He reached up with his other hand and made a pinching motion. Her lips pressed into a thin line as she realized he was holding a cell phone. She clenched her fists and strode across the lot, her boots crunching in the gravel. His head swiveled toward her and he quickly lowered his phone, then slipped it in his shirt pocket.
He averted his eyes as she stepped in front of him. She poked her bony index finger in his chest. “Think you can take pictures of my rig? Find it that interesting, do you?”
His eyes widened as their gazes connected. “No, ma’am. Just taking a selfie.”
She squinted at him, then held out her hand, palm up. “Gimme the phone.”
He shook his head and straightened. Red colored his cheeks, and she knew she’d called his bluff. She reached for the phone and snatched it from his pocket. She spun away as she worked at the screen, trying to figure out how to reach the photos that he’d taken, but the crunch of tires on gravel drew her gaze.
A deputy sheriff’s patrol cruiser pulled into the lot.
The kid snatched his phone back and vaulted over the fence.
Lana hesitated a moment, looking after the kid, then glanced back at the patrol car that had pulled to a stop in front of the office. It was too risky to stick around. She walked across the lot, forcing herself to stroll as if she had all the time in the world. She reached her rig and climbed up, then wasted no time getting the rig rolling. She glanced in the rearview mirror as she pulled out of the lot and pointed the rig toward home.
She needed to talk to Rondo, but she was pretty sure that their sweet deal at Rafferty’s stockyard had just turned sour.
Lana pointed the big rig east and pursed her lips as she considered the situation. Their group had used the northern Missouri stockyard to move a lot of cattle over the past year, cattle they liberated from various ranches throughout Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri. They’d even taken a couple of herds from Iowa and Nebraska there. Working in a no-brand state made their business less risky.
The family had done well with Rondo leading them, but Lana turned the rustling enterprise into a well-oiled machine. They raised cattle of their own at the compound, so they could mix legitimate stock with stolen to raise less suspicion. Of course, they’d always stripped incoming animals of ear tags or any other identifying marks. Rebranding allowed her to exercise her creative juices. Over the last year or so, she’d turned it into an art form, utilizing their small collection of basic brands to cover existing brands.
The Rafferty stockyard had been her idea. Bobby Rafferty was her contact. She was the one who cultivated him after she found out he forged certification documents for the cattle run through his barn. She was the one who brought him into the fold, after she found out his mother was a Saunders, a dogleg relative of Rondo’s mother.
She chewed her lip as she considered the little prick with the phone. And the Deputy Sheriff. Maybe that was a coincidence, but she had a bad feeling.
And she’d learned a long time ago to trust her gut.
By the time she reached the Cardwell County line, she’d made up her mind. It was time to find a new contact. They couldn’t go back to the Rafferty stockyard, and she was pretty sure it would be a good idea to stay out of northern Missouri completely for a while. Maybe it was time to do a little recon and locate other outlets for their stolen stock.
She turned off the interstate and wound south on a narrow blacktop road. Telephone poles flicked past. The corn crop looked good, with strong green stalks poking out of the soil.
The family had tried growing crops but had no luck. Rondo said it wasn’t in their blood. Maybe he was right. Then again, the red dirt in their compound wasn’t good for growing much of anything, plant or animal.
The unmarked gravel road appeared next to a break in the fence, largely hidden by a stand of pin oaks and scrub trees. She swung the semi wide to make the turn, then rumbled slowly along the road, which was little more than twin rocky ribbons separated by dirt, with grass and weeds trying to take over. There wasn’t enough traffic to keep the road clear, and the family was just fine with that.
The scrub trees on either side of the road pushed in, grabbing for the rig. Signs of civilization disappeared as she drove. There were no telephone poles, no electric lines, and the strands of barbed wire strung between ancient posts sagged tiredly. A dozen or so cows, some black, some red, ignored the rumble of the semi as she rolled past. After a few miles, the trees opened and revealed a clearing where half a dozen mobile homes squatted in a semi circle.
She pulled the tractor-trailer up next to a tin-sided lean to that served as the main outbuilding for the family. By the time she’d rolled to a stop, two tow-headed kids and a young woman with thick dark hair pulled back in a loose ponytail had come out to meet her.
The oldest, a boy just starting to show the muscles he would have as a man, held up a hand in greeting as she hopped down. “Want me to take it to the washout? She can help.” He motioned to the girl at his side.
Lana tossed the keys to the boy. “Be careful,” she cautioned.
His wide grin showed his crooked teeth. The girl hurried around the front of the truck and scrambled up into the cab, obviously not wanting to be left behind.
Lana turned to the woman. “Rondo here?”
The woman held up a hand to shade her eyes from the bright sun and nodded. “Inside.” Without waiting for a reply, she continued on her way, bony hips swaying.
Lana strode across the dusty yard, her short legs eating up the distance in no time. The trailer she shared with Rondo was the newest in the compound, a super-single, ninety feet long and sixteen feet wide. While the other homes had metal roofs that were loud during storms, their home had a shingle roof. It was her favorite thing about the home. The spring storms with pounding hail scared her, though she wouldn’t admit that to anyone.
Not even the man she shared a bed with.
She tugged the screen door open and stepped into the air conditioned coolness of the living room. Rondo sat in his oversized camouflage recliner, a beer in one hand and a remote control in the other. His gaze focused on the flat screen television hanging on the opposite wall. Baseball. One glance told her the Royals were playing. She squinted at the screen. They were losing. That wasn’t good.
Maybe now wasn’t the time to discuss the stockyard and Bobby Rafferty.
His eyes flicked at her, then back to the television. “Another beer.” He sat his empty bottle on the wooden end table beside him.
Her temper flared, but she tamped it down. It wouldn’t do to let Rondo know he’d irritated her. Not yet, anyway. She snatched his empty up on her way to the kitchen, then pulled two cold beers from the refrigerator. She returned to the living room and handed him one, sat on the sofa and twisted the top off of her own. Her eyes burned from lack of sleep, but she lifted the cold drink to her lips and took a long pull.
She hated making long drives on her own, but Rondo insisted he couldn’t spare anyone to go with her last night. Once she sat down, the exhaustion was almost overwhelming. All she wanted to do was go crawl in bed, but she knew if she did, she’d be unable to sleep come nightfall.
Rondo sighed heavily as he twisted the cap off and dropped it on the table. His eyes never left the baseball game playing on the television. “How many head did we end up with?”
“Full load. Just shy of a hundred and fifty head.”
“A hundred forty-seven.”
Rondo took a long drink, then looked at Lana. “You shoulda gotten a few more head on there. That trailer’ll hold one sixty.”
Lana held his gaze for a moment, then looked away. “That’s at total full capacity, and we had some good sized animals in this load.”
“When’s the sale?”
He dipped his chin and looked at her through narrowed eyes. “Where’d you tell ‘em to send the money?”
Lana felt her hackles rise. She knew this operation inside and out. She knew what the risks were, and how to minimize them. “I gave them the PO Box in Webb City.”