Elijah turned the wheel, guiding the truck onto the narrow, gravel filled shoulder on the side of the road. A line of cars, slowing to pass the accident, showed in the side mirror. The vehicles moved at a crawl, the driver’s determined not to miss any of the details of the large, smoking wrecks that lay across half the highway, blocking the west bound lanes.
Waiting as the last car rolled by, Elijah swung open the door and slid a foot onto the baking Texas asphalt. From behind dark glasses, the Special Ranger briefly locked eyes with the bright morning sun while he ran a handful of fingers across the top of his forehead and capturing the stragglers of hair, combing them back before sliding his hat off the truck seat and settling it on his head.
Cursing the string of overly hot spring days, he stepped away from the front of the truck and walked closer to the huge pile of of bent and smoking metal laying blackened on the road.
“What you got Bob?” The tall Ranger asked when the County Sheriff nodded in his direction and walked to join him. With a hand offered in greeting, County Sheriff Bob Johnson turned and faced the wreck.
“It’s a bad one, Elijah.” Sheriff Johnson tugged a handkerchief from the back pockets of his pants and moped the early morning sweat from his face. “Too big rigs collided. One carrying petrol. Burned pretty hot, not much left to identify.”
The men talked while they walked back toward the smouldering rigs. Elijah waited for the Sheriff to finish mopping his brow and continue the report. “Probably close to fifty head squeezed in the back there,” the Sheriff pointed to the overturned trailer. “Haven’t dug either driver out yet but dental will be the only way to identify them, I believe.”
“That bad,” Elijah frowned, nodding along. His attention following along as the Sheriff’s hand pointed to the wrecks while the man spoke.
“Any particular reason to call me?” Elijah asked.
“Maybe not, but I ran the plates on the cattle liner and they come up unregistered. I figured with the back end full of cattle,” Johnson went through the process of moping his face again before finishing. “I figured you’d want to see things for yourself. The cattle might not be stolen, but…”
“I can’t imagine they’re the only unregistered plates on these roads. And the cattle. No recent calls for missing animals, but I’ll stick around. No recent breaks in my current case so I’ve got nothing urgent happening. I imagine that once the driver is identified all will be well.”
“Hope you’re right. Too much of this rustling shit lately. Now every time I come across cattle it sets me to wondering.”
“You need a break, Bob. Get out of the sun. Take your kid and go fishing or something. Leave the job for a few days and recharge.” Elijah pondered the Sheriff’s concerns then swung the conversation back to the accident. “Any idea when we can open the trailer. Maybe a brand in there that I can run. Find the owners that-a-way.”
The evening sun showed low in the western sky by the time the tow trucks sorted and separated the melted steel of the separate tractor trailer units.
“You want to open the trailer here or wait until we pack it down to our yard,” The Sheriff asked once the trucks were loaded onto a separate lowboy trailers for the drive south to Clarksville.
“Go ahead. I’ll follow you down. I’m going to hunt supper first. Damn near hungry enough to eat a horse, saddle and all.” He turned toward his truck.
“I’m gonna need a name to okay this,” one of the tow truck drivers piped up walking toward Elijah with a open clip board. Elijah looked about but Sheriff Johnson had already climbed into his 4x4.
“Yeah. You can put my name on it. Elijah Sackett. Special Ranger outa Paris, Texas.” Elijah slowly pronounced the letters of his first and last name.
“Okay. That’s good.” The driver tucked a notepad into his breast pocket.
“You driving down to Clarksville with us?”
“Eventually. The Sheriff will meet you. You need his name, too.” Elijah waited. “I’m gonna grab some grub first before I head on down.”
“I know Bob well,” the driver said. “Enjoy your supper.”
Elijah Sackett worked the tip of the toothpick between his teeth freeing bits of beef burger and lettuce from supper as he leaned against a wall. A Luke warm coffee from the local roadhouse occupied his other hand. From under the brim of his hat, he watched the firemen and police alike comb over the wrecks of the two tractors involved in the accident earlier in the day.
The local fire department employed the hydraulic assistance of power tongs to rip through the melted metal of the back trailer doors. A pop and then a prolonged shriek echoed in the mechanical bay of the Clarksville Sheriff’s department as the doors were pried open.
A smell of burned hides and charcoaled beef leaked from open door filling the large room. Clamping a palm over his nose and mouth, Elijah Sackett pushed off the wall and stopped shy of the open door. The firemen busied themselves packing up their tools before allowing any law officers to move in.
Sheriff Bob Johnson crowded in front of Elijah. The shorter man, about a good six inches less in height than Elijahs 6’2, stretched on his toes to gain a look into the darker remain of the cattle trailer.
“One helluva mess,” Johnson commented. “Tom, climb up in there with a light.” He shouted at one of the forensic team.
Sackett waited while the forensic team stumbled about the dead and cooked cargo. A glance at his watch read 12:40. A stifled yawn escaped his lips reminding him of the long day already burnt and the 45 minute drive home.
“Hey, Bob,” He called to the Sheriff. “Let me climb in there and see if I can lift a bit of hide with a brand. Damn near falling asleep on my feet.”
“Tom, you and Spence hold the light for Elijah. Let him have a quick turn so he can take off.”
“Thanks, Bob.” Sackett said lifting a boot onto the remains of the trailer’s bumper and pulling himself up. Taking care where he set his feet, he stopped at the burned clump at the rear of a cow. Slipping on a pair of leather gloves from his back pocket, he bent low to the carcass. Long fingers slipped a locked blade from the sheath on his hip. A flick of his wrist opened the knife, the 6” blade gleaming under the forensic lamp. With a trained ease, he slipped the point of the knife under a patch of skin near the rump of the cow and slowly sawed the parched skin away from the overcooked meat.
The fire had burned horrific the way the cows were scorched but the skin lifted smoothly. Freeing a large chunk, Elijah squatted on his haunches and bent close to the loose hide. Marks were barely visible on the underside of the skin.
“Here, take this Bob,” he said passing the removed hide toward the back of the trailer. “Maybe under better light we’ll be able to make some sense out of it.”
Dusting off his gloves and then brushing charcoal from his jean bottoms, Elijah crept from the trailer and jumped to the floor. Taking his time, he slid his gloves off and stuffed them back into his pants pocket. “You able to read that?” He asked the Sheriff . Johnson busy bent over a table with a portable light cranked close for netter lighting.
“Yeah. Looks like maybe two marks. One over top of the other.”
Elijah Sackett joined the Clarksville Sheriff bent over the table. The two talking and comparing what their tired eyes reported. Elijah stood and took a notebook from his breast pocket. With a stubby pencil he drew likely reproductions of the brands.
“The bottom one is easier. A P slash something. Maybe an 8. The other, I’m not sure. Kinda blurred.” He compared notes with the Sheriff.
“Tell you what Bob. I’m heading home. I’ll sleep on this and meet up with you in the morning. Clearer heads might have an easier time.”
On the ride home, the P/B brand played with his thoughts. Thousands of Texas brands locked in his memory but the parched outline on the backside of the cowhide failed to ring any bells.
Sunlight broke through narrow slits in the blinds and played across Elijah's face. A twitch and the swipe of a hand to scoot away the annoying beams of light drug his unconscious mind out of a restless sleep and into the new day. A half opened eyelid reported the late morning hour to a brain addled with the after effects of 80 proof whiskey.
A turn of his head brought the littered coffee table into view. Styrofoam containers from the local take out burger joint and the partial remains of a bottle of Old Number 7 stared back. Shaking loose the cobwebs attached to his brain left a trace of pain from the beginnings of a self induced headache.
Elijah rolled, his legs lifting then settling on the hardwood. Pushing his body toward a sitting position, he reached past the tempting bottle of liquor and pinched the slim butt of a cigarette, the lighter lying inches from the pack. With the burning smoke clamped between his lips, he started unbuttoning his shirt as he stood and angled for the bathroom.
Steam rolled from the behind the shower curtain. Elijah breathed deeply of the remains of the cigarette and bent toward the ashtray when the phone out in the living room erupted shattering the morning silence.
Crushing the smouldering butt, Elijah returned to the front room. A step out of his way led back to the package of cigarettes. Flicking the lighter, he swallowed a pull of smoke then scooped the phone from its cradle. A glance at the led display told of the callers I.D.
“Morning Bob,” Elijah’s cigarette ravaged voice spoke into the receiver.
“You in a different time zone, Elijah. Morning passed away several hours ago.” The sheriff joked.
“Yeah. I suppose,” Elijah checked the time display on the phone. “That last case took more of a toll then I suspected.” He excused.
“Well, no panic,” Sheriff Bob Johnson clarified. “Boys in the forensic lab got back to me. Pulled a number of different brands from that barbecued trailer of cattle. Some I know off hand. They're local brands, some of the others we’re checking on. Running them through the registry. Just thought I’d let you know.”
“Much appreciated Bob. Any tag line on the trucking company or the driver?”
“No. Nothing yet. That fire scorched plenty hot. Even the dentals gonna take some time.”
“Thanks for the call Bob. I was just getting mobile. I’ll head down to see you in a bit. Maybe something will develop. If not, I can give you a hand tracing the brands. I’m all mighty curious. Might be nothing, but who knows.”
Back in the bathroom, an aged hand swiped a clear path through the mist covering the mirror. The other leather skinned hand engulfed the jaw and tilted the sun beaten face back and forth. A smattering of short, greyish white stubble matching the mane of collar length hair, covered the sallow cheeks and sharp jaw currently under review. Elijah’s light grey, tired eyes stared back from the mirror, thin reddish veins crept into the whites.
Even under his own scrutiny his face looked thin, and haggard. The cigarettes and 80 proof whiskey combined with a workaholic lifestyle showed heavy with age. A final stare down before the razor scraped the stubble clean and a slap of aftershave sent Elijah looking for a clean shirt. His mind foregoing the chastising of bad life choices as the intrigue of the latest case buoyed his spirits.
The mid day sun blazed down to the ground. Elijah felt the heel of his boot sink slightly into the heated black tar covering the road. A lift of his hat and a swipe of the back of his hand removed the beads of sweat already gathering on his brow tin the few steps from the pickup to the side door of the Clarksville forensic lab. Welcomed blast of cool air buffeted against the 100 plus degrees from outside as he pulled open the steel door.
The short hallway led past an empty office and toward the twin swinging doors to the back workspace. Formaldehyde failed to mask the stench of decay ground into the walls and floor of the large room.
“You got no fans to carry this stench away?” Elijah posed the question. Sonny Lynch, the lone forensic analyst for the Clarksville County turned and smiled at his visitor.
“Smells a sight better then I suspect you do most days,” the analyst responded. “How you doing Elijah. Is this your case now?”
“Naw. Don’t think so. Probably just a couple of unfortunate law abiding citizens got themselves involved in a wreck. Nothing for me if that’s the case.” Elijah admitted. “You got copies of the brands from some of those cattle that burned? Bob said there was a few different stamps on the cattle inside the trailer?”
“Stacked a few away in cold storage, already.” Lynch replied, setting down the water pick in his hand and moving toward the cooler located to the side of the large space.
“Some are legible,” the analyst talked over his shoulder. His finger tracing a burnt outline through the plastic protection of an evidence bag. “Others aren’t so well. Got your work cut out for you if you plan on joining in.”
Elijah sidled up beside Lynch, receiving a few packages passed by the forensic analyst. The stack of hardened chunks of cow hide brittle under the pressure of his fingers.
“I’ve got a bit of time to kill. Let me use the computer in your office and I’ll run down as many as I can. Too bad for both the drivers and their cargo. That fire burnt mighty hot by the looks of things.”
Sonny Lynch shook his head in acknowledgment. “Hopefully things was over fast. For both the men and cows sake.”
“Yeah,” it was Elijahs turn to agree. “What’s your password Sonny. I’ll grab us a coffee then get started.”
The back of Elijah’s eyes burnt from staring at the screen. The door to the back room of the building opened starling him out of a slow day stupor.
“Hey. Pick up the phone. Bob’s on line 3. Press the flashing button.” Sonny Lynch’s voice crossed the room. The man’s words muffled by a cloth mask clamped across his lower face.
Elijah blinked away the soreness in his eyes and nodded. “Thanks,” he mumbled.
“Bob,” Elijah cleared his throat and talked into the receiver. “What’s tickin’?”
“Working on tracking down the owners of those trucks,” the Sheriff paused. Pages rustling in the background filled the brief silence on the line. “The tanker is outa Oklahoma. Some Verified Gas Distributors. It’s the other tractor/trailer unit. Now that’s a different story.”
A couple of the identification numbers were melted from existence. I’ve pieced together likely combinations. None that have worked as of yet but caught an odd one. One version of the VIN is originally outa Tennessee a few years back.” Sheriff Johnson halted his story again. More paper rustling sounded across the line.
“That unit hasn’t been register for years. Doesn’t mean an awful lot and I might be off with my surmising. Anyway I thought I’d touch base and see how you’re making do?”
“Not much better, Bob. No luck so far in the state database for the brands I’ve checked up till now. Only run a few so far. A lot of god damn brand’s listed in this state. More than enough to fill my time.”
“Let me know if you get lucky. I’ll keep my foot down on tracking this rig. Got to be papers somewhere for it.”
“Okay. Sounds fair, Bob,” Elijah ended the call. Lifting the styrofoam cup to his lips, one slurp told of how long the coffee was ignored. Squeezing his lips against the cold, bad tasting liquid, He returned the cup to the desk. The Sheriff’s talk of Tennessee got Elijah thinking.
Bringing up a new search page, he typed a request for local brands a few states to the east. Elijah stood to replace the cold coffee, the search engine busy opening onto the Tennessee Cattlemen’s Association. The coloured page bloomed to life displaying several brand designs set around the edge of the page. A quick glance down and a couple of familiar sightings made Elijah forget his coffee run and returned him to his seat.