Troy McKinney was sitting in his truck outside the Decatur Livestock Market when he got a call about four heifers gone missing from a ranch in Hunt County. He sighed, spit a wad of chewing tobacco into a Styrofoam cup, and took out a notebook and a pen.
"How much did them heifers weigh?" he asked the rancher. "Any kind of markings on 'em? You got any suspects? You made anyone mad or anything lately?"
News of another cattle theft was the last thing McKinney wanted to hear. The livestock theft investigator for several north Texas counties was already knee-deep in nine other cattle-rustling cases.
Cattle rustling, a crime as old as the Old West, is making a comeback. There are no national statistics, but Rick Wahlert of the International Livestock Identification Assn. said most of his organization's 27 member states had reported a rise in missing or stolen cattle.
In Texas, home to a $6.3-billion beef industry, more than 6,400 head of cattle were stolen in 2008, nearly three times as many as in 2007, according to the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Assn. The trade group says the numbers are on track to rise again this year, driven in part by the recession.
A fat heifer or well-muscled steer can fetch up to $700 at auction. And unlike a stolen car or television, which often can't be resold at market value, an animal will reap what it's actually worth.
McKinney, who has a wide, ruddy face and graying blond hair, is part cowboy, part detective. He and the state's 28 other livestock theft investigators know their way around a rodeo as well as they know the penal code. Technically, they are members of Texas' most elite law enforcement agency, the Texas Rangers. But mostly they report to higher-ups at the Cattle Raisers Assn.
The Ranger badge, a shiny silver pin emblazoned with a lone star and a longhorn, is one of the hardest to come by in Texas. Every morning, unless he's going undercover, McKinney affixes it to the breast pocket of his crisp Western shirt. He puts on a white cowboy hat (the good guys always wear white, he explains) and straps a Colt .45 pistol on his right hip and an iPhone on his left.
From morning until night, McKinney crisscrosses northeast Texas in his silver Chevy, examining crime scenes, interrogating witnesses and searching for stolen livestock at cattle auctions. In his truck he keeps binoculars, rope, two containers of Red Seal smokeless tobacco and a box of Winchester bullets.
McKinney's major case at the moment involves 122 prime black Angus cattle worth more than $100,000 that disappeared from Supreme Farms just outside Denton -- along with nine saddles.
The cows started vanishing about a year ago, but it was months before anybody noticed because the ranch doesn't do regular head counts. The ranch bookkeeper, Al Croix, told McKinney he thought the culprit was a guy named Marty Kays, 34, the son of one of the ranch hands. As a young man, Kays had earned the nickname "Cowboy" because of his superior calf-roping skills.
Luckily for McKinney, the cattle were branded, so he searched a database of the state's 100,000 registered brands. He found that cattle bearing the Supreme Farm brand (the letters JS over a small U) had been sold at sale barns in four towns -- without the owner's consent.
Next, McKinney went to the auctions to collect sales receipts. Many of these, he said, identified the seller as Marty Kays.
McKinney went to the sheriff's office to talk to investigator Larry Kish (who, it turned out, was working on a case in which Kays was a witness). They brought Kays in for questioning.
"After a little hemming and hawing, he confessed," McKinney said. He said Kays told the investigators he had used the ranch's own pickup and livestock trailer to steal the cows. According to McKinney, Kays blamed the theft on drug addiction. In 2003 and 2007, Kays did time in the state penitentiary for drug possession.
The ranger had little sympathy. Thieves, McKinney said, "disgrace the cowboy name."
"They're half cowboys, so they know how to talk the talk and walk the walk and all that stuff. And they know how to work cattle and load 'em up," he said. "But a true cowboy wouldn't steal."
McKinney learned the cowboy life on his father's farm in west Texas, tending to cattle, doing branding, vaccinations and castrations. At 46, he still does team roping at rodeos.
In 1987, McKinney joined the Nolan County Sheriff's Department. Ten years later, after stints at two other sheriff's departments, he was nominated to become the cattle rustling investigator for the Texas Rangers.
He was thrilled. "I never was much of a ticket writer and I never liked working accidents," McKinney said. "I like messing with livestock."
Most cases of cattle rustling are straightforward: A thief backs a trailer onto someone else's property in the dead of night, lures the animals inside and speeds away.
Other times, it's large-scale fraud. In 2001, McKinney helped nab Robert Leach, a Denton man convicted of running a cattle-rustling scheme that netted nearly $2 million. A Corpus Christi rancher had paid Leach to provide pasture and care for his 750 head of cattle in Denton. Leach took out a mortgage on the cattle and then sold them at local auctions.
Back at the weekly auction in Decatur, McKinney finished his phone call with the Hunt County rancher. He promised that he'd keep an eye out for the four missing heifers and head out to do an investigation someday soon. Then he stepped into the 100-degree Texas heat and climbed onto the rusty iron catwalk above the animal pens to inspect the livestock.
"Down here we've got some good-looking Angus, Brangus, Longhorn, Charolais," he said, talking over the mournful chorus of moos from below. Periodically, a whip connected with an animal's haunches with a loud snap.
Inside the auction, past a sign reading, "Help the beef business . . . run over a chicken," about 100 men sat in an amphitheater facing a pen. McKinney, who comes here to look for stolen cattle, took a seat near the exit and watched the drama unfold.
Every few moments, a cow or steer was herded in and prodded with a metal rod by a young man standing behind a metal shield. The animal jerked around, wild-eyed, as the auctioneer sang its praises. If the men liked what they saw, they raised white markers to bid.
About 1,600 head are sold each Monday at the Decatur market. That's a lot of cattle changing hands and, from McKinney's perspective, a lot of potential for mischief.
After leaving Decatur, McKinney drove east. He passed miles of graceful Bermuda grass hills, dotted with clusters of oaks and aspens, and the remains of an armadillo that had been run over on the road. As he neared Denton, housing subdivisions and strip malls started appearing.
"All the ranch country and farming country is getting swallowed up," he said. "This used to be hayfields and corn, and now it's all rooftops."
McKinney blames urbanization for some of the rise in cattle rustling. Many people who maintain ranches have moved into the city and aren't able to check on the cattle often.
And cattle rustlers are getting smarter, McKinney said. He's heard of ranch hands who give cattle "hair brands" -- which sear the animal's hair but not its hide -- so that the cows will be unidentifiable once the hair grows back.
Texas does not require livestock to be branded, and ranchers often wait until their calves are older to brand, McKinney said. That makes his job tough.
After stopping at a barbecue joint for a sausage sandwich, McKinney arrived at Denton County sheriff's headquarters for an update on the Marty Kays case. He took a seat in Kish's office, a small room with mercifully cool air conditioning, and the investigator told him that the district attorney had decided to charge Kays with a second-degree felony, which carries a sentence of two to 20 years in prison upon conviction. (Formal charges are pending, and Kays could not be reached for comment Monday.)
McKinney said he was glad. But he was disappointed as well, because it was probably too late to track down the cattle.
"We may have already eaten them at McDonald's," he said.
Kish, a self-proclaimed city boy, said that if anybody could find the livestock, it was McKinney.
"I know a cow moos and has four legs and that's about it," he said. "I depend on people like Troy."
McKinney brings to each case a healthy dose of ranch wisdom. He once took a calf, believed stolen, and brought it to a cow. When the calf began to suckle, McKinney knew he had cracked the case.
"If you bring that calf to its momma and she lets it nurse, well, we done got 'em."