by Daniel L. Link
"It's going to be dark soon," Rodger said. "You don't want to be here when it gets dark."
Without the badge and hat, Rodger Kearns still looked like a lawman. He had dark, squinting eyes that wrinkled in the corners, revealing a suspicious nature and making him look older than he was. The bushy frown of a mustache he wore completed the look.
The winter sun was still high overhead, although Phil knew it would drop fast. It always did in December. Night would ride in like a thief, sneaking in unnoticed and blanketing the land in darkness.
"You think they're dangerous?" Phil asked.
"They're hungry," Rodger said, pulling his cruiser to the side of the road. "That makes them dangerous." He eased the GMC SUV between a gap in the wire fence, then followed a dirt path into a landscape of patchy green and brown.
"You sure they're out here?" The field stretched on for miles, and there weren't many trees to find cover behind.
Rodger raised his eyebrows. "Oh, they're out here, all right."
"How long has this been going on?"
"Well, that depends," he said, slowing the truck to navigate around large holes in the path. "Do you mean how long have they been here, or how long have they been a problem?"
"Both, I guess."
"Well, they started staying out here not long after Bill Partain died. He owned all of this. His sons do now, but they haven't been back to town since the funeral. I don't think they give a damn what happens to the land, personally."
"And the trouble?"
Rodger slowed to a crawl. Phil could tell he wanted to make his point clear but pausing for dramatic emphasis would only delay their arrival, and their destination was nowhere in sight.
"Started about a year ago," Rodger said. His Texas drawl almost disappeared when he lowered his voice to just above a whisper. "Thefts, mostly. Things would go missing from yards or garages if they'd been left open. Then, they graduated to full-on burglary."
"Has it gone any further than that?" Phil asked.
Rodger nodded, but didn't elaborate. He hit the accelerator and the road sloped downward, dropping out from underneath them. The decline was gradual, but noticeable. The path zigzagged in a serpentine "S" for a bit, then straightened. A whole new landscape lay before them, a world that had been invisible from the road.
"Well, you wanted to get a look," Rodger said.
The sight below him was beyond his wildest imaginings. Phil had been expecting a few tents, some campfires, and people strewn loosely about, lying in sleeping bags or bundled in coats and blankets to guard against the cold.
What he saw instead was organization. There were tents, but there were buildings as well. Most were shabby lean-tos, but some looked like decent constructions. One was longer than the rest, with an open doorway on one end covered by a canvas flap. It was the only building among them with a pitched roof, and its size and central location suggested it was a meeting hall of some kind.