“Bills of sale,” he says. “Everyone calls them yellow slips. They tell you almost everything you need to know: who owns the cattle, where they’re from, where they’re going, who hauled them, how many head there are.”
“How often do you find animals that don’t match their yellow slips?”
“We can go awhile and find nothing, then we’ll find four or five in a day. At least once a week we find something that doesn’t belong. Yesterday, we got three mysteries.”
I stand on one side of the fence and watch. Max Olvera, the yard manager and one of America’s legendary cattle auctioneers, walks over to chat.
“Nah, cattle rustling’s not much of a problem,” he says, before I ask. “We got brand inspectors now. Sure, you find the occasional ranch butcher job. There are bad eggs everywhere, but it’s not much of a problem.”
And then he answers another question I haven’t asked.
“We don’t have a problem with mad cow either. That cow they found up in Washington. Well, they found that cow. That tells you the system works.”
After Olvera leaves, Mahon finds a few new mysteries: a couple of newborn calves that shouldn’t have a brand anywhere, but instead have an “E/L” on their right hip. He goes through the paperwork slowly, trying to figure things out. On each slip, printed in bold letters, are the words “God Bless America.” In the end, he comes up empty-handed, and walks over to the owner to explain the situation. The conversation is casual, but tense. The owner assures him he has the right paperwork, that he just forgot it at home. Mahon writes down his fax number and tells the guy to get it to him tonight.
Later, I ask Mahon if he thinks the cattle were stolen.
“Did you get a look at that old fart?” says Mahon. “I doubt he’s the type.”
Driving with Suther back to Sacramento, I notice how little range is left here. Strip malls sit on the edges of tired fields; fast-food restaurants are pushing out the things that make fast food possible. In the distance are dilapidated barns and broken fences, what writer Rob Schultheis called “the hidden West” — the desiccated vestiges of the old ways. It dawns on me that the reason the Egyptians must have invented branding was because rustling was a problem in Pharaoh’s time as well. Somewhere out here are perpetrators of a crime as old as crime itself.