“Welcome back. For those of you just joining us, today on NewsTalk 102 we have Sheriff Ralph Tarbridge. I want to turn now to a sensitive topic: this weekend’s Tri-County Rodeo. Sheriff, as our listeners know, the rodeo used to be the biggest event in the tri-county region. In recent years it’s developed a reputation for being the deadliest place to be on Independence Day weekend.”
“That is, unfortunately, true, Keith. There’s been a murder committed at the rodeo each of the past three years. So far, despite the assistance of the FBI, the murders are unsolved.”
“Is there any connection between the murders, Sheriff?”
“The only connection anyone has discovered is that the men who were killed were participants in the rodeo. Two were men from the area who had performed in the arena, and one was a rodeo clown from Wyoming.”
“What precautions are being taken for this year’s rodeo?”
“Naturally, Keith, I don’t want to divulge everything we’re doing. But I can tell you that there will be twice as many uniformed officers as there were last year, both from my department and the state highway patrol. Men from both the FBI and the state Bureau of Investigation will be on hand as will plainclothes officers on loan from a couple of the bigger cities in the area. There will be much tighter security about what people can bring into the fairgrounds and suspicious persons may be subjected to a search. We also have some other things going this year that I don’t want to tip my hand about, but we’ve got high confidence in them.”
“Of course, Sheriff. We certainly hope that this year’s Tri-County Rodeo will be a happy event.”
“Yes, we do.”
“My guest on NewsTalk 102 has been Sheriff Ralph Tarbridge. Thank you again, Sheriff.”
“Thank you, Keith.”
* * *
The rodeo was in full swing and, as advertised, the place was crawling with cops. Children ate cotton candy and popcorn and jumped and laughed. Adults smiled, but there were a lot of nervous tics, especially the closer one got to the arena.
McKean kept a pleasant look on his face as he walked around the county fairgrounds, as though he was pleased to be there. If it weren’t for his mission, he’d rather have been nearly anywhere else.
He had managed to get his pistol past the extra security; it hadn’t been as difficult as he had thought, despite all the ballyhooed precautions in place. All he had to do was look and act the part. His belt falsely announced that his name was Roy, and the oversized buckle sported a cowboy on a bucking bronco. His cowboy boots were appropriately scuffed, his jeans slightly worn and sporting a ring where his chewing tobacco lived, his shirt a nondescript blue plaid with faux pearl snaps, and a big tan Stetson topped his head.
McKean was one of two soldiers of the Militant Army for Animal Safety at the rodeo this year, Sergeant Pennington being the other. McKean was a captain hoping and expecting to make major before the night was over. There was quiet talk that if he was successful he might even get jumped to colonel.
MAAS operatives in the three previous years had assassinated people who were prominent in the business of harming innocent cattle and horses for their own glorification and the amusement of others. MAAS members knew each other and carefully recruited new soldiers. But they were cautious about taking credit for their errands of mercy and so the world did not know that MAAS was on the hunt at the Tri-County Rodeo.
Knowing what was going on over at the arena nearly made McKean ill. Electric prods, bucking straps — often with burrs under them — and spurs were all in use to make otherwise tame animals wild with pain. Broken necks were a common result of calf roping and steer wrestling competitions. Animals terrified by the brutal treatment would sometimes run into fences, injuring or killing themselves.
MAAS was determined to bring an end to the inhumanity, and McKean was a devoted soldier in the cause. As a teenager, McKean discovered a man was poisoning the neighborhood dogs and cats. McKean reported him to the police, and a court fined him and gave him a jail sentence, which was suspended. Just a week later, the man’s house burned; he apparently kept gasoline and old rags too near his heater. He also, apparently, had tried to do something about the fire, fell down the stairs, and cracked his skull open. A clever MAAS officer saw McKean nodding slightly at the charred remains of the home. He enlisted McKean that day.
McKean caught Pennington’s eye. The MAAS sergeant subtly motioned to the shade of a horse trailer parked not ten yards from the ring. There was a large water barrel sitting there; he could hide behind it, take his shot, and drop the pistol in, all in one smooth motion.
A voice continually droned over the scratchy loudspeaker. McKean finally heard what he had been waiting for.
“The Junior Bull Riding competition starts in ten minutes. This is for cowboys ages 10-14.”
The commanding general had decided that the best way to put the rodeo out of commission for good would be to send a MAAS soldier to assassinate a child animal abuser. That would end the rodeo’s image as a family-friendly event. McKean had volunteered for the crucial mission.
McKean casually made his way back to the horse trailer and crouched down behind it. He slipped the pistol from under his large cowboy hat and the silencer from behind his belt buckle. He mated them and took aim at where the first young cowboy would come into the arena. The angle limited the target’s exposure, but McKean was fully confident he could make the kill.
The announcer got the show underway. “And for our first contestant, we have Bobby Carnes, who turned 12 years old just last week. Wow ’em, Bobby! Show ’em what you can do!”
McKean’s finger moved to flip off the safety. It never arrived. Something slammed into his head and part of his skull fell into the water barrel. His body slumped, unseen, behind the barrel.
The FBI agent holstered his own silenced pistol. He spoke into a concealed microphone in the lapel of his western-style shirt.
“Pennington here. Target down. Repeat: target down.”
And Bobby wowed the appreciative crowd.