MENTONE, Texas — In America’s least populated county, the rusting ruins of houses, oil drilling operations and an old gas station interrupt the sun-blanched landscape. A hand-painted wood sign still promises good food at “Chuck’s Wagon” to drivers along State Road 302, though the proprietor died months ago and the wagon is gone.
Apart from the brick courthouse, the convenience store packed with off-shift oil-field workers and the lone sit-down restaurant where you’re liable to see the sheriff at lunch, everything else that the county’s 57 recorded residents might need is a ways away. No school. No church. No grocery store.
But while it might seem quiet, all has not been well in Loving County. The first sign of the brewing conflict came last spring with the killing of five cows, shot to death and left in the dry dirt.
told Texas Monthly in the 1990s.
In 2020, the U.S. census counted 64 county residents of all ages. That same year, 66 people voted for president in the general election. The census estimate has since gone down to 57 people, though that does not include the oil field workers who stay in temporary camps that dot the landscape.
Among the contested local races in November, Brandon Jones’s wife is running against the county clerk, who is Skeet Jones’s sister. And a county commissioner, who was among those arrested after showing up for jury duty, is also facing a challenge.
“Before all this, I really thought I liked politics,” said the constable, Brandon Jones. “But now, not so much.”
told NBC News that he “never, never, ever had a conversation about stray cattle with the judge.” A sheriff’s deputy, Noah Cole, told The Times that the office had no role in the investigation.
With what happened to the dead cattle a lingering mystery, the cow cop hatched a plan to catch any rustlers in the act.
Mr. Baker released three head of unmarked cattle, with microchips, as bait. Eventually, they were caught and brought to market by Skeet Jones and his ranch hands, Mr. Baker wrote.
In late May, a dusty column of law enforcement trucks tore down the dirt road to the Jones family ranch.
“It was just crazy,” said Jacob Jones, the county judge’s son, who was working at the ranch as a scrum of officers arrived.