On moonlit nights when farms in the Central Valley grow quiet, the rustlers step out of the shadows, just as they did in the Old West.
But nowadays, their quarry isn't cattle. It's diesel fuel.
On a recent morning, almond grower Scott Hunter ventured into the predawn darkness to discover that rustlers had made off with 900 gallons of diesel worth more than $2,700. It was the fourth time in recent months that thieves had raided the tanks at Hunter's Merced County farm.
To keep the thieves out, Hunter had installed chain-link fences, razor wire and bunkerlike concrete structures around his fuel pumps. But they cut a hole through his fence, escaping with the diesel.
Diesel prices hovered around $3.25 a gallon last week, $1.11 more than at the same time last year, according to the U.S. Energy Department.
Authorities say these record fuel prices have resulted in brazen diesel rustling from trucks and tanks in many rural areas of the state -- especially unguarded farms in the Central Valley.
Other kinds of fuel thefts are increasing. Many people are rushing to buy locking gas caps after reports that motorists were siphoning gasoline from neighbors' cars.
Automotive chains such as Pep Boys and AutoZone report that motorists are shunning conventional, screw-on gas caps that cost about $7 for caps that require a key and cost twice as much. The safety cap harks to the 1970s, when gas shortages made the device a fixture on many cars.
"There has been a discernibly higher shift in sales, and it's nationwide," said Bill Furtkevic, an assistant vice president at Pep Boys.
At gas stations in other parts of the country, where it is common for motorists to pump first and pay after, the number of customers who drive off without paying is soaring too, according to a recent report by the National Assn. of Convenience Stores. Some gas stations near freeways are reporting monthly losses of as much as $1,500, the report said.
"There has been an incredible increase in the number of retailers who are throwing up their hands and saying, 'That's it, we are going to require prepay until we can figure out another way,' " said Jeff Lenard, a spokesman for the trade association.
Authorities say the gasoline thieves include amateurs, who risk hefty fines and the suspension of their driver's licenses for fleeing after filling their tanks. Others belong to sophisticated rings that operate tanker trucks and pump fuel directly out of underground storage tanks at gas stations, according to a spokesman for the Miami-Dade County Police Department, which said it had busted a ring involving about 55 suspects.
As for the theft of diesel fuel in California, most has occurred in eight farming counties: Fresno, Kern, Kings, Madera, Merced, San Joaquin, Stanislaus and Tulare.
"We really have noticed a big jump," said Dave Kranz, a spokesman for the California Farm Bureau.
Last year, thieves stole a record 80,000 gallons of diesel fuel from the state's farmers. This year, they are on pace to break that record.
"Crooks are opportunists, and they are going to go where the dollar value return is great and where there is less risk. With these increases in fuel prices, that's diesel," said William Yoshimoto, supervising deputy district attorney for Tulare County and director of a rural crimes task force that tracks diesel theft.
Merced County Sheriff's Det. Frank Swiggart said the thieves included people trying to cash in on high fuel prices -- and some desperate farmers.
"They can be shady farmers trying to heist enough to get them through the next day of production [or] parolees who have shown up at truck stops offering fuel from 55-gallon drums at half price," Swiggart said. "We have a surveillance video of one guy using a cutting torch on a lock who set his shirt on fire trying to steal fuel to fill his own tank."
But Swiggart said some thefts seemed to be the work of organized criminals who used stolen trucks to move large amounts of fuel.
"I think there are some rings operating out there and they are putting some of that fuel right back on the market," said Swiggart, who added that authorities were trying to stake out likely theft targets. "You can steal fuel in Tulare County and be selling it in Sacramento in a couple of hours."
Police say farmers are easy targets because their fuel storage tanks are often in unfenced fields miles from any neighbor.
"Well, the crops tend to be outside where they need to be," quipped Russ Cauley, 52, a manager at the 2,200-acre Loneoak Farm near the Salinas Valley, who has been hit by diesel thieves three times in the last month. "You can't fence and lock up everything."
In the most recent theft, the rustlers ventured into Cauley's front yard last week to siphon about 200 gallons of diesel out of the farm trucks.
"That's pretty bold," said Cauley, who added that the crime probably took place between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. "We don't know who is taking it. We're not even really sure how many more times we might have been hit."