Phantom Creek
Chapter 3: The Rustlers

Copyright© 2019 by Wendell Jackson

Paul and Tom arrived back at the ranch house, in the late afternoon. The air was still hot and dry, with a warm breeze drifting down the canyon past the house. Tom didn’t bother going in the house to clean up, instead he doffed his boots and jumped into the pond. He was covered with dust and grit, sticking to him in dried sweat. He’d worked hard and now the cool water was the most relaxing experience he could have. His Aunt Eleanore, watching from the kitchen window, hoped he wouldn’t try entering the house wearing those sopping wet clothes, dripping all over her floors. To make sure he didn’t, she met him at the door, with a towel and an extra pair of trousers. She went back in the house, leaving him to change on the porch before coming in.

Allen was sitting in the den, a wet compress over his back. Seeing his brother bent over, and the large dressing covering him, Tom asked what was wrong. He understood that Allen was on the mend, and this sight that greeted him, didn’t fit that belief.

“Just some shrapnel working its way out.” Allen answered the questions, Tom was asking. “They told me they probably didn’t get it all, and they were right.”

Uncle Paul looking Allen over, didn’t like seeing the pale skin the shirtless man presented as he sat backwards, leaning over the chairs back. Blood was showing through on the bandage, it was thin and needed a much thicker one to absorb the blood. “Is it still coming out?”

“No, Well maybe. Aunt Eleanor pulled the piece that popped though. There’s probably still more.” Allen spoke quietly, resolved to his condition. He knew that this might continue to happen for the rest of his life.

“Knew several veterans from the First war, Shrapnel was working out of them for years.” Paul said taking an empty chair and sitting down at the table. “There’s old what’s his name, had the arrow head work out a couple years ago.”

“That was Samuel White, and it didn’t just work out. It was surgically removed.” Eleanor remarked as she set a cup of coffee down in front of her husband.

“Really?” Tom was awed. “What I

Indian war did he get it?”

“Oh, hell.” Paul scoffed. “Sam had so many stories about that arrow head, never knew which one was true, or if it was from an Indian.”

“It needs a couple of stitches.” Eleanor said from the kitchen. “He should be back in the hospital.”

“I don’t want to go tonight. Its late, can’t you just sew it up. You’ve sewed Uncle Paul plenty of times.” Allen didn’t want to throw in the towel and go back to any hospital.

“It was a long piece, left a deep hole.” Eleanor was already coming back with the iodine, needles and thread on a white enamel tray. “The next piece could cut an artery or some large blood vessel. You need hospital care incase things get worse, and I think they will.”

“The food’s terrible in that place.” Allen remarked.

Sitting next to Allen, Eleanor removed the loose bandage off the wound and motioned with her other hand for Tom to bring a lamp closer for the light. Tom had been ready to ask why couldn’t they just poke in the hole the shrapnel went in and bring it back out. Then he saw the condition of his brothers back. There were two large scars still red from the stitches and healing, with several more smaller wounds lower around his hip. Seeing the circular wounds Tom understood that the steel had taken different paths once it hit his brothers flesh.

“I was told they took out sixteen pieces of steel. I guess we can up the count.” Allen joked.

“I’m sure there will be more.” Eleanor told him, and opened the bottle of iodine, using a piece of cotton to dab it around the open cut. She took the threaded needle and began putting in two stitches. Tom’s eyes grew big as the needle pierced his brothers flesh, with out Allen wincing or showing any sign of pain.”

“God, Allen don’t you feel that?” Tom couldn’t believe that it wasn’t hurting Allen.

“I feel it, alright. Just not that bad after all the rest.”

No one spoke after that, they just watched Eleanor finish the last stitch and again, dab the area down with iodine soaked cotton. Before putting a dressing over the wounds, Paul brought a compass from atop the book case in the living room. After having Allen turn his chair to face east, Paul held the compass close to Allen’s back. He moved it slowly over and around the wounds. The needle swung to the east, twice as the compass passed unscarred flesh.

“There’s the reason they didn’t get it all. It didn’t go straight in.” Paul observed. “No doctor wants to cut through undamaged flesh, and they probably couldn’t follow the trail in.”

“Well, what’s the verdict.” Allen questioned.

“They probably figured it was better to leave it where it was, rather than do a lot of cutting. With it working out now, they may decide to go in after it. What ever they decide, I think you need to consider it.” Paul stepped back and let Eleanor finish dressing the wound.

“I can still help out here. I can ride fence like before.” Allen stubbornly refused to except the need to return to the hospital.

“Riding fence won’t do your back any good. The saddle will jar and make it move. You’ll have that shrapnel moving, and it might not be in the right direction. You need to rest and let things heal up. After time your body will grow grizzle around it and hold it in place. Then you can start pulling your weight around here.”

“How long will that be.” Allen respected his uncles opinion, but didn’t want to be treated with kid gloves.

Eleanor seeing that the discussion was taxing Allen emotionally, decided to end it. “It might be a year, if you don’t settle down. Now, lets finish up our chores before dinner.” she said, shooing Paul and Tom out of the room.

Tom headed up stairs and finished dressing. He still had some work to do in the barn, and then he was done for the evening. Eleanor met him as he was heading out the door, and handed him his wet clothing. He didn’t need to be told to hang them on the line, and took a side route to do just that.

He’d finished cleaning up the days waste in the horse barn, and making sure the water trough was filled with clean water. Most of the animals were grazing in the open fields and had plenty of water from the creek and pond. The mounts they intended to ride, were kept corralled and cared for in the barn. The sorrel Custer, was Tom’s favorite ride, but Austin insisted that they change the mounts regularly so that none of the stock had to be re-broke. Tom had just put Custer out to graze, when Austin rode up.

“Been checking fence on Crystal Creek, its been cut in several places.” Austin stated as he lit from his mount. “You take a ride up there in the morning and get it fixed.”

“Elk again?” Tom asked, since the weather had been mild since his last work along Crystal Creek. The only real damage done out side of weather, was the elk busting through, but that was mostly in the winter. In the summer the Elk could easily jump the wire, but winters snow could hide the fence. Then the elk pushed through, breaking and tearing down yards of wire.

“No, its been cut.” Austin said, as he unsaddled the horse, and placed the saddle on a rail. “Something’s going on along the whole creek. Don’t know what, but take a saddle gun with you, just to be safe.”

“Think some hunters cut it.” Tom grabbed a curry brush and started working the horse down.

“Could be, but it ain’t hunting season yet.” Austin thought about it, but shook his head. “No, who ever it was, drove some cattle through there. Wasn’t from our place, as that section faces BLM land. They cut across our section, I suppose heading for the Bailor place, or parts of it.”

“Maybe we should say something to Mrs Bailor.” In the back of his mind, Tom thought it would be nice seeing Constance again.

“No, lets not bother Barbara with this. She probably wouldn’t know anything about it. They most likely crossed her land too.” Austin paused for a moment in thought, then turned to Tom. “If you see anyone while your repairing the fence, don’t say anything. Stay clear of em. Never know what some people will do.”

“You don’t think they might be rustling cattle?” The idea seemed to be the only explanation.

“Could but doesn’t look like the cattle came from our place. I’ll do some back tracking tomorrow and see where they came from.”

“Can I take the truck?” Tom asked referring to repairing the fence.

“Better saddle up for it. Take a pack horse, won’t need but a hundred feet of wire. Take a couple coils just to be safe.” Austin tossed some hay in with his horse as they talked. “Paul will need the truck to haul some supplies from town. Were going to start digging some wells along Phantom Creek. Next winter we can run cattle in Black Canyon, and not have to worry about the riding fence in the high country.”

“This Saturday, I’m going to the movies with John and Alice.” Tom warned his dad, incase he was planning on having him work that day. “Were taking Constance with us too.”

A smile crossed Austin’s face, and he nodded his head. “Sounds like nice evening. Be sure to take plenty of money. Just incase you and John decide to wine and dine them too.”

“Don’t know about the Wine part, but we plan on getting something to eat later.” He moved to the other side of the animal and continued working the brush over its back. “You have any suggestions on where to take them.”

“Well, its been a while, but don’t feed them a damn hamburger. There’s a place a couple blocks up from the theater that serves a good steak and eggs. Also don’t go for coffee, the have some pretty hard water in town. Makes terrible coffee. Go the soda route.” Austin knew that Tom and his friends would probably prefer a hamburger and milkshakes, but he was thinking of himself, and what he would like.

“Well, I’ll certainly hang that on the wire and go from there.” he was aware that Austin was slightly pulling his leg.

Morning came, with Tom riding a black gilding and leading one of the more gentle mares, packing tools and extra wire. Breakfast was eggs and bacon, with home made bread. Allen had ate breakfast with him, and commented how wonderful it was. The home made bread, which Tom was use to and expected, was raved over by Allen. Eleanor was pleased that her number one Nephew was making over the breakfast, and knew it was mostly because of the bland diet he’d had for the last four years. Allen wanted to ride with Tom, but Eleanor didn’t want Allen on the back of any horse. Instead she opt to suggest that Allen drive over to Crystal Creek in the car, and take a lunch for him and Tom. Tom started to decline the offer, but a stern look from Eleanor, warned him to remain silent.

Whether Allen caught onto Eleanor’s suggestion, wasn’t learned. He excepted the task, and offered to help Tom with the rigging and saddle. There wasn’t much to it, since Tom had readied most of it the night before. A short discussion on Harold’s lack of showing up when there was work to be done, took a few minutes. The family knew by now that Harold couldn’t be counted on for anything. Allen didn’t like for Tom to be stuck with all the extra chores around the ranch. He wanted his brother to have the life that had been denied to him because of the war.

Most everyone in his unit had a girl back home that sent letters, made promises, and even suffered several dear John letters. There was one girl, he’d met in Burns on his last leave home. She wrote several times, before marrying a sailor that was shipping out. He wasn’t heart broke over it, but he missed the chatty letters from home. Eleanor was good about writing, and often included short notes from Austin and Uncle Paul. Even Tom scratched a few lines once in awhile. Still it wasn’t like he had a special some one that he would once more be reunited with. Now that he was back home, the open land gave him an empty feeling. If he was in better shape, he would have been chasing females in Burns or Bend. The last thing he wanted was a woman that pitied him. These feelings he kept to himself, not daring to talk about them to anyone. For now clean sheets and warm food was all he concentrated on. He was beginning to regain much of the weight he’d lost over the last four years.

The ride to Crystal Creek grew warmer as the sun climbed higher into the sky. It was turning into another hot dusty day. Tom had to wipe his brow several times, to keep the sweat out of his eyes. Austin had taught his boys not to wipe their sweat off, as it was what cooled them. Instead they should just use their fingers to spread it over their face. That way it would still evaporate, and give them some cooling. Tom didn’t quite believe his father, but after using his kerchief to wipe his brow dry, he soon realized his father was right. After that, he paid attention when some one was giving out sage advice.

Austin had ribboned the broken sections of wire, so Tom had no trouble finding it. He examined the wire and saw that it was indeed cut. The tracks of cattle showed how they were driven through, with at least three drovers working them. It wasn’t unheard of for cattle to be driven across portions of some other ranch, but when they were, the fence was taken down and put back up in good condition, once they were through. These drovers were in too much of a hurry, or they just didn’t give a damn. Either way, it was bad cowboying to say the least.

Tom as able to patch the wire, using only a few strands from the coils he brought. It didn’t take long, but he needed to find where the drovers left the ranch and fix that portion of fence too. A check of the suns position in the sky, told him it was nearing the time Allen would be showing up with the lunches. Normally he would have ridden straight to the next chore, but he couldn’t just head off when his brother expected him to be waiting for him.

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