Phantom Creek
Chapter 6: The North Pasture

Copyright© 2019 by Wendell Jackson

Austin Wakefield stood looking at the work they’d done digging out the pond. They had rented the dozers, and plowed huge piles of dirt out of the hole that would be fed by the springs. It was ready for the spring water to be channeled into the pond. An out flow channel had been dug, that they laid pipe in, it led down off the heavily timbered mountain. Once the pond filled and water was available, they would go about rigging up the irrigation system for the North Pasture. All that remain to do was cut the channel across down slope and redirect the under ground spring water into the new pond. Austin was excited, eager to complete the work. Everything depended on getting the springs to flowing into his pond.

Tom standing by his father, kept looking up the hill at the sunken ground where a rock wall was exposed and the springs flowed into a small stream, only to disappear again a hundred feet down slope. He wasn’t as sure as his dad, about all the water that was suppose to be available. He’d heard his uncle Paul and Austin discussing the project for weeks. Paul wasn’t sure that it would be successful, and express his doubts many times. Finally he stopped his discord and joined in with full effort into getting the project done.

At first Tom was excited and loved climbing on the dozers. A few lessons from his uncle on how to use the blade and shifting gears, he was capable of digging a hole. All three men took turns running both dozers. Tom and Austin, worked primarily on digging the pond while Paul put in the ditch that they laid the pipe. After a few blasts of dynamite, the way was clear through the rocky out cropping’s. Paul had wanted to wait before laying the pipe, just to make sure they had the water for it. Austin wouldn’t have it, he wanted everything in place and the flood gate in place before making the final cut and releasing the flow into the pond. Paul was okay about the flood gate, but laying the pipe was premature.

Austin had laid out stakes where he wanted the channel. He’d spent hours looking the slope over, studying the best approach and how to make the cut. Now he climbed on the dozer and commenced to see if he was right. Tom had worked on the tilt bar and got the blade angled down on the right side. Austin made the first cut across the ground, shoving dirt ahead of the dozer. Most of the dirt fell out on the left side of the blade, with the first two passes, but after that a trench was formed as the blade sunk deeper into the soil. The second dozer was idle now, only needed incase the first machine got stuck in the soft soil, especially if they hit water before they were ready.

The cross channel was finally laid in, and Austin had Tom angle the blade back to level. Now after looking the ground over again, Austin started pushing the blade through the steam bank and into the water. Two more passes and the stream was plugged, with the water now flowing down the ditch into the pond. Austin was able to back the machine out with no trouble and once on high ground, it was shut down. Both men watched the water flow down into the pond and slowly start filling it up. It was all muddy but as the flow continued, with clear water, it began to lose the brown color as it filled up the pond.

Tom looking at the water level, watched as the water kept flowing in and the level slowly raised. Something didn’t seem right and he nudged his father. “I think the pond ain’t holding.”

Sure enough, Austin could see it was true. The water wasn’t raising and soon it was obvious the level was going down. “Well, it’s a minor set back.” he told his son. “We will just have to plug the bottom.”

“How?” Tom was looking at the muddy bottom and the continuing flow of water. He couldn’t see how they could work in the mess. Not now that he springs were all flowing into it. There was no way to stop the flow.

“We’ll give it a day, maybe the mud will plug the holes. If not, we can always pack the bottom with clay.”

“How we going to work with water still coming in.”

“No problem, we will open up the stream again. Then fix the pond and put in another flood gate below the springs. That way we can fill the pond or let it go where its always gone.”

“You don’t give up do you dad?” Tom said with admiration.

“Not easy. Man has to keep at anything he endeavors, or nothing gets done.” Austin said with a pat on his son’s back. “We can get it done. Just takes a little more effort.” Then looking at where he’d changed the flow of the stream, remarked. “Should have put in a flood gate there to start with.”

When they arrived home in the truck, Alice was there on the porch waiting for Tom. She was all smiles on seeing him, waving as they drove up.

“I wonder who she’s waiting for?” Austin ribbed his son. “Better see what she’s here for. I’ll put the tools up.”

“I thought every one had moved out, but I decided to wait anyway.” She greeted him, as Austin drove the truck into the barn, leaving them alone.

Once Austin was gone, Alice flew into Tom’s arms. “God, I’ve missed you.” she said planting a kiss on his lips. “You miss me?”

“Of course.” He replied, grabbing her up and spinning around. He loved the feel of her body against his. “Always miss you, and I’m glad that you’re here.” He set Alice down and moved to the bench that sat against the house along with the other chairs that the adults always used. He liked the bench because he could have Alice right be side him. “You ride over by your self?”

“Yes, I’m a big girl you know. You haven’t been over to see me, and I’m just checking up on you.”

“Dad’s been keeping me busy. Dug a pond up on our north pasture.”

“Oh, can we go swimming in it?” She beamed and sat down on his lap, her arms around him.

“Not at the moment, waters dirty and its flowing out as fast as its coming in. Bottom has a hole in it.” He held he close, enjoying the essence of her, the feel of her body, her smell, and even her breath. There wasn’t anything about her he didn’t like.

“Well, you’ll just have to come over to my place tomorrow and enjoy my pond.”

“Not tomorrow. Dad wants to work on the pond and I’ll probably be working on it a lot longer.” Tom was thinking about his dad remarking about using clay to seal the pond. He could envision the job taking weeks and weeks.

Disappointed Alice exclaimed that she wanted to go to the movies again. She’d seen the previews when they were there last and wanted to see the advertized film. “I don’t want to go with my brother. I would like it to be just you and me.” she said moving her breasts against him.

“How long is it going to be playing?” Tom was trying to figure how to work it in to the work schedule.

“This week end is the final showing.” She acted out a playful pout. “A Bud Abbot and Costello movie is playing too. I know you’d love that.” The theater like many others had taken up the practice of showing double features. It brought more couples when one didn’t care for one film, but would enjoy the next.

“I’ll see ... Maybe we can get done with the pond. I don’t know.” Tom was anguishing about disappointing her, but he didn’t see how he could get done in by Saturday, but he would certainly try. Austin had made it plain, that putting in the pond was more important than anything else. He had okayed the trip to Portland for Paul and Eleanor to bring back Allen, but he didn’t like losing Paul’s help for the day. Getting time off with the pond still not finished wouldn’t be possible.

“Look, you take me to that movie, and I’ll make you very happy.” she planted another kiss on him, and slowly stood up, pushing her bosom in front of his face. “Very Happy.” she repeated.

Austin came back from the barn and greeted the two of them, as he went inside. Alice cocked her head in the direction Austin went, indicating that Tom should go talk to is father and make sure he got the time off for Saturday. Bouncing her steps down off the porch, she went to her horse and swung up into the saddle. “I’m going to that movie, one way or another.” she pointed a finger at him. “I want it to be with you.” With that she turned her horse and set off at a trot home ward.

Tom watched her ride off, and thought hard on how to get the pond finished in three days. He hoped it would plug it’s self over night, but he wasn’t counting on it.

At Walkers Service Station, Chic and his two saddle pals, around back meeting with Harold. Chic had got back from making a delivery of rustled cattle and was paying Harold his share. The other two saddle tramps, didn’t like Harold getting the same cut as them, but Chic insisted. Their argument was that Harold wasn’t taking the same chances as they were, and so didn’t deserved the same amount. Chic warned them not to say anything to Harold about their views as he didn’t want problems. Equal shares, kept everyone happy and the operation would continue to be successful. Unhappy partners could bring disaster down on all their heads. It only took one to screw up or even rat them out to the authorities.

There was already a problem with Harold. Getting the truck they needed to haul the animals had not gone well. They got the truck alright but not as smooth as they’d hoped. The night they lay waiting for Harold to add water to the gas of some passing rancher, the plan back fired. Harold had several trucks pull in, and he fueled them up, as normal. The first two trucks he filled the tanks as asked, with out doing anything to the gas. The third truck, he added a pint of water, when everyone’s attention was on one of the drivers coming out with a bottle from the bar. It was then that he realized they were all together, traveling in a group. The drivers were laughing at some joke, and drinking from a bottle in a brown sack. It was too late, the water was already added. He knew that if the other drivers came back to help, they might catch Chic and his buddies while the driver was walking back to the station to complain about the gas. His fears grew as he heard the drivers discussing who would take the lead and who would follow. If the truck with the watered gas tank went first or second, then the whole plan was a failure. The truck wouldn’t be left sitting along the road, with so much help getting it started again. Harold nerves were about to shake his body apart.

The divers all had another snort and the Man with the bottle, said he’d take the lead for awhile. They paid for the gas and all got in the trucks and started out. Harold watched as trucks pulled out and move west on the highway. A wave of relief passed over him as he saw the truck with the watered gas, move off last. At last he was breathing again, after holding his breath out of fear.

Chic and his two partners were waiting at different intervals west of the station. From a couple of tests they found that a truck could travel a quarter mile before the water reached the carburetor. They had conducted the tests on Walkers car, while he was sleeping in the back living quarters of the restaurant and bar. Each time, they would quickly open the hood, and disconnect the fuel line, crank the starter over, and let the fuel pump run the water out of the lines. It took only thirty seconds or less to rid the tank of water, and the sediment bulb. After which, they reattached the line and cranked the engine over until clean gas reached the carburetor and the engine started. It worked smoothly both times, and so they knew about where the truck would stall and were waiting off the highway out of headlight range.

The truck came down and then like they had planned, it sputtered to a stop. The driver tried several times to get it running again, all the while sending a blue streak of cuss words into the sky. Finally with a look to the west to see if his friends had noticed he wasn’t following them any more, and were coming back, he realized they were still leaving him far behind. Still cussing he finally started back towards the station, just like Chic figured. All three Saddle tramps descended on the stalled truck, getting the hood up and working on the fuel line, while one held a light and the third held the horses.

Harold tried to go about his regular routine, acting like nothing was out of the ordinary, but couldn’t help but look west along the highway. He expected at any moment the driver to come walking up, mad as hell and demand that he come and get the water out of his truck and fill it with pure gas and no water. He would be watching the glass reservoir to make sure no water got pumped in it. Problem was, the driver didn’t show up.

After walking about fifty yards, the driver realized he’d left his wallet in the truck. There was a bar at the station, and he could spend his time waiting for his truck to be repaired with a few drinks. No reason why he couldn’t wait in comfort. So he returned to his truck to find three men working on it.

Grabbing a pipe used to pop rocks out of the dual tires, the driver confronted the thieves. A quick struggle ensued with the driver being over whelmed by the three men, but not before he landed a hard blow to a man with an arm protecting his head. It was over in a manner of seconds. The driver was kicked and knocked to the ground where he couldn’t protect himself from the blows rained down on him. Wily with a painful broken arm, exacted revenge with overwhelming anger. Finally Chic was able to hold him back, as they all realized the man was dead.

Now they worked fearful that a passing car might catch them at their crime, and got the truck running again. Chic and Brent together lifted the dead man and put the body in the back of the truck, covering it was a tarp. Wily climbed in the passenger side and sat holding his arm in place as Chic got behind the wheel, turning the truck around and heading back east on the highway. Brent, took the horses and rode back to the Bailor Ranch. The highjacking was done, and a man dead. Harold watched the truck come back, passing the station as Chic drove it to their planned hiding place. The tarp covered lump in the back of the truck didn’t escape Harold’s eyes. He knew they had a problem.

One of the other drivers did return early the next morning, he was the truck boss looking for the lost truck. Harold put on a good show, of not knowing anything and having a hard time remembering the trucks coming through. Normally he would have been asleep at that early hour, but knowing a man was dead, left him unable to close his eyes. Harold was even able to convince Old Man Walker that he didn’t know anything about a missing truck. The trucks had all left together, and that was the last he’d seen of them. The Truck Boss was faced with a mystery, and had no idea of where to look for the missing truck or driver. A day later, the state police stopped into ask the same questions the truck boss had asked. They didn’t stay long, and seemed satisfied with Harold’s answers. That was the last he heard for a week, and then some one came by, putting up a flier about the missing man and the truck. Harold was now realizing the depth of trouble that he could be in, if the truck was found, or if they got stopped by the cops for some reason.

Now Chic counseled his cohorts on remaining calm and sticking together. “We’ve got a good thing going here. There’s a lot of money to be made.”

“Your not thinking of doing it again.” Harold was nervous, didn’t like risking getting caught.

“What, selling some cattle. Hell yes.” Chic affirmed Harold’s fears. “No one has missed, not one cow. There’s a lot of head that’s just wandering around out there, and who’s to say who owns them. No reason we can work this a couple more times.”

Wily grumbled that Harold had to do something to earn another share. His part in getting the truck and mapping out the area for them wasn’t enough anymore. He was still sitting his horse as getting on an off with a broken arm in a sling, wasn’t easy.

“I can’t be riding all over and still hold down this job.” Harold nervously pointed out.

“Why not, we do.” Brent was with Wily on having Harold do more to earn his share. “And don’t think that just because you were here when it happened, that your not in it just as deep as us.” He referred to the night of the killing.

“Don’t worry about him.” Chic vouched for Harold. “He’s going to be earning his share. You can drive a truck, can’t you?”

“I suppose so. Why, it only takes one man to drive a truck.”

“With Wily and his broken arm, he can’t drive. He can hardly sit a saddle, and working cattle isn’t doing his arm any good. That leaves me and Brent to round up the strays and drive em to our place. We still have to put in a showing at the ranch. Were working our ass’s off, and trying to herd cattle too. Barbara Bailor thinks Wily broke his arm falling off a ladder. That’s well for him, but me and Brent are still doing all the work. If you can’t help with the herding, then you’ve got to drive truck.”

The money felt good in his pocket. Harold had never even seen that much money before, and now he had it and a good chance of getting more. Chic didn’t have much trouble pointing out the benefits of having cash, it was the fear of getting caught that was bugging Harold. Even if he did drive the truck for them, and had three or more times the money, he sure couldn’t spend it around here. Too many question would be asked on how he got it. Once the Kinkades figured out that they were missing cattle, they would put two and two together and his ass would be grass.

He explained to Chic, why he couldn’t just suddenly show up with a lot of money. Chic understood, and had an answer for him. Harold had to leave with them when they pulled out. Chic figured they could round up two more small herds, and cash them in before being discovered. After that, they would take the truck and head north. Wily knew the area north of the Columbia river, and figure they could do the same there. Brent was all for it, as working around the Bailor place was not to his liking. Nailing boards and painting barns, was not his brand of work. If he couldn’t do it from a saddle, then it wasn’t for him.

“We got a job he can do.” Wily wasn’t through with Harold earning the share he already had. “He can bury the Truck driver.” Brent agreed with an evil grin. “Yeah, the bastard is stinking up the place.”

“What??” Harold looked around at the men, with disbelief. “You haven’t buried him?”

“We’ve been busy.” Was Chic’s sarcastic response. “That’s something you can do straight away. Ride up there tomorrow and bury the old boy.”

“That way, you’ll be just as deep as we are. Other wise we can’t trust you.” Wily was more assertive now that he sensed his partners were backing him. “Don’t drive, there’s too many tracks going in there. Use a horse to get there.”

It was a shock to learn the three men had not buried the dead man. Harold couldn’t understand why it wasn’t done the first night. To leave a dead body laying around, where they were keeping stolen cattle, was certain to be discovered sooner or later. He didn’t like having the detail dropped on him, but he would do it, if only for his own sake.

The meeting broke up and the Saddle tramps rode the horses back to Bailors Ranch. Harold stood for a moment watching as they rode off, realizing he was in with a bunch of losers. Getting loose from them might be difficult as he feared they’d black mail him if he tried. He wasn’t trusted by the cull Wily or Brent. Only Chic seemed to except him as one of them. On the other hand, Harold wasn’t trusting any of them. Breaking loose from them here and now wouldn’t be wise. If he had too, he would leave with them and head north. Once across the river, then he could sever ties. Other wise they might do or say something that would bring the law down on him. Walker would always give him his job back, as no one else would work for the wage he paid.

Nothing was said to Harold when he showed up at supper time. The family had given up and didn’t expect anything out of him. Austin gave him a passing glance, complete with disdain. He figured Harold would be asking for money before they all turned in. At dinner, he noticed his son didn’t hardly eat, not like he normally did. Tom and Allen had nothing to say to him, it was as if he wasn’t there. Paul could tell the young man was troubled by something, his solemn presents was a dark cloud in the room. Eleanor saw that Harold wasn’t taking care of himself, he hadn’t bathed recently and assumed it was his Spartan living conditions at Walkers Service Station.

After dinner, Harold went out to the barn and ended up sleeping there for the night. Allen was tempted to jump all over him for a long list of things, but Harold left the house before he vented his anger. It was just as well, because Allen was in no shape to be confronting an angry brother. Tom would have jumped in if there was a violent clash between the two, which would make matters worse. The resentment Tom had for Harold was boiling under his skin. All the work on the ranch was falling on his shoulders. Allen wasn’t in shape to help out, and every one could see it. Tom knew he would if he could, but for now Allens job was to heal up.

All Tom could think about was the pond. The water flowing into it and all of it going out the bottom. He prayed the whole afternoon that it would plug it’s self. The pressure Alice put on him, just to take her to the movies and the promise hinted at if he did, was making him miserable. He knew, he wouldn’t be able to make the movie. The pond would be empty in the morning and then they would spend the next several days working on it until it was finished. That meant, no time off, probably not even church. Alice was going to be disappointed, something he didn’t want to do. There was some resentment on his part with Alice hinting that she was going to the movies whether it was with him or some one else. That part angered him, but he sure liked the way she melted into his arms. Her kisses and the promise of something more, pulled him in so many directions he wasn’t sure of anything.

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