Phantom Creek
Chapter 7

Copyright© 2019 by Wendell Jackson

That morning, Barbara Bailor set out on horse back with her daughter to look the ranch over. The work she’d put the three saddle tramps to doing in fixing up the place, was about done. The corrals and fencing had all been improved, even white washed. The barns and other out buildings were repaired. All that remained was an accounting of livestock. She had a ball park idea of size of the herd, but now she needed to see just what was there. She was still thinking of selling out and moving with her daughter to where ever Constance decided to attend collage. As time went by, she realized that she really did love the ranch. It was too much for her to handle, and she needed to face facts. She was well off for the time being, but the day would come, when the ranch would pull her down. It wasn’t showing a profit, and that was the big factor. To stay meant working the ranch. It would take some one with the know how and the desire to succeed. Neither she nor Constance could do it, not with out the right man.

The future of the ranch, depended on one of the women getting married. Married to the right man. Barbara didn’t want to marry again. She had loved her husband and enjoyed their life together, but starting over with another man didn’t appeal to her. It would require adjusting to living with different likes and dislikes. Putting up with quirks and ideas that were not the same as her’s. If any one was to get married, it would be Constance, and it didn’t look like that was about to happen. Even if she did marry, there would be no guarantee that the man would know anything about ranching. So that wasn’t the whole answer. She still felt that selling the place was the only option. There was no hurry as they still had a good margin of funds to last a while.

Constance was a good horsewoman, and needed no help in saddling or caring for the animals. She had spent her youth riding after her father, learning all she could about ranching and all that goes with it. The only problem was, her youth. She was young and unsure of what direction she would go. There was collage, which she seemed ready to accept, but wasn’t excited about it. There was still time, and Barbara wasn’t about to push her daughter in any direction.

They rode south east across a wide portion of their range, counting cattle and noting their condition. Barbara stopped frequently in order to scan the surroundings with her binoculars. Occasionally handing them over to Constance to confirm one thing or another. The general count so far wasn’t anywhere near what she’d expected. They’d only rode a quarter of the land, so there wasn’t that much concern over the count. This time of year, Constance asserted the host of the herd would be milling around the upper portion of Glass Bottom creek. So the two of them, headed their horses around the Eastern boundary of the ranch. They rode in a wide circle that would take them over the low hills to the ranches main source of water.

“Mom, Do we really need to sell the ranch?” Constance was enjoying the ride and didn’t like the idea of losing the privilege of riding the wide ground and rolling grass covered hills.

“The ranch needs a man’s hand. You and I can’t manage with just saddle tramps. Look how hard its been getting those three to stick to task.”

“Yes, but do we need to sell?”

“Are we broke, is that what your asking?” Barbara tipped her hat down to shield her eyes from the sun.

“I suppose I am. In a round about way?”

“No were not broke.” Barbara answered as she looked over a cluster of cattle moving slowly down out of the hills. “There’s probably thirty in that group.”

“I’m not ready to leave for school.”

“Oh.”

“No not yet. I’m working on something and the ranch figures in with it.”

“Your not thinking about marrying some saddle tramp and expecting that will solve all our problems?” A worried tone crept into her mothers voice.

“No, that I am not thinking.” She laughed to ease her worried mother. “No Saddle Tramps.”

“Well there’s no one around here but Saddle tramps.”

“What makes you think that getting married is part of my plans?”

“Well what are your plan’s, if not marrying a man to run things?”

“We could hire a Foreman. There are plenty of outfits that have Foremen working for them. One doesn’t have to marry just to keep a ranch.”

“No but it certainly helps. At least with a husband there are certain privileges that go along with it.” Barbara smiled knowingly at her daughter.

“Seriously Mother, why not hire a foreman?” Constance didn’t like her mother hinting that she marry just for some one to run the ranch.

“A foreman is just one notch above a saddle tramp, in my book. They work for a pay check, not for the ranch.”

“If they were working for a share. A share in the profits, then they would be working for the ranch.”

“Okay, say that we decide to do that, where will we find this foreman. Austin is so bogged down on his place, he can’t help out here anymore. Who else, certainly not that son he’s got working at the station. What’s his name.”

“Harold.”

“Yes, that’s the one. Pumping gas when he’s got a ranch that might be his some day. If his family can’t count on him, nobody else can.” Barbara shook her head in disgust. Thinking about him, letting his father down, when he was needed, didn’t set well with her. “Then there’s Allen, back from the war. I hear he’s not doing well, got some condition he picked up in the islands.”

“He was wounded, Mother.” Constance said disapproving of her mothers criticism.

“Well, he’s not out of the woods yet. It will be a while before he’s able to do ranch work.” Barbara mellowed out on Allen. “Then there’s Tom, and he’s too young. He wouldn’t be able to handle men like Chic, and the other two. The Kinkade boy, John? Well he’s young and probably doesn’t know anymore than his father does about running a ranch. Just look at how they run their spread. I doubt if they know any where close to how many cattle they have, or don’t have.”

“Mom, I think your under estimating people.” Constance wanted to make her point with her mother listening with a reasonable mind. “There are men in Burn’s that can do the job. Men with good recommendations. Why not at least look into it.”

“Your really serious about keeping all this.” Barbara waved her hand at the surrounding country side. “Well, if I sell out, it won’t be tomorrow. So we have time to think about it.”

The creek lay ahead of them, meandering down through the tree dotted valley. Looking slowly along the creek to the higher mountains, Barbara counted the livestock grazing near its banks. She called out the number of the milling herd to Constance as she wrote down the numbers and added a running total. At last the numbers were coming within the margin figured for the total herd. With no spring round up on the place, it was hard to guess the number of winter kill. Barbara figured the total number if given an accurate count would be lower than conservative estimates. Still it was still an acceptable count.

Moving down off the knoll, the women rode up stream along the banks. Continuing to count not only the number, but the condition of the animals. Several young bullocks that hadn’t been cut, watched with annoyance as they rode by.

“Those look like they could be trouble.” Barbara commented.

“Brand em, and they will want to stay away from us.” Constance wasn’t worried. She’d dealt with spirited young bulls before. A good fast horse, like the ones they were riding could take them safely out of harms way.

Suddenly Barbara noticed the ground was covered with cattle tacks coming up out of the creek and heading East into the hills. Tracks of horses were mixed with them, evidence of drovers driving the herd. “This isn’t right.” she pointed out to Constance. “They’re crossing our land with cattle, And taking them up there.” she pointed to a distant mountain.

“We hold the grazing rights to that land.” Constance pointed out. “They didn’t even ask.”

“I doubt grazing isn’t the reason for crossing our land.” Then suddenly Barbara saw a rider coming down out of the hills and riding West a quarter mile distant from them. Raising the binoculars for a better view. “Who is that?”

Constance followed her mothers direction and saw the horse and rider. She couldn’t make out the rider, but the horse was familiar. She recognized Custer, Tom’s favorite ride. “That’s Tom’s horse.” she commented.

“What he doing coming from that direction?”

“We only have the grazing rights, Mom. People have the right to be there.” Constance held out her hand for the binoculars, but Barbara was still using them and didn’t see her daughters hand. She watched as the horse and rider rode into a copse of trees and vanished from sight. “What was he carrying?” she asked her mom, having seen something long in the riders free hand.

“It looked like a shovel.” Barbara wasn’t quite sure. “What would he be doing with a shovel, and coming from the mountain?”

“Digging for gold?” Constance was serious, but doubted her answer was correct.

“Maybe.” Barbara doubted it too. Looking a while longer in the direction the rider had disappeared, she finally said. “Lets head back. We can check this out later.”

“You want to have Chic look find out where those cattle went?”

“I have a feeling, that we shouldn’t say anything to Chic or his friends.” Barbara knew something was very wrong, with what they had seen today. Cattle being driven across her land, and then a Wakefield boy riding back from the direction the cattle had been driven, Carrying a shovel. She would look into it alright, but not with her daughter along. This was something she would check out by herself.

Having accomplished what she set out to do, Barbara called the day a success and together she and her daughter rode back to the home place. She wasn’t sure of what she would do about selling, but there was time to consider her choices. One thing that she knew for sure, was that Constance was planning something of her own.

Tom waited until his dad and uncle were through using the phone before he made a call to Alice. He could see that he wasn’t going to get loose for taking her to the movies Saturday, and there was no reason to prolong telling her so. The call started off sweet, but abruptly went sour, when he said he couldn’t make the date. She asked him twice if he was serious, and blew up when he wouldn’t insist on getting Saturday off.

“Look, maybe it will be playing in Bend. I will take you there if its playing, even Redmond.” he promised, but Alice wasn’t having any of it. She had been wanting to see Esther Williams in that movie and wasn’t going to settle for anything less.

The call ended unsatisfactory for both parties. Tom was now angry with Alice and some how didn’t feel as bad about not taking her to the movies. As he hung up the phone, he saw Walkers car drive pass the house and down the road toward Walkerville. He didn’t have to look, he knew Harold was behind the wheel. Watching the dust cloud rise as the vehicle put distance between them, he remembered his horse. Harold wasn’t good about taking care of animals. A check of the stalls didn’t turn up Custer, Tom found him in the corral. The saddle and blanket laying on the ground under the tack shed roof. Custer was wet with sweat and pawing at the ground with his foreleg.

Tom led the horse over to the Tack shed and began currying the animal and wiping him dry. A close look at the animal didn’t reveal any other problems. Relief eased the pain and anger he was feeling over the phone call to Alice. He loved the animal and it seemed like Custer loved him. Many times after the day was done and the rub down was finished, they just stood facing the other. Breathing with nostrils touching. Breathing the same breath. Tonight Custer stepped closer, it seemed trying to close any gap between them. Tom didn’t want to go any place he couldn’t keep his horse. Though he wasn’t conscious of it, Custer would be the center of any decision he made from this point forward.

Angry and fuming over Tom’s phone call, Alice slammed down the receiver and stomped her way into den, where John was tinkering with a crystal set radio. She was so up set that sitting down was not possible. She paced back and forth in front of the desk where John was working, but he failed to notice. His attention was with the kit he was putting together. At the moment he was trying to find a good spot on the crystal to power the radio. The last thing he wanted was to be disturbed. With the radio, he would be in touch with the out side world. It fascinated him that such a device could actually receive and play just like his folks radio in the living room. This was done with out battery power or plugged into a socket.

“Are you going to mess with that thing all day?” Alice snapped at him.

“Just until dark.” John remarked with out taking his eyes off the crystal set. He was use to his Sisters fits of anger.

“I want to go some place.” she stated, as if expecting John to jump to her bidding.

“I’m happy right here.” came the dull voice of a man absorbed in his tinkering.

Johns reply caused Alice’s face to wrinkle up in anger. She reached out to swipe his crystal set and all his tools off the desk, but was stopped in mid swing by a quick hand that grabbed her arm. John looked up with deadly piercing eyes. “Don’t ever try that again.” She jerked her arm back. “Now you know how to say please and thank you. So try that first. You can always break out your screaming fit crap if that doesn’t work.”

With her bosom rising and falling with each rapid breath, Alice calmed her self down. She had a habit of getting what she wanted and didn’t like failing. “Okay, Please take me some place. I want to go now.”

“Well that’s a little better. Could use a little polish, but it will work for now.” John laid his tools down and pushed his chair back to stand up. “Where do you want to go?”

“I want an ice cream.” She blurted. “Take me where there’s Ice Cream.”

“It’s too far for ice cream. Besides we’d have to clear it through mom or dad.” John was thinking of Bend or Burns.

“They have ice cream at Walkers.”

“No they don’t. The power goes out all the time, they can’t even keep Milk.”

“I’ll buy you a soda.”

“Okay, I’ll go for that.” John thought about it and he did want a soda.

John didn’t pull into the pumps, but drove to the restaurants parking spots. He waved at Harold who was sitting in his usual place waiting for customers. He had kept to himself on returning to the Gas Station, the ordeal of burying the dead body had sickened him. Wily’s remark to him, that he wouldn’t have any trouble finding it was right. The stench was terrible. It covered the whole area where the cattle were housed in a make shift corral. The closer he came, the stronger the stench and louder was the sound of flies buzzing over the covered corpse. Even the cattle were rolling their huge eyes as the stink fouled their every breath.

He found the body underneath the tarp he’d seen on the back of the truck. Brent and Chic hadn’t done anything with the body but roll it off the truck where it lay.

Harold had to leave Tom’s horse Custer several yards away, because he wouldn’t come any closer. Harold left the body wrapped in the tarp, and begun digging the hole beside it. The ground wasn’t idea at that spot, but he wasn’t going to move the corpse an inch further than he had too. He got the hole deep enough to fit the body in and then used the shovel to lever it over and into the grave. With the dirt piling over the body, the stench began to loose some of its power. It was still there, decomposing body fluids had soaked into the ground where it had laid. Harold didn’t care about that, his job was to bury the body and he’d done it. The hole should have been deeper, but the body was covered with dirt and that was as much as he was going to do.

Now he sat, trying to get the stink out of his clothes, his hair and his nostrils. A gas soaked rag helped clean the air, after waving it around and wiping it over his shoulders. He’d rather smell like gas then that awful rotting flesh. He hated the emotional state he was in, and needed something else to focus on. When John and his sister Alice drove up to the restaurant, Harold got an idea.

“You go in, I’ll wait out here.” Alice told her brother. She knew Betty Reed would be working the counter, and she didn’t like her. John held out his hand, and Alice reluctantly put a dollar in it. She was going to pay for her own soda. He smiled and went in, after asking what flavor she wanted.

Sitting in the car alone, she saw Harold get up and start walking towards the car. If it hadn’t been so hot, she would have rolled up the windows. It was too hot and stuffy for that, so she braced her self emotionally to face Tom’s brother.

“Well, it’s a nice way to beat the heat.” Harold greeted her. “ Driving with all the windows down and enjoying the breeze. Makes a summer evening comfortable.” he used his smooth talking voice.

“You smell like gas.” Alice turned her head way to look in the apposite direction.

“I suppose I do, but it won’t be for long. I’ll be leaving here and heading out.” he didn’t like Alice’s snub. So he decided to say something that might make her jealous. “I plan on seeing a few sites, maybe take in the rodeo up north. There’s a good time there. Lot of dancing and music. Some bands come clear from Chicago to play. Even Glenn Millers Orchestra is suppose to be there.”

“He’s dead.” Alice was disgusted with Harold’s banter.

“The bands not, they’re still making a living.” Harold had no idea what bands were going to be at the round up. He was just making it up on the go.

“Wouldn’t be the same.” Alice wasn’t going to except any of his shmooze talking.

“Even so there’s going to be music and dancing. People are going to be having a good time.” He could see that wasn’t getting to her, so he took another slant on it. “Might even go into Portland. They have some real nice movie theaters there. One even has a gold fish pond, right in the lobby.”

“You like movies?” Alice had an idea.

“Sure, doesn’t everybody? They’re ace’s.” Harold could see that he was on the right track.

“When was the last time you saw a movie?” she scoffed.

“Oh its been awhile. That’s why I’m going tomorrow. Going into Burns and take in the movie there.”

“How you gonna get there. You don’t have a car.”

“I can drive Walkers car any time I want. I can prove it. You can come with me if you want.” Harold laid the snare. Now he waited nonchalantly for her answer.

“You serious?”

“Scouts honor.”

“You were never a Scout.” Alice gave a big smile when she said it.

“No, but I still have honor.” He returned the smile. “What time you want me to pick you up.”

“No don’t come to the house. I’ll meet you at the gate.” she knew her folks would not approve her in the company of Harold Wakefield.

“Okay, I’ll be there early.”

“And try not to be smelling of gas.” Alice was serious. The smell of the fuel really got to her.

“Don’t worry, I bathe every day.” Harold Lied. But he would bathe tonight, and even put on after shave. He had plans for the girl.

The idea of going to the movies with Tom’s older brother appealed to Alice. It would serve Tom right for not standing up to his father. He should have insisted having Saturday off. She had made it plain how much she wanted to see this movie. What galled her more than anything was the fact that Tom had not even asked for the day off. He’d just assumed that the pond came before anything else. Why couldn’t he be more like his brother Harold, who didn’t let anyone or thing come between him and anything he wanted.

The next two days, Tom spent building fence around the empty pond. Austin had decided to seal the bottom with animal waste due to the cost of the clay. The pigs and several head of cattle would be corralled in the empty pond for several weeks or more. Austin wasn’t sure how long it would take, for the animal dung to produce a good seal. In the mean time, Tom and his uncle would build two flood gates, one on the old stream to divert the water into the pond, and the other to govern the out flow from the pond.

The result of the change of plans, left Tom feeling defeated and remorseful for not taking Alice to the movies. It was too late now, but when Austin seeing the way he was moping confronted him on his mood. Tom didn’t hold anything back, and told his dad that Alice had given him an ultimatum. He either take her to the movie or she would find some one else, and it wouldn’t be her brother. Austin was chest fallen, on hearing Tom’s girl problem. He felt guilty for putting so much on the young man, and not giving a thought that Tom had another life besides the ranch. Paul felt equally at fault for not knowing and for not bothering to know. Tom was more important to the ranch than any one. It was Tom that did all the extra chores that came up, besides doing his and Harold’s regular tasks.

A change was made that day. Austin would now consult with Tom, on future plans and work around the young mans schedule too. Paul was even thinking further then that. As tight as money was, a car wouldn’t be out of the picture. All they had was the farm truck and Eleanors car. They needed another set of wheels, and Tom could be the sole driver. Paul discussed it with Austin, and made a point of vowing to buy it himself if the ranch didn’t. Austin agreed with his Brother in law and stated that the rig should be a pickup as it would be needed for ranch work too.

Tom did feel a little better on learning they would be buying a pick up for the ranch, with him the primary driver. Both Austin and Paul made it clear, it was for Tom’s private use too. He couldn’t help but think that with his on transportation, Alice would be more forgiving. It would put this latest boil over to rest.

Once the fence posts were in place, stringing the wire went fast. Even before the sun was past noon, Tom and Uncle Paul were driving several head of cattle up to the pond. Austin was taking a load of hay with the truck and would be there waiting for them. Watering the cattle, wouldn’t be a problem as they had the stream included inside the fence. It would be another chore to feed them every day, which consisted of pitching the hay over the fence. It landed on the ground, and not all of it was consumed by the cattle. That was okay, as Austin pointed out, it would help seal the pond, once it was trampled in.

The rest of the day was spent building the flood gates and the abutments. It was going to take several days to get the flood gates in place, which wouldn’t be tested until it was time to fill the pond. Austin drew out the plan’s and had Tom and Paul watching over his shoulder, so they would know what to work towards. Paul added advice from his personal work experience, which helped avoid some costly mistakes. A few feet down from the proposed site, Paul wanted to use the natural rock formations as an anchor for the frame work. It saved a lot of pounding posts into the ground, and would be more stable.

The project was progressing smoothly, with their work being over seen by the large brown eyes of a hundred head of cattle. Paul smiled each time one dropped a pile, saying. “That’s its fella, just keep pooping and soon we’ll have it sealed. Each day Tom threw the hay in at a different place along the fence. He hoped it would help in spreading the manure over the bottom.

The Sunday church service was still attended by Tom and his Aunt. Allen had declined the offer to join them, saying he was going to Burns with an old friend from school and take in the local color. He was still waiting for a Richard Malone, when Tom and Eleanor drove off. Richard passed them on his way up to the ranch house, where Allen was waiting.

There is more of this chapter...
The source of this story is Finestories

To read the complete story you need to be logged in:
Log In or
Register for a Free account (Why register?)

Get No-Registration Temporary Access*

* Allows you 3 stories to read in 24 hours.