Phantom Creek
Chapter 9

Copyright© 2019 by Wendell Jackson

The air was cold. The morning sun hadn’t warmed up the timber covered slopes, so Barbara Bailor rode with a poncho covering her from the chill. She was riding alone, heading in the direction she and Constance had seen the Wakefield young man riding from. From what Constance had told her, the horse was young Tom’s and so that was who she assumed was riding that day. Back tracking the horse wasn’t easy as the ground was fairly chewed up with hoof prints. Many head of cattle had been driven this same way, and left a well marked trail.

When she finally came up on the corral with twenty head of cattle milling around with out water, she knew what it meant. She recognized some of the tools laying about that had been used to construct the corral, as belonging to the ranch. Her ranch hands were involved in cattle rustling, along with that Wakefield boy. She halted her horse several yards short of the corral and looked the place over. Only after making sure no one was around, did Barbara nudge her horse forward with her heels.

A truck hidden back in the trees, caught her eye. She took out a small note book and wrote the license number down. She would be phoning the sheriff when she returned to the ranch and the license number would be needed. By the brands on the cattle, she could see they weren’t from her spread, but the Kinkade ranch. They all had the double K brand. At least it brought some satisfaction to know it wasn’t her cattle.

She was about to spur her horse and head for home, when the breeze brought a terrible stink to her nostrils. The breeze shifted and the smell was gone for a moment until the wind shifted again and the smell of death came to her again. Barbara never dismounted but rode around the corral, as the moaning cattle watched her. She circled the area then rode behind the trees where the truck was parked. It was there the stench was the strongest, and she saw the fresh dug earth where something was buried. Animals had been pawing away the soil exposing rotting flesh. That was all she needed to see or smell. She headed her horse out of the area at a quick trot, until she cleared her lungs of the foul stench. She was frighten with the knowledge that some one was dead and buried in a shallow grave. It was unlikely an animal as normally people wouldn’t take the trouble of burying one.

Fearing that who ever was responsible for the body and rustle cattle might discover her, Barbara took a sheltered path home. The seldom used trail ran through several stands of trees. Feeling she needed the cover of a forest to hide her journey home, she crossed the open areas only when she was sure there was no one about.

On reaching the ranch, Barbara searched through the house until she found Constance reading in her room. No one else was around, the three hired hands were no where to be seen. That was a blessing as she knew they had to be involved with the rustled cattle. She attempted to phone the sheriff, but found the phone line was dead. It was no surprise as it was common for the lines to be down several times through out the year. With no current storm or other conditions, it was odd that the lines would be down.

Now that she knew Constance was safe, Barbara went back out to tend to her horse, standing at the hitching post. The animal was in need of a currying and rub down and She never put a horse away with out tending to its welfare. It took twenty minutes to finish, before leading the animal to its stall and pulling down a measure of feed. A fresh pail of water was poured to the trough, along with a fresh apple treat. She loved riding, and knew she would miss it once the ranch was sold, if she sold it. Her plans weren’t yet etched in stone. She was holding out on any final decision in case conditions changed.

Coming back from the stalls, Barbara discovered her car had a flat. The plan of driving the car to the nearest phone, were dashed. Flat tires were common these days, as a tire shortage due to the war kept tires on cars long after they were worn out. As handy as she was, she didn’t feeling like changing a tire. If one of the hands showed up, she would have them do it. If no one showed, she figured to ride a horse into Walkers and use the pay phone. The stolen cattle had to be reported, and what ever was buried in that shallow grave. Until the Sheriff was contacted, she intended to keep quiet for fear of some reprisal, if the wrong people found out.

Drinking was something Barbara didn’t often do, but today she felt the need of some sort of pick me up. There was only one thing to do, and that was to report what she’d discovered. The fact that a Wakefield was involved was slowing her decision on just how to do it. With a flat tire and the phone being out, it was obvious she need to saddle another one of her horses and ride into Walkerville and use the phone there. Wakefields ranch was closer, but she couldn’t go there, not with Austin’s boy being involved. That was the reason behind her hesitations. Austin was a man she admired and secretly entertained some thoughts of getting together with some day. If he found out she’d had any part of getting young Tom turned in, that would dash those dreams.

Constance found her mother standing at the window, looking out at the corral, and the other out buildings. The drink in her hand, immediately warned her something was wrong. Coming up beside Barbara, Constance looked out the window expecting to see what ever it was that had her mother drinking in the middle of the day. The place looked the same, nothing was out of order.

“What’s the matter, Mom.” Constance’s spoke softly.

“Have you seen the Hands around today?” Barbara asked.

“No, they give me the creeps. Why? What have they done.”

“I’m sure they’re involved in some shady business.” Barbara moved away from the window to let her gaze move across the room. “I’ll have to let them go.”

“Okay, but why the whiskey?” Constance nodded toward the glass in her hand. “You’ve had to fire other men, why the whiskey now?”

“Because I think the Wakefield boy is part of it.” Barbara said, seeing Constance reel back as she mentioned the Wakefield name. “I know your sweet on him. I’ve seen how you look at him, but he’s not for you.”

“Mom, just what are you implying.” Constance was fearful of what ever her mother was not telling her.

“I’m not entirely sure, so I might be wrong. You said that horse man we saw riding across our land, was Tom Wakefield.”

“No, just that the horse belongs to the Wakefields.” She rapidly shook her head. “There is more than one Wakefield. It could have been Harold or Allen.”

“Who rides that horse.” Barbara put her arms around Constance, in an effort to comfort her. “It’s Tom’s horse isn’t it.”

“He rides it, but its not his.” Constance felt a need to protect him. It suddenly dawned on her, that she had stronger feelings for Tom that she’d never been aware of. Or had she just kept them smothered because of his involvement with Alice. “What is it that you think he’s done?” Her voice was strong now, she had to protect him from all harm.

“There’s cattle just over on the B.M. land, just a quarter mile past our wire. They have the Kinkade brand on them, and their in that sorting corral the men built years ago.” She didn’t need to say more, as Constance knew what it implied.

“Tom wouldn’t do something like that.” she was shaking her head no, the color draining from her face. “He couldn’t, he’s not that kind of person.”

“There’s more Constance.” Barbara pulled her daughter close. “That shovel he was carrying.” Now she paused, hating to say the next words that were coming to her mouth. “There’s something dead buried at the Corral.”

“What are you saying?” she repelled in shock. Breaking loose from her mothers arms, Constance started for the door. She intended to find out for her self if what her mother was saying had any truth it. “I know him, he wouldn’t be part of anything like that.”

“Where are you going?” Barbara called out as Constance started for the door.

“I’m going to find out if its true.”

“You can’t do that now. We need to ride into Walkerville and use the phone.” Barbara added when she saw Constance glance over at theirs. “The lines are down, here. We will ride into walkers and make the call. I don’t want to make the ride alone. Those bum’s we have here. I don’t trust them.”

“Okay, but don’t say anything about seeing Tom. If he’s involved like you think, the police will find out.”

Barbara cautioned her daughter not to say anything to the hands if they should show up. They would just be saddling a couple of horses for an afternoon ride. Twice she cautioned Constance to keep silent on what she’d told her. She couldn’t stress how important it was that they avoid the hired help. Barbara had no idea that the danger from those men was passed as they had fled the country, taking Harold with them.

The horse stalls were mostly empty, but just out side the corral stood three horses, that hadn’t been put away. They hadn’t been there that morning, and looked like they had just arrived. From looking at them, Barbara could tell that they’d been ridden, as their backs still shown the impressions of saddle blankets. No one had curried them, they had just been unsaddled and left to find their own way back to the ranch. They were the three horses the ranch hands liked to ride. What ever it meant, Barbara knew that it was unlikely she would ever see those men again.

The horses that hadn’t been recently ridden, were not her favorites. Barbara brought out the same mount she’d ridden that morning, and saddled the gilding. Constance, didn’t want to use one of the horses that had just showed up, so she took one of the less favorite animals that wasn’t ridden that often. It proved to be a little stubborn, being saddled, but Constance knew her way around a horse, and had it ready in short order. Barbara added a saddle gun to the rigging, and then swung up into the saddle.

When both swung into the saddles, Barbara gave a nod to Constance and they were off to Walkerville. When the reached the Main Gate of their ranch, they saw John Kinkade riding up. He waved a greeting and tipped his hat as he neared Mrs Bailor. Constance wasn’t at all pleased to see him, as she’d figured out why he’d acted so strangely on their last date. And it was going to remain their last date.

John exchanged greetings with the two women, and turned his horse to ride along with them. Barbara didn’t beat around the bush and asked him what they owed this visit too. John sheepishly told them he was hoping to do some riding with Constance.

“Now why would I want to ride with you?” Constance tried to sound pleasant, but was hoping he would blunder on so she could spring her trap on him.

“Well, it’s a nice day for a ride. I just thought it would be nice enjoy it before the fall weather sets in.” He moved his horse to ride beside Constance so she was riding between him and her mother.

“You haven’t seen Tom Wakefield lately have you.” Barbara said leaning forward to see him around Constance, who shot a stern look at her mother.

“No, not for a while.” John didn’t care to discuss Tom Wakefield, his interest was with Constance now.

“Isn’t he sweet on Alice? I would think you’d see a lot of him.” Barbara continued, against Constance’s warning looks.

“I don’t think they’re going together any more. She’s been mad since he wouldn’t take her to see Esther Williams. Alice thinks she could be a swimmer like her.”

“Well, Tom Wakefield has to help his dad on their place. He can’t be running off to the movies when there’s work to be done.”

“No Mam.” John agreed, “But it don’t look like he’s going to be taking Alice to the movies anymore. She’s Harold to do that now.”

Constance jerked around to look at John as he spoke. This was news to her. Alice and Harold! Surely John was talking through his hat. “When did this happen?” Constance asked once she regained her composer. She tried to sound slightly uninterested.

“Almost right after we all went to the moves.” John was not happy about his sister and Harold, it could be heard in his voice. “ Next weekend, she snuck off with Harold in Walkers Car. Folks don’t know about it. I haven’t said anything as I want to give her a chance to come clean with Mom.”

“Movies are a great temptation. I remember as a girl, before the talkies, how we went every chance we could. Something exciting about actors and such.”

“How come you didn’t take Alice, you usually do.” Constance wanted to get details, with out John knowing she was pumping him.

“Didn’t want me along. She wanted Tom to take her, but he was working on a stock pond or something.” John felt he needed to change the subject, from his Sister to him and Constance. “Would you like to go to the movies this weekend?” he asked her.

“What?” Constance had waited for this moment. “And watch you act like a fool again?” Her words surprised and struck John from out of the blue. So shocked he could only look at her with an open mouth. “I’m not stupid John, I know what your were doing. Why would you even want me along if your so caught up with her?”

“Who’s this.” Barbara was interested.

“The Girl taking tickets at the movie theater. John has puppy eyes for her.” Constance informed her mother.

“I ... I ... ahh.” John couldn’t form words for several moments. Constance cocked her head as she looked at him, waiting for his response. “It won’t happen again. I apologize for that.”

“Damn right it won’t happen again. Like I said, Why don’t you just take her to the movies, she’s already there.”

“Well, ah, I don’t want to any more. That was just a stupid thing. I’m sorry about all that.”

Barbara arched her eye brows and looked at her daughter. “She’s going with some one else. That’s why.”

“Yeah, I heard she and Allen Wakefield were friends. He kinda made an Ass out of himself in a restaurant, but I guess she’s friends with him.” John reluctantly admitted.

“So that’s why you’re here, talking to me!” Constance’s nostrils flared, a sign that she was getting angry. “If your dream girl is out of reach, I’m good enough for you now.”

“Its not like that.” John could see he’d put his foot in it again. “I just want another chance.”

“The answer is no.” Constance shook her head. “I have to confess, the only reason I went to the movies that night, was to be around Tom. Sure he was going with your Sister, I knew that. I just wanted him to know I was around. I figured that Alice and he wouldn’t be together some day, but I sure didn’t expect it like this.”

“So that’s why your so adamant that Tom isn’t involved.” Barbara suddenly saw the light. Looking at her daughter who was proud and didn’t care that her feelings toward Tom Wakefield were no longer secret. “Does he know how you feel about him?”

“No But he’s going too.” Constance suddenly spurred her horse to a gallop and rode off through the gate to the Wakefield ranch they were passing.

“Where are you going?” Barbara called after her, knowing full well where her daughter was headed.

“You go ahead and make your phone call. John can ride along with you.” Constance called back.

Perplexed John watched Constance ride off and turned to Mrs Bailor. “What phone call?”

“Come along John, this might come as a surprise. You should be there.” Barbara smiled and led off towards Walkers service station.

The horse was lathered as Constance rode up to Wakefields ranch house. Eleanor came out on the porch, having seen her coming up the road through the kitchen window. The first words out of Constance’s mouth asked where Tom was. Eleanor took her time and walked down off the porch, towards the horse and rider. She could see the girl was in a state of distraught and a bit of a hurry.

“Well he’s up at the line shack, my dear.” Eleanor answered her. “You know where that is?” Constance shook her head, that she didn’t know the location. “Well its on the North wire, half way along towards your range.”

“Thank you.” Constance knew how to get there, and spurred her horse in that direction.

“Go easy on the horse, or you’ll never get there.” Eleanor called after her.

“Yes Mam,” Came the answer, and Constance eased up, letting the horse choose its own gait.

Watching the girl ride off, Eleanor knew that something serious was in the wind. Tom had been moody for some time. He was completing his work well enough, but inside he was keeping something, something that bothered him a great deal. Now Eleanor wondered if this Girl, Constance Bailor had something to do with it. Tonight when Austin and Paul came in from their work, she would definitely bring the subject up.

Constance found Tom stuffing the cracks of the Line cabin with moss and clay. This winter it would help keep the cold out, and reduce the amount of wood needed to heat the cabin. The horses pace had slowed over the last mile or so, and it arrived with Constance with a gentle trot. Her arrival surprised Tom, who greeted her with a grin spread across his face.

“What brings you up here?” Tom left his moss packing, and walked up to steady the horse, so Constance could safely swing down from the saddle.

“I have something to tell you.” She said as she lit on the ground. Tom was still holding the reins of her horse when she surprised him by stepping up close and planting a kiss on his lips. It was a shocker, as it was totally unexpected. Tom stood there, dumb founded, and not knowing what to say. Constance just nodded her head as she stepped back. “That was to let you know something.” She took the reins from Tom’s hands and walked her horse over to the shade of a tree.

Waiting for further explanation, Tom was mute for several moments. Finally he found his voice and asked. “What something am I suppose to know?”

“That I believe in you.” Constance dropped the reins on the ground, knowing her horse would stay there and moved back to Tom. “Your horse,” She pointed to where Custer was tied to the hitching rail. “Was seen being ridden by a man carrying a shovel.” As the words came out of her mouth, Tom knew she was referring to Harold, when he rode Custer against his protests. “My mom, found some corralled Cattle with the Kinkade brand. They had been driven across our land, we saw the tracks. Since we saw your horse and rider coming from that area, Mom thinks it was you.”

“Why my horse, it could have been any sorrel. Its not like he’s the only one.” Tom knew that Constance was insinuating that Custer was ridden by a rustler. He just couldn’t imagine Harold being that stupid.

“Tom, I know your horse. It was Custer, but I couldn’t make out who the rider was. I know it wasn’t you.”

“Why are you here, telling me all this?”

“Because, Mom has made a phone call to the sheriff by now. Until they learn the truth, the law is going to be coming after you.”

“Jesus” Tom exclaimed and went over to lean against the shade tree. “Well, it wasn’t me.”

“I know that.” Constance assured him. “But they don’t.” She paused and added. “There’s more.”

“Like what?” Tom looked hard at Constance, studying her face for some hint at what she was holding back.

“I don’t like telling you this. But if it helps you to name the real person that was riding your horse, I will.”

“Well, what is it?” Irritation helped spit out the words.

“Alice went to the movies with some one else.” Constance said with a sigh of relief having gotten it out.

“Am I suppose to guess who with?” Tom’s irritation, wasn’t directed at Constance, but at the knowledge that Alice had made good on her threat, to go with anyone that would take her to see that particular movie.

“It was Harold.” Constance said the words like they were a bad taste in her mouth.

“How do you know this?”

“John told me this morning.”

To say Tom was shocked, didn’t even come close. Harold would have been the last man on earth he would have thought, Alice would go out with. She was so much younger and he had hardly shown an interest in the local women. He felt like he’d been stabbed in the heart. Not by Harold, whom he didn’t trust, but by Alice. They were friends, close friends. He couldn’t understand how she could do something like this to him. Suddenly he was angry. A hateful rage just flew up from his bowels. He wanted to kill his brother. All the extra work, Harold had sluffed off on him, and now stealing his girl. It was too much.

Constance was expecting an anger filled Tom, once he heard the news about Alice and Harold. She moved back to her horse and made ready to mount, talking to Tom as she did. “I know it hurts, I’m sorry. I wanted to warn you, because I’m sure that the police will be coming.”

“Okay, you’ve warned me.” Tom wanted to do something violent to his surroundings, but held back. He wasn’t mad at Constance, but he wasn’t happy either. She was the barer of bad tidings and as such, he resented the messenger along with the message.

“My mom could smell something dead at the corral. There was a grave, I guess it wasn’t dug deep enough, but the smell was coming from there. You remember that truck and the driver that’s missing. Well mom saw a truck there, and thinks the driver might be in the grave.”

“What truck?” Tom hadn’t been any where to hear the latest news. So the story of the missing truck and driver, was news to him.

“There’s people searching for it.” Constance relaxed her readiness to mount up and moved closer to Tom. “It was on the radio. The last they saw of it, was when it stopped at Walkers Service Station.”

There was no doubt in Tom’s mind, that Harold had something to do with the whole mess. The fact that Harold hated anything to do with the ranch, and got out of work any way he could, just reinforced Toms suspicions about his brother.

“Does my Dad know about this, Harold I mean.”

“I don’t think so. Mom and I didn’t say anything, and only this morning Mom saw the cattle.”

“Well, I have another row to plug. Guess I’ll get back to it.” Tom referred to his job of insulating the cabin. “Thanks for telling me. I guess I had to hear it sooner or later.”

Constance move towards Tom to give him a hug, but Tom moved slightly back. Just a little movement but Constance saw it. “Oh, don’t worry. I’m not going to kiss you again.” she told him, and started to turn away. Then suddenly she turned back. “The hell I won’t.” She said and planted another kiss on him, and stayed with it until Tom could do nothing by respond and kiss her back.

Finally breaking the kiss Constance stood back. “That should tell you everything else I have to say.” She told him and this time went to her horse and swung up into the saddle. “I’ll expect you to ... Well, I’ll just expect.” she said not finding all the words she wanted.

Tom stood slightly bewilder as she rode back down the way she’d come. This time, she wasn’t in any hurry and let the horse move off at a much slower pace. Tom didn’t know what to think. He’d just learned that his girl was seeing his older brother, and Constance had given him a very strong kiss. He didn’t know if he was still angry or not. There wasn’t much that he was sure of, but he was still distraught that Alice had dumped him for his brother.

Plugging the rest of his bucket of moss in the cabins chinks, Tom realized that he’d finished with out hardly knowing it. There were still things to do, but he had so much going through his mind, that he decided to head back home and take a shower. It was early and his usual quitting time was at least four hours away. A part of him, wanted to confront Alice and call her every foul name he could think of. That special feeling he had for her, and the trust that he thought bonded them, was all lost now. Some one else would be touching and loving her body. It grabbed his heart just thinking about it.

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