The first, a flat black circle containing a Double R over an upward arc. The Rockin’ RR, the caption read. Another red, white and blue pattern stuck out. The design matching the backside of a burn patch of cowhide. The letters DB under and two lines meeting at the top forming a roof of sorts.
Elijah bent closer, the brand’s name scrawled in smaller type. Clicking on the design, the page changed. Sheltered DB Ranch from western Tennessee. Pressing on the return key, Elijah searched over the remaining brands bordering the cattle associations home page.
In the lower right corner a P/B. Digging through the small stack of hides, Elijah pulled the one that shared some similarities. The P on the inside of the burnt hide obvious, the rest of the brand scorched and mutilated. Could be, he shrugged and set the stack aside to continue his search.
A sip of the forgotten cold coffee reminded him of his earlier task disrupted by the discovery of the brands. Setting the cup back down, Elijah sat bent over the computer screen. The last couple of brands not noticeable on the cattlemen’s page.
One idea led to the next. Elijah pulled up the brand registry for the state between Tennessee and his home state. Arkansa brand registry revealed the identity of one of the remaining brands. The Circle T ranch sat only miles across the Texas/Arkansa border.
Elijah Sackett stood and stretched. Blinking, he cleared away the tired gritty feeling blanketing his eyes. Walking to the coffee stand, he poured a cup of the black, thick sludge that remained in the pot and leaned back against a wall. His mind pausing on each brand he uncovered. The location of the ranches dictated his next search but the combination of the mixed brands hung in his thoughts.
Being a Special Ranger naturally made him suspicious in the first place when it came to transported cattle and the few morsels of evidence thus far sat unsettled. Odd for most ranchers to sell only a couple animals at one time, not impossible, but rare. So where did that leave things?
Elijah pushed off the wall and wandered outside. The length of time he spent behind the computer screen made his mind think that he’d given up smoking. Lifting the package out of his shirt pocket, he dug out one of the slender tubes and jammed it between his lips. He watched the flame flare from the top of his butane lighter a second before touching the flame to the packed tobacco.
A deep pull on the cigarette filled his lungs bringing a burning satisfaction. Smoke rings rose past unseeing eyes. The act of smoking automatic. Elijah’s mind circled back to the problem of the assorted brands. The fact that not even all the cattle were from the same state, still, a small rancher starting out. Maybe buying up prize stock to build a herd. Sure, why not, he kept telling himself, but some instinct dismissed the reasoning.
Crushing the smouldering butt under his boot, Elijah walked back into the air conditioned interior. A refill of the thick coffee accompanied him back to the desk with the monitor. Sliding the chair uptight, he went back to the Tennessee Cattle Association’s page and clicked on the first brand.
A home page for the Rockin’ RR ranch filled the screen. The convenience of modern technology, Elijah thought. The time saved from numerous phone calls and endless miles of driving to discover the same information now readily available with the point of a cursor and the press of a finger.
He noted the ranch’s number and pushed the corresponding buttons in his cell phone. The phone screen flashed, an operator warned of long distance, then finally a steady ring tone sounded.
“Hi. You’ve reached the Rockin’ RR ranch. We’re not available. Please leave a name and number and we’ll get back to you soon.”
Elijah thumbed the red off button on the tiny screen and went in search of a phone number for the second brand. What exactly he was going to ask when he connected, he had no idea, but he dialled the second number. On the third ring, the line connected, a woman’s voice spoke into his earpiece.
“Hello. Can I help you?”
Elijah cleared his throat. “Is this the Sheltered DB Ranch?” He asked.
“Yes. That is correct.Who is asking?”
Again, Elijah cleared the rasp from his throat. “My names Special Ranger Elijah Sackett from over here in Clarksville, Texas, ma’am. I’m awfully sorry to bother you…” he hesitated, sorting his thoughts. “Had a terrible accident near here a day ago. Two tractor-trailer units collided. One carrying fuel, the other a cattle liner.
Ma’am, have you recently shipped a few head of cattle? Some of the deceased animals carried your brand.”
“I…I’m not certain. I’d need to check with my husband.” The sharp, short intake of breath from the woman betrayed an edging of panic caused by Elijah’s question. “He oversees the daily operations.” She continued, “Those decisions are his. Where did you say you’re calling from, again?”
“Texas, mam. Clarksville, Texas. Is it possible to speak to your husband?”
“He’d have to call you back.” Came the reply. “Who do you work for?”
“The Special Rangers department for the State of Texas. Our department investigates cases of cattle rustling and similar crimes.”
“Were our cattle rustled?” Nervousness raised the pitch in the woman’s voice.
“I have no reason to believe so at this time. I am only doing due diligence by contacting the owners of the cattle killed in the accident. A matter of dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s so to speak.” Elijah replied calmly.
“Oh. Okay. Do you have a number. I will get Gary to all you back.”
“That would be mostly appreciated, mam.” Elijah said before reading off his number and repeating his name. “I look forward to talking with your husband. You have a good day now, ma’am.”
Elijah ended the call and saved the number into the phones memory before shutting down his phone. Glancing back at the computer screen, he wondered about calling the other owners of the brands. People sold cattle every day and multiple trucks crossed state lines with an assortment of beef. So why…
He located the number for one of the brands in Arkansa. The phone rang and went to messages. After a brief explanation and recording his name and number, Elijah sought out the last of the Arkansa brands. Here too the call went unanswered.
Spinning around in the chair wondering what to do next, he recalled the home page from Tennessee. Clicking onto the remaining P/B brand, he read the number outlaid on the page as he typed it into his phone. A press of the button sent the call whirring across state lines. I might as well leave a message here while I’m at it, he thought.
After the third ring he rehearsed in his head the message he’d leave when the line connected.
“Hello,” a gruff voice echoed into the ear piece.
Caught off guard, Elijah stumbled into his intro. His voice cracked from the dry Texas air. Clearing his throat, he began.
“Is this the P/B Ranch.” Elijah choked the words out. “In…” he looked back at the computer screen to collect information. “You located in Cumberland County.”
“That’s right.” The rough voice answered. “Who is this.”
“I’m with the TSCRA, the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association. The Special Rangers Division in Texas… An accident happened down our way between two tractor trailers units yesterday and one trailer carried live stock. The cattle in a trailer died in a fire.
The reason for the call. We salvaged your brand off of some of the dead stock. Well, I believe it is your brand. The markings are stamped over by other markings. Let me ask you, have you sold some beef as of late?”
“I asked who the hell this is,” came the not so polite reply.
“Yes. Sorry. My names Elijah Sackett. Like I said, Special Ranger of the Texas Cattle Raisers Association.”
“What’s your last name again?”
“Haven’t heard that name in quite some time.”
Elijah cocked his head at the remark. “You familiar with the name?”
“I suppose I should be. Used to be my grandmother’s maiden name. Elizabeth Sackett.”
“Well I’ll be.” Elijah train of thought drifted. “What are the chances of that, though, seems I’ve heard tell somewhere of Sacketts still in the Cumberland.”
“What’s the P/B. Am I naming it right. What’s it stand for.”
“The P is for my great granddad Parmalee Sackett. Elizabeth, my grandmother, was his daughter. The old guy fronted the money for this ranch as a wedding gift way back in the late 1800’s. The B stands for our family name, Boutõn. The rough voice pronounced the name Butõ, dropping the the last letter in traditional French fashion.
“And who am I speaking with?” Elijah’s interest peaked.
“Joshua Boutõn, owner, P/B Ranch on Cumberland Plateau, Tennessee.
“Good to get your acquaintance, Joshua.” Elijah said returning to his original purpose. “Tell me, have you shipped any livestock lately?”
Joshua Boutõn held the disconnected phone receiver at arms length, his eyes locked on the device while he scratched the stubble irritating his jaw. A shift of his sight from the plastic mouthpiece down to the leather padded arm of the wheel chair and then farther down to the blanket covering his useless legs.
A huff of air escaped his lips. A feeling of disgust chased away the ebbing of self pity clawing at the base of his brain. Returning the phone to its cradle, Joshua wheeled over to the coffee machine perched near the edge of the lowered kitchen counter.
Been a while since he ventured out onto the range to inspect the land and the thousands of head of cattle roaming the P/B range. A wry smile crept onto his lips. The motion covered by the raised mug of hot coffee. An earlier, happier memory played across his mind of saddling up his favourite horse and roaming the the land out back leading to the Cumberland Mountains.
A phantom twitch deep in his left leg stole back the smile and reminded him of the impossibility of doing that very thing now a days. Two years, well, almost two years since the accident that left him a paraplegic. That damn favourite horse. Why it spoked, the unanswered question still occupied rented space in his mind most of the time.
Joshua shook off the reminiscing and the unforced habit of reliving the nightmare. The images still blurred as if by the falling rain from that faithful evening. Memory loss from a concussion, the doctors repeatedly diagnosed. The fall from the saddle of a runaway horse, the severe bruising of his skull against the boulders of the foothills and the damage to his lower spine.
All of this implanted into his brain after the accident. Events related to him by his wife, new wife at the time, barely past the newlywed stage, and the ranch hands who discovered him lying broken at the base of the rocks, the same scene corroborated by the country sheriffs department.
Many days were spent dwelling on the past. Willing the memories to return. Why? What else did he have to do. A lifetime of being trapped in a wheelchair with limited movement allowed for countless hours of searching for lost memories along with the fresh bouts of self pity.
A stir across the room broke the spell holding his thoughts.
“Who was on the phone?” The inquisitive voice of Sarah, the now Mrs. Boutõn, travelled softy across the vast dining room.
“Thought you were heading to town?” Joshua spun the chair to face his young wife.
“I forgot my phone,” Sarah Boutõn replied. “Swear I’d lose my head if it wasn’t fastened,” she smiled and crossed to her husband, kissing him on his cheek.
“Anything important,” she questioned. “You looked deeply in thought?”
“Ah, the call was quite funny, actually. Say. What’s the latest count on our herds? Any unusual shortages?”
Sarah frowned as she paused and thought. “I don’t think so. The men would have certainly commented if we the numbers were down more than the expected normal. No talk of lions or bears becoming more aggressive. A few head of new borns died, I’m certain we talked about those, but…no. Can’t say the numbers are out of the ordinary. Why? What makes you ask?”
“Nothing really.” Joshua motioned to the wheel chair. “Too much time on my hands.” He explained to her back as she strode across the room for the front door.
Why didn’t he come clean about the phone call and the Ranger’s questions, he wondered. A niggling sliver of doubt about her loyalty surfaced again. Nothing that Joshua could put his finger on but the doubt lingered. Again, happier memories tugged at his feelings. The look of envy from his old time friends as he marched the soon to be Mrs. Boutõn down the aisle.
How long ago was that? Almost three years now since the two married. The happy thought glitched when he remembered his sons disapproval. The boys obviously still struggling with their mother’s untimely death.
Sunlight crept into the room. A sliver of light played across his face. Joshua shifted his weight to a less uncomfortable position then aimed the chair for the closet near the front entrance. A sudden urge settled over his thoughts inviting him to venture outdoors to breath in the fresh air waiting outside and to listen to the symphony of sounds of everyday life of the large ranch.
The tips of the Cumberlands, some still coloured white with snow, looked down across vast expanses of meadows as he rolled onto the veranda. The air carried a chill that bit through the fabric of his light coat. The tip of his grey cowboy hat blocked rays of the bright sunlight from his eyes. Longingly, he looked toward the rising mountains. A wisp of jealousy pinged his soul. Since the accident, he’d not returned to roam the mountains he loved.
Images of deep, clear pools teaming with fish and long, hidden valleys of luscious meadows ringed the towering rock cliffs. Trees rose up close to the peaks. Thousands of acres of forests combined with vast stretches of grazing land to fill the over 5000 acres of the sprawling P/B Ranch.
The longing to revisit the shadows and rivers of the mountains grew stronger. Joshua swished the remaining liquid in the bottom of his cup around and then flicked the mixture of grounds over the veranda’s railing. Tomorrow. Yes, he decided, tomorrow he would make his way back into the mountains.
A quad specially designed for his restricted movements waited in the garage. If he was careful, he could do it. The help of a ranch hand or two would be needed for the trip. He thought of the men working the ranch. These days, few of the old hands remained. After his accident, when Sarah took the reins, conflicts between her and many of the older personal quickly out the lot.
Joshua let his head sag at these thoughts. He failed to return the loyalty the men had shown. Men who stood by his side, worked hard and called him friend, were let down, the old timers slowly disappeared to be replaced with new hires. A tinge of guilt darkened his soul as he recalled the bad hole he’d fallen into after the accident. For a long time he withered in the shadows while leaving his new wife to rehired the staff and run the place.
Joshua shook off the recriminations. Those days were in the past. Time to live in the present. The call from the Special Ranger woke the rancher buried deep inside. His mind forged ahead with plans for the trip.
Old Tom Wiggins, an original hire, going back decades with the P/B still called the ranch home. He and Joshua had ridden side by side for many years. Joshua knew if he asked, Old Tom would agree to take the venture along to the mountains.
And while they traveled the back quarters, he’d have time to check on the herd. Once upon a time he’d known every cow and calf on his range, maybe now was time to reacquaint himself.
Sarah would be mad at his decision. He pondered what he’d say in his defence to quell her doubt then realized he didn’t overly care. The ranch was in his name. She’d have little choice but to come around. In fact, if she failed to see his way or worried about his safety, he’d ask her to ride along. The two rarely did anything together these days.