With Halloween around the corner, please enjoy this western ghost story.
Somewhere between the Wind River and the Gros Ventre wilderness, lies a ranch situated in the middle of a meadow high in the mountains of Wyoming. In these mountains, the wind and the spirits talk to those who listen. It was at this ranch that the following story was recounted to my husband, over firelight and whiskey. The cowboy who told it, a thin hard man from a small town in North Carolina, was not easily moved by things mystical or unknown.
Daniel, the cowboy, found himself working several years in a row for an elderly man who owned a ranch down the valley, also straddling a meadow between the Wind River and Gros Ventre ranges. While the ranch was small, the land was not. The backyard of the homestead rose steeply from 7000 to over 11,000 feet. The land stretched and rolled, piqued and plummeted for miles out from the parcel. The constant wind the only neighbor to listen to a man’s complaints.
Summer slipped to fall. At such high elevation fall looks more like winter, as the temperature dips below freezing and never regains the warmth of summer.
The last of summer guests left weeks ago, giving way to East Coast hunters looking for a big game experience. The only hunter this week, hoping to fill his elk tag, left that morning with the two guides.
Daniel took care of ranch chores, feeding the remaining horses, chopping wood and bringing lunch to the ailing ranch owner.
The years of drink and smoke robbed that mountain man of his mobility. Of late, he developed an abscess. The thing took residence on his thigh, a massive stinking devil of a growth. Travel in the snow was no option for the old timer. Three hours by snow machine to town for treatment was as sure a death as the infection that lurked around the boil. He said he’d rather die at the ranch than in some sterile and unnatural hospital anyway.
“I’ve spent 60 years of my life on this ranch, and wild horses couldn’t tear me away” He’d often say.
After cleaning up dinner and checking the small herd one last time, Daniel lit his own smoke and then turned in for the night. The hunting group, with their horses and pack mules, probably bed down at the hunting camp another 2000 feet up the mountains.
Sometime in the middle of the night, Daniel awoke to the snorts, stomps, clinks and jostles of a 7 horse pack string returning to the ranch. He felt the vibration of their hooves in his bed, he thought it odd the guides would cut through the cabins to get to the corral. Daniel felt he should get up and go help the group untack and put supplies away, but the warmth of his bed held him. He rolled over and fell back asleep.
In the morning he emerged from his cabin, the fresh fallen snow lay crisp as an ironed sheet over the ranch. He looked toward the run-in shed for the horses and the corral that contained them. He frowned. Only the 4 horses that were there yesterday stood in the pen, their long hair-coats fluffed against the freezing wind. The hair on his own neck stood up as he realized there were no hoof prints in the snow, no trampled down trail from the pack string that entered camp in the dark of night. He headed to the main cabin to prepare breakfast for the old man. When the clock rolled past 7, the prick of concern returned to Daniel’s skin. The old man was usually the one waking Daniel up for breakfast.
Daniel walked to the elderly cowboy’s cabin and knocked on the knotty-pine door. There came no answer. He eased the door open and was about to call out to him. There the bent man lay in front of the door, the grey of death robbed the color from his hands and face. A pool of blood lay under his body.
Daniel pushed the door open and traced the crimson drops from the old man’s bed to the door where he fell in cold repose. He thought again of the pack string he heard come through the ranch last night, and how they seemed to come right up to the cabins. He shook his head.
Wild horses may not have been able to tear him away, but perhaps that old ghost herd did.
Daniel lit a cigarette, taking comfort that whoever came for the man, took him away with horses. The old man would have wanted it that way.
P.S. If you like horse stories, you might appreciate this humorous little piece I wrote about Why Horse Trainers Are Horrible People Who I Can’t Live Without, it’s good for a laugh.