Ghost Riders


It had been a long and grueling day.

The night ahead promised to be even more so.

Jake Wetterling hunched inside his jacket, grasping the reins tightly. The chill of the night air stung his hands even through the leather work gloves. Ahead, he could see the white puffs of vapor from the nostrils of Ranger, his roan, as he kept pace with the lumbering herd of longhorns.

“Don’t worry, boy,” Jake said to the horse. “Just another couple of days, and we can rest.”

The drive had just passed through Indian Territory, and they were on the final stretch to the railhead in Abilene. Old man Raintree, boss of the Rolling “R” out of San Antonia, wouldn’t let up this close to the finish, so Jake and the other eleven men would have to stay awake by drinking lots of the acrid black coffee that the cook, Soo Chin, kept in the chuck wagon.

At nineteen, Jake was the youngest cowboy on the drive, and he was assigned to ride at the front of the herd to keep the 2,000 longhorns pretty much heading in the right direction. It was boring work, sometimes dangerous, but far better than trailing the herd to round up strays. That duty had been assigned to Moses Carter, a former slave from Mississippi, and Lee Renwick, a former rebel officer. It seemed at first a strange matchup, putting a black man and a Confederate together; but the two had hit it off and become the closest of friends. Misery loves company, Jake thought. Riding back there, behind the herd; breathing the dust kicked up by 8,000 hooves, and smelling cowshit all day probably made them forget about any differences they might have had.

Jake was just glad he hadn’t been assigned that duty.

Ranger snorted and jerked his head to the side, almost pulling Jake from the saddle.

“Whoa, boy,” he said. He looked up ahead, and saw a jackrabbit dart from behind a stunted bush. “Ain’t nothing but an old rabbit.” Jake thought it strange to see the long-eared creature this far north, but on a cattle drive, you saw all kind of strange things.

The herd kept up its rumbling, meandering walk. The longhorns were spread out, grazing as they moved. The grass up here in Kansas was sparse, but enough to keep them content, and might even put on a few pounds.

That’d make old man Raintree a few extra cents a head in Abilene. Wouldn’t do much for Jake and the others, though; they’d still just get the sixty-five cents a head for the three-month drive. Of course, $1,300 for three months’ work was nothing to sneeze at. Unlike the others on the drive, Jake wouldn’t blow most of it on rotgut liquor and floozies in some saloon in Abilene. He’d get himself a hot bath, a good meal, and the rest would go in the leather pouch he kept on a loop around his neck and under his flannel shirt. Back home in San Antonio, it’d go in the bank with the rest of his savings. One more drive and he’d have enough to buy his own little spread. He knew just the place, too. A hundred acres just outside town; lots of rolling plain covered in sweet grass, and a little creek that snaked through it. He’d be his own boss then, running his own cattle up the Chisolm Trail.

The herd was coming to a place in the trail that wound between two small hills; one of the few places in Kansas that wasn’t flat. Jake kicked Ranger’s flanks to get him to pick up his pace to a canter. Had to get a bit more out front to make sure the lead steers stayed near the center of the draw. Wouldn’t do to have some of them straying out to the sides. If they spread out to the sides and got around the back of one of the hills, it would take most of the day to round them up again.

The sun had set, but there was still a faint light in the sky. But, if the cattle spread out too much, it’d be dark, and damn near impossible to find anything.

Jake got about a hundred yards in front of the lead steers and wheeled Ranger around. Looked pretty good; the old longhorns in front were keeping near the center of the low ground and moving along at a leisurely pace. The rest of the herd followed along; undulating shapes in the dim light.

Relaxing in the saddle, Jake wheeled Ranger around and rode off at an angle so he could get a better view. As tired as he was from twelve hours in the saddle, he still appreciated the beauty of the Kansas sky at dusk; turning a purple color, with pink and white clouds scattered overhead like cotton puffs. The only sounds were the rumbling beat of hooves and the occasional shout of a drover herding a stray back into place.

“Sure is peaceful out here at night, ain’t it Ranger?”

The old roan snorted again.

Then, all hell broke loose.

A lightning bolt speared from one of the clouds off to the east, followed almost immediately by a loud bang.

Ranger jerked his head up and reared, his front hooves flailing the air. Jake found himself flying through the air, the reins having been ripped from his relaxed grip. He hit the ground, flat on his back, the air knocked from his lungs. Ranger galloped away, whinnying loudly.

It took a few moments for Jake to get his breath and push himself up to a sitting position. Ranger was a few yards away, standing still, but still with a wild look in his eyes. Jake was pissed, but he didn’t seem to

have any broken bones; just a bruised ego. Damn, you’d think I was some tenderfoot. Can’t even hang on to a bucking horse. He stood, brushing the dust from his jacket and britches.

He started walking slowly toward Ranger, when he realized he was still hearing the sound of thunder. He looked up, but saw no lightning bolts piercing the sky. Then, he felt coldness in the pit of his stomach, and the vibration of the ground under his boots.

Looking off to his left, he saw the source of the sound and the vibration. The lightning had spooked the herd. “Stampede!” he thought. “And, they’re heading this way.”

Rather than scattering, the herd had come together into a mass of 2,000 longhorns, scared shitless and running blindly; and the rolling mass of cow flesh was heading right in Jake’s direction.

He was frozen in place for a moment, and then the instinct for survival kicked in and he started running. By this time, Ranger had started running as well, and the distance between them was widening. The distance between Jake and the herd, though, was narrowing.

The mass of cattle was getting bigger and bigger, closer and closer, and Jake knew that running would do him no good. There was no way his two legs could carry himself fast enough to get out of the way. He turned and faced the herd, waving his arms and shouting at the top of his lungs.

The lead steers, way out in front of the rest, veered around the gesticulating figure. The rest of the herd, though, was packed too tight, and Jake saw that it was bearing down upon him. He knew at that moment that he was a goner. No ranch with the meandering creek; no herds of his own cattle to drive to market. After the herd passed over him, he knew there would be nothing but torn flesh and bones that would be buried out here on this Kansas prairie. He said a prayer.

The thundering herd was about a hundred yards off and closing when, all of a sudden, ten cowboys, mounted on white horses, came galloping out of the west, waving and shouting; a couple had their revolvers out and were firing into the air. Jake blinked and then stared at the riders as they moved in on the leading edge of the stampede, edging it toward the hill on the east.

The riders got the front of the herd turned and the longhorns started slowing as they hit the slope and the cattle in front began bumping into those coming from behind.

The whole operation took just a few minutes, but to Jake it seemed like a lifetime. The rumbling died down; the dust began to settle as the herd, tired and confused began to calm down. A few began to graze, and pretty

soon, the whole herd was milling around, lowing and grazing as if nothing had happened.

Jake blinked, and when he opened his eyes, he was standing on the fringe of a grazing herd of longhorns, and the rest of the crew, left behind when the cattle stampeded was riding up. Old man Raintree bounded off his palomino and ran over to Jake.

“Holy shit, boy!” He said. “How in hell did you stop them critters, and on foot at that?”

Jake looked around, confusion on his dusty, but otherwise unlined face. The ten mystery riders were no where to be seen. He shook his head.

“I don’t know, boss,” he said. “I couldn’t do nothing but stand here and yell like a banshee.” He was tempted to tell him about the riders, but something in the back of his mind said, keep quiet. No sense having people think you’re crazy; not that standing in front of a herd of stampeding longhorns don’t already qualify you as insane. “Guess it must’ve turned the lead steers and the rest just followed.”

Moses had retrieved Ranger and led him over, tossing the reins to Jake. “You one lucky fella,” he said. “Dem cows would sho nuff messed you up they hadn’t turned.”

“All I got to say is, you’re one hell of a cattleman, kid,” Raintree said. “What you did was crazy, but if you hadn’t done it, we mighta lost most of the herd. I owe you big for this, and Caleb Raintree ain’t one to forget. You got a bonus coming when we get to Abilene.”

Jake could only mumble his thanks. His heart swelled with gratitude, but no other words would come. The bonus meant this was his last cattle drive as a lowly cowboy. No, he thought, his LAST cattle drive, period. Maybe, he’d just grow cotton or corn on that spread he was going to buy.

He looked at the western sky, beginning to grow even darker now. The pink and white clouds were drifting away. He noticed now that there were ten of them; ten clouds, and by damn if they didn’t look a lot like riders in a loose formation.

Under his breath, he muttered a thanks, and touched the brim of his hat.

It had been a long and grueling day.

The night ahead promised to be even more so.

Jake Wetterling hunched inside his jacket, grasping the reins tightly. The chill of the night air stung his hands even through the leather work gloves. Ahead, he could see the white puffs of vapor from the nostrils of Ranger, his roan, as he kept pace with the lumbering herd of longhorns.

“Don’t worry, boy,” Jake said to the horse. “Just another couple of days, and we can rest.”

The drive had just passed through Indian Territory, and they were on the final stretch to the railhead in Abilene. Old man Raintree, boss of the Rolling “R” out of San Antonia, wouldn’t let up this close to the finish, so Jake and the other eleven men would have to stay awake by drinking lots of the acrid black coffee that the cook, Soo Chin, kept in the chuck wagon.

At nineteen, Jake was the youngest cowboy on the drive, and he was assigned to ride at the front of the herd to keep the 2,000 longhorns pretty much heading in the right direction. It was boring work, sometimes dangerous, but far better than trailing the herd to round up strays. That duty had been assigned to Moses Carter, a former slave from Mississippi, and Lee Renwick, a former rebel officer. It seemed at first a strange matchup, putting a black man and a Confederate together; but the two had hit it off and become the closest of friends. Misery loves company, Jake thought. Riding back there, behind the herd; breathing the dust kicked up by 8,000 hooves, and smelling cowshit all day probably made them forget about any differences they might have had.

Jake was just glad he hadn’t been assigned that duty.

Ranger snorted and jerked his head to the side, almost pulling Jake from the saddle.

“Whoa, boy,” he said. He looked up ahead, and saw a jackrabbit dart from behind a stunted bush. “Ain’t nothing but an old rabbit.” Jake thought it strange to see the long-eared creature this far north, but on a cattle drive, you saw all kind of strange things.

The herd kept up its rumbling, meandering walk. The longhorns were spread out, grazing as they moved. The grass up here in Kansas was sparse, but enough to keep them content, and might even put on a few pounds.

That’d make old man Raintree a few extra cents a head in Abilene. Wouldn’t do much for Jake and the others, though; they’d still just get the sixty-five cents a head for the three-month drive. Of course, $1,300 for three months’ work was nothing to sneeze at. Unlike the others on the drive, Jake wouldn’t blow most of it on rotgut liquor and floozies in some saloon in Abilene. He’d get himself a hot bath, a good meal, and the rest would go in the leather pouch he kept on a loop around his neck and under his flannel shirt. Back home in San Antonio, it’d go in the bank with the rest of his savings. One more drive and he’d have enough to buy his own little spread. He knew just the place, too. A hundred acres just outside town; lots of rolling plain covered in sweet grass, and a little creek that snaked through it. He’d be his own boss then, running his own cattle up the Chisolm Trail.

The herd was coming to a place in the trail that wound between two small hills; one of the few places in Kansas that wasn’t flat. Jake kicked Ranger’s flanks to get him to pick up his pace to a canter. Had to get a bit more out front to make sure the lead steers stayed near the center of the draw. Wouldn’t do to have some of them straying out to the sides. If they spread out to the sides and got around the back of one of the hills, it would take most of the day to round them up again.

The sun had set, but there was still a faint light in the sky. But, if the cattle spread out too much, it’d be dark, and damn near impossible to find anything.

Jake got about a hundred yards in front of the lead steers and wheeled Ranger around. Looked pretty good; the old longhorns in front were keeping near the center of the low ground and moving along at a leisurely pace. The rest of the herd followed along; undulating shapes in the dim light.

Relaxing in the saddle, Jake wheeled Ranger around and rode off at an angle so he could get a better view. As tired as he was from twelve hours in the saddle, he still appreciated the beauty of the Kansas sky at dusk; turning a purple color, with pink and white clouds scattered overhead like cotton puffs. The only sounds were the rumbling beat of hooves and the occasional shout of a drover herding a stray back into place.

“Sure is peaceful out here at night, ain’t it Ranger?”

The old roan snorted again.

Then, all hell broke loose.

A lightning bolt speared from one of the clouds off to the east, followed almost immediately by a loud bang.

Ranger jerked his head up and reared, his front hooves flailing the air. Jake found himself flying through the air, the reins having been ripped from his relaxed grip. He hit the ground, flat on his back, the air knocked from his lungs. Ranger galloped away, whinnying loudly.

It took a few moments for Jake to get his breath and push himself up to a sitting position. Ranger was a few yards away, standing still, but still with a wild look in his eyes. Jake was pissed, but he didn’t seem to

have any broken bones; just a bruised ego. Damn, you’d think I was some tenderfoot. Can’t even hang on to a bucking horse. He stood, brushing the dust from his jacket and britches.

He started walking slowly toward Ranger, when he realized he was still hearing the sound of thunder. He looked up, but saw no lightning bolts piercing the sky. Then, he felt coldness in the pit of his stomach, and the vibration of the ground under his boots.

Looking off to his left, he saw the source of the sound and the vibration. The lightning had spooked the herd. “Stampede!” he thought. “And, they’re heading this way.”

Rather than scattering, the herd had come together into a mass of 2,000 longhorns, scared shitless and running blindly; and the rolling mass of cow flesh was heading right in Jake’s direction.

He was frozen in place for a moment, and then the instinct for survival kicked in and he started running. By this time, Ranger had started running as well, and the distance between them was widening. The distance between Jake and the herd, though, was narrowing.

The mass of cattle was getting bigger and bigger, closer and closer, and Jake knew that running would do him no good. There was no way his two legs could carry himself fast enough to get out of the way. He turned and faced the herd, waving his arms and shouting at the top of his lungs.

The lead steers, way out in front of the rest, veered around the gesticulating figure. The rest of the herd, though, was packed too tight, and Jake saw that it was bearing down upon him. He knew at that moment that he was a goner. No ranch with the meandering creek; no herds of his own cattle to drive to market. After the herd passed over him, he knew there would be nothing but torn flesh and bones that would be buried out here on this Kansas prairie. He said a prayer.

The thundering herd was about a hundred yards off and closing when, all of a sudden, ten cowboys, mounted on white horses, came galloping out of the west, waving and shouting; a couple had their revolvers out and were firing into the air. Jake blinked and then stared at the riders as they moved in on the leading edge of the stampede, edging it toward the hill on the east.

The riders got the front of the herd turned and the longhorns started slowing as they hit the slope and the cattle in front began bumping into those coming from behind.

The whole operation took just a few minutes, but to Jake it seemed like a lifetime. The rumbling died down; the dust began to settle as the herd, tired and confused began to calm down. A few began to graze, and pretty

soon, the whole herd was milling around, lowing and grazing as if nothing had happened.

Jake blinked, and when he opened his eyes, he was standing on the fringe of a grazing herd of longhorns, and the rest of the crew, left behind when the cattle stampeded was riding up. Old man Raintree bounded off his palomino and ran over to Jake.

“Holy shit, boy!” He said. “How in hell did you stop them critters, and on foot at that?”

Jake looked around, confusion on his dusty, but otherwise unlined face. The ten mystery riders were no where to be seen. He shook his head.

“I don’t know, boss,” he said. “I couldn’t do nothing but stand here and yell like a banshee.” He was tempted to tell him about the riders, but something in the back of his mind said, keep quiet. No sense having people think you’re crazy; not that standing in front of a herd of stampeding longhorns don’t already qualify you as insane. “Guess it must’ve turned the lead steers and the rest just followed.”

Moses had retrieved Ranger and led him over, tossing the reins to Jake. “You one lucky fella,” he said. “Dem cows would sho nuff messed you up they hadn’t turned.”

“All I got to say is, you’re one hell of a cattleman, kid,” Raintree said. “What you did was crazy, but if you hadn’t done it, we mighta lost most of the herd. I owe you big for this, and Caleb Raintree ain’t one to forget. You got a bonus coming when we get to Abilene.”

Jake could only mumble his thanks. His heart swelled with gratitude, but no other words would come. The bonus meant this was his last cattle drive as a lowly cowboy. No, he thought, his LAST cattle drive, period. Maybe, he’d just grow cotton or corn on that spread he was going to buy.

He looked at the western sky, beginning to grow even darker now. The pink and white clouds were drifting away. He noticed now that there were ten of them; ten clouds, and by damn if they didn’t look a lot like riders in a loose formation.

Under his breath, he muttered a thanks, and touched the brim of his hat.