Halloween Short Story: The Ghost Rider of Castle Creek
“They say he had learned the lay of the land up here in the hills faster than anyone, navigating the drainages and little passes just like he was reading a map. He had an uncanny sense of where to find his cattle on any kind of day, any time of day …”
“You coming down for cocktails?” Victoria asked as she pulled on her coat by the door of the tiny one-room two-bed cabin she and Kate shared, one of three scattered along this side of the river like building blocks up from the corral.
“I didn’t really feel like dressing up,” Kate started. The wrangler staff of the Thatcher Guest Ranch could attend cocktail hour and snag a free glass of wine with their guests as long as they made themselves look “presentable,” which generally meant “you better not wear your dirty jeans and sweat-stained shirt in the lodge.” She had gone once to see what it was like, earlier in the summer, but the novelty had worn off for most of the returning staff, who generally had enough interaction with guests during regular work hours.
“Nah, wranglers always come as-is during Roundup Week. Come with me!” Victoria replied, hopping on the spot as she yanked on a boot.
And so Kate and Victoria trudged down past the bunkhouse, the chicken coop, the corrals and the barn, already dusky in the river valley with the early October sunset. The Absaroka Mountains, dusted with their first blanket of snow for the winter, reflected brilliant shades that Kate knew would never look the same in a photograph. She had stopped trying many months ago to capture the beauty, the grandeur, the overwhelming epic scale of it all. This was Wyoming. No photograph could ever hope to tame it into something her friends and family back East would ever understand.
She could see the appeal of cocktail hour during Roundup Week as they approached the lodge, the windows glowing cozy-warm with light. The puff of warm air that met her face along with the inviting sounds of laughter from the returning guests who made a point to come back every year for the fall cattle roundup made her smile reflexively. This was a friendly bunch this week, guests who knew the ranch almost as well as she felt she did after a summer of guiding the trails in the surrounding National Forest. Roundup Week wasn’t for the faint of heart: Wyoming’s fickle fall weather that was winter more often than it was autumn and the challenge of finding the ranch’s far-flung cattle herd on three thousand acres of forest lease land made for long days in the saddle.
Someone pressed a glass of wine into Kate’s hands before she could even pull off her coat; Victoria was already deep in conversation with a couple from Massachusetts on their fourth annual Roundup Week. Kate drifted from the sun room to the living room, where a group of guests was ensconced on the comfy couches and leather chairs. The ranch owner, Skip Thatcher, leaned against the mantle over a crackling fire, chatting with his guests. Night was darkening quickly outside the lodge, but here, all was merry, bright and warm. She was glad she had come.
“Skip,” called out one of the veteran guests Kate recognized from her morning group earlier that day. “This ranch has been here for a hundred years. Does it have any ghost stories?”
“Ooooh, yes!” sighed the man’s wife, winding her hand into the crook of his arm and looking up expectantly at Skip. “I love a good ghost story.”
Skip shifted his weight from one foot to another, smiling to himself and contemplating the glass of bourbon in his hand, silhouetted against the fire. “There’s certainly some history here,” he mused aloud. “Homesteaders, elk hunting camps, a cowboy outpost… Butch Cassidy was active around here too.”
“Does he have a ghost?” asked the woman breathlessly.
“I don’t know about that,” Skip said, quieter. “But I guess we’ve got one ghost story, anyway.”
Kate was aware that the other side conversations in the lodge had trailed off. One by one the other guests and other wranglers drifted towards the living room, guests finding seats, wranglers leaning against the door frames.
“Most of our returning wranglers know about the ghost rider of Castle Creek,” Skip said quietly. His eyes moved slowly around the room, eventually meeting Kate’s. He nodded to her, raising his glass in a silent toast. “But not everyone’s heard that tale.”
You all passed the Lightning Fork Ranch on the River Road as you came in, Skip started. This entire valley used to be part of one big ranch, headquartered there — it was called the Bar P Cattle Company, and it encompassed the entire valley and up into the National Forest. Thousands and thousands of acres, and the Bar P ran thousands and thousands of cattle, and some sheep too.
The Bar P had a reputation for some of the best hands around — they could take any shot with a rope and make their catch, cow or horse; they could ride any bronc and gentled the wildest horses for their using string. They were masters of the bosal and magicians with the spade. If you’ve ever seen a bridle horse do the dance in the show pen, well — just imagine that horse dancing over the sage, chasing down a maverick steer. They were a sight to behold. That’s what all the stories say.
Most of you have ridden past the site of the old Cow Camp. They ran their cattle up in these foothills all around us, below the Absarokas, over the sage and into the pines. Way up to the headwaters of the East Fork and all the little drainages that flow there. All the places you folks will be riding this week to gather the herd. You’ll be riding in the echoes of the Bar P.
There was a young puncher working his first season at the Bar P in ’33, and by all accounts, he had the makings of a great top hand. He was good to his horses, quick with a rope, hell of a shot with a pistol. But most of all, he really had a love for the work and the land, tending to the herd, working these hills. He’d sing songs to the cattle to settle them in a new spot. They say he had learned the lay of the land up here in the hills faster than anyone, navigating the drainages and little passes just like he was reading a map. He had an uncanny sense of where to find his cattle on any kind of day, any time of day — where they’d be when it was storming, where they’d be when it was clear, where to find them on a cool, dry morning.
So when the great storm came down early that October, and that young puncher was caught up in it, way up on Castle Creek where he had been sent to gather cattle and bring them home, well — they were worried for him, but if anyone would be able to weather it out, they said to each other, it would be him. He’d find some little hollow to tuck that big bay horse of his to keep him out of the worst of it, sheltered up there in a grove of pines. They’d hunker down together, and when the storm blew out, he’d break his trail and come on home through the snow, down to the Bar P, driving his cattle before him. The other hands, lower down on the mountain, had made it in just in time, some of them bringing their cattle but some just high-tailing it back, the last one riding blind through the blowing snow, hunched over the neck of his horse who brought him home.
The next morning, the sun rose blindingly bright on the new snow, which had blown in drifts much higher than anyone ever remembered seeing in October. The aspens were bent down to the very ground, their yellow leaves holding more than their fair share of the weight, and the sound of snapping branches splintered the air like pistol shots. Everyone’s eyes kept drifting up the valley, up the trail, to where they were sure they’d see the young puncher soon, driving his cattle through the snow, singing his songs to help them on their way.
He did not come.
They could not get up Castle Creek for three days until the snow had melted some — they wore out their horses trying, pushing them until they floundered in the drifts, sweating and panting, totally spent. Never seen a storm like this in October, they kept saying to each other. But he’ll be alright. He’ll be alright.
He’ll be alright.
It was on the fourth day they found his cattle. As the snow finally melted, the cattle had ventured out from the aspen grove where they had sought shelter, tucked up in a hollow none of the hands had really traveled before. Some of them stayed with those cattle, pushing them down the mountain, slowly, slowly, letting them graze on the grass that was emerging as the snow melted, regaining their strength. The rest of them continued on up Castle Creek, calling his name, fighting on through deeper drifts as they climbed up the mountain.
They found him.
Frozen to the saddle, snow drifted around him so high that he and that big bay horse looked like some kind of statue from another world, another time, emerging out of the white. If not for the heart-stopping stillness of them both, they might look like a photograph, a frozen moment in time, still upright and erect, the young puncher’s eyes gazing unseeing across the bare knob he and his horse had been traversing, still on the search for lost cattle, still making sure all of his stock made it home, his hand frozen in place on the horse’s neck, encouraging his partner to just keep walking, they’d find them all soon. The cowboys mourned for their friend, and they told his story again and again, keeping him alive in their memory.
But over the years, more than one Bar P hand over the years would recount to each other how when up on Castle Creek the horses might get a little spooky, a little looky at the shadows, or flat-out refuse to go further up the draw. Cattle never seemed to settle there. The pines grew thick, the deadfall thicker, and over the years, the cowboys quit pushing cattle up that way. Over the years, it just became part of the Bar P way: don’t push cattle up Castle Creek. And over the years, with fewer around to tell the story, the young puncher’s story went untold.
But not forgotten. I told my father one day after a long, hard roundup day in dense fog, how I had found the lion’s share of our herd in a hollow where I’d never seen them before, and how I wouldn’t have thought to even look except for some strange sense that I needed to push on a little further. And I remember my father chuckled and said to me, maybe that young puncher had been showing me the way. Maybe he’s still out there riding now, looking for his cows, helping us all on our way.
Silence fell in the room. Kate realized how much of a spell Skip had cast on his audience; every eye was fixed on the tall man leaning against the mantle by the fire. He looked up and slowly scanned the room, a twinkle in his eye and a twist of a smile on his mouth.
Just then, the dinner bell outside the lodge rang furiously, the head cook hauling on the rope. A collective jump rippled through the room.
“Well, that sounds like dinner, folks!” Skip drawled, standing straight up. The guests got to their feet, voices chattering excitedly. Kate stayed where she was, a quick chill fluttering over her shoulders. Skip was a good storyteller.
The sky was a steely gray the next morning as Kate mounted her favorite horse, a leggy chestnut that she had been partnered with on many occasions all season long for a number of guest-leading adventures. She scratched Stretch on his withers as she settled into the saddle, taking a moment to put on her guest wrangler personality and turned to face her assigned party of roundup guests with a broad smile, her breath clouding in the air. “Are we ready for the day, folks?”
On a clear day, the sky over the mountains seemed to stretch higher than possible, making Kate feel like her string of horses were just insects crawling across the floor. Today, however, the clouds hung so low that the Absarokas were hidden completely from view; she chattered to her captive audience of guests instead about the golden hues of the aspen groves as they wound their way higher up the forest road, on the hunt for wayward cattle to push back down to the ranch. Even the yellow leaves seemed faded today, however, beneath the leaden gray of the heavy clouds. A stray snowflake or two drifted on the breath of the breeze, falling more steadily as they reached the National Forest and the first grazing allotment.
The morning wound on without incident: they climbed the forest road, cutting through valley shortcuts over little passes to take them higher, checking all the spots that Kate had learned that summer that the cattle liked to frequent. She hoped her fellow wranglers and her bosses — Skip and his wife — were having better luck with their groups of guests, or Roundup Week was going to be off to a tough start. The air was cold enough that the snow was starting to accumulate on the manes of the horses, and pile up on the shoulders and hats of the riders.
They were winding their way up out of a draw to a section where Kate knew she’d have a good vantage point of some surrounding hollows, clear of the pines, where she’d hopefully be able to spot some cattle and give her guests something other than feel sorry for themselves with their wet clothing. As Kate and Stretch topped the bare knob to look down the other side of the ridge, she beamed. Below them were scattered about fifteen pairs of cattle. She stopped her horse and turned to her guests, who were breaking into smiles of their own despite the ever-thickening snow.
“Well, gang, you know what to do! Let’s get these gathered up and down the hill before it gets any colder.” She held Stretch back and let her guests go to work. That was the experience they were paying for, after all. She watched with pride as her guests fanned out, starting to drive the cattle together into a close group, already moving them down the hill for the long march back to the ranch. She clucked to the horse and let him amble along, well in the rear of the procession, watching her guests as they got to play cowboy.
A sudden gust of wind took the breath from her lungs and she gasped, the chill snaking down the collar of her coat and under her scarf. The softly-fallen flakes were replaced by sharp pellets, driven hard on the wind, and in a matter of seconds, the storm was on them, snow hitting her face so hard she screwed her eyes shut from the pain.
“Stay together!” she cried to her guests — fruitlessly, as she couldn’t see them any more, and her words were gone to the fierce wind. She could barely see past Stretch’s ears, which flicked this way and that as he started to two-track, trying to turn his tail into the wind. “Come on, buddy, we have to keep going, we can’t stop here!” she said out loud, or tried, as the wind stole her very breath away and she gasped a lungful of icy, snowy air.
She had no idea where she was any more. Stretch stumbled over sagebrush that he couldn’t see, scrambling to keep his footing, lurching forward and vaguely downhill. He knew the way home, Kate told herself, relying on the old wrangler trick when they got turned around in the National Forest, letting the horses guide them home, down the mountain towards the ranch. Except from the top of that knob, “downhill” could also take her deeper into the forest, into the wilderness. What was it they always told the guests? You could ride across this forest for two weeks and never see another living soul.
The wind was howling and Kate could feel the panic starting to rise in her chest. She was miles from the ranch, caught in a whiteout blizzard, the guests for which she was responsible were completely out of her sight, cows and all. She swallowed the panic down, loosened her reins, put a hand on Stretch’s neck, and said a little prayer. He staggered on into the storm, head bent, reins flapping. The wind continued to howl and pelt them with snow. The wind almost sounded like a song, but no song she had ever heard before.
The horse planted his feet and she could feel the gelding blow, his body going tense beneath her as she lurched forward with the sudden stop. She peered into the whiteout and could just make out the shape of a horse and rider looming out of the white before her. She yelled out loud in surprise and joy — she had found her guests. But Stretch still would not take a step forward, even as she clapped her heels to his sides.
The snow was still too thick to make out which one of her guests and horses was standing before her. As she strained to see through the storm, still urging the frozen Stretch to take a step, the rider slowly raised one arm, pointing off to Kate’s left. She yelled again to her guests, confused — what was he pointing at? She turned Stretch to the left to try to see through the snow, and immediately the horse turned on his haunches, surging forward and leaving Kate grasping for the horn to keep up with his blind plunge down the hill.
And as quickly as the storm came on, it ceased. The wind slowed, and the snow in the air settled, and gradually Kate could see the scene before her as Stretch marched on towards the pine grove where the trail off the knob would lead. There, in the cathedral-like pines, were gathered her guests and her cows. She smiled to see them, and let Stretch break into a trot, her favorite long-legged horse weaving his way in and out of the snow-crusted sage. They were as pleased to see her as she was them, calling her name and waving excitedly, expressing their fears she had been lost.
“No, no, Stretch was going to bring me home,” she started, and faltered, glancing behind her and seeing her tracks down the ridge. She and Stretch had most certainly not been heading home — they had been heading too far west, and would have wandered far into territory with which she was not familiar had they continued on. She felt the smile fade from her face and she hiked it back on, putting on her best guest wrangler grin. “You all were smart getting these cattle to the pines quickly! Ready to take them home?”
As her guests busied themselves getting the cattle moving down the trail that would take them back to the ranch, the image of the horse and rider through the snow flashed back across Kate’s mind. The wind had stopped, but the goosebumps still rose on her arms and the hair stood up on the back of her neck as a shiver coursed down her spine.
A good hand’s job was never done.