Does a spirit, ripped violently from life and all of its riches, wander, revisiting familiar places?
After dinner, the old man excused himself and returned to the campfire. Night was near and the cool, gray marine layer draped over the rolling hilltops. He sat down in one of the many lawn chairs scattered around it, leaned over and carefully added more firewood.
Wade sat back and listened to the murmur of familiar voices when the memory returned, uninvited. He kept the story close to the vest. Told no one. Not his wife. Not his only brother. But he’d seen him with his own eyes. Seen him like the yellow flame rising up—popping and spitting and eagerly devouring the fresh fuel. He’d stand before a judge and swear on a stack of dog-eared bibles if need be. He was a witness.
The memory carried him away from the coastal town where his family was celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday to a Sierra Nevada meadow surrounded by dormant volcanoes and icy, granite peaks. And once again he was sitting in front of a campfire, “I think I’ll ride down to Little Whitney in the morning,” he informed his companion. “I believe the Burckhardts drove the cattle back down to the valley last week. One of the cowboys may have stayed behind to gather strays.”
“Looks like rain to me,” Jim cautioned; “The sky could open up at any moment. How long you intendin’ to be gone?”
“Plannin’ to make a day of it,” Wade answered; “If I get an early start, I should be back by dinner. Care to join me?”
“I’ll pass,’ Jim said; “I’ll stay back and keep an eye on the livestock. I might ride up to Johnson one last time and get in a little more fishing.”
The two men stayed up late that night sipping whisky and singing occasionally, accompanied by an old guitar. Before turning in, they heard the rumble of distant thunder. The next morning Wade climbed out of his warm sleeping bag and pulled on his boots. He unzipped the tent door and ducked through it. He lit a lantern and placed it on a small portable table. The lantern hissed and cast a small circle of light as he reheated a pot of coffee, pulled on his chaps and buckled his spurs.
He walked over to his bay gelding and led him away from the other animals, filled a nosebag full of oats, and gently slipped the long leather strap behind the horse’s ears. Returning to the table, he drank a cup of coffee while he packed food for the day’s outing. He remembered to place his binoculars in a pair of saddlebags before returning to his horse. He cleaned its feet, checked for loose shoes, and brushed him. Then he carefully positioned a pair of blankets and lifted up the saddle. He tied a slicker behind the cantle and swapped the nosebag for a bridle.
As Wade rode out of camp, he lifted the reins and guided his horse towards the trail in the early light. The young animal humped up and bucked a little before falling into a ground-eating walk. He traveled through the Barigan stringer and down Johnson Creek, passing large boulders and lightning-struck trees. He thought that this place would be hell during an electrical storm. And although the sky was dark and brooding, the ground was still bone dry. As the morning wore on, he had to lift his bandana over his nose and mouth to fend off the dust kicked up from his horse’s hooves.
A couple of hours later, he dropped down from the saddle and walked over to the creek. He kneeled down and splashed cold water on his face and ran his wet hands through his thinning hair. He watched several golden trout swimming upstream.
When he arrived at Salt Lick he stopped and surveyed the area. There was cattle sign; bare spots where the animals had pawed the earth, sculpted salt blocks, and plenty of dried manure. But none of the Burckhardt crew. He continued on through the lush meadow and followed the trail down to Little Whitney.
As he approached the lower meadow, he saw the cookhouse in the distance but no smoke was rising from the chimney. It was late morning and the predictable breeze was up. When he reached the entrance gate to the cow camp, he opened it and led his horse through. He secured him to one of the many wooden tie rails in the yard and walked past a tree stump with a rusted anvil and rasp resting on it.
The cookhouse was boarded up for the winter—as was the sleeping cabin a few yards away. He sat down at a table in a dirt clearing and pulled some beef jerky out of his shirt pocket. He looked out onto the vast, green expanse as he ate. This was the primary summer range for the Burckhardt’s cow-calf operation. He watched the Golden Trout Creek snake through the lush grassland and saw a crude wooden bridge spanning it.
After a short break, he returned to his horse and rode around Horseshoe for a while before heading back to Salt Lick. If there were any cowboys still in the backcountry, they would be looking for strays up there.
When he arrived, he removed his horse’s bridle and let him graze in the tall grass. He took his binoculars out from the saddlebags and turned and pointed them towards the meadow—patiently tracking from left to right. He saw a group of mule deer grazing in the distance and marmot nearby. The large rodent jumped from a rocky perch and vanished into its burrow. He continued to search and suddenly saw what looked like a horseman riding directly towards him—no more than a couple of hundred yards away.
Wade lowered his binoculars and stood perfectly still as the rider advanced. He lifted them once more and made out a heavyset rider mounted on a dappled white and brown Appaloosa; “Damn if that ain’t Pete Carson,” he whispered.
Pete worked for the Burckhardts as a cowboy during the spring and fall cattle drives and as a handyman for the rest of the year. Wade yelled out, “Hey Pete!” and waved his hat in the air.
Pete reined his horse to a stop—still 50 yards away. He looked at Wade for a moment and then kicked his horse into a gallop and began circling clockwise. He also took off his hat and waved back at Wade before expertly spinning the horse around and circling in the opposite direction. He stopped again briefly before turning and running back the way he came.
Wade watched as the horse and rider gradually faded from view—surprised and stunned that the man hadn’t ridden over and chatted a while. Disappointed, Wade reluctantly swung back in the saddle. He rode through Salt Lick and caught the trail leading up to Barigan. As he climbed, the sky began spitting heavy raindrops. He freed the yellow slicker from the back of the saddle and struggled to put it on in the freshening wind.
Another half mile up the trail, the lonely traveler was hit by a cloudburst. Explosions of thunder caused his horse to spook and rear up. He was forced to dismount and lead the startled animal beneath a rocky overhang. As he waited out the deluge, a lightning bolt struck the top of a tall pine tree close by—causing it to erupt in to flame. “Holy Jesus,” he thought; “I might not make it out of here.”
After what seemed like an hour or more, the storm weakened. But before Wade abandoned the shelter, he saw a horseman’s shadow pass in front of a cluster of aspens. “Is that Pete?” he thought.
Though Wade hadn’t attended church in years, he crossed himself before leading his gelding back to the trail—the dry track now transformed into a narrow stream.
When Wade arrived back in camp, he dismounted and ran over to where Jim was sitting under a drooping plastic tarp and gasped, “God almighty it’s good to see you. You were right! I should have listened. That lightning nearly put an end to me.” Wade sat down and added, “You’ll never believe who I saw down at Salt Lick. Pete Carson, by golly. Ridin’ all by himself.”
The next morning the two men prepared to leave. They tore down the tent and kitchen and piled their belongings where the tent had stood. Jim saddled the stock while Wade loaded the panniers with their gear—checking the weight of each canvas bag occasionally as he worked. When he finished, Jim led the mules over and the two men lifted the heavy bags up to the packsaddles. Wade covered the loads with tarps and cinched them down with long cotton ropes.
They headed towards Big Whitney Meadow. With the Pacific storm well to the east, the sky was cloudless—visibility 50 miles or more. In the early afternoon, the horsemen and pack animals crested Cottonwood pass and dropped down to Horseshoe Meadow. When they reached the bottom, they rode on the wide sandy trail that skirted Horseshoe before turning off on the trail that led up to the pack station.
The tired men were glad to have their feet back on the ground. As they were tying up the animals, a young packer greeted them and helped Wade and Jim carry their panniers over to the loading dock. They talked with him briefly before Wade walked over to a dirt parking lot where his truck and horse trailer were parked. When he returned the two men loaded the horses into the trailer and threw their saddles and gear into the back of the truck.
They said their goodbyes and drove slowly down a dirt path and turned right onto to the paved road. When they arrived in Lone Pine an hour later, they pulled up to their favorite watering hole, the Double L Bar. They left the bright sunlight outside and walked through the double doors leading into the dark tavern. Removing their hats, they pulled up a couple of stools in front of the polished bar. “Long time no see,” a familiar voice greeted them. “What will it be?”
“Two cold Buds will do,” Jim answered.
The two men savored their drinks after a long day in the saddle. Country music floated from the jukebox punctuated by the click of pool balls from the back of the long, narrow room. The men ordered another round as an old friend appeared. “What you know, Mark?” Wade inquired.
“Not much,” he responded; “But that beer looks good. Bartender, I’ll have the same as these old boys.” As Mark leaned against the bar he commented, “I hear you wandered into the high country.”
“We did at that,” Wade responded. “Pulled out a couple of hours ago. Rained like hell. Good fishing though. How are your sons?”
“Growing up too fast,” Mark responded; “I’m getting along better with their old lady, thank God. She’s lettin’ me see them now and again.”
“Good to hear. You know I saw Pete Carson up at Salt Lick.” Wade confessed. “Riding his favorite horse—that Appy he’s fond of. He come close but rode off before I had a chance to say how do you do.”
Mark didn’t know how to react for a moment. He took another tug from his glass and leaned over, “Why, haven’t you heard. Pete died in car wreck just last week. Pullin’ out on 395. Didn’t see the big rig a comin’. Killed instantly they said.” He set his empty glass on the bar and added, “Buried him Sunday.”
Wade looked over at Jim and then back at Mark and pleaded, “Why, that can’t be. I saw him clear as I see you gents sitting on your bar stools—two days ago riding his gelding ‘round and ‘round up at Salt Lick.” He took another gulp of beer and was about to speak once more when he felt a gentle hand on his shoulder. “It’s time for dessert dear,” he heard a soft voice announce; “It’s your favorite. Peach cobbler.”
Wade looked around, recalling where he was. The air was thick now with heavy mist and the fire reduced to a bed of coals. He took his wife’s extended hand and painfully stood up. With her support, they both walked slowly back to the family gathering.
Michael Crossman is a retired high school instructor that enjoys writing and creating audio stories in his free time. Visit his site: michaeljohncrossman.com.