It was a dark night. The cows flicked their tails and lowed softly beneath the stars. Somewhere in the blackness, the cowboy on watch duty sang an off key melody. The horses in the remuda snorted, their ears twitching lazily. All was quiet until loud guffaws from the camp not too far away broke the peace.
"Bill, you sure know how to spin some tall tales," Belden chortled and slapped Bill on the shoulder. Everyone else snickered in agreement while Bill glared darkly at them all.
"Well, it's true sure as your sittin' there laughin' like a pack of hyenas," The Shiloh hand stood with a huff and stalked off towards his saddle roll. His story had set the ball rolling though, despite his failure. Belden took a long swallow of his coffee and eyed the fire thoughtfully, his eyes narrowed.
"His story does kind of put me in mind of somethin' that happened to me a while back. In Dakota Territory it was," He paused, swallowed more coffee, smacked his lips together, and continued, "I was workin' for a small outfit. Widder W, I think was it's name."
The men leaned closer, their coffee growing cold as they listened.
"The spread ran along the Black Hills," His eyebrows raised, and he looked to see if they caught the significance of it's location. A few heads nodded, and he settled back against the rock he was propped against. "When I'd joined up, I'd been told that the Widder W was bad luck. Jinxed. Folks said it was smack dab next to sacred Souix land, but a job was a job and I was flat broke," He flattened out his hand and shook his head. Some of the hands chuckled. "So seein' as I wasn't feelin' too particular about my workplace, I signed on, but I tell ya. I should have listened to what folks told me. Because every word they said was true, but I had to learn the hard way," Belden shook his head, eyes lowered in remembrance. When he didn't continue, one of the new hands, a young fellow they'd hired for the drive, blurted out.
Disdainful looks darted his way, but Belden grinned and adjusted his weight. Clearing his throat, he pushed his hat back and scowled thoughtfully. "It was my second week workin' at the Widder W, and I'd been, well, guess you could only say that I'd been experiencin' some strange things. Always felt like I was bein' watched. All the time. Made me down right skittish," Belden shivered and shook his head. "Then things began to happen. Saddles got slashed to ribbons. Branding irons were bent in two. One night, we came in from the range and found the bunkhouse practically torn apart. Someone or...some[i]thing[/i]...," At the last word, Belden widened his eyes, "had ripped our mattresses and flung the remains all over the place. Everyone started gettin' skittish. Tempers begin to grow mighty short. It was all the foreman, a fella named Henson, could do ta keep the hands from up and leaving. We stayed on until one night one of the hands was found dead in a creak bottom that come down the Hills. His scalp...gone."
The new hand went pale, and he unconsciously touched his straggly brown hair. Even the more experienced shifted a little. Tall tale or not, no one felt comfortable at the mention of scalping. Belden drew out his pause for some more effect, then he shook his head. "It was more than some of the hands could take. Five of them up and left, muttering 'jinxed' and 'haunted'. Course, I wouldn't fall for such foolishness, so I stayed on." The men rolled their eyes but they didn't interrupt. "That's when the stories of Sitting Bull's ghost reached my ears. Folks began to say that old man Crater was doomed to misfortune 'cause of the ghost's prowling around in grief, lookin' for vengeance on the white man, but I figured someone had somethin' against Crater, which made me just as nervous. Folks said I was a fool not to believe the rumors and that I should get out before I found myself scalped, but I wasn't gonna let nothing, ghost or not, get between me and my thirty dollars at the end of the month."
Belden finished his now cold coffee, grimaced, and put the cup down. Everyone knew what was coming, but they just watched and waited for the climax.
"Two weeks into the job, the foreman sent me out to look for strays. I worked all day long searchin' out the critters, and it was night before I finally headed back to the bunkhouse, feelin' kinda sore and cantankerous. It was kind of a chilly night, too. Dark just like tonight. I was ridin' when I heard this low moan kind of a sound," Belden demonstrated and hairs prickled on the back of some necks. "Then I heard this steady thumpin' sound," He moaned again and began thumping on his boot. "My heart dropped into my stomach and then launched itself clear up to my throat. The thumping and moaning began to get louder and louder. Suddenly, there he was! Sittin' Bull's ghost! All pale like smoke, standing in the trees, a drum in his hand, and his moccasins stomping against the ground. I took one look at him, then I lit out like I had a pack of women after me, and I've avoided the Widder W ranch ever since." With a firm nod of his head, he stood and refilled his cup.
"That was a mighty fine story, Belden. You did a right good job," One of the hands said. All eyes turned to him, and Belden grinned. "There's just one problem," The grin vanished, and Belden straightened up.
"And just what might that be?" He asked, his eyes narrowing.
"I happened to work on a spread next to the Widder W, and rumor reached me about a drunken cowhand that come ridin' in, babbling about seeing Sittin' Bull's ghost. Got himself fired the next morning," The twinkling eyes and twitching moustache disappeared in a coffee cup, and Belden's companions burst out laughing.
"There's no truth whatsoever in that story. I was stone cold sober that night!"
"Sure you was, Belden. Sure you was," The hand chuckled and shook his head while the others kept laughing over Belden's exposed story.
"I've seen a ghost before." The quiet, Texas drawl cut in the laughter. A dozen pairs of surprised eyes swung over to Randy, sitting back in the shadows somewhat, his old guitar propped against his knees. He looked at them with quiet sobriety. "A lady ghost." A lady ghost. That in itself caught everyone's interest right then and there, and the fact that Randy, who didn't have much use for women, saw such a creature made them curious. They all leaned closer, waiting. Randy tugged his hat down and picked up his guitar. Absently, he plucked a few chords. "She followed me. For two days straight. I didn't know who it was, but I knew there was a horse close behind. I didn't want trouble, so I jus' left it alone. One night, I was playing my guitar when she came to my camp."
A few stifled chuckles interrupted him, but they were silenced by glares from others. Randy waited for it to quiet down before he continued, his fingers lightly strumming a somber melody. "She looked at me for a long while. I didn't know what to think or do, so I just stared back. Finally, she smiled at me and said I was playin' a pretty song. Asked if I would play another. Not wanting to be rude, I played for her. This exact same tune I'm playin' now," Randy looked up from his guitar and got a far away look in his eyes. "I thought she was gonna cry, and I handed her my handkerchief, but she wouldn't take it. She didn't cry either. It was almost like she wanted to but...she couldn't."
"Well that's all well and good, Randy, but aint you gonna tell us the important stuff? What'd she look like! Was she pretty or not!" Belden exclaimed, irritated. The rest nodded and grumbled as well. Randy scowled.
"Shucks, I dunno. I guess she was. She was about medium height. Brown hair."
"Everyone knows that a ghost lady is a pretty one with a tragic past. Now quit interruptin'," Old Riley snapped, moving closer to Randy.
"'You play well, Young Man. Thank you for...reminding me,' was what she said next, then she stood up to came over to me. When she got closer...this feelin'...a cold, dead feelin' came over me. I couldn't move. All I could do was stare at her. I never even thought ta ask her why she was there or where her horse was. I just stared at her, like I was paralyzed," Randy's eyes bore into each man. "When she was in front of me, she reached out and touched my cheek. It wasn't the warm, soft touch of a woman though. It wasn't anything. I knew she touched me though." No one dared to cut in this time. There were no jokes or sly glances. They all stared at him, not daring to even blink. "Her eyes nailed me to the seat of my pants. She stood there for a long time. Then, finally, she turned and walked away," Randy stopped and lowered his eyes to his guitar, his Adam's apple bobbing as he swallowed. "Later, I told a storekeeper in the town I rode into next day. He told me I was a lucky young fella. A real lucky one." The young cowboy raised his head, looking as serious as a preacher. "He said she was 'Hermoso Asesino'. Beautiful Killer. Said that only one man had ever seen her...and lived to tell about it, and that man had died of knife wounds a minute later."
The fire popped, sending sparks into the air. No one laughed or made jokes this time. Randy wasn't the type to take stories like that lightly, and they couldn't even imagine him drunk. They stared soberly into the fire, thinking on the close call their friend had had with a killer ghost lady.
"It sure is a spooky night out there tonight. Yo, Belden, pour me a cup of that Joe will ya? Whew," Trampas burst into the group, his tall frame covered in dust, "I am tuckered out." He shook his head and plopped down next to Randy, seemingly oblivious to the glum looks. Belden handed him a cup of coffee. The top hand gratefully took it and swallowed a big gulp, his blue eyes glancing over the rim of the cup. "You all look like your best friend died and didn't leave ya anything," He joked with a good natured side smile.
"Randy here was tellin' us a story about when he saw 'Hermosa Asesina'. The Beautiful Killer," Belden said as he put the coffee pot back down.
"Hermosa Asesina, eh? Heard of her. She's some kind of ghost woman that goes around killing men, aint she?" Trampas's forehead crinkled, and he glanced at Randy.
"Yeah. That's what they say, anyway," Randy leaned back in his seat and slid his fingers under his hat to scratch the top of his head. "You ever seen a ghost, Trampas?" He asked, returning his hand to his knee, his eyebrows raised questioningly.
"Oh, sure I have," Trampas drank some more of his coffee.
"Another lady ghost I reckon," Belden snorted and closed his eyes, looking bored about the whole thing. No one caught the twinkle that lit up Trampas's blue eyes. He pulled his cup from his lips and shrugged.
"No. This ghost was a horse."
This brought on a few snickers, and Old Riley harrumped. "A horse? Jumpin' Jehoshaphat, Trampas, I knew you weren't the greatest story teller, but I sure thought you could think up somethin' more excitin' than a horse!"
"Well, now, Riley, if you'll just hold yer hat and let me tell ya, you might think differently," Trampas wiped his mouth on the back of his hand and stood up to pour himself some more coffee. "It was a couple years back. I was out looking at some wild mustangs," He paused in his pouring and smiled, "That sure was a nice bunch that year."
"Ahem!" Belden gestured for Trampas to continue.
"Oh. Well, anyway," Trampas put the pot down and cleared his throat. "I'd just found them, when I heard the sound of a horse running. Close by, too." He drank his coffee, wiped his lips, and stared into the fire. "I figured it was a stray from the herd. That's when he showed on the top of the hill," Trampas's voice dropped and his eyes widened. "He was a ghostly white. He charged up the top and reared, letting out a scream that could only come from the dead. A scream that sent shivers through me. Like this," Trampas suddenly spread out his arms and let loose a scream that made everyone jump, their eyes wide. "The earth shook as he stomped his hooves. He shook that white mane and screamed again before he took off after me. I spun my horse around and we both took off, scared to death. I could hear those hooves comin' closer, closer," He drew closer to the fire, the light creating strange, shadowy contortions on his face. "Suddenly, I felt him next to me. He breathed down my neck, hot. My heart about stopped. I couldn't help myself. I looked over my shoulder, and what I saw will haunt me 'til my dyin' day. His eyes were red and flamed like burning coals. Blood trickled from his nostrils! The moonlight glinted off his teeth as he snapped them at me. He screamed again," Trampas let loose a shriek, his dust burned eyes bloodshot in the firelight. "My horse began to slow down. He didn't have any more left in him. I knew I was gonna be killed by this horse. But suddenly," He froze and looked around, "he wasn't there. He was gone. Just like that. There was nothin' left. Not even hoofprints." He shook his head and looked into his cup. "The next day, I had to shoot the horse. The animal had gone plum loco." Slowly, he stared at each cowboy. "Some nights...while I'm out...I can hear him scream. He's out there. Always out there," The blood shot blue eyes looked into the dark. He stood still, like he was listening. All the hands held their breath too, their hearts thudding in their chest.
They jumped sky high as the Virginian walked into the light, his spurs jingling. He stopped beside Trampas and looked at the two hands. "It's your watch. Replace Smith and Henry. You'll be taking late watch."
The two unfortunates glanced at each other. Belden swallowed hard and stood, his hands shaking a little. "Uh, sure, Boss. We'll be right on it." Riley was white around the mouth. He mutely stood and limped over to his horse, Belden following reluctantly behind. Trampas poured some more coffee and hurried to bury his face in his cup, aware that the Virginian was watching him closely. The hands made excuses to get to their bunk rolls and skeddadled, leaving the two of them alone.
Trampas looked at the foreman, shrugged, and nodded. "Yeah."
"Who won this round?" The Virginian's eyes became hooded, and he looped his thumbs in his gunbelt.
Trampas just smiled and didn't answer.