Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Spectral Line Rider

The old barbed-wire fence enclosing a portion of the remote West Texas ranch is long gone, the posts weathered away and the wire rusted to nothing more than red specks. The little cemetery is still there, but the hand-made gravestones and crosses are mostly on their sides laying amongst the rocks where roadrunners hunt lizards for supper. It's hard to get to and nobody much ever does. The ranch itself nothing more than inhospitable wide open spaces that even the Mexicans avoid after crossing the Rio Grande on their way to work the big farms up north during the picking seasons. The ranch house is long abandoned, all the great-great grandchildren of the original land owners living miles away in one big city or another. No, it's not like it used to be. But let me tell you a story about this place, a story from long ago you may find hard to believe.

Juan Delgado, a vaquero who had just hired on, was out alone looking for some lost cattle in this part of the ranch. On the evening of his very first day, he was caught by a sudden thunderstorm. With dark rapidly coming on, even though he didn't relish spending the storm-filled night next to a cemetery, he took the only shelter there was for miles around, the sagging, little church. For Juan, it was to be a long, fitful night as the lightning flashes turned the tumbled gravestones into dark, threatening forms and the rumbling thunder reminded him how alone he was. But he was a proud cowboy and so he hunkered in his poncho and waited out the night.

The early morning light only brought more gray gloom and unrelenting rain. Juan kept to his shelter and ate his breakfast of beef jerky and the last of the coffee he had made the night before. Determined to wait out the rain, mid-morning found him standing in the doorway of the little church watching the rivulets of water swirling by when he was surprised to see a rider trailing along the close-by fence. The horseman was sitting astride a big bay, his face concealed by a broad brimmed black hat pulled low. The man slowly rode closer, his eyes staring fixedly at the ground, his clothes covered by a long black coat. Juan thought only a fool would ride in rain like this so he called out to the man to come share his shelter. The mysterious rider didn't answer or even look up. Perhaps the thunder and noise of the rain on his hat prevented him from hearing Juan's greeting. When he arrived directly across from the doorway, within just a few feet of where he stood, Juan called out again, louder this time, "Come in out of the rain, compadre," but still, the rider acted as if he didn't hear and kept riding, his eyes remained fixed on the ground beside the fence. It was obvious he was riding line, but what was wrong with a man who would not acknowledge a friendly greeting?

Suddenly, the rain ceased falling and except for little gurgling sounds of water draining to low spots, there was silence. It was only then that Juan realized the strange rider's passage was entirely without sound. No hoof beat, no creak of a leather saddle, nothing. The vaquero's hand involuntarily went to the gun in his holster, but the rider was drawing away. Still following the fence line, he passed the cemetery and eventually over a little hill and out of sight. Convincing himself that it was a crazy gringo so dumb he wouldn't even come in out of the rain, Juan tried to put his unease behind him as he gathered his things and prepared to leave.

It had not been an hour later when Juan was ready to resume his search for the lost cows, but before he could mount his horse, he saw the mysterious rider coming back toward him, slowly and deliberately, his eyes fixed on the ground just as before. Had he not found a break in the fence? There hadn't been enough time to repair a break, so why was he coming back already? And then the rider turned from the fence riding toward the little cemetery just below the top of the hill a short distance from Juan. He listened closely, but even in the near silence, neither the rider nor his horse made a sound. This time, Juan did not call a greeting. This time, Juan's gun hand deliberately went to his holster. For what seemed a long time, Juan stared beyond the rim of the hill, but the rider did not reappear. What was going on? There was no fence in that direction; the ranch house was not in that direction. The only thing there was the cemetery. A little voice inside his head told Juan he should leave this place. Quickly. To heck with those missing cows, Juan thought, they can find their own way home. He mounted up and urged his horse at a gallop toward the ranch house miles away.

 Several hours later when Juan reached the house, he rode up to find the foreman and several other hands standing on the porch discussing what chores needed to be done that day. "What the hell kind of fence rider do you have working for you?" "What are you talking about," asked the foreman, "I haven't had anybody riding fence for over a week." "Well I ran into one mighty strange one this morning," Juan replied and then went on to describe his appearance. "Where exactly did you see him?" came the foreman's sharp reply. "At the little church by that old cemetery. I called to him not 20 feet away, but he never even gave me a nod." "Which way did he ride?" the foreman wanted to know. Juan told him which way and that within an hour he had returned.

With that, the foreman turned to the cowboys on the porch and said, "Boys, get your guns. Let's go! Juan, there's food inside. Wait for us here until we get back." The men instantly jumped to the ground and ran to the bunkhouse to get their weapons and then the corral to get their horses. They left riding hard to where Juan told them he had seen the line rider.

It was just after dark when they returned. One of them had been shot in the arm, but they had two men with them who had their hands tied to their saddlehorns. The foreman announced, "We caught these men stealing our cattle and buried two other rustlers. These two will meet their fate at the hanging tree in town tomorrow."

After the two dead-men-walking had been hog-tied and securely locked up for the night in the potato bin, the foreman had a cup of coffee on the porch with Juan. "You saw our fence rider, all right," he told the vaquero. "He was one of the best I've ever known. Always had a gut feel for when there'd been fence cutting. All we had to know was which direction he rode and how long before he got back. Knowing that, it was easy to pick up the rustler's tracks." Juan nodded, but there were questions in his eyes. "He's dead," the foreman said matter-of-factly, "10 years now. He jumped a gang of rustlers, but there were to many of them. He's buried in that little cemetery on the hillside where you stayed. In front of it is exactly where he was killed. Now, every time our fences are cut," the foreman said quietly, "he rides the line until he finds where. Then he goes back to his hillside. Comprende?"

Juan could only nod. The foreman bid him goodnight and walked back into the house leaving the shaken vaquero standing on the porch in the dark. Early the next morning, Juan Delgado saddled his horse, packed his meager belongings and left that ranch. He didn't want anything to do with working alongside a ghost rider.

There were few that believed his story, but it was of no importance to one who had seen such a thing as he had. You may not believe it either and that's ok. The little forlorn cemetery is quietly crumbling, the fence and wooden church gone, the land empty and forgotten. There's no need for a solitary man to ride a lonely string of fence now. If you were to make camp where Juan spent that long, disturbing night, there where the graveyard and church lie hidden, there's probably little chance of your sleep being disturbed by a lone, lack-clad rider.