The weather was cold and getting colder. The sun was low and getting lower. The December winds were gusting over the long grasses of the prairie as the clouds herded each other across the low sky, like the vanished buffalo of the plains.
The old trail lay barely discernible through the waving stems, unused for decades. Twin ruts, paralleling each other across the rolling land, sometimes they ran straight toward the horizon but often staggering over steeper rougher terrain. It was a trail that had lain silent for so long, forgotten by a faster, noisier world of which it was no longer a part.
It was up this forgotten path the lone rider traveled, slowly coaxing his mount through waist high waves of the grey green grass. Occasionally he passed the skeleton of a wagon, broken and dry rotted or possessions abandoned and long forgotten, by people long gone and forgotten as well.
The old man pulled the collar of his slicker tighter as he searched the horizon for his goal. It took a few moments as the old adobe ruin blended well with the brown grass and the walls were no longer as high as they once had been. But he had remembered the trail and ridden unerringly to this lonely point on the high plains.
For days he had ridden the silent trail, thinking of the time he had come this way as a youngster. Of a time before he had grown old, before the world had left him behind as it had this vacant track.
It wasn’t that he thought he belonged here, no one belonged here anymore. But as he rode the empty wind swept plains, he felt less alone with the ghosts of the past, than he had surrounded by a bustling world that no longer had time for a simple old man.
As he rode he remembered the wild times, when as a fifteen-year-old lad, he had stepped out from his peers and joined the Pony Express. Looking for excitement, he had traveled to St. Joe back in the Missouri country, and answered the call to ride these same barren lands.
Lands swept then by the same harsh winds, but swept also by dangers and Indians, and promises of adventure. He had ridden those days in a swirl of dust and sweat, riding a wave of energy and youth. And then suddenly that time was past. He hadn’t seen the changes until they were beyond him. He’d not realized his youth was gone until he was already old. And the excitement was in the hands of men younger, swifter and bolder.
Now with little hope of adventure ahead, he had taken to riding the old trails, where memories were real and the real world was over the horizon and out of mind.
He remembered friends, some dead along this very path. Some, like him, were old and slow and waiting for the adventure that would never return. He thought back to times when he’d carried a gun and swaggered before the young ladies and turned their heads and held their hands.
Good times when he had been on top of the world and not carrying it on his shoulders.
He remembered watching Custer’s cavalry ride past and admiring the flash and show. And he remembered as well reading the headlines with shock when that magnificent troop had failed to return.
He halted his mount and surveyed the plain and felt the ghosts of the Indians and the express riders and the cavalry riding in league with him. And he knew that soon enough he would join their ranks. After all, he was one of them. He didn’t know what plan had kept him here after the glory was gone. But he felt their presence on the trail beside him.
Darkness was soaking up the prairie filling the hollows and draws as he reached the adobe ruins. He stepped stiffly from the saddle and tied off his mount to a single rotting post where a hitching rail once stood. The old trading post had died with the caravans, killed by the singing wires of the telegraph and the iron tracks of the railroad and the trader had moved on. But it had been at this post, in its heyday, that the old man had met the girl who would become his wife.
And the grey and sorry thoughts of the afternoon were replaced by joyful memories of a family, happy and filled with hope. He remembered courting that girl as he unsaddled the horse and carried his gear into walled enclosure. The roof was long gone but the walls would shelter him and his fire from the relentless wind.
The sight of the first of the evening stars through the open roof brought back memories of that girl who stole his heart and the times they shared beneath these same stars.
She was gone now and so were the children. A daughter, lost to the fever carried into his house by a stranger had been the first to go. And a son now buried who had grown strong and handsome and had worn a uniform as grand as those of Custer’s cavalry. He had died on an island called Cuba in the war with Spain. Until he received the telegram from the War Department the old man had never heard of Cuba, and to this day he didn’t understand why the Army had had to fight the Spanish on soil so far away.
The Lord had given and the Lord had taken away and the old man was left confused.
He and his wife had lived a quiet life from that point on, as though to raise their heads too high, would catch the attention of the Lord again and something else might be taken from them. And then a year ago she too, had crossed over and left him alone.
He had spent the time since, hurting and wondering why he was left behind, but no answers had come.
So he had saddled the old horse and taken up this pilgrimage into his past, because the present had become to empty to face.
Here at the ruined post he nursed his small fire, sheltered by walls abandoned, and felt at ease for the first time since his wife’s passing. As he listened to a coyote on a low ridge not far away and the call of an owl, the companions of his youth stood in the shadows cast by the flames. Tossing memories out of the darkness like night birds flitting through the vacant window openings.
There had been a lad named Rollie, his best friend in fact, who had charged into the yard with all the élan of the best of the express riders. He’d sailed from his mount, mail bag in hand and leapt for the saddled horse awaiting him. But as he landed astride the fresh mount, the cinch had given way, dumping him squarely on his nose in the dust in front of a stagecoach full of watchers.
Never had Rollie believed it was truly an accident, and to his dying days he had blamed the old man for that prank. He chuckled in the darkness remembering the twin trails of blood from his nose, running down Rollie’s dust covered face. And the humiliated look of bewilderment as the stage passengers laughed.
He remembered the tender times in the small cabin over on the Yellowstone River with his new wife, and felt a warmth in the night, as though she was at his shoulder now.
He thought with joy of the beautiful little girl he had bounced on his knee, and raced round the tree in the yard. And then remembered with tears in his eyes, the marker he had carved for her grave beneath that same small tree.
And then the boy took over his thoughts as he saw him grow up tall and strong and proud. And he had watched him march off to a useless war and never return.
And a hollowness filled him and the ghosts of the past tightened their grip.
As the moon rose over the empty plains and the night wind finally died, the coyote on the ridge spun round as a single shot echoed over the low rolling hills.
And like a night bird escaping the ruined adobe walls, another ghost rose to join the legions of spirits that haunted the tall grass prairie.