Specters on the Trail is long lost ghost story about a young cowboy who sees ghostly apparitions while on the trail. Originally published in 1890 and has not been published since, we bring this story back for another ghostly episode.
In the summer of 1873, I was thirty years of age – in perfect health and of steady nerve. I was no believer in the uncanny – hardly in the supernatural – and had always pooh-poohed at tales of ghosts, phantoms, and visions of all sorts. But at the time mentioned above, the experience I am about to relate put my intellect and sensibility to test in such a manner as to make me sparing thenceforward of ridicule and formed me to find a place in credence for the possibility of apparitions.
It is unnecessary to explain how I came to be traveling in the Far Wast without companions, except for horse, and dog, and gun. Following the general route of the old overland trail, I camped one night in the edge of a considerable forest and at a point from which I could look forth over a broad, open plain.
It was already after sundown. The good horse was picketed, and having provided a supper for myself and the dog from a rabbit which my gun had brought down an hour or two earlier, I disposed things for the night, and, as the stars came out, lay down to sleep, comfortably rolled in a blanket.
It was probably in the small hour of the night that I awoke and rose to a sitting posture. The moon was climbing in the eastern sky, with not a feather of cloud in the course, and every object stood forth as clearly as in the day.
But it was not for me to contemplate in quietude the rare beauty of the night. In almost the first moment of consciousness, my eyes foil upon a slowly moving object in the distance. It was one of those canvas-covered wagons, the “prairie schooners” so familiar in the early days of overland travel to California.
It was approaching almost directly toward me, and my curiosity was at once aroused. Why anyone should be traveling thus, and so late at night, I could not imagine. The movement was heavy as if the horses were jaded, and the man who walked by their side had a weary step.
Twenty minutes passed, the vehicle approaching nearer and nearer. Still on it came, until when about thirty yards from me, it suddenly stopped, and the man looking abut seemed to be considering the wisdom of making camp.
At this moment, I suddenly realized that the approach of the wagon had been utterly noiseless. Not a chuck of the wheels, not the sound of a step, either of horse or man. And, furthermore, there was no indication that I had been discovered, although I should have been as visible to this man as he to me. What could this mean? I was dreaming? No, I was never more awake. Was this a hallucination? No, for the dog, who had been aroused by my movement in awaking, now turned his head in the direction of the new arrival and uttered a low growl. I laid my hand on him to keep him quiet.
The man now stood by the forward wheel, looking in at the opening of the canvas top, and though I heard no voice, I imagined that he was speaking to someone within. A woman’s head appeared, and after a glance around gave a nod of assent, and the man proceeded to unharness the horses and turn them loose to graze. Then after a moment, in which he seemed to be anxiously surveying the trail over which they had come, he helped the women to alight.
And now, their movement greatly puzzled me. Walking to and fro, they seemed to be searching for some particular spot of ground. As I said above, I had selected my camping ground on the outer edge of the forest. They were moving about, therefore amid mingled shadows and moonbeams, but every motion was visible. Finally, the woman pointed to a space between two young trees, and the man, after looking at it for a moment, went to the rear end of the wagon and brought forth a spade. With the edge of this implement, he marked off a rectangular space about five feet by two and began to dig. All this, let it be remembered, was in absolute silence. Here were apparently living beings, actively engaged and not more than a hundred feet away, and yet no sound was borne to me on the quiet air.
By this time, my curiosity had turned to marvel. Here was a contradiction of common sense! I could not believe that what I saw was real; these beings must be apparitions. And yet here by my side was the dog, as alert as I and trembling with an impulse to investigate, while obedient to my hand to restraint.
The digging proceeded, and the soil being soft five feet of depth was soon reached, and then the man threw out the spade upon the ground. The woman, meanwhile, had been plucking branches of evergreen, bringing them in armfuls and throwing them beside “the grave,” I thought. And now, with the utmost care and patience, the whole cavity was lined with these springs of evergreen, heald in place by twigs thrust into the banks on either side.
This done, the man sprang out. The two surveyed their work for a moment, and then after gazing once more, as if in anxiety, over the route by which they had come, approached the wagon. Having rolled up the canvas on one side, they lifted out a small mattress, depositing it upon a blanket which they had spread upon the ground. This mattress was not without its burden. The beams of the full moon enabled me to see thereon a slight form – that of a little girl who had scarcely lived out three years. The pretty white hands were folded over the breast. Long golden curls fell on either side upon the pillow. The face, which I could see with astonishing clearness, was wonderfully beautiful in its aspect of innocence and bore a life-like smile, as if in answer to the radiant queen of the sky, who seemed to be smiling, too as she looked steadfastly down upon the living and the dead.
The mother forthwith proceeded to arrange the spreads upon the child, tucking them and smoothing them down as if she were only putting her little one to bed, although while I heard no sob nor any expression of grief, I could see that her breast was heaving with sorrow and her face was visited by tears.
The two now knelt on either side, kissing their darling many times, and weeping over her, though trying apparently to comfort one another in their mutual wretchedness, if perchance there might come in their hearts a calm like that with which the moon was still sending down her beams to illumine the tearful scene.
Then laying hold of the blanket, they carried their darling to the grave, and by the aid of the bridle-reins, let the precious burden down into the place which they had so carefully prepared. Green bought were scattered over her until they covered the beautiful form many inches deep, and then the clods were gently replaced, and a little mound was heaped, and the child transferred from her mother’s bosom was sleeping at last in the bosom of the greater mother earth. The two sad mourners knelt again beside the grave and seemed to be engaged in prayer, lifting their faces now and then to the sky, as if in its infinite clear depths they saw the future hopes.
All this – though I still thought it unreal – had awakened in me the keenest interest and sympathy. But my attention was now suddenly diverted to a line of figures in the distance, somewhat beyond the spot where I had seen the wagon when I first awoke. There were horsemen who came sweeping on at a rapid pace as if engaged in eager pursuit. From the manner in which they rode, I knew they were Indians. Ah! I saw it all now and understood why these spectral visitors had so often looked back apprehensively in the direction from which they had approached. These pilgrims across the plains had seen signs of savages and had used the night to push on beyond their reach if haply they might bury their dead in peace and find safety themselves. But the foe had discovered their trail and followed them, bent on massacre.
I laid my hand instinctively on the rifle under the edge of my blanket that I might join in the defense, sad was about to cry out in warning of the danger I saw approaching, but instantly bethought myself that this was unreality, a mere vision, calling for no practical action, I might better let these shadows work out their tragedy to the end. I again restrained the dog, who seemed agitated, whether because he saw what I was seeing, or out of sympathy with my emotion – I know not which.
The two at the grave seemed unconscious of the threatened danger until their enemies were within a hundred yards when the man sprang up and lifted the woman also to her feet. They turned toward the wagon as if to gain its shelter and secure weapons for defense. It was too late. I saw flashes of fire and also a flight of arrows, still without a sound, however, to break the calm of the night.
Both the man and the woman staggered as if wounded. They stopped and turned face to face, throwing their arms about each other as if realizing that this was their last embrace. Another volley, and still clinging to each other in the agony of death, they fell together upon the grave of their child.
The Indians were not long in completing their work. Then catching the horses and harnessing them into the wagon, they hastened away as though themselves in fear of pursuit. I watched them until they disappeared and then was alone with my thoughts and the brilliant night.
I realized that I had seen a vision and, though I turned myself resolutely to rest, my sleep for the remainder of the night was fitful and disturbed. When finally I awakened again, the sun had risen, and under the influence of that great dispeller is illusions, and in spite of the vividness of the night’s experience, I began to think that after all I might have been only dreaming; especially when I saw that the space where I had seen the burial and the tragedy that followed was not open and clear, but overgrown with brush and young trees.
Nevertheless, yielding to a curiosity of which I was meanwhile almost ashamed, I soon made my way into the bushes. Parting these with my hands as I went forward and scanning the ground closely, I shortly experienced a new shock of surprise. For there in the exact spot marked by the night scene. Was a little mound and beside it the remains of two skeletons.
And not for a retrospective fact which gave to this weird experience of the night a personal significance. While I was yet a lad in my teens, my brother, twenty years older, had taken his young wife and only child and set out to cross the plains in pursuit of fortune. The mails had brought home tidings of the progress of their journey up to a certain point. Beyond this, all trace was lost, and we never heard of them again.
I have not been able to account satisfactorily for that I have related. Was this an indubitable information vouchsafed to me from another world as to the fate of my relatives? If so, why was it reserved for this time and place? Was it impossible that I should have this vision elsewhere? And if this is the case, then why? Had nature photographed these tragic scenes and preserved their reflection, reproduce them for an eye that was fitted by some occult law of sympathy to behold? Let the savants answer if they can, I cannot. – Edward B Bayne.