The Ghost


by Pat Goldammer



With sincere thanks to DJ for the beta work and my husband for the editorial work

Disclaimer: The characters are based on the TV series Laramie created by John Champion. I do not own the rights to these characters. This work is only for fun and no profit has been made.

 

Chapter 1

 

            Night fell as the great cat woke her nearly grown cub - it was time to hunt.  Soon, perhaps after one or two more hunts, would come the time for parting. The beautiful pair in their tawny lethality silently descended from their mountain home slipping toward the waiting prey in the broad grassland valley below.

*

It was one of those beautiful Wyoming mornings, in May, where the sun shines upon a prairie green with new grass. A day Slim fully appreciated as winter had been long and hard; it was good to feel the sun again. Slim smiled at Jess’ reaction to the weather. While Slim felt that this was the perfect day for just shirt sleeves, Jess was still wearing a coat. Even after four years of Wyoming weather the Texan still hadn’t quite adjusted.

 

“At least today Jess only wore his denim jacket instead of his big sheepskin, so perhaps he is getting used to the climate,” thought Slim.

 

            Turning back to the task at hand, Slim pulled out his tally book, and began making the west range cattle count. He enjoyed watching the calves frolicking behind their mothers. Scanning across the prairie Slim spotted something out of place. It was a mound of grass and leaves that looked like something was buried under it. Curious, Slim rode to the area.

 

 As he neared, his mount, Alamo started to get a case of nerves.  Slim shared Alamo’s uneasiness as he dismounted to read sign. The leaves and grass covered the entrails of an animal, likely a calf. Slim’s mouth hardened into a grim line as he examined the area for tracks and other signs. Slim knew only of two animals that gut their kills: man and mountain lion. Presently the clues came together - mountain lion not a rustler. Slim found where the calf had been standing, where it was killed, where it had been dragged into a stand of Cottonwoods, and then buried.

 

“Four calves lost and we’re not half past May. This is getting expensive,” Slim thought as he widened the search pattern hoping to learn the direction of the cat’s departure. Examining the feeding area he noticed two different sized prints.

 

“Wonderful, it’s a female and her nearly grown cub. This is just what I need, two cougars with a taste for beef.”

 

Slim continued his tracking, locating where the pair had left the carcass and departed the area.

 

Slim considered his elimination options. Most local ranchers favored carcass poisoning. When the predator returned to feed again, they got more than they bargained for, and the rancher had one less problem. Not Slim, because poison killed more than just the culprit. Any animal feeding on the carcass would be killed: coyotes, wolves, foxes, vultures, and ravens.

 

“Shoot even my first dog died after getting a hold of a poisoned carcass”, thought Slim. “No. No matter how easy the method, that option isn’t for me. I’ll try tracking for a bit and see what I come up with. If I have to I’ll hire Perkins and his dogs.”

 

 Slim followed the tracks of the two cats as they headed down to the creek. There, in the mud, Slim found a single perfect paw print. Now perfect tracks are fairly rare and the detail on this one was extraordinary. The track was of the larger cat’s left front paw and clearly showed the distinctive three lobed pad’s base. It was the scar mark running across the pad’s base which caused the hair on the back of Slim’s neck to rise and his stomach to chill.

 

“She’s back, I’m tracking The Ghost.” Slim was scanning the area for danger.

 

Everyone knew tales of The Ghost, a big cougar that had been eluding hunters since ‘66. That year the cattlemen’s association declared war on the mountain lions and hired a professional hunter. The man was very good at what he did. But he disappeared. The remains of his body were found by two men deer hunting. The hunter had become the hunted and the cougar, though wounded, came out on top. Ranchers thought that the cougar must have crawled off to die as the stock killings stopped. They were proved wrong when the next year the killings began again with an occasional scarred cougar track appearing around the site of a kill.

 

            Locals began calling the animal The Ghost because she would come, kill stock, and then vanish. Ranchers had baited the cat’s cached meat to no avail. Trackers had stalked The Ghost without success. More than once Perkins had tracked The Ghost with his dogs but the cat had given the dogs the slip each time. The cat showed up in ’67, ‘68 and then in early ’70 but hadn’t been back since.

 

            Slim was determined to find the man killer, but after trying both upstream and downstream it became clear that he had joined the long list of hunters that The Ghost had eluded. He gave up and headed toward home. As dusk fell, the temperature dropped rapidly and clouds rolled in from the north.

 

Chapter 2

            After Daisy and Mike had gone to bed Slim told Jess about The Ghost.

“Last time we knew for certain that The Ghost was in the area was the spring before you showed up. With all that happened with the Carlin gang and everything that’s gone on since, I guess I never thought to tell you about her. But for sure and for certain she is back and just as dangerous. She sure gave me the slip at the creek.”

 

“You’re no slouch at track’n but that cat’s never run up against the likes of me. Want me to see what I can come up with come morn’n?” Jess stretched back in his rocker and put his feet up on the hearth.

 

“I’m not so sure that either of us should be going after that cat alone. Not to mention the problem with going after her and a nearly fully grown cub. I’m thinking that we should both give it a shot. We’ll have to wait until the day after tomorrow to leave. Mr. Frasier’s replacement is due in tomorrow to look at the account books. Then I could get Craig to come and look after the stages.”

 

“Those cats could be long gone by then. Why are you a’ worry’n ‘bout my hide anyway, I seem to have kept it intact for all these years.”

 

“Don’t you mean mostly intact.” Slim grinned at his partner. Jess had taken more than his fair share of injuries over the years in which he had known him. 

 

Jess cocked an eyebrow in Slim’s direction. “Guess I walked into that one. Still I’d like to start hunting in the morning. You could catch up with me on the trail. You seem to have a knack for following me and catching up.”

 

Slim smiled knowingly, “I suppose I do. You’ve sure given me enough practice. Alright, you win. You go in the morning and I’ll be along.”

 

 Slim rose from the couch on which he had been sitting and looked out the window. “Well, Jess you just caught a break for tomorrow’s tracking, it’s starting to snow.”

*

 Slim and Jess were up early; while Slim went to saddle the horses Jess met Daisy in the kitchen. He was pleasantly surprised to find the coffee ready and that she had already packed some supplies for him.

 

“I packed enough ground coffee for at least a week. Land’s sake I think you go through more coffee than beans when you’re away.” Daisy playfully remarked to the man she considered her middle son.

 

“Thanks Daisy. Man’s got to have his priorities and you shor’ know mine.”

 

“Jess, why don’t you grab one of those medicinal purpose bottles from off of the top shelf?”

 

Jess almost gagged on the coffee he was drinking. Daisy never suggested taking alcohol unless he or Slim were heading after someone who was injured. “Huh?” was his inelegant reply.

“Call me a silly old woman but I’ve got a bad feeling about this trip. You will be careful won’t you dear?” Daisy looked up into his face.

 

“Daisy you are never silly. I will be careful and pack some whiskey although I sur’ don’t plan on using none.” Jess and Slim were both sticklers about not drinking when hunting, a fact which Daisy was well aware of.

 

“Have a good trip dear and be safe.”

 

“Got every intention of doing just that,” Jess replied taking his heavy coat from the hook. Picking up his rifle he turned to as he got his hat and headed for the door, “Don’t you go frett’n none, I’ll be back soon.”

 

Chapter 4

 

The spring snow storm had been light – less than an inch. In the west pasture Slim was again amazed at his partner’s ability to read sign. While Slim could tell where a large animal had approached the carcass the tracks were so snow obscured that he couldn’t tell if they were cat or wolf. Yet Jess was able to read an entire story in the ground.

 

“Well Slim, I’ve found where those two came in last night during the snow. Dag-gum you sure are right about this cat being a clever one. This is where she catches a whiff of you and sure as shoot’n she drives her young-un off and won’t let it feed. Small wonder nobody has had any luck with poison. This cat won’t feed if she smells man. They both take off in this direction. With luck I may catch up to them afore nightfall.”

 

Jess stood up from where he had being kneeling and began leading Traveler after the two cats.

 

“I’ll try and find you tomorrow, just be careful,” Slim said while turning Alamo back toward the house.

 

“Plan on it, but as far as I’m concerned I figure the one bracing a man-eater is you - danged miserable business dealing with accountants.”

 

Slim laughed, “You’re probable right at that. See you in a day or so.”

 

“Bring some of Daisy’s fresh biscuits when you come.” Jess grinned as he called to his friend.

 

“Plan to, ‘cause the only thing yours are good for is throwing.” Slim touched his spurs to Alamo and ducked as Jess scooped up a handful of snow and threw it at him.

 

Jess shook his head at his retreating friend’s back and then vaulted into Traveler’s saddle. “Time to go to work boy,” Jess reined Traveler in the direction of the departed cougars’ tracks.

Chapter 5

           

The morning went well as Jess easily followed their trail. The pair headed toward the Medicine Bow Mountains at a fairly easy pace.

 

“Good, at this rate I should have them in my sights by this evening,” he thought.

 

            Jess’ luck held until early afternoon as he followed the pair up a narrow valley. The sun had been melting the scant snow fall and the tracks were becoming harder to locate. All of a sudden the semi-clear trail seemed to disappear.

 

“Dang, cats don’t up ‘n vanish,” thought Jess.

 

Looking up the slope he noticed that there were a lot of downed trees, their logs chris-crossing the mountain side. The sun had cleared most of the wood of the snow.

 

“I wonder if those two tried walking on the logs. It would sure be easier going if heading up slope was their intention.” Jess thought as he got off Traveler and began picking his way along side of the downed trees. He was rewarded with the discovery of the occasional imprint or the mark of freshly chipped bark. Working the trail was extremely slow going and when he finally figured out exactly where the two animals had topped the rise and in which direction they had headed it was late in the day. The down slope tracking was easier going and Jess could tell that he was again gaining ground on his elusive quarry.

 

As the day wore on, the trail Jess followed led him higher into the mountains. He was following the pair in a pine forest when they played another trick on their pursuer. At a large tree in which the pair had rested, Jess could not find where the pair had descended.  Looking into the tree he saw a place where a large diameter limb crossed into another tree.

 

“Son of a gun, bet y’all took to the danged trees. Stay up there long enough and no wonder dogs can’t track you,” he thought.

 

Jess was forced to resort to making some educated guesses as to where the cats were traveling to in the trees. He would occasionally spy a broken branch or see a fresh scratch in the bark which gave him some hope that he was still on the pair’s trail. Twice he was forced to climb a tree to discover which way the pair had gone. In between cussing his boots (which weren’t suited to climbing trees) Jess marveled at the cougars’ abilities to jump huge distances from standing starts.

 

Night fell and Jess made camp. He made his dinner and enjoyed a couple cups of coffee before turning in. He was thinking about his quarry, and the fact that the older cougar was a known man killer, as he banked the fire before turning in.

 Figuring that the low burning fire would deter most animals from approaching and relying on both Traveler and his well honed scenes to alert him to any danger Jess fell asleep.

 

As he dreamt of tracking cougars that then were tracking him, the gentle brush of fur against his neck brought him to instant (if not complete) awareness. Jess knew exactly which cougar was twitching her tail across his neck and made his play for the gun he had placed under the saddle he was using as a pillow. Flinging one arm up to ward off The Ghost, he pulled the gun and brought it to bear on his attacker…sighting on the two beady eyes gleaming in the moonlight.

 

 He relaxed his hand from pulling the trigger as his mind came to full awareness. The eyes of the mouse like varmint where huge in relationship to its body and it looked like it would fall over except that it was balanced on its back feet by its long furry tail. The critter wobbled after being tossed half way across the campsite, but the kangaroo rat recovered quickly and bounced away from his violently unwelcoming bed partner.

 

Traveler looked over at his master and gently nickered at him sounding, just like he was gently laughing at the ex-gunman for drawing down on a rodent. Jess’s own laughter joined that of his horse as he sheepishly eased the hammer back down on his firearm.

 

“I’m danged glad Slim isn’t here to see this or I’d never live it down,” thought Jess.

 

Shaking his head to clear it of all the endless possibilities Slim was missing out on. He settled back into bed.

*

It was the second night of hunger for The Ghost and her cub. The pair found a mountain stream and filled their aching bellies with water. They then moved off and circled back hoping to surprise whatever came to drink. Their patience was rewarded when a large raccoon showed up. The Ghost let her cub attack and was pleased with its success. The raccoon wasn’t large enough to feed both great cats so The Ghost continued her hunt: first upstream and then up the mountainside. She was rewarded with an unlucky possum just before dawn. She then settled herself in a high rocky outcrop for a nap. Her cub would catch up. The experience of tracking her would be good training for it.

 

Chapter 6

 

Slim got up early to take care of the morning chores before Craig arrived. He wanted to leave as soon as possible despite Jess’ assurance that he would have already gotten the lions. “The Ghost is dangerous,” Slim thought as he worried about his friend.

*

Dawn woke Jess from his disturbed night’s sleep. A quick breakfast of bacon and three cups of coffee and he was back to tracking the two elusive mountain lions. The morning was brisk as he buttoned up his sheepskin jacket against the cold. As he followed the trail higher into the mountain range, the countryside became a mixture of sage, meadow, trees and rocky outcrops. Smiling grimly to himself he knew that he was closing on the pair. Later that morning Jess found the remains of the cub’s raccoon dinner.

 

Jess thought, “Consarn it, just one cat eating here and it’s the smaller of the two. The Ghost must be about to cut her cub loose since she’s letting it make its’ own kills. Pa always said Cougars weren’t team hunters. Tar-nation, it would just be my luck for those two to permanently split up now.”

 

As Jess followed the young cougar up the creek, Traveler got more and more skittish.  He knew that they were getting closer.  Jess figured that Traveler could smell the cat as the wind was blowing downstream.

 

“So much the better, the cat won’t know I’m coming,” thought Jess as he dismounted.

 

Loosely tying Traveler to a bush Jess began stalking his quarry on foot.  Up ahead he heard the sound of clattering deer hooves and the snarling attack of a cougar.

 

“Guess you got yourself a last meal,” thought Jess and he moved up a talus slope so that he could get a good view of the creek. Moving very carefully and quietly his stealth was rewarded as he soon spotted the lone cat below him feeding on her fresh kill.

*

Her daughter’s snarl brought The Ghost out of her nap. Stretching her back she started to descend to the creek bottom but froze in her tracks as the wind painted a picture of what was going on below her. The blood scent told The Ghost that her child had made short work of the deer. But there was another scent between The Ghost and her daughter. Her lips curled back in a silent snarl as she recognized the hated stench of man. Sticking to the high rock ledge, she closed in on the hated smell desperately shortening the distance between herself and her cub. Peering over a rock lip she spotted the man below her.

 

Back toward The Ghost, the man raised his rifle and pointed it at the oblivious cub. She hastily lined herself up so that she would strike the man at the base of his neck, striking there would be a sure and fast kill. As she sprang she made no warning snarls; her pounce would be silent and deadly.

*

Jess had stepped on to a fairly large and flat rock so that he could get a steady clean shot at the killer cat below him. As he sighted down the barrel of the Winchester and squeezed off his round several things happened. First, the rock on which Jess stood gave way beneath his feet causing his shot to go high. But while the slipping rock ruined Jess’ shot, it also saved his life as The Ghost struck his shoulder and not his neck. The Ghost’s weight bowled Jess to the ground and the two hunters rolled and slid down the slope.

Jess managed to keep a hold of his rifle even when he slammed into a rock. The sudden stop knocked The Ghost off his back and threw the cat in front of him. Jess’ lightning quick reflexes allowed him to bring the rifle to bear and fire a round even as The Ghost recovered and sprang back at him. The bullet struck her heart and the force of it knocked her backwards away from Jess.

 

It was a pure adrenaline rush which got Jess to his feet as he frantically searched for a glimpse of the other cougar. Jess hadn’t seen where his shot had gone or if he had hit the animal at all. However, he knew that he was bleeding from where he had been raked and passing out from blood loss in the presence of a cougar, was not on his list of things to do that day. He moved quickly down slope hoping to see the animal.

 

Talus slopes are tricky to cross on the best of days and this was turning out to not be one of Jess’ better days. His boots hit a stack of loose rock which promptly knocked his feet out from under him. “Not again,” was the last coherent thought Jess had, as he smacked his head on a rock.

 

Chapter 7

 

Burning pain brought Jess back to himself along with the knowledge that something big and heavy had a hold of him. The cougar had come back! He bucked the cat off of him and clawed for his sidearm. In a snap he pulled the six-gun and forced open his blood sealed eyes. He sighted on the second killer ….

 

“JESS NO!”

 

The words hit his ears just as the blurry image of a man sprawled in front of him came to his sight. Jess jerked up the six-gun.

 

“Slim?” Pain caused his back muscles to spasm and Jess pitched forward and straight into the arms of his friend.

 

“Yea, I swear you’ve never come to fighting so dang hard before. You near busted my jaw.” Slim sounded both annoyed and concerned.

 

His hands gently turned his injured partner over so that Jess could face him. Slim slid one of his legs under Jess’ back so that the wounded shoulder wouldn’t touch the ground.

 

“What were you thinking anyway?”

 

“Sorry Slim, I cum to with my back on fire and I was sure you were that blamed cat trying to eat me.”

 

“Well, I’m sure glad somebody drilled it through that hard head of yours to check your target before touching off that hog leg.”

 

“Yeah, me too,” Jess softly replied. “How bad is it back there?”

 

“Well, I got about half those cuts cleaned out with the whiskey Daisy sent with you. Good thing she insisted I haul a second with me,” Slim smiled and pointed out the remains of the shattered bottle. He was serious as he continued, “You got some major scratches. Your coat took the worst of it, saved you from a real mauling. The bleeding was stopped by the time I found you.”  

 

Then Slim’s eyes took on a familiar twinkle, “But I’m afraid that coat of yours is a goner.”

 

Slim rolled Jess back to his stomach so he could get another bottle off Alamo.  As he did Jess noticed that it was very late in the day.

 

When Slim returned he handed Jess a piece of leather. “Here bite down on this, ‘cause this won’t be no picnic.”

 

As Jess put the strap into his mouth, he said to Slim, “Let’er rip”. The whiskey hit his back and he lost track of time for a bit.

*

After Slim finished doctoring Jess he went down to the creek. While he found the dead deer of the other cat, there were only a few tracks and a little bit of blood leading away from the area. Slim judged by the spacing of the tracks and the limited amount of blood that the cat hadn’t been hit very badly.  

 

“I’ll get Perkins and his dogs up here. Right now it’s more important to get Jess home.”

 

Chapter 8

 

The next day when Slim got Jess home some of the claw marks had taken on an angry look. The resulting fever caused Jess to mutter in his sleep about cats turning into rats which he never would explain to Slim.

 

 Everyone was pleased that Jess recovered quickly as Jess was a poor patient.

 

Perkins took his dogs into the mountains but returned empty handed. The stock killings stopped and the two ranchers figured that the cougar had cleared out.

*

The following fall as Daisy was in the barn gathering one more egg for a cake she was making she overheard Jess teaching Mike how to shoot.

 

“Always check your target Tiger, no matter what, before you squeeze the trigger.” Jess’ rich voice came through the barn wall. “Doesn’t matter how fast I bring my gun up I always do.”

 

“That’s why you didn’t shoot Slim up on the mountain?”

 

“Check’n my target saved more than Slim that trip.” Jess’ voice grew softer, “Promise not to tell Slim.”

 

“Cross my heart Jess, I’ll never tell,” Mike solemnly swore.

 

Daisy moved closer to the wall. While she had once told the boys that her moccasins were comfortable she had neglected to mention that they also allowed her to move silently as a cat when she wished. She snuck closer to the back wall of the barn and eavesdropped with glee as Jess told Mike about his encounter with the Kangaroo Rat. When Jess’ tale was done she crept back to the house.

 

Thinking to herself, “Oh Jess, Mike may never tell Slim about cats that turn into rats. But the next time you’re hurt and give me grief about wanting to get up to soon - I’ve got the perfect story to blackmail you right back into that bed.”

 

Chapter 9

 

Two winters had come and gone when the great cat with the bullet notched ear returned to the mountains where she had been born. As she showed her first cub how to track and stalk a beautiful buck, she caught the scent which her mother had warned her about years before.

 

“Beware my child of this scent, for it is man. When you smell it, it is the time to hide, and to walk softly.”

 

The mother and cub silently moved away from the dark haired man, riding the bay horse. As they moved away the great cat continued, “Remember and pass this to your children: we are the silent ones, and the ones of the shadows. This is how we survive.”

 

Jess was unaware of the proximity of the pair and continued to hunt for stray cattle along the stream. Traveler, however, began to act extremely nervous and Jess scanned the hill side, trees and rocky ledges. Of whatever was causing his horse distress, he saw no sign.

 

The End

 

Authors Note: The scene with the Kangaroo Rat is based on truth. It happened to my father when he was out deer hunting. It just proves that reality can be funnier than fiction.

 



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