Superstition Trail

by Owen Wister

From the October 26, 1901 Issue of The Saturday Evening Post.

Cowboys at camp

We did not make thirty-five miles that day, nor yet twenty-five, for he had let me sleep. We made an early camp and tried some unsuccessful fishing, over which he was cheerful, promising trout to-morrow when we should be higher among the mountains. He never again touched or came near the subject that was on his mind, but while I sat writing my diary, he went off to his horse Monte, and I could hear that he occasionally talked to that friend.

Next day we swung southward from what is known to many as the Conant trail, and headed for that short cut through the Tetons which is known to but a few. Bitch Creek was the name of the stream we now followed, and here there was such good fishing that we idled; and the horses and I at least enjoyed ourselves. For they found fresh pastures and shade in the now plentiful woods; and the mountain odors and the mountain heights were enough for me when the fish refused to rise. This road of ours now became the road which the pursuit had taken before the capture. Going along, I noticed the footprints of many hoofs, rain-blurred but recent, and these were the tracks of the people I had met in the stable.

“You can notice Monte’s,” said the Virginian. “He is the only one that has his hind feet shod. There’s several trails from this point down to where we have come from.”

We mounted now over a long slant of rock, smooth and of wide extent. Above us it went up easily into a little side canyon, but ahead, where our way was, it grew so steep that we got off and led our horses. This brought us to the next higher level of the mountain, a space of sagebrush more open, where the rain-washed tracks appeared again in the softer ground.

“Some one has been here since the rain,” I called to the Virginian, who was still on the rock, walking up behind the packhorses.

“Since the rain!” he exclaimed. “That’s not two days yet.” He came and examined the footprints. “A man and a hawss,” he said, frowning. “Going the same way we are. How did he come to pass us, and us not see him?”

“One of the other trails,” I reminded him.

“Yes, but there’s not many that knows them. They are pretty rough trails.”

“Worse than this one we’re taking?”

“Not much; only how does he come to know any of them? And why don’t he take the Conant trail that’s open and easy and not much longer? One man and a hawss. I don’t see who he is or what he wants here.”

“Probably a prospector,” I suggested.

“Only one outfit of prospectors has ever been here, and they claimed there was no mineral-bearing rock in these parts.”

We got back into our saddles with the mystery unsolved. To the Virginian it was a greater one, apparently, than to me; why should one have to account for every stray traveller in the mountains?

“That’s queer, too,” said the Virginian. He was now riding in front of me, and he stopped, looking down at the trail. “Don’t you notice?”

It did not strike me.

“Why, he keeps walking beside his hawss; he don’t get on him.”

Now we, of course, had mounted at the beginning of the better trail after the steep rock, and that was quite half a mile back. Still, I had a natural explanation. “He’s leading a packhorse. He’s a poor trapper, and walks.”

“Packhorses ain’t usually shod before and behind,” said the Virginian; and sliding to the ground he touched the footprints. “They are not four hours old,” said he. “This bank’s in shadow by one o’clock, and the sun has not cooked them dusty.”

We continued on our way; and although it seemed no very particular thing to me that a man should choose to walk and lead his horse for a while,—I often did so to limber my muscles,—nevertheless I began to catch the Virginian’s uncertain feeling about this traveller whose steps had appeared on our path in mid-journey, as if he had alighted from the mid-air, and to remind myself that he had come over the great face of rock from another trail and thus joined us, and that indigent trappers are to be found owning but a single horse and leading him with their belongings through the deepest solitudes of the mountains—none of this quite brought back to me the comfort which had been mine since we left the cottonwoods out of sight down in the plain. Hence I called out sharply, “What’s the matter now?” when the Virginian suddenly stopped his horse again.

He looked down at the trail, and then he very slowly turned round in his saddle and stared back steadily at me. “There’s two of them,” he said.

“Two what?”

“I don’t know.”

“You must know whether it’s two horses or two men,” I said, almost angrily.

But to this he made no answer, sitting quite still on his horse and contemplating the ground. The silence was fastening on me like a spell, and I spurred my horse impatiently forward to see for myself. The footprints of two men were there in the trail.

“What do you say to that?” said the Virginian. “Kind of ridiculous, ain’t it?”

“Very quaint,” I answered, groping for the explanation. There was no rock here to walk over and step from into the softer trail. These second steps came more out of the air than the first. And my brain played me the evil trick of showing me a dead man in a gray flannel shirt.

“It’s two, you see, travelling with one hawss, and they take turns riding him.”

“Why, of course!” I exclaimed; and we went along for a few paces.

“There you are,” said the Virginian, as the trail proved him right. “Number one has got on. My God, what’s that?”

At a crashing in the woods very close to us we both flung round and caught sight of a vanishing elk.

It left us confronted, smiling a little, and sounding each other with our eyes. “Well, we didn’t need him for meat,” said the Virginian.

“A spike-horn, wasn’t it?” said I.

“Yes, just a spike-horn.”

For a while now as we rode we kept up a cheerful conversation about elk. We wondered if we should meet many more close to the trail like this; but it was not long before our words died away. We had come into a veritable gulf of mountain peaks, sharp at their bare summits like teeth, holding fields of snow lower down, and glittering still in full day up there, while down among our pines and parks the afternoon was growing sombre. All the while the fresh hoofprints of the horse and the fresh footprints of the man preceded us. In the trees, and in the opens, across the levels, and up the steeps, they were there. And so they were not four hours old! Were they so much? Might we not, round some turn, come upon the makers of them? I began to watch for this. And again my brain played me an evil trick, against which I found myself actually reasoning thus: if they took turns riding, then walking must tire them as it did me or any man. And besides, there was a horse. With such thoughts I combated the fancy that those footprints were being made immediately in front of us all the while, and that they were the only sign of any presence which our eyes could see. But my fancy overcame my thoughts. It was shame only which held me from asking this question of the Virginian: Had one horse served in both cases of Justice down at the cottonwoods? I wondered about this. One horse—or had the strangling nooses dragged two saddles empty at the same signal? Most likely; and therefore these people up here—Was I going back to the nursery? I brought myself up short. And I told myself to be steady; there lurked in this brain-process which was going on beneath my reason a threat worse than the childish apprehensions it created. I reminded myself that I was a man grown, twenty-five years old, and that I must not merely seem like one, but feel like one. “You’re not afraid of the dark, I suppose?” This I uttered aloud, unwittingly.

“What’s that?”

I started; but it was only the Virginian behind me. “Oh, nothing. The air is getting colder up here.”

I had presently a great relief. We came to a place where again this trail mounted so abruptly that we once more got off to lead our horses. So likewise had our predecessors done; and as I watched the two different sets of footprints, I observed something and hastened to speak of it.

“One man is much heavier than the other.”

“I was hoping I’d not have to tell you that,” said the Virginian.

“You’re always ahead of me! Well, still my education is progressing.”

“Why, yes. You’ll equal an Injun if you keep on.”

It was good to be facetious; and I smiled to myself as I trudged upward. We came off the steep place, leaving the canyon beneath us, and took to horseback. And as we proceeded over the final gentle slant up to the rim of the great basin that was set among the peaks, the Virginian was jocular once more.

“Pounds has got on,” said he, “and Ounces is walking.”

I glanced over my shoulder at him, and he nodded as he fixed the weather-beaten crimson handkerchief round his neck. Then he threw a stone at a pack animal that was delaying on the trail. “Damn your buckskin hide,” he drawled. “You can view the scenery from the top.”

He was so natural, sitting loose in the saddle, and cursing in his gentle voice, that I laughed to think what visions I had been harboring. The two dead men riding one horse through the mountains vanished, and I came back to every day.

“Do you think we’ll catch up with those people?” I asked.

“Not likely. They’re travelling about the same gait we are.”

“Ounces ought to be the best walker.”

“Up hill, yes. But Pounds will go down a-foggin’.”

We gained the rim of the basin. It lay below us, a great cup of country,—rocks, woods, opens, and streams. The tall peaks rose like spires around it, magnificent and bare in the last of the sun; and we surveyed this upper world, letting our animals get breath. Our bleak, crumbled rim ran like a rampart between the towering tops, a half circle of five miles or six, very wide in some parts, and in some shrinking to a scanty foothold, as here. Here our trail crossed over it between two eroded and fantastic shapes of stone, like mushrooms, or misshapen heads on pikes. Banks of snow spread up here against the black rocks, but half an hour would see us descended to the green and the woods. I looked down, both of us looked down, but our forerunners were not there.

“They’ll be camping somewhere in this basin, though,” said the Virginian, staring at the dark pines. “They have not come this trail by accident.”

A cold little wind blew down between our stone shapes, and upward again, eddying. And round a corner upward with it came fluttering a leaf of newspaper, and caught against an edge close to me.

“What’s the latest?” inquired the Virginian from his horse. For I had dismounted, and had picked up the leaf.

“Seems to be interesting,” I next heard him say. “Can’t you tell a man what’s making your eyes bug out so?”

“Yes,” my voice replied to him, and it sounded like some stranger speaking lightly near by; “oh, yes! Decidedly interesting.” My voice mimicked his pronunciation. “It’s quite the latest, I imagine. You had better read it yourself.” And I handed it to him with a smile, watching his countenance, while my brain felt as if clouds were rushing through it.

I saw his eyes quietly run the headings over. “Well?” he inquired, after scanning it on both sides. “I don’t seem to catch the excitement. Fremont County is going to hold elections. I see they claim Jake—”

“It’s mine,” I cut him off. “My own paper. Those are my pencil marks.”

I do not think that a microscope could have discerned a change in his face. “Oh,” he commented, holding the paper, and fixing it with a critical eye. “You mean this is the one you lent Steve, and he wanted to give me to give back to you. And so them are your own marks.” For a moment more he held it judicially, as I have seen men hold a contract upon whose terms they were finally passing. “Well, you have got it back now, anyway.” And he handed it to me.

“Only a piece of it!” I exclaimed, always lightly. And as I took it from him his hand chanced to touch mine. It was cold as ice.

“They ain’t through readin’ the rest,” he explained easily. “Don’t you throw it away! After they’ve taken such trouble.”

“That’s true,” I answered. “I wonder if it’s Pounds or Ounces I’m indebted to.”

Thus we made further merriment as we rode down into the great basin. Before us, the horse and boot tracks showed plain in the soft slough where melted snow ran half the day.

“If it’s a paper chase,” said the Virginian, “they’ll drop no more along here.”

“Unless it gets dark,” said I.

“We’ll camp before that. Maybe we’ll see their fire.”

We did not see their fire. We descended in the chill silence, while the mushroom rocks grew far and the sombre woods approached. By a stream we got off where two banks sheltered us; for a bleak wind cut down over the crags now and then, making the pines send out a great note through the basin, like breakers in a heavy sea. But we made cosey in the tent. We pitched the tent this night, and I was glad to have it shut out the mountain peaks. They showed above the banks where we camped; and in the starlight their black shapes rose stark against the sky. They, with the pines and the wind, were a bedroom too unearthly this night. And as soon as our supper dishes were washed we went inside to our lantern and our game of cribbage.

“This is snug,” said the Virginian, as we played. “That wind don’t get down here.”

“Smoking is snug, too,” said I. And we marked our points for an hour, with no words save about the cards.

“I’ll be pretty near glad when we get out of these mountains,” said the Virginian. “They’re most too big.”

The pines had altogether ceased; but their silence was as tremendous as their roar had been.

“I don’t know, though,” he resumed. “There’s times when the plains can be awful big, too.”

Presently we finished a hand, and he said, “Let me see that paper.”

He sat reading it apparently through, while I arranged my blankets to make a warm bed. Then, since the paper continued to absorb him, I got myself ready, and slid between my blankets for the night. “You’ll need another candle soon in that lantern,” said I.

He put the paper down. “I would do it all over again,” he began. “The whole thing just the same. He knowed the customs of the country, and he played the game. No call to blame me for the customs of the country. You leave other folks’ cattle alone, or you take the consequences, and it was all known to Steve from the start. Would he have me take the Judge’s wages and give him the wink? He must have changed a heap from the Steve I knew if he expected that. I don’t believe he expected that. He knew well enough the only thing that would have let him off would have been a regular jury. For the thieves have got hold of the juries in Johnson County. I would do it all over, just the same.”

The expiring flame leaped in the lantern, and fell blue. He broke off in his words as if to arrange the light, but did not, sitting silent instead, just visible, and seeming to watch the death struggle of the flame. I could find nothing to say to him, and I believed he was now winning his way back to serenity by himself. He kept his outward man so nearly natural that I forgot about that cold touch of his hand, and never guessed how far out from reason the tide of emotion was even now whirling him. “I remember at Cheyenne onced,” he resumed. And he told me of a Thanksgiving visit to town that he had made with Steve. “We was just colts then,” he said. He dwelt on their coltish doings, their adventures sought and wrought in the perfect fellowship of youth. “For Steve and me most always hunted in couples back in them gamesome years,” he explained. And he fell into the elemental talk of sex, such talk as would be an elk’s or tiger’s; and spoken so by him, simply and naturally, as we speak of the seasons, or of death, or of any actuality, it was without offense. It would be offense should I repeat it. Then, abruptly ending these memories of himself and Steve, he went out of the tent, and I heard him dragging a log to the fire. When it had blazed up, there on the tent wall was his shadow and that of the log where he sat with his half-broken heart. And all the while I supposed he was master of himself, and self-justified against Steve’s omission to bid him good-by.

I must have fallen asleep before he returned, for I remember nothing except waking and finding him in his blankets beside me. The fire shadow was gone, and gray, cold light was dimly on the tent. He slept restlessly, and his forehead was ploughed by lines of pain. While I looked at him he began to mutter, and suddenly started up with violence. “No!” he cried out; “no! Just the same!” and thus wakened himself, staring. “What’s the matter?” he demanded. He was slow in getting back to where we were; and full consciousness found him sitting up with his eyes fixed on mine. They were more haunted than they had been at all, and his next speech came straight from his dream. “Maybe you’d better quit me. This ain’t your trouble.”

I laughed. “Why, what is the trouble?”

His eyes still intently fixed on mine. “Do you think if we changed our trail we could lose them from us?”

I was framing a jocose reply about Ounces being a good walker, when the sound of hoofs rushing in the distance stopped me, and he ran out of the tent with his rifle. When I followed with mine he was up the bank, and all his powers alert. But nothing came out of the dimness save our three stampeded horses. They crashed over fallen timber and across the open to where their picketed comrade grazed at the end of his rope. By him they came to a stand, and told him, I suppose, what they had seen; for all four now faced in the same direction, looking away into the mysterious dawn. We likewise stood peering, and my rifle barrel felt cold in my hand. The dawn was all we saw, the inscrutable dawn, coming and coming through the black pines and the gray open of the basin. There above lifted the peaks, no sun yet on them, and behind us our stream made a little tinkling.

“A bear, I suppose,” said I, at length.

His strange look fixed me again, and then his eyes went to the horses. “They smell things we can’t smell,” said he, very slowly. “Will you prove to me they don’t see things we can’t see?”

A chill shot through me, and I could not help a frightened glance where we had been watching. But one of the horses began to graze and I had a wholesome thought. “He’s tired of whatever he sees, then,” said I, pointing.

A smile came for a moment in the Virginian’s face. “Must be a poor show,” he observed. All the horses were grazing now, and he added, “It ain’t hurt their appetites any.”

We made our own breakfast then. And what uncanny dread I may have been touched with up to this time henceforth left me in the face of a real alarm. The shock of Steve was working upon the Virginian. He was aware of it himself; he was fighting it with all his might; and he was being overcome. He was indeed like a gallant swimmer against whom both wind and tide have conspired. And in this now foreboding solitude there was only myself to throw him ropes. His strokes for safety were as bold as was the undertow that ceaselessly annulled them.

“I reckon I made a fuss in the tent?” said he, feeling his way with me.

I threw him a rope. “Yes. Nightmare—indigestion—too much newspaper before retiring.”

He caught the rope. “That’s correct! I had a hell of a foolish dream for a growed-up man. You’d not think it of me.”

“Oh, yes, I should. I’ve had them after prolonged lobster and champagne.”

“Ah,” he murmured, “prolonged! Prolonged is what does it.” He glanced behind him. “Steve came back—”

“In your lobster dream,” I put in.

But he missed this rope. “Yes,” he answered, with his eyes searching me. “And he handed me the paper—”

“By the way, where is that?” I asked.

“I built the fire with it. But when I took it from him it was a six-shooter I had hold of, and pointing at my breast. And then Steve spoke. ‘Do you think you’re fit to live?’ Steve said; and I got hot at him, and I reckon I must have told him what I thought of him. You heard me, I expect?”

“Glad I didn’t. Your language sometimes is—”

He laughed out. “Oh, I account for all this that’s happening just like you do. If we gave our explanations, they’d be pretty near twins.”

“The horses saw a bear, then?”

“Maybe a bear. Maybe “—but here the tide caught him again—“What’s your idea about dreams?”

My ropes were all out. “Liver—nerves,” was the best I could do.

But now he swam strongly by himself.

“You may think I’m discreditable,” he said, “but I know I am. It ought to take more than—well, men have lost their friendships before. Feuds and wars have cloven a right smart of bonds in twain. And if my haid is going to get shook by a little old piece of newspaper—I’m ashamed I burned that. I’m ashamed to have been that weak.”

“Any man gets unstrung,” I told him. My ropes had become straws; and I strove to frame some policy for the next hours.

We now finished breakfast and set forth to catch the horses. As we drove them in I found that the Virginian was telling me a ghost story. “At half-past three in the morning she saw her runaway daughter standing with a babe in her arms; but when she moved it was all gone. Later they found it was the very same hour the young mother died in Nogales. And she sent for the child and raised it herself. I knowed them both back home. Do you believe that?”

I said nothing.

“No more do I believe it,” he asserted. “And see here! Nogales time is three hours different from Richmond. I didn’t know about that point then.”

Once out of these mountains, I knew he could right himself; but even I, who had no Steve to dream about, felt this silence of the peaks was preying on me.

“Her daughter and her might have been thinkin’ mighty hard about each other just then,” he pursued. “But Steve is dead. Finished. You cert’nly don’t believe there’s anything more?”

“I wish I could,” I told him.

“No, I’m satisfied. Heaven didn’t never interest me much. But if there was a world of dreams after you went—” He stopped himself and turned his searching eyes away from mine. “There’s a heap o’ darkness wherever you try to step,” he said, “and I thought I’d left off wasting thoughts on the subject. You see”—he dexterously roped a horse, and once more his splendid sanity was turned to gold by his imagination—“I expect in many growed-up men you’d call sensible there’s a little boy sleepin’—the little kid they onced was—that still keeps his fear of the dark. You mentioned the dark yourself yesterday. Well, this experience has woke up that kid in me, and blamed if I can coax the little cuss to go to sleep again! I keep a-telling him daylight will sure come, but he keeps a-crying and holding on to me.”

Somewhere far in the basin there was a faint sound, and we stood still.

“Hush!” he said.

But it was like our watching the dawn; nothing more followed.

“They have shot that bear,” I remarked.

He did not answer, and we put the saddles on without talk. We made no haste, but we were not over half an hour, I suppose, in getting off with the packs. It was not a new thing to hear a shot where wild game was in plenty; yet as we rode that shot sounded already in my mind different from others. Perhaps I should not believe this to-day but for what I look back to. To make camp last night we had turned off the trail, and now followed the stream down for a while, taking next a cut through the wood. In this way we came upon the tracks of our horses where they had been galloping back to the camp after their fright. They had kicked up the damp and matted pine needles very plainly all along.

“Nothing has been here but themselves, though,” said I.

“And they ain’t showing signs of remembering any scare,” said the Virginian.

In a little while we emerged upon an open.

“Here’s where they was grazing,” said the Virginian; and the signs were clear enough. “Here’s where they must have got their scare,” he pursued. “You stay with them while I circle a little.” So I stayed; and certainly our animals were very calm at visiting this scene. When you bring a horse back to where he has recently encountered a wild animal his ears and his nostrils are apt to be wide awake.

The Virginian had stopped and was beckoning to me.

“Here’s your bear,” said he, as I arrived. “Two-legged, you see. And he had a hawss of his own.” There was a stake driven down where an animal had been picketed for the night.

“Looks like Ounces,” I said, considering the footprints.

“It’s Ounces. And Ounces wanted another hawss very bad, so him and Pounds could travel like gentlemen should.”

“But Pounds doesn’t seem to have been with him.”

“Oh, Pounds, he was making coffee, somewheres in yonder, when this happened. Neither of them guessed there’d be other hawsses wandering here in the night, or they both would have come.” He turned back to our pack animals.

“Then you’ll not hunt for this camp to make sure?”

“I prefer making sure first. We might be expected at that camp.”

He took out his rifle from beneath his leg and set it across his saddle at half-cock. I did the same; and thus cautiously we resumed our journey in a slightly different direction. “This ain’t all we’re going to find out,” said the Virginian. “Ounces had a good idea; but I reckon he made a bad mistake later.”

We had found out a good deal without any more, I thought. Ounces had gone to bring in their single horse, and coming upon three more in the pasture had undertaken to catch one and failed, merely driving them where he feared to follow.

“Shorty never could rope a horse alone,” I remarked.

The Virginian grinned. “Shorty? Well, Shorty sounds as well as Ounces. But that ain’t the mistake I’m thinking he made.”

I knew that he would not tell me, but that was just like him. For the last twenty minutes, having something to do, he had become himself again, had come to earth from that unsafe country of the brain where beckoned a spectral Steve. Nothing was left but in his eyes that question which pain had set there; and I wondered if his friend of old, who seemed so brave and amiable, would have dealt him that hurt at the solemn end had he known what a poisoned wound it would be.

We came out on a ridge from which we could look down. “You always want to ride on high places when there’s folks around whose intentions ain’t been declared,” said the Virginian. And we went along our ridge for some distance. Then, suddenly he turned down and guided us almost at once to the trail. “That’s it,” he said. “See.”

The track of a horse was very fresh on the trail. But it was a galloping horse now, and no bootprints were keeping up with it any more. No boots could have kept up with it. The rider was making time to-day. Yesterday that horse had been ridden up into the mountains at leisure. Who was on him? There was never to be any certain answer to that. But who was not on him? We turned back in our journey, back into the heart of that basin with the tall peaks all rising like teeth in the cloudless sun, and the snow-fields shining white.

“He was afraid of us,” said the Virginian. “He did not know how many of us had come up here. Three hawsses might mean a dozen more around.”

We followed the backward trail in among the pines, and came after a time upon their camp. And then I understood the mistake that Shorty had made. He had returned after his failure, and had told that other man of the presence of new horses. He should have kept this a secret; for haste had to be made at once, and two cannot get away quickly upon one horse. But it was poor Shorty’s last blunder. He lay there by their extinct fire, with his wistful, lost-dog face upward, and his thick yellow hair unparted as it had always been. The murder had been done from behind. We closed the eyes.

“There was no natural harm in him,” said the Virginian. “But you must do a thing well in this country.”

There was not a trace, not a clew, of the other man; and we found a place where we could soon cover Shorty with earth. As we lifted him we saw the newspaper that he had been reading. He had brought it from the clump of cottonwoods where he and the other man had made a later visit than ours to be sure of the fate of their friends—or possibly in hopes of another horse. Evidently, when the party were surprised, they had been able to escape with only one. All of the newspaper was there save the leaf I had picked up—all and more, for this had pencil writing on it that was not mine, nor did I at first take it in. I thought it might be a clew, and I read it aloud. “Good-by, Jeff,” it said. “I could not have spoke to you without playing the baby.”

“Who’s Jeff?” I asked. But it came over me when I looked at the Virginian. He was standing beside me quite motionless; and then he put out his hand and took the paper, and stood still, looking at the words. “Steve used to call me Jeff,” he said, “because I was Southern. I reckon nobody else ever did.”

He slowly folded the message from the dead, brought by the dead, and rolled it in the coat behind his saddle. For a half-minute he stood leaning his forehead down against the saddle. After this he came back and contemplated Shorty’s face awhile. “I wish I could thank him,” he said. “I wish I could.”

We carried Shorty over and covered him with earth, and on that laid a few pine branches; then we took up our journey, and by the end of the forenoon we had gone some distance upon our trail through the Teton Mountains. But in front of us the hoofprints ever held their stride of haste, drawing farther from us through the hours, until by the next afternoon somewhere we noticed they were no longer to be seen; and after that they never came upon the trail again.