Ghost Riders in the Sky

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Collection of drunken stories from the Saloon of the Watchful Eye, Phoenix. Heard around November 1882:

Told by John Williams, before entering into a brawl with another customer

Much attention has come to the town of Pozo Blanco as of late, over whatever happened in it, but I was there when it disappeared. Gold had been discovered north of the Verde River, and I was one of many who thought it an opportunity to gain riches.

The wagon train I had the misfortune of boarding wasn't led by the brightest of men, in trying to use a shortcut they led us directly into Mormon territory, at the southern border of Deseret, where a particularly militant sect had been recently settled. None of us were aware of the fact, so when the first of their raiders came to attack our caravan in late October, we were barely able to repel them at great cost. Luckily no lives were lost that first day, but we knew we had to prepare for further fighting.

The first day we had the luck of only fighting two men, the second we found ourselves facing ten, on the third their dozen struck deep inside the defensive circle we had formed with our wagons, burning many of our supplies, and the fourth day, October 30th, their twenty raiders broke down most of the fortifications we had raised the previous days. In these 4 days we only managed to shoot down a single one of them.

We were all well aware the 5th was going to be the last day of this skirmish, but few had the morale to still fight. Many had been injured in the previous day, water was low, the heat felt like being punched in the face, while the nightly winds cut like a knife. Surrender wasn't an option, the Mormons never took prisoners, so we could only hope for the best.

The attack didn't come, not in the morning nor during the afternoon, so we used this little time to rest. It was All Hallow's Eve; a few men prayed, told ghost stories or tried to cook for the celebrations. Most of us were too nervous or scared while waiting for the attack.

The Mormons finally fell on us in the dead of night. We saw many bonfires being lit in the distance, where we later learnt Pozo Blanco used to be, and from there the raiders came towards us. A few were on horseback, most on foot, there were some wearing white robes, as if dressing as ghosts to mock us. They must have numbered some 30 people.

It's a miracle we came out of there alive, and I mean it literally. We had dismantled many of our wagons to make defenses that we hoped could stop their tide, and tried to craft blackpowder out of whatever resources we still had, and yet that wasn’t enough. After the first hours of battle the smoke clouds from both our volleys choked us and both our sides ran out of ammo.

The Mormons must have gotten over-confident from their previous successes, because they descended upon us like a pack of rabid wolves trying to defeat us in hand on hand combat. I remember one of the Mormons in particular, who ran towards me with his rifle grabbed like a club. He tried smashing my skull into a pulp with its handle and he’d have succeeded if it wasn’t for what came next.

All of the sudden, we all heard a deafening noise in the distance, louder than an artillery barrage or an exploding coal mine. I cannot really describe exactly what it was, but I can tell for sure that all of the bones in my body could hear that sound. We all looked north, and saw above Pozo Blanco a bright red light that overshone the entire town. The Mormons, frightened, stopped the fighting, mounted their horses and went back home — I presume to stop that thing. They didn't come back; the entire night that awful metallic screech was the only sound heard.

Next day we arrived at Pozo Blanco, and found out there wasn't a single soul in there, nor any animal, or food either. The place was eerily silent, the Mormons clearly hadn't abandoned it, their valuables were intact, no water was collected for any travel, nor was there any sign of movement and some of the bonfires from last night were still burning unattended. It was as if everyone who had been in there had vanished without a trace, the only evidence of recent habitation were the freshly carved jack o' lanterns in some of the larger households and the still warm ashes.

We tried to distract our thoughts of what we saw that night, resorting to looting the place. Some amongst us theorized that what we saw in the sky was a new weapon, one from the Union, used to bring this semi-independent territory to heel. I'd like to think that as true, as if it was human-made then it wasn't as invincible as it seemed.

We left the place next morning and reached the goldsite a week after, most of it had been long claimed. The few nuggets still in place only served to pay for the travel expenses — well, that and this beer over here.

Recounted by Harrison Davis, who frequented the Saloon in the early 1880s
If any of you all plan working as a buckaroo o’er here in Arizona then you should be aware of Ol' Marsh, an owner of many lands further to the north who is willing to pay much for experienced rangers. You can go working for ‘im if you really want to, but I assure you it ain't worth it.

My claims come from experience, as I have wasted more than 2 years of my life in that damn place. At first the range seems idyllic, far away from any town or city that may bring inconvenience, but soon you start noticing everythin's wrong with the damn place.

First are all the other employees, all thugs and criminals, many even comin' from Dixieland. I only met 2 honest men o'er there — Two Mexicans by the name of Jaime and Francisco — during the time I've worked for Ol' Marsh.

Second is its silence, Ol’ Marsh may try to advertise its distance from civilization as a point in its favor, it being multiple days on horseback to the closest settlement, but in truth is that there is nothin’ there, nothin’ but the range and the pastures for the cattle. The Indians have long since abandoned the territory, coyotes or rattlesnakes are painfully rare and even scavenger birds are hard to come by. The silence there is deafening and many other men could go mad from isolation, I only didn’t ‘cause I spent my fair share of time with Jaime and Francisco, but none of us are there anymore, so I doubt you’ll have that luck.

Finally is the damn sky, not the daysky mind you, that’s as blue as here or any other civilized place, I mean durin’ the night. You see, In those long 2 years I had become something of an amateur astronomer. I may have lacked the equipment of more sophisticated men, but I learnt to recognize with my bare eyes all the planets and most stars in the sky.

That started as a small hobby, to pass the time in the long Arizona nights, but soon evolved for me into something more, I became obsessed in learning of the firmament, and the more I looked the more I realized that there was something wrong about the patch of land I had the displeasure to work in.

There were too many stars, more than in any chart I had known before or since. All a bright red, all too small to recognize unless you spent months paying attention to the sky. I don’t know for how long those red stars were present, I only realized their existence a year after I’d started working, around November 1880, and soon I found myself paranoid about my every action, as I felt I was being observed by those bright red lights, which remained fixed in place on the night sky.

This October is when things took a turn for the worse. On the first day of the month, soon after night time began, one of the stars fell. It didn’t fall to the ground suddenly like a meteor, it was more like the flight of an insect, slowly descending over the horizon before hovering above one of the terrains under the ownership of Ol’ Marsh. It stayed above the field for what must have been hours, and then left to once again take its former position on the firmament. I watched all that process and though I couldn’t approach the fallen star, I could discern that it had an elongated shape, and that its surface shone like black metal.

In the range there were few people, but news still spread like wildfire. Next day mornin’ I learnt that over five heads of cattle had disappeared, with no one being able to tell where they had gone, furthermore the buckaroo in charge of that herd couldn’t explain with any certainty what had happened that night. I didn’t tell them what I saw as I didn’t wish to be considered mad. We spent the entire day looking for them to no avail. Two days later the cows were found, well, only their skeletons, with no trace of flesh, skin or blood present anywhere near, some of the men tried to brush it off as being the result of a pack of coyotes that had remained hidden but I could see by the look of their faces they didn’t believe a single word of what they themselves said.

The day following that sighting, the process would repeat itself: a light would descend, many cows would be lost, only for their bare skeletal remains to later adornate the landscape. On the fifth day some thirty cows disappeared, over fifty on the tenth and a hundred were lost by the twentieth night. I could tell by the sound how the lights were approaching my location with each passing night.

Around the 30th, just a few miles away from my patch of the range, a weirder thing happened. One of the stolen cows from yesterday had come back, but it was in a sorry state: its body was bloated as if filled with air, its eyes looked bloody and dead. We saw it, not really eating, but swallowing. It devoured anything that was in front of its face, either plant or meat, all the while making a loud metallic screech. After approaching it closer we noticed that it was "eating" another cow, and it suddenly started to look at us with its bloody red eyes. One of the other cowboys shot it dead immediately.

Afterwards we saw its body decomposing fast, too fast, but our attention wasn't centered on that, rather on the interior of the animal, it had barely any flesh, or organs, it was mechanical instead..

Almost all of us departed the place soon afterwards, things were gettin' worse in the range every single day and no one wanted to see what would happen on All Saints Eve, me specially, the few who stayed haven’t reported back either. I still wonder about the night sky there though, as I’m starting to see some of the same stars here too.

The story of an anonymous customer, who told his tale and left in a hurry.

My family used to be a big name in Scotland, you know? Grandpa in particular was a large landowner in the Highlands before deciding to move to the US. I'm not sure what led him to this decision, though dad always thought that he had been fooled by the rumors of wealth in this land. Regardless of his reasons, he came here back in the 40s and was one of many to settle into Wisconsin.

My family's wealth would not last long, upon arriving in the country bad financial decisions would ruin us, and what remained was invested into a large farm state east of Madison, on the southern flank of the Wisconsin River which they would use to make a living by cultivating corn and breeding cows. His fortune and family wasn’t the only thing grandpa brought to America though, he also arrived with what I could only describe as pagan traditions.

For most of the year grandpa was a dutiful and pious Christian, never missed a mass, observed all holy days without exception and always dedicated much of his free time towards reading the Bible, yet, there was one exception, as he insisted on calling Halloween Samhain and engaging in what could be described as attempted witchcraft every October 31st.

It's been so long since I last saw it in action that I struggle to recall many of the details from that ritual, but I know it all started with the cows. The largest and strongest amongst them were all separated from the rest of the herd and brought to a certain distance from the house, grandpa then would do… something to them, making them immobile. The animals weren't sacrificed, nor fed, they just stood there, waiting.

After the cows came the harvest, the reaping process, which I had to do alone for as long as I remember, took place over the entirety of October. Our fields were not really harvested at that time, rather I was made to carve them in sinuous patterns, and was often punished for failing to do it exactly as demanded. On Samhain all that had been collected was gathered together and spread over the ground that surrounded the inmobile cows, resulting in the same set of twisting and swirling shapes from the fields.

Occasionally, on years of bad harvest, we had to steal the crops and cattle from nearby farms, as otherwise we would risk starvation. Finally it was the turn of the fire, bonfires specifically, while they were already a Halloween tradition in much of the country grandpa made them bigger than any other I have seen, as if they were beacons. I can remember quite a few times in which they risked even the integrity of our residence.

After the cows were put in place, the maize spread and the bonfires lit, we just returned home. Talking about what we did was forbidden and we spent the night telling ghost stories, carving pumpkins and eating sugary delicacies, occasionally frightening some kids who wandered over here late at night, as if nothing strange had taken place outside.

Upon waking up the next day, what we had placed outside was gone, as if it had never existed and we went on with life.

I wish I could say this pattern always held true though, then it would just mean that our family had a weird tradition for that particular day. But occasionally the cows still stood there. I was personally happy for that, it meant we wouldn't lose a head of cattle to a stupid superstition, but dad and grandpa always took it as that they needed to repeat the ritual with even greater numbers, our family's remaining wealth diminished significantly as occasions like that became more and more common.

Once I grew up I moved from Winsconsin into New Mexico to work as a cowboy, my grandfather had died by then, but my father still continued being a pain in the ass. I wanted to get out of my family’s estate as I couldn't stand him, and I honestly found their October practices quite spooky. I didn’t achieve much in the way of wealth, though I found it quite a spiritually rewarding job.

News of my father’s death would reach me soon after The War ended, his funeral was going to take place in October, so I went to the north one last time. The place was in shambles, the entirety of the estate had only continued to deteriorate while in my absence. I only saw 6 cows in our possession, of the many dozens I could remember from my childhood, and the acres of cultivated land were severely reduced too. The funeral was modest, as expected from the situation, and I became the sole inheritor of my family’s remaining wealth. I wanted to stay a few more days up north, but a line in my father’s short will immediately struck my nerve, he asked me to finish the ritual in Samhain. I refused, I wasn’t going to fall for pagan superstition. Once the body was below ground I returned to New Mexico and never looked back.

The more I think about it, the more I realize that it was a mistake, on November 1880, while on Tucson’s train station I read about a “Mysterious Airship” that had been seen in the Texas sky, three weeks later, a similar sighting took place in Colorado, after a few months, disappearances started occurring, of both cattle and men. As of this year there have been reports of frontier towns built on gold mines completely gone, with the precious metals left intact, entire herds of cow and buffalo disappearing below strange lights.

It is now impossible for me not to correlate the events with my actions back up north. Whatever my forerunners were doing, it satiated them, and now those Riders in the Sky are free to do as they please.

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