Ahh, you want a real scary ghost story now, do you? I see, you’re much too old to be skeered of tales of an ol’ phantom miner, ain’t ya? All right, I can oblige. Scoot a bit closer to the fire and let me tell you the Legend of Cactus Island.
Now, this story happened a long time ago, afore this area was all shoreline. The sea used to be way out west of here, on the other side of them mountains over there, and everything between here and there was dry as summer.
I come from them mountains, see. And this story happened to me when I was a young feller.
The sea didn’t come in all at once. It sort of crept up on us. One week our camp would be high and dry, and the next we’d wake up with the water lapping at our boots, so’s we kept moving. The cows didn’t like the sound of the water. Made ‘em restless. Most nights, they’d stare out at the dark place that was the water in the west like it was waitin’ for em. Spooked them good when we’d wake up and it had come closer in the night.
Sometimes, you could smell it on the air, a sorta salt tang that hadn't been there the night afore. It’d roll in on this thick white fog like we never saw, stinking like fish and wet sand and rotting cactus. And you could hear things splashing out there, though I never saw anything during the day.
I always figgered it was buffalo or a cayote caught unaware by the rising water, but it upset the cows something terrible, and most nights somebody’d have to stay up with ‘em, just to put them at ease.
So we’re running some cows east, movin’ ‘em up, out of areas we know are gonna get swamped soon. Two, three hunnert head. Me, and three other fellers; Joe, Momolu, and Jeremiah, and I’ll tell you straight right now, you ain’t never gonna believe this story.
We had set up camp up on this hill; might as well, cuz every damn night we stopped the cows found the highest point in eyeshot, covered in cactus or not. Hell, it felt like the damn stubborn things sought out the thickest, thorniest, hardest to get to spot to settle down in, and be damned where we wanted to rest our heads.
Cow boys go where the cows go, so we were all scratched to hell already, and had taken to strapping on more than one knife, just in case we needed to cut a gal out of the jumping cactus. Why a critter’d choose to sleep there over the nice grassy meadows the rain brought we couldn’t reckon at the time, but the cows that couldn’t fit themselves in the horrible stickers only reluctantly laid down in the sweet grass.
We set up on a flat spot, with a clear view back across the plain. We could even see the lights of the little mudsplotch of a town we had spent the last night in, twinkling way out west by the levy, under the tiniest sliver of a moon.
Momolu had taken the first watch with the herd. He taken the belly wash coffee left in the pot and stomped out to the thick cactus, where we could hear the cows lowing at each other, and then the rest of us fell asleep round the fire.
The cows woke me up. All of a sudden there was a big warm body crouching down next to me, quiet as could be. I sprang up, or tried to; damn thing was trying to get even closer to me and had half my kit trapped under her back end. She turned, and actually pushed her face underneath my bedroll, like she wanted to get me up on top of her.
I ain’t never have a critter that eager to be rode, and never have had a critter be so damn silent doin it. I could just make out her eyes in the thick fog, wide with fear. I could hear her panting, and her hooves scratching at the dirt, and all of a sudden I realize she ain’t makin a sound, but somethin else sure is.
On the other side of the fire, I hear the same thing, Joe wakin up with a cow trying to crawl into bed with him, from the sound of his cussin. But outside of that, there was this weird thrum. I dunno how to describe it. Uh... Like a low down string on a guitar, right? Brummmmm bmmmmm bmmm, and the cow underneith me started shiverin like it was midwinter.
The fog stank of fish and cold water.
Jeremiah got to his feet first, and yelled for Momolu, and that’s when all hell broke loose.
Hand to god, the fog lit up in colors like you ain’t never seen outside a painting of the Lord, and the thruming sound became something much more like a screech owl, but about as loud as a train whistle. The lights in the fog moved faster than I could tell you, whipping in around for a moment, and then going dark.
I could hear splashing, and frantic cows stampeding away, and somewhere off to the side where the fire was I could here Jeremiah hollering for help, and our horses screaming to beat the devil, but I couldn’t see anything in the dazzling wall of lights. Greens and purples like a sunset and blues like nothing I’ve ever seen before, and strange patterns. I didn’t move for a long moment, just sorta... watching the lights and I guess that’s what saved me.
Joe was up and had his gun, his shadow dancin’ in the fog madly, and I could hear Momolu yelling at us to shut the hell up from farther up the hill. Joe had some choice words for that, and for the lights, and he shot of a round into that glittering dark like a bullet could do anything to something that beautiful.
That train owl noise happened again, and Joe’s dancing shadow sorta... sucked onto just his outline, so I could see him like a cameo, black on blinding glittering color, perfect right up to his tufty hair and his stupid jug handle ears, and it got brighter and brighter and then... he was just gone.
The fog went dark and sharp, and my eyes watered something fierce. I gagged on the fish and fire smell of the fog and I held onto that cow, and the cow held onto the ground, and neither of us made a noise until the light breaking in the east was the cold clean light of the sun.
All them cows, up in the cactus? Ain’t none of them went missing. Any that had bedded down in the grass, or had run? Gone. Gone like Joe and Jeremiah, nothing left but long double looping tracks that led to the sea.
Sounds like long tracks, don’t it? Well, the sea had come to us, swallowing up that whole valley overnight. Must have bust the levey over near that town we had bunked in. I can’t tell now that the sun’s up, but it looks to have swamped it. The water was only thirty or fourty feet from where we had bedded down, and it you could tell the tide was out.
We didn’t stay to see if the hill was gonna go under, or become another little island, we just grabbed our gear and ran East as fast as we could. The cows that were left needed little urging; at that point, we all wanted to be a lot farther inland.
Cactus Island, as that hill is now called, is still above the water line they tell me. I named that cow that woke me up Mildred, and she and I have a nice farm way up yonder on that mountain East of here.
Yeah, we do have a nice ocean view. More’s the pity.
See? You laugh, but I told you you’d never believe me. Fine. You go along down to the shoreline. Have a nice trip. I’d get a bit inland before nightfall, if I was you, though.