Ghost Steer Ballad

By Larry Lefkowitz


The steer suddenly darted out from the rest of the herd. I stood gape-mouthed at his burst of speed, more that of a horse than a steer. I wheeled on my horse and gave chase. The dust sprayed from the steer’s hooves like sparks from an emery wheel. More frightening than  his unnatural speed was the look he fixed me with just before he began his run. Demon-eyed, no other word for it. At the same time his ox-bow brand suddenly blazed fiery red – like the lips of a barmaid in Laramie who kept a loaded Winchester behaind the bar and came mighty close to using it on me when I left her behind me.

I galloped after the steer. We continued like this hour after hour until my chaps felt like lead leggings and my tongue like a leather gourd in my mouth. My throat was drier than an arryo in mid summer. The bandanna around my neck seemed a noose tightening with every acre travelled. My spurs were branding irons pulling at my  boots, the boots heavy as if already in boot hill. As if my sins of the past had ganged up on me and I had been dry gulched by old Mephistopheles himself. All that interminable time the song ‘Ghost Riders in the Sky’ dogged me. I couldn’t close the distance enough to use my lariat on the steer. Yet I thundered on, canyons on the left, canyons on the right, until the yellow sky had turned purple and the purple sage black.

The steer didn’t slacken until he entered a canyon that was the grand daddy of them all, me hard on his cursed heels. A box canyon. Maybe my luck had changed for the better. I’ve got you now, I shouted at him. Then I noticed the box canyon was suddenly a full box canyon, not an open ended one. The steer was trapped but so was I. My second thought was, What happened? How could it be? – a fourth wall had formed. In all my days in the saddle I had never come across a full box canyon. How could I? What in tarnation was going on here? Had I gone loco?

And if I thought the steer and I were trapped, the steer had other ideas. He began to fade. It was like seeing a reverse mirage. Faded like the memory of the little gal in the calico dress I should have married but didn’t. Before she could put her brand on me, I told her I liked to follow the tumbleweed. The steer faded until he was like a cave painting of an animal I saw in a book once, all outline, then nothing. Was his fading the steer’s way of escaping from me? I stayed away from piyute, so it wasn’t that. Had I really gone wacko – too long in the saddle?

And if the steer had escaped the box, what about me? I wasn’t Houdini. I didn’t know how to fade through walls. I felt stupid. The steer had made a fool of me. I felt duped as a dude who discovers the gold he bought is fool’s gold. Good thing the boys at the chuckwagon about now couldn’t see me. They’d have a good laugh, smacking their knees with their hats.

I sat next to my horse. He looked down at me with those sad eyes of his like I was responsible for our predicament. Go fade like that devil steer, I threw at him. But he didn’t know the trick of it any more than I did.

My mood was darker than the hills of South Dakota. And then I remembered the silver bullet. No, not from the Lone Ranger. From a Mexican hombre I helped out of a scrape once in a bar in Larado. He gave the silver bullet to me. Said if ever I was in a real tough spot I could use it. Rub it, make a wish, that’s what he said. I took it, thinking he was real superstitious. I kept it as a good luck charm, always in my pocket. For all of the superstition part, I was careful not to rub it unconsciously, even without the wish part.

Well, I was sure in a tough spot now and if I looked foolish rubbing it and making a wish, my horse couldn’t tell my buddies. First of all, he was trapped with me. Besides, he couldn’t speak. I wouldn’t put it past the ghost steer, but my horse Tumbleweed, no. He rarely bothered to neigh,  not even now. Just depended on me to fill all his needs, which weren’t many. 

I took the silver bullet from my pocket. Right pretty it was. It glinted in the sun, though the sun couldn’t be seen from the box canyon. Another mystery. I wasn’t surprised by now at anything that happened in this spooked place. Nobody would even find our bodies.

That thought was enough to cause me to rub the bullet and wish us both the hell out of there. (A cowboy worth his spurs doesn’t forget his horse.) Wham. We were outside. Me astride Tumbleweed. At a place from where I could see the boys sitting around the chuckwagon chowing down. One of them, Roy, spotted me and waved his hat at me. I waved back with my own, as if nothing was amiss. I trotted in their direction. Maybe I could make it in time for some chow.

I was lucky. Nobody asked me about the missing steer.

He seemed to have faded from their memory.

Not mine.


The stories, poetry, and humor of Larry Lefkowitz have appeared in publications in the U.S., Israel and Britain. Larry is currently looking for a publisher for two novels: one about a 19th century Jewish peddler looking for the Lost Tribes of Israel among the American Indians, the second about the assistant to a literary critic who, following the critic’s death, is asked by the critic’s wife to complete an unfinished novel left by him (a novel replete with literary references).


Published on June 27, 2009 at 11:11 am  Leave a Comment  

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