It was the summer of 1964. I was fourteen years old at the time. I wouldn’t turn fifteen until August. And this was only July. It was, as I said—a very long time ago.
Best of all was the fact that I was headed west. The direction of my dreams. The direction of my fantasies. It was the land of the wild buffalo—and the equally wild Indians. The land of Pecos Bill, Black-Bart, Wild Bill Hickok, and most of all—that all-time most amazing figure of the old west . . . the incomparable Wyatt Earp.
Back in ’64, the old wild-west wasn’t all that far in the rear-view mirror. Considered to be closed in 1886, with the surrender of Geronimo, we were only looking at seventy-eight intervening years—not the long, long century and a quarter of today. Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp had only been in his grave for thirty-five years. Heck, he only cashed-out his chips a mere twenty years before my own birth.
It was the decade of the television western. Sugarfoot, Cheyenne, and The Lawman rules the airways. The Duke controlled the movie-palaces. Interest in the old west, and indeed all things western—was at an all-time high.
Dude ranches were in.
My sister, Lorraine Gene Caplin (everyone just called her “Gene”) was taking one of her patented long summer road-trip vacations. She liked to cover around eight-thousand miles in twenty-fours or so days. Sometimes she even stopped a minute or two to see things. I remember once we visited Disneyland in California.
Stayed for thirty minutes too!
It may have set a world-record for shortness.
Gene was a great lady. She was single her whole life and didn’t like to travel alone. Therefore she would invite different family members to make the summer pilgrimages with her. 1964 was my turn. And like I said . . . it was WEST.
I probably wasted about half of my junior-high-school years, sitting up in the third floor library reading everything I could get my hands on concerning the frontier west. Sure, I should have been studying my various subjects and doing homework, but that silliness wasn’t for me. Instead, I had discovered Paul Horan’s Pictorial History of the Wild West—and I was reading it to tatters.
Such attention to my studies was exactly how I got to be where I am today. Okay—perhaps that’s not the greatest example—and a story for another day.
This particular year—1964, that is—we were making a long clockwise loop. Starting in Michigan, we headed southwest to Arizona, then up the California coast to Washington, and then across the upper west, on our way back home.
One evening we came to a junction of two state highways. Good old-fashioned two-lane blacktop, and not very well-traveled either. It must have been around eight or so when we reached this junction, as the sun was fading fast. As I remember it, it was in southern Wyoming. There was not another car in sight.
Gene pulled off to the shoulder to take a look at the map. That’s when we spotted the kid. By “kid” I mean a young, probably teenaged Native American boy.
The junction of these two roads was at a particularly scenic spot. There was a sort of butte around a hundred or so yards off the road. It rose perhaps a hundred or so feet above the desert floor. There was absolutely no buildings or any other sign of development anywhere in sight. It might have been a scene from a hundred years before, as the rocky butte rose high against the setting sun and the rapidly darkening sky behind it.
And there he sat, a young boy, mounted on an Indian pony, complete with bow and quiver, and partly silhouetted against the dark-blue horizon. On the very top of the butte. It was probably one of the most scenic tableaus I have ever seen in my life. It was simply beautiful—and iconic.
We waved. He did not wave back. It was as though he didn’t see us. Gene grabbed her camera. So did I—we both snapping photos at almost the same time. We continued to watch for another minute or so—and then the youth simply turned his pony around and slowly made his way off the back side of the butte—and out of our sight.
Gene finished checking her map, and we finally got under way again—the Indian boy largely forgotten in a day or two. It wasn’t until we got back home that we talked much about him again, as we recounted the trip for the rest of the family.
Gene and I anxiously put our precious rolls of film in at the drugstore to be developed. These were the old days and you had to wait—with great anticipation—for about a week or so until they came back from Kodak.
When they did, we were in for a surprise. There was our butte alright—sans both the Indian boy and the pony. They were nowhere to be seen, in either my photos or my sister’s. We made a lot of excuses. The lighting wasn’t very good. We were some distance away. He was probably there in the photos alright, we convinced ourselves—we just couldn’t quite make him out. After all, these were hardly modern digital masterpieces. Mine was a Kodak instamatic—hers, a Brownie Hawkeye, if I remember right.
Anyway, we quickly forgot all about it.
That is—until a couple of years later—1966 to be exact, when we made another trip to pretty much the same area. Sure enough, we ended up, once again—at the very same intersection of the two state highways. This time it was broad daylight. Once again we pulled over—mostly for old time’s sake—remembering the night we had seen the kid on his horse.
Of course, he wasn’t there. But something else was. This time, right at the base of the butte, was a modern gas-station and café. Well-lighted and doing a land-office business with a ton of cars around it. We both commented on how much things could change in just a couple of years. We both laughed and said that if we were an Indian kid, we certainly wouldn’t go out for a night ride anywhere near that gas-station eyesore either.
Like I said—we laughed and went on our way.
Trouble was, there was a slight problem with what we were seeing—and Gene and I both knew it—although we left it unsaid.
That gas-station and restaurant looked like it had been sitting at the base of that butte for a heck-of-a-lot longer than just two years. More like about twenty. Yet only two years before—all we had seen was an Indian on a hill.
An Indian that refused to show up on photographic paper.
To this very day—I wonder what it was that we really saw that night.
Maybe—just maybe—an actual, real-life, living, breathing slice of western American history.
I guess we could have inquired at the café. I guess we could have found out just how old that structure really was. We probably could have found out exactly when it was built.
But we didn’t. Maybe we thought, in some deeper level of our minds—that we just didn’t need to know everything. Maybe we figured that some things are just better left in the realm of the spiritual—and the divine.
I go back there often in my now old man’s mind—to a night, by the road, at the base of a hill, watching a boy on a horse—in the year of, heaven only knows.
Which brings me to the subject of ghosts—and The City of Tombstone. It’s been said that the town is filled with them. When the founder of Tombstone, old Ed Schieffelin, prospected for silver in the mountains of southeastern Arizona, he smelted his samples in the fireplace of an old adobe cabin out in the desert, just outside present-day Tombstone.
The cabin was called Brunckow’s cabin, after the man that had built it. There were so many killings around the place over the years, both by Indians and white-men, that it was said that graves—and ghosts—lay thick around the place. Often, the cabin is referred to as the most haunted place in Arizona.
It is also true within the city—with perhaps the most haunted location being that of the famous OK Corral—where the Earp brothers and Doc Holiday hurled several recalcitrant cowboys into eternity at the business end of three forty-five caliber “peace-makers” and one twelve-gauge shotgun—wielded by “The Deadly Dentist” himself.
The ghosts however, only seem to come out at night. I have been to daytime Tombstone many times in my life and did not encounter any apparitions. Not so, it seems—after dark. There, and then, the ghost guides rule, with at least a half a dozen “ghost walks” around town, led by a “spirit-guide” only too happy to dispense history and legend to eager tourists—in about equal measure.
Seems that sometimes the ghosts will even pose for a photograph or two—usually in the form of “orbs” in the picture. These “orbs”, or rounds specks of light of differing dimensions, equal an awful lot of spectral activity.
For some reason—and I don’t know what it is—“orbs” are always associated with spirits and ghosts, and in many more cultures than just ours too.
Anyway, I was never much of a believer. That is, at least, until March 14th of this year, when I happened to be in Tombstone and stayed late. Well beyond dark. I want to tell you—it’s true that one can certainly feel the presence of “something” there in the darkened streets, alleys and byways of the place still referred to as “The Town Too Tough To Die.”
I put it all down to imagination—walking around the town-site and taking a lot of pictures, same as any other tourist. One in particular stands out. It is taken on Fremont Street—one street over from Allen Street (the most famous street in frontier history) and the actual location of the gunfight in “the vacant alley somewhat near the OK Corral.” That’s Fly’s photography studio to the left. The vacant lot is now behind the gate in the center of the photo. The Harwood death house is out of the frame, just to the right of “Blood Alley.”
Yup, you guessed it. Full of “orbs.” Are they simply flares from the many gas-lights? Or are they the disembodied spirits and souls of the departed losers of the famous gunfight. Three men died mighty hard there—one crisp October afternoon in the year of our Lord, eighteen hundred and eighty-one.
Did they ever depart? Of do they linger there still, re-fighting the famous battle, one more time, each and every night—lost souls—too tough to die—forever trapped in the town of the same name and appellation.
I dunno. You take a look at the photo—and then you tell me.
Thanks for reading.
In a couple of days I am going to start the serialization of my third novel—The Reckoning: The Watchmaker – Book Three.
Looking forward to it. Until then—goodnight. And don’t let the bedbugs—or the ghosts—bite.
Dumb joke of the day: When ghosts talk, how do they speak? . . . Gravely.