The ghost of Dead Horse
On the day the town of Dead Horse’s founder and visionary bank owner died, it rained.
Rain wouldn’t have been unusual in Dead Horse if it was in July or August during the height of the rainy season, but it was unheard of in January. While rain is usually appreciated for its life giving moisture in the prairie, this was a dry, dusty, rock strewn desert town in Eastern Arizona. Rain in Dead Horse was more of a pain in the ass than it was a Godsend. In a desert town, dry washes become raging death traps, roads become knee deep mud pits that bog down man and beast alike and roofs leak through their dried and cracked tar paper coverings. Rain in January was an omen for the town of Dead Horse, a very bad omen.
Since the day Everett Burke gave up his ghost, the thriving spirit that he had injected into the town using his congenial generosity and ‘can do’ attitude began to diminish. With each heat searing sunrise the town’s future looked more and more unlikely to survive. No one had stepped up to fill Burke’s shoes. The town council seemed apathetic and divisive, caring more for their personal financial outlook than that of the towns.
The Sheriff became a drunk and hid inside his office, rarely out walking the streets to keep the peace and impression of a town securely protected. Instead, he preferred to wait until night fell to walk the creaky wooden walkways along the towns store fronts and only then to find his way to the Lost Dollar Saloon for drinks.
Dead Horse started out with many of the advantages few towns could boast of. Plunked down between Santa Fe and Flagstaff on the Old Beale wagon trail, it put its roots into the ground on the eastern edge of the Arizona territory desert. This envious placement between the two larger towns permitted its merchants to cheaply resupply frontier bound wagon trains along with the hungry hoards of miners heading into gold country.
In 1881, the long awaited decision by the Santa Fe Railroad to lay rail alongside the wagon trail had been made. Unfortunately for Dead Horse, the Santa Fe’s finger of prosperous fate pointed its finger at the nearby town of Cholla. Just twenty five miles west of the border Cholla got the nod for the location of the Santa Fe’s new station, water tower and mile long siding. Besides political and sweetheart deals promised to secure the rail depot favoring Cholla, there was one legitimate reason for Dead Horse’s coming in second. Water.
Both towns were like many of those that sprung up from mining. Both had a few saloons, whorehouses, liveries, a dry goods store and a blacksmith.
What the Santa Fe railroad discovered during its survey was that Cholla had a single centralized deep well that supplied the town with plenty of water. On the other hand, Dead Horse’s populace drew its water from a spring that erupted out of the ground behind the town hall. Arizona springs were notorious for drying up or becoming seasonal. The Santa Fe survey determined that the Cholla deep well could supply a growing city with rail support forever.
It hadn’t taken long for mercantile and saloon owners alike to pack up and relocate to the boom town of Cholla and beyond. Day by day the mood of Dead Horse and its populace grew darker as they watched their town shrink business by business. The once busy main street could now be safely crossed by a blind man.
The town’s founder and principal deed holder stood helpless as his banks deposits dwindled. Holding worthless deeds it couldn’t sell, the bank’s books slid from black to red.
When all the banks tellers had left for the day, Everett Burke told the banks manager to pull all the blinds and lock the door behind him when he left. When the banks manager asked him about the blinds, Everett told him, “Sid, the banks done for. We haven’t even got enough cash in the vault to cover all the deposits. I got enough cash on hand set aside for employee wages for the last week and that’s about it. I’ve been using my own money to bolster the bank for over six months. I’m dead broke Sid, I can’t do it no more. When the folks here find out their hard earned savings are gone, I’ll be hanging from a tree out back for sure. It’s all my fault Sid, I should have done like the Mayor of Cholla did and kiss the butt of that surveyor fellow, but I truly thought we had it sewn up tight, I really did.”
Sid locked the door and was making his way down the street when he heard a single gunshot fired from inside the bank.
Within the confines of his smoke filled office, Everett Burke’s body sat sagging in his leather chair nearly headless. A short barreled greener shotgun normally kept in the office in case of robbery, lay on the floor next to him. The gory mess clinging to the back wall was all that remained of the once smiling face of the man who had made the town.
Hearing the blast within the bank, towns folk started gathering out front trying without success to see behind the pulled window shades. Deciding against rushing back into the bank, the frightened manager ran instead to the Sheriff’s office down the street.
Taking the bank key’s from Sid, Sheriff Hensley unlocked front door he stepped into the bank. All looked peaceful but the smell of burnt gunpowder said it wasn’t. Making his way behindthe teller stations, the Sheriff strode cauciously over to Everett’s private office. With trepidation, he opened the door fully. A window with its shade pulled partially down let enough feeble light in for the Sheriffs eyes to absorb the scene before him. Stepping back outside the office, Sheriff Hensley doubled over and puked.
Having seen a few men shot dead was nothing like nothing this. Only Everett’s lower jaw and teeth still sat balanced upon his shoulders. A horrible mix of bone, brains and blood dripped its way down the wall to the floor.
Still gagging, he stumbled out of the bank and onto the street. “Somebody get the damn undertaker here.” He shouted. “And go fetch a sheet or something, he blowed his head clean off something horrible.”
It was while waiting for the undertaker to arrive that the strange January rain started. The townsfolk soon skedaddled off to dryer regions while the Sheriff, quite ill and green looking, guarded the bank door.
Just as soon as Everett’s body was wrapped and hauled off, Sheriff Hensley headed off to the relative dryness of his own jailhouse.
That evening as the pounding rain found each and every hole in the jailhouse roof, Sheriff Hensley, known for his abstinence, sat at his desk drenched from the leaky deluge and finished his first ever bottle of whisky.
On a hot July day and seven months after Everett blew his head off, Jeddah Tate crossed over the single set of railroad tracks less than a mile from the outskirts of Dead Horse. Jed reined up the chestnut mare he’d cinched his saddle to for the last six years .
Rolling a smoke between his fingers, he stared at the dusty town down the road. Striking a Lucifer match with his thumb nail, he lit his smoke and inhaled deeply. The parcel of Virginia grown tobacco was almost gone now. Jed stretched out what was left by limiting himself to only one or two smokes a day. With white puffs of smoke looking like Apache smoke signals, he nudged the mare on towards town.
Dead Horse had all the makings of a town that had seen its zenith. While not looking completely abandoned, there were enough empty store fronts to say it was seeing hard times. Jed knew of many towns in the west that had suffered the same fate as Dead Horse. The railroad was a double edged sword. Where a station was placed, prosperity raised its head. When bypassed, a town bled out like a gut shot cattle rustler.
Passing a still working blacksmiths shop, he noticed it had a livery stable behind it. He dismounted and pounded on the heavy door of the livery. A giant man as black as coal itself pushed the big cross bucked door open with a powerful shove in response to Jed’s knock.
“I’d like to stable my horse for a day or two if there’s still an empty stall inside.”
“Got a bunch of ‘em open Suh. Ain’t like it used to be, that is fo’ sure. Bring dat big chestnut on over here Suh, I treat her like my own.”
The black man reached out and clipped on a halter rope then led the animal into a stall. “Her cost is twenty five cents hay’s included. Along with a rub down and a good peek at his shoes, I’ll grain her for a dime.”
Unclipping the lead rope he continued as if talking to himself, “More folks forget about checkin’ dem shoes until they throw one, then they come back bellyaching that my shoes don’t last.” Grabbing a cut up blanket, the black started in on the rub down. “ I tells people all duh time Suh, but they don’t seem to take no notice.”
Finished with the rub down, he laid in some fresh hay and filled the trough with water. Running his hands down her shoulders and flanks he said, “She’s a bit on the thin side Suh, It’ll be OK to sack up some grain for her?”
“Yeah, that’d be fine. She’s been eating desert scrub for the last few days after she ate through all the grain I had for her. With all the other things packed in the saddle bags, I could only carry so much for her.”
While still in the stall with the mare, the big black man inspected the shoes one by one. “Hmmm, seems they be alright for a bit yet. But don’t let ‘em get too worn down. I’d put a new set on an’ give her hoofs a good trimmin’ if I was a travelin’ man but it’s yo’ horse Suh, not mine. “
“Well, maybe some other time,huh?
“If you change yo’ mind, it’s only two dollars Suh.”
Satisfied that he had left his horse in good hands he asked him where the nearest saloon was.
Leaving the livery, he made his way up the alley until he reached the covered wooden plank walkway of the store fronts.
The sound of his Mexican spurs on the wooden walkway made a pleasant jingling sound as he made his way to the saloon to escape the searing heat. Approaching the saloons set of bat winged doors, he dusted himself off with his hat and ran his hand through his hair.
Jed entered the lamp lit saloon expecting the usual cluster cowboys , whores and gamblers gathered for a time of revelry of socializing and drinking. What he saw instead could only be described as a funeral parlor.
No tables had card games going, no girls were to be seen, no piano player was plinking tunes and only one half sleeping drunk sat at the bar. The only sound was that of the bartender dusting off the bottles lined up in front of the mirror.
After taking three or four steps into the saloon, he stopped and with both hands raised slightly in question, Jed looked at the bored looking bar tender and asked, “ Where the heck is everybody?”
With a snort of disgust he replied, “You’re looking at ‘em mister. You want a drink, I got that. You want company for the night or a game of cards, go on over to Cholla. Ain’t nothing here no more except what I got in stock. An’ in truth, when that’s used up, I’m gone too!”
Stepping up to the bar and pointing at the lined up whisky bottles , he said, “Give me one of those, will ya?”
The bartender handed him a clean glass and a bottle of whisky. Jed paid for it and half filled his glass. “I take it Cholla’s a nearby town but what’s the reason this place ain’t doing so good?”
Placing an unopened bottle of whisky in front of Jed, the bar tender pointed his thumb behind him. “If you rode in from the north, you also rode right over the reason this town ain’t doin’ good’. The railroad is what happened. The Santa Fe went an’ built its station in Cholla bypassing us here. Twice a day now that damn train rubs it into our faces by blowin’ its damn whistle as she passes by.”
Jed rubbed his stubble covered chin and shook his head slowly from side to side in sympathy as he recalled taking a smoke break near the tracks outside of town. “Yup, with the railroad comes prosperity… sometimes anyway. I met a man and his family on the trail. He that told me some ranchers joined together and set up a big canned meat packing operation and he was going to work for ‘em. I take it then that the big draw in Cholla is jobs?”
“Sure is,” the bartender said, “It’s a fair sized operation they got goin’ there. There’s big cattle pens built next to the plant to hold a whole damn herd till they’s butchered. ‘Course any cattle town makes for a foul stink but the way I hear it, them cows they got penned up there to be butchered are a sickly lot to begin with an’ they smell to high heaven. I also heard some politician who’s in charge of overseeing army food supplies to the western outpost, got his fingers in the pie over there in Cholla. It seems friends of his is makin’ a killlin’ sending the plant diseased and half dead cattle to get canned then sold to the Calvary. The only blessing I can see from Dead Horse not getting the railroad is we ain’t got to smell them damn cattle!”
“I don’t cotton to butcherin’ no sick cattle. No good comes of it.
“I agree with you on that point mister, Still, I’m closin’ this place and headin’ over there too, stink or no stink. There’s good money to be made movin’ my business there. I already got a carpenter crew lined up, all I’m waitin’ on is the railroad to deliver my building materials.”
Finishing his drink, Jed poured himself another. Noticing that the half asleep drunk had lifted his head from atop his folded arms on the bar and was looking at him, Jed lifted his glass and asked, “Wann’a drink fella? I ain’t gonna finish the whole thing an’ it’s already bought an’ paid for. Seems a shame to waist it.”
As the drunk made his way over, Jed saw the star on his chest. “You’re the Sheriff here, huh?”
Ignoring Jed, the Sheriff lifted the bottle to his yellow toothed pie hole and chugged the whiskey as if it were water. Jed looked wide eyed over at the bartender who just looked downward shaking his head. A heavy look of distain on his face. When the Sheriff set the bottle back down if front of Jed, a thick gob of slobber ran down its neck.
Pushing the bottle back towards the Sheriff, Jed told him. “Keep the bottle Sheriff, I just lost my appetite for a drink.”
Turning back to the bartender Jed asked, “Since your soiled doves up and left here, would you have an empty room? I’ll pay the goin’ hotel rate for one during my stay here if you do.
“Mister, for the price of that bottle you just bought, you can have any room you want, and it’s on the house.”
“Sounds good to me then.” Leaving the coin change from his whisky purchase on the bar top, Jed smiled and half kiddingly asked, “ Can I still find a meal, bath and shave here in town, or do I need to head off to Cholla for that too?”
“Naw, the towns not that dead yet. Bang on the barber shop door, Fred’ll be glad for the chance to earn a buck, no matter what the time. He also has hot baths in the back. If you want me to, I can put your personals up in a room here while you go off an’ take care of things. Upstairs it’ll be the first door on the left”
After a hot meal of beef stew, a scrubbed clean and freshly shaved Jed headed back to the saloon and his room.
Giving a thankful nod to the bartender, he traipsed up stairs and pushed open the first door on the left. Light from the hall lamps lit the room enough to show that the bartender was still keeping the place up as best as he could. A whores neatly made up bed with fancy sheets and pillows sat in the far corner under a lace curtained window. A small wooden night stand with a half filled oil lamp on it stood next to the bed. Against the wall to the right stood a white painted vanity with its porcelain water pitcher and bowl still in place. A decoratively painted wooden commode with its pot inside sat alongside the vanity. Lighting the lamp, he let out a slow quiet whistle. “Dang,” he thought, “I should be so lucky as to end each day in a towns that’s goin’ belly up! I guess one towns bad luck is another man’s good luck”
The morning sun greeted the lace curtain and diffusely lit the room. Jed’s eyelids fluttered then opened fully. Performing his morning toilet, he ended it by combing his freshly cut hair and plopping his hat back on his head. On his way downstairs he greeted the bartender again who this time was busy packing up straw filled wooden crates with glassware.
“Mornin”, Jed said tipping his hat, ”I see you’re serious about packing up and heading out, you gonna close down before the new place is built?”
“Nope, just preparing, that’s all. With so little business, I gotta do something with my hands, I’m ‘bout bored to death. You stayin’ the night again?”
“As long as you don’t lock me in and close down while I’m sleeping, I will. I’m gonna head over to the Smithy and see about him puttin’ some new shoes on my horse.
“I see you left your belongings upstairs, but don’t fret that the whores rooms ain’t got locks on ‘em, they’ll be safe.”
After meeting with and paying the Smithy, Jed headed over to the last operating Café in Dead Horse for a long awaited real breakfast, all to be washed down with plenty of strong hot coffee. Removing his hat, Jed stepped inside and hung it on an empty hook by the door. Settling down to his meal after his order arrived, he and the other patrons were taken by surprise when the front door was thrown open to slam against the wall with a loud bang.
A small balding man wearing a black wool vest, clean white shirt closed at the neck with a black short tie stood excitedly inside the doorway and yelled. “Hey ya’ll, did ‘cha hear ‘bout Cholla? They got the Cholera goin’ on somethin’ fierce there!”
Immediately the place was in an uproar with chairs tipping backwards and more than one coffee cup finding its way to the floor.
Almost as one, ball fifteen patrons voices started shouting questions at the small man. “Hold on, hold on folks, this here telegram’s all I know.”
Waving the yellow slip of paper, the little man who as it turned out to be, was the telegrapher for the stage depot. Taking a pair of spectacles from his top vest pocket, he held the paper up to read it. The crowd quieted down.
“Dead Horse”, it read. “Cholla quarantined STOP Cholera STOP Do not enter STOP Governor notified. STOP No rail service STOP Stay out STOP Folks got rice water. STOP Horrible deaths stay away.”
A chorus of “Holly molly’s and other exclamations followed the reading. Outside voices were also shouting the bad news.
Stepping out of the Café, Jed headed into the street and headed over to the Sheriff’s office. Jed had seen the nightmare of Cholera before in an Indian village. Rarely passed from person to person it still had the effect of a plague. He knew that the culprit had to be the water supply as Cholera was normally transmitted by water. He figured Cholla’s single large well must have been somehow contaminated. What worried him as much Cholla’s well was the statement in the telegram of folks having rice water. It defined Cholera from many other misdiagnosed ailments. Cholera’s first symptoms were stomach cramps followed by explosive diarrhea. After a bit, ones insides held no more solids within them. The body continued to expel translucent white bodily fluids by the quarts. In hours, the expelled fluid took on the powerful odor of stinking fish. An unquenchable thirst resulted from the vast loss of fluids. It was a double death blow. The chance of surviving the original ingestion was low. Now with an unquenchable thirst, it drove the dehydrated populace to re ingest even more of the death as they consumed even more of the tainted water.
Reaching the Sheriff’s office, the doors the brass bell jingled when he opened it. Stepping inside, Jed found the bleary red eyed Sheriff bent over and rummaging through the cabinets.
Pulling papers and other items from a lower cabinet onto the floor, the Sheriff mumbled angrily to himself. “Where the hell did that bottle go, I know I had it the other day.” Unaware of Jeds arrival or the jingling of the bell, the Sheriff finally gave up and in frustration plopped himself down in his chair. Only then did he notice Jed standing over him. “And what the hell do you want boy?” He directed his anger at Jed, “State your business or go on an’ get the hell out’a here!”
Getting red under the collar, Jed deliberately pronounced each word of his question slowly through clenched teeth. “You’re a hell of an excuse for a Sheriff. Are you aware of what’s goin’ on over Cholla way?”
“Sure I’m aware! They got themselves the plague. And what the hell’s it to you what I know or don’t know? I’m the Sheriff here ain’t I? ”
Jed saw the hands shaking almost uncontrollably as the Sheriffs need for whisky became greater.
“First of all Sheriff it’s worse than you know, you better listen to me or I’ll drag you out’a that chair, tie you to a mule and kick your useless ass all the way to Flagstaff and make myself Sheriff!“
About to respond, the Sheriff realized he had just met his match and gave up. Even when he was a younger and sober man he was no match for an angry Jed. Dropping his head in shame and without looking up, he spoke. “I’m in over my head here mister, I’m an old man. Hell, I’ve seen cholera before, my wife an’ kids back in ‘67 saw it real good, too good.” Taking the star off his chest, he slid it in front of Jed. “You think you can handle a cholera outbreak? I know I can’t. You want my job mister? You got it. I’m out’a here. If you had any brains you’d skedaddle too. This towns dyin’ a financial death for sure but what’s goin’ on over in Cholla just let loose the grim reaper, an’ he’s about to turn his eyeless skull this way!”
Shakily rising from his chair, the Sheriff grabbed his hat and headed for the door. The happy jingle of the doors overhead brass bell sounded out of place in the tense atmosphere as he opened it. Before stepping out into the heat he turned one last time and looked around. “Here”, he said tossing the keys back to Jed. Making his way up the street, Jed heard him say, “Hell of a way to retire, hell of a way!”
Jed stared at the badge lying on the desk top. He reached out and spun it with his finger. Thinking, he pondered the situation he found himself in. “Darn, this is not what I needed to happen. This town has some major hurt comin’ down on it and these folks here are blind to it. That Sheriff knew what’s happening but ran on out anyway. Bastard! That plague ain’t gonna just sit still in Cholla that’s for sure. I figure the first person who makes his way from there to here’s gonna bring it with ‘em and from there out to all Arizona.”
Picking up the badge, Jed pinned it on his chest as he walked out the door. As horrible as the cholera was, sometimes you had to be just as horrible to stop it. He knew what had to be done.
Back out in the dusty street most folks were seen preparing to head out of town. Jed walked up the street to see if he could find anyone who officially represented the town. The town hall was dark as well as the lawyer’s office next door. Dead Horse was truly a dead town. The town was vacating, but thankfully, no longer towards Cholla.
Heading back to the saloon, he was surprised to find a number of people had gathered inside. The din of the crowd dimmed as onlookers saw the badge pinned to Jed’s chest. A young man with missing teeth and long stringy blond hair stepped up to him “What for you got the Sheriffs badge on Mister?” Others began to question him also.
“Your Sheriff quit. Walked out on ya’. He tossed the job to me, anyone wanna’ contest that?” After a brief silence, Jed continued. “I didn’t think so.”
The ugly kid who spoke up before did again. “What you all gona’ do Sheriff? Cholla’s less than a half days walk from here. Seems to me an’ others, what they got could make its way here soon enough. Maybe we all outa get on out’a here an’ head up to Flagstaff like everyone else is doin’. They say bein’ high up in the cold air that sickness don’t get there.”
“Well, that may hold some truth, I heard the same. The problem as I see it, is folks from Cholla getting’ past us an spreading what they got elsewhere. That quarantine there ain’t gonna’ hold for crap once folks see what happens to them that got the sickness. They’re gonna’ run for scared for their lives, ‘an in doin’ so, they’s gonna’ spread the illness everywhere they go. No, we gotta stop ‘em, an’that means killin’ ‘em before they can leave.”
The shock on the crowds face was proof that these town folk were pretty ignorant of the effects of Cholera.
“Now listen. Cholera spreads real easy in water. But it ain’t the water that started it, it was folks or animals shittin in the water that started it. I heard Cholla got one well, that’s it. That means everyone in Cholla’s dependent on that one well. Now if that well got tainted, as I believe it did, then there ain’t a soul that drank water within the last couple days that ain’t gonna’ come down with cholera. Sure a couple here or there may make it, but you wanna’ try an’ figure out which ones is they is? I didn’t think so. What we gotta do is unthinkable but needs to be done. We need to torch the town and all within it.”
The bar tender confronted Jed. “Holly crap mister! That’s outright murder! You cain’t just go an kill a whole town ‘cause they’s sick! We sent a telegram to the Governor, let him decide what to do. Besides, I have a business startin’ there. What about me?”
“By the time the Governor gets off his fat and decides what should or shouldn’t be done, Cholla’s gonna’ be a goner. What I’m telling you is, we need to stop anyone from leavin’ there and contain the sickness to just Cholla.
An hour later, Jed, the bartender and 17 volunteer riders rode out to Cholla with a wagon containing three barrels of lamp oil.
“Don’t no one drink nothin’, touch nothing alive nor let anyone stop you from what you’re doin’. The winds from the west so we need to start at that end of town and work east. Soon as the riders spreading oil are halfway up town, the rest of you to start torchin’ the place. Leave nothing standing and shoot anyone able to walk. It won’t be many.”
Upon reaching Cholla the riders saw the horror of Cholera up close. Many town’s folks had stripped off their fouled clothes and now lay naked in growing pools of their watery stink. Their rears ends were still explosively ejecting the watery body fluid onto the dirt. Too dehydrated to even moan anymore, their mouths quivered in silent pain.
“Oil group, get going! The rest of you with the torches light ‘em up and wait for my signal.”
By morning, the town of Cholla was gone. So were the riders.
The railroad that brought such short lived prosperity also brought plague infected cattle. Within a year, the Santa Fe was rerouted, again bypassing Dead Horse. But by then it didn’t matter. Dead Horse was just another forgotten ghost town bleaching away in the scorching Arizona sun. The collapsed roof of the old Sheriff’s office lay guarding an old wooden desk underneath it. A Sheriff’s badge forever resting on its top.
I don’t remember where, or why I was there… but I’ve stumbled over some place called Dead Horse Rd, or maybe it was Dead Horse Pass, can’t remember! Interesting piece Joe!
Maybe it was Dead Horse Ranch State Park, AZ? There is also a Dead Horse road in Heber, AZ 🙂