This was originally posted 10/31/10. It seems a perfect story to share during the Halloween season.
Halloween seems the perfect day to share a New Mexico ghost story, one borrowed from a great friend. If you’ve read my previous post on the Perseid Meteor Shower, you know that my friend Elaine Quarles always inspired me to write, write, write more, and to be unafraid to share my stories. We shared whatever we were writing at the moment – I’d send her an essay and she’d send me a paper she was writing for a college class, and she’d always be unflinchingly honest, but incredibly encouraging. Every time I write a new post I think of Elaine – she’s my inspiration to keep sitting down at my keyboard and punching out another tale. There’s so little time, and so many stories to tell.
I remember the ghost stories surrounding the old house out at the Cluck Ranch. When I was eight or nine years old, I went with my parents to a housewarming party at the Cluck’s new ranch headquarters home. Two or three big boys, ten or twelve years old at the time, dared the little kids to come with them to the abandoned Martinez house on the edge of the property, and then we dared one another to climb the stairs and touch the rope dangling in the stairwell. I had nightmares for months afterward – I was sure that the ghost of old Martinez was climbing the hill to our house to stand outside my window.
I was the scaredy-est of the scaredy cats, forever. I spent most of my childhood convinced that Barnabas Collins also stood outside my bedroom window, waiting for the perfect moment to steal inside and bite me on the neck. I slept for years with the sheets pulled up tight around my neck, guarding against the inevitable vampire attack.
I still find the Ute Creek bridge eery after dark. If you believe in ghosts, they’re out there, I’m pretty sure.
Here’s Elaine’s Harding County Ghost Story. Thanks to her daughter Dalice for giving me permission to reprint it.
It must have been a beautiful place to live is the first thought that comes to my mind as my truck finally tops the last dusty hill. In the wide river bottom below me, Ute Creek meanders slowly, forming pools of water as red as the sandstone bluffs on the distant west bank. Upstream to the north, big elms and cottonwoods line the bank, and there in the mist of the trees, is the house.
“Built in 1892. Hasn’t been lived in as long as I can remember,” says Jim, the ranch foreman as we walk around the two-story stone building. I peek inside a boarded up window and see big rooms, hardwood floors, and high ceilings with crown molding, the remnants of an elegant life. Even in the heat, a cool breeze stirs inside.
In my mind, I picture the dugouts and shacks on the barren plain where my ancestors homesteaded. I can comprehend that the people living here must have been very lucky.
“Built by Monroe Martinez. He ran the Assay Office,” Jim is saying.
“Years ago, Huby told me a guy hung himself in this house. Last week I heard that people around here think it’s haunted,” I say.
“Yeah, I’ve heard rumors about a hanging but that was before my time.” To me, it looks like little could have been before his time. “My wife and daughter think there is a ghost. They’ve heard things, seen things. Daughter has pictures of some strange shadows.”
“Huby said the guy had a wife and nine kids and got the hired girl pregnant. Ended up hanging himself.”
“Could be. Doc Quarles probably came to see the body. Huby might have come with his dad that night.”
“Yeah, probably did.” And I curse myself for not asking Huby, my father-in-law, more questions when he was still alive.
(Inside the vacant house)
“Why can I see them?” Monroe wonders as he sits at the top of the staircase. He hasn’t seen anyone from the outside world in decades. “It must be the connection between the woman and that kid, Huby.”
Ol’ Doc Quarles and that kid. Monroe remembers when they came through the front door that night ninety years ago. He lay on the floor, the rope cut from the ceiling but still tight around his neck. His face was purple and bright red scratches ringed his throat. He regretted the claw marks; they were evidence of both a poorly done hanging, and the fact he had fought the rope at the end.
“Don’t look like foul play,” Doc said. “Nothing left to do now but call a priest.”
“Priest? No senor. Se mato. Suicidio,” the cowboy who cut the rope was saying.
“Well, let’s get him buried,” said Doc.
“No priest. No God,” Monroe thought.
“You go to the priest. You beg for forgiveness,” Carmelita had screamed that morning.
“God is dead,” Monroe muttered.
“Dead? You and your stupid books,” she had flung her arm across the shelf. Books flew to the floor. Monroe had watched Nietzsche’s book bounce on the floor as his teachings bounced in his brain.
Mencía stood crying in the corner. That morning while rolling out biscuits, Carmelita, mother of nine, realized that Mencía was pregnant.
Warm-hearted Carmelita assumed it was one of those dashing vasqueros living on the ranch and set Mencía down to plan a shotgun wedding.
Mencía, girl of barely fifteen, confessed every detail of their sin, no; it was sins, to his wife.
Carmelita threw some clothes into a bag and rode away.
Later that same morning, he stared at Mencía and wondered how he could have ever lusted for her the way he had. But he had. Her firm young body was all he had thought about, all he had wanted for months. And with trinkets, ribbons, warm smiles, and tender words, he had made it his. Often.
Now all he saw was a scared girl younger than four of his granddaughters. And he felt only shame.
The day wore on in silence. Mencía fixed supper but they ate nothing. Monroe kept seeing his family and future fleeing from his grasp.
“Tomorrow we’ll go see the medica. We’ll get this taken care of,” were the last words he had said to Mencía.
“Medica? Aborto? No senor. No aborto,” Mencía sobbed as she ran out the kitchen door, past the mulberry tree, and down the hill toward the cantina.
“I found a couple of graves over there,” Jim, the foreman, is pointing down the hill to the south. “There used to be a cantina there. I remember we used the old building for goat ropings when I was a kid. The graves were behind the cantina, placed north to south.”
“Guess whoever did the burying figured there was no hope of the archangel calling those two,” I say.
Monroe remembers sitting in his chair waiting for Mencía to return home. The acceptance that “God was dead” had given Monroe the freedom to be someone new, different. Still, he had over reacted, made choices that he regretted. He would fix things now; he would not force his will on the girl again; there would be no abortion. No, tomorrow he would pay a vasquero to marry her. And he would fix things with Carmelita.
Music from the cantina drifted through the open windows in his room. He dosed off and on. In the distance, a cougar screamed on a sandstone bluff. Or was it an owl in a tree much closer?
Someone was pounding on the door. “Senor Martinez, Senor Martinez,” someone was shouting.
“What is it? What’s going on?” he had asked.
“It’s your girl. Your hired girl. They used her. Three of them. She’s hurt bad.”
Mencía lay in the bed of the buckboard. Her skin pale, blood ran from her mouth, a blanket covered ber bare chest and torn skirt.
“Go! Go to Doc Quarles!” Monroe begged as the wagon rolled away.
Below at the cantina, Monroe heard shouts and gunfire. Horses whinneying and then silence.
“So I guess that’s where he hung himself,” I say as I point to the beam at the top of the stairs.
“Yes, that’s where.” Monroe wishes he could tell the woman.
Monroe remembers Carmelita’s last words to him that morning, “No God? May you burn in hell,” she had hissed as she rode away.
He had often thought that hell would be better than staying here and trying to forgive himself. Setting your own moral values had seemed exhilarating at first. In the end, it had turned out terrifying, and he wished he had a devil to blame or a god to plead to.
The woman and the foreman were fading from view now as they walked down the hill to the graves.
Monore turned to three other occupants of his decript mansion. Their mutual hatred for one another had simmered over long ago. They have not spoken a word to each other in eight decades.
“So why are there only two graves?” he asks them.
“Juan ran when they started to hang us. They roped him, drug him behind a horse. There’s wasn’t enough left to bury. Anyway, come morning, the coyotes had cleaned up the mess.”
I climb back into my truck and drive away. A second later, the radio turns itself on. “We are all just prisoners here of our own device” the Eagles are singing.
“Damn rough roads,” I think.