Old Stagecoach Road: A Ghost Story
“As it is appointed unto men to die once, but after this the judgment.”
In the deep woods of East Texas, behind the piney curtain of live oaks and Texas loblolly, there lies a road cut deep into the sandy soil. Like a scab covered over by a canopy of trees, the Old Stagecoach Road makes its way from Marshall to Shreveport, Louisiana. Carved twelve feet into the earth by iron-rimmed wheels and iron-shoed horses, the road resembles a grave dug for one of the Nephilim.
Even on hot, humid nights the wind runs cold through that tomblike road. Such was the case one evening in the long ago when a cowboy from Texas boarded a stage in Shreveport bound for Marshall. Old man Bradford sat the driver’s box, leather in hand. His boy Johnny sat the shotgun. Midnight horses nickered and blew—four in hand. Dust at their feet danced a dervish in the lantern light. The cowboy gave a hardy howdy-do and heaved his saddle up. In the shadow light he saw what looked to be the body of a man wrapped for burial laying crossways along the top. For your sake, I hope he paid his fare before he punched his ticket. And the cowboy chuckled. The coachman uttered not a sound but turned a hatted head and pointed a slender finger to the blackened door: Death comes to all and all come to die. The air bit a frosty bite and the cowboy peered into the darkened coach and turned the handle. In his hand he held a tin pail that held his dinner. The door swung open and he stepped inside. The coachman whistled and a whip cracked and the leather popped and the horses jumped and the coach lurched and the cowboy fell to his seat. The tin pail he placed next to him.
Within minutes the rocking rhythm of the coach lulled the cowboy to sleep. He stretched his legs in front and rested his head against the window frame and lowered his hat over his eyes. He slept comfortable and warm until the nip of the night entombed the coach in that grave-like road and he woke in a shiver. He pulled his hat tight and buttoned his coat closed and turned his collar against that strange blown air. The horses raced in their pace and outside the speeding window he saw in the flicker of the coachman’s light tree roots and the high bank of the soil cut deep into the earth. Yellow and orange eyes from creatures he knew not what blinked in the darkness. All was quite save the pounding of horses’ hooves and the crack of a whip and the creak of that woody coach—and the wind that blew by and encircled within.
His bones chilled and hands numb, sleep refused his eyes. From his pocket he pulled his pipe and pouch and filled the bowl and struck a match. He touch the flame to the bowl and began to suck and blow until the leaf fired and glowed. And in the winking of that spark before he flung it from his fingered tip his eye caught the silhouette of one not seen before. With shaking hand he fumbled another match into flame. A woman dress in black crepe with veiled face.
I beg your pardon, ma’am. I saw you not upon my entrance. He tipped his hat. I hope my earlier nocturnal sounds disturbed you not nor the puff of my pipe just now.
She said not a word but shook her head no. Then the match flicked out and darkness returned. He supposed she was in mourning for the man shrouded on top and was bearing him home for his eternal reward. I am truly sorry for your loss. His voice echoed in the gloom and though the coach was coffin dark he removed his hat and placed it over his heart. Death comes to all and all come to die. Her voice was but a whisper—thin and airy—caught by the passing wind and carried into the blackness as if not a word was spoken by a human throat. The cowboy drew on his pipe and the tobacco flared and filled the coach with ethereal illuminations. The shadow of her figure remained unmoved save the veil that blew in the breeze. That is just what the coachman said at our departure.
She said not a word and disappeared into the blackness from whence she came at the puff of his pipe. You fool, he thought to himself. This lady is in mourning and is in no mood to banter about matters trivial or tragic. He remembered reading somewhere in the Good Book that those in destress ought not go without sustenance and he reach and found his tin pail. He struck another match and looked at the shadowy figure: I have some fried chicken in my pail. I’d be obliged if you’d share it with me. She said not a word but shook her head no. ’Tis no longer hot but the boarding house keeper makes a mighty fine chicken and there is more than can be consumed by me alone. She said not a word but raised a blackened glove and waved it no. The match burned to the numb and he toss it to the passing darkness of that sunken road. He tapped out his pipe on the window frame and embered sparks of shortleaf flicked and flew like fireflies until they were extinguished by the icy hand of the dark night. His put his pipe in his pocket and clicked the latch on his tin and pulled a drumstick and ate in the inky blackness of that cooling coach.
He ate one leg and tossed the bone and drew another from his pail. He ate and he felt a hand to his knee and coughed and spit in shocked surprise—and then all was still. Had she changed her mind about the chicken or did she just need a human touch to ease her sorrowful soul? The night wore on and became warmer with the passing. The horses raced in their pace and outside the speeding window trees and grassland went by and yellow and orange eyes of critters blinked in the moonlit night. Horses’ hooves pounded and the whip popped and the woody coach creaked and Johnny blew his horn at their arrival.
Reining to a stop the dust at the horses’ feet danced a dervish in the lantern light. Old man Bradford tossed the cowboy’s saddle to the ground and Johnny pulled the carpet for Mrs. Bradford’s parlor. The coachman climbed from the driver’s box and open the coach door and placed a lanterned hand inside. The cowboy sat slumped against the window frame, his coat buttoned, his collar turned, and his hat pulled over his eyes. He was cold and blue and held a half eaten chicken leg in his hand.
Old man Bradford and Johnny buried the cowboy that night. Standing before the mounded burial pit the old man shook his hatted head and pointed a slender finger at the entombed cowman: Death comes to all and all come to die, for a chicken bone to the throat is as deadly as a horse’s kick to the head.