Texas Tails: The Ghost of Zacatecas Pass
It had now reached the foot of a high craggy mountain, which it ascended, moaning on in the same manner until a distant peak hid the horrid thing from our sight.
Samuel E. Chamberlain
On the morning of February 23, 1847, seventeen-year-old Samuel E. Chamberlain, a U.S. dragoon, was on the verge of entering the fray at the battle of Buena Vista—the famous fight during the Mexican-American War pitting the self-styled Napoleon of the West, Mexican general Antonio López de Santa Anna, against Old Rough and Ready, American general Zachary Taylor. Though recalled and recorded years later, Chamberlain wrote of that day: “The sun rose bright and clear. . . . It shone on the scene well calculated to stir one’s blood to a fever heat with warlike enthusiasm and make a coward brave . . . twenty thousand men clad in new uniforms, belts as white as snow, brasses and arms burnished until they glittered like gold and silver. Their Cavalry . . . some six thousand cavaliers . . . advanced towards us as if they would ride down our little band and finish the battle at one blow.”
Chamberlain survived the battle and the war, but not the army. Two years later, he deserted and joined the notorious Glanton Gang, which was contracted by Mexican authorities to hunt, kill, and scalp every Apache they could get their hands on. But one blackheaded scalp looked like every other blackheaded scalp along the Texas-Mexican border. The gang was soon lifting the hair of more than Apaches—until their savagery came to an abrupt end in the spring of 1850 when the gang was massacred by Yuma Indians near present-day Yuma, Arizona.
Chamberlain escaped and wrote of his service in the U.S. army and as a scalp-hunter with the Glanton Gang. His My Confession, the only known primary source of the Glanton scalp-hunters, was made famous in Cormac McCarthy’s 1985 Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West.
What follows is a ghost tale told by the young dragoon while standing sentry in Mexico.
My . . . adventure in the Zacatecas pass happened in broad daylight, and was more than my philosophy could account for. I was on the outpost one afternoon, the sun a good hour high, the air clear and calm. I was in good health, with excellent digestion, had not been on a spree for a month and I had drunk but little muscal that day. I could see for miles in my front, and the ground was so dry and parched that the jump of a Rabbit a mile off could be told by the dust. I was thinking of nothing in particular when I caught sight of an object moving on the plain about two miles off. It was moving at right angles to the road, and seem’d to be moving at a slow walk. I thought it must be some [Texas] Ranger who had lost his horse while on a scout and was making his way to camp on foot.
I started down to meet it, when the fact that the advancing figure raised no dust caused me to hesitate in wonder. On it came, until I could make out a figure of a man, or what resembled a well-got-up scarecrow broke loose from some Yankee cornfield and taking a promenade out in Mexico for the fun of the thing. Its method of locomotion was peculiarly its own; it revolved like a top in a most unaccountable and mysterious manner.
My steed showed symptoms of affright, pawing and snorting, and tried to bolt with me. I slung my Carbine and waited, my predominating feeling being that of curiosity. It appeared to be a man dressed in the stereotype stage costume of an English clodhopper, a slate-colored smock frock, knee breeches, hob-nail shoes, and a slouch felt hat. Its hair was long and tow colored, and the face! No tongue can describe the awful ghastliness of the features, and the terrible despair that glared from its stoney eyes. It was horrible, unearthly!
I rubbed my eyes to see if I was really awake and when the thing was within a few yards of me I hailed it, but in silence on it came, whirling and twisting around, its long hair and arms flopping, and its legs twisting around each other. It seem’d all smashed up, every limb out of joint, the head twisted over the shoulder. I could stand it no longer but gave rein to my frightened horse who dashed off for the reserve.
Shame made me rein up and look behind. The phenomenon was moving on in the same slow, silent, mysterious manner. I got desperate and driving spurs into my horse charged down to within ten yards, and after ordering it to halt, I fired on it. Though I was satisfied my shot passed through it, it produced no effect. I tried to run it down, but I could not urge my horse near it. I rode round and round it, firing on it as fast as I could load, and shouting with sheer affright. The galloping of horses on the road toward the pass drew my attention in that direction, and to my great joy Sergeant Gorman and ten men of the reserve rode up at speed.
“What in the [devil] have you got there, Jack?” cried out the Sergeant.
“The old boy himself, I believe!” I replied as I gave it another shot.
Gorman exclaimed, “Hold all! It’s an old friend, Tim McCarty from the old country!” and tried to ride up to it.
Holding out his hand, he said, “Tim, my boy, how are ye, how came ye out here, and what in the [devil] do you mean by twisting about in that ridiculous manner for?” but Tim or whatever it was made no reply but kept on its vortical and erratic way.
Gorman caught one look from the thing’s fearful eyes, turned pale, and yelled out, “A ghost! A ghost!” and went off at a run followed by all but four.
We laid several plans to bring the thing to terms. We formed about one hundred yards off and charged down on it, but our horses, that would dash on a line of bayonets, would wheel when within a few yards. We tried our lassos together and with a horseman at each end rode around it and pulled the rope tight, which passed through the figure without disturbing it in the least. We fired volleys again and again into it. The bullets would pass through, knocking up the dust on the plain beyond. Finally, getting desperate, Jack Decker (Happy Jack of Company A) and myself dismounted and dashed on it with our Sabres. Our blades passed through and through the object, while Happy Jack, who closed with the figure, was whirled off his feet and thrown to the ground.
It had now reached the foot of a high craggy mountain, which it ascended, moaning on in the same manner until a distant peak hid the horrid thing from our sight. We looked in each other’s faces with fear and amazement, and our unanimous belief was that we had seen some being of another world.
We all went back to the reserve and found the Sergeant quite sick from his scare. He insisted that it was the ghost of Tim McCarty, come to warn him of his approaching death. I tried to reason him out of this absurd idea, saying that if it was a warning to anyone it must be me as it came to me first, but Gorman shook his head and replied, “Whist, Jack, what does Tim McCarty know about you?” Superstition so worked on his mind that our strange vision came near being the cause of his death for before morning he was in a critical condition.
We had no outpost that night! Two men were placed on the road, while there rest hovered over our fire and related fearful tales of the supernatural, glancing over our shoulders as if some horrid apparition stood behind us.
Next day on our return to the ranch the ghost story was told and reached the ears of our officers, and we were separately examined by them, but we all agreed on the main points. Yet Lieutenant Buford swore we were all drunk, that the ghost was the effect of too deep potations of muscal, and Sergeant Gorman was reduced to the ranks for seeking a Ghost. The canteens of the picket Guards were closely inspected after this, and all strong liquors confiscated, and we were troubled no more by whirling, twisting ghosts of Tim McCartys in the Zacatecas pass.
Samuel E. Chamberlain, My Confession: The Recollections of a Rogue—an American Hero and Soldier of Fortune Here Records in Words and Pictures His Fantastic Personal Adventures Before, During, and After the Mexican War (New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1958), 102–105.