Jon de Vos: You look like you didn’t see a ghost
OK, warm up the imagination and follow me for a second. It’ll be worth the trip ’cause we’re havin’ a Cowboy murder mystery when we get there. Squint your eyes real hard and imagine the present shimmering and swirling in front of you, gradually morphing into the past. Creepy sage-burner music fades into a tinkling piano melody.
Editorial Warning: Do not attempt this while driving.
That wasn’t so hard, was it?
Here we are, standing on the upstairs landing of the St. James Hotel in downtown Cimarron, N.M. It’s a windy night in 1881 on this high mountain valley.
Your name is Thomas James Wright, and you’re standing at the head of a steep wooden stairway leading down to a saloon and gambling hall. You pause to light a cigar off a candle stub on the wall as the familiar noises from the stairwell tug at your soul. You pat the wallet inside your vest for luck more than for reassurance. You feel lucky, awash in confidence that has seldom failed you in your gambling career.
Cimarron’s a wide-open town, famous for no law, lots of ladies and big-stakes gambling and you can mix up that order to suit yourself. Cowpokes and gunslingers come from hundreds of miles to relax and hide out from their past and often their present as well.
Later, downstairs in the dim light of guttering candles and sooty kerosene lamps, you’ve been playing grim-faced poker for six hours. You hide the expression on your face by stroking your long handlebar moustache. The tension is palpable in the sweaty faces of the four players around the table. Your earlier confidence was square on the mark. You’ve hardly lost all night. You covertly eye your hole card, calculating the odds. After several minutes you place it back down on the table and slowly and deliberately push the entire pile of chips in front of you into the pot, a move that makes the house Madame gasp. You stare steady-eyed at the Frenchman, Henri Lambert. His oily hair is pulled back in a short pony and sweat beads his forehead.
He signs the deed to the St. James and throws it on top of the pile of chips in the pot.
Your fortune against his hotel.
Time slows to a crawl, the dealer flips the last card and the betting is called. The hole cards turns your two pairs into a full house, you’ve won. Realization hits Lambert at the same time. You reach out to sweep in the pot as the Frenchman slumps in his chair, his hate-filled eyes never leave yours. You’ve smashed his dreams and ruined his life. He’s armed, by the way.
So, let’s call this the end of the first act, and here’s the question I put to you, do you turn your back on this guy? Of course not, you say today, safely ensconced in your armchair. You have personally logged countless half-hours of television observing the fate of weak-chinned thugs shortly after someone cast hate-filled eyes at them.
We all understand the lesson here: Stay out of the hotel business unless you want to rub shoulders with Paris Hilton. Hmm.
No, no, of course not, the real lesson here is to keep an eye on your enemies. Back in 1881, to turn your back or not on an armed man, was an important etiquette question that would not be addressed for more than five decades. Miss Manners was not born until 1938, for instance.
Let us return to the barroom. You’ve just pocketed the deed to the St. James Hotel in Cimarron, N.M., tipped the bar gal and vamoosed for bed upstairs. Just as you put the key in the door, a floorboard creaks behind you. You pause and straighten up. A blast fills the long corridor and the last thing you see is the number 18 imposed over a pair of hate-filled eyes reflected in the brass room number. With your dying breath you curse the hotel and its occupants, vowing revenge.
Big mystery, huh? Who killed Tom Wright?
Nobody was ever charged but Henri Lambert ran the hotel for almost another decade. In its history, twenty-six people were murdered in the St. James and numerous others died of both natural and mysterious causes. If ever a hotel was haunted, the St. James is today. Guests report rooms busy with spectral card games, a ghostly conga line occasionally weaving throughout the hotel, spirits turn the lights on and off and cold spots float eerily through the rooms. Apple sachets were a favorite of Henri’s second wife, Mary, and the scent of apple wafts through the hotel without explanation. Many of the ghastly sightings and inexplicable experiences are linked to Room 18. So many, in fact, that today they leave the door open with the room’s contents and furnishings on display, just like they were the day Thomas Wright checked out.
Last weekend, about a hundred and twenty-six years after Tom got his late checkout, the wife and I checked into Room 19, right across the hall from the “Room Where It Happened.” The evening in the hotel passed uneventfully, aided by the fact that the St. James has no phones, television or cell service. When you’re staying at a haunted hotel, ‘uneventful’ is a lot better than a mini-bar.
Uneventful it was, until the next morning when a sudden chill woke me at 4am. I was instantly awake when I saw a hunchback standing at the foot of the bed. I was frozen in terror but my mind was a furious blizzard deciding between, a) trying to burrow underneath the wife, or b) screaming like a peacock. My God, its eyes, its eyes!
They’re burning like . . . like . . . buttons? I flipped on the light. My wife’s coat, draped over a chair, stared back.
Later that day we were reading downstairs in the comfortable lobby of the St. James, when I noticed the faint odor of apples. I began sniffing like a bloodhound, “Do you smell it?” I shouted, “It’s apples.”
She put down her book and said, “That’s because I’m eating one I picked up at the front desk. You thought it was a ghost again, didn’t you? I can see right through you.”
“You . . . you can?”
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