(A ghost story…or not)
After asking about the cemetery last evening, the one seen in the photographs hanging in the hotel room, I rise early to begin my two-mile trek alongside the river, following the directions of the hotel owner. The path takes me into the hills, amid scenes of wild serenity, to the cemetery entrance through an old five-barred gate, under a rickety wooden arch, the name scorched on a plaque. Boot Hill. Of course, what else would a cemetery be called out here in the old west? I dally awhile among the scattering of graves while the sun, shredding its fingers of morning light through the lowest branches of the Redwoods, still lacks the heat to warm my balding scalp. The first thing that strikes me as I look upon the inscriptions chiseled into the gravestones is the youthfulness of these dead pioneers. Dying, it seems, happened a lot between the ages of thirty and fifty.
Who ya looking for, mister? The questioner asks.
I turn to find a small boy staring up at me, hands set deeply inside overall pockets, drained of their blueness, one buckle strap hanging loosely off his right shoulder.
I’m not looking for anyone, lad, I reply.
The boy’s hat, pushed lightly onto the back of his head, hides most of his straw-colored hair. I like the look of his candy-striped cotton shirt, no collar, just three buttons, much like the vests my grandfather wore.
I just figure anyone looking at graves this early on a morning has to be looking for someone special. Thought maybe I could help, the boy says.
I feel drawn by the boy’s eye contact, its remoteness, like the eyes of a caged animal; there, but not quite alive.
You mean, and I pause, looking around, you know all the folks buried here?
Mostly, he says. Then nods his head sideways, getting me to look, that there is Frank Liberty died 1910. Next to him, under the leaves, that’s Mathew Parker, six years old when he was hit by a wagon on Main Street.
I feel a sudden urge to brush away the leaves, check out the boy’s accuracy, but don’t.
Do you live in town? I ask.
Used to, Mister; my dad ran the livery yard. That is until Jake Springer shot him dead, he says, not looking up from the ground.
I almost choke. Should I laugh? He’s playing a game with me.
Really, I say, playing surprise. What’s your name, lad?
Joey, Joey Ripley, he says, shoving out his hand. It feels unreal; a small but firm grip that reaches in and touches my heart.
Perhaps this kid loves to check out tourists, tell them a story while his pals look on from behind the trees somewhere.
Aren’t you cold? I ask. The sun doesn’t have any heat yet, Joey.
I’ve been colder, mister, he replies, turning to walk away.
Wait! Joey, your dad, he’s buried here. I ask, intrigued by the boy’s uncanny ability to tell a story.
He pauses in his stride away and without speaking raises his arm, pointing. I feel an icy chill on my back. Graves make me cry when I know who is in them. I step closer, looking at the inscription chiseled into the headstone.
‘Jack Ripley. Died of gunshot wounds. February 13. 1856.’
This is your dad, Joey? I ask, lines etching my forehead.
Yep, he confirms. He takes one hand from a dog-eared pocket and points to another place. This time directly, accusingly. Jake Springer is over there.
Do you want to show me, Joey?
Surely, he mutters.
Joey leads the way. Such a boy, I’m wondering, living a private fantasy. Perhaps his friends are indeed behind the trees, watching while he makes a fool of me with his outrageously beautiful fantasy. I realize I cannot deny the look on his face, the way his arm points; for there is indeed a sad way to point; the pointing that doesn’t point to anything of importance. I follow, looking around to see if I can catch a glimpse of another boy’s face or several faces poking out from behind a tree. Joey stops at the foot of a disheveled grave, overgrown, ruined, its headstone shattered. He points, this time his arm is direct, straight, index finger sharp. Joey stands, not speaking. After a moment he kicks dirt over the grave and turns away.
Bye, mister, he says.
I want him to stay, but he won’t, not here.
I cannot help myself; I begin to assemble the shattered stone out of curiosity, roughly fashioning its completeness. There is no denying the inscription.
‘Jake Springer. Shot to death. February 15. 1856. Lie in hell.’
I mumble the words, shot to death. Why wasn’t Jake Springer hanged for the murder of the boy’s father, I wonder, and, God forgive me, I kick the stones back into a heap.
Walking back to town, my mind in a daze, I know this boy cannot possibly be the son of Jack Ripley; a man shot to death in 1856. Good Lord, we are in 2017.
Leaving the cemetery, I stop at the old schoolhouse. Built in 1850, just one year after the start of the gold rush, using sun-dried bricks, and now restored to its original condition. I enter the grounds and climb the steps to the classroom door, recalling my own school days. Inside, desks are lined in rows, with the teacher’s desk at the head of the class, next to an easel on which a blackboard rests on two wooden pegs.
From the window the children must have looked out over the rolling hills, hearing the creek running, the pots and pans banging against the sides of the mules as the miners left town to stake their claims. I can imagine the school bell ringing out, signaling the end of the day. See the children blasting out, like flowers bursting from the ground in springtime.
I leave the classroom, heading toward the town. Wait, there he is. Joey, the boy from the cemetery. He’s twirling a lasso, launching it with great accuracy at a stick jutting out of the ground. I’m smiling. How many tourists has this boy told his story, I wonder? Perhaps I should offer him a couple of dollars for the entertainment, but what about those eyes? Those are not the eyes of a boy having fun.
I walk toward Joey and, in a time-honored tradition, say, howdy again.
Howdy, Mister. You been looking in the old school? He asks, not stopping the twirling of his rope.
Sure have, reminds me when I went to school.
Where’d that be, mister?
That’d be back in England, Joey. A long time ago.
That’s right, I say
Sin Leng, he came from England on a boat, he’s a Chinese.
Sin Leng? I ask, wondering what tale comes next.
He went to school here. His parents, they did the laundry. They’d get your shirts real nice, but we never did that. My ma, she did our washing. I’d sometimes help, when I wasn’t in school. Some days it was so hard I wished I’d gone to school anyhow.
Joey continues to throw the rope, reel it in, and throw it again, never once missing the stick.
Did you skip school much? I ask. You know, you saying you didn’t like it and all.
Whenever I could, Mister, whenever I could. You?
Yes, I say, my voice smiling, me too.
I feel at ease with the boy. Do you mind if I sit a spell, Joey? I ask.
Won’t bother me none, mister. Folks don’t generally stay around me, but you’re welcome.
You’re pretty good with that rope, I remark.
Sure thing, Pa taught me to rope. I’m best in class, and no mistake.
That’s right, your Pa had the livery yard, I remember you saying.
Folks don’t usually sit next to me; they shy away some when I tell’em my pa is in the grave. You didn’t tell me your name, mister.
Frank, Joey. My name is Frank, I tell him.
Good name, he says, launching the lasso, again circling the stick.
Do you tell everyone, Joey?
Only them that stops close. I died in 1858. Ma, she did everything she could. The doc, he said I got some pneumonia thing, I’d been coughing a long time.
Such sad blue eyes, I try not to look.
I listen intently. Isn’t this how it started out for me as a writer, just a boy telling stories; telling lies and making them so believable they were irresistible. Didn’t I, too, want to be loved and telling stories might make people love me.
In the end, those lies have become more and more adventurous, more complicated, until today my lies are packed away on bookshelves, carried in suitcases, read on airplanes, or passed along to friends. Pages and pages of lies, all told with love, all saying something of another way. Now here is this boy, Joey Ripley, treating me to some of my own medicine.
Then you’ll be dead! Is that right, Joey?
Yep! Saturday morning at twelve noon. Ma cried really bad.
It doesn’t even disturb him; he just lets the lie fall from his mouth. What a great talent. It could be me; I’m thinking.
So, you’ll have a place up there in the cemetery, right?
They never put me in the cemetery, Frank. I never knew why that was, Joey says, without a hint of emotion.
Heck, you’d think they would lay you next to your pa.
Don’t matter none, cos I get to see him every Saturday anyways.
Of course, Joey. Here, look, I got some gum, I say.
That’s mighty kinda you, Mister. Joey takes it eagerly. I got to go now; it’s time. Thanks for spending a spell with me. He collects his rope and makes one last twirl, looping the stick dead center. Bye, Frank, he says, raising an arm.
In my heart, right now, more than ever before, I don’t want to say it, but I know the boy isn’t for staying.
Bye, Joey, and my heart aches.
So, is this it? No end to the joke? I watch him walk away. We just met in the cemetery. Just me, and this boy, Joey. His walk, the listlessness of his life. I had somehow intruded into Joey’s fantasy, but I didn’t let on, just smiled; pleased the boy had shared with me.
I’m walking back through the school gate; noon is striking on my wristwatch. Just now, a warm breeze, and on this breeze is the sound of laughter. Has it all been such a joke that laughter is falling from these summer-dressed trees, running around the graves in the cemetery, and picking up leaves with its joy? I look around, trying to find its source. Hell, one moment it’s above me and then below, and at every turn, I’m no closer. I feel a heart panic, as though I’m going to miss out on the greatest joke ever told. I stop running, but the laughter comes from around the corner and pushes me forward, and quite suddenly I’m in this open space.
I can see the laughter, finally, where it has always been, captured in a boy's heart. I move forward, legs trembling, inching my way. A man is holding a boy on his shoulders, and the laughter is coming from the boy and that boy is Joey. His laughter floats among the trees, hanging down from the branches, soaking joyfully into the ground.
I can see the light in Joey’s eyes, a life-light that sparkles, shines, and brightens on Joey’s face. I’m frozen by the beauty of the moment. I instinctively know the man is Jack Ripley, that Joey is his son, and the woman carrying the basket, fronted in a blue and white gingham apron, is his mother, the woman that had wept so hard for her son.
The man feels my presence and is looking in this direction. Joey smiles.
It’s okay, Pa. It’s just Frank, he’s my friend.
I watch until these shadows grow long. Jack collects his son up onto his shoulders, and all three walk toward the stick that juts from the ground. Gently, Jack lies Joey in the grass. The woman kneels at his side, stroking her son’s head before walking away, hand in hand with her husband. Joey doesn’t move again. He is motionless, the rope by his side. I feel the darkness descend.
Between elation and the forlornness of the dream, I stroll back to town, the evening warmth softening on my cheeks.
Here at the hotel, the owner greets my return.
Well, now, there you be. Did you get up to the old cemetery?
Sure did, I answer. I found an interesting grave up there: Jack Ripley?
Ah, now there’s a fascinating story. Shot dead by Jake Springer, if I recall, during a bank robbery. I have a picture in my library. The old man gets out of his rocking chair and beckon me follow. He brings me to an old photograph, hanging on the wall.
This is a rare picture of the trial, one of the very first ever taken out here in the west, and the only trial in this town that resulted in a verdict of a hanging.
A hanging? I ask.
That’s what the judge ordered. Jake Springer, you’ll be hanged until dead, the old man says, mimicking the judge.
I look closer. Do you have a magnifying glass, I wonder?
Maybe, let me look in the drawer. The old man turns to an old bureau, standing in the corner of the room. Yes, here you go.
I place the glass to the corner of the old picture. It is faded, but yes, I’m certain.
Do you recognize this boy? I ask, pointing out the faded shape of a small boy inside the courtroom.
Yep, surely do. That lad is Joey Ripley, son of Jack Ripley, the man murdered by Jake Springer, he says. Jack Ripley ran the livery stable right across the street. He points out through the window. Joey, the boy you are referring to, took a gun and shot Jake Springer dead just minutes after that photo was taken. Joey never spoke much to anyone after that.
Is that why the arrow points to him? I ask, trembling at the thought of this young boy shooting his father’s murderer.
No, no. Joey was the school champion with the lasso. The year he died, he died of pneumonia; he hit the target one hundred times without a miss. Never been done since, not by anyone. The lad is buried in the schoolyard, exactly where he became the champion. You can find it still; it’s hard now, grown over with grass. They never put a headstone in that place; his mother didn’t want it; she said it would confine him. It’s a tragic story. In the schoolyard, beneath the grass, just visible, there’s a flat stone with an inscription.
‘Here lies Joey Ripley, proud son of Jack Ripley and loving son of Katherine. Let Laughter Live in Your Soul.’
There’s no knowing why Joey revealed himself to me, maybe he understood we are the same. We tell stories, hoping to move people, reach out, as Joey reached out to me, wanting to touch hearts.
God Bless you, Joey.