A burning hot sun, a cry for water
Black wings circle the sky
Stumblin’ and fallin’, somebody’s callin’
“You’re lost on the desert to die”. . .
******************Johnny Cash, “Lost on the Desert”
In Cash’s classic song, a thief manages to escape his captors and runs for the desert to retrieve his ill-gotten gains, with predictable results.
Betcha he’d have envied the prospector picked up by the Ghost Train of the Alkali Flats. This story comes from Tony Reavy’s 1998 book Ghost Train! American Railroad Ghost Legends.
Tombstone was past its heyday as a mining town, which is why the prospector decided to move on to richer pickings. He’d heard of one such place, called Dos Cabezos, some fifty miles northeast of Tombstone. So he loaded up a pack burro and bravely set out to make his fortune.
But the alkali flats, north of the Dragoon Mountains, were trackless and unbearably hot, and the water, true to that name alkali, was deadly to drink. He outlasted his burro, who dropped dead in the midst of the heat devils that rose from the ground, but he was soon in the direst of straits himself, his body baking under the merciless sun that rode a merciless blue sky above, his insides slowly drying out in the most unbearable of all torments.
He collapsed, as best he could figure later, some thirty miles outside Wilcox.
Hallucinations deviled him as much as the heat, especially when he heard a hearty chugchug chugchug chugchug and clicketyclack–and then the long wail of a train whistle off in the distance.
Unlike your run-of-the-mill hallucination, these sounds kept coming closer. Somewhere in his parching brain, he remembered a legend he’d heard–and pooh-poohed–of a train that had been seen, many many times, by lone travelers on the alkali flats–of how it began its metallic racket far off, coming closer and closer, and finally racing by in a rush of steam and wind to vanish in the dust it stirred up in its wake.
He managed to look up and saw with his drying eyes–too dry to cry–a black speck that moved closer and closer, to the accompaniment of those unmistakable train sounds.
Whoo-whoo! Whoo-whoooooooooo. . .
The train was close enough now that he could see the engineer, and hear the frantic jangling of its bell, as if the engineer were trying to warn him off, that he could see the worried faces of passengers looking out from their carriages. He thought, in remote amazement, that he was lying just about where it would run over him.
And by God, he was at a point where he’d welcome the cessation of this slow foretaste of hell.
He couldn’t move. He lay there, hoping hazily that the big wheels would cut him right in half.
But the engineer did something totally unexpected. He braked the train to a stop, and crewmen lifted the prospector to safety on the floor of one of the passenger cars. He rasped a single word.
Water. . .
And then he fainted.
He woke, some time later, to find he had water: a stranger with a kind, weathered face and a sheriff’s badge was bending over him, pouring water over his face.
“Glad to see you’re wakin’ up,” the sheriff said laconically. “Another hour and you’d been buzzard bait.”
He asked weakly, “Where am I?”
“Wilcox. Feller found you about five miles out there, brung you in.”
He thought a minute, then said, “Train?”
“Train? Son, there ain’t no train around here.”
Although the Southern Pacific Railroad came through Arizona around 1880, running through Wilcox and eventually putting a branch line out to Tombstone, no tracks were ever laid across those deadly alkali flats where the prospector was saved from death. . .
by a train that never was.
Reavy tells another story about a ghost train that ran on tracks where there were never tracks, somewhere near Belleville, Texas. That train was apparently seen only once, around 1960, by a passing motorist, who said it seemed to move in a light of its own and vanished into an inexplicable bank of fog that rose from nowhere.
As for the ghost train of the Arizona desert, the legend says that never before, and never again, did the train stop to take aboard a passenger on its phantom run.