He was just a little boy, a big talker with a big imagination. He loved the little Arizona gold mining town where his family lived, and he loved the dusty country around it.
What he loved most, though, was the stagecoach that used to come through town once a week, bringing new miners and gamblers, fancy ladies and families.
Unfortunately, the stage didn’t come through his town anymore. The mine was played out in just a year or two, the miners, gamblers, fancy ladies and most of the families had left, and there was no longer any need for a regular stage run. Such hauling as was done from the tiny town was now handled, on an irregular basis, by a livery stable owner, too stubborn or too broke to leave himself.
But the little boy was sure that, one day, the coach would come back. He reasoned that, if somebody could find another mine, then it would run in, big coach and four, with a driver and a shotgun guard bringing mine engineers and miners, fancy ladies and grandmothers, preachers and saloonkeepers and grocers and–
The possibilities were endless as his dream.
As for finding another mine, well, why shouldn’t he be the hero who walked into a cave and found veins and veins of gold in the quartz of the mountains?
He would go out on his burro, packing a lunch and dreaming his dream and searching diligently for such a place. He was always careful to be home before dark, and after a night’s rest would head out again, ever hopeful.
One night, he didn’t make it home.
The men of the town were about to mount a search when he showed up, alone, right about midnight, on the outskirts of town, in a happy, excited state.
It came back! he announced joyfully. The stage came back!
As grownups will be, the townsfolk were skeptical. One must admit, the story he told was pretty farfetched.
His burro, in a stubborn spell, had run off on its own, he said, somewhere way out on the mountain. He had hunted and called and called and hunted for hours before deciding to let it come home on its own; he needed to get back to town before sundown.
He had only just reached the old road the coach used to take into town when sundown came. Worse yet, he could hear a pack of wolves in the nearby scrub that covered the foothills.
Wolves don’t usually attack people; they’ve learned over ages of time that humans are treacherous and generally armed, and prefer to hunt deer or bison or other critters against whom they have an even chance. But the boy was young and unarmed and tired and scared by their howls. He managed to climb up on a great rock and waited, expecting to be surrounded by the pack at any minute.
He could see them loping in his general direction when over their clamor he heard other sounds: the neighing of horses, the crack of a whip, and the rumble of heavy wheels on the dirt road.
THE COACH WAS BACK!
The coach halted alongside the rock and the boy jumped onto the high seat beside the driver. The driver cracked his whip and away they went, the wolves–maybe hoping for a horse dinner?–running and yipping behind them. At one point, the boy felt the coach bounce as it ran over something, but in the dark and dust he couldn’t see what they had hit.
The coachman dropped him off just at the edge of town. The wolves had fallen behind long since; he could hear their howls growing fainter and fainter as he ran toward home.
The grownups might have laid it all to his vivid imagination, a likely story made up as he dragged himself back to town after dark, had not someone decided to go out to set poison bait for the wolves.
Right at the edge of town, that man found tracks that he recognized as being from the wheels of a stagecoach. There were no tracks of a turn back out toward the rough country; they simply stopped, as if the coach had vanished at that point.
And, a few hundred feet farther out, he found a dead, mangled wolf, crushed by something heavy–either a wagon or a coach.
The story of the phantom coach that brought a lost boy home comes from C. B. Colby’s World’s Best “True” Ghost Stories (1988).
No doubt folklorists have a motif number for phantom rescuers. Me, it just reminds of another Arizona story about a ghost train.