murder mystery, crime, & detective fiction

Ghost-Town Slays


by James E. Hungerford

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Smashing Detective Stories | Sept. 1951 | Vol. 1 | No. 3

Est. Read Time: 20 mins

When the movie company came in, it looked as if a bad-man gambler had returned from Boothill to get in a few more killings!





On an evening when desert winds moan weirdly through deserted buildings in Yucca City, “Ghost-Town Jim” Boggs sits on the rotting-platform of the Tonapha & Hassayampa brank-line depot muttering greetings to old friends who have been dead for years.

“Howdy, Bit Watt! … Howdy, Poker-Chip … Nice evenin’, Caliente Rose! … Buenos noches, Mexican Molly!”

Sometimes Jim imagines he hears a train rolling down rusty rails of the long-abandoned railroad track, and hops up from his rickety cane-bottom chair to meet it as spryly as in days when Yucca City was a roaring, lawless, gold rush “boom-town.”

Not that Jim Boggs is looney; far from it! He only lives over again in memory the days when he was Chief of Police of the Nevada mining-town.

In its prime, Yucca City boasted a population of ten thousand inhabitants, and Main Street was cluttered with gambling-parlors, saloons, dance halls. Then the mining-boom petered out, and the town was deserted. A Police Chief was no longer needed, but Jim refused to leave, believing the town would “come alive” in a new gold rush, and he would get his old job back.

For years now, Jim’s sole companions have been snakes, lizards, horned-toads, bats, and other crawling, hopping, flying denizens of the desert that make their habitat in the crumbling, dilapidated buildings on Main Street. These, and a flea-bitten old bear-dog and an aged burro keep Jim company.

Sometimes “Mexican Joe” Mendez, a grizzled, swarthy-skinned resident of the Nevada Desert, visits Jim, following him about like a faithful old dog. Jim saved Mexican Joe’s life once, when a drunken prospector had tried to cut Joe’s throat.

One afternoon, not long ago, Jim’s eyes bulged at sight of a large aggregation of people coming toward Ghost-Town over the shimmering sands. The shock brought him out of his chair, with a gasp, dropping his pipe.

“By golly Moses! The old town’s cornin’ alive again in a new gold-rush!” he blurted.

Nerves jumping with excitement, he rushed forth to greet the newcomers, only to meet with bitter disappointment. The cavalcade of men, women, horses, trucks, trailers, had come into the Nevada desert to “shoot” scenes for a historical-Western motion-picture.

At first Jim refused to be welcoming host to the visitors, resenting their intrusion on his privacy. But after considerable persuasion, movie-director Dave Parsons prevailed on him to act as guide about Ghost-Town and play a “bit” role in the picture.

“All right! Go ahead with your danged tomfoolery!” growled Jim. “An’ git it over quick! I ain’t hankerin’ for company!”



That evening, when the movie actors gathered on the old Tonapha & Hassayampa depot platform, Jim Boggs told hair-raising yarns about boom-town days that gave his listeners the creeps. Mexican Joe Mendez had drifted in from the desert and joined the group.

“The spirits of the dead—dance-hall gals, gamblers, outlaws, come flittin’ down Main Street ‘round the old buildings ‘most every even-in’,” concluded Jim somberly. “Along ‘bout midnight, they starts in wail-in’, moanin’ an’ lamentin’ over their past sins.”

Dexter Marlow, the movie villain, a handsome, swarthy, sinister-looking thespian, sat beside Mazie O’Hern, the company’s pretty, dark-eyed leading lady. “Ghosts—bosh!” he rasped sneeringly. “Damned tommyrot and nonsense! The only ghosts around here are in the brains of some foolish, superstitious humans!”

“I’m—I’m not so sure of that!” said Mazie O’Hern, peering awesomely at the moonlit desolation of Main Street. “After hearing Mr. Boggs’ gruesome experiences as Police Chief of Yucca City, I—I feel sort of jittery and squeamish.”

“Nonsense!” scoffed Marlow. “Living alone in this damnable desert has made Mr. Boggs neurotic! His ‘ghosts’ are nothing more than the wind whistling through empty buildings.”

Mazie’s uncle, Stephen O’Hern, tall, gaunt, elderly character-actor, coughed harshly. “Fools are skeptical of everything!” he rasped. “Wise men withhold judgment until a thing has been proved or disproved!”

Marlow shot him a cold, contemptuous glance; that the two men disliked each other heartily was obvious.

With the exception of Mazie O’Hern, no member of the movie company liked Marlow, because of his insolent tongue and swaggering pose of superiority. “Tex” Lanning, leading man, detested him, as did Dave Parsons, the director.

Jim Boggs had noted these facts as his shrewd, deep-socketed gray eyes had studied his guests, gathered on the depot platform. “You don’t have to believe what I’ve told you about the spirits of Ghost-Town flittin’ around the old camp o’ nights,” he growled. “Some folks ‘low it’s the wind whistlin’ through buildings. Maybe it is, and again maybe it ain’t. You can decide that for yourselves!”

Jim proudly showed his guests faded old photographs of Caliente Rose, Mexican Molly, Poker-Chip O’Fallon and Big Watt Halperin, ex-residents of Ghost-Town.

The movie-actors were much interested in the pictures from a “character” angle, particularly Tex Banning, Dave Parsons and Stephen O’Hern, all expert “make-up” artists.

Mazie O’Hern had moved over beside Jim, on the platform. “I’m terribly interested to know something,” she whispered. “Which of those dance-hall girls did you like best, Mr. Boggs; Caliente Rose or Mexican Molly?”

Jim smiled in the moonlit darkness—a tender smile. His gaze shifted to Boothill Cemetery, rising somberly in the silvery gloom, north of Ghost-Town. “I—I always put flowers on the graves of both of ‘em,” he said gently.



When the gathering on the depot platform had broken Up, Boggs heard angry, lowered voices in the shadowy darkness of the Casino dance-hall. From behind a corner of the old building, he caught only a brief snatch of the quarrel, “…and if you don’t keep away from her, Marlow, you damn philandering phony, I’ll wring your neck!”

The speaker was Tex Banning.

Dave Parsons came hurrying up as the two actors began pummeling each other with fists. “You fellows get to your sleeping quarters!” he rasped. “I’m damned tired of your bickering! And I’m telling both of you again to keep away from Mazie O’Hern after working hours!”

“That doesn’t seem to apply to you, Parsons,” sneered Marlow. “Mazie is the only friend I’ve got in this damned outfit! I intend to see her whenever it’s agreeable to her!” He strode away abruptly into the night.

“The heel!” gritted Dave Parsons. “If he wasn’t a good actor, I’d give him the gate! Sometimes I’d like to wring his onery neck!”

“You and me both, Boss,” growled Tex Lanning. “And one of these days I might do that little thing!”

The members of the movie company didn’t sleep much that night in the quarters Jim Boggs had allotted to them in the dust-filled, gloomy old Palace Hotel. From all directions came screechy, whistling, sobby noises. Bats darted squeakily about the ancient, crumbling buildings. Sand-owls hooted dismally along Main Street. Coyotes yelped hideously at the moon from lonely tragedy-haunted Boothill Cemetery.

Along toward midnight, Jim Boggs was jerked out of sound slumber by a piercing scream, followed by running footfalls along the hall. Somebody knocked frantically on his door. “Quick! Let me in!” cried a hysterical voice.

Jim flung open the door, and Mazie O’Hern almost fell into his arms. “That—that man, whose photograph you showed us, this evening, Big Walt Halperin, the old-time dance-hall owner! I—I looked out my window and saw him sneaking along near the hotel, in the moonlight! His—his face was exactly like the face on the old photograph—long black hair, black moustache, and—”

“Bosh an’ nonsense!” growled Jim. “Big Watt Halperin has been in his grave on Boothill for years. Maybe his spirit wanders ‘round town, but I ain’t ever seen Big Watt personal! Now get back to your bed, an’ quit imaginin’ things!’”

But Mazie O’Hern was in no mood for slumber.



Jim was trying to calm her nerves, when Lanning came striding into the room. Halting, he stared in surprise to find Mazie O’Hern there. “What’s wrong, honey? What are you doing here?” he questioned sharply.

“I’m here, perhaps, for the same reason you are,” answered Mazie. “I don’t believe in spooks ordinarily, but—”

“Nor do I,” snapped Tex. “Maybe you’ll think I’m crazy, but I’ll swear I saw a face peering into my room window, a few minutes ago, that looked like—”

“Like the fellow whose photograph Boggs showed us this evening. Big Watt Halperin!” a voice interrupted from the doorway, and Dave Parsons came into the room. “I saw the fellow’s face distinctly, peering into my window, and—”

“Funny,” growled Jim. “If three of you seen Big Watt Halperin, he must have been there, unless you’ve got the dangdest imaginations—”

“I see face, too, senor Jim,” broke in a husky, guttural voice, and Mexican Joe Mendez joined the party. “I see Big Watt’s face plenty plain! Him look in at window, glare fierce! El Diablo send Big Watt back from Boothill to—”

Dexter Marlow came swaggering into the room, but his stride was less cocky than usual. Not far behind him was Mazie’s uncle, Stephen O’Hern. Both men had seen a face resembling the pictured likeness of Big Watt Halperin peering in at their windows.

“Funny Big Watt didn’t drop ‘round an’ pay me a call, too,” scoffed Jim Boggs. “Danged if I don’t feel plumb neglected, bein’ passed up by my old friend, Watt, if he’s come back from the dead! Now you folks get back to your quarters an’ quit imaginin’ things! A walkin’ corpse! Bosh!”

Marlow laughed raspily. “You’re not as neurotic as I imagined you were, Mr. Boggs,” he flung back, as he swaggered from the room.



Next morning the corpse of the much-disliked Marlow was found sprawled on the floor of the dusty, cobwebbed Palace Hotel room where he had bedded himself, his eyes staring glassily up at the crumbling plaster ceiling. Apparently he had come to his death by strangulation.

The windows of the room were securely latched, and there were no footprints visible on the ground outside. Dust lay thick on the floor of the death room, and the footprints there were evidently Marlow’s.

“Looks like the devil hisself has paid a visit to Ghost-Town,” muttered Jim Boggs, as he inspected the murder chamber. Bending over the actor’s body, his eyes widened with sudden surprise. In one rigid, clenched hand Marlow clutched several long, black hairs.

Returning to his own room, Jim got the tarnished old badge he had once worn as Police Chief of Yucca City out of a dusty bureau drawer, polished it on his shirt sleeve and attached the badge to a suspender gallus.

Then he walked slowly, thoughtfully up to Boothill Cemetery, and stood looking down at Big Watt Halperin’s weed-grown grave. “How in hell you could get flesh back on your skeleton bones, a suit of clothes on your back, an’ get out of that six-foot-deep hole, without disturbin’ the dirt is more than I can figger,” he muttered. “But you was such a danged schemin’ rascal, when you was runnin’ the Casino dance-hall an’ gamblin’-parlor; maybe you made a dicker with the devil to let you come back to Ghost-Town for a vacation!”

On his return trip from Boothill to Main Street, Jim was passing the Casino dance-hall when Mexican Joe Mendez hailed him from the dance-hall entrance. “You come quick, senor Jim! I got somethin’ to show you inside much queer!”

Jim followed Joe into the big barnlike structure that had once been the center of hilarious gaiety in Yucca City gold-rush days … hilarity and ghastly murder. Here and there under the floor-dust were ancient blood stains; dark-splotched reminders of violent knife and gun killings.

“Look!” grunted Mexican Joe, pointing a gnarled forefinger. “Big Watt Halperin visit dance-hall last night!”

At one end of the room was a long mahogany bar, flanked by a big, ornately-framed mirror. The mirror was cracked in places, and heavily filmed with dust grime of passing years. Scrawled in the dust in the center of the mirror was a crudely drawn skull and cross-bones.

“Umph!” exclaimed Jim. “I didn’t know Big Watt was an artist!” He strode behind the mahogany bar, followed noiselessly by Mexican Joe.

Jim noted that enough dust had been wiped from the left side of the mirror to permit a man to see his reflection clearly in the glass. He ran a forefinger nail through a gob of white, greasy substance on the mirror frame, and grunted. On the back bar, directly beneath the greasy, white substance on the mirror frame, was another gob of the same greasy substance.

“Big Watt Halperin always was a vain damned cuss,” muttered Jim, “The walkin’ corpse evidently was here last night lookin’ at himself in the bar glass by candle light. He stuck the candle on the mirror frame, an’ it dripped that gob of grease on the back bar.”



Mexican Joe had been doing some exploring on his own account. In one gnarled hand he clutched a large, black, hairy object, which he had found under the mahogany bar.

“Well, shoot me for a rattler!” exclaimed Jim. “It looks like the one Big Walt Halperin bought years ago in Reno, to cover his shiny bald head!”

Examining the toupee, Jim found small particles of candle-grease imbedded in the long, black hairs. “The lit candle stuck on the mirror frame must’ve dripped on the toupee while Big Watt was admirin’ himself in the glass,” he muttered. “Furthermore, the hair on this wig looks like the hairs I found in the hand of the dead actor, Marlow. Big Watt’s walkin’ corpse evident paid Marlow a visit.”

Mexican Joe took the toupee from Jim, grinning. “Me got bald head, too,” he said, and placed the wig on his nearly hairless pate. “Not so good fit—but I wear heem.”

“You’re welcome to the dang wig,” chuckled Jim. “Gosh knows, I’ve got no use for a dead man’s old headpiece! Well…I’ve got to be movin’, Joe. I’ve got a movie actor’s corpse to look after over at the hotel.”

As Jim stomped out of the dance-hall into Main Street, a muffled cry of agony reached his ears, followed by loud groans. Running back into the Casino, he found Mexican Joe sprawled on the floor, blood trickling from a nasty scalp wound on the back of his head. The wig was gone from his bald skull. In his right hand, he clutched a sizable bunch of long, black hairs. When able to talk, he told Jim of being attacked and struck down from behind. He had grabbed at the wig, as it was snatched from his head.

“Looks like Big Watt’s walkin’ corpse has come back from the grave to raise some sure ‘nough hell!” gritted Jim.

Helping Mexican Joe over to the Palace Hotel, Jim left his friend’s head-wound to the tender ministrations of Mazie O’Hern, while he paid a visit to Marlow’s death room. To his surprise, he found the actor’s body had been removed during his absence.

“Maybe Big Watt Halperin showed up here an’ packed the dead man up to Boothill graveyard to keep him company,” muttered Jim.



Stepping into the hotel hallway, Boggs nearly collided with Director Dave Parsons. “What happened to Mister Marlow’s corpse?” he questioned the movie man sharply. “You ain’t met up with it roamin’ ‘round the hotel somewheres, have you?”

“I—I took Marlow’s remains to the undertaker in Hassayampa,” informed Parsons. “After a brief examination, the coroner thought Marlow may have died of natural causes; a heart-attack.”

“Then the coroner is damn dumb, or for reasons of his own he’s figurin’ to make a false report at the inquest!” snapped Jim. “The actor feller, Marlow, was murdered.”

Parsons seemed nervous and distraught. “We—we’ve got to go easy on this matter, Boggs,” he stammered. “It—it would be nasty publicity for my picture, if it got out that Marlow was—er—murdered. I have no reason to doubt the coroner’s assumption that—“

“Bosh!” gritted Jim. Marlow was choked to death by a murderin’ killer! I’m still the law in Yucca City—all the law there is. An’ by thunderation, as long as I’ve got my old badge of office, I’m going to see that justice is done!”

Parsons knew that Jim meant what he said, but he was persistent. “Now see here, Boggs, can’t we get together on this unfortunate business? I don’t want any adverse publicity that will hurt the sale of my picture. If—if it’s a matter of money—“

“It ain’t! It’s a matter of murder!” snapped Jim. “All I’m interested in is findin’ the rattler who killed Marlow.”

Dave let the matter drop for the moment. “By the way, Boggs. That old photograph of Big Watt Halperin you showed us last night—I’d like to borrow it. We’re taking some camera-shots of the Casino dance-hall, this afternoon, and I thought it would be a keen idea to have the dance-hall owner in the movie-play look like big Watt Halperin—a typical honky-tonk type of boomtown these days.”

“Sure thing, I’ll loan you the photygraft,” agreed Jim. Big Watt was so dang vain, I wouldn’t be surprised if his walkin’ corpse would show up at the dance-hall an’ want to act in your picture!”

Parsons emitted a raspy chuckle. “You have a bizarre sense of humor, Mr. Boggs,” he commented acidly.

That afternoon, lighting and sound apparatus was set up in the big main room of the Casino dance-hall. The bar mirror had been cleaned of accumulated grime of years, and the actors were using the glass in applying make-up to their faces.

Stanley Ryerson, understudy to Dexter Marlow, had taken the dead man’s place in the movie play. Ryerson had disliked Marlow intensely because the deceased player had regarded the understudy’s acting with intolerant contempt. Now Ryerson was assuming Marlow’s role in the picture with intense satisfaction; Marlow’s passing seemed to exalt Ryerson rather than depress him.

Three actors were preparing to “test out” for the role of Big Watt Halperin, dance-hall king, whose faded photograph stood on the back bar, to guide the thespians in applying their make-up. Those testing for the “bit” role were Tex Lanning, Stanley Ryerson and Stephen O’Hern.



The actors were absorbed in transferring the photograph likeness of Big Watt Halperin to their faces when Jim Boggs entered the Casino dance-hall with Mazie O’Hern. Mexican Joe Mendez shuffled along behind them, fingering the patch of court-plaster Mazie had applied to his scalp-wound.

“Danged if Big Watt Halperin ain’t comin’ alive three times!” blurted Jim, staring at the actors’ faces reflected in the bar mirror.

“It’s—it’s really uncanny!” exclaimed Mazie O’Hern. “If I was a man, I’d like to play the part of Big Watt Halperin, myself. He was such a thrilling person!”

“Yeah. He was a thrillin’ person, all right,” drawled Jim “An’ also a killin’ one; he murdered six men, when he was runnin’ the old dance-hall in boom-town days.”

“All right, boys,” snapped director Dave Parsons. “Don your wigs now, and we’ll make a still-camera test to decide which of you gets the role of Big Watt Halperin in the dance-hall scenes we’re shooting this afternoon.”

The three actors finished applying their make-up, and donned black-haired wigs like the one Big Watt Halperin had worn when Yucca City was at its zenith.

Mazie O’Hern shuddered. “They —they look exactly like the creature I saw outside my hotel window last night!” she exclaimed.

“Yeah. I reckon so,” agreed Jim Boggs gruffly. “Big Watt was so dang vain, he would be mighty proud an’ puffed up to see himself three times in a row. I wouldn’t be surprised if his walkin’ corpse has come down from Boothill an’ is takin’ a peek at his actor duplicates through a dance-hall window!”

Heads of the assembled movie actors pivoted around jerkily on necks, but the Casino windows stared back at them blankly.

“Okay, men—now for the test,” ordered Dave Parsons, and the actors lined up before the waiting camera.

“Shoot the picture, Tony,” snapped Parsons.

“Jest a minute!” interrupted a gruff voice. “If there’s any shootin’ to be done, I’ll do it!”

Jim Boggs stepped swiftly in front of the camera; jerked a wig from the head of one of the actors; shoved his old Colt .45 against the thespian’s stomach. “I arrest you for the murder of the Marlow feller you choked to death last night in his hotel room,” he rasped.



Commotion swept the Casino dance-hall like a conflagration. “He—he must be crazy!” cried out Mazie O’Hern, horrified. “It’s ridiculous to accuse—”

“The old coot has gone nuts!” blurted Tex Lanning; “He imagines he’s back in his police-chief days!”

“What’s the meaning of this damn foolishness?” shouted Parsons. “You’re insane, Boggs!”

“On the contrary,” said Stephen O’Hern, the character actor, grimly, “Mr. Boggs isn’t indulging in foolishness nor is he the victim of an addled imagination; as a matter of fact, he has delivered the goods.”

From a pocket of his faded, patched old coat, ex-Police-Chief Jim Boggs drew a pair of handcuffs and clipped them on the wrists of the actor who had played the role of murderer in many a stage and movie play.

“O.K., Sheriff Hopperson! Come an’ get your prisoner!” he shouted.

From a rear room of the dance-hall strode the sheriff of Hassayampa County. Jim had sent Mexican Joe to fetch the law-officer earlier that afternoon.

“Good work, Boggs,” commended the lawman. “And now, maybe you’ll do us the honor to explain how you caught this killer.”

“Glad to accommodate,” said Jim. “Fact is, I didn’t know who the killer was till a few minutes ago. When the actor gents put on them wigs, I figgered I had my man. For one thing, there was a patch of hair missin’ from the killer’s headpiece; the hair Mexican Joe yanked out of the wig, when the killer sneaked up behind him, grabbed the wig an’ busted him on the head. Joe didn’t get a look at the murderin’ varmint. Last night, standin’ before the bar-mirror, the killer made himself up to look like Big Watt Halperin. He stuck a candle on the mirror frame an’ some of the grease drippings from the candle dropped on his wig, as you can see by them particles imbedded in the hair. When he had fixed himself up to look like Big Watt, he come snoopin’ ‘round the Palace Hotel, scarin’ hell out of folks.

“As for the murder,” concluded Jim, “Marlow, the actor, was clutch-in’ some black hairs in a dead hand; had evident yanked the wig off the killer’s head before—”

“Precisely, Mr. Boggs,” interrupted a somber voice. “Marlow jerked the wig from my head before he died—but I didn’t strangle the rat, as you believe. I intended to kill him, but he died of a shock; heart-failure. Last night, when you showed us Big Watt Halperin’s photograph, I decided to put my talent for makeup to a test. After frightening folks a bit, peering into the hotel windows, I removed my make-up and appeared among you, pretending that I, too, had seen the ghostly visitor. Marlow had lost some of his swagger; he half believed Big Watt Halperin had returned from the dead. Later, again assuming the role of Big Watt, I burst into Marlow’s room; he attacked me, tearing the wig from my head, then sagged limply. My hands were at his throat, but he was dead before—”

“Why did you want to kill Marlow?” broke in Boggs sharply.

“Because I despised the low-life cheat and philanderer!” rasped Stephen O’Hern. “I wanted to protect my niece, Mazie; tongues were wagging, when we left Hollywood for the Nevada Desert. My niece is slated for stardom in pictures, and—”



With an agonized cry, Mazie O’Hern flung her arms about her uncle.

“There, there now, child,” he soothed gently. “Try to forgive a miserable old fool for—”

His voice broke in a low moan.

Tex Lanning drew Mazie away from her uncle, comforting her. Her arms went about the young actor, as she had embraced him in many movie love-scenes. This time it wasn’t play-acting.

Stephen O’Hern’s head was bowed; his face sorrowfully tragic.

“I—I don’t allow the Law will be too hard on you, Mister O’Hern,” Jim Boggs said gently. “I figger maybe you’ll get off light, as we’re fair an’ square in dealin’ out justice in Hassayampa County.”

Jim removed the tarnished old police-chief badge from his suspender-gallus and looked at it affectionately. Sighing heavily he thrust it into a pocket of his faded, shabby old coat.