Chapter One Luke and Jenny Meet Virgil Earp
Luke put down his Game Boy and stared out the car window at the endless desert. This vacation was already getting boring, and they had only left home that morning.
His family had been planning a trip to Disneyland ever since Christmas, and both Luke and his older sister, Jenny, had really been looking forward to it. He spent weeks trying to decide which ride he would go on first. But then his dad was called to serve in Iraq with the Army Reserves, and now nothing seemed right. His dad wouldn’t be able to play video games with him, and he’d miss their backyard baseball games, too. On top of that, now there would be no trip to Disneyland. His father promised they would go as soon as he returned, but that wouldn’t be for at least a year. And as far as eight-year-old Luke was concerned, a year seemed like forever.
He glanced at Jenny who was looking out the window. Luke noticed that the desert was just as boring on her side as his. They were driving to Dallas to visit Grandma and Grandpa. With their father away, their mother had decided on this summer vacation. Of course, Luke and Jenny loved seeing their grandparents, but it just wasn’t the same as going to Disneyland.
Their mother had also decided that they would take a few side trips along the way. She told them they would make the trip more fun and like a real vacation. Ellen Bartlett knew that her children had been very disappointed by the recent turn of events. Of course, she missed her husband, too. But she planned to make their vacation as much fun as she could.
“We’re going to stop for lunch in Tombstone,” she told them. Luke watched her short blond curls move as she bobbed her head while she spoke. She said, “It’s going to be a lot of fun and you two are really going to like it. It’s an Old West town where they had that gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Remember, not too long ago we saw a program about it on the History Channel?”
Luke and Jenny turned to look at each other. Jenny looked just as bored with the idea of stopping in Tombstone as Luke did. He picked up his Game Boy and started to play with it again, but even that wasn’t fun anymore, so he put it in one of the two backpacks that rested on the seat between them.
They arrived in Tombstone a few minutes later. It was a dusty little town with old, strange-looking buildings. Their mother found a place to park along one of the narrow streets. Luke and Jenny got out of the car, put on their backpacks, and eagerly stretched their legs. As they started walking, they noticed the sidewalks were made from wooden planks. Their mother called them boardwalks. As they came around a corner she said, “This is Allen Street, where all the saloons were. Doesn’t this remind you of the Westerns we watch on TV at home? Why, I can just imagine all those lawmen and bad guys having a shoot-out on the very street we’re walking on.”
Luke was certain that it would be much more fun to watch an old Western at home. In the Westerns he had seen, no cars were parked along the streets. And he could plainly see that the old buildings were no longer saloons. Looking through the windows as he passed by, he saw that they were just a bunch of shops selling modern-day stuff: blue jeans, t-shirts, straw cowboy hats, and coffee mugs. Luke felt his sister poke him in the ribs with her elbow.
“Look at the man over there,” she whispered in his ear. “Doesn’t he look like a dork?”
Luke followed Jenny’s gaze across the street and saw a man dressed in western clothes. But Luke didn’t think the man looked dorky at all. He looked like Kevin Costner did in that Western about range wars that he and his dad had recently watched. With that thought, he missed his dad more than ever and wished that he could have come to Tombstone with them.
“Do you have your digital camera in your backpack?” he asked. Jenny nodded. “Can I take some pictures with it? We could email them to Dad,” he said.
“Your father would really like that,” said their mother. Luke took Jenny’s camera and looked around. He noticed a couple of other men dressed up like cowboys, so he took a picture of them as well. “Dad will probably think this is really cool,” he said as he handed the camera back to his sister.
“Now,” said their mother, “I don’t know about the two of you, but I’m ready for lunch. How about you?”
“Yeah!” Both Luke and Jenny said at the same time. Luke suddenly realized he wasn’t so bored anymore. Instead, he was very hungry.
“Let’s go over there!” said Jenny, pointing to a building across the street with big stained glass windows. The sign said, Big Nose Kate’s Saloon. “I think the windows are pretty,” she added.
“Okay,” said their mother, “but let’s not stay too long.”
They crossed the street, entered Big Nose Kate’s Saloon, and sat down at a table near one of the stained glass windows. The place was crowded with people sitting at tables and at a wooden bar that looked like something out of a Western. A waitress wearing a blue saloon girl dress soon came to their table and took their orders. After she left, Luke looked around to take it all in. He saw several more large, stained glass windows. One had a design of a man with a mustache wearing a suit, and another was of a lady wearing a high collar blouse and a big fancy hat. In front of the windows was a small stage where a man sat playing a guitar and singing old cowboy songs. And all around, the walls were covered with dozens of photos of people dressed up as modern-day cowboys.
“Howdy there partner. Where are you from?”
Luke looked up and saw that a tall, middle-aged man, dressed in western clothes, had walked up to their table. He had reddish-brown hair and a dark brown mustache. And even though his large size was overpowering, his big brown eyes looked friendly.
“We’re from Phoenix,” said his mother. “We’ve just stopped to do some sightseeing on our way to Dallas to spend time with my folks.”
“I see,” said the man. “I thought I heard a bit of a Texas accent when you spoke. You’re not by chance related to anyone in the Cowboy Gang, now are you?”
Ellen Bartlett laughed. “No sir. They are most definitely not any kinfolk of mine.”
“Well ma’am, that is certainly a relief to me. My name is Virgil Earp,” he said as he extended his hand. “I’m a deputy U.S. marshal, and I live right here in Tombstone. Maybe you’ve heard of my brother, Wyatt Earp. He’s pretty famous around here.” Luke looked at the man in amazement while nodding his head. Virgil continued, “It sounds like you folks are just passing through. But be careful! There are plenty of outlaws around here.”
Luke looked at Jenny. He knew that Wyatt Earp had lived in Tombstone in the 1880s, so he wondered how a man from the Old West could be standing next to him. None of his friends would believe him unless he brought back some proof. He looked back up and asked, “Mr. Virgil, would you mind letting us take a picture with you?”
“Why son, I’d be honored to have my portrait taken with you. You don’t by chance work for Mr. Fly, do you?” asked Virgil Earp.
“Mr. Fly?” asked Luke. “Who’s that?”
“Why, Mr. Camillus Sidney Fly and his wife, Mollie, have a photo studio right here in Tombstone. They’ve taken photos all over the West, including portraits of just about everyone around here. They also own a boarding house. That’s where Wyatt’s buddy Doc Holliday lives.”
“No sir, we don’t work for Mr. Fly,” said Luke. “I just wanted to take a picture of all of us with my sister’s digital camera.”
“A digital camera?” asked Virgil Earp. He paused, “Did you say a digital camera?” Luke and Jenny nodded. “Sounds like another one of those strange contraptions that you folks from out of town keep bringing in here. But if that’s what you want to use for our portraits, then so be it,” said Virgil Earp with a wink and a smile.
“Would it be okay, Mom?” asked Luke.
“Sure,” said his mother.
“Then why don’t you folks step over here with me? There’ll be more room for us,” said Virgil Earp.
Luke, Jenny, and their mother got up from their table and followed Virgil Earp across the room toward an antique piano. Along the way, he explained that Big Nose Kate’s Saloon had been the Grand Hotel back in the 1880s, and that it had once been two stories high. But then a big fire burned down the top floor, and this is all that remains. He said that the wood floor they were standing on was the same wood floor from the 1880s. Luke looked down at his feet, realizing he had never seen anything that old before. Maybe this stop in Tombstone wasn’t going to be so bad after all. When they got to the piano, Jenny handed her camera to a passing waitress and asked if she would take their picture. As they posed with Virgil Earp, Luke smiled a big smile. He was finally starting to have some fun. The waitress gave the camera back to Jenny while Luke looked around some more. His face lit up as he saw something else.
“What is that? Is that a real coffin?” He pointed to an open coffin leaning against the wall.
“Why yes, it is,” said Virgil. “That’s where we do our hanging around here! And we can even take another portrait of you being hung. Would you like that?”
“Would I!” exclaimed Luke. He shot an eager glance to his mother and blurted, “Can I get hung, Mom?”
Ellen smiled. “Sure you can.” She was happy that Luke had finally stopped pouting.
Once Luke was inside the coffin, Virgil put a noose around Luke’s neck. “Don’t worry ma’am, it’s perfectly safe,” he said to Ellen while Jenny took the picture. When they were finished, Luke asked Jenny to show it to him.
“Awesome!” said Luke. “Tonight I’m going to email that to Dad in Iraq.” Luke’s smile suddenly faded. Just mentioning his dad made him feel sad again.
Virgil Earp noticed Luke’s change in mood. He looked down at him and said, “Your dad is in Iraq, son? Well, that’s something we have in common.” He crouched down so his eyes would be on the same level as Luke’s and put his hands on Luke’s shoulders as he whispered, “Hey partner, I’m going to let you in on a little secret, but it’s just between us, okay?” Luke nodded. “You know, when I was about your age, my dad got sent to Viet Nam.”
“He did?” asked Luke, suddenly confused. He knew from family stories that his great uncle had been killed in Viet Nam in 1967. So he wondered how a man from the 1880s could possibly have had a father who served in Viet Nam.
“Yes, sir,” replied Virgil. “It was toward the end of the war, and he wasn’t gone that long. But back then I felt just like you. I thought my dad was going to be gone forever. And would you like to know something else?”
“What?” asked Luke.
“A lot of folks around here have family members in the service. And some of them are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, too,” said Virgil.
“Really?” asked Luke.
“You bet, partner. We have to remember that our troops have a very important job to do. They’re serving our country. And we have to stay strong so they can do their jobs and not worry about us. Do you understand what I’m saying, partner?” Luke nodded. Virgil looked over at Ellen and Jenny, then back at Luke and said, “Now the way I see it is until your dad returns, you’re the man in the family, so you need to set a good example. Can you do that for me?”
Luke looked into Virgil’s eyes, smiled, and nodded his head. Virgil stood up and extended his hand, “That’s my buddy! Give me five!” Luke laughed and slapped his hand down on Virgil’s. “There you go, partner. Now let’s escort your womenfolk back to your table.”
On the way, they passed a metal spiral staircase that went downstairs. Luke stopped in front of it. “What’s that?” he asked Virgil.
“Why, that’s the staircase that goes down to where the Swamper used to live,” said Virgil.
“The Swamper! That sounds like some sort of monster!” exclaimed Luke.
Virgil laughed. “Don’t worry, son, he’s not a monster.” He explained that the Swamper was a handyman who took care of the Grand Hotel in the 1880s. He was a good worker who kept to himself and lived in a room in the basement. Later on, folks discovered that he had dug a secret tunnel from his room into one of the silver mines. Virgil ended the story by saying, “It’s believed by some that his secret silver treasure is still buried somewhere down there, and that his ghost haunts this building to this very day.”
Luke’s eyes suddenly opened wide. A ghost! Virgil laughed again and said, “Don’t worry son, he’s a very friendly ghost. He just wants to watch over this place.” They returned to their table, and the instant Luke took his seat, the waitress brought his burger and fries. “You folks enjoy your stay in Tombstone,” said Virgil. And with that, Virgil Earp tipped his hat and went to talk to the people at another table.
“That wasn’t the real Virgil Earp, you know,” said Jenny as she flipped her long, blond ponytail over her shoulder and picked up her chicken sandwich. “The real Virgil Earp died a long time ago. He was just an actor or somebody they have here to pretend to be Virgil Earp.” Jenny was going be starting the fifth grade that fall, and she thought of herself as very grown up. But Luke wasn’t listening to her. As he ate his lunch, he couldn’t help thinking about the ghost of the Swamper.