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Out of the Loop

If you’re looking for a cheap thrill this Halloween, you might hang out at the abandoned One Track Mine. It’s not that far off the road.

People say an outlaw named Black Jack Sfinckter is still hanging around in the mine. At the end of his rope, or someone else’s.

They say that screaming you hear, so hideous it would part your hair, is coming from Black Jack’s ghost.

That’s not strictly accurate, and you know how The Journal strives for accuracy.

The real story begins with a dumb but honest cowboy named Mickey Purvis–a gentle man with a good heart, a hard worker. Mickey was known for his kindness to men, women, kids, and animals dumber than he was. His horse, Thunderstruck, worshipped him.

Mickey was so decent that once a month, he wrote a long letter to his mother in Alabama, enclosing a money order for $3. He’d tell her about his horse, and the cattle he herded, and about the deer and the antelope playing.

“And Mama,” he’d write, “Ime gittin better at ropin.”

That was wishful thinking. Mickey couldn’t rope for beans, a real handicap for a cowboy. He was more likely to hogtie a juniper bush than he was to capture a devious steer.

The other cowboys looked on in amazement, and Mickey knew that they were laughing at him. Shame kept him tied up in knots.

One stormy day, Mickey came upon an old Navajo man whose iron-tired wagon had bogged down in a muddy creek, far from his reservation. Not every white man would stop to help an Indian in those days, but Mickey tied on to the wagon and he and Thunderstruck helped drag it out of the mud.

Mickey and the old man huddled around a campfire that night, conversing as best they could in pidgin and sign. The old man had wise eyes. Those eyes twinkled next morning as he watched Mickey catch up the horses. Mickey would miss with one loop, then another.

A few days later, the old Navajo showed up at the ranch with a gift for Mickey–a lariat, a lasso, a reata–what cowboys in those days called “a rope.”

“This will help you,” the old man said. He started to climb back on his horse, then paused and said, “Use it wisely.”

The rope looked to Mickey like it was made of some kind of hair. Next time he got off by himself, he tried it out.

That rope had some kind of good medicine. Mickey could put a loop right where he wanted it–near, far, behind him, in front of him. He could throw a figure-eight that caught a calf’s front feet in one loop, his hind feet in the other.

No matter how far he threw his loop, the coil of rope in Mickey’s left hand stayed the same size. As clumsy as Mickey still was, that magic rope refused to get stuck in the brush. Mickey’s confidence was growing, though.

One day he was riding the San Macro River, and he had river sand to cushion his fall. Mickey threw the rope straight up and climbed to the top of it. He felt foolish and exposed up there at the top of a rope, so he climbed down and moved over to a grove of cottonwood trees.

He threw the rope up, climbed into the top of a tree, and pulled the rope up behind him. Mickey’s partner Joe Boy rode up about that time and found Thunderstruck standing ground-hitched. Joe Boy whistled to see if he could locate Mickey.
Mickey stayed quiet for a while, then whistled back.

Joe Boy called, “Where the hell are you?”

“Up here in the tree.”

“What are you doin’ up there?”

“Lookin’ for my rope.”

Knowing Mickey as he did, Joe Boy thought that made sense, and he rode back into the brush, looking for strays.

As Mickey was riding to town one day, he saw a runaway stagecoach coming down the hill toward him. The driver had gotten drunk and fallen off. The horses were spooked by the sound of the coach bearing down on them from behind.

The men passengers were shouting. Women were screaming. Horses were whinnying. The whole mess was heading toward a hairpin curve.

As they passed, Thunderstruck pounded alongside the stage, and Mickey spun a loop that kept getting bigger and bigger.

When he let it loose, the lasso went clear around the horses in front, and the stagecoach in back. Thunderstruck set his heels and skidded for the next thirty yards, wearing his horseshoes mighty thin. But that magic rope calmed the horses somehow, and the stagecoach stopped safely.

When they reached town, Mickey was a hero. The women passengers were uncommonly grateful, and the men bought him drinks–lots of drinks. Mickey didn’t usually drink at all–it never occurred to him–and he got pretty drunk.

This came to the attention of Black Jack Sfinckter, a conniving, sneaking, thieving polecat who was so low, he’d steal his mother’s laundry off the clothesline.

Hearing the stories of Mickey’s magical loop, Black Jack did the obvious thing: He went out to Mickey’s horse and stole the rope.

A couple of weeks later, that same stage was coming down the same hill. Black Jack knew a mine payroll was stashed under the driver’s seat.

Black Jack roped the stagecoach. His partners, Blue Bob and Red Phil, came out of the brush, made off with the strongbox, and robbed the passengers.

The three miscreants split up and headed for the hills. But a posse was soon on the trail of Black Jack Sfinckter.

As Black Jack hurried past the One Track Mine, already abandoned, he saw an outcropping of rock high above the mine. He could climb up there and hide. He threw his loop, and was amazed at how quickly it caught the rock.

The rope jerked him from his horse, which was Black Jack’s plan. But as he tried to climb the rope, hand over hand, it seemed to stretch.

The faster he climbed, the lower he was, until pretty soon he was going straight down the old mine’s hoist shaft.

The frantic Black Jack fought the rope so hard that pretty soon he had it wrapped around his ankles and was hanging upside down. It was at this point that the rope stopped stretching, leaving Black Jack dangling about halfway down
a 400-foot shaft.

Oral tradition, which is another term for hearsay, says that Black Jack died there, and that his ghost is still screaming to be set free.

Nonsense. Who’d believe a story like that? What really happened is that the posse arrived within a few minutes. The first one to reach the rope was Mickey Purvis. He helped haul Black Jack up to safety. That was on the last day of October, 1903.

Black Jack spent a few years in prison, but he died at home in bed, with his boots off.

Black Jack’s ghost wouldn’t go anywhere near that old shaft. But there’s a hell of an echo in that mine. The outlaw screamed so loudly that now, nearly a hundred years later, you can still hear the echo richocheting off the walls.

And Mickey Purvis? He lived a long and contented life. He never prospered, but he could do rope tricks you wouldn’t believe.

Last 5 posts by Jim Cook

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