The boys were excited -- uncles and cousins of mine, all whooping it up out on the back side of the house. There was a spur of excitement going through the tight little pod of young men hanging out on the carport.
One of them came in the house and strode past with big steps, crossing the dining area and swiping the phone handset off its cradle in one long swoop. He spun the dial five times and paused, then started talking rapidly into the phone. There was laughing around.
“Hey! Yeah, we’re taking the kids out to see it. How about your bunch?” He paused again, listening as I stood by the bar, peering up at him. “Well, if you want to send the boys that’s fine. The girls will be too scared.”
“I’m not scared,” I piped up.
“We won’t be out too late, but there are ticks out there.”
“I’m not scared at all,” I told him.
He looked down at me and kept talking. “We’re about to head out. Send them over.” The phone handset went back down on the cradle and he bent over. “You’re too young.”
“I’m not scared of anything!” I insisted. He took off back towards the carport, and after a moment I decided to follow him. I must have been just five or six, but I was certain I was ten feet tall and bulletproof.
The trucks were being loaded up. One of my cousins, still a teenager, saw me coming out and picked me up, setting me in the back of the truck. They were all yammering on but I wasn’t paying much attention.
One of the guys wasn’t a relation but a friend of one of my cousins. I knew his name was Marcus. He had dark hair that swept over his eyes, and he had assumed a perch sitting on the wheel well. “Y’all know the story, don’t you?”
Some of the boys nodded. I nodded too, though I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. Marcus continued anyway for the benefit of those who had shaken their heads.
“There was a lineman named Will McClain. He worked on the MoPac line back in the thirties. He got in a fight with one of his guys, a fellow named Louis McBride. Fella beat him to death with a rail spike. We’re gonna go see his ghost!”
I shivered, but I didn’t want the boys to tell I was afraid so I didn’t say anything. Several of them yelled their approval, and two of them climbed back over the side of the truck to go hunt up a few more flashlights. I checked to make sure my little Snoopy flashlight was working and tucked my legs up under my arms.
I heard my grandmother come out and call my name, but I didn’t answer because I knew she’d make me come back in the house. It was getting on full dark and I didn’t want to wuss out. I saw her go back in and walk past a few windows. She was probably looking for me.
One of the cousins was passing a quart size glass Coke bottle around. I reached out and grabbed it and took a sip of the hot Coca-Cola when it passed, just like the boys. It went on, and I heard one of the uncles holler at Marcus -- “now don’t you throw that down, you drink that and put it on the carport. There’s a deposit.”
The other truck started, and I crouched down even further, afraid my grandmother would come pull me out of the truck before we left. Then the truck I was in started up too, and we were crunching down the gravel and out to the highway.
It was cold and quiet now. The older cousins had migrated to the other truck for the most part, and I was sitting with a bunch of pre-teen boys hunched down against the stinging cold wind. There wasn’t much point in talking, since the wind just whipped our voices away.
I paused for a moment, looking up at the interstate bridges overhead and wondering what sort of trouble I was going to get into. There were already some of the older guys with their big Coleman flashlights walking east up the tracks, and they just kept pushing on. No one argued the wisdom. No one wanted to show they were yellow.
I turned on my little Snoopy flashlight and was bothered by how little it actually lit. I decided my best bet was to stay in the middle of the tracks, and maybe I’d hear well enough to get off the tracks if a train came. I couldn’t see much more than two or three feet in front of me with the little light and I kept it angled towards the ground. There was some light cast ahead of me by the couple of guys behind on the tracks, and way ahead were the dancing lights from the big Coleman flashlights.
I could hear the older boys talking ahead of me, but I couldn’t understand what they were saying. The screech of frogs and crickets was almost overwhelming, at first accompanied by the sound of passing cars on the interstate behind us. The latter died out in favor of croaking and the occasional deep woods owl as we progressed further down the line.
The noise ahead changed as the guys reached the first trestle, the hollow thump of their shoes on the wooden crossties denoting the location. I was extra careful on the ties, fearing I’d fall in the ditch below. I wasn’t really worried about being hurt, I was more afraid of the embarrassment of falling in the mud. If I was going to be as smart and strong as the boys I had to keep on going.
We weren’t far past the trestle when one of the guys hollered “Whoa!” He clicked off his light and we all followed suit, standing as quietly as we all could in the sliver of crescent moonlight along the train tracks. We listened, hearing a little rustling that could have been us or the wind or any sort of passing animal. And then, someone hollered
… words that about knocked me out of my skin. I bit down on my tongue to keep from crying out. I was suddenly very scared.
But there was nothing. We all looked around, then different male voices from around the track started chiming in. “Nothing.” “I didn’t see it.” “Naw.”
“Nothing,” I chimed in.
“Who is that?” one of the guys asked, but no one answered. I figured I was already in big enough trouble and started back towards wherever we were going, snapping on my light and angling it at the ground.
“What light is it, Marcus?” one of the guys behind me asked.
“It’s supposed to be Will McClain’s lantern you see, but I think it’s his head. Don’t ghosts glow?”
Another voice piped up “how far along is it supposed to be?”
“It could be about anywhere,” he replied. “We gotta keep going.”
And on we went. Two more times we paused, cut our lights and waited for some sort of light to appear. It was a long trek. My tennis shoes were starting to get damp inside and mosquitoes kept buzzing my head. I saw the Coleman flashlights suddenly aim up -- seems we’d reached Highway 53 and had gone past where we were supposed to see the light.
And they all turned back, a few of the uncles heading past hurriedly, talking betwixt themselves about which trestle it was past. We headed back down along a low incline hill a bit. This time we were quicker, and I was nearly running to keep up.
And then I tripped. My flashlight landed on the tracks and then fell over the side of the embankment. My knee hurt from scraping the gravel between the cross ties. I tried not to whimper.
Right about that time another halt was called. The lights went out -- all but my little Snoopy flashlight, which was just out of my reach. I crawled forward and finally got over to it, clicking it off just as one of the guys hollered “hey, there it is! See it?”
“What? Was that it?”
At first, I thought they were talking about my light, but then it was followed by “no, there it is!”
“Ahead! See it bob?”
“Hey, Light!” two of them hollered. I tried to tell whether I could see a light ahead on the tracks or not. I stood up and brushed myself off, peering into the darkness ahead. I could see a little movement, but whether or not it was a light or the shadows of the guys on the track ahead of me I couldn’t tell.
For a few moments we were all quiet and still. I think everyone was trying to determine whether or not what they saw was real. And then Marcus again. “See? There he is!”
There was a whooping amongst the men, and I heard a couple of hands clapped on shoulders. I was scared to move forward to try to see it better, since the lights were off. But I didn’t want them to leave me out there in the dark, so after a few moments I turned my flashlight back on.
“Hey!” I heard from a couple of directions. I scuttled down the tracks until I could see forms in front of me and killed the light again. By this point other lights were flashing about and the moment had passed.
“Are we going to see it again?” someone asked.
“Naw,” Marcus shouted for all of us to hear. “We’ve probably done spooked him back to his grave.”
No one argued with that. We all just kept walking down those tracks in the dark, slapping mosquitoes and trying not to trip.
When we got back to my grandparent’s place there was an affirmation from everyone that yes indeed, we had seen the ghost of Will McClain. But I wasn’t convinced. I was relieved to be able to sneak in with everyone and not get in trouble for going, but I kept my mouth shut and went and got ready for bed. I scratched those mosquito bites until I fell asleep.
Years later I learned more about the light. I also learned that folks from Gurdon have all sorts of different ideas about it. Some say it’s light from Interstate 30 bouncing through the trees… but we were way deep off the interstate and besides, that light’s been seen since the thirties and I-30 came through years later.
Some, like my mom, swear it’s just swamp gas. Others believe it’s light emissions from compressed crystals underground.
There have been all sorts of paranormal folks who have headed out and who say they’ve figured out that yes, there’s some ghost out there. I’m not sure if I’ll ever be convinced.
Of course, it’s from the line that still runs through the city of Gurdon, a town that had few claims to fame outside of the Gurdon Go-Devils. the International Order of the Hoo Hoo and Jimmy Witherspoon. A town that’s earned a spot on the paranormal map. Go figure.