“Are you going to Reno to gamble?” said the tall, pretty lady sitting next to me on the flight.
“I’m not much of a gambler.” I responded. “My name is Mark.”
“No, I generally set a limit as to how much I am prepared to lose before I go out to the casinos.” I began. “I am going to meet my brother. He just got married.”
“Oh, how nice. Are you married?” she enquired as she shook my hand.
Ruth had lovely, lean hands that I envisioned dealing measures of fate from a deck of cards – the Queen, then the King, and then the Ace of Hearts. She was soft-spoken, and very well mannered. Ironically, she lived quite close to me in Dallas, and had been to the King Street Pub. I was surprised that I had not noticed her there, but I had been rather preoccupied for a while. She was going to Lake Tahoe for a wedding. No, I told her, I was not married, and that I was hoping to clear my head of a bad relationship, and that I was looking forward to the high desert air. Perhaps I was revealing too much, I mused.
“It’ll be good to see my brother, anyway” I babbled.
“You seem to begin at the end, when you gamble. Do you like slots, cards, or…?” Ruth changed the subject.
“What do you mean – begin at the end?”
“Well, you set a limit to lose. Do you ever set a limit for how much you might win?” Ruth’s smile was friendly and warm. “Of course, you could set your limit to lose it all, if you chose to do so.”
“One hundred dollars. Told you I’m not much of a gambler.” I pouted. “I can lose that in an hour or two. I play the slots some, but I prefer the black jack tables, twenty-one some folks call it.”
“I’m glad that you are not a gambler.” I felt genuine affection in her voice.
Ruth and I shared small talk for the remainder of the flight. I was able to determine where she would be staying in Tahoe, and imagined meeting her somewhere, but we did not make any arrangements. It was night when we landed but the air was still hot. I told Ruth that I quite enjoyed our conversation, and that I hoped to see her again, perhaps she would visit me at the Kings Street. She agreed, and then wished me luck on the tables. We hailed taxis and vanished in separate directions.
After checking into my hotel room, I immediately donned my cowboy hat and went into town to the Silverton Casino, looking for Trevor. I had been to Reno before, while in the service, and it had not changed much. Thousands of lights, flickering reflections everywhere, people walking from one loss to another with a small jackpot now and again to feed their lust, and free cocktails as one wagers his wages. No, I was not a gambling man, but I liked the feel of the Biggest Little City in the World. I felt like a dusty cowpoke in awe of the activity, and ready for a whiskey and a beer.
At the main desk of The Silverton I telephoned Trevor’s room, but got no answer. After leaving a message that I would be somewhere close, I purchased a hundred dollars in chips, and, banking on Ruth’s well wishes, I added twenty-five silver dollars to my limit. Within an hour I had been robbed of the silver dollars by a couple of ruthless one-arm bandits, and was ready for a little twenty-one action.
“Mark!” I heard the familiar voice and looked around.
“Curley. Marshal Wilcox!” I heard.
Then I saw him. The Ringo Kid, leaning against the bar with his cowboy hat tilted back on his head and a wide grin on his rugged face. I hooked my thumbs to my belt and walked toward him. He stood tall, and moved in my direction. I could feel the tension as it dulled the sound of the noisy casino. Who was going to draw first? Was I fast enough to take him? We were both older, and slower. Abruptly, with a huge hug, both our hats fell off as we cheerfully greeted each other. Laughing, we dusted off our Stetsons and repositioned them.
“Come here.” Trevor spoke as he guided me to the bar. “I’d like you to meet Sherri.”
Sherri was smoking a cigarette through a small, ivory cigarette holder and was drinking a Mexican beer mixed with a dash of grapefruit juice. She was older than Trevor, with the veteran look of a wise dame in her face. Her words were intelligent, and reflective of a well-read lady. And, she was having rather good luck on the video poker games. I liked her.
“We’ve decided to move to Texas.” Trevor informed me.
I was quite surprised, but elated about their decision. It would be good to have the Ringo Kid nearby. We sat at The Silverton well into the night filling in gaps of the last several years, sipping whiskey, and playing the video poker machines. Trevor and Sherri would be leaving in only two days, and I would have three more days to myself, to visit Lake Tahoe, maybe locate Ruth. We decided to visit Virginia City the next day. I had read about it in Mark Twain’s book Roughing It, and I was anxious to see the old western town.
Virginia City sits on the slopes of Mt. Davidson approximately 30 miles Southeast of Reno, and has been referred to as one of the largest historic landmarks in the U.S. It is truly a vestige of the old west, with wooden buildings dating from the late eighteen hundreds. Front balconies overhang boardwalks that flank Saloons, Casinos, gift shops, novelty stores, and art galleries. The streets terrace up the side of the hill and are lined with many old Victorian homes that once housed bankers, prospectors, miners, gamblers, and courtesans, as well as some famous adventures. Samuel Clemens once lived there and wrote for Nevada’s first newspaper, The Territorial Enterprise, where he adopted his celebrated pen name, Mark Twain.
Gold and silver were discovered in Six-Mile Canyon, and the Comstock Lode began to produce profitable rewards. It is suggested that the gold and silver from the Comstock mines financed much of the American Civil War. Virginia City grew to become a raucous community of nearly thirty thousand residents, and became the most important locality between San Francisco and Denver. Rowdy crowds filled opera houses to watch vaudeville acts, saloons served liquor to a sundry bunch of empire builders and scalawags, and bordellos flourished. This was once called “The Richest Place on Earth.”
At the foot of the town the historical Silver Terrace cemeteries are separated into sections for Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and Chinese. Nearby there are several majestic old churches watching over the dry skeletons laid to rest in this “boot hill.” But not all souls here are at peace.
Now, I do not want to bore you with another tale of bloody bones that concludes with an anticlimactic dance in the dark, but I must tell you that if ever there was a gathering place for restless spirits, Virginia City is surely one such place. One cannot help but feel the motion of unsettled souls wandering throughout this town. By one account there are eighteen haunted locations, with twenty-six phantom residents. There is the apparition of “Delta Dawn” that haunts the Delta Saloon, or “Rosie” who reveals her presence with the scent of roses in room number four at the nearby Gold Hill hotel. Even the impressive Catholic Church, St. Mary’s, is said to experience visitations by the ethereal priest, Father Meinecke. And, there is the eerie presence of the legendary soiled dove, Julia C. Bulette.
After an early breakfast, where I lost several dollars trying to understand keno, Trevor, Sherri, and I drove across the high desert, to the Virginia Range, and up the seven percent grade, switching back and forth through hairpin turns up the mountain, over the 6,800 foot Geiger Summit and around Castle Peak, onto C street, and into this trace of the wild west christened Virginia City. We parked near St. Mary’s and walked up the hill to the central area. The Ringo Kid and Marshal Curley Wilcox in their cowboy hats and boots, and the Lady Sherri, rounded the corner onto the main Street as the warm desert sun cast their long shadows before them. We strolled along the boardwalks and past a hitched-up wagon, listening to the sound of our boots spurring up images of Stagecoaches, Lordsburg, and the El Dorado – into the Bucket of Blood Saloon!
The Bucket of Blood Saloon was erected in the red-light district in 1892. It was supposedly named such when, after one very wild night, the saloon porter reported the next morning that he must have mopped up a full “bucket of blood.” As we entered to the sound of honky-tonk piano and banjo music, I immediately noticed the grand picture window at the back of the room that overlooks Six-Mile Canyon, and the Silver Terrace Cemetery. The room was light and festive. We propped ourselves up to the bar and irresistibly ordered three Bucket of Blood beers. As we relaxed with our beverages and discerned the collection of antique chandeliers and the memorabilia that decorates the walls and the back bar, and determined which of the many slots to play, Sherri focused on another peculiar contraption.
There was Big Redd’s, the world’s largest craps machine. This unique gambling apparatus contains large dice, and the object is to place a bet on making your point, and then automatically “roll” the big dice to see what numbers come up. This large, fun gadget was very popular, and can become addictive. Situated throughout the Bucket of Blood Saloon were old pictures of some of the soiled doves of the early days. Above this ostentatious dice machine hung the picture of Julia C. Bulette!
Julia C. Bulette was from London, where she had married a Mr. Smith and moved to New Orleans. After their divorce, she struck out on her own, and in April 1863 she moved to Virginia City. Julia soon became a grand courtesan, well liked, and respected by the town folks. She maintained a pleasant house on D Street and furnished it with fine furniture. She was even named an honorary member of the fire department, and was said to have gone on calls with the firemen.
On a cold morning in mid-January, 1867 Julia Bulette was found murdered in her little house. She had been repeatedly bludgeoned, smothered with a pillow, and robbed of her fine clothing, furs, and jewelry. Her funeral on Flowery Hill was a grand affair attended by several hundred people. Several months later a Frenchman named Jean Marie A. Villain, going by the name of John Millian, was hanged for the dastardly deed. There were rumors of accomplices, and that she had been sealed in the basement walls of an old building on C Street. Well, Julia C. Bulette does not rest in peace. She is said to haunt Virginia City to this day, generally at the location on D Street where her home once stood, but often in other locations. I cannot imagine that Sherri did not notice her picture hanging above the big dice machine as she purchased a double handful of silver dollars and gravitated to the spot.
Big Redd’s paid according to how much one wagered, and relative to the odds of the roll. If one bet on making a point of nine, for example, the odds are better that nine will come up than if one chose snake eyes, or double ones. The most difficult roll is boxcars, or double sixes, and it pays 150 to 1 for that victorious roll of the dice. Sherri played this amusing apparatus for a while, as Trevor and I fed the ravenous slots. After running low on silver dollars, we maneuvered close to her to see how she was doing. She was breaking even, she figured.
Suddenly she became very quiet, and a strange look came across her face. Sherri looked at Trevor and told him that she had heard a whispering voice tell her to play a dollar on boxcars! Trevor and I were skeptical, but she remained steadfast about what she had heard, and judging by the sagacious look on her face, it was difficult to not believe her. Sherri inserted the silver dollar, placed her bet on boxcars, and set the giant dice in motion. The light on the top of the machine lit up and twirled. Double sixes! Boxcars! A chilly breeze passed quickly through as the others in the Bucket of Blood Saloon stopped to watch. It was time for three shots of whiskey, which Sherri graciously purchased. A toast to the Lady Julia C. Bulette!
The day waned as we had a beer in the Delta Saloon, explored the Gambling Museum, the Wild West Museum, saluted Mark Twain with a whiskey in the Mark Twain Saloon, visited Grants General Store, and – without question – toured the Julia C. Bulette Museum. I do not know about Trevor and Sherri, but I wanted to stay the night in this unusual, special place. We returned to our rooms in Reno by dusk, and prepared for a night of dining and gaming. I’m sure that Sherri found herself recapitulating the events – the event – of that day. I can assure you that I did.
If you have never visited Virginia City, then I tell you that you have left something undone. Book a flight to Reno, rent a car, drive to the enchanted little town, and step back in time. Furthermore, I am not attempting to give credence to the existence of ghosts – you don’t have to believe this story. I would not, however, challenge its credibility as you look at the picture of Julia C. Bulette that hangs above Big Redd’s large dice machine in the Bucket of Blood Saloon!
Sadly, I recently learned that Big Red’s Dice Machine is no longer at the Bucket of Blood Saloon. I expect, however, that Julia continues to whisper in a few receptive ears.