The following story was inspired by a photograph I took at the Stagecoach Inn Museum while covering a story on off-the-beaten path museums for SoCal Magazine. (Link to SoCal Life article here.)
This is Fiona. She’s been standing near this window at The Stagecoach Inn for over a century … gazing out at the first, and only, heavy snowfall that ever blanketed this part of the Old West. As with many poor souls who remain tethered to this mortal coil long past their allotted time, hers is an unresolved tale of heartbreak and loneliness, treachery and injustice.
Fiona, a delicate and cultured beauty, was the daughter of a once-wealthy New Hampshire banker who had misspent his fortune on hard drink, bedding women and “laying odds.” A gamblin’ man. A no-good, lyin’, cheatin’ ne’er-do-well who sold off his only daughter to a French fur trader and tobacco merchant in Sutter Creek. It was the Gold Rush and women, especially fine, well-bred specimens like Fiona, were in short supply. “Scarcer than deviled eggs after a church picnic,” as their local preacher used to say. Not that Pierre took much stock in preachers.
Pierre LeDoux wanted Fiona. Badly. The cheap, painted women who laughed too easily and too loudly had flocked to Gold Country like cattle driven by a gadfly. They were not, as he was fond of saying, “of much use to a man with ambition.” After all, he was made of finer sensibilities, and he wanted a wife who could improve his standing in the bustling new city of San Francisco, where he planned to move and make his fortune.
So he bought her. Lock, stock and silk bloomers. Never mind that the 18-year-old raven-haired belle already had a beau: a 22-year-old schoolteacher who lived on a modest New Hampshire farm, wrote tall tales and dreamt of being a novelist—maybe even a famous one like his literary hero, Zane Grey.
It was not to be. Fiona was sold to one Mr. Pierre LeDoux of San Francisco for the sum of $375 to pay off her father’s debts. The fur-trader-turned-purveyor-of-fine-goods was happy with his choice. Fiona would turn out to be a well-heeled wife who sang like a bird, set a fine table and conversed intelligently with the elite of the city as good as any man. She, in turn, got nothing—except the small consolation that her father had escaped debtors’ prison. But her marriage was a sham—cold, loveless and cruel.
In the early mornings, while Pierre slept off the previous night’s drunken rage, Fiona would often stand by the window of their Gothic Victorian mansion—staring beyond the horizon with the vaguest of hopes that her true love would come riding over the ridge, pistol drawn like the gun-slinging avenger in Grey’s, Riders of the Purple Sage. He was the fictional hero who had saved a beautiful young woman from marrying against her will. During the first years of her gilded-cage existence, Fiona was certain that her real-life hero would do the same.
But her lover never came. So Fiona spent her remaining years living The Great Pretense—without even the solace of a child to comfort her as the long shadow of time crept over her, turning her chestnut hair to a stately silver, her once-coveted porcelain skin to crinkled parchment. While her mind remained keen and aware, she kept her heart fully in check. Only her aging body revealed the inner struggles and unfulfilled dreams of a life diverted.
Fiona died at age 59 of tuberculosis. She died alone, on that rare snowy night, in a former inn situated near Los Angeles. With his usual foresight, her husband had bought the inn for her a decade before. His plan was to leave Fiona for a fresh-faced and fertile 23-year-old widow. While this young woman’s morals were, as his society friends used to whisper, “questionable,” he only needed to be sure of one thing: that she could bear him “strapping young sons.”
Pierre’s abandonment caused Fiona only mild distress—just a few wagging tongues and odd stares as she rode into town, occasions that grew less and less as she began to grow ill. She considered the ostracism well worth it—in truth, it was the act of mercy that Fiona had long prayed for. She was grateful to Providence for being able to spend her final years in peace, reading the Good Book by the flickering gas lamp, taking walks in her wild garden (she had long since shunned anything too tidy), and conversing with unimportant people about unimportant things.
After her passing, a few friends who she had made in her final years faithfully attended to her grave. But they swore she wasn’t in it. Among those who were convinced of this claim was the local blacksmith, Charles Pepper. Pepper had run for mayor twice, losing to transplanted politicians from Los Angeles who were more practiced at greasing palms and meting out empty promises than anything else. But though they were all liars of the ambitious kind, they could not hope to match the honest and time-honored talent of telling tall tales; that skill would remain the province of settled old men with nothing left to prove. Men like Pepper.
So the good folks of this now-forgotten California town, the generations of men and women whose horses he had shoed for decades—sometimes without charge—tended to believe it when the blacksmith told the townsfolk with absolute certainty that he could see Fiona from time to time … gazing out the window, her eyes firmly fixed on the ridge. One day, he claimed, he could even hear the hooves of a well-shoed horse galloping in the distant. He could imitate the exact sound, causing his audience to gaze out in the distance, eagerly waiting Fiona’s arrival. As he waited for the horseman to draw closer, Charles could see the man’s shadowy outline–and, he swore, the gleam of a silver pistol shining in the moonlight.
I, for one, will not dispute this tale. Although I do not subscribe to ghosts, wraiths, specters or what have you (though I do believe in their devilish imitations), I can offer no logical explanation of how this photo I snapped of a mannequin clad in a colorful scarlet dress with emerald trim inexplicably appeared as a mysterious woman in black—with what appears to be freshly-fallen snowflakes on her hair and shoulders.
Nope. No explanation whatsoever.