The story told of a man who was murdered for his gold. It echoed across more than century and rolled through the years like waves on the sea. There wasn't a soul alive in the little town of Hesper that didn't know of it. People recalled the legend around campfires, where the undulating light would cast deep shadows over the faces of listeners, eager to hear again the twisted yarn of vengeance and greed.
The details resurfaced in Hazel's mind as she approached the stone arch, and she hesitated. Her heart felt like a frantic rabbit trying to escape the cage of her ribs. She clutched the wooden box in her hands. A breeze tossed her long hair and the sun burned her cheeks. The wind whistled in the sage.
Though it had taken her hours, Hazel had followed the road on foot. She was too young to drive, and her family didn't own a horse. She had first passed what used to be the hotel, the ruins of its basement nothing but a gaping hole in the ground, scattered with bricks, shards of glass, twisted metal, and trash from vandals. Some years ago, someone found a corpse in there.
In the distance she had seen the arch, standing tall over the flat earth, like the lone gateway to another world. That's what some people believed it to be. Hazel wondered if it very well could be.
The girl couldn't believe she'd made this trip, but for the sake of everyone in Hesper, she'd had to. Businesses dried up, residents fled, and it hadn't rained a drop for a year. It wouldn't be long before Hesper became Blessed Spring, the ghost town she stood in now. One wouldn't know a town of nearly two thousand people had been here. Today, the remains of two buildings were obvious, while the desert had erased the others.
It was the curse, people said, the curse. The gunman Conners had sworn calamity upon Blessed Spring, a town with a hopeful future. The crops withered. The water vanished. The people had had no choice but to abandon their homes, leaving behind loved ones buried in the cemetery now consumed by the sagebrush waste. The settlement crumbled as the land reclaimed it.
And the legend of Gunman Conners remained.
Hazel stopped. Her arms ached with the weight of the box and almost burned with the knowledge of its contents.
The arch loomed in front of her. Bullet holes scarred its white stones. The rest of the building, now gone, had been made of bricks, and they broke off piece by piece, year by year. Steps, half covered in dust, led to the first floor of what was once the courthouse. Here Conners had died, hung for a crime he hadn't committed, hung for the gold he'd kept secret. Before the noose closed around his neck, he had declared the curse that would kill the town, and within days it coiled out of the abyss like a snake from Hell.
Hazel nudged the toe of her shoe against an old, empty skin of one such creature. Snakes inhabited this place as much as rabbits and mice. It had been part of the words spoken by Conners. Snakes would drive out the snakes who had murdered him.
Mustering her courage, Hazel ascended the stairs. Her shoes crunched over the dust and debris that littered the steps. Her heart raced. She took deep breaths as nausea prickled in the back of her throat. She felt faint, and as she reached the top of the stairs she fully expected to meet with the specter of Conners. But there was nothing. She met instead with the vast, empty land, the wind crawling over the floor to wrap around her like the snakes.
Was this a mistake? Had she been wrong to expect that her actions would save Hesper? Instead of saving her hometown, would she be arrested for stealing the box of gold coins from the local museum? But there was no other way. She knew this had to be the way. What was she doing wrong?
"I thought you would be here," Hazel said. She finally set the box on the ground, relieving her arms. "You want this, but I don't know how to give it to you. I figured if this is where you died, then this is where you'd be." She waited, listening to the breeze tousle the sagebrush. Frustrated, she turned her face to the sky. "I'm not leaving until you take it!"
Silence. Hazel put her hands on her hips in defiance, meaning every bit of what she said, but she started wondering how long she'd be willing to wait. She hadn't planned on camping out.
An eerie feeling washed over her. Prompted to turn, Hazel regarded the archway again.
A figure stood under the arch at the top of the steps. His wide-brimmed hat threw a shadow over his face, but his rustic, antique clothing belied his identity. He wasn't transparent like Hazel thought ghosts should be. Instead he seemed to radiate an otherworldly light. Hazel's breath caught. In the archway she could make out rolling green hills and a sky that gleamed like sapphires. Puffy white clouds glowed as they drifted in that blue sea. The vibrant colors held her in awe.
The words Hazel had wanted to say died on her tongue. She found her lack of fear unusual, and surprising. Here she faced a spirit that had so tormented her town, but she felt no malice in him. He stared at her calmly. Hazel couldn't see his eyes because his hat shaded his face so completely.
She remembered the box and took it up again. "This is yours," she said in a weak voice. It came to her that maybe she was just dreaming, but it all appeared too clear and too real to be a dream.
The ghost said nothing. She waited for him, but then set the box down again. Maybe that's what he wanted, her hands off his property. Hazel took a few steps back. Her heart leaped when he walked forward, soundless on the gravel surface. The ethereal image behind the arch flickered momentarily. Conners bent over to retrieve the box and lifted the lid. He paused, as if confirming what was inside. Hazel still couldn't see his face. When he looked at her, a rush of cold air wafted toward her and she shivered despite the hot sun. The cold wind swirled and ascended in a cyclone, picking up debris from the floor. Hazel shielded her eyes from the grit and lost sight of the gunman's ghost. Fear gripped her heart, but she refused to move as the wind tore at her, the freezing gales biting her skin. But then the aired warmed, and the grit vanished. She dared to open her eyes. The cyclone carried a glittering, golden sheen, and Conners stood just inches away from her. He lifted his chin and pinned her with his gaze, crystal blue eyes vivid and stunning. He stared at her with no expression of thanks, appreciation, or joy. She had simply returned what was rightfully his. Now, the transaction was complete.
Hazel wanted to say something, but the ghost dissolved with the wind. His form evaporated in a cloud of golden glitter until the box fell through his hands. Hazel watched in wonder. The cyclone rose higher into the sky until it, too, disappeared.
Hazel remembered to breathe. The scene in the archway had returned to normal, and the box sat empty at her feet with the lid flipped open, but one gold coin lay half-buried in the dust. Hazel grabbed it up and turned it over in her fingers, the metal flashing in the sunlight.
With weak knees, she trekked back to Hesper. Rain clouds gathered in the distance.