VIII. The Lost Ship of the Desert

This is the story of two travelers, Gabe Valentine and Violetta Talbot, who ride out into the untamed wilderness of the Old West, hunting ghosts for fun and profit, haunted by sinister forces, and always finding trouble, even when they don’t try. The travelers attempt to cross the desert as they travel west, and on their way they witness a terrible event.

It had been weeks since the travelers had seen their last settlement. The desert stretched in front of them, the horses lolling at a snail’s pace. The wide flat road was mostly dirt with scratches of green, tell plans that shuttered in the sun. The air, at least, was cool for the most part. A breeze came from the west. The sun was starting to set in front of them, and the sky sang with colors. It was Gabe who stopped first, sliding off the horse and tossing out bedrolls. There wasn’t much conversation. Violetta lit the fire and laid back, weary from a long day’s ride. A small alcove of rocks covered their backs. The new moon was a flat circle against the tapestry of stars. Gabe watched the clouds for a while. They were sparse overhead, but an ugly grey cloud was forming west of them.

“You think we’ll get caught in a storm?” Violetta asked.

He shrugged. “It’d be a rare thing if we did.”

For once, it was Violetta who slept easily. The long journey had taken its toll on them, and she barely put her head down before she was out. Gabe found himself awake despite all desire against it. The land seemed to shake in anticipation of the storm, and the air had grown still. The clouds were gathering together, blocking out stars, but no lightning, no rain, just the immeasurable silence. The fire died slowly, and h watched the embers go out until the final spots of red and orange in the night blinked away. Gabe closed his eyes, tried to breathe, and let exhaustion drag his bones down into sleep.

The sky opened up with a great big crack, and he blearily raised his head to the storm. The cloud had dipped low to the earth, its pregnant belly full of water, but it wasn’t the storm he saw. His sleep-filled eyes watched waves rise up from the desert like an ancient painting of the sea, and on their backs was a large ship, masts full of wind, deck full of water, and it crashed down, disappearing into the dirt. The desert stared back at him, the first ruble of a storm shaking the air.

It happened, at times. Long treks through the desert were accompanied by visions and mirages. Gabe and Silva had held a man back during an especially dry and long cattle drive while he screamed about water. Lack of sleep, long travel, and dry heat was all a man needed to start seeing things. He looked at Violetta to see if the storm had woken her too, and stopped.

There was a man standing over her. Not a man. He was a light in the darkness, glowing dimly against the dark desert, as if the color had been bleached out of him. The loose fitted shirt and long breeches were torn and dragged down as though soaking wet. Long hair dripped over his face, and he had no eyes, just black pits that stared out. He was not looking at them, but at the storm.

Another rumble rolled out across the plain, and Gabe looked back, expecting to see the ship again. The ghost disappeared when he returned to Violetta’s side, shaking her awake.

“What is it?” she murmured.

“There’s something here,” he said.

“What?”

Gabe stood, staring ove the rocks where he’d seen the ship. Beneath the pitch black of the setorm, there was a line of lights. The distance made it hard to make out, but they were the shape of men, and they marched, carrying something behind them. It was a large line, maybe fifty men in all, and they flickered like candles. Like the wind, a song rose up, almost hollow in sound.

Windy weather boys, stormy weather boys

When the wind blows we’re all together boys

Blow ye winds westerly, blow ye winds, blow

Jolly southwestern boys, steady she goes

The travelers stood together and stared, watching the ghosts carry their line. Another rumble crossed the desert.

“They’re sailors,” Violetta whispered. “They’re singing shanties.”

“It’s in the middle of the Mojave,” Gabe whispered back. “What’s a lot of sailors doing here?”

“Oh, look!”

She pointed, and they could see now what the sailors were carrying. They held ropes, and the lines dragged behind them a ship, perhaps sixt feet long, its two sails bent an dtorn, the dark wood of the round vessel broken and splintered. They sang as they worked, and then lightning cracked in the sky, striking the ground near the ghost sailors, and in the flash they disappeared. No ship, no men, no song, just the smell of rain and burned sand, and a thunderclap so loud it shook their eardrums.

“I’ve never seen a ghost ship,” Violetta said as she climbed onto the rocks, but Gabe grabbed her shirt and pulled her back down. The air was charged now. “I’ve read about them. I never thought I’d see one here.”

“There isn’t an ocean for miles,” Gabe said. “It was a large ship.”

The clouds sparked again with the threat of  lightning. No more ghosts made themselves known.

“Come on,” Gabe said, grabbing his things.

“You want to go look?” Violetta asked.

“We’ve got to find shelter. The only thing out here is us, and I’m not interested in being a lighning rod.”

“But there’s a ghost ship in the desert!”

“A mystery to be solved once the rain passes.” He threw her bedroll to her. “Trust me, getting caught in a bad storm won’t do us any good.”

She pouted, but grabbed her things anyway. The managed to find an outcropping of rocks to hide beneath, and they huddled together as the rain started to splatter against the hard dirt outside. The wind howled in the night, and on its back carried the ghost of a song as the dead men worked.

 


 

The rain was short and sparse that nigt, and by daylight the cloud was still waiting, the angry grey o fit pressed into the blue sky. It gave no more rumbles, and the travelers braved out into the desert. Violetta ran towards the spot where they’d seen the ghost ship, Gabe trailing slowly behind.

“I’ve always wanted to see a ghost ship!” she shouted across the rocky plain. “An old sailor told me the story once of a ghost pirate ship he saw on a still night.”

“But out in the desert?” Gabe stopped on the risen landscape and looke down where they’d seen it the night before. “What’s a ship doing miles away from any water?”

“You don’t think the storm is part of it, do you?” Her eyes were on the dark clouds. “He said the ship brought iwth it a fog that blinded the men. You don’t suppose it’s bringing rain?”

“If the fog was so thick they couldn’t see, how do they know it was a ghost ship?” Gabe asked.

She didn’t respond as she ran down the small valley. The moisture from the rain had already been sucked away by the dry dirt. Gabe kept an ee on the angry cloud. The sky was split down the middle by it, and the clouds where the sun shone were curling and yellow. The air smelled of anticipation.

The landscape curved down, and on the flat bed of the small valley they wandered. It’d been difficult to judge the distance the night before in the darkness of the storm. Gabe wondered if it matter, if it was like a mirage, always far away even as you got close to it. The storm did seem unusual. It rained swift in the desert, in torrents that disappeared as quickly as they arrived, but this one waited like a slumbering beast. Violetta surveyed the landscape, frowning.

“There’s nothing out here,” she said.

“It’s a desert.” Gabe tilted up his hat. “Were you expecting a ship?”

“I was expecting something. Ghosts don’t just appear out of tin air.”

He looked at her, and she rolled her eyes.

“I mean, they have a source. It wouldn’t be very good if ghosts could just go wherever they like.”

“It’s certainly something to think about.” He stretched his hand out west. “Imagine a ship drowns somewhere in the deep, and its crew keeps going. A ghost ship wouldn’t be constrained by land. They could keep sailing in a straight line forever.”

“Sailing over crops and fields,” she added with a smile. “Going through people’s houses.”

“That’d be a haunting worth talking about.

They gathered up their horses and walked for a while, Violetta shouting at every rock she saw. The cloud followed them, stretching its grey tendrils to absorb more of the sky. The quiet only lasted until Violetta finished simmering.

“What kind of ship do you think it was?” she asked.

He shrugged. “I don’t know a goddamned thing about ships.”

“I was thinking…” She trailed off a moment, gazing across the dirt and stone, and then she sighed. “I’m trying to imagine what kind of ship would make it all the way out here.”

He placed a hand on her shoulder. “I think some ghosts might be too big for even us.”

“Well I don’t know if that’s true,” she said. “But it’s interesting, isn’t it? It looked like an explorer vessel maybe. I couldn’t tell in the darkness.”

“Would it matter if it were a viking ship?”

“No, I suppose not. But the ship was crashed. They were dragging it. I wonder…”

She stopped. Gabe glanced around, but she only stood there and then turned sharply, pointing behind them.

“They were dragging it west,” she said.

He watched her with a dwindling level of amusement. “Sure.”

“They were dragging it to the coast. Which means they were coming from somewhere else.”

She hopped onto her horse and pulled it around. Gabe watched, somewhat incredulous.

“Where are you going?” he asked.

“They were dragging it from somewhere else!”

With a kick her horse was galloping off. With a sigh, Gabe climbed onto his own.

“We’re going to die in the desert!” he shouted after her.

She didn’t hear him, or didn’t care. Her horse raced down the empty landscape, and he found his curiousity tugged him along. It was always like that with Violetta. Racing into the jaws of certain death for something that was probably worth it. She lifted off the horse, watching the dirt, the storm behind them, the air thick with the scent of rain, and the scent of the ocean. They both stopped at the same time. For a moment, in the silence, they could almost hear the waves.

They both dropped off the horses and walked forward. It wasn’t strong. It was more like the memory of the ocea. The sound was that time spent sinking off to sleep, and sounds from the day play clearly in your head. It was like walking into a dream.

The land tilted down again, and their feet scraped the dirt. Rocks rolled up from under the landscape, scattered like marbles, and the rain had caused the earth to slid down, exposing more stone. They didn’t know until Gabe tripped on it. It was the same color as the dirt around them, but the wood stretched up like the bones of an animal. He kneeled down and pressed his palm against the structure. Violetta dug away more dirt with her hands. It was certainly wood, the belly full of mud, but together they dug it out enough that they found a broken porthole. It was clouded with dirt, and the insides were broken and wrecked, but they could almost make out the room it once held, the pieces of it lost to weather and time. They looked at each other. The storm rumbled slightly, as if waking.

“It can’t be real,” Gabe murmured. They kept digging, an dhis hands gripped the ancient cloth of a sail, now torn and broken. “It can’t be real.”

“A ship in the middle of the desert.” Violetta had rolled up her sleeves and was scraping he rnails against the boards as she uncovered more. “What is it doing out here?”

“There’s no ocean for miles.”

“And it crashed. Do you see any sailors?”

They didn’t. There was a ship in the desert. In a long history of seeing incredible things, it was something new. It’d been battered and smashed, no doubt from landing hard into the dirt. Violetta took out her knife and scraped away more of te mud as she found a plaque on the side. The words were crusted together, but she sounded out the blanks as she went. There wasn’t enough of it to learn the name. Gabe had taken to walking the length of it. Sixty feet about, that’s what they thought, and he’d found the sail. Wood jutted up in strange places. They were miles from the nearest body of water, never mind the ocean. All those men, ragging their ship desperately across the sand, probably with no idea how cast the desert was, and they must’ve collapsed one by one, and then, what? Sailors, lost, dying of thirst, with no idea how far they had to go. Even in death they knew they had to keep going.

Violetta was distracted from her work when she felt something over her shoes. Water was pouring down like a river. She stood as lightning cracked across the sky, and then rain fell like a curtain. It only took a minute to be soaked to the bone. And the water was rising. Beneath her she felt the dirt turn to mud and start to suck down. She reached for Gabe, who was watching the ground. The mud made a gurgling noise, and she felt the ship slip down. She slid as well, and she called out his name as she fell into the knee-deep mud. Gabe grabbed her arms, and now the ship could barely be seen, the dull color of the wood disappearing beneath the mud. The water was waist high and rolled like a wave, and it tasted of ocean. Gabe ragged her away, climbing back onto higher ground, and there was a crash of water behind them.

The ship rose from the water. It crested the wave like a rising whatel, the mast bent back by the winds, and it lifted as a wave took it higher. For a moment it was out of the water before careening forward and smashing back into the ocean. They could see the men grabbing desperately for the railing, or taking buckets of excess water off, or pulling together on long ropes. It lifted again, and it was falling on the travelers, who braced themselves against the rock, and were hit with a spray of water.

The sip was gone. The land hadn’t flooded. But the smell of the ocean was still in the air.

“Come on,” Gabe said, helping her up. “We need shelter.”

“But the ship–”

“It’s gone.”

It was, but it hadn’t been a fantasy. The bones of it had disappeared into the sinkhole the water had created. The land shifted beneath their feet, and they grabbed the horses and ran.

And stopped.

Rain pounded against their faces, and lightning split the ground far too close, making them both jump. But in front of them was the ship on its side, wood splintered and fallen everywhere, and the mast broken. A barrel had smashed nearby, and several of th specters were mourning it. They said nothing at all. The ghosts stood like statues, staring at their fallen ship. And then, all at once, they looked a the travelers.

Thunder rolled, shaking them to their core.

“They aren’t doing anything,” Violetta whispered. “They’re just watching.”

Gabe eyed the ghosts nervously. “It’s possible they’re saving up.”

Lightning flashed again, in front of them, blinding them momentarily. The ghosts and their ship disappeared. The travelers waited a moment, and then held onto each other as they walked towards shelter.

“Ghosts want something,” Violetta was saying, her voice drowned out by the stor. “They’re just standing there. Why show us all this, if they aren’t going to do anything?”

They found a grouping of rocks that made a ceiling and curled beneath that. The storm showed no sign of letting up. The thirsty ground absorbed as much as it could, but water ran off the rocks in streams. Occasionally, in the distance, they would see the flicker of something like a lantern, or hear the sound of waves.

Violetta scratched into the dirt the letters she’d seen on the side, but the rain washed them away. They were both shivering, and Gabe prayed the rain would let up soon so the desert sun could bake them dry again. More than that, he wanted to get away from here. The sailors didn’t seem to have anything in mind, but their persistence was starting to get to him.

Violeta gave a gasp, and he looked up. A sailor stood just beyond them, form turned wavy by the rain. Another appeared beside him, and another. Their eyes were hollow, and most of them looked weathered, faces creased and cracked, some with scars. They stood there, silently, watching them.

He would never be able to explain to Violetta what happened next. His vision went white, and his whole head filled with voices. They whispered things he didn’t understand, and the whole ocean poured in through his ear. All he could taste was salt. His bones creaked as he stood, as though whoever was using them had long forgotten what it was like to have muscles and joints. Part of him remembered long nights on a black sea with stars in the sky, and a thirst so deep and dry it drove men to drink poison, and the blisters on his hands from pulling rope, and a storm so filled with rage that they floated overland. Part of him didn’t remember anything more after that.

“Hey!” Violetta shouted, grabbing onto Gabe’s arm, but she felt herself pushed back. Gabe stood and walked into the rain.

“Gabe!” she called again. “Let him go! Gabe! Stop!”

Her vision swam with waves. She grabbed her pack, furiously ripping it open, and reached inside.

What was good for ghosts? Ghosts were like–they were like–they were like nothing at all, really. Moving pictures projected on a screen. They went through motions. The sailors had died pulling the ship, and they kept pulling the ship, even though it didn’t matter anymore. Salt protected from them, as did holy water, but the only way to stop a ghost was to tell it to move on, and they listened from beyond a veil that made it hard to hear.

She ran out. The rain filled her whole vision with blurred grey and bright cracks of lightning. Rising up from the hard dirt were huge ocean waves and a ship rocked on them. The water was higher. She squeezed her eyes shut and pretended she was dreaming. Somewhere far away, she heard the voices rise–windy weather boys, stormy weather boys–felt the water rise to her neck, and she took a gasp of air as it came over her head.

This isn’t real, she told herself. This is a desert, not a ocean. Yes, she could taste the heavy brine of it, burned clean by the sun, and the waves rocked over her, but it shouldn’t matter. None of this was real. But something had really taken Gabe. She opened her eyes and saw the ship tipping towards her. The ghost men shoveled water desperately, others tying items down as it rolled on the backs of waves. Her hands reached out, scrabbling against the wood and barnacles and finally finding rope.

It felt real. The wood was soft from the water, and the rope twisted around her palm as she hoisted herself up. The waves that hit her felt real, and the lightning crack beside the sip charged the air. The desert had disappeared completely. It was ocean for miles, no sight of land, and it tipped so far she was nearly thrown back into the waves. If she let go now, where would she land? Would she drown here? Would her soul be locked to the ship as well?

She managed to reach the top of the boat and pulled herself over. Another wave hit, crashing across the deck, and she raised her hands to her face. The men were solemn faced, doing their duty without panic or fear. They looked less real here, glowing like lanterns on the dark ship, unaffected by water or rain. Her eyes strained as she looked for Gabe. They had to have taken him here. A figure moved among the ghosts, and she watched as Gabe walked across the deck.

Violetta rose and shouted his name, but it was swallowed by the storm. The ghosts stopped their work and looked at her. She ignored them as she ran past, but white hands reached out and pulled her arms and hair. She swung at one, but it passed through him like a cloud. Another hooked his arm around her neck, and she twisted free, stumbling forward and into another. She shouted as she got a look at his face. No longer were the sailors apparitions of the people they were, but their faces were wearing away like mummies. Their skeletal faces opened to reveal rows of teeth, and their blank eyes stared on. They didn’t move quickly–the dead rarely did–but they came at her as she twisted away.

“Gabe!” she shouted, climbing the steps of the quarter deck. “Gabe, we’ve got to stop them–”

She stopped when she saw his face. The edges of him were glowing, and the face–it wasn’t his. It was his nose and his cheeks and his brown eyes, but there was something else looking out from within, making the somber expression like a mask. Light shone from his eyes. He held out a hand, catching the ship’s wheel in its mad turn. HIs arm was unmoved, even as the ship groaned. Lightning cracked in the sky, and she jumped. The skeleton crew was climbing up behind her.

A wave knocked them all over. The whole ship pitched forward, threatening to overturn, and Violetta was sideways. Her arms reached out desperately for anything, and she found Gabe. She clutched as tightly to him as she could. Water slapped their faces, and the face behind Gabe’s was looking at her. His hand let go, and they were both falling, with no idea which way was up. The whole sky seemed to be taken up by the ocean, and for a glittering moment there were stars amid the storm, and the ship had turned to earth. Violetta, with one arm still held desperately to her friend, found a miracle amid the rain. She somehow caught the end of the rope, which snagged, and mid-fall they were jerked back, landing on the deck in a heap. Gabe was still beside her, and she hugged him tight, fearful for the next turn. All around her, spirits gathered.

“Stay back!” she shouted through the rain, knowing it was useless.

The crew came no closer. Their skin was rotting away, their teeth exposed in wide, ugly sneers. The light seemed to be burning off of them, disappearing like wisps of smoke. One stepped forward, skeleton hand out, and a voice emanated from within him, like a distant echo.

“A ship needs a captain,” he said. Long hair was wite around his shoulders, and it was falling away.

“You can’t have him!” She struggled to her feet. Around the storm was still raging, but in the center of the ship, they only watched her.

“We find the captain, and he always dies,” the skeleton continued. His clothes were rotting as well, holes appearing in the sleeves. “Each time, he is thrown from the ship. Without him, we are lost.”

She sucked in a breath. Gabe was still beside her.

“You have saved him,” the crewman said. “And now he can lead.”

Ghost didn’t do whatever they liked. They were trapped in loops, lost to the moment they died, and this was no different. This was a pantomime, a production for the sake of itself. They needed a captain, and so they chose, but each time the ocean swallowed him whole.

“You can’t have him,” she continued. “And he can’t save you. ou’re already dead.”

The wind carried the song blow ye winds westernly as the crew began to fade.

“It’s always the same,” the crewman said, shaking his head. “And there’s no one to lead.”

The ship went forward again, and she was pitched forward. She grappled for Gabe, and a wave raised up like the maw of a dragon, and the whole ship cracked as they went down.

 


 

Muddy water filled Violetta’s throat. Her eyes opened slowly, and for a moment she saw the blurry image of three figures standing over her, and the air smelled faintly of flowers. When she rubbed her face and rolled over to spit out the horrible taste, she saw Gabe laid out a few feet in front of her. Scrambling up, she ran to him, turning him on his back. Placing her head on his chest, she could hear him breathing. He coughed, spitting out seat water, and sat up slowly.

“You’re safe!” She grabbed him in a hug.

He looked around blearily. “What happened?”

“I–don’t know.”

They stood slowly. The black cloud had faded, and the dirt was quickly drying out as the sun bloomed proudly in the sky. They were both soaking wet. Not a distance away was the bones of the ship. More mud had slid over it, and only a few bent back planks showed.

“They took you,” Violetta said as they walked through the mud. “They were looking for their captain.”

They climbed on top of the rock outcropping, looking out. Already the earth was settling, erasing the strange event.

“He wasn’t buried with the rest of them,” he said in a hollow way.

“He was thrown from the ship.” She looked over the horizon. “They dragged the ship a ways too, before…”

They didn’t say much at all as they stood there. Together they retrieved their things and, without a word, headed east.

 


 

“You think this is it?” Violetta asked as they looked at a piece of land virtually no different from the others.

Gabe had a strange look on his face when he said, “Yes.”

It took a lot of digging, and they only had their hands. The bones were the same color as the earth, and Violetta almost tossed them aside when Gabe grabbed her arm. They pulled out everything they could and placed it on a tarp, carried between the two horses.

There was a lot more digging when they found the ship again. It only seemed right to bury the captain with it.

Dirty job finished, and night upon them, they considered camping out one more night, but Gabe shook his head. The moon was out, and the stars, staring up at them, rocking on the back of the horse, with the smell of salt in the air, the mind could trick itself to thinking it was at sea.

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