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. Gabe and Violetta find themselves in Gold Hills, a dying off gold town, which has many skeletons it keeps buried in the dark.
The moon rose over the desert. In such a clear sky, with only the rocky plain around them, it looked unreal, like flat orange disc that spread a strange glow across the plain. It’d been nothing but rocks and hills and the same mountains in the distance for days. Violetta was tired of it. She slumped forward as her horse navigated the terrain, not bothering with keeping her hair up, eyes half-closed. Even Gabe, who was used to these long rides, had stopped entertaining himself hours ago. His weary eyes watched the landscape, looking for any decent place to camp. Neither of them had said a word since the sun went down. Conversation had run dry days ago. Like the desert, their minds had gone barren.
Violetta’s head dipped forward, and she jerked up. Any more of this, and she’d be sleeping on her horse. Her legs ached, her back ached, and her eyes could barely stay open. She pulled the reins on her horse and started to slide off.
“What’re you doing?” Gabe asked.
“I’m settling in for the night,” she announced. “If I stay awake another second–well, I won’t.”
He stretched an arm out. “Where, exactly?”
The ground wasn’t exactly flat. But she pointed down the hill to a small section that sloped neatly, rocks rising around it like sentries.
“You can keep going,” she said with a shrug as she took her horse by the reins and began the climb down. “I’m taking a nap.”
He rolled his eyes. “There’s a town up ahead, I’m sure of it.”
“You were sure of it three days ago too.” She slid, landing in a sit, and hissed in pain. Her horse stared down at her, unhelpful. She put her head in her hands. “I’m so tired.”
“Alright, alright.” He dismounted as well and helped her to her feet. “But we can’t camp here.”
They walked a little further, until the land started to level out again, at least as much as it could. Gabe’s eyes remained on the horizon, and after a while longer passed, he held her arm, pointing forward.
Her vision blurred with her desire to sleep, but she followed his gaze. It was distant, maybe, or just small. In the desert, in the dark, the perspective became impossible to gauge. It looked like someone walking with a lantern. The light was bright and bobbed, sending dashes of light across the rock. The figure was impossible to make out.
“There’s people,” Gabe said.
“Out here?” She squinted as she tried to see better. “Why?”
“If there were a town.”
It was how she ended up following him again across the desert, their horses just as tired as they were but still managing the rocks better. At times the lantern would disappear and then be seen again, further up the road. It flitted behind a row of rocks and did not reappear. They dismounted again, surveying the area. Gabe climbed another hill and tried to see where they were at, and Violetta heard a noise behind her. She turned, only to find a rifle pointed at her face.
“Gabe!” she called as she took a step back.
There was a man behind the rifle. Dark hair matted to his forehead, and brown eyes peered at her down the scope of the rifle. He wore work clothes and smelled of horses, mud splattering his pants. She focused on the finger held close to the trigger, and the dirt that covered his fingers, like he’d been digging. She heard Gabe remove his own pistol, and she raised her hands in a friendly gesture.
“Evening,” she said.
The man studied her another second before pointing the rifle at Gabe. “What’re you folks doing out here?”
“Traveling,” Gabe said. “We don’t mean no harm. You can put that down.”
“We’re looking for a town,” Violetta added helpfully.
His eyes flicked to her again, and he looked every bit as tired as she felt. More so, even. Dark circles marred the skin beneath his bloodshot eyes, and his hands trembled just enough to make her nervous. She let out a breath when he lowered the gun.
“We don’t get many strangers out here,” he said. His voice was rough and reminded her of the landscape around them.
Gabe hesitated, but also returned his pistol to his side. “We’re just looking for a place to stay.”
“I’ll bet.” He shifted the pack he wore on his back, and there was a jangle of metal tools. “Gold Hills ain’t far from here. Clara’s inn may be open still to travelers.”
“You live there?” Violetta asked.
“Sure.” He pointed over the ridge where Gabe was standing. “Ride east another thirty minutes. You’ll probably see the sign.”
“What’s it you do?” Gabe asked. “Out here. In the middle of the night.”
His eyes narrowed. “I wouldn’t let it bother you.”
“We could ride into town together,” Violetta said, but she was eying the pack on his back. It seemed so heavy, and made noise every time he moved.
“Work to do,” was all he muttered. “Straight ahead.”
He gestured them forward, and they realized he was waiting for them to leave. They took their horses, Violetta passing another glance over the man, and they rode away.
It was only about a thirty minute ride before they saw the large wooden sign. It had seen better days. The paint had been worn away, but in the dark they could still make out the large block letters that read Gold Hills. The buildings surrounding the town seemed to be completely empty, their doors half-hung open, dirt covering them to make them the same colors as the landscape. Further in they saw lights, felt the presence of people, saw horses sleeping in their stalls. Only one building still had its doors and windows open, light pouring into the night. There was no sign on it, and the inside was a sleepy quiet. One or two patrons were slumped in their seats, pints of beer rested between their hands. A woman greeted them. Clara was older and sat comfortably in her age, greying hair pulled beneath a bonnet, apron covering her plump frame. She eyed them, but didn’t seem bothered by the strangers.
“We are in need of two rooms,” Violetta said to the woman.
“Looks to be the case.” From beneath the counter, Clara removed a set of keys. “It won’t be much.”
“Better than hard dirt,” Gabe said.
They followed her up the stairs to the sets of rooms. Patrons snored loudly from within, but only a few rooms seemed to be occupied.
“You get many strangers?” Gabe asked.
Clara shrugged. “We’re a bit hard to find, I think, but there’s always some poor soul who comes wandering in from the desert.”
“There was a man out on the hills.”
“He pointed a gun at us,” Violetta said helpfully.
Clara turned to them, eyes narrowing. “You met Eddie then.”
“So not a stranger,” Gabe said.
“He’s harmless.” Clara jammed the key into the lock. “Spends all his nights in the hills since–well, his friend walked into the desert and didn’t walk out again. It’s the sort of thing a man obsesses about.”
“He had an awful lot of equipment with him,” Violetta said. “Not the type you go into the desert with.”
“He’s always been a strange duck.” She pushed open the door, and then the next one. “Here we are. One for the lady and the gentleman. You can come down for breakfast in the morning. It won’t be much, but it’ll be warm.”
“Thank you.” Violetta waved to her a she started back down the stairs and then turned to Gabe. He was already shaking his head.
“Whatever you’re thinking can wait until the morning,” he said.
She pouted at him, but he was right. She was too tired to even speculate. With a goodnight, she shut her door, collapsed into the ancient cot, and pulled the stiff covers over her shoulders. Sleep had already claimed her, and her dreams were filled with birdsong.
Clara had not lied about breakfast. The oatmeal wasn’t more than gruel, but there was sausage, which Violetta scarfed down. It was nice to taste hot food again. It was nice to sleep in a bed again, even when it was more wood than mattress, and for the first time in a while, the travelers were feeling refreshed. They sat a while, enjoying the feeling of being full, of the hot sun no longer on their backs, watching the patrons come in and out. Gold Hills did not get many strangers, but the inn got much activity. For those without the time to make a hot meal themselves, or those too tired to bother with going home, they stayed here. The morning saw much more activity, and a few people stopped at their table to greet the strangers, asking vague questions about their business.
A young woman brought them drinks, her dark hair falling over her serious face, and she stood over them with her hands on her hips.
“Clara said Eddie pointed a gun at you last night,” she said.
They both looked up at her. She wasn’t a large woman, and the lines in her face seemed less from age and more from life, but she had a sternness to her that resembled the hardest schoolmarm.
“Is it the sort of thing he’s known to do?” Gabe asked.
“It’s been a rough year,” she said, and her fingers curled. “For all of us. Personally, I don’t think he could land a shot on the side of a barn, but if he gives you any trouble, you let me know. Irene, by the way. Irene Solly.”
“Clara said his friend went missing in the desert,” Violetta said.
A moment of pain shot across Irene’s face, and then it was gone. “It happens sometimes. Some of the old mines were never closed up properly. Last year, Sam Piper lost his whole house when an old mine caved in.”
“You were a mining town?”
She let out a breath. “‘Gold Hills’ was a pipe dream, thirty years ago. A few seams were found, and then they hollowed out the land looking for more. Of course, some people can’t give up that dream.”
“Irene!” Clara called from the bar and gestured her over.
Irene nodded at her and turned back to the travelers. “Anyway, don’t bother much with Eddie. I try not to.”
She stalked back to the bar. They watched her lean in as Clara whispered something, and then she stood straight up, walking out the door without another word.
“Surprised a town like this survived,” Gabe said. “Most of them got abandoned.”
Violetta nodded. “Explains the equipment, at least.”
“And the gun pointing. Gold’s one of those things people get obsessive about.”
They left the inn, gazing around the town. It was smaller in the daylight, the empty buildings surrounding it like ghosts of buildings, and the shops and houses that were occupied barely kept up any better. The sun stretched out overhead, spreading heat and haze as they walked. Doors were open to let the air circulate. There wasn’t much to see. A general store for supplies, a mail depot, a tailor and leatherworker, the basic things a town needed. At the end of the row of buildings was a horse trader. There weren’t many of them, and their own horses probably wouldn’t fetch much, but it was better than having one keel over in the middle of the desert. Around them the hills raised up, and it was easy to see, after the first vein of gold was found, why people imagined these hills shining with the stuff. The way the early morning light reflected off the peaks, they glittered.
It was also disconcerting to walk the yellow plain having been told the old mines still wove their way beneath their feet, with the chance that, at any moment, the earth could open up and swallow them. Some ghosts kept devouring.
The strong smell of horses greeted them, as did a shouted conversation. The travelers paused as they came to it, and they could see a large man with a greying beard leaning down on a familiar face.
“You’re making a fool of yourself!” the larger man shouted. “And you’re gonna get yourself killed!”
Eddie didn’t look cowed beneath the verbal assault of the older man. One hand clutched a dirt covered shovel.
“I know what I’m doing, Gerald,” he muttered.
“You don’t. And wandering around that desert at night is what got your buddy killed.”
Eddie’s hands curled around the shovel, his teeth grit. “You don’t know nothing.”
Gerald gripped his shoulders. “The mine’s cave in. One misstep, that’s all it takes. You think Charlie’s holed up in this phantom mine with his ghost pal? He stepped wrong, and now he’s lying in a heap somewhere, waiting to be found.”
“Gerald,” a sharp voice barked. They hadn’t seen Irene standing just behind the building, and she now strolled up to the two men. Gerald slowly moved his hands back to his side, and Eddie’s eyes narrowed at her.
“Sorry, Irene,” Gerald muttered.
She didn’t look in a mood to accept apologies. “Charlie ain’t coming back, and, honestly Eddie, if you didn’t either it’d be one less thing on my plate, but for some reason you and he were friends, so here’s the last thing I’m gonna say on it. Stop looking for the mine. Stop talking about ghosts. And stop pointing guns at strangers you meet in the desert.”
“What the hell do you know about it?” Eddie said. “You gave up on him as soon as he went missing.”
Her eyes widened as she looked at him, and then she bit her lip and turned back to Gerald. “I’m done with this. Don’t call after me again. Some of us are trying to get on with our lives.”
She turned sharply and walked out where she’d come from. The travelers had pressed against the wall of the building in front of the scene so as not to interrupt. They looked at each other, and Violetta’s eyes were sparkling.
“Listen,” Gerald said, putting a hand on the other man’s shoulder. “You’re not sleeping anymore, and you’re half mad searching for this mine. Go home. Sleep. Think on it a while.”
Eddie shrugged him off. “I’ve seen the skeleton, Gerald. And maybe–maybe Charlie’s not out there, but he was getting close to something when he disappeared. You can go on thinking I’m crazy with the rest of them, but I know what I’m doing.”
Gerald sighed and shook his head. He loped off, not even noticing the travelers as he passed. Violetta and Gabe shared a look, and he tried to stop her before she jump around the corner, but was too late.
“Howdy!” she called as she approached Eddie, and Gabe put his head in his hands.
Eddie jumped when he saw them, raising his shovel a little, and his eyes narrowed. He looked worse than he did last night, his dark hair pushed back with sweat, his skin sallow, and his hands trembling. No gun was pointed at them, which was an improvement.
“What the hell are you doing here?” he snapped.
“Looking for horses,” Gabe said.
“And then we overheard,” Violetta said, “something about a ghost.”
He stared at the two of them. “Ain’t no ghost.”
“You a paranoid man?” Gabe asked.
His eyes narrowed. “I’m not the one eavesdropping.”
“Conversation that loud, it was hard not to.” Violetta grinned at him. “Lucky for you, my friend, we know all about ghosts.”
“You do, do you?” He set his shovel down. “Suppose you gonna tell me you know all about the phantom mine too.”
“That we don’t.” Gabe watched the man. He was wiry and nervous, and the lack of sleep was probably making for some bad decisions.
“We’re more interested in the skeleton you mentioned,” Violetta said.
He looked at them as though they were insane. “You really don’t know the legend?”
They both shook their heads.
“Huh.” He smoothed down his hair. “Why you so interested in some ghost?”
Violetta’s grin stretched wide. “Violetta Talbot and Gabe Valentine, professional monster hunters, at your service. We track down witches, spirits, and creatures of all sorts.”
“Professional, like you get paid for it?”
“On occasion,” Gabe said.
“And you’re not, like, crazy people,” Eddie said.
“Well.” Gabe gave a shrug. “We’re not obsessively wandering the desert at night pointing guns at people.”
Violetta said, “We may be the only ones who believe you, Mister…”
“Eddie Gilkey,” he muttered.
“Mr. Gilkey.” She reached out a hand to him and thought better of it. “How about, my associate and I buy you a drink, and you tell us everything that’s happened here that’s worth knowing.”
He looked at them again and shook his head. “What the hell. At this point, what’s left to lose.”
They walked back to the inn together, where they took up a table in the back and ordered a few pints. Irene hadn’t returned, something Eddie took note of as well.
“She didn’t used to be all prickly,” he said. “She used to smile at least. She and my friend Charlie were engaged.”
“Charlie’s the one who went missing?” Violetta asked.
Eddie nodded. “He and me grew up together We both listened to the old miners talk about this town, what it’d been like in the glory days of the gold rush. There’d been a couple of strong seams here, which built the town, but it always dries up. ‘Cept a couple of the miners swore up and down that a cave in kept them from getting to a whole other part of the mine, where the walls practically glittered with gold. They never managed to excavate it properly, and so it was abandoned, along with half the town. Charlie’s pa was a miner. Saved a bit of gold, even, had it made into this necklace that Charlie always wore. He died when we both pretty young, and Charlie knew the phantom mine had to be real. So every night he hunts for it, following his pa’s stories, trying to find the caverns that got caved in. I help him. I’m a pal. I wouldn’t mind getting rich neither.”
“You weren’t with Charlie when he disappeared?” Gabe asked.
Eddie shook his head. “That was six months ago. He thought he was getting close. We always thought we were getting close. Anyway, he walks into the desert, promising to bring us back gold, and then we don’t ever see him again.”
“And then you see a ghost?” Violetta pressed.
“No, the ghost is as old as the miner’s,” Eddie said. “Used to be all the miner’s would talk about it. You could see it out in the desert this light being carried by a tall figure. Everyone always says it was a miner that got caved in. When me and Charlie went hunting, we started to see it too. Sometimes from a distance, sometimes it sounded like it was moving underneath us. We’d go down in the old mines, trying to find places they might’ve tried blowing out, and sometimes we’d see it there. Carrying its lantern.”
“You said it looked like a skeleton.”
He looked nervous. “Well, a couple of weeks ago, I was hunting for places Charlie had been, and I turn around, and it’s right there. Walking past me, a few yards off. It don’t even look up, it’s just carrying its lantern, and it’s all skeleton. Huge. Ten feet at least, no eyes, no skin, just bone and teeth. It walks off, and I’m terrified.”
“Did the miners used to talk about that too?” Gabe asked.
He shrugged. “They all tell ghost stories. Hell, half of them are ghost stories. They’ll say they used to see lights in the mines, or out in the desert, but I’d never seen nothing like this. But I was thinking it must mean I’m getting close. One of the men died in the cave in. If you were that close to riches, only to have them crash down on you, wouldn’t you spend your eternity looking for them again?”
“It’s something to consider,” Violetta murmured.
Gabe was considering something else. “Do you think Charlie’s still alive?”
Eddie looked at him, eyes narrowing. “That’s the question, ain’t it? A six month’s a hell of a long time, but Charlie–he was obsessed, I won’t deny it. More interested in finding the gold than making Irene his wife. He was mapping out the tunnels too. He knew them.” He leaned in, dropping his voice. “Look, right before he disappeared, he took a bunch of stuff. From me. From Irene. Equipment. Food. I thought he was trying to dig something out. Maybe he stayed down there. Maybe he was happier mapping tunnels than marrying some shrew.”
“Seems like it’d be easier to go home every night.”
His shoulders sagged. “I was starting to think, if he ain’t dead, it’d be awful convenient for him if he were. Everyone’s heard stories of the phantom mine. We’d been looking for it for years, the two of us, and he told Irene he couldn’t marry her until he found it, and after he took that stuff, I wondered if he found it if he’d even tell us at all. If he wouldn’t just make off with as much gold as possible and then disappear. A rich man with no obligations.”
“It seems cruel,” Violetta said.
“It doesn’t seem like what you’re interested in doing,” Gabe said.
Eddie gave another non-committal shrug. “Charlie was the only reason I started looking for it. Irene probably deserves some for all the trouble she’s gone through. And this town… We’ve held on, but we’re dying. It’s only a matter of time before the desert swallows us up. A little bit of riches would go a long way around here.”
“Well we don’t know much about mining,” Violetta said. “But I’d like to see your ghost. Can we arrange that, Mr. Gilkey?”
He looked at the both of them, dark eyes narrowed, jaw set, but he shook his head. “Got nothing to lose at this point. If you want to come along so bad, you’ll meet me at the edge of town at sunset.”
“Why do you go at night?” she asked. “Wouldn’t it be more convenient to search in the daylight?”
“Charlie was big on secrecy,” he said as he stood. “And it won’t matter when we’re below. It’s all dark down there.”
He stalked off, leaving the two of them alone. They watched the empty tables for a minute, until Gabe shook his head.
“You think he saw what he really saw?” he asked.
“In the dark, alone, any light could look like anything.” She looked at him. “You’re wondering if he saw someone with a lantern.”
“We’ll see, won’t we? Tonight.”
She stood. “We better get some rest now then. It’s going to be a long night.”
Night cooled away the desert heat, and darkness filled it the way water does a basin. Eddie Gilkey waited on the edge of town, hidden away from the lanterns that cast yellow light through the town. He looked more and more nervous each second they didn’t move.
“The way I figure it,” he said as they walked into the night, “Charlie must’ve found an entrance to the caverns below.”
“You think they’d be everywhere,” Violetta said.
He shook his head. “Closed off. Collapsed. One heavy rain came through here, and the ground started falling in places. Finding an entrance that leads you to a workable cavern, that’s the trick. Otherwise we’ll hit more rock.”
“Miners usually blast through rock,” Gabe said.
He laughed at that. “If I wanted my damn hands blown off. You ever talk to the men who had to light the fuse? Cuddy Sawyer used to tell us stories as kids. He used the tamping rod to pack the explosives. Fifty-three times, he told us, he tamped them down no problem, and then, fifty-four, the charge goes off too soon. That man had half a face and three of his fingers left. Left you with shivers.”
They left the safety of the light, walking out onto the rocky plain. There was little moon, and though the stars numbered the heavens, they shared little of their light. Eddie pointed to the places where the earth had started to crumble away, revealing black pits with jagged rocks at their bottom.
“How deep do the mines go?” Violetta asked.
“Deep,” was all Eddie said.
They walked in silence away from the town until all that could be seen of it was a haze of light in the air. Ridges rose and fell, and Eddie gave no clue to where they were going until he stopped, pointing to a hole cut out of a ridge that descended down. The darkness from the cavern was in stark contrast to the darkness outside. Eddie lifted his lantern, exposing the yellow stone that tilted back like a gaping mouth. He turned to the travelers, sharp features illuminated strangely by the lantern.
“Y’all ready?” he asked.
They started to descend.
The tunnels were wide enough for several men to pass through, but the ceiling was low. Their footsteps echoed as they walked slowly, down and down. Even with two lanterns between them, the light didn’t stretch far, and as the entrance disappeared, it became unclear how far they’d traveled. Eddie raised a hand to the ceiling, fingers brushing against the stone as though greeting an old friend.
“They nearly tore out this whole valley,” he said, voice echoing through the chamber. “Worked for days blowing away stone and mining through the rock. After the initial rush, there was nothing left, but they kept looking.”
“Seems like the looked pretty far,” Gabe said.
“That mine…” The echo made his voice sound hollow, like a poor imitation. “Charlie’s pa was there when they found it. Simple picks and hammers got them through. He would tell us how they broke apart a piece of the wall, and when they raised a lantern to it, light poured out. Gold coated the walls. They brought in the tamper next, but at that point the land had turned so hollow, the explosion caused the cave in.”
“How many miners are left?” Violetta asked.
“Not nearly any.” He shrugged. “It was hard work, they were old men.”
Silence consumed them as they continued down. Work had been done to smooth away where the workers had blasted through, but jagged edges of stone still reached out to them, and closed around the light so it could only make a few feet. The ceiling closed in, and it was hard to imagine ten men doing their work together down here. The three of them went in single file through the dark tunnel. The equipment Eddie brought jangled in his pack, sending strange echoes through the cavern. Caverns, they realized as he led them further down. Gabe could just make out how the sound shifted, following every wall that twisted beneath Gold Hills. They came to the first tunnel split, and Eddie pointed to the chalk marking on the tunnel wall. An arrow gestured to their left.
“Easy to get lost down here,” he said. “I mark every way I come from.”
“Smart,” Violetta murmured.
He shrugged. “It’s either that or end up dead.”
The tunnel branched a few more times, and the chalk markings continued to show them the path. Time was counted in breaths and heartbeats, the steady echo of their footsteps the only metronome, and the light never seemed to catch up to the darkness. Suddenly Eddie stopped in front of them, raising a lantern.
“Hear that?” he murmured.
Their ears strained as they listened to their own sounds die away, and then, yes, a slight echo that sounded like an extra pair of footsteps. The nature of the mines made it impossible to know which way it was coming from. Gabe measured his heartbeats as he listened, and then the echo stopped. Silence reigned. Slowly, Eddie shifted his pack, removing a pistol. Gabe grabbed his arm.
“It’d be a bad idea,” he said.
Eddie shook his head. “You don’t know what’s down here.”
“I know it’s a good way to shoot one of us in the dark.” He gestured to his belt. “If we see anything scary, we can draw.”
They moved again, and at least the mine seemed to open up. Now they stood in a large cavern, abandoned equipment littered around. Eddie kicked a pickaxe with his foot, and the metal sound it made bounced down three large tunnels. The two on the right had a large chalk X over each of them.
“Nothing down the first,” Eddie said. “And the second is caved in badly. It’d need half a ton of dynamite to get through the rock.”
“How far have you gotten through the third tunnel?” Violetta asked.
He shifted. “It keeps branching.”
A light flared behind them, and Eddie’s hand went to his pistol, but Gabe held his arm. From the tunnel behind them came a large imposing shadow that cut apart the lantern light. A man stepped forward, large chested, grey-peppered beard. Behind him trailed a woman, her arms clutched around her chest. Gerald and Irene.
“What the hell are you doing here!” Eddie shouted, his voice screaming through the tunnels.
“Following you idiots!” Irene pushed Gerald aside. “I knew you were on the path to kill yourself, Eddie Gilkey, but I didn’t think you’d drag two strangers into your madness.”
“Come on, Ed,” Gerald said. “Another night of slogging through the dark?”
“What’s it to you if I do?” he demanded.
“And what are you two doing?” Irene waved a hand at the travelers. “He tell you about the mine?”
“We’re ghost hunters,” Violetta said quickly.
Gerald shook his head. ‘It’s too dangerous down here. One more flood and the whole town’s gonna sink.”
“You’re here to drag me back?” Eddie asked.
“Hell, Eddie!” Irene shouted. “We all know the phantom mine’s a story made up by the old miners trying to relive the good old days! There ain’t no magic cure gonna rescue the town from what it’s becoming! There ain’t no stacks of gold gonna make you a rich man! You’re dragging the rest of us down with you while you continue this quest, and one day you’re gonna walk into the desert and never walk out again! Gerald worries about you, and for some ungodly reason I do too! So you and your friends are gonna turn around and walk out the mines with us. For Charlie’s sake.”
Eddie’s shoulders rose as he sucked in a breath, and a look of defeat hit him so hard he released it. He looked down at his lantern.
“Irene,” he said, and then was interrupted by the sound of something far off. Echoing through the caves, bouncing off every wall so it was impossible to tell where it came from, was someone singing. A man’s voice, carrying a tune the travelers didn’t recognize, but the three from Gold Hills clearly did.
“No,” Gerald murmured.
Irene had gone stock still, her face white, her eyes widening. “That’s Charlie.”
“No, Irene,” Eddie started to say, but she was already running, shoving past him. He called after her again, “Irene!”
Her lantern light bounced across the mine walls and disappeared almost as soon as she’d started. Eddie chased after her, hollering her name, and the others followed. The mines here wound around, and the sound echoed louder, compounded with her footsteps and theirs. They ran until they hit the next fork. Eddie raised the lantern.
“Irene!” he bellowed.
“She’ll get lost in there.” Gerald grabbed his shoulder, yanking him back. “What the hell was that?”
“I told you! It ain’t just us down here! And it ain’t Charlie!” Eddie’s face was pale and sweating. “Something else is looking for the mine.”
“Would she know to follow the chalk markings?” Gabe asked, gesturing the arrow pointing down the right tunnel.
“Let’s hope so,” he grumbled and started after.
“Has the ghost ever hurt anyone?” Violetta asked as they continued down the tunnel.
Eddie shook his head. “No, but it don’t need to. Irene takes one wrong step, or she gets lost enough, or a mine comes in around her…”
“What’re you two so interested in a ghost for?” Gerald asked.
“We’ve had our experiences,” she said.
“Most people ‘round here are interested in the mine.” His face was grim, the light not quite reaching him. “Suppose I got lucky with my two boys. They went east for an education. Nothing much for them in this town.”
“Nothing much for anybody in this town,” Eddie grumbled. “Oh, hell.”
They came to another fork. The singing had stopped, and so had the sounds of footsteps.They called out again Irene’s name, but only their voices responded. One tunnel was caved in, and the other two were unmarked. They stood between them, listening for any sound.
“What if it were Charlie?” Gerald asked in a quiet voice.
“I’ve seen no one down here ‘cept the light from that skeleton.” Eddie removed his pack, digging in. “These tunnels should be marked though.”
“Rain might’ve seen to that,” Gabe said.
“Maybe.” He held up the lantern to one, and then the other, and a scream sounded from it, so loud it echoed not only in the cave but in their ears. The group did not wait, racing down the long cavern. They came upon another series of tunnels, still unmarked. Eddie didn’t hesitate as he continued after the scream, and his lantern shone on a part of the mine that had caved in, making a concave pile of stones at its end, which suggested more slipping into darkness. Irene clung to a few of the stones, her face pale, her fingers bloodied.
She stared up at them as the lantern light found her. “The floor just–”
“Fell away, yeah.” Eddie reached out a hand to her, and she grimaced as she took it. “You can’t go running off.”
“There was something here.” She shook as they helped her out of the pit, clutching her bleeding hands to her side. Eddie removed bandages from his pack. “I thought it was–I saw–I followed it down here, and then it disappeared.”
“Was it the light of a lantern?”
Eddie glanced at Gerald. “You two oughtta leave.”
“And what about you?” Gerald asked. “Going to chase after ghosts and gold until you fall down a pit and die?”
“You’re not!” He grabbed Eddie by the shoulders, shaking him. “You think you’re the first fool to run down here? The miners have been talking for years about the phantom mine! We’ve had strangers come here before to follow these tunnels to their deaths. There should be a hundred ghosts down here, but all I see is one more dead body.”
“Gerald,” Irene said in a small voice.
“Don’t you start neither,” he snapped. “We all miss Charlie. I looked after him like was my own flesh and blood. A little bit of hope’s all it takes to drive a man insane.”
“As much as I hate to interrupt the drama of it all,” Violetta said, “I think our friend has not quite left us.”
They fell silent, and there the sound of someone whistling. The tune carried somberly through the dark mine, and under her breathe, Irene was humming along.
“Charlie used to sing it,” she murmured.
“All the miner’s did.” Gerald looked at her. “Not a man in this town who wasn’t taught that song.”
“Does your ghost normally sing?” Violetta asked.
Eddie’s eyes were wide. “I hadn’t heard it before.”
“Come on,” Gabe said. “Slowly this time.”
The party trekked back through the tunnel and came again to the cross section. Gerald began to argue again if they should leave, but Irene didn’t listen as she started down the other tunnel, leaving the others to follow behind. It seemed to grow more and more narrow until they were walking in a line together. The singing had stopped. They came to another split, and Eddie pointed them down the left way. The silence was complete as the five of them strained to hear every rock fall, every water drip, every footstep that might not be theirs. Eddie stopped suddenly, pulling his lantern back, and they saw a glimpse of something in the long hall. A lantern light disappearing around the bend. It was brief enough that they might’ve thought it was a reflection of their own light, but Eddie’s face was growing pale. They came around the bend, and directly into a wall of stones.
“This weren’t here before,” Eddie said.
“A bit more of the land crumbles,” Gerald said from the back of the row.
“Or we’re not in the right tunnel.” He raised his lantern. “I marked the most of them, I swear.”
“Maybe the big one’s right,” Gabe said. “If we get lost in here, we won’t be coming out.”
“We haven’t even seen a ghost,” Violetta whispered.
“We’ve seen ghost enough. It feels a bit like it’s leading us away.”
“Or someone’s down here trying to confuse us,” Irene said.
“Who’d do a thing like that?” Gerald asked.
“Someone else looking for the mine.” She glanced at Eddie. “Someone who didn’t want you getting too close.”
He looked at her with a solemn expression. “I think maybe Gerald’s right.”
“Just like that?” Her lips drew down. “You wouldn’t stop for months–”
“It’s alright if I throw myself into the darkness,” he said. “Charlie wouldn’t want you down here.”
Her frown set in deeper. “Since when did he care about what I wanted?”
“Turn around,” was all he said in response.
They did, reluctantly, and when they returned to the previous split, Eddie looked sidelong down the other tunnel, counting in his head to figure out where they were. Gerald pointed back the way they’d come, but he shone his lantern onto the dark stone. There in the darkness, something shone back, and then quickly slipped away. He started down it, and Gerald grabbed his shoulder.
“It’s changed,” Eddie said.
“It hasn’t. You’re confused.”
“What’s down there?” Irene asked.
He started down, ignoring the protests of the others, and she stepped behind him. He raised his lantern up as the mine opened around them, and his foot stepped wrong and he was pitched into the darkness below. Irene shrieked and grabbed for him, the lantern smashing against the stone and dying out, and the others raced up behind. The stone had fallen away here into a dark tunnel below, far enough to break his legs. Gerald grabbed her by the waist, and Gabe and Violetta reached to hoist him up, and across the open chasm emerged a figure bathed in white light, startling them all. A large skeleton emerged, and nestled in its rib cage was a lantern that burned brightly, in its bony white hand a pick that it dragged through the air. The creature saw them, and the party started back. Gerald’s hands slipped from Irene, and her grip faltered. Gabe grabbed onto Eddie as he slid down, and they both started to tumble into the abyss below.
The pain that Gabe felt as he tried to stand made his arms shake. He opened his eyes, squeezed them shut again, and then looked up at the dark tunnel. It was nearly black, no better than keeping his eyes shut and feeling around. Beside him Eddie cursed and touched the broken shards of the lantern. He heard the contents of his pack shift, and then light bloomed in the darkness on the end of a single matchstick.
Gabe’s eyes moved up to the rockslide they’d taken, and he hollered out, “Hey!”
His voice echoed from the walls and disappeared. It seemed they’d fallen one hundred feet, the empty darkness above them an oppressive weight on the atmosphere. Eddie gave him a hand to help him up and ten gestured to his pistol.
“You can fire that, yeah?”
“You can’t shoot a ghost,” Gabe said.
He removed his own. “I can damn well try.”
“Carefully then.” He guided him forward. “With our heads about us. Where’s the way out of here?”
Eddie narrowed his eyes into the darkness, and the matchstick reached its end, forcing him to drop it. After a moment of cursing and fumbling, another struck, and they took the burst of light to gauge their surroundings. Rocks piled up against pathways. Man had been here. The tunnels were propped up some, but it’d been a long, long time. Eddie gazed at the tunnel in front of them and gestured Gabe forward as the light started to burn out.
They didn’t light another. They walked carefully and with arms outstretched. After a while, Eddie lit another, but it was only darkness in front of them.
“It’s Irene’s fault,” he muttered.
Gabe rolled his eyes in the darkness. “You the kind of man who doesn’t like mirrors, Ed?”
A match flared again, catching the light in his eyes as he glanced at him. “What’s that mean?”
“Means some folks like placing blame everywhere but themselves. Besides, it’s the ghost we oughtta blame.”
The match dropped to the floor, sucking away the light. “Gerald I’m used to. He played da with Charlie especially after his dad died. But Irene shouldn’t have come down here. She don’t know the tunnels.”
“Tell me you do, at least.”
Another match. One tunnel stretched right, the other left, and Eddie pointed to the marking left behind by miners of old.
“Sometimes you get lucky,” he said.
They walked a while longer in darkness, but the silence in the darkness was too much to bear. Gabe let out a breath.
“It’s a strange ghost, ain’t it?” he said.
“What’s that?” Eddie grunted.
“Some kind of skeleton man, that lantern in its chest. You said it was a lost miner.”
“That’s what we always thought it was.”
“Huh.” Gabe was relieved when the match lit again. Cave darkness was unlike any other darkness. His eyes wouldn’t ever adjust enough. “You don’t know who, though? Seems like your town might have a record of who died.”
“The miners used to talk about it,” Eddie said in a quiet voice.
“Huh,” Gabe said again. “Older then.”
The tunnel curved again, swallowing what little light they could muster. Another flare of a match revealed something hanging on the wall, and Gabe retrieved the lantern. A bit of oil remained, and again they carried light.
For a while, it seemed as if the mine would lead them out, but as they continued, Eddie looked more and more uncertain. They came to another fork in the path, and he examined both sides. As they stood in the miasma of darkness, judging their options, the song started up again. The words were imperceptible, but the tenor of it was low. Eddie lowered his eyes, humming along. Gabe watched him a moment, and then took the lantern down the path.
“Wait,” Eddie hissed. “That thing–”
“Has led us further and further down the wrong way,” Gabe said. “But ghosts don’t do things without reason.”
Eddie snapped his jaw shut as they saw the glow of the light ahead. He removed his pistol, holding it in front of him, and Gabe stepped to his side. The humming got louder, but it sounded different this time. It was not a song left on the wind, or an old memory brought back by the smell of a mine. The light began to turn the corner, and a large shape made its way into view. Eddie squeezed the trigger on his pistol as Gabe pushed his hand away. The gunshot was made a hundred times louder as it bounced off every wall, and the figures in front of them crouched, pressing their hands to their ears. It was the others, and Violetta ran forward, throwing her arms around Gabe.
“You’re not dead!” she shouted.
“Not yet anyway.” He handed her the lantern. “Seen anymore of our ghost?”
“We can hear it,” Irene murmured. “But we couldn’t leave you to die down here.”
“Thanks for that.”
Gerald waved them back. “We’re leaving. No more arguing about it.”
“Sure,” Eddie said, looking sheepish as he returned his pistol to his pack. “Sure.”
Irene looked at him as though she wanted to say something, but she turned back to Gerald, who started to lead them from the tunnel. It felt as though the gunshot was still reverberating through the cavern, or possibly just through their eardrums. Every noise seemed louder but further away, like they were hearing it underwater. It made the sounds of their footsteps uncertain, and the light cast by their lantern would flicker on things ahead, as though the ghost were waiting for them.
The light flickered on something strange, and Eddie stopped. He pointed to the wall of rocks that another path diverged into.
“What’s that?” he asked.
Irene shook her head. “Nothing worth staying behind for.”
He brought the lantern up close to it, and there was a glimmer. It might’ve been lantern light reflecting on glass or an old tool, but there was something distinctly golden about it.
“I’ve never been down this path before,” he said.
“Because you almost died!” Irene shouted. “Let’s go!”
“Hold on,” he insisted. He removed an axe, setting the rest of his items on the ground, and struck it into the rock. He did again, and it started to shift. The glimmer remained, even harder to see. He struck a third time, and his foot found loose ground, which began to crumble. Gabe and Gerald ran forward, grabbing him and pulling him back as the floor started to crumble. The rocks covering the path did as well, and the source of the glimmer was quickly apparent. Irene’s hand went to her mouth, and Gerald shoved Eddie back. Gabe and Violetta leaned forward.
The gold necklace remained around Charlie’s neck, where his corpse had collapsed against the stone. He still held a pickaxe firmly in one hand, the edge of it blunted, and a pistol in the other. He used it at the end, perhaps when he’d realized he’d run out of food and water, with the dawning realization that no one would be able to find him, not all the way down here, far away from the light.
“If there is a phantom mine,” Gerald said slowly, “which their ain’t, but if there were, we’d never find it down here. Not without losing everything first.”
“You never believed it?” Eddie could not quite look at the body that remained.. “Not for a second.”
A melancholy expression took him. “Every man dreams of riches. Some of us remember that it’s only a dream.”
Irene started to sob. Eddie took her by the arm and turned her away.
“Let’s get out of here,” he said.
It was still night when they exited the mine, far away from the place they’d entered. No one had said a word. There was no real way to carry the body out, and so they’d made their peace with him being buried below the ground this way, a warning to the next who came for the phantom mine. The town was silent in the distance, barely visible as the night had drawn over it, but they were within walking distance. It was a relief. A mine promises to be your tomb, and the desert promises to leave nothing but bones.
They’d started walking, but it was only a short while before Violetta grabbed Gabe’s arm and pointed to the horizon. They all saw it and stood reverently. The great skeleton lumbered across the plains, looking taller and taller for having only the sky overhead, and in its chest was that lantern, casting light across the cave studded plain, its long legs walking like a marionette. They all turned away, heading for the safety of town. But the skeleton remained, roving, its empty eyes staring out at the nothing it was offered. Beneath the mines and above them, only darkness greeted it, and if there were a phantom mine, a mystery treasure to unlock or secret cure for the health of the town, it did not know the way. It only traversed, a silent specter of the mines, and it continued its walk until the sun rose over the horizon, fading it away.