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The back 40

The back 40 was beyond the saloon doors but nobody ever went there. The doors had been barred these last dozen years, the bottom opening sealed shut with a rough assortment of stones and mortar. All that remained open was the view over the top and through the spindles. It was tantalizing, a forbidden fruit.

Eight more years and the land would be open again, free to roam or graze or harvest as needs saw fit. But for now, it would rest.

The huxster came to town all those years ago, peddling his snake oil and palm readings. He was the one who warned the town about the saloon, telling them to tear it down but leave the door. He wasn’t clear about the curse he felt rested on it, the hungry ghosts who roamed the space. Were they ghosts of gunfighters who lost their tempers when they lost their poker games? Or maybe the saloon had been planted over Indian graves, not like they were marked. The whole of the west might as well be an Indian burial ground once you thought about it.

Whatever the why, the what was certain – the place couldn’t be used by the living for at least two decades, and that started that day. It was unusual that the town acted so quickly on the medicine peddler’s declaration. Normally they would hem and haw and wait for the circuit rider judge to make his way through and make a decision for them on something so large. But no, they started to tear down the saloon themselves, brick by brick and board by board, the moment he made his declaration. Perhaps he’d finally spoken aloud what they all knew in their hearts. A truth finally let out has a power unequaled.

Now the lone prairie stretched out past the front walls of the saloon, occupied by saguaro and sagebrush. No animals would step hoof or paw on the land for miles around. No fences were needed. They just knew. Animals had more sense than people all along anyway.

And what about after the decades had passed? Then the same man would return, or someone sent by him, to assess the land, to see if it was safe to use. Some hauntings have a half life that is only as long as the number of years they were alive. Some remained as long as there were still people who remembered them. Some never left on their own, their spirits so unsettled and violent that extreme measures were required to evict them. 

The first test to see if the land was clear was to see if animals would walk on it. They couldn’t be led. It had to be voluntary. If the curse still remained an animal with simply turn away from the invisible boundary. It was as if they suddenly became disinterested in whatever they had seen on the other side. It wasn’t forceful or aggressive, this turning. It wasn’t like a wall. But it worked like one regardless, gently keeping out all animal life. Even birds wouldn’t nest in the cactus there. They could fly through, but not touch the ground or anything attached to it. All they could do was fly through on their way to somewhere else.

And perhaps that was part of the haunting – an unsettledness, a homelessness. Perhaps it was possessed by a spirit of dispossession – a gnawing grasping to have and to hold forever, an empty hunger for more and more even after the plate has been emptied and the belly filled. Perhaps that was why a saloon was built on this site in the first place – a sanctuary to the lost souls who searched for spirits in bottles, not knowing the true Spirit could never be contained or controlled.

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