Down the Rocky Mountains flows a meager cut of river—a stream, really—clear, then brown water trickling off jagged peaks. From mountains to canyons, canyons to plains, the Purgatoire River runs for two hundred miles as snowmelt dreams of the sea.

Before reaching that graveyard of rippling water, the Purgatoire’s soul is consumed by the larger Arkansas River. There, at that fateful junction of mud and water, you will find the town of Las Animas, Colorado.

Las Animas—translated from Spanish to English as The Souls—is a town born on rivers. One was named by French trappers for the land of downriver people. The other for the waystation between Heaven and Hell, this one not given but earned when Spanish conquistadors were slain by natives they loathed so dearly. And names, like faces, are fitting, for at that spot where Catholic souls never heard their last rites, a river turned memorial. Among the cottonwoods and buffalo grass, three souls would serve their time.

Javier Pescado left Spain and then Mexico in search of riches. He never found them, dying with gold on his tongue. Waking, he would miss it still. His once handsome corpse scalped and left for buzzards, Javier was reborn to pay his penance in years.

“Bastards,” said Javier to his partner, Juan Miranda, as they quickened on the Bardo. “God will judge them for what they’ve done.”

“And who are you to speak of judgment?” asked Juan, a different man than Javier, who’d left Spain for reasons sweeter than gold. A woman’s love had sent him to the new world; love that was but could never be.

“We didn’t make it through,” he said. “We died, but we didn’t make it to heaven.”

For there on the banks of the River Styx, Juan and Javier looked enviously at their bleeding counterparts who’d passed without them. A pair left lonely until a gag of bloody guts told a tale that not all had died. One remained to make their pair a three.

“Where am I?” asked Pablo Baruve as his spirit lifted from his bloody corpse.

“You’re dead, you fool,” said Javier. “We all are.”

“Is this heaven?” asked Pablo.

“Far from it,” said Juan. “We’re trapped in Purgatoire.”

Not angry, Pablo’s dispirited face exposed him for what he was. Poor, expectant Pablo: bought, not brought, or more aptly, bought then brought. Pablo had been purchased with his family debt, taken as a ship hand, traded as a slave who packed heavy loads across the wasteland of New Spain, who was used as a shield when arrows rained.

“How long will we be here?” asked Pablo.

“I’d like to know where we are at all,” said Javier.

“All I wonder is why it had to be us three?” asked Juan.

Trapped in the vast expanse of the American west, Javier, Juan, and Pablo would wait centuries for answers to emerge as new civilizations far removed from the natives they’d battled sprung up around them like weeds in cracked sediment. For settlers, San Francisco-bound to stake their claims. Bound for Las Animas, named in honor of their tomb.

Javier, Juan, and Pablo.

Here, when wagon trains arrived from Dodge heading west towards Cimarron; when Mennonite pastors and Buffalo soldiers carved their inches, their niches, their names into the sand; when Native Americans were settled onto reservations and then slaughtered; when that couldn’t be, their blood stored down for generations below.

Javier, Juan, and Pablo.

Here, when those first cattle arrived, Texas Longhorns, different sights for these Spaniards of Matador glory, witnesses to this new gold mine raised off grass and grain.

“I had cattle at my ranch in Andalusia,” Javier said at these gauchos, these American cowboys and their silly hats. “These fools have no idea what they’re doing, running them like that. Cattle are like women. They need to be fattened up if they’re to be enjoyed.”

Later on, when barbed wire killed the cowboy, the Spaniards sat witness as modern agriculture made the land all its own. These ghosts, risen from the grave as the rivers kept their course. To watch as rail lines were laid with telegraph and phone. From there to modernization, to a city born around them.

Juan, Pablo, and Javier. There to witness it all.

“Such marvels,” Pablo uttered in a stupor even after seeing it come to be. Purgatoire made them witness, but it did not make them understand—electricity, automobiles, calls made to people thousands of miles away.

“I was born in the wrong century,” said Juan, wandering amidst such life with no one there to notice. “This should have been my world.”

As witnesses to so much, the souls stuck in Purgatoire grew tired of their plight. Three Spaniards were left to wonder what they’d done, and more, what they were left to do. Coursed over hundreds of years, however, only the first of those questions were to be answered.

Rash Javier, killer by sixteen. Alone, he regretted his flaring temper. The sight of life fleeing a rival’s eyes was haunting, always. Yet this same metal that made him a murderer made him a leader in war and might. It took him to Mexico, to battlefields covered with Aztec dead. In search of cities made of gold, it laid him low.

But not alone, not when Juan too failed to make it through. Juan of the ladies, who left behind an ocean of broken hearts. But not just broken; sullied and judged by man. Like Maria, Rosa, and sweet Isabelle, where the real trouble came. A courtship held in secret. Fruit of forbidden flesh. And then, a missed date. Blood that wouldn’t be. That would get Isabelle, after her daughter was ripped from her arms, sent to a convent to spend her days in shame. And Juan, to America, to save him from a father’s blade.

But what of Pablo, who hurt no one? A simple boy, too simple to get out when the getting was good. Staying so long by his father’s side, it bound him into slavery. And then, Mexico, where he could have lost himself in the new land. And yet, he stayed. What sin laid poor Pablo low? Sin, it seems, comes in many colors. Some terrible, some subtle, some not even sinful at all. Like inaction, lukewarm swill that doesn’t make it down.

So what then for the doomed explorers bound to a land not their own? After prayers and praises didn’t open heaven’s gate. After cursing God a dirty cur didn’t send them on to hell. What pursuits did those immortals take? How did they make their lives?

Slow going it was, this search for the core. Yet, when Juan, Pablo, and Javier selected to invest in that place where they’d spend eternity should paradise never take them in, only then did time begin to fade.

For Javier, it was the field, the track, the diamond. Warriors change, but the conflict of man versus man remains. Women can wait, for when the chance for victory exists to validate your soul, there is no better place to be. The sporting teams of the Las Animas Trojans became Javier’s passion, his project, his purpose for being.

“You refs are killing me,” he would scream. From football to basketball, wrestling to golf. Sports teams formed on weeded fields only mowed for game days until the building of the stadium; modest in this town of two thousand, but still a place to cheer. Men’s and women’s games. If they were at home, Javier never missed a match.

And Pablo, sweet Pablo. Dead hands could not touch the physical realm, but each man tested the limits of their constraints over centuries of time. Loopholes would be found, and for Pablo, his discovery would come early on.

In flowers, gardens, the fruits of the earth, It was only by accident, walking past a field of wild onions, that Pablo discovered his purpose. Longing for food, for life, for those things stolen from the condemned, it was by chance that he bent down and reached out with hollow fingers, longing to feel the flowers between his palms.

But then, something happened. At the hint of Pablo’s spirit, the plant bloomed, revealing that even in Purgatoire, he could reach some things. Germination, the miracle of things that grow. Pablo couldn’t farm, but he could aid in bringing life to a dusty land.

And heartbroken Juan, Who’d lost a daughter and a love, and whose eyes did wander still. He’d watched rough-hewn pioneer women and sad Abuelitas and desperate squaws trading legacy for cloth and coin. Women of no refinement insulted his peacock flair, but as technology brought with it miraculous inventions, so too did it change the women crop of Las Animas.

From poker madams and perfumed dolls sold to horny cowpokes to the flappers still to come. Juan got lost in that sin which did him in; he became found in the ways of women, in watching when no one knew he was there.

Juan gave them their private moments, but when a woman sat in the grass and listened to the wind, when she combed her hair in the candlelight-mirrored reflection, when she slept, her breath so soft and sweet it was nearly enough to bring him back. It was then that Juan watched and marveled. It was then he wished he wasn’t dead.

Five hundred years; so much change, yet the song remained the same. No soothing water for the soul, no word from above to give condemnation or approval for what these souls did, no way of knowing if even maybe, this was hell they’d come to know.

“What will it be like in ten thousand years?” asked Javier.

“What if the people leave?” asked Juan. “I can’t handle talking to antelope again.”

“I do sometimes miss the silence,” said Pablo, “But I know what you mean.”

No voice answered these waiters. Yet what these ghosts didn’t know was how the impact of their spirits, even after their own life was long since drained, had left them with a role to play.

Javier, Juan, and Pablo would learn the living still sometimes need the dead; like on the wrestling mat.

Javier loved team sports, but it was one-on-one combat that took him back to boyhood. From the emergence of the program, through years good and bad, Javier monitored the wrestlers like he would his own horse stable. Speaking to them as they ran laps alongside the mat, Shouting and cursing as they fought, Rubbing their shoulders when they won, but sensing from them a need most at their defeat.

There were the winners like Ron Williams, two-time state champion born from fighting stock and trained at home in battle with his father. There were losers, like Santana Reyes, two times to state, two times sent home. Hard luck cases wore upon Javier the most, those he invested in and rooted for and watched fail with nothing to show. He was there for them, yet he could never say if they knew.

Beyond the wrestling mat, the women of Juan’s life would know the touch of a guardian even more. Not a random calling, but instead a lineage, a line of one man to a woman, her family, and her descendants born from strife.

From Maria, where it started. Brought north from Mexico by wagon train, but born of older roots. Like Juan, she too had been uprooted from Spain, her royal pedigree apparent in every way but wealth. Married was the word used;. Sold was more fitting. Maria would bear this cost with grace as she sailed a sea of water and land to Las Animas where she would live as the wife of a wealthy rancher, bearing him six children and never knowing what true love was.

Oh, sweet Maria. Even roses wither in time. From Maria came Apollonia, the royalty watered down but the beauty enduring. But the strength of the mother did not follow. This daughter, born to modern times, married worse than her predecessor, to a drunk who found booze even when prohibition shut city stalls. He beat her and gave her nothing but pregnancy, squandering the land he’d inherited.

Then, from Apollonia came Michelle. Michelle at least had the sense to try and get out, but although her sojourn took her away from Las Animas when she went off to college, she came back as a teacher with the mission of helping other young women avoid her mother’s fate. Juan’s heart nearly broke when she returned. Nearly, if it hadn’t burst with so much love.

Michelle served so many children in her classroom that eventually, it made sense she would want one of her own. Peter wasn’t a bad man, yet Juan still felt slighted, for never would he realize the angel he had married. Never would he know that his wife was born from royalty, her love the most precious gift he’d ever receive.

Juan loved them all. Mother to daughter over and over again. His curse, and his blessing, until whatever the day the Lord would call him home. But it wouldn’t be as expected, not close to how the ghosts believed that their salvation would be.

“There must be some seminal moment,” said Javier, convinced it’d be a fight to send them home. “I must help make the key play in a game, or perhaps save someone from injury. It must be something important that he’s saving me for. What else is there!”

“I agree,” said Juan. “I’ve been bound to this family, to these women. I can help them get out, restore their glory and their family name. That must be my purpose.”

“I’m jealous you two are so certain,” said Pablo, “As for me, I can’t imagine what my moment might be.”

For truly, what is the summit for a farmer, a coach, a lover? Each of the ghosts believed their salvation would be grand, but even in five hundred years, they hadn’t learned how things worked. The rules of the soul were not bound by logic but by forces greater than could be understood. Sometimes, it was the little moments that changed a fortune. Sometimes, it was those actions you never noticed at all.

It started with Javier on a day not so different from any other. Football season had come and gone, a meager crop, only two wins, and neither of them at home where Javier could witness. Girls’ volleyball had fared better, but not by much.

Wrestling season was just getting started. Some of the boys from the year before had returned. Others had graduated or turned to different pursuits. Coach was busy squaring partners off against one another, so it made sense that he didn’t notice the skinny boy, the straggler standing off in the corner all alone.

Javier didn’t know this boy either, but he knew in him a longing, A desire to become a part of something bigger than himself. A desire to find somewhere to belong.

Yet like all great journeys, one must take a step to make it anywhere at all. And it was this that drove Javier to the boy, nudging him, telling him to try.

Javier would never know if the boy heard him, but the boy did step forward, a child without a home, born to poverty, who would find on the mat everything he ever sought; belonging, and, the glory of three state championships and a college scholarship that would save him from his shitty trailer.

So many would see, but not Javier, for after that first step, after the boy took the mat and surprised everyone, himself included, Javier’s last thought would be of the idea that maybe he’d found something, that maybe he’d help train another winner. He didn’t, but that wouldn’t matter, for whatever his nudge had done, whatever his words had carried, that action ascended Javier from the wrestling room to face his day.

Juan, too, would pass in ways uninspiring. Not with triumph, but with the penance and patience the living take for granted, that which the dead are forced to repeat over and over until they find themselves in paradise, hardly believing that was all it took.

Like a word on the side of the river Purgatoire, when Michelle’s daughter Anna, named for Tolstoy’s doomed love, found herself crying on the bank. Just fourteen, but tall and strong, Anna stood out like a rose in the concrete. As such, she’d been picked on, torn down, made to feel low and ugly.

“Someday,” she said, picking up a rock before heaving it at the murky waters. “Someday, I’ll get out of here. Someday, I’ll find someone like me.”

“You will,” said Juan, his love born from the husband and father he never got to be. “Your line has been cursed, dear Anna, but you will make it. And leaving, you will leave me here for eternity content in the knowledge that I got to see you go.”

A cloud moved overhead. Sunlight dried a tear, changed a mood, and brought light to a new situation. Anna threw one more rock and then one more still, but she had no need for a fourth. Those girls were mean because they saw in her a hope, and Anna knew that hope could not give in like this.

For it was the hope of her mother and her mother’s mother and her mother’s mother before, the hope from the man who loved them as he labored in Purgatoire’s mire, that carried Anna back into town, just as it carried Juan away, gone in the very breeze he brought down, in his release of love for the sake of the thing he loved all along.

In letting go, he was released. In saying goodbye, he paid his due.

Yet as for Pablo, it took time to realize he was alone. He and Juan had come to accept that Javier had moved on when he didn’t return from practice, but after that, Juan and Pablo kept greater circles of distance between them. It took almost one whole year before Pablo accepted that he alone was left to serve his time.

For one year more, and then one after that. In five hundred years, the Spaniards hadn’t grown close like brothers, more like symbiotes, the trees and ferns and birds in higher boughs. They served each other’s purpose, but there was some love. A void now empty with two brothers gone for good.

The seasons ran together. A late-set spring. A dusty summer. An autumn bringing cold and ceaseless wind. Winter, dry, beginning the cycle anew.

Pablo had known drought, but he had also known how the blessing of his hand brought beauty to the prairie. The way rain livened the sandy soil, green shoots rising, yucca opening to meet the sun. Rocks held rainwater pools so clear it was as if they knew no bottom.

Farmland under that great true blue, turned by mule and then tractor, corn brought up in rows. Alfalfa, melons, onions, beans. Pablo had marveled at the fruit of this labor, but he had done more in turn. His gift, his passion, his penance tied to the soil, the buds, the life he brought to plants.

Until he didn’t. Until it seemed despair would do him in.

Dry, dusty drought settled on the land. Pablo witnessed it alone, all the while losing his passion. Pablo had given up hope that hope could set him free, and doing so, brought disease down on the land.

So convinced he would never make it, so saddened to serve his term alone, one day, Pablo ceased his wandering, laying down in a field of cantaloupe. Not a fleck of dust moved as he sank his roots, yet unbeknownst to Pablo, not all movement belonged to the physical realm.

“I’ll be damned,” said Greg Williams, farmer of Pablo’s field. “Honey, come see. It looks like the cantaloupe is finally going to sprout.”

Greg would show his field to seven people that day, how from the center, tapering off away, plants had come to life. But the miracle wouldn’t stay to just the field. Growth, counter to nature, brought rain, and rain brought with it blossoming fields far from Pablo’s corpse. Soon, the dried-out valley cut through by the Purgatoire River came alive in a way not seen in years.

“Bountiful Harvest,” read the newspapers.

“Wherever it’s coming from, we’re not complaining,” the farmers chimed.

Droughts would come again, for they always do. But that field where Pablo laid down and was swallowed by the earthworms would always grow, like there was something buried beneath the furrowed rows. Between Colorado soil where once a body breathed. Where now, nothing but a blessing remained. A blessing, and fields of heart and spirit as far as the eye could see.

NICHOLAS MACDONNELL is a writer and teacher living in Kansas. His work has been featured in Sandstorm, You Might Need to Hear This, Literary Orphans, and Sixfold Magazine and elsewhere. He's currently working on his fifth novel.