The Card Game
The body swayed in the howling wind as the noose creaked on the gallows’ crossbeam. The distant scurrying of a rat the only sound on the empty square.
Hangman glanced out the window and sighted the dangling body in the pale moonlight. He sighed. He hated the job, but the little ’uns had to eat.
“You gon’ play or not?” Deputy called. A soft moan sounded through the jail.
“He must be wakin’ up,” Deputy murmured and Hangman, shuffling into a chair opposite, shrugged. The town drunk was always waking up in their care.
Deputy shuffled the cards and dealt. Firelight flickered from the wood-burning stove by the wall. Deputy’s keys jingled in the cavernous dark of the jail. They played round after round with only the soft crackling fire for comfort and the occasional moaning for sound. They spoke little; the aftertaste of the hanging lingered, dense and stuffy.
“Very easy to get away with murder in these parts,” Hangman flung coins onto the table.
“Sheriff insisted,” Deputy shrugged and gazed at the window. Sheriff had bent over backwards to pin it on the poor devil swaying in the wind. He shook his head.
“Town bayed for blood, Sheriff gave it to ’em,” Hangman said, “made no difference ole Paddy Corcoran was born wrong, dumb as a box o’ rocks he was. Three families slain in their homes…”
“Dang it!” Deputy threw his cards on the table, “This ain’t right, Paddy never hurt no one. He was innocent as a baby with the mind of a child.”
“Who’s gon’ take care of his Ma? She a cripple an’ all.”
Hangman shrugged. He hoped the dead held no grudge against him. He only did his job; the little ’uns had to eat.
“Who d’you reckon done it?”
“Sheriff.” Hangman whispered the words and an icy draft blew through the jail. The lantern on the table flickered.
“Best keep that to yourself,” Deputy murmured, “can’t prove nothin’.”
Hangman nodded, “an’ he’s Johnson’s brother, they own the town.”
The name slithered out if his mouth in a steam of contempt. The Johnsons owned the mine, the mercantile and the law. Why did they need more? It’s no coincidence the Ruth Farm was the most prosperous, the Millers bred the best horses, and the Cranes owned the saloon. Hangman and Deputy left their certainty unspoken, though, by the glint of their gaze, they agreed. The whole town was now in the hands of the Johnsons.
A faint creak stopped the game. Hangman and Deputy glared into the darkness, cards still pressed to their chest. The lantern flickered, dimmed, died and rekindled with an odd green flame.
“Christ!” Deputy exclaimed and fell off his chair. He faced the doorway, and Hangman, watched the blood drain from Deputy’s face. His spine tingled as he forced himself to turn.
In the doorway stood Paddy Corcoran, tall and chubby, hands folded on his chest as always, yet, instead of dull brown, his eyes blazed with the same eerie green light.
“Well, butter m’butt and call me a biscuit,” Hangman said through gritted teeth.
The dead man, bloated and purple, exploded into a gruesome guffaw. Hangman dared a grin, Paddy always used to laugh at that.
“Wh-what d’you want?” Deputy stammered.
“We couldn’t stop ’im, Paddy,” Hangman said, his voice steady. Paddy wasn’t the first dead to appear to Hangman.
“Who?” Paddy’s voice was hollow, crypt-like.
“Sheriff. Can’t prove it though.” Deputy regained his composure.
Hangman jerked his head towards the cell, “Sleepin’ it off, as always.”
Paddy walked past them, his footfalls silent in death, unlike the heavy stomps he’d trod in life. Hangman and Deputy watched him disappear into the dark jail. Deputy righted his chair and sat.
A terrified scream cut through the darkness, then silence. The lantern flickered and rekindled into the regular yellow flame; the fire in the stove crackled. Hangman and Deputy returned to their card game.
No one cared the sheriff died drunk in the jail cell.