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Paul E. Gibson lives in Modesto, CA. His fiction has appeared in Aphelion and Planet Magazine.


Dark Planet is designed and edited by Lucy A. Snyder. If you spot any errors, or if you have any comments, please contact her at lusnyde@cyberus.ca.

All materials copyright 1996-2001 by their respective creators. No stories, articles, poems or images from this webzine may be posted or published without the written consent of their creator(s).

At the Strike it Rich

by Paul E. Gibson


I hear it was drawing to an inside straight that killed Roscoe Hugens.
I can't really say one way or the other, even though I was in the Strike It Rich that night. I was there most every night. Drunk most every night. My Daddy died when I was thirteen, left me a big cattle ranch, but I'm no rancher. Doc says I've been drinking that hundred head almost ever since. The truth is I'm just waiting for my luck to change.
Tidewater's just a piss-break on the way to Stockton. You grow up in a town like this, where everybody knows everybody and pretty much nobody likes nobody, and you kind of get a sense of how everyone's going to end up. You see the way the people behave, the way they treat each other, the way they treat themselves, more importantly, and you can kind of plot the trend as Miss Largent might say. Everybody knew that Sheriff Bonestell'd hire on to some big outfit and ride out; he was always a little too big for Tidewater. I could have told you years ago that Stan Koslowsky would get mixed up with those Watney boys and no good would come of it. And everyone knew that Roscoe would end up dead from cheating at cards.
That night I had just sold off two more head, so I was pretty flush, but things were looking bleak. I was down to nine more left and those pretty straggly. The day was going to come soon when I was going to have to decide what I was going to do with my life. I know some of the people thought that they could see where I would end up, but I was still looking for my luck to change. I was born ugly, and with this goddamned lame leg, and Momma died birthing me, then Daddy goes and gets himself gored by that bull and then gets sick from it. One way or another, things couldn't stay that bad.
So I was drinking, trying real hard not to think about my future, and trying not to make eye contact with Yvonne, because I was not going to pay her to sleep with me again. She's no great looker, but it would be alright, except she's so cold and insulting. I know I've got a face like a horse, but Jesus, life is tough enough without jokes about the size of my manhood. I mean, I've heard her stories about life in Grand London, and the balls and all, but I bet even there she's just a dollar a night whore. Except their money's different.
Different people come through Tidewater, mostly cattle people, some folks moving north, occasionally some hard men who thought Stockton was closer than it is and don't want to make the rest of the trip in the dark. The only thing to do in the town, unless you are a church-goer, is have a drink at the Strike It Rich. And maybe listen to Doc on the piano, or spend some time with Yvonne, or play some cards with Roscoe.
Roscoe was kind of a jack-of-all-trades. He ran the smithy, did the leatherwork, real good with his hands. He built Sonny McKenzie's new store and took the wood from the old one and made the laundry. Why he stuck around Tidewater didn't make much sense, but he was kind of a big fish in a small pond, I guess. And he made a little money from screwing people at the poker table.
Roscoe was a hell of a good card player, you ask me. He knew every game you ever heard of, and some I'm sure he made up himself. He knew all kinds of different technical terms, when the bug was an ace and when it wasn't, why you should hold on to a pair and not keep the high card in draw, all the mechanics that it takes to win. But he cheated anyway. I heard him defend himself many times, after some poor sucker had been cleaned out by him and left with his head down.
"Poker is a game of random events. A skilled player makes the moves that maximize his chances of winning, but the random element is unescapable. It would not be fair for a card player of the first rank, such as myself, to lose to an amateur like that dirty cow chaser that just left, but in Poker it could happen. Now if he had the time and the money for us to play a series of games, where the element of luck could even out, then I would handle things differently. He is simply here for the night, however, and we will likely never see him again." Roscoe would light up one of those expensive cigars that he always saved until the end of a game. "I am only taking what is due me."
I would watch from the bar sometimes just to try to spot his little trick, but I only saw the switch two or three times, and maybe then it was the whiskey making me think I could see it. The trick was, Roscoe always made a point of opening a new deck for the game. But he always bought the same cards, so he had another deck with the same look. He would order a drink a few hands into the game, and Lars, the barkeep would bring a napkin with it, and folded in it were the cards from the other deck that he wanted.
I figured the real tough part was putting the cards in for one hand then pulling them back out so there were never five queens on the table, for instance. I saw it happen once, where five tens were staring out after the showdown. But Roscoe sometimes used old Willie as a foil, paying for his drinks for the night to sit in against a particularly tasty mark, and Willie kind of just covered up his second ten of spades and the sucker never caught it. Funny Roscoe never offered to pay my tab for the night.
That night the marks were two weathered men from Oklahoma on their way to Stockton on unstated business. The younger one, Lew, he was a pretty typical cowboy with that creaky walk and squinty look. The other one, Ted, you could tell right away that he was no fool. He had a shiny leather vest and a pressed shirt, clean-shaven, but that was were the niceties ended. He was big, as tall as Lars, but broader in the shoulders and without the paunch. And he was all business, with the kind of stare that would cause a smart man to walk away from any disagreement. Not like those so-called gunfighters with their phony swagger and permanent sneer. He wore a black leather rig and a big Colt hanging out of it, and not just for show, I figured.
It had been raining all day and Roscoe and Doc and I had been holed up in the Strike It Rich since early. Doc and I had played some darts and watched the folks pass through, all bundled up and soaked to the skin. Everyone in a hurry to get to Stockton and a fresh bed. The horses with their heads down, making their methodical way through the storm. I saw a girl on the back of a wagon, not much younger than me, blond, with a weary expression on her perfect face. She gave me a glance of indifference then pulled her hood over her head. Story of my life.
Late in the afternoon the two men arrived. They checked in at Charlie's across the way. The rain was unrelenting, wave after wave cascading against the roof, down the awning. They took their time coming over to the bar. I think Ted, he actually ironed his shirt before coming over. As though there were anyone here to impress.
When they came, they were pretty quiet, which is fairly rare. Most of the cowboy types, they start whooping it up right away, and Kettleman, the interim sherrif, has to come around with his Winchester to quiet things. These two just ordered some drinks and talked at the bar. Roscoe had seen them pull in, so old Willie was sitting with him and they were laconically going through the paces, pretending that Willie was taking Roscoe's money.
The tall one, Ted, called Lars over. "Tell me about this game," he said, barely loud enough that I could hear him above Doc's piano. His voice was suprisingly smooth and measured, like he was used to talking to people.
Lars shrugged. "What you want to know? Friendly game. Long as you drink there is no charge." Lars had fielded this question a hundred times. These cowboys probably didn't have much on them, but you could never be sure.
The cowboy nodded. "Is the game rigged?"
He said it soft, and Roscoe couldn't have heard him. But there was a quiet moment in the bar. Doc had reached the end of his tune, or had otherwise run out of steam. Just one of those natural lulls, but it fell right as the cowboy hung the question out there. It stayed there for a moment, suspended between them like a shared memory or a promise. Or a threat.
Then Lars kind of twitched in what was meant to be another shrug. "Never had no complaints," he said. His voice was oddly shrill.
Ted continued to stare at him a moment, then he walked over to the card table, his spurs jangling. "What are the stakes?"
Roscoe hardly looked up from his shuffling, as though it took all of his concentration. "Just friendly," he said. "Nickle-ante."
Ted scratched his jaw. "Limits?"
Roscoe looked up for the first time. I've known Roscoe just about all my life. I could read the cold greed in his face because I have seen it nightly for years. But there was another look, especially in his eyes. I had seen that only rarely. It was part suspicion, but mostly it was fear. "Only if you want," he said weakly.
Ted pulled up a chair, and Lew came over to join him. "Nope."
Then the game began. I watched for a little while, waiting for Roscoe to order his drink so Lars could bring the extra cards. I guess I thought this Ted might spot the switch and do something about it. Probably I was waiting for Roscoe to finally go too far, but I am sure that I didn't really expect it. But as the game went on I grew bored and drunk, and was not looking Yvonne's way, not so that she could see, anyway. She was hanging around the game, probably hoping to spend the night with one of these toughs. They weren't paying her much attention, though.
So some time had passed before I realized that Lars had been behind the bar ever since the game had started. Roscoe had never ordered his drink. Lars had a big mirror back there, but some cowboys broke it up a few months ago, and it had never been replaced. I turned in my stool to see what was going on.
Yvonne was blocking my view, but I could see Willie and Lew okay, and both of them looked down quite a few chips. I figured maybe Roscoe was playing it straight for once. Using his talent to win rather than relying on his crutch. Then Yvonne moved and I could see Roscoe clearly. His stack of chips was almost completely gone. I could not believe what I was seeing. They had been playing for maybe an hour and the great "Card Professional" was almost out! I picked up my drink and walked over.
Only Roscoe and Ted were still in the hand, and a pot roughly the size of Roscoe's remaining chips was piled between them. Five card stud. The stranger had a pair of sevens and a jack showing. Roscoe had three spades up. The last down card had been dealt. Ted's still sat on the table, mocking Roscoe. I don't even need to look to beat you, it was saying. He simply held his first hole card cavalierly in his left hand, a cigar smouldering in his right. Waiting for Roscoe.
Roscoe glanced nervously at his two cards, then at the three on the table. "Ahh. Decision time, I see." He turned his attention to his opponent for a moment. "A drink first, perhaps?"
"You buying?" Ted said. There was a slight hint of a smile.
Roscoe turned all red and blustery. "Why you are the one --" he blurted, then caught himself. "Why not, indeed. Lars, whiskeys, please." His whole attitude seemed changed. He warmed to his role, making distracting chitchat about the weather and the accomodations at Charlie's, while Lars poured their drinks and made everything ready. Then the drinks arrived, with a napkin for each man.
"A toast," Roscoe began, "to skill and luck. A man should never sit down at the table without both on his side." Both men drank. Then Roscoe slammed his glass down and without further hesistation pushed the majority of his remaining chips into the center of the table. Call.
The stranger finished his shot. Then he tossed his card onto the table face up. "Triples. Sevens." He drew on his cigar and its great stench came my way. He looked serenely at Roscoe.
Roscoe wears a full beard, neatly trimmed. It did not hide the hard work his jaw muscles were doing. Then he tossed his cards on the table. Only then did I realize that the spades showing were the jack, nine and seven. "Straight. Afraid I got you that time," he said, with no note of pleasure in his voice.
Roscoe seems especially fond of straights and full houses when he is working his "magic." And they usually, as in this case, involve the ten of spades. That is obviously one of the cards that he keeps in his holdout pile. Whether that eight of diamonds was originally dealt him or came via Lars, only the two of them knew.
"Care to raise the stakes?" Roscoe said, pulling the pot to him. Lew reached over and flipped over Ted's unrevealed card.
I admit I was drunk. I had been drinking since early and everything was a little unfocused. And my memory after nights like that is never the best. But I don't care how sober a man is, no one could have taken in all of the events that occurred almost simultaneously and come away with a complete picture. It was only afterwards, once Lars and Yvonne and Doc and I could compare notes that we had any real understanding of the events, and even then there were contradictions.
I think what happened was Lew flipped over the card. Willie reached for it as Lew was nudging Ted to take notice. Roscoe, oblivious, and uncharacteristically reaching for an early cigar may have forced Ted's hand. Or maybe Ted would have done it anyway. The stranger jumped to his feet, bumping the table, chips crashing everywhere, knocking old Wille off-balance. Then he pulled his revolver and with a reverberating roar of pure terror blew a significant portion of Roscoe's head off. Roscoe fell over backwards then rolled onto his side, cards spilling out of his red napkin, his unlit cigar lolling out of his mouth. Willie passed out cold, Ted's unplayed card in his hand. The ten of spades.
That's about how it went, I guess. As near as I can figure. A sudden, if not unexpected end to a life. But Roscoe was always kind of a big shot, always kind of a prima donna. I was too shaken by that night's events to have considered it, but I should have known that Roscoe Hugens would not go so quietly.
There had been a little scene after the shooting, with Lars and Doc wanting that Ted hanged. Kettleman saw the extra cards spilled all over Roscoe, though, and pronounced it justified homicide. "Reckon he had it comin'," he said.
Doc and Kettleman dragged Roscoe away to the cold cellar under the bar. The two strangers took their winnings and retired to Charlie's. I was rattled and walked home hours earlier than normal. Left Yvonne in mid-sentence.
The walk in the rain sobered me some. I cleaned up a bit when I got home, then collapsed in my bed. I'm far too tall for it now, and it is just plain silly for a grown man to be sleeping in a boy's bed, but I have never quite found the time to replace it. And I will never sleep in Daddy's bed.
Despite the wild events of the night, I was asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.
I was awakened by a sound in my empty house. It was pitch dark, God only knew how long I had slept. I was still partly drunk and mostly asleep. I did not move, just remained in the exact position that I awoke from, eyes open and unseeing.
The sound was a voice from the dark. "Jamieee, Jamieeee..." came my name. Then a softly glowing figure entered my bedroom. I was frozen in place, unable even to speak. The figure was not walking, its legs weren't moving, but it was shimmering towards me. It was Roscoe, head intact, glowing, floating and transparent.
I passed out.
When I came to, there was a hint of sun through the blinds. Birds were chirping. Roscoe was still there, floating around the room in circles. "Ah, awake at last." It was Roscoe's voice, but without the deep resonant quality that makes his such a distinctive baritone. The words were more drawn out, almost like he and I were moving at different speeds.
I said nothing. I did not even attempt to form an idea of what I might say to Roscoe's ghost.
"Jamie. I need you, dear boy. I have gotten myself into a dreadful predicament." The figure had stopped whirling around and was standing at the side of my bed. The chair that I keep there to pile my belt and wallet and sundries was protruding from his ass. He was speaking in my direction, but he did not seem to have a real good read on where exactly I was. I have seen blind men do that, where they keep talking while listening for clues about your exact location, continually trying to determine your postion through their other senses. I began to wonder if I could see him better than he could me.
"That cowboy, he had every right to do what he did. Well, perhaps he may have over-reacted a tad. But, I admit that without an external activator, I would have remained mired in a state of moral and ethical bankruptcy. I have learned, believe me, Son. I have been shown the error of my ways." As always Roscoe was going on, using language that made no sense to anyone, probably including himself.
He certainly did not seem especially threatening, although creepy at best. Why the hell should he haunt me? That Ted was still at Charlie's. And whoever heard of a ghost showing up the same night they died? Wasn't there some requisite cooling off period?
"I have had some discussions with some experts. They showed me how my behavior was really a reaction to my insecurities and fears of being revealed for a fraud. So, essentially it was my low self-esteem at the root, which caused this whole cycle of false bragadoccio and a perceived need on my part to appear important in others eyes so they would not look too closely and see the true Roscoe revealed as a failure." There was more like that, but that is all that I can remember. While he talked he would tend to float off the ground, then seemingly catch himself and descend back to the floor only to slowly rise again seconds later.
While he talked I inched my hand toward the chair and my wallet. When it passed through his red silk vest and bulging stomach there was the slightest suggestion of a cold tingle. Could have been my hand was asleep. I snatched up my wallet and clutched it to myself. Ghost or no ghost, I did not want Roscoe Hugens between me and my money.
"You needn't worry, boy," he said. "I won't take your money. Couldn't if I wanted to, actually. Which brings me here." Finally.
"I've always treated you okay, right? Bought you drinks from time to time? Helped you find buyers for your cattle? Now you can finally give back a little. What I need is so simple that you can do it right now. Before noon."
"Bought me drinks?" I was half-surprised to find my voice, but so ridiculous a statement demands a response. "You bought me drinks like Yvonne just loves me for my looks. You bought a drink for the house one time when you were shamed into it by one of your marks, then you made me loan you a horse for a week to make up for it. I could sooner strike gold than squeeze a drink out of you!"
Roscoe's shape was not so distinct that I could read its expression, but it was unmistakeable in his voice, even with its muffled, slowed-down quality. "Well. I would not go that far. But I can see that perhaps I have not dealt with you in the most considerate fashion. But I need a favor, Jamie. I want my life back, and you can do it for me. Please. I have until noon. Can't you help an old dog who has finally learned a new trick. I am a new man, Jamie. Give me a second chance." I can't say which was more pathetic, the tone of his voice or the insincerity of the words. He said it again, seeing me weaken. "I am a new man, Jamie."
I leaned my head back until it banged against the headboard. That still failed to knock any sense in. "What do I have to do?"
The words were out of synch with his mouth, but the emotion in them, and in the face were as clear as any living person's. "Thanks, Jamie. You won't regret it. I need you to go to my room and fetch something for me."
Roscoe explained that he had some sort of fetish or charm in a box hidden in a loose wallboard. And that it had magical properties. He wanted me to fetch it so it could then be used to bring him back to life. I asked him where the thing had come from.
"You know my family, Jamie. Where their money came from. Slaving. The Hugens were slavers in the Old Country and just naturally moved over here and continued their trade.
"Those Africans, they're a superstitious lot. They had their own gods, Jamie. Dark gods with dark priests. And dark magic to be done in the full moonlight, with animal blood all scattered around. I've heard tales, Jamie that would turn your hair white. And not just talk, son. They could never catch those priests, mostly. Because they had magic on their side. But my grandfather got the item that we are discussing off of one of his captives. Said that the priest had given it to the poor bastard for safekeeping, but the captive had been too afraid to use it. He had offered it in exchange for freedom.
"Go to my room at Charlie's, Jamie, and bring me the box. When you have it here, I will just need you to do one thing for me. Then I will be alive. And in your debt.
"Now go. We mustn't waste time."
I cursed myself while I pulled my pants and boots on, Roscoe hovering near me, pressuring me. Finally I limped out the door, as much to get away from him as to hurry onto my task.
The town was mostly still asleep. The rain had let up, but the going was pretty muddy. Only a few lamps were lit, and I had brought none with me. To be safe, I stuck to the street. Many's the drunken night that I have wrenched my ankle in the dark on some loose board in front of a store.
In the darkness, here and there I could just see Roscoe. Or at least I thought I saw him, keeping pace, glowing softly.
Leo, who delivers fresh-baked bread for sale in Stockton was loading up his wagon. He didn't seem to notice as I sloshed past. The light was on in the Sheriff's office, though I doubt there was anyone awake inside.
I walked past Roscoe's shop, the intricate wooden sign, a veined, powerful hand carving a wooden dowel creaking into and out of the light from the jail, disturbed by the wind. Though there wasn't much wind to speak of.
Finally I reached Charlie's. Three story, white with green trim along the corners and around the windows. The stairs coated with mud, the rose bushes on either side of the door brown and dying, though the rain might perk them up. Light came down from a window on the second floor, otherwise dark except the lamp over the door.
I limped up the stairs. The door opened with a creak. Inside, darkness. The flickering yellow light from the porch illuminated the first twenty feet or so.
Tidewater is a small town. I know Charlie's well enough to navigate in the dark. But I took it slow and cautious anyway. I didn't want to alert anyone who might think that I was stealing from Roscoe. No, his ghost said it was alright for me to take this. Honest.
I had made my way through the dining room to the staircase when it ocurred to me that I did not have a key for Roscoe's room. No reason to think that it was not locked. I hesitated on the stair, cursing myself for a damned fool. What was I supposed to do now?
Great. What now? In the dark, the green figure of Roscoe's ghost was easy to make out. He had an expectant look.
"I got no goddamn' key," I whispered.
Disgusted look. "Son, you know I always have a spare."
"Like the spare ten of spades?"
He moved towards me and I froze. Was he going to hurt me? Could he hurt me? But he flew on by, up the stairs. His legs were moving, but completely out of synch with the steps. In fact his feet were six inches above them as he ascended to the second floor. I caught my breath then followed.
On the second floor there was light coming out from under one of the doors. The lamp that I had seen from the street. It provided enought illumination to reveal the uneven surfaces in the hallway: doorjambs and knobs, framed paintings, wainscoating. And at the end of the hallway, a window looking out onto the street. Roscoe's ghost stood here, pointing through the glass.
As I passed the source of the light, I could hear muffled voices inside. The cowboys. They were already stirring. Or still awake. I didn't care to surprise them. I hurried past.
"Out on the ledge," the ghost's thin voice came, "there is a fern. Inside the planter are my other keys."
I looked out the window. I saw no fern. I did see a nice drop of about fifteen feet, waiting for a gimpy drunk to stagger out onto a nine inch ledge. "Uh uh. Nothing was said about this. I'm not so good at heights, Roscoe." I was trying to keep my voice low, but it wanted to go high.
The ghost shook his head for a moment. A typical Roscoe mannerism. Through his head I could just make out the dimmest ouline of the painting behind him. A silvery waterfall. "Look again. You should be able to reach it without stepping onto the ledge." For a voice so lacking in resonance, he sure managed to pack a lot of icy disdain into those two sentences.
I looked again. To the left I could now see the planter. It didn't look too far. I raised the window, but after a few inches it stopped. Stuck. I wrestled with it briefly, then realized that was as far as it was going to open. I stuck my left arm out. Light drizzle adhered to the hair on my arm. Too far. I knelt down to get more of my shoulder out the window. My fingertips brushed the terra cotta. The planter wobbled noisily in its base. I stretched. A sharp pain stabbed my neck and worsened as I continued to stretch. Finally, my fingers grasped the rim of the pot. I pulled it in.
"That's not my planter," the ghost said. For a moment I just stood there, the pain in my shoulder throbbing. Then formerly-Roscoe smiled. "Kidding, son. A joke."
I cursed under my breath. I lifted the planter off the base, and sure enough, a brass key gleamed there. I took it, then put the pot and base on the floor under the window. I followed the ghost to Rosco's door. As I fumbled with the lock, there was the sudden creak of a door behind me, and light filled the hallway.
"What goes on?" It was Lew. He was in his undershirt, stained yellow from washing, but otherwise dressed as I had last seem him, hours ago, leaving the Strike it Rich. A small-seeming revolver was tucked into his belt.
I stuttered incoherently for a moment. Behind him, Ted sat on a nightstand, one leg on a bed, fully dressed, displaying academic interest. "Uh, I am just picking up some things, sir. Didn't mean to disturb. I'll just be in and out real quick." Even to me the words were unconvincing.
"That your room?"
What to say? "No, sir. It, uh, belongs to a friend."
Ted broke in. "That cheat was your friend?" There was an animal-like intensity about the man that would make you nervous even if you had never seen him part a man's hair with lead. At close range.
"Not really, no. But he, uh, he borrowed something of mine, and I wanted to get it -- "
"Before the relatives stake a claim," Lew chimed in. "Seems like this card cheat must have borrowed something from everyone in town, eh, Ted?" Ted just laughed.
Lew glared down at me. I felt for a second like a moth pinned to a corkboard. I flinched as if from a blow. "You do your business," he instructed, "then you get out of here. Quietly. Ted and I got no rest last night because of you townies and all of your loaning out." He stepped back into his room and slammed the door. For a moment I had a clear glimpse of a Winchester laid out on the bed near Ted's foot.
For another few seconds I stood at the door, my heart pounding uncontrollably in my ears, the key shaking in my hand. Then it occurred to me that they had not seen Roscoe. I had not seen Roscoe. He had disappeared the instant their door had opened. Was Roscoe still afraid of these guys? Shouldn't he be haunting them? Where was the justice? I opened Roscoe's door.
Inside, Roscoe's normally immaculate room was a disaster. Someone or multiple someones had turned out every drawer, cleaned out the closet, emptied the trash can, and spread their contents on the floor in a pile two inches thick. Clothes, papers, and trash all intermingled to form the world's ugliest carpet. The bed was over-turned, paintings had been pried out of frames, books had had their covers cut open. There was not an undisturbed inch in the room. And in the corner, his feet disappearing through the floor, Roscoe's ghost sobbed.
"Those bastards," he was moaning. "They couldn't wait for my body to get cold. They had to clean me out before the sun rose. I'll get them. That fat bastard Doc. And Willie. And that Swedish son-of-a-bitch. I'll get them."
I sort of shuffled around the room, taking in the grandeur and thoroughness of the destruction. It was total. The bed had been cut open and most of its stuffing pulled out. In places the wallpaper had even been peeled away. They had been looking for Roscoe's stash. All of the money he had been taking off the marks for years. They had hoped to find it here. Didn't look like they 'd had any success. Though they had done one hell of a job at demolishing a hotel room.
"Guess we are too late, huh? Probably your fetish-thing is gone too?" Hoping. Maybe I could just walk away, write this whole incident off as a bad combination of alcohol and shock. How else do you explain a ghost, hell, anybody asking me for help?
Still speaking ill of the perpetrators, Roscoe just shook his head and pointed at a dark wooden box on its side near my foot. It was ebony, I guess, really dark and shiny. It had a brass lock and hinges, but it had been popped open with a bar or knife. Inside it was lined in red felt. And still inside was the object.
It looked like a twig with three shoots coming off the main branch. It was about six inches long and bright green. Red and black ribbons of crudely-dyed cotton had been tied around it at several seemingly random junctures. A tiny ivory ringlet encircled the base, and what I took to be a single digit from a bird's claw had been fitted onto the tip. It looked like bad news a hundred yards off. I was careful not to touch it.
"That's your miracle? Hope you didn't pay too much for it." I was trying to make light, but I had little doubt that frightening little object had real power.
"Weren't you listening, Jamie? It came from a black priest. Black in more ways than one. It can bring me back. I just need you to use it for me. Just pick it up and wish me back."
"I ain't picking that up. The deal did not include me touching anything like that. That thing is evil. I can tell."
The ghost floated right up to me. It was hard to focus on his face when I could see the pisspot through his skull. "Jamie. It's all in the way that you use it. There is no good or evil, only right and wrong. And bringing me back would be right." His voice seemed even weaker than before. And he seemed even more indistinct. There was a faint hint of sunlight through the tattered curtains.
"Yeah? If it's so great why didn't you ever use it? Roscoe Hugens pass up a chance at a freebie? Why didn't you ever wish yourself rich, huh? Or famous? Or good enough that you didn't have to cheat at cards?"
I thought my words would sting him, had calculated them to hit close to the ghostly bone, but instead of being insulted, he seemed to take the words to heart. For a moment he just bobbed there, lost in introspection. "I did use it, Jamie. And I misused it. Eventually I lost everything that I had ever gained from it. And more."
"Then it's all used up."
"No, Jamie. Every man gets three wishes with it. I used my allotment. But you still have your full complement. Not that you will need them all," he rushed to add. "Just pick it up and think to yourself about bringing me back. Then you can just drop it and you will have earned my unflagging gratitude. Just pick it up Jamie."
"Roscoe, this isn't right. You can't go around using black magic and bringing people back from the dead. What would Miss Largent think? This isn't right."
The ghost sighed. "We've been through this, son. Believe me, if you bring me back, I will set everything right. I want a chance to make amends. And to show that cowboy that I'm good enough to -- " he trailed off momentarily then came back in full force. "I know it was a crushing blow when you lost your father. Here is a chance for you to cheat death. To finally stand up and be a force for creativity instead of destruction. This could be the thing that sets you on the right track, too."
Finally he said something that motivated me enough to overcome the trepidation. I bent down and snatched up the fetish.
"Good. Now just close your eyes and think to yourself your wish. Don't say it out loud or it won't come to pass."
I closed my eyes. I formed the sentence in my mind that comprised my wish. I opened them. Roscoe's ghost was still looking at me.
"You must have done it wrong. Close your eyes and try again." There was a hint of manic desperation in his tone.
I headed for the door, tucking the fetish into my jacket pocket.
"Jamie, where are you going?" The fear was unmistakable in his voice. But the voice was growing even fainter yet. By noon, if he was right, the voice and the glowing, bobbing form would be gone forever. I stepped out into the hall, walking like every other man. No pain, no limp. It felt absolutely amazing. The fetish in my pocket no longer seemed evil. It's in how you use it, like Roscoe said.
My luck was bound to change, eventually.