A week later, it happened again.
Trace was literally shaken out of a sound sleep--came to in a spasm of disorientation, in the dark, not knowing which way was up, whether it was an earthquake or the Second Coming. The iron bedstead was shaking, and there was a dead man at the foot of it, gripping the rails.
“Oh, Lord, not again,” Trace groaned, pulling his pillow over his head.
The shaking came again, insistent, the heavy feet of the bed thumping on the floor like thunder. No living man could have rocked the weight of that bed, with its two straw mattresses and Trace’s considerable bulk on top, but spirits were funny that way; they could be powerful strong when they were determined.
In another minute the whole boardinghouse would be woke. Across the room, Boz was already groggy and grousing. “Dammit, Trace—“
“I can’t help it,” Trace snapped, and threw the pillow aside, sitting up only to come face-to-blackened-face with the dead man.
He had been hanged, that was obvious. His face was swollen and dark, the eyes shiny and bulging. The tail end of a rotted noose dangled around his neck, and his tongue protruded, dripping froth and obscuring his words.
“I didna do it,” he was saying, a frantic mixture of indignation and panic. “Ye gotta tell ‘em, I didna touch that gel—“
“All right, all right, I’ll tell ‘em,” Trace muttered, flinging back the covers. He reached for his pants, hung over the bedpost, got into them and his boots, pulled the suspenders over his undershirt.
“Please, you gotta tell em. They’re gonna put me to the gallows for sure—“
“I’ll tell ‘em,” Trace yawned, taking the top blanket from the bed. Boz had pulled his own pillow over his head; he couldn’t hear the spirit’s pleas, but the bed rattling and Trace’s mumbling and bumbling around the room were disturbance enough. Boz had told him he often talked in his sleep, and thrashed around as if he were fighting someone--and that was on nights without his accustomed round of bad dreams.
“No--you gotta listen to me,” the dead man said.
“I’m listenin.” Trace opened the door to the hall, shuffled through and closed it behind him as gently as he could. On nights like this, the only kind thing to do was go sleep in the stables, let Boz get what rest he could.
“Listen to me!” the hanged man insisted, and suddenly Trace felt his wind cut off, an invisible noose tightening around his own throat. He was jerked back against the door of their boarding-room, clawing at his neck, scrabbling for purchase with his bootheels on the floor. Then sickeningly, the floor was no longer there, he was dangling above it, heels kicking the door, red flowers blooming in his vision, blotting out the faces of the watching crowd--
The door was yanked open behind him. Trace’s feet struck the floor and the rest of him collapsed to it, wheezing, while Boz knelt over him and all down the hall, disheveled heads stuck out to see what the ruckus was.