Ritchet's Day

By Christian Martin 2010

Salem was quiet on the eve of the Deads Day. In the weaning light of the last day of October, the sun was coming down low rapidly, and people hurried home before darkness fell and the roads became treacherous avenues for cutthroats. Carrying a torch only rendered a person more vulnerable to assault from darkened corners, as their eyes were not adjusted to the darkness.

The summer had been awful; so many girls had been denounced as witches and burned alive tied to stakes; and not necessarily all run of the mud girls at that. There was even the rumour that the Governor's wife was a witch and would be brought to justice during the winter session of the tribunal.

Even with the summer's events, the talk of the day in circles was the murder of one Samuel Robert Ritchet, ten years earlier to the day, which had never been resolved. Speculations ran wild as to who could have done it, but since the man had quite a reputation as a big mouth, a troublemaker, a drunkard, and a card player in backrooms, the number of candidates ready to off him was considerable. He had a reputation as a sore loser, and had a vile character. No one had really missed the guy once time had passed, but there was always that lingering question. Who?

The people also talked about that strange dog whose bones had been found on Ritchet's grave at the thaw of the next spring. The animal had apparently died there, under the thick snow cover, from exposure. Everyone assumed, rightly or wrongly, that it was Ritchet's dog, but since the man lived on a rather retired part of Salem, no one knew for sure. Once the ground had thawed, the undertakers decided to bury the dog with his master. It did not seem right to separate a trusty companion from his lifelong master.

The most conservative had opposed the idea viciously, but the preacher had spoken in favour, claiming that the dog was probably more worthy of a Christian burial then many that kept coming to confession with the most horrendous sins and thought that doing a few prayers was enough to wipe their slates clean to receive the Holy Sacraments. Anyway, ten years later, the dog's behaviour still made the news, between the series of denunciations to get even by clans of all sorts.

The families huddled around their evening meal, discussing ad nauseam the events of the day and those of ten years ago, as if to try and relive vicariously the horror of the discovery of Ritchet. All had begun with a group of watchmen passing near the cemetery found near Hangman's Hill. They had discovered Ritchet, face up, on his back, with his throat slit and his bowel smoking in the cold evening night, clearly indicating the death was recent. Many footprints were present in the snow, but the panicked guards tramped them making a potential interpretation difficult. The news spread in Salem faster then a fire down a street! Half an hour after the discovery, every nosy person, nay, everyone in Salem was on site, further compromising the collection of evidence.

It was nearing bedtime for most in Salem when a horrible howl was heard coming from inside the cemetery. The guardian, which had just taken grog to overcome his fear of the dead, literally jumped out of his skin, and shakily looked outside of his thickly grilled bedroom window toward the cemetery. In the rising moonlight, he saw a light green halo encasing a dark black shadow move from tombstone to tombstone, and then jump right over the twelve-foot wrought iron fence that closed the cemetery at night. After the shadow disappeared in the night, the man took a nosedive for his bed and huddled under the bed sheets shaking violently. He gripped his bottle of moonshine and siphoned it dry in an instant, falling into a fitful sleep where he was pursued by green halos everywhere he went.

Meanwhile, in Salem, dogs cowered and howled inexplicably, and people felt a sudden, icy cold pass them by, even if they were right beside the fireplace. Temperatures dropped in homes to such a point that the breathing condensed, and that water froze in the water buckets used for dejections. Every home was visited systematically over the night, well, not everyone, but those that had been frequented in years long past by the cause of this situation.

The next morning, as the sun rose over the eastern horizon, people learned that they had not been the only ones visited by some strange, cold entity, a devil said some, but others replied with the counter-argument that Satan's servants were reputed to be hot, not cold and that it was therefore more likely a ghost. Speculations were rampant as to whose ghost was haunting their fair city, as it had a lot of horrible executions to account for.

Things began to clarify as some people did not report to work that morning; one was a mercer; another a banker. In all, twelve persons did not report for their daily duties. It took some time for the absences to be noticed, but by noon, the truth had come out. Twelve horribly mangled bodies were found. Some were in their bedclothes, others still wearing the clothes they had last worn in public. What could have caused these horrendous deaths?

The governor decided to lead the enquiry himself. He began trying to figure out who the victims were and how they were related. There were many interconnections, as to be expected in a small town like Salem, but nothing out of the ordinary. As he examined the wounds found on the now frozen bodies in the makeshift morgue, the Governor noticed they all showed a common characteristic. The victim had been strangled but also showed perforations around the neck and the bowels. As he looked at the perforations, the Governor came to a disturbing conclusion. These bite marks were the result of a powerful jaw, more likely a big canine. Going back to the neck, he then noticed very bony fingers that left a clean signature were applied to strangulate the victims. In fact, the left hand missed a finger, the middle one.

The Governor began interrogating around him, trying to identify who would have a missing middle finger on the left hand. He assumed that the strangler had attacked from the front as the trachea showed two dark contusion more easily explainable by the pressure of palms, whereas the side of the neck, especially the jugular, showed distinct finger marking and deep lacerations due to rather long fingernails.

After a week of research, he was mystified. His enquiry had hit a brick wall. As he moved to go to the church, he spotted the cemetery guardian, who seemed closer to death than many of his clients. Running out of people to interrogate, the Governor asked for a moment to talk to the already shaky man.

As he evoked the previous week's events, the Governor could not miss the whiter than chalk appearance the man's skin was taking. As he listened to the events that had happened in the cemetery that fateful night, the Governor began to doubt the man's sanity, but he listened on. Maybe, out of all that, something important would stick out.

As the man concluded his story, shaking violently, the Governor asked his fatidic question. Did he know of a man that missed the middle finger on his left hand? The cemetery caretaker fainted, much to the annoyance of the Governor and the displeasure of the Preacher, who had to delay the Sunday service while the man was revived.

The poor guardian, once doused with cold water, kept repeating “Ritchet! Ritchet! Ritchet! ...” From there the mouths of those who had known Ritchet and were still in Salem began opening. The man had lost his left middle finger in a hunting incident. Then things cascaded: all those that had died the week before were ex game players of said Ritchet! The day before his death, Ritchet had claimed to all who would listen that he had earned big at the blackjack the previous night and that he would collect from all these robbers that had stolen him for all those years in the backroom of Joe's.

Intent on resolving the mystery for good, the Governor had the tomb dug out. To his horror, he found, held tightly in the bony grip of the skeleton, fresh skin from the victims, directly under the fingernails. The dog itself showed a missing canine, that matched perfectly the bite marks found on the various bodies.

Shocked, the Governor still had one unanswered question: Why had Ritchet waited ten years to exert his rightful vengeance? As he studied the displacements of the victims, he noticed that it had been the first year they had been back in Salem together on Halloween night!