Paddy O’Malley threw his cards down in disgust. He was busted again. He tossed off his whisky and stood, his chair scraping against the saloon’s wooden floor. “That’s me done,” he said, before staggering to the swinging doors.
Saturday night was winding down anyway. Gold miners came to town from their claims for some much-needed excitement, but it didn’t look as though he could even get into a good fight, and Paddy didn’t have the funds for anything else. A drop of rain hit his hand and he sighed. Just what he needed─a three-mile walk in the wet before he got home to a scolding.
He turned up his collar and headed toward the American River canyon. The chill air of fall lent him a measure of sobriety, and the moon still gave some light despite the spotty cloud cover. Maybe he could beat the worst of the raindrops home.
The sky did no worse than spit at him as he strode downhill to the river. Once there, he turned off on a path that cut uphill toward his cabin. Just as he crested a rise, he caught sight of another figure on the trail. Neighbors were a rare sight in California gold country, especially at this hour. He quickened his pace.
As he got closer Paddy saw it was a woman, hooded and cloaked, with a basket on her arm. He smiled. It looked as though the walk home was not without compensations. “Might I carry your basket for you, ma’am?” he asked.
“You’re too kind,” she replied in a soft voice, so unlike the scolding tones of his wife. She handed him the covered basket from her far side.
It was heavy. “What have you got in here?” he asked, but in reply came a wild, cackling laugh. It came from the basket.
He whipped off the cloth, and there in the basket was a woman’s head. “Aren’t you going to carry me home?” it said, and Paddy dropped the basket as though it were scalding.
A flash of lightning struck, and Paddy took to his heels, suddenly cold sober. The heavens opened up, and the red dirt lost no time becoming slick. Paddy’s foot caught on a stone, and he was thrown forward.
He barely noticed his scraped hands, turning in fear to look behind him. The woman had thrown off her cloak, and another flash of lightning showed her dressed as a beautiful Spaniard, holding the head up as though it was a lantern. “I see you now,” she cried, and she took the head by its long dark hair and flung it at him.
Paddy sprung to his feet, but the head came straight at him and bit him on the hand. Whimpering, he flung it behind him and ran.
“Oh, no, you don’t,” the head said, sailing from behind. Its teeth latched onto his worn boot and tore a hole into it.
Paddy kicked it off, but his feet tangled in his haste, and he fell again.
The head rolled back in front of him. “Don’t you want to kiss me?” The full lips puckered before the teeth bared.
Paddy screamed and ran with the strength of panic, but the head kept biting at his legs and feet. She sunk her teeth into the toe sticking out from his boot, and now Paddy was limping as he ran. The head invited him to taste her charms, before attacking his legs and feet again.
Paddy slipped going downhill to the stream and came to a halt with a splash at the bottom. He staggered to his feet and slogged his way across. His foot slid on a round stone, and he fell at the far side. He brought his hand up to protect his face, but no head came to attack.
As soon as he was on the bank, he turned. The figure had caught up, and she was holding her head up in both hands on the far side. Paddy faced her, his heart hammering as he picked up a fallen branch and swung it. The figure took a step forward, but stopped, apparently unable to cross the running water. It paced back and forth, lurking as if in hope that he would cross back. Finally, it turned to go.
Paddy said every prayer he could remember in profound relief as the rain pelted him.
He’d never been so glad when his small cabin came into view. All he wanted was to bar the door against this terrible night. He rushed inside and threw his arms around his red-headed wife, and the solid human warmth of her had never felt so good.
“Paddy, you’re all over mud,” she exclaimed. “Let go of me.”
Paddy shook his head. “It was awful, Kate. There was a woman…and a head.” The whole tale poured out of him, and he trembled in fear.
Kate pushed away from him. “Well, the extra washing is at least to some purpose. Perhaps the headless woman taught you not to stay out so late spending all our coin. I’ve never been able to teach you that, not with my head in its proper place.”
This is a retelling of an English ghost story.