The Headless Horseman of the San Joaquin
Many thanks to SouthernFrau for giving me the idea that started this story – part of which was inspired by Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
It was two weeks before Halloween. Sheriff Gabe of Spanish Wells was on high alert for pranksters. So were the sheriffs of Green River and Morro Coyo. Val Crawford and Sam Jayson had also put up with many pranks from local jokers the year before. Most notable among these were Johnny Lancer and his Prankster Posse – Kevin Millar, Willie Mays and Rico Portillo. This quartet of practical jokers had lit jack o’lanterns in empty warehouse windows and placed some in the windows of the cells where drunks were sleeping it off. The screaming by the frightened drunks could have been heard from one end of town to the other when they saw those grotesque faces staring at them from the dark windows.
At Lancer, Scott’s bedroom furniture had been taken out and set up in the patio. A scarecrow had mysteriously moved closer and closer to handyman Jelly Hoskins’ quarters and a black cat released into his darkened room. Murdoch Lancer’s desk had been rearranged and the jokers had even dared to move things around in the kitchen at Lancer. This particular prank had prompted one in retaliation by Maria – the housekeeper and cook at the Lancer ranch. On November 1, the day after Halloween, she had presented a sleepy Johnny with a plate of alfalfa. Everybody had laughed when Johnny plaintively wailed about her trick.
At the Bar T ranch, home to Murdoch’s best friends Jim and Maura Talbot, a younger and smaller horse – a colt, had replaced Jim’s black and white paint horse - with nearly identical markings. Jim had had his suspicions about who had done the swap but he never confronted the boys. Boys will be boys, after all, even if they are young men and switching horses was not nasty or dangerous. Besides he’d pulled a few similar pranks when he was a boy in Puritan influenced Massachusetts.
Various and assorted other stunts had been pulled but nobody was hurt and nobody was truly angry about them. Rico and Willie’s fathers had conspired with Scott to pay the practical jokers back. Manuel Portillo had cut a giant sized chicken out of wood while John Mays had developed a spring mechanism. Mr. Portillo had also created a giant sized chicken foot that Scott used to plant tracks in the yard around the hen house and close to the darkest part of the patio. When the prank-playing quartet arrived at Lancer late on Halloween night they were greeted by the “ghost of Mirabel” – one of Teresa’s chickens. When Johnny fired off a shot at it feathers had flown, for Maura Talbot had contributed several pillowcases full of white feathers and Johnny’s bullet had ripped a whole through at least two of them. The sight of four young men covered in feathers had been the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back and all of the conspirators had burst into laughter and revealed themselves.
The three lawmen were determined that this year was going to be different. Sam Jayson warned the boys but they just shrugged it off. Sam was a good guy but not a threat by any means. Gabe and Val were another story. Both were tough men a bit older than the Prankster Posse and when they button holed the four of them even Johnny paid attention. There would be serious consequences if they pulled anything this year. Their jokes had been harmless and some might even say funny but coupled with the outhouse tippings, open gates and other “jokes” such as smashed pumpkins it had been more than the lawmen wanted to deal with. They never caught the other culprits but those that they knew had been warned.
At Lancer, one cold and windy night a week later, Scott was reading by the fire. So engrossed was he in the story that he didn’t even hear his brother approach.
“What’re ya readin’ brother?” Johnny asked.
Scott let out an exclamation of surprise and nearly jumped out of his skin.
Johnny laughed at the startled expression on his brother’s face. “Sorry, Scott, I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“You didn’t. I just didn’t hear you coming is all.” Scott was a little embarrassed at having been startled by his brother.
Johnny took a bite out of the apple he had and offered a second one to, Scott who took it with a nod of thanks before taking a bite out of it.
“So what are ya readin’?”
“’The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ by Washington Irving.”
“Must be good. I spoke to you three times before you answered me,” Johnny remarked with a twinkle in his eye.
“It’s perfect reading for Halloween,” Scott said and proceeded to read aloud to his brother.
Five minutes later Murdoch joined them with a book of his own and went to sit in one of the chairs by the fireplace. Teresa was in the kitchen with Maria deciding on the breakfast and dinner menus for the next day. He arrived just in time to hear Johnny chortle and tell his brother, “That’s a perfect description of you, Scott!”
“Very funny, little brother, very funny,” Scott growled.
Johnny was laughing because Scott had just read the author’s description of Ichabod Crane – the so-called hero of the story. Ichabod was described as “tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole frame most loosely hung together. His head was small, and flat at top, with huge ears. Large green glassy eyes, and a long snipe nose, so that it looked like a weather-cock, perched upon his spindle neck, to tell which way the wind blew. To see him striding along the profile of a hill on a windy day, with his clothes bagging and fluttering about him, one might have mistaken him for the genius of famine descending upon the earth or some scarecrow eloped from a cornfield.”
“What’s so funny?” Murdoch inquired upon entering the room.
“Scott’s readin’ to me and I told him the description of this Ichabod character sounds just like him.”
“Ichabod? Are you reading The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by any chance?”
“Yes, sir. I’ve had this book for many years.” Glaring at his brother he added, “But it’s the first time anyone has compared me to Ichabod. You’ll pay for that little brother.”
“Have to catch me first,” Johnny said as he playfully swatted his brother and ran off with Scott in hot pursuit.
Murdoch shook his head with a smile as the boys raced out the French doors to the patio and the yard beyond. He walked over to the doors to close them and saw the boys wrestling in the yard. It wasn’t clear who was winning but it was obvious that both were laughing too hard to do any real damage to each other. Closing the doors he returned to his seat, still shaking his head. For too many years his house had been devoid of the presence of his sons. Like many parents he sometimes wished for peace and quiet but, still in all, he wouldn’t go back to living the way he had all those lonely years ago. What was a little noise compared to the joy and laughter his sons brought into the house to make it a home?
Five minutes later the boys re-entered the house, arms around each other and laughing while Scott playfully punched his little brother for calling him “Ichabod”. Somewhat dusty and disheveled they took seats by the fireplace and Scott began reading aloud again. He had just gotten to one of the parts where the Dutch farmers were telling their ghost stories when there came a sudden, and unexpected, knock on the door. Everyone in the room was startled by it they had been so engrossed in Irving’s tale.
Johnny rose to answer it and was startled when his friend, Sheriff Val Crawford seemed to materialize out of the darkness. Val was wearing black pants and boots with a dark green shirt, black vest and black hat. The lamp Johnny was carrying when he entered the dark entryway blew out when he opened the door so when Val approached he’d been virtually invisible at first.
“Hey Val! What brings you out here on a night like this? Green River’s a pretty long ride in good weather let alone when it’s windy like this.”
“I need to talk to you, Johnny,” Val said soberly. “It’s serious.”
“Well come on in the living room and save us from Scott and his spooky story,” Johnny said to his friend.
Val followed Johnny into the Great Room, which Johnny had referred to as the Living Room. There he found Murdoch and Scott seated in chairs by the fireplace and Teresa sitting in a chair under a lamp doing some mending. All three looked up as the men entered the room.
“Well, Val, what brings you out here at this hour?” Murdoch greeted the sheriff. It was past nine o’clock
“Good evening, Val,” Scott said. “What’s up?”
“Hello, Sheriff Crawford,” Teresa said. “Can I get you some coffee?”
“Evenin’ everyone,” the lawman replied. “No thanks, Miss Teresa. I won’t be here that long.”
“Well have a seat,” Murdoch said indicating a vacant chair close by.
“I’d just as soon stand,” Crawford told the rancher. “What I have to say won’t take long.” Looking at his friend, Johnny, Val asked, “Where were you tonight around seven o’clock?”
“Here with the family,” Johnny replied puzzled. “Why do you ask?”
“There’s been Halloween mischief in town, that’s why. Somebody went to the graveyard and tipped over a bunch of headstones. A lot of folks think it was you and those three pals of yours – Kevin, Rico and Willie.”
The pals that Val referred to were the trio Scott had nicknamed the Prankster Posse. Kevin Millar was the son of a local rancher, Rico Portillo’s father was a master woodcarver and carpenter while Willie Mays’ father was a blacksmith and farrier who worked at the same livery stable that Rico did and traveled some to local ranches who didn’t have anyone who could do the work of a blacksmith or farrier working for them. The young men had gotten their nickname because of their love of practical jokes. Last Halloween, in particular, had seen them play many tricks on many people. If they hadn’t played the tricks themselves they had inspired others, such as Aggie Conway Addison, to play them.
“What!” Johnny was stunned by the accusation.
“Who are you kidding?” Scott asked. “Johnny wouldn’t pull a stunt like that – and neither would the others.”
“Scott’s right, Val,” Murdoch said. “Johnny and his friends like to play tricks but you ought to know that that’s not something they would do. Tipping headstones is nothing less than vandalism and they wouldn’t be a party to such behavior.”
“I know, I know,” Val said. “But Mayor Higgs and some of the others insisted I come out and talk to Johnny and the others. I stopped at the Millar’s on the way here and Kevin swears they had nothing to do with it. I believe him – and you – but I had to ask.”
“How bad was the damage, Val?” Johnny asked his friend.
“Bad enough,” was the reply. “The vandals tipped over about 30 headstones. Some are only tipped over but others are damaged beyond repair. The townsfolk are up in arms over it and I don’t blame ‘em.”
“If there’s anything we can do to help,” Murdoch told the sheriff, “please let me know. I can send men to put the stones to rights again and I’d be glad to start a fund to help the families replace the ones that have been destroyed. I’m sure Jim Talbot and Andy Millar would be glad to kick in too.”
“Yeah, I saw Mr. Talbot in town tonight right after I discovered the damage. It looks like whoever done it took off when they saw or heard me coming. He figured you’d say somethin’ like that and he’s more than willing to kick in a good sized donation himself.”
The lawman headed for the door with the Lancer men right behind him.
“Look, Johnny, I hope you don’t think that I believed you and your pals were behind this. Like I said – I only came out because Mayor Higgs insisted. If you and the other three want to stay out of trouble I wouldn’t go playing any pranks that’ll give folks ideas that you’re behind this. Keep your noses clean and make sure somebody knows where you are at all times.”
With that Val walked out into the dark night and headed back to Green River leaving behind a Lancer family that was stunned by the accusation.
“I don’t believe it!” Johnny exclaimed. “I ain’t some dumb kid that’s gonna go around tipping tombstones in a cemetery. That’s not my style. And neither would Kevin or Willie or Rico! I’d like to, as you say, give Mayor Higgs a piece of my mind!”
“I think Val’s right, Johnny,” Scott said to his brother. “You and the boys had better make sure somebody knows exactly where you are at all times. Mayor Higgs isn’t very fond of you as it is. Nor does he think very highly of Kevin, Rico and Willie. Your reputations as practical jokers and your ‘disrespect’ for him has made you prime suspects in his eyes.”
“I agree,” Murdoch said before Johnny could open his mouth to protest again. “Until these vandals, whoever they are, are caught you’d be wise to have me, your brother or even Jelly with you any time you leave home. Josiah Higgs thinks a lot of himself but he won’t butt heads with me or your brother if we’re vouching for you.” Clapping his son on the shoulder he added, “I’m going to have a talk with Andy about keeping Kevin close to home for a while. Scott would you mind going into Spanish Wells and talking to John Mays and Manuel Portillo? They’d best keep their boys close to home for a while as well.”
“I will, sir,” Scott said. Putting an arm around his brother’s shoulders he said, “let us handle it Johnny. This is not something for Johnny Madrid. It’s Johnny Lancer who’s been falsely accused. Remember what Murdoch always says – Lancer takes care of it’s own.”
Not much later the family retired. All of them had some difficulty falling asleep in light of the serious accusations Val had reported but Johnny had the worst time. Practical jokes were a big part of Halloween – everybody knew and understood that. For the most part the jokes that were played were just that – jokes. But tipping over tombstones in the cemetery was not something Johnny found funny any more than the harried lawman or the families of those whose stones had been damaged or destroyed did. He tossed and turned for over an hour before he finally fell into a fitful sleep haunted by dreams of angry ghosts chasing him and his pals for tipping the tombstones. As a result he was quite blurry eyed when he came down to breakfast in the morning and spent most of the meal just picking at the food on his plate. His father had a solution – send him to the Bar T on an errand and let Maura cheer him up as she inevitably did whenever she saw them.
“Good morning, boys,” Jim Talbot said as he came out of the barn with a big smile upon seeing Johnny and Scott arrive.
“Mornin’,” Johnny said.
“Good morning, Mr. Talbot,” Scott said. “How’s Mrs. Talbot?”
“She’s just fine. She’s in the kitchen making cookies for this year’s Harvest party at the orphanage.” With a shrewd look at the younger Lancer he added, “I think she’s looking for a taster. Why don’t you go on in the house, Johnny, and let her know that you and Scott are here while your brother and I take care of the business I have with your father?”
Wordlessly Johnny dismounted, tied Barranca to the corral fence adjacent to the barn and headed for the kitchen. Jim and Scott went into the barn to keep up appearances for they really didn’t have any business to discuss. Murdoch knew, that if anyone could get through to this stubborn son of his it was Maura. She’d known him as a baby and a toddler and she knew him better now, as an adult, than many people who should know him did. Furthermore if there was anything guaranteed to lift Johnny’s spirits – or Scott’s for that matter – it was a visit to Maura Talbot’s kitchen, which invariably smelled of something good. Bread, cookies, cake – all found their way home to Lancer after a fair share had been consumed by the young Lancers.
The kitchen was pleasantly warm and the air was filled with the smell of sugar cookies warm from the oven. Maura, dressed in a dark blue dress with an oversized white bib apron over it, was frosting cookies with orange frosting to make them look like pumpkins. In bowls on the table were orange frosting and dark brown frosting, which she was using to draw the faces on them.
She smiled when she heard the door open, put down the cookie she was frosting and turned to greet her visitor. The jingle of his spurs told her who it was without her having had to turn.
“Good morning, Johnny my love,” she said with a big smile as she reached up to kiss his cheek. “How are you this morning?”
“I’m fine, Mrs. Talbot,” he said returning her greeting and the kiss on the cheek. “Sure smells good in here.”
“No need of hinting around Johnny Lancer,” Maura laughed. “Of course you can have some of the cookies. I’ve got a plateful and two glasses sitting on the counter just waiting for you and your brother to help yourselves. There’s a pitcher with fresh milk I just took out of the icehouse next to it. Pour yourself a glass and munch on some of those cookies while I take care of these.”
“Mrs. Talbot, can I ask you somethin’,” Johnny said as he returned to the kitchen table with his milk and cookies.
“Of course you can dear,” the woman said as she continued with her work.
“Did Mr. Talbot tell you about the tipped over tombstones in the cemetery?”
“Yes, he did dear.”
“Do you believe that Kevin, Rico Willie and I had anything to do with it?”
Maura stopped frosting cookies and came around to Johnny’s side of the table to give him a hug. “Of course not, Johnny! You boys like to play jokes on people and you like to give Scott a hard time. The other boys like to tease their siblings as well but there’s no way any of you would do something like that!” Her eyes flashed as she continued, “No, Johnny, whoever tipped those tombstones over wasn’t out for a lark – playing games – they like to see how much damage they can cause before they get caught. If they get caught that is. Val told Alex that there wasn’t anything distinguishable about the tracks they left behind. Just ordinary boot tracks.” Giving the younger Lancer son another hug she returned to frosting her cookies adding, “You mark my words, Johnny Lancer, those vandals – and that’s what they are Johnny – vandals and not pranksters – are going to make a mistake and that mistake is going to get them caught.”
“I’m not so sure Murdoch thinks we’re innocent,” Johnny lamented. “He wants me to do exactly what Val said and make sure somebody’s with me all the time until he finds out who did this. He also said he that he was going to talk to Mr. Millar about keeping Kevin close to home and asked Scott to talk to Rico and Willie’s fathers too.”
“Why Johnny Lancer that’s only because he cares about you boys!” Maura wanted to give the young man a good shaking but settled for talking. “Murdoch Lancer has faith in you. If you told him you boys didn’t do it then that’s all there is to it. He’s only wanting to talk to the other fathers so that nobody can say you are responsible. Don’t you see, Johnny, that having somebody with you at all times – while you’re working and when you’re in town – guarantees that you have a solid alibi that nobody can disprove?” With a smile she said, “Let me tell you something about your father. For all he’s so sober and serious most of the time he’s not without a sense of humor. Why when he and Catherine were first married, and then when he married your mother a few years later, he was always laughing and joking with them. Why he used to pick your mother up and put her on a high shelf or a piece of furniture where she couldn’t get down and then laugh at her.”
“When you were a baby he laughed all the time – especially when he took you fishing.” Her eyes twinkled, “Why you had no more patience as an almost two-year-old than you have now when it comes to fishing. The only difference is that since you naturally couldn’t use a gun at that age so you decided to throw your fishing pole into the water. You never caught a fish with that method any more than you do now.”
Maura was referring to something she’d heard from Scott regarding how they’d met young Willie Sharpe. The three Lancer men, and Jelly Hoskins, had had a bet going. The person who caught the largest fish would win the money they pooled and get a new hat. Willie, who had run away from his foster home to find his grandfather, had come upon Scott’s fish. Scott had caught a good-sized trout and hidden it under some bushes. Willie, being hungry, took the fish and was preparing to roast it over an open fire when Scott came upon him. When he returned from taking Willie to Onyx, to find his grandfather, he made sure to tell Maura and Jim about Johnny’s fishing method. He probably exaggerated a little but it was a good story.
Johnny grinned self-consciously. He was always getting teased by somebody about his “fishing” style. Hearing his surrogate mother do it made it a bit more bearable – especially as he was in her kitchen eating cookies.
“No, Johnny,” she continued. “Your father is concerned but he’s not angry at you. He knows you boys wouldn’t do anything so stupid – and I might add cruel. What Val said, and your father agrees with, makes perfect sense. If somebody is with you boys all the time – someone who is above reproach – then nobody can suspect you of anything.”
“Would you be one of those ‘above reproach’ types?” Johnny asked with the first genuine smile Maura had seen on his face since he’d walked into her kitchen.
“Save the flattery for someone it works on, boy,” she laughed. “You know you can have more cookies without asking me.”
A few minutes later Scott and Jim entered the kitchen and found Johnny still munching away but also attempting to help frost the cookies. He seemed much happier than he had when he and Scott had first arrived. Jim and Scott exchanged satisfied and knowing looks, which did not go unnoticed by Maura who winked at them. Murdoch Lancer certainly knew who to send his sons to when they were upset or depressed. It was as if they’d lived at Lancer all their lives spending as much time as possible as the Bar T whenever they could escape.
“It’s amazing what a visit to your wife’s kitchen can do for my little brother,” Scott said to Jim. “When we arrived he was moping and depressed – now look at him! Did you happen to save any cookies for the rest of us, Johnny?”
“Maybe one or two,” was the reply he got.
“Sorry, Mrs. Talbot, I forgot. Yeah there’s some cookies left for you over on the small table over there.”
Maura smiled at him indulgently. She knew he wouldn’t really deprive his brother but he sure would have fun making Scott believe he would. They’d had this conversation before and Johnny knew better than to try to convince his brother that they were all gone. Maura would give him a tongue-lashing and an ear blistering that he wouldn’t soon forget. Fifteen minutes later the brothers prepared to head for home.
“Now don’t forget, Johnny,” Maura said to him as she kissed him good-bye, “While you can’t blame people for being upset nobody who knows you would ever believe you would do such a terrible thing as tipping over tombstones. I’d be upset, too, if somebody came here and tipped our boys’ stones over.”
“That may be, Mrs. Talbot,” Scott said, “but you’d never jump to conclusions about who was responsible.”
“Mrs. Talbot,” Johnny said solemnly, ‘if anybody ever dared come here and tip over your boys’ stones you wouldn’t have to wait for the law to take care of it because I’d hunt them down and wring their necks after they apologized and repaired the damage – if they lived so long.”
“That goes for me, too,” Scott said as they mounted and left the yard at a brisk trot.
The next few days passed in peace and quiet for the Lancers and the other members of the Prankster Posse as well as their families. All four of the young men had someone with them at all times to give them a solid alibi. Sometimes it was one of their parents. Other times it was one of their siblings. Rico had spent a lot of time helping the Widow Eulalia Hargis at her store lately when he wasn’t busy at the livery stable. Sheriff Gabe saw him and knew that, if a question ever arose of where Rico was during that time, the person who dared question his alibi would get an earful. If nothing else, the widow was honest and God fearing and would brook no false accusations.
A week later the cemetery in Spanish Wells was vandalized. Fortunately most members of the Prankster Posse had solid alibis. Not so Kevin Millar the part time ringleader of the group. Kevin’s horse had thrown a shoe about five miles from the main house and it had taken him hours to get back home. Nobody had seen him and, while Kevin had tried to signal one of the Rocking M hands that he was in trouble, nobody had heard him over the bellowing of the cows. Kevin hadn’t fired a shot with either his handgun or his rifle for fear of stampeding the bunch they’d spent all afternoon rounding up to move back from the neighboring Lazy K pasture before mending the fence. Thus it was that the four young men found themselves facing an angry group of citizens at a town meeting.
“All right, now, settle down!” Gabe shouted to be heard over the angry group of citizens that had gathered in the small schoolhouse the next night.
Murdoch looked around uneasily. The mood of the crowd was not friendly toward the boys at all and he was worried about things getting out of hand. Gabe was a good lawman – honest and fair – but one man couldn’t possibly hold off this crowd. Unconsciously he loosened his pistol in its holster – a move reminiscent of Johnny when the Madrid side of his personality came to the fore.
“I say it was those boys – Lancer and his friends – that did this,” shouted one man. “They ought to be horsewhipped!”
“They did it in Green River so what’s to stop them from doing it here?” another one asked.
“Why don’t you just sit down and keep quiet?” Gabe said. “The boys are here to give an accounting of themselves. Let’s hear them out. Johnny? You want to tell us where you were tonight?”
“I was at the Bar T helpin’ Mr. Talbot and Willie fix a broken fence and re-hanging the gate that had been part of it. I was there until after supper. Mr. Talbot rode with me when I left until I was almost home. Then he went with Willie.”
“Jim Talbot? Is that true?” It wasn’t that Gabe doubted Johnny’s story but he knew that if Jim Talbot backed the boy up there wouldn’t be much anyone could say about it.
“Yes, it’s true!” Jim declared vehemently. “I asked Johnny and Willie to help me. When we were through we had supper together and I rode with Johnny just about to the arch on the road leading to the house. Before Willie and I left I saw Johnny ride into the yard and one of the hands came out and took Barranca from him. He went into the house and that was that. Willie and I rode to his house and I saw him go into the barn to take care of his horse. His father came out with Hank Evans. Hank, John and I talked for about twenty minutes. While we were talking Willie finished tending to his horse and went into the house. His father already told Gabe that he didn’t leave the house the rest of the night. I believe him and so does Gabe and anyone else who knows the boy.”
Murdoch rose to speak now and when he roared a lot of people stopped talking. The tension was so thick it could have been cut with a knife but the tough Scotsman was going to have his say in defense of his son and the other boys. Nobody was going to railroad Johnny Lancer.
“Listen to me – all of you!” he barked. “I know that last year a lot of you had some pretty silly pranks pulled on you but they were harmless. Yes, I know that my son, Johnny was one of the pranksters. So were Kevin, Rico and Willie. I also know that a few of you, including Aggie Addison, pulled a prank or two. But they were all harmless - annoying, perhaps, but harmless. Johnny never left the house after he came home from the Bar T that night. I’ll swear to it. As to where Kevin was…well I have to admit that I don’t know but I don’t believe he’s capable of doing anything so destructive. Neither are Willie or Rico. They enjoy a good joke, or a prank, now and then but they wouldn’t consider this funny. It’s destructive and downright cruel and my son and his friends would never be a part of it.” He paused to let his words take effect. “No, whoever did this is someone who doesn’t care what kind of trouble they cause or who gets hurt. I think we should be looking at the real troublemakers in our midst or at strangers passing through who have spent too much time in the saloon or have created havoc in their own way.”
“I agree with Murdoch,” Jim Talbot said. “This vandalism wasn’t committed by the jokesters among us. No, this vandalism was committed by just such a person as Murdoch described. Someone who has a history of destructive behavior or someone who’s so drunk they don’t know what they’re doing – or don’t care.”
“I agree with them,” Gabe said, “and so does Val Crawford. Not even Sam Jayson believes that these boys had anything to do with it. I think if we all keep our eyes and ears open we’ll find out who did it.” With a last look around the room at the ones who had been the loudest detractors he said, “Now everybody go home. If I find out anything I’ll let you know.”
The meeting broke up and everyone got ready to leave. Andrew Millar, John Mays, Manuel Portillo and their sons joined Murdoch and Jim as the Lancers and their closest neighbor prepared to depart for home.
“Murdoch I can’t thank you enough for what you said,” Andrew told his neighbor.
“Neither can I,” John Mays agreed.
“Sí,” Manuel said. “You defended my Rico like you defended your own son. I can never thank you enough.”
“No need to thank me,” Murdoch said. “I meant every word of it. The boys like to pull some crazy stunts but they’d never deliberately cause someone such emotional distress.”
“Why don’t we all have dinner at my place Friday night?” Jim suggested. “We can talk about what’s happened and see if we’ve learned anything. Halloween is Tuesday night. If our ‘friends’ are planning anything else you can be reasonably sure that they’ll plan it for late that night. Maybe we can stop them before they do any more damage.”
“That’s a good idea,” Andrew Millar said. “Maybe, as Gabe said, by keeping our eyes and ears open we’ll find out who they are and be able to see to it that they’re punished.
“Good. I’ll expect all of you – Murdoch, Johnny, Scott, John, Willie, Andrew, Kevin, Manuel and Rico around six. Be sure to bring your appetites because Maura will be very disappointed if you don’t do justice to whatever she decides to serve that night.”
“We wouldn’t want to disappoint Señora Talbot,” Rico said with a grin. “Would we Johnny?”
“Nope,” was the reply he got. “Would we Willie?”
“No siree!” Willie said. “Kevin?”
“Not on your life!” Kevin chimed in. “Mrs. Talbot cooks as good as Ma does – maybe better – but don’t tell Ma I said that. She’s likely to take a stick to me.”
Dinner at the Bar T on Friday night was a sumptuous affair of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, corn, freshly baked biscuits and cherry cobbler for dessert, all of which was washed down by coffee and/or milk.
Maura beamed as she watched her four youngest dinner guests make short work of the meal set before them. It took her back to when her boys were still living and how much they’d enjoyed her cooking as well. Jim just shook his head in amusement as he watched them. He didn’t think he’d like to try and reach for one of the dishes containing food at the same time as one of the younger men – he thought he might just lose a hand in the process if he did.
When everyone had finished eating Maura cleared the table of dishes and took them out to the kitchen to wash while the men, young and old, retired to the comfortable sitting room where a fire blazed, warm and cheerful, in the fireplace. Jim added a couple of logs to ensure that the fire would continue to blaze warmly for the next several hours.
“Well, now that dinner is over we can get down to business,” Jim said. “Has anyone heard anything around Spanish Wells or Green River about what happened? Other than blaming you boys for it?”
“No sir,” Johnny said. “I haven’t heard anything. Kev? Willie? Rico?”
“Nothing,” was the answer from all three of the others.
“How about you, Scott?” Murdoch asked his older son.
“Not a word other than a few of our less tolerant citizens making remarks about pranksters coming to a bad end. Not the Widow Hargis, though,” he had to admit. With a grin he said, “She’s taken quite a shine to Rico, here. Says he’s the best worker she’s ever had. Maybe he should give up his job at the livery stable and go to work for her full time.”
“I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy,” their host said with a laugh. “Eulalia’s a bit too much on the bossy and suspicious side – never mind that she’s more than capable of taking care of her store in an emergency.”
“Seriously, though,” Andrew Millar spoke up, “there’s got to be some way of finding out who’s behind all this and putting a stop to it before our boys are railroaded into Val or Gabe’s jails!”
“I wonder…” Scott started to say something but stopped.
“Wonder what, son?” his father asked.
“I wonder if the reason nobody’s talking is because they’re using Johnny and the others as scapegoats. They know that the four of them aren’t allowed in town, or anywhere else for that matter, unless somebody’s with them whose word can’t be questioned.”
“You think maybe it’s somebody who knows them?” Jim asked.
“Not necessarily knows them – not personally – but knows of them and the jokes they’ve pulled in the past.” Scott pondered the situation for a moment then his face lit up. “I don’t know why I didn’t think of them before – the Cormack twins and Peter Quinn!”
“What makes you think of them?” Jim asked.
Scott replied, “They’ve had it in for Johnny ever since he caught them trying to steal supplies out of Dave Pittman’s wagon. He whipped them good – with help from Kevin – in a fight in which they had the advantage of three to two. Rico and Willie they hate because they’re friends with Johnny and Kevin.”
“Do you have any proof?”
“No, sir, but I’d bet my last dollar they’re involved in this somehow.”
“That’s all well and good, Scott,” Kevin’s father said, “but how do we go about proving it?”
“Johnny – didn’t you tell me that the Cormack twins are superstitious?”
“Yeah. What of it?”
“I have an idea….” Scott said.
“Sssh! They’ll hear you,” hissed Kevin.
“They are not even close yet,” Rico replied. “Calm down or they will hear you before they get close enough for us to spring the trap.”
“Both of you quiet down,” Johnny said, “or this ain’t gonna work at all.”
“I think all of you boys need to calm down,” said Murdoch. “Willie’s going to have them here in a few minutes. If you don’t settle down they’ll hear something and get suspicious. If they get suspicious they’ll take off and then we lose the opportunity to prove that they’re the ones behind the damage in Green River and Spanish Wells.”
Murdoch, Johnny and Johnny’s two pals were hiding in some trees near the graveyard in Morro Coyo. It was a tiny graveyard surrounded by mighty oak trees and a few stately pines. They were awaiting the arrival of Willie, the Cormack twins and Peter Quinn who, unbeknownst to them, were about to be taught a very valuable lesson about vandalizing tombstones and letting others take the blame for it. Before this night was over they would regret ever having set foot in this particular graveyard.
Not far away from them, but on the other side of the cemetery, Scott and Jim Talbot waited to fulfill their part of the plan. They were waiting for Murdoch’s signal which he would give when Willie got the trio of troublemakers into the right place at the right time. Willie was playing a very big part in this plan. He had to get the vandals in the cemetery before the moon came up. Right now it was pitch black with only a few stars showing in the small patches of clear sky on this breezy night. The wind kept pushing the clouds in front of the stars so the light was intermittent. It was perfect for what the group had planned.
At one end of the cemetery Val Crawford and Sam Jayson waited behind a large monument on the plot belonging to the Lubianez family. Gabe was at the other end hiding behind the tombstone of the Finnigan family. If all went well they would be arresting these young men for the damage they had committed not too long ago.
“Sure is spooky out here,” Kevin complained. “That wind sounds like a banshee!”
“All the better,” Murdoch said. “It’ll make those superstitious fools jumpier which could very well work to our advantage.”
“Murdoch’s right,” Johnny said to his pals. A noise in the distance caught his ear just then. Sneaking a quick peak down the road he saw Willie, mounted on his horse Molasses, coming down the road with the other three right behind him. They seemed to be having a heated discussion if the gesturing Johnny saw was any indication.
“Here they come,” Johnny whispered as he hid himself behind the trees again. “Is everybody in place?”
“Yes,” his father replied. I just got the signal from Val. He and Sam are in place and Sam is under control.”
“I just heard Sheriff Gabe signal,” Rico said. “He’s ready.”
“Scott just whistled,” Kevin said. “He and Mr. Talbot are ready whenever you give the signal.”
Silence fell upon the scattered group as Willie and the others got closer. Nobody was going to risk anything going wrong. The clip-clop of the horses’ hooves, with the occasional ring of steel on rock, grew ever closer.
“I still say this is crazy,” Peter Quinn was heard to say. “There’s no such thing as ghosts!”
“Iffen ya don’t believe,” Glen Cormack asked, “then why did you come with us? Ya could have stayed back in the saloon where it’s ‘safe’ and waited for us there.”
“Somebody’s got to prove to you that there’s no such thing as ghosts or spooks or ‘haints’ as dumb Willie, here, says!”
The older Cormack twin, Rob, spoke up, “I believe in ghosts, but I’m not sure about this one that Willie’s been telling us about. How come we never heard of it ‘til now?”
“I just heard the story myself,” Willie explained with a straight face. “My papa told me about it. I think he heard it from some old prospector that passed through town a couple of months ago. This spook only shows up at Halloween when the moon is high. Especially when someone has been disturbing those who sleep in this sacred ground.”
“That’s nonsense!” Glen declared. “Ever’body knows that spooks come out mostly when it’s a real dark night – like tonight.”
“Well, this here spook is different!”
An owl hooted just then causing Rob to flinch. Behind the trees, tomb and monument the hidden men laughed to themselves. The owl was making their job – especially Willie’s – so much easier.
“What was that?”
His brother scowled at him, “It’s just an old hoot owl. Since when are you afraid of a hoot owl?”
“I ain’t afraid!”
The argument lasted for several minutes. Suddenly a horse neighed – and it wasn’t one of theirs. Nor was it one of the horses belonging to the men hiding nearby for they’d left theirs a mile or so back with plenty of hay and water to keep them happy while they waited. Val and Sam had walked out from the sheriff’s office so they didn’t even have their horses with them. Gabe had done the same after riding over from Spanish Wells.
“What was that?” Now it was Quinn’s turn to jump.
“It’s just a horse neighin’,” Glen said.
“Maybe not,” Willie said. “It could be the haint I told you about. I told you it rides a big black horse.
That was Murdoch’s cue. He gave his best, though not very good, imitation of a screech owl, which caused all three troublemakers to jump half out of their skins. Even Willie jumped – and he’d been expecting it.
“Wha-what was that?” quavered Rob.
“Just an old owl,” scoffed Quinn.
Just then the thunder of hoofbeats was heard. A tremendous black shadow detached itself from the blacker shadows of the trees. A giant black stallion raced out of the woods toward the four young men at the far end of the cemetery. The rider wore a black greatcoat over black pants and boots. The stallion raced toward the young men and then, when it was about a few yards down the road beyond them, slowed its pace and started back. It was then that Glen Cormack noticed something odd, which sent chills down his spine – the horseman had no head! Or rather it did but it wasn’t sitting on his shoulders as it should. As the stallion drew closer and kept pace with the other, slower moving, horses he could see that it was carrying something – its head – on the pommel of its saddle.
“Yeow!” Glen screeched.
“It’s the Headless Horseman of the San Joaquin!” Willie shouted spurring Molasses into a gallop. “Run for your lives!”
“You’re crazy!” Peter Quinn exclaimed. “It’s a trick! I’ll just bet you that Johnny Lancer has something to do with it.” He soon changed his mind as the specter came closer to his own mount, which became very nervous.
The horseman kept pace with Willie, the Cormacks and Quinn for half a mile before galloping off into the shadows again. The relief of the troublemakers was soon erased as the horseman came back at a full gallop now holding its head in its right hand. Seeing this the Cormacks and Quinn wheeled their horses and turned back toward Morro Coyo just as fast as they could go. It wasn’t fast enough. The headless horseman gained on them with every step until he finally was close enough to throw his head at them. So frightened were the trio of vandals that they didn’t even notice that, first of all, Willie wasn’t with them and secondly, that the “head” was nothing more than a carved pumpkin, which shattered upon contact with the ground behind them.
When they were finally out of earshot, and well on their way into town to the mission to confess their foul deed out of fear that there would be even more serious repercussions from the horseman – or other avenging spirits – the hidden men burst into laughter and Willie came riding back at a brisk trot reining to a stop in front of the trees as Murdoch and the others emerged from hiding. Never again would those three engage in such behavior – at least not in a cemetery.
“Whoo-ee!” Johnny exclaimed as they joined Willie in the middle of the road. “Look at them run!”
Willie couldn’t answer. He was laughing so hard that tears were running down his cheeks. Bent over double laughing, Kevin and Rico joined them with a more subdued Murdoch behind them. The three lawmen joined them for a moment basking in the contented glow of having scared the living daylights out of three of the biggest bullies and worst kind of thieves they’d ever had the displeasure of knowing. Then they left for their respective offices and towns to await the fallout from this little stunt. The rest of them, including the headless horseman, headed for home. They would find out the results of this little exhibition, or booby-trap, the next day.
If they had expected the story to get better with each telling they weren’t disappointed. Gathered in the saloon the next night, nursing beers or tall glasses of sarsaparilla, the Lancers, Willie, Rico and Manuel, Kevin Millar and Jim Talbot heard stories of a seven foot tall ghost dressed in black, a ten foot fall ghost in a Mexican army uniform and a twenty foot tall ghost dressed in a black cape.
Murdoch looked around the table contentedly. The Cormacks and Quinn had confessed to Padre Benito at the mission who had, in turn, sent them to Sam to confess their part in the vandalism in Green River and Spanish Wells. It was, of course, strictly coincidence that Val Crawford and Gabe were sitting in Sam’s office enjoying a night off when they arrived. It was hardly any time at all before the Cormacks were in jail in Green River and Quinn in Spanish Wells. Separation seemed to be the key to getting straight answers, more or less, about what had transpired in their towns. Johnny and his Prankster Posse had been cleared of all involvement and received a grudging apology from Josiah Higgs for accusing them in the first place. He’d had enough pressure placed on him by Val that he had to admit that he’d jumped to conclusions just because of the boys’ reputations.
Raising his beer mug Murdoch saluted his troops. “A good night’s work gentlemen.”
“I’d like to propose a toast,” Jim said raising his sarsaparilla. “To Scott Lancer, the creative genius who came up with the plan.”
“Oh, not so, Mr. Talbot,” Scott demurred. “I but borrowed the idea from Washington Irving. It was his Legend of Sleepy Hollow story that gave us the means of getting a confession out of them. I’d like to propose a toast to my brother, Johnny, who gave us the ammunition by remembering that the twins are superstitious.”
“It was nothing,” Johnny said with a grin. “You asked the question – I just answered. But I’ll take the credit anyway.”
Kevin, Rico and Willie hooted at that remark. Kevin said, “I propose a toast to Willie Mays – the best decoy money can’t buy.”
“Thank you, thank you,” Willie said with a grin as he stood to take a bow.
“No, no, no!” Rico exclaimed. “You are all forgetting the most important member of the group – Mr. Talbot.”
Jim just grinned at them and took another swallow of his drink. “Playing the part of a ghost is not something I’d like to do every day,” he said, “but it was worth it to see those fools run off the way they did. I wish that Ken, Rory and Blair could have seen it. It’s the kind of prank they would have loved to pull on a bully or two.”
Murdoch said with a grin at his friend Jim, “Rico’s right. I propose a toast to the Headless Horseman of the San Joaquin.”
“To the Headless Horseman,” the others echoed.