A Mourning in Sleepy Hollow (from J is for Jack-o’-Lantern)
Robert P. Ottone
Constable Hayward knelt beside the road near the church bridge, staring at the remains of a pumpkin. Snow was falling lightly, tiny flakes, and Hayward knew that he didn’t have much time before the entire area was blanketed with fresh powder.
The Dutch Burial Ground sat nearby, snow beginning to pile atop the headstones. Hayward looked toward the small cemetery, trying to spot jagged pieces of orange amongst the white. Hayward furrowed his brow and started gathering some of the pieces of the gourd, eventually finding a piece with a triangle cut out.
“Think it was him?” the Constable’s son, Aranck asked, shivering in the cold. The eighteen-year-old rubbed his chest through his heavy coat. “Think it was the Horseman?”
“Don’t know. Keep your eyes open.”
He stared at the hole a moment, trying to imagine what it was, when he heard the distressed neighs of a horse. He nodded toward where the neighing was coming from. “Go check it out.”
Aranck climbed down the embankment and found an old gray horse, underfed and nervously kicking at the rocks along the river. “I think this is Gunpowder, the nag that belongs to the new schoolmaster, Ichabod Crane.”
Hayward steadied himself as he joined Aranck on the embankment. His heavy frame wobbled unsteadily in the snowy mud, slowed from years of either fighting whatever war called upon the men of New York, or from serving as the only lawman in a busy town.
Before becoming Constable, Hayward had been a successful tracker and hunter from Setauket, who worked primarily as a spy during the war, gathering intelligence on British troop maneuvers in New York City. Afterward, he arrived in Sleepy Hollow and found himself in love with Aranck’s mother of the local Wecquaesgeek tribe. When her people migrated further west, she stayed behind with Hayward and their child. After brokering many deals with the tribal elders who remained after the war, the town squire asked him to remain in Sleepy Hollow as a lawman.
“That old horse’s seen better days, eh, papa?” Aranck called from the bridge, studying the tracks in the mud. “Looks like a weak rear hoof.”
Good catch. Hayward smiled. Aranck was becoming a good tracker, too, still so young. And he looked so much like his mother. “For certain, my boy.”
When the Bleeker girl disappeared years back, it was Aranck who found her, half-buried in the snow with a broken ankle. His son spoke of whispers in the wind that drew him to the injured child. Whispers Hayward knew his wife heard in her youth; her days spent with the tribe in the forests of the valley.
“It looks burned. On the inside. Look,” Hayward showed a few scorched pieces of pumpkin to his son. The insides, the flesh of the gourd, were singed, as though detonated from the inside.
“A Jack-O’-Lantern,” Aranck said, studying the pieces. He ran his finger along the inside of a larger piece of pumpkin, scraping some of the singed blackness away with his nail. “Like what we used to carve with mother.”
Hayward wondered how Aranck’s life would turn out, a child of two worlds, never comfortable in either his mother’s tradition, or the tradition of the white man.
“Think it was a land dispute?” Aranck asked. “Maybe the schoolmaster had his eyes set on more than Squire Van Tassel’s daughter?”
“You think they ran him out of town? Whoever he was doing business with?”
Aranck shrugged. “Wouldn’t be the first time, right? These white men and their petty squabbles.”
“We need to find Brom Bones. Think you can get word to his little sidekick?”
“Fred Dutcher? Sure. Meet you at the hall in an hour.”
Aranck climbed on his horse and took off toward Sleepy Hollow. Hayward thought, often, about his son leaving the town. The boy had expressed his desire to do so. To join his people who migrated west. To fully immerse himself in the old ways. Hayward pressed the heartache of his son leaving deep down and focused on the job.
Hayward began to escort Gunpowder back up the hill to the bridge, careful to lead the horse slowly so as not to rattle the poor nag’s nerves any further.
“Why is it that every time something goes wrong in this one-horse town, you come after me, Constable?” Brom Bones said, rubbing his temples. The man’s enormity was stuff of legend in the Hudson Valley. Some of the little ones often marveled at his size, asking if he was half-bear or half-bull. Brom would often respond with “Half-bear, half-bull and half-wildcat.” Suffice to say, math was not his strong suit.
“Usually, your dumb self is involved in all the goings-on in Sleepy Hollow,” Aranck said. “What’s wrong with your head?”
“Headache s’all. What’s it to you, half-breed?”
Aranck’s lips pressed together tightly. Without warning, he slapped Brom so hard, he fell off the stool in the center of the meeting hall.
Brom grabbed the side of his face and howled, as Aranck readied for the enormous man to rise, ready for a scrap.
“You sonofa –” the enormous man screamed, rising quickly.
Hayward moved faster, stepping between his son and the raging Dutchman. “Aranck, go outside.”
Aranck followed his father’s orders, striding past Squire Van Tassel, who stood, arms crossed, next to the door of the meeting house.
“Where’s the schoolmaster, Brom?”
“I wanna press charges, Constable, he can’t hit me!”
“Brom, it’s your word against his. And I’m the law. In what reality will I press charges against my own kin?”
Brom sighed and sat back down on the stool. “Why are we talkin’ ‘bout that old scare-crane, anyway? Ain’t seen ‘im since last night.”
“Around what time?”
“I dunno, me and Dutcher were at the party. Van Tassel’s.”
“What happened at the party? Did you two have words?”
Brom shook his head. He stretched his jaw, still reeling from the slap Aranck gave him. “No, not at all. He was occupied with Ms. Katrina all night, the Yankee bastard. Caught the two of them fightin’ about sumthin’.”
Hayward looked at Squire Van Tassel. “Brom, we know that you and the schoolmaster have had problems. Just tell us where he is and I promise everything’ll be okay.”
Brom looked up at Hayward. “Honest, Constable, I didn’t do nothin’ to the schoolmaster. Me and Dutcher nicked off to Dumpkey’s hay loft with a cask of Van Tassel’s wine. Sorry, Squire.”
Van Tassel shook his head. “Idiot.”
“That’s why your head hurts. You were making too much merry last night. The spirits have taken their revenge on ya today.”
Brom nodded. “Can I go now?”
“Head to the pub. If you and Dutcher leave town, I’ll have a full party after you by nightfall. You won’t get far. And if you have eyes set on retribution for that little love tap my son gave ya, you better think twice.”
Brom sighed. He rose, slowly, and walked to the door. Hayward watched as Brom eyed Aranck, who leaned against a column outside the meeting house. Squire Van Tassel joined the Constable on the porch and looked over the town.
“You get your temper from your old man,” Hayward said. “I know that. You know that. But you need to watch it. Life isn’t going to be easy for you. Especially if you still plan to leave the Hollow.”
Aranck nodded. “I know. I’m sorry, pa.”
“You don’t need to apologize to me. Brom acts like a child, but you were out of line. Maybe send your apologies his way, with a nice bottle of our brandy.”
“Squire, we’re gonna need to talk to Katrina. Mind fetching her?”
Hayward watched as Squire Van Tassel escorted Katrina down the snow-covered street to the town hall building. They were talking, the squire no doubt coaching his daughter on how to respond to the questions Hayward had planned for her.
“Katrina, always a pleasure,” Hayward said, smiling, and kissing the young girl’s slender hand. She curtsied and smiled, her intense blue eyes flashing in the afternoon light flooding the town hall meeting room.
Aranck, a few years Katrina’s junior, stood by a window, watching Fred Dutcher spill his guts beside the town pub. Brom Bones stood behind him, nervously pacing about in the snow.
“We just have a few questions for you, Miss Van Tassel,” Hayward began.
“‘We?’ Is Aranck officially a deputy now?” she asked, her gaze wandering over toward Aranck by the window.
“Not yet, but he’s learning more every day. Someone’s gotta keep an eye on the Van Tassels when I’m gone,” Hayward smiled.
Katrina chuckled, and so did Squire Van Tassel. Aranck stood, eyes locked on Dutcher and Brom nearby, loitering outside the pub.
“Katrina, what happened with the schoolmaster last night?”
She shrugged. “Well, you see, we’ve been engaged in a sort-of … whirlwind the past few months.”
“Is that so?” Squire Van Tassel asked.
“Well, yes, father, Ichabod is an educated man, not like the usual types around here.”
Aranck turned from the window and looked at Katrina. Their eyes met, and she looked away, nervously.
“Aren’t you supposed to be Brom Bones’ girl?” Hayward asked.
Aranck grabbed his coat and exited the meeting room, heading off into the snow.
Katrina looked up at her father. Then cast her gaze to the floor and shrugged. “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean, Constable.”
Hayward looked up at Squire Van Tassel and gestured toward the door. Van Tassel followed in Aranck’s footsteps, disappearing outside.
Hayward pulled a chair over to Katrina and sat opposite her.
“There. All our company is gone. You can talk to me, Katrina.”
“Brom is … well … he’s good for passing the time, you know? Like riding a wild horse. He’s exciting. Powerful. But unskilled. Once the thrill is gone, there’s not much tohim.”
Hayward nodded. “Understood. And the schoolmaster?”
Katrina’s eyes sparkled at the mention of the missing schoolmaster. “You must find him, Constable. We had such a terrible fight last night. He asked for my hand. I told him I needed more time.”
Hayward put his hand on Katrina’s shoulder. “I can understand that. That’s a lot to put on a young woman after such a short time.”
“I worry that Brom did something to him. Last night. Likes to dress like the Headless Horseman. Black cape, Jack-O’-Lantern, you know?”
“Lots of boys do. Even Aranck –”
“I would’ve thought Aranck was above such childish folly. He was always a more sensitive soul.”
Hayward smiled. “Gets that from his mother.”
Katrina smiled at him. “I don’t think that’s entirely true.” She took Hayward’s hand. “Please. Find Ichabod. I know in my heart he’s still out there. If Brom had anything to do with it, he’ll tell you. He’s always been a braggart.”
“I don’t think Brom is involved, Miss Van Tassel.”
She sighed and looked up at him. It was impossible not to see what every boy in town loved about her. The intensity of her eyes, her plump, rosy cheeks, the color of an autumn evening as day burns away to night. The kindness in her demeanor. It was more than just the desire for her father’s bounty that drew men to her. “I simply don’t know who else would harbor ill intentions toward my Ichabod, Constable.”
Outside the meeting hall, Aranck stood, watching folks mill about the town. He had slipped his fingers into a small leather pouch and pulled out a thin cigar. Lighting it slowly, he breathed in the aroma, a blend of spice, fruit and even a hint of leather. His father exited the hall and stood beside him.
“Got one of those for me, boy?”
Aranck again reached into his pouch and handed a cigar to his father.
Hayward stared at his son. His long black hair caught a bit of wind and blew, as though it had a life of its own. “Something troubles you. Speak freely, boy.”
“It wasn’t Brom. It wasn’t anyone in his gang. Brom’s a good rider, but riding a horse and carrying a flaming pumpkin?” Aranck trailed off. Lost in thought.
“What’re you thinkin’?”
“You know what I’m thinking, pa. When you eliminate the possible, the likely, the rational, what remains?”
Hayward nodded. “The impossible.”
“Crane was angry. He wanted Katrina’s hand. Shoulda had the brains to leave when he could.”
“The folly of youth … ready to take on the world, boy?”
“Maybe. I’m just sayin’, the schoolmaster loved Miss Katrina. The pumpkins. The horse. He couldn’t have gone far on foot, pa. People disappear sometimes. Something takes people. White men are sloppy. They leave clues. You taught me that.”
“Aranck, nobody’s seen the horseman in years.”
“Because nobody’s stupid enough to disrupt the way things are here in the Hollow. We go, day to day, working, playing, drinking, fighting, we never leave, unless taken by grim death. The last schoolmaster, Palmer, you know he disappeared too.”
“He ran off, he was crazed –”
“Was he? My conversations with him were usually pretty sane, father.” Aranck took a long drag off his cigar.
Hayward knew the boy wasn’t wrong. The similarities between Crane and Palmer’s cases were striking, but in the case of Palmer, they never found any indication that he tried to leave. No horse. No broken gourds. No report of him missing. Just one day, the schoolhouse was left with an open door, swaying in the fall wind.
“What do we do, my boy?”
Aranck finished his cigar. He flicked it into the mud. “I have an idea, but first, I want to check with Her. She might know something.”
Her. The thought of his son trekking off into the woods to take counsel with Sleepy Hollow’s resident witch gave Hayward pause. While everyone knew about the Headless Horseman, not many knew of the crone who lived deep in the woods at the base of a small, rocky outcropping.
Aranck’s mother would visit her often. Bringing her food. Ale. Aranck joined his mother on these trips, and the old crone took to him. She would leave gifts on Hayward’s doorstep for the boy. Dolls fashioned from strips of clothing and animal fur.
“If that’s what you feel you have to do, boy, that’s fine, but I think it’s time I meet this hag.”
As Hayward and Aranck made their way through the forest outside of Sleepy Hollow, they marveled at the sight of the lush orange and red foliage. It was as if the trees were ablaze in the afternoon light, and the ground, coated with dried leaves, crackled under the hooves of their horses.
Aranck’s eyes watched the trees around them. He would sometimes awaken in the night and walk out into the darkness in his night clothes, barefoot, even in winter. He described what he believed to be a whisper in the darkness, a voice on the wind, calling him into the woods. Not malevolent, but instead kind and soothing.
He often heard those same voices in the woods around the crone’s home.
“We are nearly there, father. The location is always a secret to my eyes, but never my ears.”
As they continued, Hayward started seeing smaller rocks appearing in the forest. They moved deeper into the woods, and the stones became larger. He remembered his son often returning home with rounded, almost polished pieces of rock, purple and light blue, rocks not normally found in the valley or in the foothills. Aranck would admit to gathering them while visiting the crone in the woods.
They were close.
“Father, when we get there, let me do all the talking, alright?”
Hayward nodded. He knew better.
Eventually, they came to the mouth of a small cave. Aranck stopped in his tracks, his horse refusing to move any closer.
“This is it.”
“She lives in there?” Hayward stared at the cave’s mouth. The opening was tiny.
Once inside, Hayward was struck by how large and empty the space was. It seemed to stretch further underground, possibly forming a system that ran as far north as the foothills, as opposed to deeper into a larger mountain-structure, and Hayward wondered how others hadn’t discovered these caves before.
“It is not much further,” Aranck said, producing a small lantern from his pack and lighting it in the failing daylight.
They continued, and eventually came to an area not unlike a chapel, with tall ceilings, formed naturally over hundreds, maybe thousands of years.
Hayward gasped, staring at the lanterns and torches mounted to the walls of the cave. On the walls hung animal pelts, and in many other areas along the walls were drawings of tribal warriors, hunting and worshipping creatures that at first resembled bears, but stood more humanlike. “My Lord …”
“… won’t be found here, Constable.” A voice spoke from the far end of the cave. The “crone” as she was often referred to by the few townsfolk who saw her, wasn’t a crone at all, but instead a beautiful, dark-haired, dark-skinned woman. Her appearance reminded Hayward of so many of the Wecquaesgeek women he knew before the war. Sharp features. Impossibly long, black hair, down to her knees. Wearing what Hayward thought was a deer skin draped across her body, her dark eyes flickered in the torchlight of the cave.
On closer inspection, the cave was warmer and more welcoming than he had initially realized. Cozy, even. There was the slightest scent of lavender in the air, and the animal pelts were thick and soft. Hayward almost felt at home in the crone’s cave.
Aranck exchanged pleasantries with the woman in their shared language and presented her with a small leather pouch of berries and nuts. He also produced a large woven mat from his pack and slung it over a large rock.
She sat upon the mat and swung her bare legs up and under her body, resting on her knees. She looked no older than Aranck, and yet, the rumors of her existence in the woods around Sleepy Hollow had spread since before the boy’s birth.
“It is an honor to have your father here, Aranck,” she said. Her voice, though soft, carried tremendous weight. Aranck knelt before her, sitting cross-legged, like a child in school.
“I have heard many tales of you,” Hayward said, softly, as though a raised voice might trigger a collapse of the stone ceiling above. “You are not what I expected.”
She smiled. “And what did you expect?”
Without warning, a great black fog erupted from around her, enveloping her quickly. When it dissipated, a much older, white woman, with long gray hair, wrinkled features, and a long, obtrusive nose, sat in her place, draped in drab, dreary rags.
Aranck laughed. She did, too. Her soft and powerful voice was replaced with a cackle that made Hayward’s knees go weak.
“My dear Constable, there is so much more to those around you than you ever imagined …” again the smoke enveloped her, and she returned to her previous form, lovely and perfect. “Your ignorance of our ways blinds you to the truth the valley offers you.”
“Nanepaishot, you know why we have come,” Aranck began.
She raised her hand, stopping him from finishing. She placed that same hand on Aranck’s shoulder and stared, lovingly, into his eyes. Hayward thought for a moment that his son sat in a trance, but then realized that the look of adoration on his face was the same look he’d often have for his mother. It was a look of devotion and deeply rooted love.
“On this night, he rides. He keeps a careful watch over the valley. He is always there, even when you cannot see him.”
She paused. Her long, slender fingers traced black, cloudy shapes in the air. Hayward recognized horses, muskets, cannonballs, and finally, a Jack-O’-Lantern. “It is justice he seeks. Retribution. For stealing our land.”
Shifting into a kneeling position on the rock, she adjusted her deerskin and cast a vacant gaze into the sky. “Manitos lie in these woods. These mountains. But your horseman. He is something else. Our spirit manifest. Like me. Yotoanit …”
Aranck gasped. “That cannot be, Nanepaishot.”
She closed her eyes and nodded. “He is the spirit. The one kept in the dark for so long. For so many centuries.”
“Until the war.”
Again, she nodded. The dark smoke around her cleared, and she stared at Hayward. “Death is not through with Sleepy Hollow. The schoolmaster is gone. Dragged to hell by Yotoanit.”
“Who is Yotoanit? I don’t understand …” Hayward began, his voice pleading.
“You will find him at the bridge. The veil is thin tonight. It always is this time of year. That is why your people display such superstitious frivolity. To protect you from spirits. To seek the horseman is to seek death itself, Constable.” She looked at Aranck. “None are safe from Yotoanit.”
Carefully, she slipped off the rock, and Aranck rose to help her. She held his arm tightly, as they made their way to a nearby bed of animal skins, flowers and straw. Once down, Aranck covered her with a thick bear skin. She reached up and slowly brushed a long strand of dark hair from his face. “Aranck, you look so very much like her.”
The boy smiled.
“You are as beautiful as the night is treacherous,” she whispered to Aranck in the dark.
“What the hell happened in there?” Hayward asked as the two slipped out of the cave.
“Did you not see? She confirmed my suspicions about the horseman. And yet, it is far worse. So, so much worse.”
“That name, Yotoanit. What does that mean?”
Aranck sighed. “Our people, at least, what mother told me of our people, believed in many things. One of those things was Yotoanit, the god of fire. A cursed being from deep within our belief. Born of strife and malice, he sows destruction in his wake.”
A great wave of guilt struck Hayward, as he never put much stock in his wife and child’s culture. “How do we stop him? What’s ‘manitos’?”
“Nanepaishot grows weak when she uses her gifts. That’s ‘manitos’, essentially, our life energy. Flesh is a limiting form to our gods. We weaken him, trick him across the river, put him down like a dog. There is a reason he’s never seen outside of the valley. The flesh is weak.”
“I’ll say,” Hayward uttered.
“He’s a god of fire. Crossing a body of water out of the valley is his weakness. If we can, tonight, draw him out. Keep him busy. Ride like the devil, force him to act, use his power, draw him close to the bridge, near the river, we might be able to vanquish him.”
“That’s a huge might, Aranck.”
“It is all we have, father.”
After a quick stop at the pub to recruit a pair of extra hands, Hayward and Aranck made for the bridge nearest the church. Brom and Aranck stood on the western bank of the bridge, not far from where Hayward and the boy had found Gunpowder earlier that day. The temperature had dropped and Brom sipped from a large bottle of brandy.
“I’m sorry about your chin,” Aranck said, one hand on his musket, the other resting against a tree in the midst of shedding its leaves for the season.
“It’s my jaw but thank you. Wasn’t right. What I said. You being a half-breed, I mean.”
Aranck nodded. “Thank you for helping us tonight. You and Dutcher.”
“Truth be told, Dutcher’s a lousy shot with a musket, so, if anything does happen and that galloping nightmare appears, he’s liable to shoot one of us.”
Aranck chuckled. Brom handed him the bottle of brandy, and the boy took a sip.
Hours later, the temperature seemed to dip below freezing, and Fred Dutcher sat beside Hayward in a large elderberry bush on the opposite side of the bridge. A great dampness hung in the air, and the Constable was chilled to the bone.
“Explain to me again why we can’t light no fire, Constable?”
Hayward rolled his eyes. “Because we’re trying not to be seen. That’s why the horses are tied close to the river, and we’re up here.”
Dutcher nodded. “Seems stupid to me.”
Hayward chuckled. “I imagine a great many things do.”
A light padding in the distance caught Hayward’s attention.
“I saw him once, you know. The Horseman.”
“Did you now?”
Hayward only half-listened as Dutcher began his story. “Me and Brom, you know, we go a-ways back. We were walking in the mountains, you know, in the Dunderbergs …”
Hayward kept his focus on the light noise he heard. He glanced across the river and prayed his son could hear it, too. For a moment, he thought he heard a horse neigh, far off, in the blackness of night.
“… never thought much for those old stories of goblins in the mountains, ya know? Seemed awful silly t’me.”
The Constable unslung the musket from his shoulder and leaned forward on his knee. He blocked out Dutcher’s voice and focused instead on the rising sound of hooves in the distance. Again, he glanced across the river, desperate for a glimpse of his son. Please, Aranck, tell me you can hear it.
“… but then, once we made it to the top of the Dunderbergs, we saw him. Down below, near the river.”
Hayward looked down the road toward Sleepy Hollow. The sound was growing ever-nearer, and he knew that soon, whatever it was would be on top of him and Dutcher.
Hayward checked his musket, taking his time to ensure there was a round loaded. He didn’t know if he’d be able to get off another musket shot, so he checked his pistol, as well. He even checked Dutcher’s, who seemed lost in his own tale.
“Down by the river … his head was all fire. Hellfire, some say. I don’t much know about that …”
The steps grew louder, driving closer and closer. Hayward knew that soon, whatever it was would be within range of a shot. He watched the road headed east, as it dropped off in a great ridge, framed by enormous trees.
Dutcher’s story began to slow. The sound of the approaching horse was too loud to ignore. A distant, guttural neigh alerted both of them, and slowly, Hayward rose, peering just above the bush, watching the horizon of the road. A faint orange glow flickered east.
“Hellfire …” Dutcher whispered in the dark, his lips quivering, more from fright than the cold air. Their horses neighed softly, lifting their heads and snorting.
All sound seemed to escape the area surrounding the bridge. Hayward looked toward the graveyard, half-expecting to see the spirits of spectral nightmares emerging from the ground, but there was nothing. Hayward had fought in the war. He had seen bloodshed firsthand countless times. He tightened his grip on the sabre hanging from his hip.
Yet now, in this moment, hiding in a bush with a moron, Hayward knew the true meaning of fear. He watched it break over the horizon, galloping hard on a black steed in the night. Hayward produced a spyglass, a remnant of his days with the Culper Spy Ring during the war and peered through.
The Headless Horseman. In all his nightmarish glory. The specter was massive. Far larger than any of the descriptions Hayward had heard throughout the years. Even without a head, it towered over himself and Dutcher, maybe even Brom, who was the tallest of their meager group.
The Horseman’s steed. Under normal circumstances, one might find a creature like this rotting in a field, but instead, it stood, muscles and ribcage visible in sections, half of its skull steaming in the damp, cool night. Strings of sinew clung to the horse’s exposed ribs, dangling, wet-looking, in the moonlight.
“My God …” Hayward muttered under his breath, as he clutched his musket tighter. “Go to the horses, Dutcher. See to them.”
The horses, meanwhile, had begun to neigh, disturbed by the presence of the Horseman, even at such a distance.
The Horseman sat in his saddle. If he had a head, Hayward might have imagined him watching the bush. He simply sat, motionless, his horse breathing heavy in the night, casting steam from the exposed portions of its skull in the cold.
Hayward glanced toward Dutcher, who had gotten the horses under control.
The Horseman remained, steady and focused on the bridge.
“He knows we’re here …” Hayward whispered.
Without warning, the sound of a musket shot pierced Hayward’s ear and he turned, startled at the sound. Brom Bones stood on the opposite side of the river, weapon smoking from the discharge.
“Ride, you hobgoblin! Ride to me!” Brom shouted, reloading his musket.
The Horseman circled quickly, and in an explosion of speed, tore off toward the bridge, and Hayward panicked. The Constable raised his musket and prepared to fire, waiting until he knew for sure that he could hit the spirit, when without warning, he was pushed to the ground by Dutcher, on horseback.
“Here! Here!” cried Dutcher, waving one arm, while holding the reins of the horse with his other.
“Dutcher, you fool!” Brom screamed, finishing reloading his musket.
Dutcher tore toward the Horseman, then stopped, turning back toward the bridge quickly, attempting to bait the ghoul. The Horseman brandished an enormous blade, and charged, gaining on Dutcher quickly.
In the blink of an eye, the Horseman’s neck erupted in an explosion of flame, and a Jack-O’-Lantern appeared, grinning madly, engulfed in fire. Hayward was frozen by the intensity of the orange glow in the night and watched as the Horseman simply raised his arm and pointed at Dutcher.
With impossible accuracy, the grinning gourd flew at Dutcher, a sound not unlike a scream piercing the night. The pumpkin collided hard and knocked the man from his saddle.
In an instant, the Horseman closed on Dutcher, whose head hung limply, shocked from the collision and the fall. He stirred a moment, and turned, as the Horseman brandished an enormous blade and with a flash, severed Dutcher’s head clean from his shoulders.
Dutcher’s horse whinnied, pitched up on its back legs, and Dutcher’s lifeless body crumpled to the mud.
Aranck emerged from the embankment, musket and pistol at the ready. He stood, side by side with Brom, and raised his weapon. The Horseman continued his charge, and when he was about twenty yards away from the two young men, Hayward emerged from the bush and fired a shot.
The Horseman spun, and up close, Hayward could see another column of fire emerge from the Horseman’s shoulders. Another Jack-O’-Lantern appeared, with the same angry expression as the one previous.
The Horseman turned from Aranck and Brom and started back toward Hayward.
“Boys, run!” Hayward screamed, slipping down into the eastern embankment. He quickly gathered himself and climbed on his horse, tearing off north of the river, along the rocky shore.
Aranck and Brom climbed on their horses and tore off north as well, but on the western bank, desperate to keep pace with Hayward and the Horseman.
They watched the Horseman gain ground on the Constable, sword held high, ready to strike.
“Father! Ride! Ride hard!” Aranck screamed.
Brom raised his pistol and fired a shot, which, were The Horseman a living being, would’ve easily downed him, but instead did nothing. The Horseman slowed a touch and turned, its great Jack-O’-Lantern skull igniting in an orange fireball.
“Up there! The river narrows!” Brom shouted as they approached a natural rock bridge between the two banks.
Kicking his horse in the ribs hard, Aranck raced toward the rocks, and crossed quickly, his horse stumbling a moment, as it tried to gain footing.
“Father, I’m here!”
The two rode, side by side, as Brom crossed the rocky area, as well, slowing his horse and placing himself behind the Headless Horseman.
“Keep riding, you fools!” Brom screamed.
The Horseman, in one motion, turned, and with the same gesture that nailed Dutcher, soared his gourd at Brom.
With incredible speed, Brom ducked and the Jack-O’-Lantern flew past his head. Brom watched as the Jack-O’-Lantern exploded behind him in a riot of fire and orange husk.
When Brom turned back around, he could barely believe his eyes as the area where the Horseman’s head should be suddenly erupted into towering orange flames. In an instant, they formed another Jack-O’-Lantern, and Brom rode harder, drawing his pistol.
As he took aim at the Horseman, the spirit seemed to anticipate the man’s moves, and reacted by lobbing his new-formed pumpkin head directly at Brom. This time, the Jack-O’-Lantern exploded in Brom’s face, tearing the strong Dutchman from his saddle, and slamming him to the mud.
He rolled onto his side and watched as the Horseman bore down on him, high in his saddle.
“Do your worst, hellspawn …” Brom said, spitting a loosened tooth from his mouth.
The Horseman climbed down from his saddle and stood. He drew his sabre and stalked toward Brom. The blade still dripped with Fred Dutcher’s blood.
Suddenly, two shots rang out, the Headless Horseman lurched forward, roaring into the night sky in agony.
Brom braced himself for the end, but when it didn’t come, he opened his eyes and looked up.
The Horseman touched a gloved hand to his own chest. Rivulets of fire began to form from the two spots where the rounds tore through him, followed by strings of orange-red goo, strands of pumpkin innards, seeds barely hanging on as the gourd meat dripped from The Horseman’s chest.
The Horseman turned, and watched as Aranck and Hayward sat on horseback, reloading their muskets thirty yards north of the river.
“You are running him down! He is bleeding!” Brom screamed, before being stabbed in the shoulder by the Horseman.
In a flash of orange fury, another Jack-O’-Lantern formed on the Horseman’s shoulders, and he turned, stalking toward his horse. Quickly, he climbed back into his saddle and tore off toward Aranck and Hayward.
“We have to get him to the other side of the river, we have to trick him across,” Aranck said, frantically.
Hayward turned to his son and pushed him from his horse. He threw his musket down at the boy’s feet and turned back to the Horseman, who was gaining on them quickly.
“Hyah!” Hayward shouted, tearing further north of the river, forcing his horse into the shallow depths, trudging through water and mud.
The Horseman followed close behind.
“Come on, you old nag, come on!” Hayward’s horse darted more to the center of the river, deep, but still passable, and whinnied in the dark.
The Horseman gained on Hayward across the river, and in a terrifying explosion of mud, water, pumpkin and fire, their horses collided.
Hayward lay, face down in the mud, staring at the smiling Jack-O’-Lantern face of Sleepy Hollow’s notorious nightmare, who lay still in the shallow waters of the river that served as a natural barrier between Sleepy Hollow and regions due west.
The Horseman rose, as did Hayward. Slashing with his sabre, the Horseman gained on Hayward quickly, but Hayward met the demon’s blade with his own, with a clash of steel on steel.
Hayward stumbled in the shallow waters, as did the Horseman. Their sabres collided repeatedly, sparks of fire flickering into the night. The Constable noted that the demon had slowed considerably, the water washing over its boots.
Hayward, his only recourse a pure defense, as he stumbled further and further backward, his boots heavy, sodden with mud. He could feel his heart pounding, as though it could tear free of his chest at any moment.
They fought, The Horseman, though weakened, was still the better of the two. Hayward, one eye on Aranck on the eastern side of the river, and another on Brom Bones, bleeding, struggling in the mud.
Each attack of the Horseman forced Hayward backward, and sapped the Constable’s energy. Eventually, Hayward fell to the banks of the river, exhausted and reeling from the barrage of sword-on-sword pressure unleashed by The Horseman.
More gunshots. The Horseman froze in place. Turning, the specter spotted Aranck standing along the edge of the river, dual pistols raised, smoking in the moonlight.
The Horseman touched his wounds. He was dripping pumpkin innards at a rapid pace, and Hayward rose slowly behind him. The Horseman began stalking toward Aranck as the boy fumbled for the musket slung over his shoulder.
Hayward wrapped his strong arms around The Horseman and held him firmly in place in the center of the river, water sloshing around their ankles, soaking them both. On unsteady, exhausted legs, Hayward began dragging The Horseman backward, closer to the opposite side of the shore. The spirit had begun to slow, proving that the flesh truly was weak.
Once across, the demon got one of his arms loose, raised his sabre and ran himself through, the blade passing through himself, and out his back, into Hayward’s chest, locking the two of them together.
“See you in hell, demon …” Hayward whispered to The Horseman before sliding off the end of the blade and collapsing to the rocks on the western side of the river. “Now, Aranck! Shoot him now!” Hayward screamed.
On the second “now” Aranck fired. The round soared across the river and slammed directly into the Jack-O’-Lantern resting upon the shoulders of the Headless Horseman. The flaming gourd erupted in a torrent of hellfire and pumpkin pieces, splattering all over the Constable, as well as the side of the river.
Aranck splashed through the water to his father. He stared at the motionless body of The Horseman, sabre resting just out of reach. Aranck picked the blade up as it slowly withered in his hand, the steel rusting and turning to dust. The body of the Horseman followed suit, rotting at a rapid pace, before dissolving along the banks of the river.
Even the shattered pieces of Jack-O’-Lantern rotted quickly, browning and turning to mush.
Aranck knelt beside Hayward, and placed his hand on his father’s chest, in a futile effort to stem the blood loss.
Hayward smiled up at the boy. He caressed his cheek. Brushed a strand of long, black hair from his face. “My sweet boy. That was … a spirited shot.”
Aranck smiled. “Let’s get you back into town, father …”
Hayward coughed, flecks of crimson escaping his mouth, dotting his chin and lips. “I don’t think there’s … much … time for that.”
Tears welled in the boy’s eyes.
Aranck turned and spotted Brom, standing nearby, the horses reined. Slowly, Hayward’s son shook his head.
Brom knelt down, favoring his own wound, still holding the reins, and watched as the Constable took slow, labored breaths. The forest around the river grew eerily quiet, with nary the sound of an owl to pierce the night.
“I love you, father, I’m so sorry …”
Hayward squeezed his son’s hand. “Watch over them, Aranck. Care for them.”
Hayward’s breath quickened a moment, then slowed. The steam of his breath danced in the air, curling, flitting about, until finally, it was gone.
Aranck lowered his head and quietly said a Wecquaesgeek prayer taught to him by his mother, long ago, during one of their treks into the woods.
The following morning, Aranck and Brom buried Constable Hayward’s body in the family plot in the churchyard. It was a solemn ceremony, and Aranck was touched by the arrival of so many folks from Sleepy Hollow and the surrounding areas.
Katrina stood for a long time at Hayward’s grave, alongside Squire Van Tassel. She placed a small bouquet of milkweed and yarrow on his casket and told Aranck how sorry she was for his loss.
Nanepaishot came, disguised as a child. She and Aranck spoke of the woods being calm. Of how she couldn’t sense Yotoanit any longer in the foothills or along the rivers of Sleepy Hollow.
“The people are safe, then?” Aranck asked, kneeling, eye level with the powerful spirit of the region.
“There are many things yet to be feared, but Yotoanit is no longer one of them. Your father was a brave man. He gave these people a wonderful gift with his passing.”
“You are that gift, Aranck. It is a great burden to protect these people. But you can bear such a burden.”
Again, the boy nodded.
“If ever you need my counsel, you know where to find me.”
With that, Nanepaishot turned, and walked off into the tree line. Aranck could make out the tiniest wisp of black smoke trailing behind her.
The young man turned and spotted Brom Bones standing behind him, nervously fumbling with his hat, the bandages on his chest visible under his finest dress shirt.
“I wanted to tell you how sorry I am. Your father and I didn’t always see eye to eye on things, but he was a good man. He kept us all safe.”
Aranck nodded. “He did.”
“Heard Squire Van Tassel wants to make you the new Constable.”
Brom stepped closer to Aranck. He patted the boy on the shoulder. “I don’t think anyone’s better suited.”
“Thank you, Brom.”
“If you ever need someone to get their hands dirty out there. In the forest. In the mountains. I’m your man.”
Aranck smiled. “There is comfort in having a half-bear, half-bull, half-wildcat by my side.”
Brom put his arm around Aranck’s shoulder. “You know where to find me.”
Brom started off toward the pub as brown, red and gold leaves fell from the trees scattered around the churchyard, mingling with the snowfall from the day before.
Warm color against a white canvas.
J is for Jack-o’-Lantern is available for Kindle and in paperback.
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Her Infernal Name & Other Nightmares by Robert P. Ottone is available here.