Headless Horseman

Richard Rainey

October 31, 1990|By Richard Rainey

SCOTIA, NEW YORK. — Scotia, New York.

AT THE WISE old age of 6, my son Charley could spot ghosts, pirates and monsters a mile away -- even when we grown-ups couldn't see them. I'd always scan the horizon for monsters and then say, ''They're gone now. They must have seen me coming.'' And that was usually the end of it.

Until the night Charley came upon the dread Headless Horseman.

Charley and his sister Susan, a much older kid fond of pointing out that in about five more years she would be a teen-ager, spent the day at Grandma's while I finished up a spy novel I'd contracted to do.

I finished the novel and made the world safe for democracy again just in time to head over to Grandma's for an all-American home-cooked meal. But first, since my wife was working late that night, I thoughtfully called her up and offered to leave a can of soup on the table for her. Before she could shower me with thanks, I said, ''Gotta go, the kids are waiting . . . ''

It was dark after dinner, and Grandma's long front yard was covered with sheer black ice from the early frost. The wind was in a shrieking mood and it was so cold your second thoughts froze before you could even consider stepping outside.

Unless you were six years old. Charley ran out toward the car, unintentionally sliding the last 20 feet and whooping with delight. Susan and I were still inside, getting our things together when --

SLAM! WHAM! WHEW! Charley ran back into the house, slammed the door shut behind him and barred it from all comers, as he breathlessly tried to look like nothing was the matter.

''What's wrong?'' I asked.

''There's something out there,'' he said.

I looked out the window and all I saw was dark ice and bare trees embracing the yard with their shadowy limbs. ''I don't see anything,'' I said.

''It's got legs and arms,'' Charley said. ''But nothing else. No head. And it's 10 feet tall.''

''Oh Charley,'' Susan said. ''It's nothing to be afraid of. Daddy will go and check it out,'' she said, gently nudging me towards the door.

''Well -- ''

''Dad, don't go,'' Charley said, opening the door for me. ''It's out there. For real!'' He and Susan ushered me outside, skating along on my coat tails as stealthily we clattered towards the headless shadow. ''There it is,'' Charley said. ''See?''

It was there. The full moon cast the shadow of a tilted tree upon a small hill, the stout silhouette looking like a genuine ''thing'' with legs and arms and no head as it shivered across the ice. ''It's only a shadow,'' I said.

''That's what it wants you to think,'' Charley said.

''Dad!'' Susan said. ''What is it?''

''Maybe it's the Headless Horseman,'' I suggested.

L Charley froze. He froze with delight. ''The what?'' he said.

''The Headless Horseman,'' I repeated.

''Who's that?''

''He's a guy with no head,'' I said.

''Dad!'' Susan said. ''Don't fill his head with crazy ideas! You know what Mom says -- ''

''All right,'' I said. We walked over to the shadow, jumped on it a few times to make sure it wouldn't follow us, then got into the car. That was the end of the matter. Until we were halfway home and Charley said, ''Dad?''

''What's the Hedmiss Horslin?''

''You really want me to tell you the story?'' I said. Susan piped up from the back seat. ''No,'' she said. ''You'll scare the kids.'' The kids was her all-purpose cover-up phrase. It came in handy when I'd ask something like, ''Who spilled the cereal on the rug?'' and ++ Susan would say, ''It must have been one of the kids.''

''All right,'' I said. ''I won't tell the story.''

''Good,'' Susan said.

I turned on my favorite radio station, ''the one for all you old people,'' as Susan calls it.

''Okay, Dad, you can tell the story,'' she said.

I snapped off the radio and told them the story of the Headless Horseman who roamed the dark roads on Halloween nights looking for his head. A bit hazy on the details, instead of setting the story in Washington Irving's Catskill Mountains, I may have pointed out a road we passed on our way home as the one that the Headless Horseman rode.

''I think I see him!'' Charley said. ''Look! It's the Hedmiss Horslin! He's on the railroad tracks.''

''Charley, that's horseman,'' Susan said. ''And besides, you don't see him. It's only a story. Right, Dad?''

''Right,'' I said. ''Besides, it's too dark to see him.''

By the time we pulled into the driveway at home, I assured Susan it was only a story and in fact, I had it in one of my books if she wanted me to read it to her. ''No thanks, Dad.''

''How about you, Charley?'' I said. But by then Charley was moving at top speed. Wham! He slammed the car door, raced up the back porch steps and hurtled into the kitchen.

''Mom! Mom! Guess what! We saw the Hedmiss Horslin!''

Mom looked up from her bowl of lukewarm tomato soup and said, ''That's nice, Charley.'' Then she looked up at me from her bowl of lukewarm tomato soup and said, ''What kind of crazy ideas are you putting into his head today?''

''Don't blame me,'' I said, wrapping my arms around Susan and Charley's shoulders. ''I didn't see him. It was the kids.''

Mr. Rainey is the author of ''Phantom Forces, a History of Warfare and the Occult,'' and other books.

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