A Grim Tale: Headless in New York

He settled into the wooden chair he'd pulled up to the table, oblivious of the raucous and high-spirited music being played by a fiddler near the stone hearth, and smiled invitingly at the two gaffers he'd managed to court. Each one's eyes were wide as they considered the pitcher of ale he'd bought them to loosen their tongues. They licked their lips, their little pink tongues darting about their mouths and quivering in anticipation. He didn't want them drunk… but he did want them to tell their story.

Genuinely, he proffered one lace-cuffed hand. "Gentlemen… help yourselves." He then opened his notebook, turning to one of the creamy vellum pages he so liked the feel of… crisp and new and unblemished it lay before him. Pulling out his quill, he expertly sharpened the nub and then opened his small traveling pot of ink. He dipped the quill in, tapped it on the edge of the pot slightly and poised it expectantly over the page.

The two men filled their mugs and drank deeply. One of them smacked his lips in delight while the other rubbed the back of one hand across his beard where specks of ale foam lingered. They met his gaze, amusement sparkling in their eyes as if they were playing a schoolboy prank on the writer.

"It's a true story," one of them finally said.

"Aye. Every word of it true. We were witnesses to part of it."

They both nodded as if agreeing with one another.

He adjusted his spectacles across the bridge of his nose and stroked his beard as he waited.

"The story begins during the war for independence," the man called Hans Bucher began.

The other, named Karl Meinhoffer, nodded. "Aye… that was the beginning of it. My own gaffer said he saw him then."

"Some say he came with the Hessians," Hans continued, "but I think he came on his own. He wore no uniform… and he didn't seem to care whom he killed…"

"Or whose head he took. There was no rhyme… no reason to his actions."

Hans continued, "He ranged up and down the countryside selecting victims at random. He killed men and women of both loyalties… and the occasional child."

"Aye. A friend of my grandfather's… Pietr Holcomb lost his head to the horseman."

The two gaffers drank again, then set their tankards down firmly as they nodded to one another in agreement.

"How old was he?" the writer dared to ask.

"A young fellow… they was just out of school on All Hallows Eve." Karl mumbled. "The black rider came upon them both. His horse's hooves thundered in the dirt, his black cape rippled behind him in the speed of his passing. My grandfather swore to his dying day that he smelled brimstone in the rider's passing."

"Really?" the writer laughed.

"Aye," Karl continued. "The rider bore down on young Pietr and cleaved his head clean off."

"Tell him about the storm," Hans prodded.

"Oh… aye. When he took heads… a thunderstorm always came up. Thunder rolled and lightning flashed, sometimes striking and setting fire to trees. Once 'tis said it lit a scarecrow on fire."

"Surely not every time," the writer chuckled.

"Oh… every time," Hans nodded. "Some said he was the incarnation of Thor, god of thunder, come to remind us of the power of the old gods."

"That's your grandmother talking," Karl ribbed his friend. "Don't take offense at that, sir. He's a good Christian."

The two men nodded their heads.

"Your secret is safe with me," assured the writer smoothly. "Now please… continue."

"Well…" Hans looked around the tavern to be certain that no one else was listening. " The story goes that he was hunted down and killed… several times. Yet each time… he rose again ever more powerful. Some said it was the Continentals what killed him. Others say it were the British. Why… even the town lynching party was said to have gotten into the act once."

Karl nodded as he gulped his ale. "Now he didn't seem to ever come after those what killed him. He seemed to have his eye on others."

The writer smiled indulgently. "I've heard it said that he was headless. Trust me… without a head… no one goes roaring about the countryside."

"Och!" Karl spat, losing his mouthful of ale as he snickered. "Well now… that's where we entered the story."

Hans nodded. "When we was young lads… the town hired a new schoolmaster."

"Aye… Ichabod Crane was his name. Strange fellow."

"How so?" asked the writer as he wrote the name with a flourish. He leaned his face into one upraised hand and regarded the men over his spectacles, which had slid slightly down the length of his nose.

"He wasna from around here. They'd hired him from the city. He was said to have credentials in Latin and Greek. Though why the town burgomeisters thought we lads needed Latin and Greek is beyond me."

"Anyways," Karl continued, "he was dark-haired. Rather like you. And he had a scar running down his face. In any other man it might have given him a dangerous look… but on Ichabod with his spectacles and his mincing air… he jest seemed one who'd fallen over his own feet and bore the mark of it."

The two men guffawed as they eyed one another.

"Did he fall often?" the writer asked.

"Aye… sometimes it was others' feet he fell over," Karl polished off his tankard and gazed mournfully at the empty pitcher.

"Especially after it was known he had a fancy for young Katrinka Von Tassel. Oh she was a looker she was. Not a man in the whole of Sleepy Hollow didn't want to be between her knees. But it was Brom who married her."

"Aye… Brom Wolstein… though they called him Brom Bones for good reason. Any maid who dallied with him knew the truth of that moniker. Katrinka heard of his wanderin' ways while payin' her court. So she like as not encouraged the schoolmaster to make Brom jealous."

The two men nodded at the memory.

"And then All Hallows Eve come round again. A jealous Brom laid plans to frighten the schoolmaster. We helped him with a rig that made it look like he was the horseman… for he'd told Crane the story that day in school, and had added a bit of detail that it was the horseman who was headless."

Hans' expression was thoughtful for a moment. "Old Crane and Katrinka…" he laughed at that bit. "That might be why Brom was hot to trip him up and make a fool of him."

"At the Von Tassel party, Katrinka hung on the schoolmaster's arm all night and paid Brom no mind at all. He drank his ale and growled at the sight of them two dancin' and makin' merry. By the time the party ended and the schoolmaster climbed up on his horse to head home, Brom was in his cups as it were… and ready to ride."

"He roared after Crane as he headed home from the Von Tassel party. Frightened him but good!" The two laughed conspiratorially. "Crane went flying at full gallop back towards the Widow Hauptman's where he had his room."

"And Brom stopped playin' around and courted Katrinka proper… though more than one tongue in town said there was a wee Brom in the oven on their weddin' day."

The two winked at one another.

"Katrinka knew by then the truth of his nickname," laughed Hans. He lifted the empty ale pitcher mournfully and sighed.

"What happened to Crane?" the writer asked. He motioned to the barmaid to refill the pitcher.

"Hmmm? Oh. Never heard from again. He never showed up at the widow's. Never collected his things."

"Not quite true. 'Tis said he married a widow three towns over in Whiskey Gap."

Again the two agreed on the tale.

The writer paused a moment. "Then why is the tale so fascinating if it can all be explained away?"

The two paled and were silent.

"It's what happened later," Hans finally admitted.

Karl nodded. "There was a storm that night of fearsome proportions. It lashed the whole town and so much rain fell that two farms were flooded out by the swollen river. Lightning lit the sky and several trees were torched by it in a clearing a few miles from town."

"And you think the two events were connected?" the writer said skeptically.

"Had to have been. Brom chased old Crane to the old mill bridge and threw a flaming pumpkin after the schoolmaster, who never once looked back. It was as if he were running from the devil himself. We three laughed after him on the road… but he never once stopped or acknowledged the joke. While we was standin' there in the road, alaughin' at Crane… the horseman roared by. We seen him good. All black was his garb, and black his horse. Sparks rose about his horse's hooves as they hit the road. He never gave us no look as he raced after Crane. As it were, we was likely the last to see either of them. The storm came on some time later. Odd thing, you see, the Horseman was never seen again after that night. Not in all these years."

"We think Crane and the real horseman," Karl said with a hint of conspiracy; "met up and… and if it's true that Crane married a widow in Whiskey Gap… then he killed the horseman. If not" he shrugged, " then the horseman killed him and had his fill of takin' heads round these parts and moved on."

The two men poured the fresh ale into their tankards and drank greedily.

The writer made a note on the page… blotted the ink… and closed his book. "This Crane fellow then killed a ghost. And that, as they say, is that," he said evenly to the two men. "This is all a tale of what ifs that add up only to suspicions. This isn't truth."

"Well," Karl finally said. "There's truth and then there's truth."

Hans nodded. "Truth be… there was a horseman what took heads up and down the countryside for some fifty years."

Karl grinned. "Truth… there was a schoolmaster named Ichabod Crane who vanished from this place."

"And truth… after said vanishing… the horseman did not reappear."

"And that bit about Brom Bones and Katrinka… that's the truth." The two laughed again. This was, from their perspective, the real purpose of this tale.

"Then the tale is in the imaginative threads that connect these truths together," the writer mused. "I thank you gentlemen for a most entertaining evening." The writer fluffed his lace cuffs as he rose, giving them both a courtly bow, before collecting his things and heading out into the dark foggy night of Sleepy Hollow. He gave his horse a pat as he replaced his ledger, inkpot in its clasped case, and quills into his saddlebags and refastened the bag with a grin.

"Steady Death old boy," he said soothingly. "I told you they'd never recognize me. Now let's be off. I need to put a far distance between this place and me before dawn. He leaped easily onto the horse's back and rubbed at the scar along the right side of his face, partially hid by the beard as he settled into the saddle. Those two old drunks hadn't even noticed that. And as for anyone coming along behind him and putting two and two together to realize that he'd ever been here… or that he would have hidden himself as an unassuming schoolmaster in order to draw out his prey… he was certain that no one had, or ever would. He rather doubted that the tale would still be told after those two old drunks had died and lay moldering in the grave.

His mind reflected on the events of that long ago time. He'd heard tales of a horseman ranging about the countryside, killing and taking heads. He'd thought, perhaps, that it was one of his brothers. He'd relished the thought of meeting up with one of them again.

As for Katrinka Von Tassel, she'd been a pleasant enough diversion and he'd often wondered if the loutish Brom had ever noticed that Katrinka was not a virgin when he finally bedded her. He smiled warmly, recalling the events of that long ago party, and how he'd made love to Katrinka so thoroughly that she'd hung on him, flushed and obviously besotted, for the remainder of the evening. No wonder poor Brom had been so angry.

In the end, however, the horseman hadn't been his brother. It had just been a rather young, by his standards, immortal, who had cleared the area of immortals without any concern for the rules of the game. He'd discovered upon taking in the horseman's unusually strong quickening, that he'd nevertheless been an immortal after his own particular bent. In hindsight, he wondered if terror and preying upon mortals was not such an old-fashioned way of thinking. Perhaps it would help him find his brothers if he took up the mantle once again.

Whistling a snatch of melody that he'd heard back in the tavern, Kronos headed his horse toward the southwest. It was time to move on.