Ranching and farming is a never ending job with no time clock to punch. If there is such a thing as a vacation or reprieve it is late autumn. The stock is brought down to the somewhat weather guarded valleys and the crop harvest has been stored or sent off to market. It is this time the rancher catches up on little nagging repairs around the homestead and out buildings and there is also a minute or two to enjoy the fall color show along with a fragrant cigar on the porch on a crisp clear day. Another part of the late autumn rituals in the rural areas are the harvest get togethers. These late barn dances and church socials serve to preserve the bond between neighbors, many of which may not see each other again until the spring thaw. Yes indeed these are the palmy days for the ranchers and farmers. It gives them a chance to do what all Americans do from time to time, that is, to take stock of their dreams and hopes. Catalogs are browsed through almost as much as the Good Book. Page after page of machinery, hardware, furniture and the like all promising to make a tough life a little easier….for a price, of course.
The closer October 31 got, and the extra idle time the local boys had at this time of year, always culminated in the sort of mischief that served to prove no matter how much Sunday School one attends there is always an impish streak in boys. No one was saved from the boyish pranks played this time of year. Why even the reverend found out the hard way that his porch step railing was greased the night before with pumpkin guts. As the honorable reverend pulled his hanky and wiped his hand, he got a somewhat sly grin on his face and a twinkle in his eye, perhaps reflecting on his own carefree days as boy. Thinking to himself those are most assuredly the happiest days of ones life, the reverend made his way over to the general store for the coffee he forgot to buy the day before.
Mark would return home a little later in the evenings now, usually a little after dark. Of course Lucas knowing what Mark was up to would put Mark on the spot asking "where ya' been son"? Mark would come up the standard paper thin excuse and Luke would let it go at that. After all Lucas knew he raised Mark right and such Halloween pranks are almost a right of youth. He knew Mark had the sense to not get carried away or do any real or lasting damage.
There was a secretive old lady that lived midway between the McCain ranch and town. The overgown road leading to her shabby dwelling forked of the main wagon trail winding a full three miles before intersecting with another wagon trail that led back to the main road , joining up with it just before Luke's ranch. No one really knew how old the woman was or when she even came to outskirts of Northfork. Seldom were her trips to town but the postmaster recalled her once picking up a letter from back east once, "Massachussets, if I recall corectly" he said. Mark knew of the old bedraggled woman only because he would use that road past her house since he discovered a certain girl in his class lived on the opposite edge off that same road. Yes, Mark McCain had discovered the wounderful uneasy feeling a young teenage girl can cause a young teenage boy.He had been "accidently" meeting up with the coy teen for about a month now on the way to school and stammer and stutter as much as he did when talking to her, they became friends. Well Mark and his playful pals decided to pay the old woman a visit one evening for pre-Halloween pranking. Slipping past a large cast iron scalding kettle suspended on a tripod they approached the cabin, the boys smeared a little lard and lye soap onto her few windows and lined the path to her door with rotten tomatoes. As the boys departed one of them threw a rotten tomatoe at the cabin door to startle the old woman. The tomatoe went astray and broke a small pane of glass to the left of the door. As the old woman pulled open the door Marks eyes locked onto hers, she seemed to pierce right into his very being as she hissed, "I know you, you're evil, and you'll be punished for this"! The other boys yelling "witch" as they ran past the large iron kettle and scattered into the early night.
The announcement came earlier in the week that there was to be a "youth dance & social" at the grange hall just outside of town on Halloween evening and all the youngsters were invited. There was to be a fiddle band, sandwiches, punch, cake, and cookies. After beating around the bush for most of Monday, Mark finally asked his "girl" if should would like to go with him and after letting Mark simmer and stew for a few seconds she agreed.
Mark asked "paw" if he could use the buckboard to pick up his "date" for the dance and Luke said, "I'm sorry son, but I just pulled all the wheels off today to re-spoke them for next year." "But there's always the pony cart you can use". The pony cart! Mark scarcely used that since Luke taught him to ride his first horse. "Besides" Luke said, "The smaller bench on the cart means your date will have to sit a little closer to you…." Mark decided to use the cart partly because they're not many other options and partly because of the small bench! The scarcely year old chestnut colt in the barn would was harness trained and would be capable of pulling the cart easily.
The day of the dance was here and Mark was fidgeting as Lucas tied up the string tie on Mark's Sunday best shirt. "Now I'll be riding over to the Barnes ranch tonight Mark, old man Barnes called a few farmers together and we are going to discuss all chipping in on mechinical corn harvester to help us all at harvest time next year" "I'll expect you to see to the colt after you get home and don't stay out too late. I'll be back in around mid- morning". The dance was a gala affair, quite a mix of local kids of all ages, some of the younger boys placed bugs near the food table and of course the girls acted scared even though they were probably every bit as accustomed to them as the boys. Mark, having long gotton over having to take the pony cart, was having a good time and so was his date. Mark danced so much a lone spear of hair was hanging down onto his forehead and his string tie resembled a loose shoelace.
Well as usually happens, time goes un-noticed and Mark stayed longer than he should have. He brought the pony cart around to the front of grange hall and helped his date into the cart. The ride back was nice, an on again off again breeze was blowing just enough to make the buggy that much more cosier as Marks date clutched his arm and snuggled a bit. Mark arrived at her home and after a peck on the cheek she was on her way into the house and a waiting up mother and father who tried to pretend they were just up reading. Mark reined the colt back onto the narrow road and made his way towards home, reflecting on the night and of course the peck on the cheek!
Before he knew it, the colt seemed to balk and almost prance uneasily in place. Mark noticed he was next to the gap toothed picket fence that began the property line of the old woman's property. As marked tried to steady the colt and get underway again a coal black cat leapt from the bushes landing squarely on the neck of the chestnut colt. The colt bucked and reared and Mark felt as if the entire cart would be toppled over onto him. Mark quickly grabbed the buggy whip from it's holder and began frantically cracking it at the colt to get it moving again. The cat turned full circle it's eyes seemingly glowing Vaseline green and still locked onto the neck of the frightened colt. Finally after what seemed like an eternity, the cat sprang back into the bushes and disappeared. Mark was able to steady the colt and coaxed him back onto the path toward home in a trot. After arriving at the barn Mark quickly unharnessed the colt and lead it to it's stall. The chestnut colt was breathing heavily and blood still ran from the whip marks, exasperated by the animals frantic pulse rate. The colts juvenile knees soon gave way and the colt rolled onto it's side. Thought's began racing through Mark's head. What could he do? It's too late to go into town for help. Will the colt die? He finally decided to pack up some straw around the colt and cover it with a blanket until morning and then go to town for help. Mark had a fitful night tossing and turning scarcely sleeping wink his mind unable to unwind. Finally able to drift off to sleep when Mark arose the fall sun was already over the horizon. Pulling on his boots (he slept in his clothes) Mark raced towards the barn and to what he was sure would be a dead colt. As mark entered the barn there was the chestnut colt standing up and looking no worse for wear. The colt was nuzzling Mark as he inspected the animal in disbelief finding no signs of the trouble the night before, not even a drop of blood on the blanket he covered the colt with
Lucas arrived late in the afternoon that day, much later than he promised Mark. Luke sat down and explained to Mark that there had been a death in the valley and sure enough, it was the mysterious old lady off the beaten path. Luke happened upon the commotion on his way home. Seems the old woman had a large quantity of postage due letters and the postmaster who decided to deliver and collect the money due ran into Luke on the road. They discovered the old woman expired inside the fence on her property. That could be the end of the story but it isn't, the undertaker remarked to Micah that the old woman must have had a tough life as he discovered old welt marks on her back, "probably from some kind of whip or switch" he mused aloud. Even harder to understand he said were the horse hairs found under her fingernails. Oh, and those letters? They were from Massachusetts……a town called Salem.
Happy Halloween from Ol Lucas Boy