Summary: The Wailing Widow is just a local legend, but Little Joe, Mitch, and Sally Lynn may convince a certain teacher that legends do come true. Written for the 2017 Michael Landon Birthday Challenge.
Rating: K+ Word Count: 4009
The Wrath of the Wailing Widow
“Whose it goanna be this year?” Sally Lynn flopped down in front of Little Joe Cartwright and then demurely adjusted her skirts.
Little Joe swallowed his half-chewed bite of molasses cookie. “Whose it gonna be? What are you talking about, girl?”
“Whose gonna be the victim of your All Hallows’ Eve prank this year?”
“Who said I’m gonna prank anybody?”
Sally Lynn smirked. “Tell me a year you ain’t tried to prank somebody.”
Little Joe took another bite, chewed, and swallowed before answering. “Well, there is that, but maybe I learned my lesson about pranks. My Pa wasn’t best pleased about what happened last year.”
“Even your Pa would have thought that was funny if he hadn’t ended up paying for Doc Martin’s services.”
Little Joe sighed. “I didn’t mean for nobody to get really hurt.”
“It was only two stiches. Mitch has had lots more stitches than that. He don’t hold it against you.”
“I know he don’t; he was in on the joke, but … well, maybe I want to spend just one All Saints’ Day sitting instead of standing.”
Sally Lynn pulled her knees beneath her chin and wrapped her arms around her legs. “Umm, maybe, or maybe you just ain’t figured out a good enough prank.”
“Maybe I just ain’t telling you.” Little Joe delivered a smirk he had perfected many years before. Sally Lynn, as she had many times previously, ignored it. “What’s it matter to you anyhow. You know I promised Mitch I wouldn’t prank you, so you ain’t got nothing to worry about.”
Sally Lynn’s lips curled upwards. “I wasn’t worrying; I was thinking.”
A chill ran down Little Joe’s spine. “You and thinking don’t go together too well. Leastways not the kind of thinking I’m thinking you were doing.”
“Now, Joe… you know what the trouble is with most of your pranks?” Little Joe glared silently, but Sally Lynn continued. “Your pranks always point the finger at you, and you get caught out even if they work just like you planned. Adam and Ross would have had you pleading for mercy even if Mitch hadn’t ended up bleeding all over your floor.”
Little Joe chewed the corner of his lip; Sally Lynn had a point; he had never actually pulled a prank and remained an unknown perpetrator.
“It’s much more satisfying if nobody can prove you did it.” Sally Lynn’s eyes held an identifiable gleam.
“If you know so much about pranking, why are you talking to me?”
“Sometimes two heads are better than one.” Sally Lynn’s eyes roved over the schoolyard checking on the privacy of their current situation. “You’re good at ideas, Little Joe; I have to give you that. “I’m good at refinement, execution, and concealment.” Little Joe’s eyebrow rose in imitation of his older brother. Sally Lynn shrugged one shoulder. “You’ll have to trust me on that.”
“We’ll have to trust each other.”
Little Joe studied the girl before him. “You’ve got somebody picked out, don’t you?”
Sally Lynn leaned closer, but her whisper barely reached Little Joe’s ear. “You’ve never pranked a teacher.”
Little Joe gasped, and his eyes widened. “No, way! There’s a reason I ain’t never tried to prank a teacher none. Ain’t no prank worth getting killed three times over.”
“Pa, Adam, and the teacher.”
“You don’t have to worry about getting killed even once if no one can prove we did it. Unless you don’t think you can keep from confessing.”
“I don’t like lying to my Pa, Sally Lynn.”
“And you think I do?”
“I think it comes a whole lot easier to you than to most.”
Sally Lynn dropped her gaze to her lap. “I guess you got reason to think that.”
Little Joe shifted uncomfortably at the aching he heard in her voice. “No… I mean that’s in the past; I don’t… I’m not calling you a liar… I just… You really want to prank Mr. Smithfield?”
Sally Lynn glanced up at Little Joe through her lashes and softly breathed out two words. “Don’t you?”
The bell rang to call the students back to the classroom drowning any answer Little Joe might have given, but the yes in his heart was clear in his eyes.
Little Joe settled into his desk and opened his history text, yet his eyes kept glancing up to observe Mr. Smithfield as the teacher worked with the younger students on their math. Joe chewed the corner of his bottom lip as he considered just why all the students disliked the man so much. Many of the parents thought it was just that Mr. Smithfield had replaced the much liked Miss Cutler when she married and moved away at the end of the last school term, but Little Joe knew there was more. Mr. Smithfield’s assignments were no more arduous nor his discipline any stricter; proper behavior, obedience, and effort had always been expected within the school walls. No, it was the man himself that the children disliked. Anson Smithfield’s correction came with condescension. His skill at belittling his students with subtle tones, meaningful glances, and double-edged comments that when repeated to parents would appear totally different in implication was well-honed and practiced on even the youngest pupils. Little Joe knew that the return of any essay penned by himself came with an illusion to his left-handedness that made clear the inferiority of that condition. For little Evie Sanders, each day brought a reminder that her lisp made her less adequate in the teacher’s eyes. As he watched the little girl wave her hand to give an answer and then drop her head to sit with shoulders slumped after Mr. Smithfield’s correction of not her subtraction but her pronunciation, Little Joe made his decision. Catching the attention of Sally Lynn, he glanced at the teacher and solemnly nodded his head. Sally Lynn smiled and returned her eyes to her history book content that Little Joe Cartwright was in her camp.
“Do you have an idea?” Sally Lynn made it clear that she felt overnight was sufficient time for Little Joe to have conceived a plan.
“I’ve been thinking on it.” Little Joe reached out, grabbed Sally Lynn’s wrist, and pulled her further around the corner of the schoolhouse and into the shadow of the eaves. “Do you remember when the three best essays were read?”
Sally Lynn nodded. Each time Mr. Smithfield assigned an essay or story to be written, he would choose one to three that he considered worthy and have them read aloud. The assignment to write about a tale or legend had resulted in three readings. Actually, the entire school had enjoyed listening to their classmates efforts if not to the pride-deflating remarks from Mr. Smithfield to each author. “Of course, but…”
“Well, it’s just I noticed… well, when Tuck read his about the Wailing Widow, well, Mr. Smithfield seemed, well, it seemed as if the story made him, umm, nervous.”
“Yea, nervous or anxious-like, maybe. Anyway, I think he’s the kind that could be scared, not just startled but scared, by the appearance on All Hallows’ Eve of our own Wailing Widow.”
Sally Lynn bit the fingernail on her thumb. “Ummmm, and we make the widow appear? Where?”
“He’ll pass Siddon’s old livery barn on the way back home from the town social. I’m thinking we could rig something up with the hay pulley and have that Wailing Widow fly right toward the road.”
“Can we be sure that he’ll come to the social?”
Little Joe grinned. “The church ladies are setting out a spread of pies and cake. Mr. Smithfield ain’t missed one chance to eat free food since the day he came.” Sally Lynn smiled in agreement. “So we rig up something with an old dress, maybe, and…”
“No, no, that’s not good enough.” Sally Lynn’s eyes glowed. “We rig up a real live wailing widow that will scare the pants off him and have him running back to town screaming.”
Sally Lynn nodded in assurance. “Me, Joe. I can be the wailing widow. If we wouldn’t get caught out, I’d give ya an example of just how fine I can wail. I….well, just don’t you worry if you can figure out how to make me fly, I can make a costume…”
“Wait, I don’t know about you flying.” Joe chewed his bottom lip. “It might not be real safe, and I don’t want you getting hurt.” Sally Lynn cocked her head. “Well, I’d never sit again if I let a girl get hurt.”
“I’ll see to it that you make it safe. I want to get Mr. Smithfield, but I ain’t no fool.” Little Joe cocked his own head. Sally Lynn’s hand flounced dismissively. “The fire was because of the whiskey. We won’t be drinking at the social.” Sally Lynn bit her fingernail again. “But I’ve been thinking too, and there is something else to consider if we don’t want to be caught out.”
“If you don’t prank anybody, well, someone’s gonna wonder if the prank everybody knows about is yours, and I want everybody to hear Mr. Smithfield scream.”
Little Joe drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Everybody might not wonder, but Adam…” Joe let out a deep sigh. “Adam would figure it out and try to have it out of me.”
“I thought as much, so you just have to prank somebody.”
“I do? I thought I was gonna get to sit the next day.”
“Oh, you will, ‘cause it will be just some little foolishness your pa can let pass with a scolding because you learned to have more sense than what you’ve tried before. Especially when your victim is quick to forgive you.”
“Me. You will prank me.”
“I promised Mitch…”
Sally Lynn’s hand brushed the objection away. “Wait, yes, that’s it. We could use another partner, and Mitch is it.”
“Sally Lynn, what are you thinking?”
“There’s some details to work on, but basically I play the wailing widow, you and Mitch make me fly ‘cause it’s bound to be easier with two, and nobody thinks about it being you or Mitch even them that figure what scared Mr. Smithfield was a prank because just that time is when everybody we tell thinks you and Mitch were pulling a prank on me. Nothing to worry about.”
“No, nothing, nothing but the details.” Little Joe heard Adam’s voice in his head. The devil is always in the details, kid.
The school bell rang, and both children ran since neither could afford to be late.
Little Joe had to admit that Sally Lynn had been helpful with the details. In fact, by All Hallows’ Eve Little Joe had decided that any powers that be, whether angels or perhaps devils in this case, were in favor of this endeavor because step by step everything had fallen into place. Mitch had been installed as a most eager third conspirator. Sally Lynn and Little Joe had staged a schoolyard argument that would deter their classmates from considering the possibility of any collaboration between the two; it would also lend credence to Mitch and Little Joe concentrating their All Hallows’ trickery on Sally Lynn. The needed materials were all carefully collected. Nothing was used that could be recognized as belonging to one of the three even by members of their respective families. Nothing was used that would later be noticed as missing except what would be used in the fake prank. Safety was kept in mind, and the appearance of the Wailing Widow had been scaled back from the first enthusiastic proposals, and the boys had even practiced raising Sally Lynn to hang in the air. None of the three had mentioned the Wailing Widow to anyone or shown any extra interest in the subject, yet several discussions of the legend had been overheard by Mr. Smithfield. Sally Lynn had told the man how her mother and several other ladies from the church were looking forward to the teacher trying their bake goods, and Mr. Smithfield had shown a rare enthusiasm in stating the he would most assuredly attend the social on All Hallows’ Eve. Preparations had been completed, and the three children were currently enjoying the town’s All Hallows’ Eve festivities which had been organized to deter the young ones from engaging in the traditional mischief for which the night was known.
Little Joe took another bite of the apple which was proof of his prowess at bobbing, and watched as Mr. Smithfield set down another empty plate. He turned to Mitch. “That was his third piece of pie.”
Mitch nodded. “And he had two pieces of cake before that, and I don’t know how many cookies. Don’t know where he’s putting it.”
“Even if he’s got a hollow leg, I don’t see him eating much more. Don’t see him staying much after he finishes either. There’s not many people in town he thinks worthy of conversation.” Little Joe moved his head, and Mitch took a quick look over his shoulder. Sally Lynn was offering a plate to Mr. Smithfield. The teacher said something and took the plate. Sally Lynn turned in the boys’ direction and gave a slight nod of her head. “Time to go.” Little Joe and Mitch started toward the door. Since they had to pass Hoss, Little Joe mouthed “Going to the necessary,” and the boys slipped outside. As soon as they were sure they would be lost in the shadows should anyone look their way, the two boys took off at a dead run. Ducking under the eaves of the abandoned livery, they uncovered and checked the rope harness until Sally Lynn arrived five minutes later.
“He said that was the last thing he could manage to eat.” Sally Lynn rolled her eyes, but there was not enough light for the boys to see her that clearly. Lighting a fire or a torch had been discussed, but the idea had been abandoned as too dangerous at Little Joe’s instance. A nearly full moon, though, would provide enough light for the prank to be possible and effective. “He said he was leaving right after, so we best hurry.”
Sally Lynn’s costume was a simple one, an old bed sheet covering her from neck to toe with a powered face. Not a particularly effective ghost but a common enough one so that there were at least a dozen other children similarly clad. Sally Lynn put her arms through a rope harness that the boys had attached to the pulley that had once lifted loads of hay and feed into the livery’s loft. The ropes of the harness were covered with strips of dangling cotton that blended into the sheet and gave added length to the widow’s stature. Little Joe tied the ropes tightly around Sally Lynn. He tugged and then tugged again, but he was not really concerned; his Pa had taught him how to tie a proper knot. At the same time, Mitch picked up a half-broken pot scavenged from a refuse heap, and dipped his hand into it.
Sally Lynn shuddered but nodded. Mitch proceeded to smear the pond slime they had gathered over her face and onto her flowing hair. He took a step back and smiled. Sally Lynn’s hair had darkened and along with her face held an unnatural sheen. From even a slight distance she would be unrecognizable in the moonlight.
Sally spit. “Get set then.”
The boys opened the wide door slightly moving into the interior shadows while Sally Lynn stood in the opening. After a few minutes, she looked over her shoulder and nodded. Then she turned and gave a soft call in a high and wispy voice. “Help me! Someone help!” The boys heard a recognizable voice and relished the tremor it contained.
“Is someone there? Is something wrong?”
“Here! Someone hurt me. Here!”
Sally Lynn gave the agreed upon signal, and with perfect timing the boys yanked her into the air as she jumped forward with her arm pointing at the approaching man.
“Youuuuuuuuuuu!” The wail that followed sent shivers down even the boy’s spines.
Anston Smithfield found himself flat on his back staring up at a hovering specter. Everything he had heard about the Wailing Widow and her desire for deathly revenge upon unwary gentlemen flashed across his mind. He whimpered and scuttled backwards. Then scrambling to his feet, he turned and ran screaming back the way he had come.
The three children did not even take a moment to laugh. Sally Lynn was lowered to the ground, the ropes that held her slit, the rope pulled from the pulley, and the worst of the pond slime wiped from Sally Lynn’s face and hair with the strips of dangling cotton. The three children then dashed around the back of the livery, and down an alley. Pausing only to toss the pieces of the widow’s harness into an old manure heap, they raced back toward the lights of the town social. Stopping in the shadows about a block away, they could hear shouting.
“Quick.” Sally Lynn panted and stiffened. Little Joe took a bucket they had tucked out of sight earlier and pour the contents over Sally Lynn’s head. Mitch had already set off running when Little Joe dropped the bucket and started after him. Sally Lynn screamed. Counted to five and took off after the boys.
“HE… I’LL KILL HIM! LITTLE JOE, JUST YOU WAIT!”
Little Joe reached the lights of the social and skidded to a stop. He turned in time to see Hoss snag Sally Lynn as she ran by him in hot pursuit of the two boys. His brother’s arm was around the girl’s waist holding her against his chest while she shouted and struggled to get free. Little Joe started to laugh; the high pitched peals rising above the other sounds around him. Mitch joined him, and the two boys laughed so hard that they had to hold each other up. They laughed until a hand on Little Joe’s shoulder and the sound of Ben Cartwright’s voice put an abrupt end to the hilarity.
Little Joe turned and looked into his father’s face. “Hey, Pa.” He shuffled his feet and ducked his head. Hoss walked up and set Sally Lynn on the ground but kept a hand on her shoulder.
Sally Lynn pointed at the two boys. “They did it!” Ben did not bother to ask what it was. Something thick and sticky was dripping down Sally Lynn’s hair and face staining the bedsheet she wore.
Hoss cleared his throat. “Syrup and …” He sniffed. “Raspberry jam, I think. For a nice red color, I imagine.”
Mitch ventured a softly voiced response. “That’s all it is; nothing to harm her.”
“Besides it makes her costume look a whole lot better. She’s just mad she didn’t think of blood herself.”
“Joseph!” His pa’s tone told Little Joe he would have benefitted from not speaking.
Sally Lynn huffed. “I never!”
“Oh, yes, you have, Sally Lynn.” Sally Lynn’s oldest brother stepped from the crowd to stand beside her. “Mama’s told you before that if you think some days are meant for you to pull pranks, well, then ya got to be ready to have some pulled on you.” He took a step back as Sally Lynn’s elbow connected with his ribs.
Ben studied the girl before him. “Are you all right, Sally Lynn?”
“I’m…I’m…” Her hand swept down her body.
“Is there anything wrong that a good washing won’t fix?”
Sally Lynn gave an exaggerated sigh. “No, so, sir, not really.” Sally Lynn used the bedraggled bedsheet to wipe her face. “No, I guess… well, I should have been waiting for something like this from those two. I guess no harm’s been done, Mr. Cartwright. I was going to wash my hair tomorrow anyway. I guess I can just do it tonight.”
Little Joe held out his hand. “Bygones are bygones then?” Sally Lynn took his hand and shook. She then took the hand that Mitch offered and shook it too.
Ben rubbed his chin and cleared his throat. “Well, then I suppose everything is settled, though I believe it would be beneficial for you to spend some time reading your Bible tomorrow afterschool instead going fishing, Joseph. Perhaps Mitch would like to join you.”
Mitch’s eyes dropped to the ground. “If my pa agrees, sir, I’ll be there.”
“I do.” Mitch looked up to see that his parents had arrived on the scene.
“I best round up my brothers and get Sally Lynn home then.” Her brother put his arm around Sally Lynn, and they walked off.
“Hey, why was everybody outside? Where’s Adam?” Little Joe’s eyes glowed with curiosity.
“You weren’t the only excitement tonight. Mr. Smithfield had a scare. Adam went with Roy and some others to investigate.” Hoss looked down at his vest. “I’m thinking that you might spend some time cleaning my jacket tomorrow too.”
“Sure! Sure! But what happened with Mr. Smithfield?” Before anyone answered Little Joe, everyone’s attention was drawn to return of the investigate party.
“It’s too dark to see much, but whatever Smithfield saw it’s not there now. I’ll lay ten to one that somebody was playing a prank, and I’ll find the evidence tomorrow. Is Smithfield inside?” Sherriff Coffee’s eyes scanned the crowd.
“Naw, Clem was seeing him safe home.” Hoss caught his older brother’s eyes in a silent question, but Adam simply shrugged.
“We will be leaving also.” Ben Cartwright took a few moments to make his goodbyes while Little Joe got Hoss’s and Adam’s promises to tell him all the details of Mr. Smithfield’s “scare” on the way home.
Little Joe and Mitch spent longer than they had planned reading the Bible the next day as school was cancelled due to the teacher being indisposed. In fact, school was cancelled for nearly two weeks as Anston Smithfield tendered his resignation, and the schoolboard had to arrange for his replacement. The afternoon before school reopened Little Joe and Mitch were interrupted while fishing.
“What are you doing here, Sally Lynn?”
Sally Lynn swung down from the plow horse she had been riding, and sat down on the bank between the boys. “Visiting.”
“Now, Little Joe is that anyway to greet a …a…” Sally Lynn seemed to search for the correct word.
“It’s how I greet you.”
“A partner in success. That’s what we are: successful partners.”
“One time partners, Sally Lynn, and that partnership is over and best not mentioned.”
Sally Lynn turned and smiled at Little Joe on her right while her left hand moved closer to Mitch’s. “Anybody shown any sign of suspecting any of us even Adam?”
“No. Most folks are pretty sure it was a prank, but nobody knows who or how. All anybody ever found was the slimy broken pot.”
“That’s right.” Mitch nodded in agreement. “I’ve heard at least five different ways people think things happened and at least a dozen names of people who might have done it who ain’t us.”
“Was a few hours with your Bible and missing a little fishing worth the best prank ever played in these parts? You did say that you just wanted to sit on All Saint’s Day.” Sally Lynn’s voice carried its usual smugness.
“Do we ever have to hear Mr. Smithfield’s voice again?”
“No, and that is a service to every child around here.” Little Joe’s attitude brightened.
“We may not be able to take any bows but we’ve all heard the jubilation and know it is due to us.”
Mitch leaned back and gazed up at the sky while slipping his hand over Sally Lynn’s. “It worked, Joe; it work better than I ever thought it could. Heck, I would’ve thought it was worth it even if we had been caught out. You know what Tuck said about seeing the stain on Old Smithfield’s pants, and he weren’t the only one saw it.”
“Yeah. Yeah, somebody up there must have known that he deserved a comeuppance.”
Sally Lynn nodded. “We were just tools of the Lord. We delivered the school children the way Moses delivered the Israelites.”
The boys murmured in agreement and allowed their chests to puff out a bit. “Still, you never come calling without a reason.” Little Joe cocked his eyebrow and settled his eyes on Sally Lynn.
“Your Pa is on the schoolboard. I figured you’d know something about the new teacher. It’s a woman this time, isn’t it?”
“Yeah. She and her ma just came to town about a month ago. Her names Abigail Jones.”