The Wild Ride of Cormac O’Toole
By Jeff Baker
My Grandmother told me to avoid Summit Street. Especially after dark. It wasn’t in a bad part of town, just on the outskirts of Irvington, Kansas. That’s the little town right on the Kansas-Missouri border I grew up in. And it has a history.
The Battle of Irvington took place on October 24, 1864 towards the end of the Civil War. Two groups of stragglers from Union and Confederate armies suddenly came across each other on the old Summit Road and started shooting at each other. Owing to the fact that they were tired and hadn’t eaten in two days they largely missed each other. That was until Cormac O’Toole, a young Private attached to Major Price as a messenger and assigned to locate the stragglers had the bad luck to find them. Two groups who couldn’t have hit the backside of a barn managed to fire at a moving target and blow off Private O’Toole’s head. Since then, on dark nights, a shadowy, headless figure on a horse has been seen riding down the old Summit Road (which became Summit Street)
I was sixteen years old in the Fall of 1977 when Johnny Foster talked me into playing a trick on the people in town. He told me to bring some of our friends out to where Summit ran through the woods on the Kansas-Missouri border. Right around dusk. I knew Johnny so I got out there about an hour early and walked down the road calling out his name. The leaves were golden and a few of them were falling to the ground when I saw the dark figure amid the trees. It’s Kansas and we don’t have redwoods or anything, but the trees were tall and the shadows were long and it was getting close to Halloween. I stared. The figure was a man on a black horse. There was nothing above the upturned coat collar. I backed up a step as the horse and rider moved out from behind the trees. Then I took a more careful look. Something about the clothes…
“Johnny Foster, you come right over here!” I yelled, trying not to sound as scared as I was. “Your wardrobe is about eighty years out-of-date for the Civil War! It looks like you got it for the Bicentennial!”
I heard laughing and the rider pulled down his collar. Yeah, Johnny.
“Whadya think?” Johnny said. “Think it’ll fool ‘em?”
“Once it gets dark enough it might,” I said. “Where did you get the horse?”
“My Dad’s cousin,” Johnny said. “He raises them. This one he put out to pasture a long time ago.” I walked up to them. The horse was old and a little out of shape, more suited to Don Quixote than Sleepy Hollow. And Johnny’s outfit was from some show they’d had the year before about the American Revolution. I was about to say something when the horse suddenly looked up. A cold wind started blowing and it got dark. I looked up; there was no storm, no clouds, nothing! Johnny and I stared at each other. Hoofbeats! Johnny’s horse whinnied in alarm.
Before we could do anything a dark figure surged out of the darkness. A lean wild-eyed horse and a lean rider, both of them shadowy but distinct enough to see the rider had no head. And there was no long coat with a collar to conceal a head, just a grey military uniform. No braid, no hat.
And no head.
It didn’t stop. It raced right past us accompanied by a frigid breeze. It ran up the road and the wind swirled the leaves and the strange darkness enveloped the figure and faded. It was the same near-twilight as before. Johnny and I were breathing hard and so was the horse.
Johnny returned the costume to the theater he’d gotten it from and must have ridden the horse back to his Dad’s cousin’s farm. Me, I ran home and locked the door behind me and stayed up that night with the lights on.
And I stayed away from where Summit Street stretches outside of town. When they routed the highway on the other side of Irvington stretching into Oklahoma and Missouri, I always took that, even if it was out of my way.
And I always tell my kids to stay off Summit Street outside of town. Especially after dark.