Editor's Note: This tall tale was one of the entries in the 2016 Top of the Lake Art Festival short story contest.
OKEECHOBEE -- Most Florida towns have ghost stories. Okeechobee is no exception. Around the campfire, cow hunters recount seeing ghosts of those swept away by the hurricane of 1928. Old timers claim to have seen the ghosts of the soldiers slain by Seminole Indians in the bloody Battle of Okeechobee. There are even tales of a spectral beauty who roams Everglades Cemetery on foggy mornings just at dawn, only to disappear when touched by the rays of the rising sun.
Okeechobee has plenty of frightful tales for children to whisper about and scare their younger siblings. Most of the time, adults pay little mind. But there is one legend the town fathers conspired to silence. Now, as the City of Okeechobee passes its 100th year, it is time to tell the story of John “Cracker Jack” Collins.
Cracker Jack showed up just as the town was making things official back in 1915, shedding the name of “Tantie” in favor of the more official sounding “Okeechobee.” Perhaps this inspired Jack to reinvent himself. No one knows exactly where he came from. He rarely spun the tale the same way twice. After a few drinks at Bryant’s Rough House Saloon, Jack claimed that he was born on a ship off the coast of Australia. Seeking work at a cow camp near Fort Drum, Jack related tales of life as a child in Indian Territory in Oklahoma. While recovering from a bad case of flu, Jack told Doc Anna Darrow he was raised on a small farm in Illinois.
Jack never let the facts get in the way of making his stories more interesting.
Even his name came with different possible origins. He might say he was called “Cracker Jack” for his skill in cracking a cow whip. He sometimes claimed his moniker was given to him by the ladies in the Yee Haw Junction brothel. In another version, his own mother declared he was a “Cracker Jack,” the smartest and best looking of her 15 children.
Jack claimed to be a distant relative of fisherman turned town marshal, “Pogy Bill” Collins. When Pogy denied any relation, Jack explained he was the black sheep of the family. On the not infrequent occasions when Jack wound up in jail, he joked that he was simply visiting his cousin.
While Jack would brag about anything and everything, he was most proud of his horse, a big bay mare named Boo. Some days he claimed that Boo was the descendant of English racehorses, and that he and the horse were survivors of a shipwreck. Other days he might say Boo was a gift from Sitting Bull. In another version of the story, Boo’s sire was an Arabian stallion and her dam was a plow horse.
While the horse’s bloodline was often doubted, there was no question about her speed. Boo proved time and again to be the fastest horse in the Big Lake area. Jack was always on the lookout for others to challenge.
Jack did not have a regular home. When he tired of camping on the prairie, he would trade a few days labor for room and board. He never stayed anywhere very long, as even with all of the variations he threw in to keep things interesting, folks eventually tired of his boastful stories.
This is how he came to meet Laura, the daughter of a rancher.
Jack slept in their barn, but took his meals with the family. Teenaged Laura, bored with her isolated life, was fascinated by Jack’s stories. Aware that his daughter romanticized outlaws, her father worried that Laura was getting too fond of the disreputable Jack.
Passenger train service had reached Okeechobee, and Laura’s father decided to send her to stay with relatives in Pennsylvania.
On the day Laura left, she was disappointed that Jack did not come to the station to see her off. She imagined he would beg her to stay or at least promise to wait for her return.
The train pulled away and had begun to gain speed when Laura heard shouts from other passengers who were crowding over to the windows on one side of the train. She was rather unladylike as she pushed her way through the crowd to see what the fuss was about, hoping it was something exciting, like a train robbery. Laura was delighted to see Jack racing toward the train on Boo. The bay mare seemed to fly as she covered the ground.
The passengers cheered as the horseman raced alongside the train. This was a story they could tell their friends. The horse was so fast, she could beat a train!
As the train slowed for a curve, Jack saw his chance; he urged Boo to quicken her pace and then turned the mare sharp to cross the tracks just ahead of the engine. By this time, the passengers were hanging out the train windows, screaming their cheers. Laura tried to push her way across the aisle, but this time those who had secured good viewing spots did not budge. And would turn out to be a kindness, as Laura did not see what happened next.
Cracker Jack beamed as the passengers shouted their congratulations. He yanked back on the reins and kicked the mare, causing her to rear, and was rewarded with even louder cheers. One hand on the reins, he grabbed his hat to wave it as the train passed. Jack was so intent of obtaining more adulation that he didn’t realize he had caused the mare to stagger forward, and the sweep of his hand caused his mount to lose her balance. Boo fell with a heavy thud against the moving train, sending Jack under the wheels.
Cheers turned to screams of horror. By the time the engineer could stop the train, there was little left of Jack. His head was severed from his body.
Cracker Jack finally had a story that could top all others, the story everyone in town was talking about, but he was not alive to enjoy it. That did not stop him from trying.
Jack, now a headless ghost, was even more tiresome that he was in life. Any time someone started to tell the story of Cracker Jack, the ghost would appear, and if the tale being spun was not to his satisfaction, he would use his ghostly talents to show his displeasure. He might turn the room cold, or cause small objects to fly around. He even caused a spittoon to levitate and dropped it on top of the mayor’s head.
Getting the story “right” was no easy feat, because one never knew which version of the story details the ghost preferred that day. Did he chase the train because he was trying to stop Laura from leaving? Perhaps he just wanted the thrill of racing against a train. Perhaps as the horse reared, he caught a glimpse of Laura on the train, and this is what caused the rider to lose his balance.
The petulant ghost caused so much trouble that the city fathers agreed to ban stories of the headless ghost. Townspeople were forbidden to tell the tale. All copies of The Okeechobee Call
with any mention of Jack Collins were destroyed.
But stories are hard to kill. City officials didn’t know that Laura kept a diary. That diary resurfaced recently when a box of old books was donated to a church rummage sale.
The ghost has not been seen for a century, so it should be safe now to share his story. But, dear reader, please do not give into the temptation to read it aloud, lest the headless ghost of Cracker Jack return to take a bow.