That time of year, when the leaves crunch underfoot and the flickering eyes of Jack ‘O Lanterns pierce the early dusk…that is when Black Jacques, the Headless Lumberjack, roams the woods.
Just before the turn of the century, when the timber industry was booming in Tupper Lake, there were many families making a rugged living in the deep forest.
One of them was Béatrice and "Black" Jacques de Gounod, who got the nickname from his giant black beard, piercing black eyes, and his dark rages. He was known as a good lumberjack, but a bad husband. Some were quietly sympathetic when his wife, known for her sweetness and beauty, was rumored to be close to another lumberjack, Louie Cyr. They had plans to run away and make a new life together, Béatrice confided in her best friend.
"That's a sin!" she exclaimed. They had been friends since their girlhood. She was certain that this reminder would make her reconsider.
"So is divorce," Béatrice hissed, her eyes narrowing. "The only way out of this involves sin. I no longer care which sin condemns me."
It was a conversation her friend could not forget. As summer faded, Louie Cyr was promoted to foreman and asked Black Jacques to help him with a tricky felling situation. Glances were exchanged, but Black Jacques had given no sign that he knew about Louie and Béatrice's relationship. No one wanted to be the one to tell him.
There was a terrible accident. It was a closed casket. Logging, everyone agreed, was very dangerous.
The mourning period was brief. Louie soon convinced Béatrice to drop her widow's black dress for a gown of azure blue. It was a lovely fall day, and a festive night, with considerable spruce beer.
So the next morning's talk of a large man wandering the woods with an axe was not taken seriously. This was a common sight. The people who claimed this man was not wearing a hat, even though the nights were getting chilly, could not explain why this disturbed them so.
The leaves crisped and fell. Dusk came early. Sounds traveled farther in the dry air. Light reached more deeply into the forest during the day, which became more shadowy at night. In the cabins, curtains were drawn close against the fire and lamplight reflected in the glass. People felt a pressure on the backs of their necks, as though someone was looking in, but hands cupped against the glass did not reveal a face.
Until the night a woman gasped as she saw a glimpse of plaid beyond the glass. She looked up to see who it was, and glimpsed only an empty collar. Now she knew why the figure wore no hat.
"Foul play," the whispers went. "This is why he came back."
Even the police were not sure if charges should be brought, with no witnesses who could be interviewed. "Let the devil take care of his own."
Louie and Béatrice found themselves shunned, especially at night. Louie put up stout shutters for the windows and a heavy wooden drop latch for the only door. One night, they were awakened by the thump of boots on the step, and the scraping drag of an axe head across the boards.
Louie saw the question in Béatrice's eyes. He whispered the truth in her ear.
Her eyes widened. "So!" At first a whisper, then a shout. "So this is the kind of man you are!"
"Darling, no!" She leaped from their bed, nightgown sweeping around her legs as she moved, her cap askew, then impatiently tossed aside. "No, you must not!"
He reached her while she struggled with the bar on the door, but her emotions had lent her great strength. She flung the door open.
It was a night with a cloudless sky and a full moon pouring frosty light over the figure who stood before her. The heavy boots, the mud flaking away from his shirt and pants, the terrifying space where there was once a face she had come to fear. The flannel rippled as the arms brought the axe up to strike.
She did now what she had been too afraid to do before.
"Begone!" she shrieked. The axe wavered, as though the body still had ears to hear. "I know the truth. It was you who tried to kill Louie. It is you with the murderous heart!"
As her voice rang through the village, the boots stumbled backwards, catching its balance only by dropping the axe to the ground.
"Go now, back to your grave, or I will have you removed from consecrated ground. Then you will wander the earth forever more!"
As her words rang through the forest, the figure melted into the trees, and was gone.
Only on All Hallows' Eve, when lost souls might walk again, Black Jacques could appear. Try not to be afraid.
The truth will send him back from whence he came.
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