October 27, 2000

Spooky Specter on a Silver Saddle

A True Halloween Chiller

by Albert Simonson

It's a good thing you don't know what is going on outside. While you have bogus Disney ghosts on TV, there is a real but tormented soul riding through the restless night outside. Even worse, almost everything in the story has been proved beyond a shadow of doubt.

In 1846, the land around Rancho Santa Fe (then San Dieguito) and even Viejas was dotted with range cattle and horses. Those were ranchos of the Osuna family, descendants of Andalusians from the Moorish town of Osuna, near Seville, descendants of an Osuna who had come north from Loreto with Junipero Serra. They were the kind of people who loved freedom, horses and their land.

The head of the family, Don Juan, helped bring democracy to Mexican San Diego and was elected first alcalde in 1835. That Arabic title signified "mayor" and he fulfilled his unpaid office with grave dignity, patrolling the gritty streets with a black robe, powdered wig, and stiffly gripping a staff of office with black silk tassels. He even had a copy of the "Laws of the Indies." He was San Diego's first civil authority.

A daughter, Felipa, was mistress of Rancho Agua Hedionda (stinking water), which included the land of present Carlsbad. She was a lady of substance and style, remembered for having bought the area's first horse-drawn carriage and paying for it with fifty cows.

One of the sons, Ramón, was popular and a rascal with the girls. A lady remembered him, in her old age, as "a beautiful man, with red cheeks." He got into trouble early, by making pregnant little Petra at Las Encinitas Rancho. It led to some bitter feuding between the Osunas and the Ybarras of what is now Encinitas.

His brother, Leandro, was completely different. "Indian" Leandro, was brooding, haughty, and tempestuous. He was dark with a narrow forehead, and preferred the company of Indians, so that when he spoke, it sounded more like Kumeyaay than Spanish. Even his bay stallion was a wild spirit with the bloodchilling rebel name of "Apache."

Leandro best expressed the storms within him through music. As an impassioned violinist, he was in demand to lead the orchestra of Old Town at the Pacific Pioneer Yacht Club balls.

When news came that the U.S. Army was invading California, Leandro honed his patriot skills with a shootout in Mission Valley with the turncoat Don Miguel, the Spanish ranchero of El Cajon. Then he and his brother assembled the California Lancers to give the arriving mob of "illegal aliens" a proper ranchero welcome to San Diego.

On December 6, 1846, the Lancers charged the U.S. Army at the Battle of San Pascual, and carried the day. Leandro shot one officer in the forehead and lanced another. The Army of the West had accurate Kentucky rifles, but not accurate enough to hit the narrow forehead of Leandro Inocencia Osuna.

The California Lancers won the battle, but not the war. When it came time to surrender to the Americans, Leandro rode up haughtily, with lance extended in defiance. Hanging from the lance was his bloodied flag.

In time, the Army was followed by lawyers and lenders. Leandro became embroiled in trying to save not California, but just his family's vast land holdings. With the Americans came inevitably taxes and mortgages.

It seemed to Leandro that the happy ranchero days were over, the days of fiestas, fandangos, of donning a vicuna sombrero and tossing a silver-studded saddle on Apache's back and riding like the wind through unfenced grazing land.

He had enemies among the Indians, too. Near Pauma Rancho, some had killed his brother and other Lancers with campfire heated spears, and done a death dance around the bodies, a whole night long. One had rolled cigarettes for Leandro, adding a potent poison made from the fruit of a cactus mixed with a powder from bones of the dead. His Indian mistress later heard about the poison and warned Leandro that it would cause a slow and horrible death. For Leandro, this was the ultimate betrayal, a sign that he had lived beyond his time. He became despondent, irrational and his lungs began to fail from those cigarettes.

Leandro rode Apache a final time, down the San Dieguito River of the old rancho that the upstart American government refused to confirm as belonging to the family. He rode down El Camino Real of his forefathers and through the Cañada de Osuna, now called Rose Canyon after the moneylender Louis Rose, and across the river of saintly name to the pueblo which had been liberated from military presidio rule by his father. But already, he heard English being spoken in houses not of adobe, but of boards.

He dismounted at his father's adobe "Casa de Osuna," near present Old Town Plaza. He would not have felt any better if he could foresee the future, because in just another year his venerable father would be laid to rest, cloaked in a Franciscan robe, in the nearby Campo Santo. The old adobe would be renamed the "Jolly Boy Saloon." Leandro had a tiredness which sleep does not cure, and an awareness that an apocalypse was upon his people and his ranchero way of life.

Lying in his bed on April 3, 1859, he asked to see his nephew's pistol. Then, saying simply "adios," he pressed it to his heart and pulled the trigger. Just then, the sun went down. He was only 37 years old, and the newspaper dryly noted that he left behind an "interesting" family. Perhaps they were all like him.

Suicide, in Catholic San Diego, was a scandalous cardinal sin, so he could not be buried in the family plot beside his illustrious father. Instead, he was buried with heathen Indians in Mission Valley, where Interstate 15 now is. Definitely not a restful place, and no one knows where his bones might be.

All that remains of him is a beautiful leather gunpowder flask, embossed with a happy hunting scene of a man and his horse. It has the size and shape of a man's withered heart, dry to the touch. So dry, that my fingers seemed to cramp tightly around it, with a dull ache which turned into cold numbness. Fortunately, it is now locked away in a secure vault at San Diego's Historical Society, and can bring no more harm to us "illegal aliens" who occupy his land by "right of conquest."

Even the family's San Dieguito ranch was renamed Rancho Santa Fe and Lean-dro's ranch house is better known for Bing Crosby, who remodeled it. But who can say that time and a bullet-torn heart and scattered bones have put an end to the tempestuous spirit of Don Leandro? Who among us has not heard sounds in the night which make blood run cold?

According to musty, yellowed documents, it has long been said, on wind tossed nights, that Indian Leandro rides again on his beloved horse Apache, on a silver saddle, with his famous lance catching a glint of cold moonlight, and that he rides like the restless wind through his ranchos, teeth clenched, eyes shriveled by all he has seen. You might recognize him by his narrow forehead, even if the flesh has peeled away. There is no need to be concerned, for he is just our lone horseman of the California Apocalypse.

Those who have seen him say that Don Leandro Inocencia Osuna is searching for a familiar yesterday. So go now out into the darkness of night and tell him that he will not find it here. If you dare.

Albert Simonson is a local historian.

Return to the Frontpage