Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Two. The Trail of the Lazo

Beyond doubt, the waggons of Woodley Poindexter were going over ground already traced by the tiring of their wheels.

“Our own tracks!” muttered Calhoun on making the discovery, adding a fierce oath as he reined up.

“Our own tracks! What mean you, Cassius? You don’t say we’ve been travelling—”

“On our own tracks. I do, uncle; that very thing. We must have made a complete circumbendibus of it. See! here’s the hind hoof of my own horse, with half a shoe off; and there’s the foot of the niggers. Besides, I can tell the ground. That’s the very hill we went down as we left our last stopping place. Hang the crooked luck! We’ve made a couple of miles for nothing.”

Embarrassment is no longer the only expression upon the face of the speaker. It has deepened to chagrin, with an admixture of shame. It is through him that the train is without a regular guide. One, engaged at Indianola, had piloted them to their last camping place. There, in consequence of some dispute, due to the surly temper of the ex-captain of volunteers, the man had demanded his dismissal, and gone back.

For this—as also for an ill-timed display of confidence in his power to conduct the march—is the planter’s nephew now suffering under a sense of shame. He feels it keenly as the carriole comes up, and bright eyes become witnesses of his discomfiture.

Poindexter does not repeat his inquiry. That the road is lost is a fact evident to all. Even the barefooted or “broganned” pedestrians have recognised their long-heeled footprints, and become aware that they are for the second time treading upon the same ground.

There is a general halt, succeeded by an animated conversation among the white men. The situation is serious: the planter himself believes it to be so. He cannot that day reach the end of his journey—a thing upon which he had set his mind.

That is the very least misfortune that can befall them. There are others possible, and probable. There are perils upon the burnt plain. They may be compelled to spend the night upon it, with no water for their animals. Perhaps a second day and night—or longer—who can tell how long?

How are they to find their way? The sun is beginning to descend; though still too high in heaven to indicate his line of declination. By waiting a while they may discover the quarters of the compass.

But to what purpose? The knowledge of east, west, north, and south can avail nothing now: they have lost their line of march.

Calhoun has become cautious. He no longer volunteers to point out the path. He hesitates to repeat his pioneering experiments—after such manifest and shameful failure.

A ten minutes’ discussion terminates in nothing. No one can suggest a feasible plan of proceeding. No one knows how to escape from the embrace of that dark desert, which appears to cloud not only the sun and sky, but the countenances of all who enter within its limits.

A flock of black vultures is seen flying afar off. They come nearer, and nearer. Some alight upon the ground—others hover above the heads of the strayed travellers. Is there a boding in the behaviour of the birds?

Another ten minutes is spent in the midst of moral and physical gloom. Then, as if by a benignant mandate from heaven, does cheerfulness re-assume its sway. The cause? A horseman riding in the direction of the train!

An unexpected sight: who could have looked for human being in such a place? All eyes simultaneously sparkle with joy; as if, in the approach of the horseman, they beheld the advent of a saviour!

“He’s coming this way, is he not?” inquired the planter, scarce confident in his failing sight.

“Yes, father; straight as he can ride,” replied Henry, lifting the hat from his head, and waving it on high: the action accompanied by a shout intended to attract the horseman.

The signal was superfluous. The stranger had already sighted the halted waggons; and, riding towards them at a gallop, was soon within speaking distance.

He did not draw bridle, until he had passed the train; and arrived upon the spot occupied by the planter and his party.

“A Mexican!” whispered Henry, drawing his deduction from the habiliments of the horseman.

“So much the better,” replied Poindexter, in the same tone of voice; “he’ll be all the more likely to know the road.”

“Not a bit of Mexican about him,” muttered Calhoun, “excepting the rig. I’ll soon see. Buenos dias, cavallero! Esta V. Mexicano?” (Good day, sir! are you a Mexican?)

“No, indeed,” replied the stranger, with a protesting smile. “Anything but that. I can speak to you in Spanish, if you prefer it; but I dare say you will understand me better in English: which, I presume, is your native tongue?”

Calhoun, suspecting that he had spoken indifferent Spanish, or indifferently pronounced it, refrains from making rejoinder.

“American, sir,” replied Poindexter, his national pride feeling slightly piqued. Then, as if fearing to offend the man from whom he intended asking a favour, he added: “Yes, sir; we are all Americans—from the Southern States.”

“That I can perceive by your following.” An expression of contempt—scarce perceptible—showed itself upon the countenance of the speaker, as his eye rested upon the groups of black bondsmen. “I can perceive, too,” he added, “that you are strangers to prairie travelling. You have lost your way?”

“We have, sir; and have very little prospect of recovering it, unless we may count upon your kindness to direct us.”

“Not much kindness in that. By the merest chance I came upon your trail, as I was crossing the prairie. I saw you were going astray; and have ridden this way to set you right.”

“It is very good of you. We shall be most thankful, sir. My name is Poindexter—Woodley Poindexter, of Louisiana. I have purchased a property on the Leona river, near Fort Inge. We were in hopes of reaching it before nightfall. Can we do so?”

“There is nothing to hinder you: if you follow the instructions I shall give.”

On saying this, the stranger rode a few paces apart; and appeared to scrutinise the country—as if to determine the direction which the travellers should take.

Poised conspicuously upon the crest of the ridge, horse and man presented a picture worthy of skilful delineation.

A steed, such as might have been ridden by an Arab sheik—blood-bay in colour—broad in counter—with limbs clean as culms of cane, and hips of elliptical outline, continued into a magnificent tail sweeping rearward like a rainbow: on his back a rider—a young man of not more than five-and-twenty—of noble form and features; habited in the picturesque costume of a Mexican ranchero—spencer jacket of velveteen—calzoneros laced along the seams—calzoncillos of snow-white lawn—botas of buff leather, heavily spurred at the heels—around the waist a scarf of scarlet crape; and on his head a hat of black glaze, banded with gold bullion. Picture to yourself a horseman thus habited; seated in a deep tree-saddle, of Moorish shape and Mexican manufacture, with housings of leather stamped in antique patterns, such as were worn by the caparisoned steeds of the Conquistadores; picture to yourself such a cavallero, and you will have before your mind’s eye a counterpart of him, upon whom the planter and his people were gazing.

Through the curtains of the travelling carriage he was regarded with glances that spoke of a singular sentiment. For the first time in her life, Louise Poindexter looked upon that—hitherto known only to her imagination—a man of heroic mould. Proud might he have been, could he have guessed the interest which his presence was exciting in the breast of the young Creole.

He could not, and did not. He was not even aware of her existence. He had only glanced at the dust-bedaubed vehicle in passing—as one might look upon the rude incrustation of an oyster, without suspecting that a precious pearl may lie gleaming inside.

“By my faith!” he declared, facing round to the owner of the waggons, “I can discover no landmarks for you to steer by. For all that, I can find the way myself. You will have to cross the Leona five miles below the Fort; and, as I have to go by the crossing myself, you can follow the tracks of my horse. Good day, gentlemen!”

Thus abruptly bidding adieu, he pressed the spur against the side of his steed; and started off at a gallop.

An unexpected—almost uncourteous departure! So thought the planter and his people.

They had no time to make observations upon it, before the stranger was seen returning towards them!

In ten seconds he was again in their presence—all listening to learn what had brought him back.

“I fear the tracks of my horse may prove of little service to you. The mustangs have been this way, since the fire. They have made hoof-marks by the thousand. Mine are shod; but, as you are not accustomed to trailing, you may not be able to distinguish them—the more so, that in these dry ashes all horse-tracks are so nearly alike.”

“What are we to do?” despairingly asked the planter.

“I am sorry, Mr Poindexter, I cannot stay to conduct you, I am riding express, with a despatch for the Fort. If you should lose my trail, keep the sun on your right shoulders: so that your shadows may fall to the left, at an angle of about fifteen degrees to your line of march. Go straight forward for about five miles. You will then come in sight of the top of a tall tree—a cypress. You will know it by its leaves being in the red. Head direct for this tree. It stands on the bank of the river; and close by is the crossing.”

The young horseman, once more drawing up his reins, was about to ride off; when something caused him to linger. It was a pair of dark lustrous eyes—observed by him for the first time—glancing through the curtains of the travelling carriage.

Their owner was in shadow; but there was light enough to show that they were set in a countenance of surpassing loveliness. He perceived, moreover, that they were turned upon himself—fixed, as he fancied, in an expression that betokened interest—almost tenderness!

He returned it with an involuntary glance of admiration, which he made but an awkward attempt to conceal. Lest it might be mistaken for rudeness, he suddenly faced round; and once more addressed himself to the planter—who had just finished thanking him for his civility.

“I am but ill deserving thanks,” was his rejoinder, “thus to leave you with a chance of losing your way. But, as I’ve told you, my time is measured.”

The despatch-bearer consulted his watch—as though not a little reluctant to travel alone.

“You are very kind, sir,” said Poindexter; “but with the directions you have given us, I think we shall be able to manage. The sun will surely show us—”

“No: now I look at the sky, it will not. There are clouds looming up on the north. In an hour, the sun may be obscured—at all events, before you can get within sight of the cypress. It will not do. Stay!” he continued, after a reflective pause, “I have a better plan still: follow the trail of my lazo!”

While speaking, he had lifted the coiled rope from his saddlebow, and flung the loose end to the earth—the other being secured to a ring in the pommel. Then raising his hat in graceful salutation—more than half directed towards the travelling carriage—he gave the spur to his steed; and once more bounded off over the prairie.

The lazo, lengthening out, tightened over the hips of his horse; and, dragging a dozen yards behind, left a line upon the cinereous surface—as if some slender serpent had been making its passage across the plain.

“An exceedingly curious fellow!” remarked the planter, as they stood gazing after the horseman, fast becoming hidden behind a cloud of sable dust. “I ought to have asked him his name?”

“An exceedingly conceited fellow, I should say,” muttered Calhoun; who had not failed to notice the glance sent by the stranger in the direction of the carriole, nor that which had challenged it. “As to his name, I don’t think it matters much. It mightn’t be his own he would give you. Texas is full of such swells, who take new names when they get here—by way of improvement, if for no better reason.”

“Come, cousin Cash,” protested young Poindexter; “you are unjust to the stranger. He appears to be educated—in fact, a gentleman—worthy of bearing the best of names, I should say.”

“A gentleman! Deuced unlikely: rigged out in that fanfaron fashion. I never saw a man yet, that took to a Mexican dress, who wasn’t a Jack. He’s one, I’ll be bound.”

During this brief conversation, the fair occupant of the carriole was seen to bend forward; and direct a look of evident interest, after the form of the horseman fast receding from her view.

To this, perhaps, might have been traced the acrimony observable in the speech of Calhoun.

“What is it, Loo?” he inquired, riding close up to the carriage, and speaking in a voice not loud enough to be heard by the others. “You appear impatient to go forward? Perhaps you’d like to ride off along with that swaggering fellow? It isn’t too late: I’ll lend you my horse.”

The young girl threw herself back upon the seat—evidently displeased, both by the speech and the tone in which it was delivered. But her displeasure, instead of expressing itself in a frown, or in the shape of an indignant rejoinder, was concealed under a guise far more galling to him who had caused it. A clear ringing laugh was the only reply vouchsafed to him.

“So, so! I thought there must be something—by the way you behaved yourself in his presence. You looked as if you would have relished a tête-à-tête with this showy despatch-bearer. Taken with his stylish dress, I suppose? Fine feathers make fine birds. His are borrowed. I may strip them off some day, along with a little of the skin that’s under them.”

“For shame, Cassius! your words are a scandal!”

“’Tis you should think of scandal, Loo! To let your thoughts turn on a common scamp—a masquerading fellow like that! No doubt the letter carrier, employed by the officers at the Fort!”

“A letter carrier, you think? Oh, how I should like to get love letters by such a postman!”

“You had better hasten on, and tell him so. My horse is at your service.”

“Ha! ha! ha! What a simpleton you show yourself! Suppose, for jesting’s sake, I did have a fancy to overtake this prairie postman! It couldn’t be done upon that dull steed of yours: not a bit of it! At the rate he is going, he and his blood-bay will be out of sight before you could change saddles for me. Oh, no! he’s not to be overtaken by me, however much I might like it; and perhaps I might like it!”

“Don’t let your father hear you talk in that way.”

“Don’t let him hear you talk in that way,” retorted the young lady, for the first time speaking in a serious strain. “Though you are my cousin, and papa may think you the pink of perfection, I don’t—not I! I never told you I did—did I?” A frown, evidently called forth by some unsatisfactory reflection, was the only reply to this tantalising interrogative.

“You are my cousin,” she continued, in a tone that contrasted strangely with the levity she had already exhibited, “but you are nothing more—nothing more—Captain Cassius Calhoun! You have no claim to be my counsellor. There is but one from whom I am in duty bound to take advice, or bear reproach. I therefore beg of you, Master Cash, that you will not again presume to repeat such sentiments—as those you have just favoured me with. I shall remain mistress of my own thoughts—and actions, too—till I have found a master who can control them. It is not you!”

Having delivered this speech, with eyes flashing—half angrily, half contemptuously—upon her cousin, the young Creole once more threw herself back upon the cushions of the carriole.

The closing curtains admonished the ex-officer, that further conversation was not desired.

Quailing under the lash of indignant innocence, he was only too happy to hear the loud “gee-on” of the teamsters, as the waggons commenced moving over the sombre surface—not more sombre than his own thoughts.