Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Three. The Prairie Finger-Post

The travellers felt no further uneasiness about the route. The snake-like trail was continuous; and so plain that a child might have followed it.

It did not run in a right line, but meandering among the thickets; at times turning out of the way, in places where the ground was clear of timber. This had evidently been done with an intent to avoid obstruction to the waggons: since at each of these windings the travellers could perceive that there were breaks, or other inequalities, in the surface.

“How very thoughtful of the young fellow!” remarked Poindexter. “I really feel regret at not having asked for his name. If he belong to the Fort, we shall see him again.”

“No doubt of it,” assented his son. “I hope we shall.”

His daughter, reclining in shadow, overheard the conjectural speech, as well as the rejoinder. She said nothing; but her glance towards Henry seemed to declare that her heart fondly echoed the hope.

Cheered by the prospect of soon terminating a toilsome journey—as also by the pleasant anticipation of beholding, before sunset, his new purchase—the planter was in one of his happiest moods. His aristocratic bosom was moved by an unusual amount of condescension, to all around him. He chatted familiarly with his overseer; stopped to crack a joke with “Uncle” Scipio, hobbling along on blistered heels; and encouraged “Aunt” Chloe in the transport of her piccaninny.

“Marvellous!” might the observer exclaim—misled by such exceptional interludes, so pathetically described by the scribblers in Lucifer’s pay—“what a fine patriarchal institution is slavery, after all! After all we have said and done to abolish it! A waste of sympathy—sheer philanthropic folly to attempt the destruction of this ancient edifice—worthy corner-stone to a ‘chivalric’ nation! Oh, ye abolition fanatics! why do ye clamour against it? Know ye not that some must suffer—must work and starve—that others may enjoy the luxury of idleness? That some must be slaves, that others may be free?”

Such arguments—at which a world might weep—have been of late but too often urged. Woe to the man who speaks, and the nation that gives ear to them!

The planter’s high spirits were shared by his party, Calhoun alone excepted. They were reflected in the faces of his black bondsmen, who regarded him as the source, and dispenser, of their happiness, or misery—omnipotent—next to God. They loved him less than God, and feared him more; though he was by no means a bad master—that is, by comparison. He did not absolutely take delight in torturing them. He liked to see them well fed and clad—their epidermis shining with the exudation of its own oil. These signs bespoke the importance of their proprietor—himself. He was satisfied to let them off with an occasional “cow-hiding”—salutary, he would assure you; and in all his “stock” there was not one black skin marked with the mutilations of vengeance—a proud boast for a Mississippian slave-owner, and more than most could truthfully lay claim to.

In the presence of such an exemplary owner, no wonder that the cheerfulness was universal—or that the slaves should partake of their master’s joy, and give way to their garrulity.

It was not destined that this joyfulness should continue to the end of their journey. It was after a time interrupted—not suddenly, nor by any fault on the part of those indulging in it, but by causes and circumstances over which they had not the slightest control.

As the stranger had predicted: the sun ceased to be visible, before the cypress came in sight.

There was nothing in this to cause apprehension. The line of the lazo was conspicuous as ever; and they needed no guidance from the sun: only that his cloud-eclipse produced a corresponding effect upon their spirits.

“One might suppose it close upon nightfall,” observed the planter, drawing out his gold repeater, and glancing at its dial; “and yet it’s only three o’clock! Lucky the young fellow has left us such a sure guide. But for him, we might have floundered among these ashes till sundown; perhaps have been compelled to sleep upon them.”

“A black bed it would be,” jokingly rejoined Henry, with the design of rendering the conversation more cheerful. “Ugh! I should have such ugly dreams, were I to sleep upon it.”

“And I, too,” added his sister, protruding her pretty face through the curtains, and taking a survey of the surrounding scene: “I’m sure I should dream of Tartarus, and Pluto, and Proserpine, and—”

“Hya! hya! hya!” grinned the black Jehu, on the box—enrolled in the plantation books as Pluto Poindexter—“De young missa dream ’bout me in de mids’ ob dis brack praira! Golly! dat am a good joke—berry! Hya! hya! hya!”

“Don’t be too sure, all of ye,” said the surly nephew, at this moment coming up, and taking part in the conversation—“don’t be too sure that you won’t have to make your beds upon it yet. I hope it may be no worse.”

“What mean you, Cash?” inquired the uncle.

“I mean, uncle, that that fellow’s been misleading us. I won’t say it for certain; but it looks ugly. We’ve come more than five miles—six, I should say—and where’s the tree? I’ve examined the horizon, with a pair of as good eyes as most have got, I reckon; and there isn’t such a thing in sight.”

“But why should the stranger have deceived us?”

“Ah—why? That’s just it. There may be more reasons than one.”

“Give us one, then!” challenged a silvery voice from the carriole. “We’re all ears to hear it!”

“You’re all ears to take in everything that’s told you by a stranger,” sneeringly replied Calhoun. “I suppose if I gave my reason, you’d be so charitable as to call it a false alarm!”

“That depends on its character, Master Cassius. I think you might venture to try us. We scarcely expect a false alarm from a soldier, as well as traveller, of your experience.”

Calhoun felt the taunt; and would probably have withheld the communication he had intended to make, but for Poindexter himself.

“Come, Cassius, explain yourself!” demanded the planter, in a tone of respectful authority. “You have said enough to excite something more than curiosity. For what reason should the young fellow be leading us astray?”

“Well, uncle,” answered the ex-officer, retreating a little from his original accusation, “I haven’t said for certain that he is; only that it looks like it.”

“In what way?”

“Well, one don’t know what may happen. Travelling parties as strong, and stronger than we, have been attacked on these plains, and plundered of every thing—murdered.”

“Mercy!” exclaimed Louise, in a tone of terror, more affected than real.

“By Indians,” replied Poindexter.

“Ah—Indians, indeed! Sometimes it may be; and sometimes, too, they may be whites who play at that game—not all Mexican whites, neither. It only needs a bit of brown paint; a horsehair wig, with half a dozen feathers stuck into it; that, and plenty of hullabalooing. If we were to be robbed by a party of white Indians, it wouldn’t be the first time the thing’s been done. We as good as half deserve it—for our greenness, in trusting too much to a stranger.”

“Good heavens, nephew! this is a serious accusation. Do you mean to say that the despatch-rider—if he be one—is leading us into—into an ambuscade?”

“No, uncle; I don’t say that. I only say that such things have been done; and it’s possible he may.”

“But not probable,” emphatically interposed the voice from the carriole, in a tone tauntingly quizzical.

“No!” exclaimed the stripling Henry, who, although riding a few paces ahead, had overheard the conversation. “Your suspicions are unjust, cousin Cassius. I pronounce them a calumny. What’s more, I can prove them so. Look there!”

The youth had reined up his horse, and was pointing to an object placed conspicuously by the side of the path; which, before speaking, he had closely scrutinised. It was a tall plant of the columnar cactus, whose green succulent stem had escaped scathing by the fire.

It was not to the plant itself that Henry Poindexter directed the attention of his companions; but to a small white disc, of the form of a parallelogram, impaled upon one of its spines. No one accustomed to the usages of civilised life could mistake the “card.” It was one.

“Hear what’s written upon it!” continued the young man, riding nearer, and reading aloud the directions pencilled upon the bit of pasteboard.

“The cypress in sight!”

“Where?” inquired Poindexter.

“There’s a hand,” rejoined Henry, “with a finger pointing—no doubt in the direction of the tree.”

All eyes were instantly turned towards the quarter of the compass, indicated by the cipher on the card.

Had the sun been shining, the cypress might have been seen at the first glance. As it was, the sky—late of cerulean hue—was now of a leaden grey; and no straining of the eyes could detect anything along the horizon resembling the top of a tree.

“There’s nothing of the kind,” asserted Calhoun, with restored confidence, at the same time returning to his unworthy accusation. “It’s only a dodge—another link in the chain of tricks the scamp is playing us.”

“You mistake, cousin Cassius,” replied that same voice that had so often contradicted him. “Look through this lorgnette! If you haven’t lost the sight of those superior eyes of yours, you’ll see something very like a tree—a tall tree—and a cypress, too, if ever there was one in the swamps of Louisiana.”

Calhoun disdained to take the opera glass from the hands of his cousin. He knew it would convict him: for he could not suppose she was telling an untruth.

Poindexter availed himself of its aid; and, adjusting the focus to his failing sight, was enabled to distinguish the red-leafed cypress, topping up over the edge of the prairie.

“It’s true,” he said: “the tree is there. The young fellow is honest: you’ve been wronging him, Cash. I didn’t think it likely he should have taken such a queer plan to make fools of us. He there! Mr Sansom! Direct your teamsters to drive on!”

Calhoun, not caring to continue the conversation, nor yet remain longer in company, spitefully spurred his horse, and trotted off over the prairie.

“Let me look at that card, Henry?” said Louise, speaking to her brother in a restrained voice. “I’m curious to see the cipher that has been of such service to us. Bring it away, brother: it can be of no further use where it is—now that we have sighted the tree.”

Henry, without the slightest suspicion of his sister’s motive for making the request, yielded obedience to it.

Releasing the piece of pasteboard from its impalement, he “chucked” it into her lap.

“Maurice Gerald!” muttered the young Creole, after deciphering the name upon the card. “Maurice Gerald!” she repeated, in apostrophic thought, as she deposited the piece of pasteboard in her bosom. “Whoever you are—whence you have come—whither you are going—what you may be—Henceforth there is a fate between us! I feel it—I know it—sure as there’s a sky above! Oh! how that sky lowers! Am I to take it as a type of this still untraced destiny?”