Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Four. The Black Norther

For some seconds, after surrendering herself to the Sybilline thoughts thus expressed, the young lady sate in silence—her white hands clasped across her temples, as if her whole soul was absorbed in an attempt, either to explain the past, or penetrate the future.

Her reverie—whatever might be its cause—was not of long duration. She was awakened from it, on hearing exclamations without—mingled with words that declared some object of apprehension.

She recognised her brother’s voice, speaking in tones that betokened alarm.

“Look, father! don’t you see them?”

“Where, Henry—where?”

“Yonder—behind the waggons. You see them now?”

“I do—though I can’t say what they are. They look like—like—” Poindexter was puzzled for a simile—“I really don’t know what.”

“Waterspouts?” suggested the ex-captain, who, at sight of the strange objects, had condescended to rejoin the party around the carriole. “Surely it can’t be that? It’s too far from the sea. I never heard of their occurring on the prairies.”

“They are in motion, whatever they be,” said Henry. “See! they keep closing, and then going apart. But for that, one might mistake them for huge obelisks of black marble!”

“Giants, or ghouls!” jokingly suggested Calhoun; “ogres from some other world, who’ve taken a fancy to have a promenade on this abominable prairie!”

The ex-officer was only humorous with an effort. As well as the others, he was under the influence of an uneasy feeling.

And no wonder. Against the northern horizon had suddenly become upreared a number of ink-coloured columns—half a score of them—unlike anything ever seen before. They were not of regular columnar form, nor fixed in any way; but constantly changing size, shape, and place—now steadfast for a time—now gliding over the charred surface like giants upon skates—anon, bending and balancing towards one another in the most fantastic figurings!

It required no great effort of imagination, to fancy the Titans of old, resuscitated on the prairies of Texas, leading a measure after some wild carousal in the company of Bacchus!

In the proximity of phenomena never observed before—unearthly in their aspect—unknown to every individual of the party—it was but natural these should be inspired with alarm.

And such was the fact. A sense of danger pervaded every bosom. All were impressed with a belief: that they were in the presence of some peril of the prairies.

A general halt had been made on first observing the strange objects: the negroes on foot, as well as the teamsters, giving utterance to shouts of terror. The animals—mules as well as horses, had come instinctively to a stand—the latter neighing and trembling—the former filling the air with their shrill screams.

These were not the only sounds. From the sable towers could be heard a hoarse swishing noise, that resembled the sough of a waterfall—at intervals breaking into reverberations like the roll of musketry, or the detonations of distant thunder!

These noises were gradually growing louder and more distinct. The danger, whatever it might be, was drawing nearer!

Consternation became depicted on the countenances of the travellers, Calhoun’s forming no exception. The ex-officer no longer pretended levity. The eyes of all were turned towards the lowering sky, and the band of black columns that appeared coming on to crush them!

At this crisis a shout, reaching their ears from the opposite side, was a source of relief—despite the unmistakable accent of alarm in which it was uttered.

Turning, they beheld a horseman in full gallop—riding direct towards them.

The horse was black as coal: the rider of like hue, even to the skin of his face. For all that he was recognised: as the stranger, upon the trail of whose lazo they had been travelling.

The perceptions of woman are quicker than those of man: the young lady within the carriole was the first to identify him. “Onward!” he cried, as soon as within speaking distance. “On—on! as fast as you can drive!”

“What is it?” demanded the planter, in bewildered alarm. “Is there a danger?”

“There is. I did not anticipate it, as I passed you. It was only after reaching the river, I saw the sure signs of it.”

“Of what, sir?”

“The norther.”

“You mean the storm of that name?”

“I do.”

“I never heard of its being dangerous,” interposed Calhoun, “except to vessels at sea. It’s precious cold, I know; but—”

“You’ll find it worse than cold, sir,” interrupted the young horseman, “if you’re not quick in getting out of its way. Mr Poindexter,” he continued, turning to the planter, and speaking with impatient emphasis, “I tell you, that you and your party are in peril. A norther is not always to be dreaded; but this one—look yonder! You see those black pillars?”

“We’ve been wondering—didn’t know what to make of them.”

“They’re nothing—only the precursors of the storm. Look beyond! Don’t you see a coal-black cloud spreading over the sky? That’s what you have to dread. I don’t wish to cause you unnecessary alarm: but I tell you, there’s death in yonder shadow! It’s in motion, and coming this way. You have no chance to escape it, except by speed. If you do not make haste, it will be too late. In ten minutes’ time you may be enveloped, and then—quick, sir, I entreat you! Order your drivers to hurry forward as fast as they can! The sky—heaven itself—commands you!”

The planter did not think of refusing compliance, with an appeal urged in such energetic terms. The order was given for the teams to be set in motion, and driven at top speed.

Terror, that inspired the animals equally with their drivers, rendered superfluous the use of the whip.

The travelling carriage, with the mounted men, moved in front, as before. The stranger alone threw himself in the rear—as if to act as a guard against the threatening danger.

At intervals he was observed to rein up his horse, and look back: each time by his glances betraying increased apprehension.

Perceiving it, the planter approached, and accosted him with the inquiry:

“Is there still a danger?”

“I am sorry to answer you in the affirmative,” said he: “I had hopes that the wind might be the other way.”

“Wind, sir? There is none—that I can perceive.”

“Not here. Yonder it is blowing a hurricane, and this way too—direct. By heavens! it is nearing us rapidly! I doubt if we shall be able to clear the burnt track.”

“What is to be done?” exclaimed the planter, terrified by the announcement.

“Are your mules doing their best?”

“They are: they could not be driven faster.”

“I fear we shall be too late, then!”

As the speaker gave utterance to this gloomy conjecture, he reined round once more; and sate regarding the cloud columns—as if calculating the rate at which they were advancing.

The lines, contracting around his lips, told of something more than dissatisfaction.

“Yes: too late!” he exclaimed, suddenly terminating his scrutiny. “They are moving faster than we—far faster. There is no hope of our escaping them!”

“Good God, sir! is the danger so great? Can we do nothing to avoid it?”

The stranger did not make immediate reply. For some seconds he remained silent, as if reflecting—his glance no longer turned towards the sky, but wandering among the waggons.

“Is there no chance of escape?” urged the planter, with the impatience of a man in presence of a great peril.

“There is!” joyfully responded the horseman, as if some hopeful thought had at length suggested itself. “There is a chance. I did not think of it before. We cannot shun the storm—the danger we may. Quick, Mr Poindexter! Order your men to muffle the mules—the horses too—otherwise the animals will be blinded, and go mad. Blankets—cloaks—anything will do. When that’s done, let all seek shelter within the waggons. Let the tilts be closed at the ends. I shall myself look to the travelling carriage.”

Having delivered this chapter of instructions—which Poindexter, assisted by the overseer, hastened to direct the execution of—the young horseman galloped towards the front.

“Madame!” said he, reining up alongside the carriole, and speaking with as much suavity as the circumstances would admit of, “you must close the curtains all round. Your coachman will have to get inside; and you, gentlemen!” he continued, addressing himself to Henry and Calhoun—“and you, sir;” to Poindexter, who had just come up. “There will be room for all. Inside, I beseech you! Lose no time. In a few seconds the storm will be upon us!”

“And you, sir?” inquired the planter, with a show of interest in the man who was making such exertions to secure them against some yet unascertained danger. “What of yourself?”

“Don’t waste a moment upon me. I know what’s coming. It isn’t the first time I have encountered it. In—in, I entreat you! You haven’t a second to spare. Listen to that shriek! Quick, or the dust-cloud will be around us!”

The planter and his son sprang together to the ground; and retreated into the travelling carriage.

Calhoun, refusing to dismount, remained stiffly seated in his saddle. Why should he skulk from a visionary danger, that did not deter a man in Mexican garb?

The latter turned away; as he did so, directing the overseer to get inside the nearest waggon—a direction which was obeyed with alacrity—and, for the first time, the stranger was left free to take care of himself.

Quickly unfolding his serapé—hitherto strapped across the cantle of his saddle—he flung it over the head of his horse. Then, drawing the edges back, he fastened it, bag-fashion, around the animal’s neck. With equal alertness he undid his scarf of China crape; and stretched it around his sombrero—fixing it in such a way, that one edge was held under the bullion band, while the other dropped down over the brim—thus forming a silken visor for his face.

Before finally closing it, he turned once more towards the carriole; and, to his surprise, saw Calhoun still in the saddle. Humanity triumphed over a feeling of incipient aversion.

“Once again, sir, I adjure you to get inside! If you do not you’ll have cause to repent it. Within ten minutes’ time, you may be a dead man!”

The positive emphasis with which the caution was delivered produced its effect. In the presence of mortal foeman, Cassius Calhoun was no coward. But there was an enemy approaching that was not mortal—not in any way understood. It was already making itself manifest, in tones that resembled thunder—in shadows that mocked the darkness of midnight. Who would not have felt fear at the approach of a destroyer so declaring itself?

The ex-officer was unable to resist the united warnings of earth and heaven; and, slipping out of his saddle with a show of reluctance—intended to save appearances—he clambered into the carriage, and ensconced himself behind the closely-drawn curtains.

To describe what followed is beyond the power of the pen. No eye beheld the spectacle: for none dared look upon it. Even had this been possible, nothing could have been seen. In five minutes after the muffling of the mules, the train was enveloped in worse than Cimmerian darkness.

The opening scene can alone be depicted: for that only was observed by the travellers. One of the sable columns, moving in the advance, broke as it came in collision with the waggon-tilts. Down came a shower of black dust, as if the sky had commenced raining gunpowder! It was a foretaste of what was to follow.

There was a short interval of open atmosphere—hot as the inside of an oven. Then succeeded puffs, and whirling gusts, of wind—cold as if projected from caves of ice, and accompanied by a noise as though all the trumpets of Aeolus were announcing the advent of the Storm-King!

In another instant the norther was around them; and the waggon train, halted on a subtropical plain, was enveloped in an atmosphere, akin to that which congeals the icebergs of the Arctic Ocean!

Nothing more was seen—nothing heard, save the whistling of the wind, or its hoarse roaring, as it thundered against the tilts of the waggons. The mules having instinctively turned stern towards it, stood silent in their traces; and the voices of the travellers, in solemn converse inside, could not be distinguished amid the howling of the hurricane.

Every aperture had been closed: for it was soon discovered, that to show a face from under the sheltering canvas was to court suffocation. The air was surcharged with ashes, lifted aloft from the burnt plain, and reduced, by the whirling of the wind, to an impalpable but poisonous powder.

For over an hour did the atmosphere carry this cinereous cloud; during which period lasted the imprisonment of the travellers.

At length a voice, speaking close by the curtains of the carriole, announced their release.

“You can come forth!” said the stranger, the crape scarf thrown back above the brim of his hat. “You will still have the storm to contend against. It will last to the end of your journey; and, perhaps, for three days longer. But you have nothing further to fear. The ashes are all swept off. They’ve gone before you; and you’re not likely to overtake them this side the Rio Grande.”

“Sir!” said the planter, hastily descending the steps of the carriage, “we have to thank you for—for—”

“Our lives, father!” cried Henry, supplying the proper words. “I hope, sir, you will favour us with your name?”

“Maurice Gerald!” returned the stranger; “though, at the Fort, you will find me better known as Maurice the mustanger.”

“A mustanger!” scornfully muttered Calhoun, but only loud enough to be heard by Louise.

“Only a mustanger!” reflected the aristocratic Poindexter, the fervour of his gratitude becoming sensibly chilled.

“For guide, you will no longer need either myself, or my lazo,” said the hunter of wild horses. “The cypress is in sight: keep straight towards it. After crossing, you will see the flag over the Fort. You may yet reach your journey’s end before night. I have no time to tarry; and must say adieu.”

Satan himself, astride a Tartarean steed, could not have looked more like the devil than did Maurice the Mustanger, as he separated for the second time from the planter and his party. But neither his ashy envelope, nor the announcement of his humble calling, did aught to damage him in the estimation of one, whose thoughts were already predisposed in his favour—Louise Poindexter.

On hearing him declare his name—by presumption already known to her—she but more tenderly cherished the bit of cardboard, chafing against her snow-white bosom; at the same time muttering in soft pensive soliloquy, heard only by herself:—

“Maurice the mustanger! despite your sooty covering—despite your modest pretence—you have touched the heart of a Creole maiden. Mon Dieu—mon Dieu! He is too like Lucifer for me to despise him!”