Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Five. The Home of the Horse-Hunter

Where the Rio de Nueces (River of Nuts) collects its waters from a hundred tributary streams—lining the map like the limbs of a grand genealogical tree—you may look upon a land of surpassing fairness. Its surface is “rolling prairie,” interspersed with clumps of post-oak and pecân, here and there along the banks of the watercourses uniting into continuous groves.

In some places these timbered tracts assume the aspect of the true chapparal—a thicket, rather than a forest—its principal growth being various kinds of acacia, associated with copaiva and creosote trees, with wild aloes, with eccentric shapes of cereus, cactus, and arborescent yucca.

These spinous forms of vegetation, though repulsive to the eye of the agriculturist—as proving the utter sterility of the soil—present an attractive aspect to the botanist, or the lover of Nature; especially when the cereus unfolds its huge wax-like blossoms, or the Fouquiera splendens overtops the surrounding shrubbery with its spike of resplendent flowers, like a red flag hanging unfolded along its staff.

The whole region, however, is not of this character. There are stretches of greater fertility; where a black calcareous earth gives nourishment to trees of taller growth, and more luxuriant foliage. The “wild China”—a true sapindal—the pecân, the elm, the hackberry, and the oak of several species—with here and there a cypress or Cottonwood—form the components of many a sylvan scene, which, from the blending of their leaves of various shades of green, and the ever changing contour of their clumps, deserves to be denominated fair.

The streams of this region are of crystal purity—their waters tinted only by the reflection of sapphire skies. Its sun, moon, and stars are scarcely ever concealed behind a cloud. The demon of disease has not found his way into this salubrious spot: no epidemic can dwell within its borders.

Despite these advantages, civilised man has not yet made it his home. Its paths are trodden only by the red-skinned rovers of the prairie—Lipano or Comanche—and these only when mounted, and upon the maraud towards the settlements of the Lower Nueces, or Leona.

It may be on this account—though it would almost seem as if they were actuated by a love of the beautiful and picturesque—that the true children of Nature, the wild animals, have selected this spot as their favourite habitat and home. In no part of Texas does the stag bound up so often before you; and nowhere is the timid antelope so frequently seen. The rabbit, and his gigantic cousin, the mule-rabbit, are scarcely ever out of sight; while the polecat, the opossum, and the curious peccary, are encountered at frequent intervals.

Birds, too, of beautiful forms and colours, enliven the landscape. The quail whirrs up from the path; the king vulture wheels in the ambient air; the wild turkey, of gigantic stature, suns his resplendent gorget by the side of the pecân copse, and the singular tailor-bird—known among the rude Rangers as the “bird of paradise”—flouts his long scissors-like tail among the feathery fronds of the acacia.

Beautiful butterflies spread their wide wings in flapping flight; or, perched upon some gay corolla, look as if they formed part of the flower. Huge bees (Meliponae), clad in velvet liveries, buzz amid the blossoming bushes, disputing possession with hawkmoths and humming-birds not much larger than themselves.

They are not all innocent, the denizens of this lovely land. Here the rattlesnake attains to larger dimensions than in any other part of North America, and shares the covert with the more dangerous moccasin. Here, too, the tarantula inflicts its venomous sting; the scorpion poisons with its bite; and the centipede, by simply crawling over the skin, causes a fever that may prove fatal!

Along the wooded banks of the streams may be encountered the spotted ocelot, the puma, and their more powerful congener, the jaguar; the last of these felidae being here upon the northern limit of its geographical range.

Along the edges of the chapparal skulks the gaunt Texan wolf—solitarily and in silence; while a kindred and more cowardly species, the coyoté, may be observed, far out upon the open plain, hunting in packs.

Sharing the same range with these, the most truculent of quadrupeds, may be seen the noblest and most beautiful of animals—perhaps nobler and more beautiful than man—certainly the most distinguished of man’s companions—the horse!

Here—independent of man’s caprice, his jaw unchecked by bit or curb, his back unscathed by pack or saddle—he roams unrestrained; giving way to all the wildness of his nature.

But even in this, his favourite haunt, he is not always left alone. Man presumes to be his pursuer and tamer: for here was he sought, captured, and conquered, by Maurice the Mustanger.

On the banks of the Alamo—one of the most sparkling streamlets that pay tribute to the Nueces—stood a dwelling, unpretentious as any to be found within the limits of Texas, and certainly as picturesque.

Its walls were composed of split trunk of the arborescent yucca, set stockade-fashion in the ground; while its roof was a thatch furnished by the long bayonet-shaped loaves of the same gigantic lily.

The interstices between the uprights, instead of being “chinked” with clay—as is common in the cabins of Western Texas—were covered by a sheeting of horse-skins; attached, not by iron tacks, but with the sharp spines that terminate the leaves of the pita plant.

On the bluffs, that on both sides overlooked the rivulet—and which were but the termination of the escarpment of the higher plain—grew in abundance the material out of which the hut had been constructed: tree yuccas and magueys, amidst other rugged types of sterile vegetation; whereas the fertile valley below was covered with a growth of heavy timber—consisting chiefly of red-mulberry, post-oak, and pecân, that formed a forest of several leagues in length. The timbered tract was, in fact, conterminous with the bottom lands; the tops of the trees scarce rising to a level with the escarpment of the cliff.

It was not continuous. Along the edge of the streamlet were breaks—forming little meads, or savannahs, covered with that most nutritious of grasses, known among Mexicans as grama.

In the concavity of one of these, of semicircular shape—which served as a natural lawn—stood the primitive dwelling above described; the streamlet representing the chord; while the curve was traced by the trunks of the trees, that resembled a series of columns supporting the roof of some sylvan coliseum.

The structure was in shadow, a little retired among the trees; as if the site had been chosen with a view to concealment. It could have been seen but by one passing along the bank of the stream; and then only with the observer directly in front of it. Its rude style of architecture, and russet hue, contributed still further to its inconspicuousness.

The house was a mere cabin—not larger than a marquee tent—with only a single aperture, the door—if we except the flue of a slender clay chimney, erected at one end against the upright posts. The doorway had a door, a light framework of wood, with a horse-skin stretched over it, and hung upon hinges cut from the same hide.

In the rear was an open shed, thatched with yucca leaves, and supported by half a dozen posts. Around this was a small enclosure, obtained by tying cross poles to the trunks of the adjacent trees.

A still more extensive enclosure, containing within its circumference more than an acre of the timbered tract, and fenced in a similar manner, extended rearward from the cabin, terminating against the bluff. Its turf tracked and torn by numerous hoof-prints—in some places trampled into a hard surface—told of its use: a “corral” for wild horses—mustangs.

This was made still more manifest by the presence of a dozen or more of these animals within the enclosure; whose glaring eyeballs, and excited actions, gave evidence of their recent capture, and how ill they brooked the imprisonment of that shadowy paddock.

The interior of the hut was not without some show of neatness and comfort. The sheeting of mustang-skins that covered the walls, with the hairy side turned inward, presented no mean appearance. The smooth shining coats of all colours—black, bay, snow-white, sorrel, and skewbald—offered to the eye a surface pleasantly variegated; and there had evidently been some taste displayed in their arrangement.

The furniture was of the scantiest kind. It consisted of a counterfeit camp bedstead, formed by stretching a horse-hide over a framework of trestles; a couple of stools—diminutive specimens on the same model; and a rude table, shaped out of hewn slabs of the yucca-tree. Something like a second sleeping place appeared in a remote corner—a “shakedown,” or “spread,” of the universal mustang-skin.

What was least to be expected in such a place, was a shelf containing about a score of books, with pens, ink, and papéterie; also a newspaper lying upon the slab table.

Further proofs of civilisation, if not refinement, presented themselves in the shape of a large leathern portmanteau, a double-barrelled gun, with “Westley Richards” upon the breech; a drinking cup of chased silver, a huntsman’s horn, and a dog-call.

Upon the floor were a few culinary utensils, mostly of tin; while in one corner stood a demijohn, covered with wicker, and evidently containing something stronger than the water of the Alamo.

Other “chattels” in the cabin were perhaps more in keeping with the place. There was a high-peaked Mexican saddle; a bridle, with headstall of plaited horsehair, and reins to correspond; two or three spare serapés, and some odds and ends of raw-hide rope.

Such was the structure of the mustanger’s dwelling—such its surroundings—such its interior and contents, with the exception of its living occupants—two in number.

On one of the stools standing in the centre of the floor was seated a man, who could not be the mustanger himself. In no way did he present the semblance of a proprietor. On the contrary, the air of the servitor—the mien of habitual obedience—was impressed upon him beyond the chance of misconstruction.

Rude as was the cabin that sheltered him, no one entering under its roof would have mistaken him for its master.

Not that he appeared ill clad or fed, or in any way stinted in his requirements. He was a round plump specimen, with a shock of carrot-coloured hair and a bright ruddy skin, habited in a suit of stout stuff—half corduroy, half cotton-velvet. The corduroy was in the shape of a pair of knee-breeches, with gaiters to correspond; the velveteen, once bottle green, now faded to a brownish hue, exhibited itself in a sort of shooting coat, with ample pockets in the breast and skirts.

A “wide-awake” hat, cocked over a pair of eyes equally deserving the appellation, completed the costume of the individual in question—if we except a shirt of coarse calico, a red cotton kerchief loosely knotted around his neck, and a pair of Irish brogues upon his feet.

It needed neither the brogues, nor the corduroy breeches, to proclaim his nationality. His lips, nose, eyes, air, and attitude, were all unmistakably Milesian.

Had there been any ambiguity about this, it would have been dispelled as he opened his mouth for the emission of speech; and this he at intervals did, in an accent that could only have been acquired in the shire of Galway. As he was the sole human occupant of the cabin, it might be supposed that he spoke only in soliloquy. Not so, however. Couched upon a piece of horse-skin, in front of the fire, with snout half buried among the ashes, was a canine companion, whose appearance bespoke a countryman—a huge Irish staghound, that looked as if he too understood the speech of Connemara.

Whether he did so or not, it was addressed to him, as if he was expected to comprehend every word.

“Och, Tara, me jewel!” exclaimed he in the corduroys, fraternally interrogating the hound; “hadn’t yez weesh now to be back in Ballyballagh? Wadn’t yez loike to be wance more in the coortyard av the owld castle, friskin’ over the clane stones, an bein’ tripe-fed till there wasn’t a rib to be seen in your sides—so different from what they are now—when I kyan count ivery wan av them? Sowl! it’s meself that ud loike to be there, anyhow! But there’s no knowin’ when the young masther ’ll go back, an take us along wid him. Niver mind, Tara! He’s goin’ to the Sittlements soon, ye owld dog; an he’s promised to take us thare; that’s some consolashun. Be japers! it’s over three months since I’ve been to the Fort, meself. Maybe I’ll find some owld acquaintance among them Irish sodgers that’s come lately; an be me sowl, av I do, won’t there be a dhrap betwane us—won’t there, Tara?”

The staghound, raising his head at hearing the mention of his name, gave a slight sniff, as if saying “Yes” in answer to the droll interrogatory.

“I’d like a dhrap now,” continued the speaker, casting a covetous glance towards the wickered jar; “mightily I wud that same; but the dimmyjan is too near bein’ empty, an the young masther might miss it. Besides, it wudn’t be raal honest av me to take it widout lave—wud it, Tara?”

The dog again raised his head above the ashes, and sneezed as before.

“Why, that was yis, the last time ye spoke! Div yez mane is for the same now? Till me, Tara!”

Once more the hound gave utterance to the sound—that appeared to be caused either by a slight touch of influenza, or the ashes having entered his nostrils.

“‘Yis’ again? In trath that’s just fwhat the dumb crayther manes! Don’t timpt me, ye owld thief! No—no; I won’t touch the whisky. I’ll only draw the cork out av the dimmyjan, an take a smell at it. Shure the masther won’t know anything about that; an if he did, he wudn’t mind it! Smellin’ kyant do the pothyeen any harm.”

During the concluding portion of this utterance, the speaker had forsaken his seat, and approached the corner where stood the jar.

Notwithstanding the professed innocence of his intent, there was a stealthiness about his movements, that seemed to argue either a want of confidence in his own integrity, or in his power to resist temptation.

He stood for a short while listening—his eyes turned towards the open doorway; and then, taking up the demijohn, he drew out the stopper, and held the neck to his nose.

For some seconds he remained in this attitude: giving out no other sign than an occasional “sniff,” similar to that uttered by the hound, and which he had been fain to interpret as an affirmative answer to his interrogatory. It expressed the enjoyment he was deriving from the bouquet of the potent spirit.

But this only satisfied him for a very short time; and gradually the bottom of the jar was seen going upwards, while the reverse end descended in like ratio in the direction of his protruding lips.

“Be japers!” he exclaimed, once more glancing stealthily towards the door, “flesh and blood cudn’t stand the smell av that bewtiful whisky, widout tastin’ it. Trath! I’ll chance it—jist the smallest thrifle to wet the tap av my tongue. Maybe it’ll burn the skin av it; but no matther—here goes!”

Without further ado the neck of the demijohn was brought in contact with his lips; but instead of the “smallest thrifle” to wet the top of his tongue, the “gluck—gluck” of the escaping fluid told that he was administering a copious saturation to the whole lining of his larynx, and something more.

After half a dozen “smacks” of the mouth, with other exclamations denoting supreme satisfaction, he hastily restored the stopper; returned the demijohn to its place; and glided back to his seat upon the stool.

“Tara, ye owld thief!” said he, addressing himself once more to his canine companion, “it was you that timpted me! No matther, man: the masther ’ll niver miss it; besides, he’s goin’ soon to the Fort, an can lay in a fresh supply.”

For a time the pilferer remained silent; either reflecting on the act he had committed, or enjoying the effects which the “potheen” had produced upon his spirits.

His silence was of short duration; and was terminated by a soliloquy.

“I wondher,” muttered he, “fwhat makes Masther Maurice so anxious to get back to the Sittlements. He says he’ll go wheniver he catches that spotty mustang he has seen lately. Sowl! isn’t he bad afther that baste! I suppose it must be somethin’ beyant the common—the more be token, as he has chased the crayther three times widout bein’ able to throw his rope over it—an mounted on the blood-bay, too. He sez he won’t give it up, till he gets howlt of it. Trath! I hope it’ll be grupped soon, or wez may stay here till the marnin’ av doomsday. Hush! fwhat’s that?”

Tara springing up from his couch of skin, and rushing out with a low growl, had caused the exclamation.

“Phelim!” hailed a voice from the outside. “Phelim!”

“It’s the masther,” muttered Phelim, as he jumped from his stool, and followed the dog through the doorway.