Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Six. The Spotted Mustang

Phelim was not mistaken as to the voice that had hailed him. It was that of his master, Maurice Gerald.

On getting outside, he saw the mustanger at a short distance from the door, and advancing towards it.

As the servant should have expected, his master was mounted upon his horse—no longer of a reddish colour, but appearing almost black. The animal’s coat was darkened with sweat; its counter and flanks speckled with foam.

The blood-bay was not alone. At the end of the lazo—drawn taut from the saddle tree—was a companion, or, to speak more accurately, a captive. With a leathern thong looped around its under jaw, and firmly embracing the bars of its mouth, kept in place by another passing over its neck immediately behind the ears, was the captive secured.

It was a mustang of peculiar appearance, as regarded its markings; which were of a kind rarely seen—even among the largest “gangs” that roam over the prairie pastures, where colours of the most eccentric patterns are not uncommon.

That of the animal in question was a ground of dark chocolate in places approaching to black—with white spots distributed over it, as regularly as the contrary colours upon the skin of the jaguar.

As if to give effect to this pleasing arrangement of hues, the creature was of perfect shape—broad chested, full in the flank, and clean limbed—with a hoof showing half a score of concentric rings, and a head that might have been taken as a type of equine beauty. It was of large size for a mustang, though much smaller than the ordinary English horse; even smaller than the blood-bay—himself a mustang—that had assisted in its capture.

The beautiful captive was a mare—one of a manada that frequented the plains near the source of the Alamo; and where, for the third time, the mustanger had unsuccessfully chased it.

In his case the proverb had proved untrue. In the third time he had not found the “charm”; though it favoured him in the fourth. By the fascination of a long rope, with a running noose at its end, he had secured the creature that, for some reason known only to himself, he so ardently wished to possess.

Phelim had never seen his master return from a horse-hunting excursion in such a state of excitement; even when coming back—as he often did—with half a dozen mustangs led loosely at the end of his lazo.

But never before at the end of that implement had Phelim beheld such a beauty as the spotted mare. She was a thing to excite the admiration of one less a connoisseur in horse-flesh than the ci-devant stable-boy of Castle Ballagh.

“Hooch—hoop—hoora!” cried he, as he set eyes upon the captive, at the same time tossing his hat high into the air. “Thanks to the Howly Vargin, an Saint Pathrick to boot, Masther Maurice, yez have cotched the spotty at last! It’s a mare, be japers! Och! the purthy crayther! I don’t wondher yez hiv been so bad about gettin’ howlt av her. Sowl! if yez had her in Ballinasloe Fair, yez might ask your own price, and get it too, widout givin’ sixpence av luckpenny. Oh! the purty crayther! Where will yez hiv her phut, masther? Into the corral, wid the others?”

“No, she might get kicked among them. We shall tie her in the shed. Castro must pass his night outside among the trees. If he’s got any gallantry in him he won’t mind that. Did you ever see anything so beautiful as she is, Phelim—I mean in the way of horseflesh?”

“Niver, Masther Maurice; niver, in all me life! An’ I’ve seen some nice bits av blood about Ballyballagh. Oh, the purty crayther! she looks as if a body cud ate her; and yit, in trath, she looks like she wud ate you. Yez haven’t given her the schoolin’ lesson, have yez?”

“No, Phelim: I don’t want to break her just yet—not till I have time, and can do it properly. It would never do to spoil such perfection as that. I shall tame her, after we’ve taken her to the Settlements.”

“Yez be goin’ there, masther Maurice? When?”

“To-morrow. We shall start by daybreak, so as to make only one day between here and the Fort.”

“Sowl! I’m glad to hear it. Not on me own account, but yours, Masther Maurice. Maybe yez don’t know that the whisky’s on the idge of bein’ out? From the rattle av the jar, I don’t think there’s more than three naggins left. Them sutlers at the Fort aren’t honest. They chate ye in the mizyure; besides watherin’ the whisky, so that it won’t bear a dhrap more out av the strame hare. Trath! a gallon av Innishowen wud last ayqual to three av this Amerikin rotgut, as the Yankees themselves christen it.”

“Never mind about the whisky, Phelim—I suppose there’s enough to last us for this night, and fill our flasks for the journey of to-morrow. Look alive, old Ballyballagh! Let us stable the spotted mare; and then I shall have time to talk about a fresh supply of ‘potheen,’ which I know you like better than anything else—except yourself!”

“And you, Masther Maurice!” retorted the Galwegian, with a comical twinkle of the eye, that caused his master to leap laughingly out of the saddle.

The spotted mare was soon stabled in the shed, Castro being temporarily attached to a tree; where Phelim proceeded to groom him after the most approved prairie fashion.

The mustanger threw himself on his horse-skin couch, wearied with the work of the day. The capture of the “yegua pinta” had cost him a long and arduous chase—such as he had never ridden before in pursuit of a mustang.

There was a motive that had urged him on, unknown to Phelim—unknown to Castro who carried him—unknown to living creature, save himself.

Notwithstanding that he had spent several days in the saddle—the last three in constant pursuit of the spotted mare—despite the weariness thus occasioned, he was unable to obtain repose. At intervals he rose to his feet, and paced the floor of his hut, as if stirred by some exciting emotion.

For several nights he had slept uneasily—at intervals tossing upon his catré—till not only his henchman Phelim, but his hound Tara, wondered what could be the meaning of his unrest.

The former might have attributed it to his desire to possess the spotted mare; had he not known that his master’s feverish feeling antedated his knowledge of the existence of this peculiar quadruped.

It was several days after his last return from the Fort that the “yegua pinta” had first presented herself to the eye of the mustanger. That therefore could not be the cause of his altered demeanour.

His success in having secured the animal, instead of tranquillising his spirit, seemed to have produced the contrary effect. At least, so thought Phelim: who—with the freedom of that relationship known as “foster-brother”—had at length determined on questioning his master as to the cause of his inquietude. As the latter lay shifting from side to side, he was saluted with the interrogatory—

“Masther Maurice, fwhat, in the name of the Howly Vargin, is the matther wid ye?”

“Nothing, Phelim—nothing, mabohil! What makes you think there is?”

“Alannah! How kyan I help thinkin’ it! Yez kyant get a wink av sleep; niver since ye returned the last time from the Sittlement. Och! yez hiv seen somethin’ there that kapes ye awake? Shure now, it isn’t wan av them Mixikin girls—mowchachas, as they call them? No, I won’t believe it. You wudn’t be wan av the owld Geralds to care for such trash as them.”

“Nonsense, my good fellow! There’s nothing the matter with me. It’s all your own imagination.”

“Trath, masther, yez arr mistaken. If there’s anything asthray wid me imaginashun, fhwat is it that’s gone wrong wid your own? That is, whin yez arr aslape—which aren’t often av late.”

“When I’m asleep! What do you mean, Phelim?”

“What div I mane? Fwhy, that wheniver yez close your eyes an think yez are sleepin’, ye begin palaverin’, as if a preast was confessin’ ye!”

“Ah! Is that so? What have you heard me say?”

“Not much, masther, that I cud make sinse out av. Yez be always tryin’ to pronounce a big name that appares to have no indin’, though it begins wid a point!”

“A name! What name?”

“Sowl! I kyan’t till ye exakly. It’s too long for me to remimber, seein’ that my edicashun was intirely neglicted. But there’s another name that yez phut before it; an that I kyan tell ye. It’s a wuman’s name, though it’s not common in the owld counthry. It’s Looaze that ye say, Masther Maurice; an then comes the point.”

“Ah!” interrupted the young Irishman, evidently not caring to converse longer on the subject. “Some name I may have heard—somewhere, accidentally. One does have such strange ideas in dreams!”

“Trath! yez spake the truth there; for in your drames, masther, ye talk about a purty girl lookin’ out av a carriage wid curtains to it, an tellin’ her to close them agaynst some danger that yez are going to save her from.”

“I wonder what puts such nonsense into my head?”

“I wondher meself,” rejoined Phelim, fixing his eyes upon his young master with a stealthy but scrutinising look. “Shure,” he continued, “if I may make bowld to axe the quistyun—shure, Masther Maurice, yez haven’t been makin’ a Judy Fitzsummon’s mother av yerself, an fallin’ in love wid wan of these Yankee weemen out hare? Och an-an-ee! that wud be a misforthune; an thwat wud she say—the purty colleen wid the goodlen hair an blue eyes, that lives not twinty miles from Ballyballagh?”

“Poh, poh! Phelim! you’re taking leave of your senses, I fear.”

“Trath, masther, I aren’t; but I know somethin’ I wud like to take lave av.”

“What is that? Not me, I hope?”

“You, alannah? Niver! It’s Tixas I mane. I’d like to take lave of that; an you goin’ along wid me back to the owld sad. Arrah, now, fhwat’s the use av yer stayin’ here, wastin’ the best part av yer days in doin’ nothin’? Shure yez don’t make more than a bare livin’ by the horse-catchin’; an if yez did, what mathers it? Yer owld aunt at Castle Ballagh can’t howld out much longer; an when she’s did, the bewtiful demane ’ll be yours, spite av the dhirty way she’s thratin’ ye. Shure the property’s got a tail to it; an not a mother’s son av them can kape ye out av it!”

“Ha! ha! ha!” laughed the young Irishman: “you’re quite a lawyer, Phelim. What a first-rate attorney you’d have made! But come! You forget that I haven’t tasted food since morning. What have you got in the larder?”

“Trath! there’s no great stock, masther. Yez haven’t laid in anythin’ for the three days yez hiv been afther spotty. There’s only the cowld venison an the corn-bread. If yez like I’ll phut the venison in the pat, an make a hash av it.”

“Yes, do so. I can wait.”

“Won’t yez wait betther afther tastin’ a dhrap av the crayther?”

“True—let me have it.”

“Will yez take it nate, or with a little wather? Trath! it won’t carry much av that same.”

“A glass of grog—draw the water fresh from the stream.”

Phelim took hold of the silver drinking-cup, and was about stepping outside, when a growl from Tara, accompanied by a start, and followed by a rush across the floor, caused the servitor to approach the door with a certain degree of caution.

The barking of the dog soon subsided into a series of joyful whimperings, which told that he had been gratified by the sight of some old acquaintance.

“It’s owld Zeb Stump,” said Phelim, first peeping out, and then stepping boldly forth—with the double design of greeting the new-comer, and executing the order he had received from his master.

The individual, who had thus freely presented himself in front of the mustanger’s cabin, was as unlike either of its occupants, as one from the other.

He stood fall six feet high, in a pair of tall boots, fabricated out of tanned alligator skin; into the ample tops of which were thrust the bottoms of his pantaloons—the latter being of woollen homespun, that had been dyed with “dog-wood ooze,” but was now of a simple dirt colour. A deerskin under shirt, without any other, covered his breast and shoulders; over which was a “blanket coat,” that had once been green, long since gone to a greenish yellow, with most of the wool worn off.

There was no other garment to be seen: a slouch felt hat, of greyish colour, badly battered, completing the simple, and somewhat scant, collection of his wardrobe.

He was equipped in the style of a backwoods hunter, of the true Daniel Boone breed: bullet-pouch, and large crescent-shaped powder-horn, both suspended by shoulder-straps, hanging under the right arm; a waist-belt of thick leather keeping his coat closed and sustaining a skin sheath, from which protruded the rough stag-horn handle of a long-bladed knife.

He did not affect either mocassins, leggings, nor the caped and fringed tunic shirt of dressed deerskin worn by most Texan hunters. There was no embroidery upon his coarse clothing, no carving upon his accoutrements or weapons, nothing in his tout ensemble intended as ornamental. Everything was plain almost to rudeness: as if dictated by a spirit that despised “fanfaron.”

Even the rifle, his reliable weapon—the chief tool of his trade—looked like a rounded bar of iron, with a piece of brown unpolished wood at the end, forming its stock; stock and barrel, when the butt rested on the ground, reaching up to the level of his shoulder.

The individual thus clothed and equipped was apparently about fifty years of age, with a complexion inclining to dark, and features that, at first sight, exhibited a grave aspect.

On close scrutiny, however, could be detected an underlying stratum of quiet humour; and in the twinkle of a small greyish eye there was evidence that its owner could keenly relish a joke, or, at times, perpetrate one.

The Irishman had pronounced his name: it was Zebulon Stump, or “Old Zeb Stump,” as he was better known to the very limited circle of his acquaintances.

“Kaintuck, by birth an raisin’,”—as he would have described himself, if asked the country of his nativity—he had passed the early part of his life among the primeval forests of the Lower Mississippi—his sole calling that of a hunter; and now, at a later period, he was performing the same métier in the wilds of south-western Texas.

The behaviour of the staghound, as it bounded before him, exhibiting a series of canine welcomes, told of a friendly acquaintance between Zeb Stump and Maurice the mustanger.

“Evenin’!” laconically saluted Zeb, as his tail figure shadowed the cabin door.

“Good evening’, Mr Stump!” rejoined the owner of the hut, rising to receive him. “Step inside, and take a seat!”

The hunter accepted the invitation; and, making a single stride across the floor, after some awkward manoeuvring, succeeded in planting himself on the stool lately occupied by Phelim. The lowness of the seat brought his knees upon a level with his chin, the tall rifle rising like a pikestaff several feet above his head.

“Durn stools, anyhow!” muttered he, evidently dissatisfied with the posture; “an’ churs, too, for thet matter. I likes to plant my starn upon a log: thur ye’ve got somethin’ under ye as ain’t like to guv way.”

“Try that,” said his host, pointing to the leathern portmanteau in the corner: “you’ll find it a firmer seat.”

Old Zeb, adopting the suggestion, unfolded the zigzag of his colossal carcase, and transferred it to the trunk.

“On foot, Mr Stump, as usual?”

“No: I got my old critter out thur, tied to a saplin’. I wa’n’t a huntin’.”

“You never hunt on horseback, I believe?”

“I shed be a greenhorn if I dud. Anybody as goes huntin’ a hossback must be a durnation fool!”

“But it’s the universal fashion in Texas!”

“Univarsal or no, it air a fool’s fashion—a durned lazy fool’s fashion! I kill more meat in one day afut, then I ked in a hul week wi’ a hoss atween my legs. I don’t misdoubt that a hoss air the best thing for you—bein’ as yur game’s entire different. But when ye go arter baar, or deer, or turkey eyther, ye won’t see much o’ them, trampin’ about through the timmer a hossback, an scarrin’ everythin’ es hes got ears ’ithin the circuit o’ a mile. As for hosses, I shodn’t be bothered wi’ ne’er a one no how, ef twa’n’t for packin’ the meat: thet’s why I keep my ole maar.”

“She’s outside, you say? Let Phelim take her round to the shed. You’ll stay all night?”

“I kim for that purpiss. But ye needn’t trouble about the maar: she air hitched safe enuf. I’ll let her out on the laryitt, afore I take to grass.”

“You’ll have something to eat? Phelim was just getting supper ready. I’m sorry I can’t offer you anything very dainty—some hash of venison.”

“Nothin’ better ’n good deermeat, ’ceptin it be baar; but I like both done over the coals. Maybe I can help ye to some’at thet’ll make a roast. Mister Pheelum, ef ye don’t mind steppin’ to whar my critter air hitched, ye’ll find a gobbler hangin’ over the horn o’ the seddle. I shot the bird as I war comin’ up the crik.”

“Oh, that is rare good fortune! Our larder has got very low—quite out, in truth. I’ve been so occupied, for the last three days, in chasing a very curious mustang, that I never thought of taking my gun with me. Phelim and I, and Tara, too, had got to the edge of starvation.”

“Whet sort o’ a mustang?” inquired the hunter, in a tone that betrayed interest, and without appearing to notice the final remark.

“A mare; with white spots on a dark chocolate ground—a splendid creature!”

“Durn it, young fellur! thet air’s the very bizness thet’s brung me over to ye.”


“I’ve seed that mustang—maar, ye say it air, though I kedn’t tell, as she’d niver let me ’ithin hef a mile o’ her. I’ve seed her several times out on the purayra, an I jest wanted ye to go arter her. I’ll tell ye why. I’ve been to the Leeona settlements since I seed you last, and since I seed her too. Wal, theer hev kum thur a man as I knowed on the Mississippi. He air a rich planter, as used to keep up the tallest kind o’ doin’s, ’specially in the feestin’ way. Many’s the jeint o’ deermeat, and many’s the turkey-gobbler this hyur coon hes surplied for his table. His name air Peintdexter.”


“Thet air the name—one o’ the best known on the Mississippi from Orleens to Saint Looey. He war rich then; an, I reck’n, ain’t poor now—seein’ as he’s brought about a hunderd niggers along wi’ him. Beside, thur’s a nephew o’ hisn, by name Calhoun. He’s got the dollars, an nothin’ to do wi’ ’em but lend ’em to his uncle—the which, for a sartin reezun, I think he will. Now, young fellur, I’ll tell ye why I wanted to see you. Thet ’ere planter hev got a darter, as air dead bent upon hossflesh. She used to ride the skittishest kind o’ cattle in Loozeyanner, whar they lived. She heern me tellin’ the old ’un ’bout the spotted mustang; and nothin’ would content her thur and then, till he promised he’d offer a big price for catchin’ the critter. He sayed he’d give a kupple o’ hunderd dollars for the anymal, ef ’twur anythin like what I sayed it wur. In coorse, I knowed thet ’ud send all the mustangers in the settlement straight custrut arter it; so, sayin’ nuthin’ to nobody, I kim over hyur, fast as my ole maar ’ud fetch me. You grup thet ’ere spotty, an Zeb Stump ’ll go yur bail ye’ll grab them two hunderd dollars.”

“Will you step this way, Mr Stump?” said the young Irishman, rising from his stool, and proceeding in the direction of the door.

The hunter followed, not without showing some surprise at the abrupt invitation.

Maurice conducted his visitor round to the rear of the cabin; and, pointing into the shed, inquired—

“Does that look anything like the mustang you’ve been speaking of?”

“Dog-gone my cats, ef ’taint the eyedenticul same! Grupped already! Two hunderd dollars, easy as slidin’ down a barked saplin’! Young fellur, yur in luck: two hunderd, slick sure!—and durn me, ef the anymal ain’t worth every cent o’ the money! Geehosofat! what a putty beest it air! Won’t Miss Peintdexter be pleezed! It’ll turn that young critter ’most crazy!”