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Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Seven. Nocturnal Annoyances

The unexpected discovery, that his purpose had been already anticipated by the capture of the spotted mustang, raised the spirits of the old hunter to a high pitch of excitement.

They were further elevated by a portion of the contents of the demijohn, which held out beyond Phelim’s expectations: giving all hands an appetising “nip” before attacking the roast turkey, with another go each to wash it down, and several more to accompany the post-cenal pipe.

While this was being indulged in, a conversation was carried on; the themes being those that all prairie men delight to talk about: Indian and hunter lore.

As Zeb Stump was a sort of living encyclopaedia of the latter, he was allowed to do most of the talking; and he did it in such a fashion as to draw many a wondering ejaculation, from the tongue of the astonished Galwegian.

Long before midnight, however, the conversation was brought to a close. Perhaps the empty demijohn was, as much as anything else, the monitor that urged their retiring to rest; though there was another and more creditable reason. On the morrow, the mustanger intended to start for the Settlements; and it was necessary that all should be astir at an early hour, to make preparation for the journey. The wild horses, as yet but slightly tamed, had to be strung together, to secure against their escaping by the way; and many other matters required attending to previous to departure.

The hunter had already tethered out his “ole maar”—as he designated the sorry specimen of horseflesh he was occasionally accustomed to bestride—and had brought back with him an old yellowish blanket, which was all he ever used for a bed.

“You may take my bedstead,” said his courteous host; “I can lay myself on a skin along the floor.”

“No,” responded the guest; “none o’ yer shelves for Zeb Stump to sleep on. I prefer the solid groun’. I kin sleep sounder on it; an bus-sides, thur’s no fear o’ fallin’ over.”

“If you prefer it, then, take the floor. Here’s the best place. I’ll spread a hide for you.”

“Young fellur, don’t you do anythin’ o’ the sort; ye’ll only be wastin’ yur time. This child don’t sleep on no floors. His bed air the green grass o’ the purayra.”

“What! you’re not going to sleep outside?” inquired the mustanger in some surprise—seeing that his guest, with the old blanket over his arm, was making for the door.

“I ain’t agoin’ to do anythin’ else.”

“Why, the night is freezing cold—almost as chilly as a norther!”

“Durn that! It air better to stan’ a leetle chillishness, than a feelin’ o’ suffercation—which last I wud sartintly hev to go through ef I slep inside o’ a house.”

“Surely you are jesting, Mr Stump?”

“Young fellur!” emphatically rejoined the hunter, without making direct reply to the question. “It air now nigh all o’ six yeer since Zeb Stump hev stretched his ole karkiss under a roof. I oncest used to hev a sort o’ a house in the hollow o’ a sycamore-tree. That wur on the Massissippi, when my ole ooman wur alive, an I kep up the ’stablishment to ’commerdate her. Arter she went under, I moved into Loozeyanny; an then arterward kim out hyur. Since then the blue sky o’ Texas hev been my only kiver, eyther wakin’ or sleepin’.”

“If you prefer to lie outside—”

“I prefar it,” laconically rejoined the hunter, at the same time stalking over the threshold, and gliding out upon the little lawn that lay between the cabin and the creek.

His old blanket was not the only thing he carried along with him. Beside it, hanging over his arm, could be seen some six or seven yards of a horsehair rope. It was a piece of a cabriesto—usually employed for tethering horses—though it was not for this purpose it was now to be used.

Having carefully scrutinised the grass within a circumference of several feet in diameter—which a shining moon enabled him to do—he laid the rope with like care around the spot examined, shaping it into a sort of irregular ellipse.

Stepping inside this, and wrapping the old blanket around him, he quietly let himself down into a recumbent position. In an instant after he appeared to be asleep.

And he was asleep, as his strong breathing testified: for Zeb Stump, with a hale constitution and a quiet conscience, had only to summon sleep, and it came.

He was not permitted long to indulge his repose without interruption. A pair of wondering eyes had watched his every movement—the eyes of Phelim O’Neal.

“Mother av Mozis!” muttered the Galwegian; “fwhat can be the manin’ av the owld chap’s surroundin’ himself wid the rope?”

The Irishman’s curiosity for a while struggled with his courtesy, but at length overcame it; and just as the slumberer delivered his third snore, he stole towards him, shook him out of his sleep, and propounded a question based upon the one he had already put to himself.

“Durn ye for a Irish donkey!” exclaimed Stump, in evident displeasure at being disturbed; “ye made me think it war mornin’! What do I put the rope roun’ me for? What else wud it be for, but to keep off the varmints!”

“What varmints, Misther Stump? Snakes, div yez mane?”

“Snakes in coorse. Durn ye, go to your bed!”

Notwithstanding the sharp rebuke, Phelim returned to the cabin apparently in high glee. If there was anything in Texas, “barrin’ an above the Indyins themselves,” as he used to say, “that kept him from slapin’, it was them vinamous sarpints. He hadn’t had a good night’s rest, iver since he’d been in the counthry for thinkin’ av the ugly vipers, or dhramin’ about thim. What a pity Saint Pathrick hadn’t paid Tixas a visit before goin’ to grace!”

Phelim in his remote residence, isolated as he had been from all intercourse, had never before witnessed the trick of the cabriesto.

He was not slow to avail himself of the knowledge thus acquired. Returning to the cabin, and creeping stealthily inside—as if not wishing to wake his master, already asleep—he was seen to take a cabriesto from its peg; and then going forth again, he carried the long rope around the stockade walls—paying it out as he proceeded.

Having completed the circumvallation, he re-entered the hut; as he stepped over the threshold, muttering to himself—

“Sowl! Phalim O’Nale, you’ll slape sound for this night, spite ov all the snakes in Tixas!”

For some minutes after Phelim’s soliloquy, a profound stillness reigned around the hut of the mustanger. There was like silence inside; for the countryman of Saint Patrick, no longer apprehensive on the score of reptile intruders, had fallen asleep, almost on the moment of his sinking down upon his spread horse-skin.

For a while it seemed as if everybody was in the enjoyment of perfect repose, Tara and the captive steeds included. The only sound heard was that made by Zeb Stump’s “maar,” close by cropping the sweet grama grass.

Presently, however, it might have been perceived that the old hunter was himself stirring. Instead of lying still in the recumbent attitude to which he had consigned himself, he could be seen shifting from side to side, as if some feverish thought was keeping him awake.

After repeating this movement some half-score of times, he at length raised himself into a sitting posture, and looked discontentedly around.

“Dod-rot his ignorance and imperence—the Irish cuss!” were the words that came hissing through his teeth. “He’s spoilt my night’s rest, durn him! ’Twould sarve him ’bout right to drag him out, an giv him a duckin’ in the crik. Dog-goned ef I don’t feel ’clined torst doin’ it; only I don’t like to displeeze the other Irish, who air a somebody. Possible I don’t git a wink o’ sleep till mornin’.”

Having delivered himself of this peevish soliloquy, the hunter once more drew the blanket around his body, and returned to the horizontal position.

Not to sleep, however; as was testified by the tossing and fidgeting that followed—terminated by his again raising himself into a sitting posture.

A soliloquy, very similar to his former one, once more proceeded from his lips; this time the threat of ducking Phelim in the creek being expressed with a more emphatic accent of determination.

He appeared to be wavering, as to whether he should carry the design into execution, when an object coming under his eye gave a new turn to his thoughts.

On the ground, not twenty feet from where he sate, a long thin body was seen gliding over the grass. Its serpent shape, and smooth lubricated skin—reflecting the silvery light of the moon—rendered the reptile easy of identification.

“Snake!” mutteringly exclaimed he, as his eye rested upon the reptilian form. “Wonder what sort it air, slickerin’ aboout hyur at this time o’ the night? It air too large for a rattle; though thur air some in these parts most as big as it. But it air too clur i’ the colour, an thin about the belly, for ole rattle-tail! No; ’tain’t one o’ them. Hah—now I ree-cog-nise the varmint! It air a chicken, out on the sarch arter eggs, I reck’n! Durn the thing! it air comin’ torst me, straight as it kin crawl!”

The tone in which the speaker delivered himself told that he was in no fear of the reptile—even after discovering that it was making approach. He knew that the snake would not cross the cabriesto; but on touching it would turn away: as if the horsehair rope was a line of living fire. Secure within his magic circle, he could have looked tranquilly at the intruder, though it had been the most poisonous of prairie serpents.

But it was not. On the contrary, it was one of the most innocuous—harmless as the “chicken,” from which the species takes its trivial title—at the same time that it is one of the largest in the list of North-American reptilia.

The expression on Zeb’s face, as he sat regarding it, was simply one of curiosity, and not very keen. To a hunter in the constant habit of couching himself upon the grass, there was nothing in the sight either strange or terrifying; not even when the creature came close up to the cabriesto, and, with head slightly elevated, rubbed its snout against the rope!

After that there was less reason to be afraid; for the snake, on doing so, instantly turned round and commenced retreating over the sward.

For a second or two the hunter watched it moving away, without making any movement himself. He seemed undecided as to whether he should follow and destroy it, or leave it to go as it had come—unscathed. Had it been a rattlesnake, “copperhead,” or “mocassin,” he would have acted up to the curse delivered in the garden of Eden, and planted the heel of his heavy alligator-skin boot upon its head. But a harmless chicken-snake did not come within the limits of Zeb Stump’s antipathy: as was evidenced by some words muttered by him as it slowly receded from the spot.

“Poor crawlin’ critter; let it go! It ain’t no enemy o’ mine; though it do suck a turkey’s egg now an then, an in coorse scarcities the breed o’ the birds. Thet air only its nater, an no reezun why I shed be angry wi’ it. But thur’s a durned good reezun why I shed be wi’ thet Irish—the dog-goned, stinkin’ fool, to ha’ woke me es he dud! I feel dod-rotted like sarvin’ him out, ef I ked only think o’ some way as wudn’t diskermode the young fellur. Stay! By Geehosofat, I’ve got the idee—the very thing—sure es my name air Zeb Stump!”

On giving utterance to the last words, the hunter—whose countenance had suddenly assumed an expression of quizzical cheerfulness—sprang to his feet; and, with bent body, hastened in pursuit of the retreating reptile.

A few strides brought him alongside of it; when he pounced upon it with all his ten digits extended.

In another moment its long glittering body was uplifted from the ground, and writhing in his grasp.

“Now, Mister Pheelum,” exclaimed he, as if apostrophising the serpent, “ef I don’t gi’e yur Irish soul a scare thet ’ll keep ye awake till mornin’, I don’t know buzzart from turkey. Hyur goes to purvide ye wi’ a bedfellur!”

On saying this, he advanced towards the hut; and, silently skulking under its shadow, released the serpent from his gripe—letting it fall within the circle of the cabriesto, with which Phelim had so craftily surrounded his sleeping-place.

Then returning to his grassy couch, and once more pulling the old blanket over his shoulders, he muttered—

“The varmint won’t come out acrost the rope—thet air sartin; an it ain’t agoin’ to leave a yurd o’ the groun’ ’ithout explorin’ for a place to git clur—thet’s eequally sartin. Ef it don’t crawl over thet Irish greenhorn ’ithin the hef o’ an hour, then ole Zeb Stump air a greenhorn hisself. Hi! what’s thet? Dog-goned of ’taint on him arready!”

If the hunter had any further reflections to give tongue to, they could not have been heard: for at that moment there arose a confusion of noises that must have startled every living creature on the Alamo, and for miles up and down the stream.

It was a human voice that had given the cue—or rather, a human howl, such as could proceed only from the throat of a Galwegian. Phelim O’Neal was the originator of the infernal fracas.

His voice, however, was soon drowned by a chorus of barkings, snortings, and neighings, that continued without interruption for a period of several minutes.

“What is it?” demanded his master, as he leaped from the catré, and groped his way towards his terrified servitor. “What the devil has got into you, Phelim? Have you seen a ghost?”

“Oh, masther!—by Jaysus! worse than that: I’ve been murdhered by a snake. It’s bit me all over the body. Blessed Saint Pathrick! I’m a poor lost sinner! I’ll be shure to die!”

“Bitten you, you say—where?” asked Maurice, hastily striking a light, and proceeding to examine the skin of his henchman, assisted by the old hunter—who had by this time arrived within the cabin.

“I see no sign of bite,” continued the mustanger, after having turned Phelim round and round, and closely scrutinised his epidermis.

“Ne’er a scratch,” laconically interpolated Stump.

“Sowl! then, if I’m not bit, so much the better; but it crawled all over me. I can feel it now, as cowld as charity, on me skin.”

“Was there a snake at all?” demanded Maurice, inclined to doubt the statement of his follower. “You’ve been dreaming of one, Phelim—nothing more.”

“Not a bit of a dhrame, masther: it was a raal sarpint. Be me sowl, I’m shure of it!”

“I reck’n thur’s been snake,” drily remarked the hunter. “Let’s see if we kin track it up. Kewrious it air, too. Thur’s a hair rope all roun’ the house. Wonder how the varmint could ha’ crossed thet? Thur—thur it is!”

The hunter, as he spoke, pointed to a corner of the cabin, where the serpent was seen spirally coiled.

“Only a chicken!” he continued: “no more harm in it than in a suckin’ dove. It kedn’t ha’ bit ye, Mister Pheelum; but we’ll put it past bitin’, anyhow.”

Saying this, the hunter seized the snake in his hands; and, raising it aloft, brought it down upon the floor of the cabin with a “thwank” that almost deprived it of the power of motion.

“Thru now, Mister Pheelum!” he exclaimed, giving it the finishing touch with the heel of his heavy boot, “ye may go back to yur bed agin, an sleep ’ithout fear o’ bein’ disturbed till the mornin’—leastwise, by snakes.”

Kicking the defunct reptile before him, Zeb Stump strode out of the hut, gleefully chuckling to himself, as, for the third time, he extended his colossal carcase along the sward.

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