Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Eight. The Crawl of the Alacran

The killing of the snake appeared to be the cue for a general return to quiescence. The howlings of the hound ceased with those of the henchman. The mustangs once more stood silent under the shadowy trees.

Inside the cabin the only noise heard was an occasional shuffling, when Phelim, no longer feeling confidence in the protection of his cabriesto, turned restlessly on his horseskin.

Outside also there was but one sound, to disturb the stillness though its intonation was in striking contrast with that heard within. It might have been likened to a cross between the grunt of an alligator and the croaking of a bull-frog; but proceeding, as it did, from the nostrils of Zeb Stump, it could only be the snore of the slumbering hunter. Its sonorous fulness proved him to be soundly asleep.

He was—had been, almost from the moment of re-establishing himself within the circle of his cabriesto. The revanche obtained over his late disturber had acted as a settler to his nerves; and once more was he enjoying the relaxation of perfect repose.

For nearly an hour did this contrasting duet continue, varied only by an occasional recitative in the hoot of the great horned owl, or a cantata penserosa in the lugubrious wail of the prairie wolf.

At the end of this interval, however, the chorus recommenced, breaking out abruptly as before, and as before led by the vociferous voice of the Connemara man.

“Meliah murdher!” cried he, his first exclamation not only startling the host of the hut, but the guest so soundly sleeping outside. “Howly Mother! Vargin av unpurticted innocence! Save me—save me!”

“Save you from what?” demanded his master, once more springing from his couch and hastening to strike a light. “What is it, you confounded fellow?”

“Another snake, yer hanner! Och! be me sowl! a far wickeder sarpent than the wan Misther Stump killed. It’s bit me all over the breast. I feel the place burnin’ where it crawled across me, just as if the horse-shoer at Ballyballagh had scorched me wid a rid-hot iron!”

“Durn ye for a stinkin’ skunk!” shouted Zeb Stump, with his blanket about his shoulder, quite filling the doorway. “Ye’ve twicest spiled my night’s sleep, ye Irish fool! ’Scuse me, Mister Gerald! Thur air fools in all countries, I reck’n, ’Merican as well as Irish—but this hyur follerer o’ yourn air the durndest o’ the kind iver I kim acrost. Dog-goned if I see how we air to get any sleep the night, ’less we drownd him in the crik fust!”

“Och! Misther Stump dear, don’t talk that way. I sware to yez both there’s another snake. I’m shure it’s in the kyabin yit. It’s only a minute since I feeled it creepin’ over me.”

“You must ha’ been dreemin?” rejoined the hunter, in a more complacent tone, and speaking half interrogatively. “I tell ye no snake in Texas will cross a hosshair rope. The tother ’un must ha’ been inside the house afore ye laid the laryitt roun’ it. ’Taint likely there keel ha’ been two on ’em. We kin soon settle that by sarchin’.”

“Oh, murdher! Luk hare!” cried the Galwegian, pulling off his shirt and laying bare his breast. “Thare’s the riptoile’s track, right acrass over me ribs! Didn’t I tell yez there was another snake? O blissed Mother, what will become av me? It feels like a strake av fire!”

“Snake!” exclaimed Stump, stepping up to the affrighted Irishman, and holding the candle close to his skin. “Snake i’deed! By the ’tarnal airthquake, it air no snake! It air wuss than that!”

“Worse than a snake?” shouted Phelim in dismay. “Worse, yez say, Misther Stump? Div yez mane that it’s dangerous?”

“Wal, it mout be, an it moutn’t. Thet ere ’ll depend on whether I kin find somethin’ ’bout hyur, an find it soon. Ef I don’t, then, Mister Pheelum, I won’t answer—”

“Oh, Misther Stump, don’t say thare’s danger!”

“What is it?” demanded Maurice, as his eyes rested upon a reddish line running diagonally across the breast of his follower, and which looked as if traced by the point of a hot spindle. “What is it, anyhow?” he repeated with increasing anxiety, as he observed the serious look with which the hunter regarded the strange marking. “I never saw the like before. Is it something to be alarmed about?”

“All o’ thet, Mister Gerald,” replied Stump, motioning Maurice outside the hut, and speaking to him in a whisper, so as not to be overheard by Phelim.

“But what is it?” eagerly asked the mustanger. “It air the crawl o’ the pisen centipede.”

“The poison centipede! Has it bitten him?”

“No, I hardly think it hez. But it don’t need thet. The crawl o’ itself air enuf to kill him!”

“Merciful Heaven! you don’t mean that?”

“I do, Mister Gerald. I’ve seed more ’an one good fellur go under wi’ that same sort o’ a stripe acrost his skin. If thur ain’t somethin’ done, an thet soon, he’ll fust get into a ragin’ fever, an then he’ll go out o’ his senses, jest as if the bite o’ a mad dog had gin him the hydrophoby. It air no use frightenin’ him howsomdever, till I sees what I kin do. Thur’s a yarb, or rayther it air a plant, as grows in these parts. Ef I kin find it handy, there’ll be no defeequilty in curin’ o’ him. But as the cussed lack wud hev it, the moon hez sneaked out o’ sight; an I kin only get the yarb by gropin’. I know there air plenty o’ it up on the bluff; an ef you’ll go back inside, an keep the fellur quiet, I’ll see what kin be done. I won’t be gone but a minute.”

The whispered colloquy, and the fact of the speakers having gone outside to carry it on, instead of tranquillising the fears of Phelim, had by this time augmented them to an extreme degree: and just as the old hunter, bent upon his herborising errand, disappeared in the darkness, he came rushing forth from the hut, howling more piteously than ever.

It was some time before his master could get him tranquillised, and then only by assuring him—on a faith not very firm—that there was not the slightest danger.

A few seconds after this had been accomplished, Zeb Stump reappeared in the doorway, with a countenance that produced a pleasant change in the feelings of those inside. His confident air and attitude proclaimed, as plainly as words could have done, that he had discovered that of which he had gone in search—the “yarb.” In his right hand he held a number of oval shaped objects of dark green colour—all of them bristling with sharp spines, set over the surface in equidistant clusters. Maurice recognised the leaves of a plant well known to him—the oregano cactus.

“Don’t be skeeart, Mister Pheelum!” said the old hunter, in a consolatory tone, as he stepped across the threshold. “Thur’s nothin’ to fear now. I hev got the bolsum as ’ll draw the burnin’ out o’ yur blood, quicker ’an flame ud scorch a feather. Stop yur yellin’, man! Ye’ve rousted every bird an beast, an creepin’ thing too, I reckon, out o’ thar slumbers, for more an twenty mile up an down the crik. Ef you go on at that grist much longer, ye’ll bring the Kumanchees out o’ thur mountains, an that ’ud be wuss mayhap than the crawl o’ this hunderd-legged critter. Mister Gerald, you git riddy a bandige, whiles I purpares the powltiss.”

Drawing his knife from its sheath, the hunter first lopped off the spines; and then, removing the outside skin, he split the thick succulent leaves of the cactus into slices of about an eighth of an inch in thickness. These he spread contiguously upon a strip of clean cotton stuff already prepared by the mustanger; and then, with the ability of a hunter, laid the “powltiss,” as he termed it, along the inflamed line, which he declared to have been made by the claws of the centipede, but which in reality was caused by the injection of venom from its poison-charged mandibles, a thousand times inserted into the flesh of the sleeper!

The application of the oregano was almost instantaneous in its effect. The acrid juice of the plant, producing a counter poison, killed that which had been secreted by the animal; and the patient, relieved from further apprehension, and soothed by the sweet confidence of security—stronger from reaction—soon fell off into a profound and restorative slumber.

After searching for the centipede and failing to find it—for this hideous reptile, known in Mexico as the alacran, unlike the rattlesnake, has no fear of crossing a cabriesto—the improvised physician strode silently out of the cabin; and, once more committing himself to his grassy couch, slept undisturbed till the morning.

At the earliest hour of daybreak all three were astir—Phelim having recovered both from his fright and his fever. Having made their matutinal meal upon the débris of the roast turkey, they hastened to take their departure from the hut. The quondam stable-boy of Ballyballagh, assisted by the Texan hunter, prepared the wild steeds for transport across the plains—by stringing them securely together—while Maurice looked after his own horse and the spotted mare. More especially did he expend his time upon the beautiful captive—carefully combing out her mane and tail, and removing from her glossy coat the stains that told of the severe chase she had cost him before her proud neck yielded to the constraint of his lazo.

“Durn it, man!” exclaimed Zeb, as, with some surprise, he stood watching the movements of the mustanger, “ye needn’t ha’ been hef so purtickler! Wudley Pointdexter ain’t the man as ’ll go back from a barg’in. Ye’ll git the two hunderd dollars, sure as my name air Zeblun Stump; an dog-gone my cats, ef the maar ain’t worth every red cent o’ the money!”

Maurice heard the remarks without making reply; but the half suppressed smile playing around his lips told that the Kentuckian had altogether misconstrued the motive for his assiduous grooming.

In less than an hour after, the mustanger was on the march, mounted on his blood-bay, and leading the spotted mare at the end of his lazo; while the captive cavallada, under the guidance of the Galwegian groom, went trooping at a brisk pace over the plain.

Zeb Stump, astride his “ole maar,” could only keep up by a constant hammering with his heels; and Tara, picking his steps through the spinous mezquite grass, trotted listlessly in the rear.

The hut, with its skin-door closed against animal intruders, was left to take care of itself; its silent solitude, for a time, to be disturbed only by the hooting of the horned owl, the scream of the cougar, or the howl-bark of the hungering coyoté.