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Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Nine. The Frontier Fort

The “star-spangled banner” suspended above Fort Inge, as it flouts forth from its tall staff, flings its fitful shadow over a scene of strange and original interest.

It is a picture of pure frontier life—which perhaps only the pencil of the younger Vernet could truthfully portray—half military, half civilian—half savage, half civilised—mottled with figures of men whose complexions, costumes, and callings, proclaim them appertaining to the extremes of both, and every possible gradation between.

Even the mise-en-scène—the Fort itself—is of this miscegenous character. That star-spangled banner waves not over bastions and battlements; it flings no shadow over casemate or covered way, fosse, scarpment, or glacis—scarce anything that appertains to a fortress. A rude stockade, constructed out of trunks of algarobia, enclosing shed-stabling for two hundred horses; outside this a half-score of buildings of the plainest architectural style—some of them mere huts of “wattle and daub”—jacalés—the biggest a barrack; behind it the hospital, the stores of the commissary, and quartermaster; on one side the guardhouse; and on the other, more pretentiously placed, the messroom and officers’ quarters; all plain in their appearance—plastered and whitewashed with the lime plentifully found on the Leona—all neat and clean, as becomes a cantonment of troops wearing the uniform of a great civilised nation. Such is Fort Inge.

At a short distance off another group of houses meets the eye—nearly, if not quite, as imposing as the cluster above described bearing the name of “The Fort.” They are just outside the shadow of the flag, though under its protection—for to it are they indebted for their origin and existence. They are the germ of the village that universally springs up in the proximity of an American military post—in all probability, and at no very remote period, to become a town—perhaps a great city.

At present their occupants are a sutler, whose store contains “knick-knacks” not classed among commissariat rations; an hotel-keeper whose bar-room, with white sanded floor and shelves sparkling with prismatic glass, tempts the idler to step in; a brace of gamblers whose rival tables of faro and monté extract from the pockets of the soldiers most part of their pay; a score of dark-eyed señoritas of questionable reputation; a like number of hunters, teamsters, mustangers, and nondescripts—such as constitute in all countries the hangers-on of a military cantonment, or the followers of a camp.

The houses in the occupancy of this motley corporation have been “sited” with some design. Perhaps they are the property of a single speculator. They stand around a “square,” where, instead of lamp-posts or statues, may be seen the decaying trunk of a cypress, or the bushy form of a hackberry rising out of a tapis of trodden grass.

The Leona—at this point a mere rivulet—glides past in the rear both of fort and village. To the front extends a level plain, green as verdure can make it—in the distance darkened by a bordering of woods, in which post-oaks and pecâns, live oaks and elms, struggle for existence with spinous plants of cactus and anona; with scores of creepers, climbers, and parasites almost unknown to the botanist. To the south and east along the banks of the stream, you see scattered houses: the homesteads of plantations; some of them rude and of recent construction, with a few of more pretentious style, and evidently of older origin. One of these last particularly attracts the attention: a structure of superior size—with flat roof, surmounted by a crenelled parapet—whose white walls show conspicuously against the green background of forest with which it is half encircled. It is the hacienda of Casa del Corvo.

Turning your eye northward, you behold a curious isolated eminence—a gigantic cone of rocks—rising several hundred feet above the level of the plain; and beyond, in dim distance, a waving horizontal line indicating the outlines of the Guadalupe mountains—the outstanding spurs of that elevated and almost untrodden plateau, the Llano Estacado.

Look aloft! You behold a sky, half sapphire, half turquoise; by day, showing no other spot than the orb of its golden god; by night, studded with stars that appear clipped from clear steel, and a moon whose well-defined disc outshines the effulgence of silver.

Look below—at that hour when moon and stars have disappeared, and the land-wind arrives from Matagorda Bay, laden with the fragrance of flowers; when it strikes the starry flag, unfolding it to the eye of the morn—then look below, and behold the picture that should have been painted by the pencil of Vernet—too varied and vivid, too plentiful in shapes, costumes, and colouring, to be sketched by the pen.

In the tableau you distinguish soldiers in uniform—the light blue of the United States infantry, the darker cloth of the dragoons, and the almost invisible green of the mounted riflemen.

You will see but few in full uniform—only the officer of the day, the captain of the guard, and the guard itself.

Their comrades off duty lounge about the barracks, or within the stockade enclosure, in red flannel shirts, slouch hats, and boots innocent of blacking.

They mingle with men whose costumes make no pretence to a military character: tall hunters in tunics of dressed deerskin, with leggings to correspond—herdsmen and mustangers, habited à la Mexicaine—Mexicans themselves, in wide calzoneros, serapés on their shoulders, botas on their legs, huge spurs upon their heels, and glazed sombreros set jauntily on their crowns. They palaver with Indians on a friendly visit to the Fort, for trade or treaty; whose tents stand at some distance, and from whose shoulders hang blankets of red, and green, and blue—giving them a picturesque, even classical, appearance, in spite of the hideous paint with which they have bedaubed their skins, and the dirt that renders sticky their long black hair, lengthened by tresses taken from the tails of their horses.

Picture to the eye of your imagination this jumble of mixed nationalities—in their varied costumes of race, condition, and calling; jot in here and there a black-skinned scion of Ethiopia, the body servant of some officer, or the emissary of a planter from the adjacent settlements; imagine them standing in gossiping groups, or stalking over the level plain, amidst some half-dozen halted waggons; a couple of six-pounders upon their carriages, with caissons close by; a square tent or two, with its surmounting fly—occupied by some eccentric officer who prefers sleeping under canvas; a stack of bayoneted rifles belonging to the soldiers on guard,—imagine all these component parts, and you will have before your mind’s eye a truthful picture of a military fort upon the frontier of Texas, and the extreme selvedge of civilisation.

About a week after the arrival of the Louisiana planter at his new home, three officers were seen standing upon the parade ground in front of Fort Inge, with their eyes turned towards the hacienda of Casa del Corvo.

They were all young men: the oldest not over thirty years of age. His shoulder-straps with the double bar proclaimed him a captain; the second, with a single cross bar, was a first lieutenant; while the youngest of the two, with an empty chevron, was either a second lieutenant or “brevet.”

They were off duty; engaged in conversation—their theme, the “new people” in Casa del Corvo—by which was meant the Louisiana planter and his family.

“A sort of housewarming it’s to be,” said the infantry captain, alluding to an invitation that had reached the Fort, extending to all the commissioned officers of the garrison. “Dinner first, and dancing afterwards—a regular field day, where I suppose we shall see paraded the aristocracy and beauty of the settlement.”

“Aristocracy?” laughingly rejoined the lieutenant of dragoons. “Not much of that here, I fancy; and of beauty still less.”

“You mistake, Hancock. There are both upon the banks of the Leona. Some good States families have strayed out this way. We’ll meet them at Poindexter’s party, no doubt. On the question of aristocracy, the host himself, if you’ll pardon a poor joke, is himself a host. He has enough of it to inoculate all the company that may be present; and as for beauty, I’ll back his daughter against anything this side the Sabine. The commissary’s niece will be no longer belle about here.”

“Oh, indeed!” drawled the lieutenant of rifles, in a tone that told of his being chafed by this representation. “Miss Poindexter must be deuced good-looking, then.”

“She’s all that, I tell you, if she be anything like what she was when I last saw her, which was at a Bayou Lafourche ball. There were half a dozen young Creoles there, who came nigh crossing swords about her.”

“A coquette, I suppose?” insinuated the rifleman.

“Nothing of the kind, Crossman. Quite the contrary, I assure you. She’s a girl of spirit, though—likely enough to snub any fellow who might try to be too familiar. She’s not without some of the father’s pride. It’s a family trait of the Poindexters.”

“Just the girl I should cotton to,” jocosely remarked the young dragoon. “And if she’s as good-looking as you say, Captain Sloman, I shall certainly go in for her. Unlike Crossman here, I’m clear of all entanglements of the heart. Thank the Lord for it!”

“Well, Mr Hancock,” rejoined the infantry officer, a gentleman of sober inclinings, “I’m not given to betting; but I’d lay a big wager you won’t say that, after you have seen Louise Poindexter—that is, if you speak your mind.”

“Pshaw, Sloman! don’t you be alarmed about me. I’ve been too often under the fire of bright eyes to have any fear of them.”

“None so bright as hers.”

“Deuce take it! you make a fellow fall in love with this lady without having set eyes upon her. She must be something extraordinary—incomparable.”

“She was both, when I last saw her.”

“How long ago was that?”

“The Lafourche ball? Let me see—about eighteen months. Just after we got back from Mexico. She was then ‘coming out’ as society styles it:—

“A new star in the firmament, to light and glory born!”

“Eighteen months is a long time,” sagely remarked Crossman—“a long time for an unmarried maiden—especially among Creoles, where they often get spliced at twelve, instead of ‘sweet sixteen.’ Her beauty may have lost some of its bloom?”

“I believe not a bit. I should have called to see; only I knew they were in the middle of their ‘plenishing,’ and mightn’t desire to be visited. But the major has been to Casa del Corvo, and brought back such a report about Miss Poindexter’s beauty as almost got him into a scrape with the lady commanding the post.”

“Upon my soul, Captain Sloman!” asseverated the lieutenant of dragoons, “you’ve excited my curiosity to such a degree, I feel already half in love with Louise Poindexter!”

“Before you get altogether into it,” rejoined the officer of infantry, in a serious tone, “let me recommend a little caution. There’s a bête noir in the background.”

“A brother, I suppose? That is the individual usually so regarded.”

“There is a brother, but it’s not he. A free noble young fellow he is—the only Poindexter I ever knew not eaten up with pride, he’s quite the reverse.”

“The aristocratic father, then? Surely he wouldn’t object to a quartering with the Hancocks?”

“I’m not so sure of that; seeing that the Hancocks are Yankees, and he’s a chivalric Southerner! But it’s not old Poindexter I mean.”

“Who, then, is the black beast, or what is it—if not a human?”

“It is human, after a fashion. A male cousin—a queer card he is—by name Cassius Calhoun.”

“I think I’ve heard the name.”

“So have I,” said the lieutenant of rifles.

“So has almost everybody who had anything to do with the Mexican war—that is, who took part in Scott’s campaign. He figured there extensively, and not very creditably either. He was captain in a volunteer regiment of Mississippians—for he hails from that State; but he was oftener met with at the monté-table than in the quarters of his regiment. He had one or two affairs, that gave him the reputation of a bully. But that notoriety was not of Mexican-war origin. He had earned it before going there; and was well known among the desperadoes of New Orleans as a dangerous man.”

“What of all that?” asked the young dragoon, in a tone slightly savouring of defiance. “Who cares whether Mr Cassius Calhoun be a dangerous man, or a harmless one? Not I. He’s only the girl’s cousin, you say?”

“Something more, perhaps. I have reason to think he’s her lover.”

“Accepted, do you suppose?”

“That I can’t tell. I only know, or suspect, that he’s the favourite of the father. I have heard reasons why; given only in whispers, it is true, but too probable to be scouted. The old story—influence springing from mortgage money. Poindexter’s not so rich as he has been—else we’d never have seen him out here.”

“If the lady be as attractive as you say, I suppose we’ll have Captain Cassius out here also, before long?”

“Before long! Is that all you know about it? He is here; came along with the family, and is now residing with them. Some say he’s a partner in the planting speculation. I saw him this very morning—down in the hotel bar-room—‘liquoring up,’ and swaggering in his old way.”

“A swarthy-complexioned man, of about thirty, with dark hair and moustaches; wearing a blue cloth frock, half military cut, and a Colt’s revolver strapped over his thigh?”

“Ay, and a bowie knife, if you had looked for it, under the breast of his coat. That’s the man.”

“He’s rather a formidable-looking fellow,” remarked the young rifleman. “If a bully, his looks don’t belie him.”

“Damn his looks!” half angrily exclaimed the dragoon. “We don’t hold commissions in Uncle Sam’s army to be scared by looks, nor bullies either. If he comes any of his bullying over me, he’ll find I’m as quick with a trigger as he.”

At that moment the bugle brayed out the call for morning parade—a ceremony observed at the little frontier fort as regularly as if a whole corps-d’armée had been present—and the three officers separating, betook themselves to their quarters to prepare their several companies for the inspection of the major in command of the cantonment.

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