Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Twelve. Taming a Wild Mare

The pleasantest apartment in a Mexican house is that which has the roof for its floor, and the sky for its ceiling—the azotea. In fine weather—ever fine in that sunny clime—it is preferred to the drawing-room; especially after dinner, when the sun begins to cast rose-coloured rays upon the snow-clad summits of Orizava, Popocatepec, Toluca, and the “Twin Sister;” when the rich wines of Xeres and Madeira have warmed the imaginations of Andalusia’s sons and daughters—descendants of the Conquistadores—who mount up to their house-tops to look upon a land of world-wide renown, rendered famous by the heroic achievements of their ancestors.

Then does the Mexican “cavallero,” clad in embroidered habiliments, exhibit his splendid exterior to the eyes of some señorita—at the same time puffing the smoke of his paper cigarito against her cheeks. Then does the dark-eyed donçella favourably listen to soft whisperings; or perhaps only pretends to listen, while, with heart distraught, and eye wandering away, she sends stealthy glances over the plain towards some distant hacienda—the home of him she truly loves.

So enjoyable a fashion, as that of spending the twilight hours upon the housetop, could not fail to be followed by any one who chanced to be the occupant of a Mexican dwelling; and the family of the Louisiana planter had adopted it, as a matter of course.

On that same evening, after the dining-hall had been deserted, the roof, instead of the drawing-room, was chosen as the place of re-assemblage; and as the sun descended towards the horizon, his slanting rays fell upon a throng as gay, as cheerful, and perhaps as resplendent, as ever trod the azotea of Casa del Corvo. Moving about over its tessellated tiles, standing in scattered groups, or lined along the parapet with faces turned towards the plain, were women as fair and men as brave as had ever assembled on that same spot—even when its ancient owner used to distribute hospitality to the hidalgos of the land—the bluest blood in Coahuila and Texas.

The company now collected to welcome the advent of Woodley Poindexter on his Texan estate, could also boast of this last distinction. They were the élite of the Settlements—not only of the Leona, but of others more distant. There were guests from Gonzales, from Castroville, and even from San Antonio—old friends of the planter, who, like him, had sought a home in South-Western Texas, and who had ridden—some of them over a hundred miles—to be present at this, his first grand “reception.”

The planter had spared neither pains nor expense to give it éclat. What with the sprinkling of uniforms and epaulettes, supplied by the Fort—what with the brass band borrowed from the same convenient repository—what with the choice wines found in the cellars of Casa del Corvo, and which had formed part of the purchase—there could be little lacking to make Poindexter’s party the most brilliant ever given upon the banks of the Leona.

And to insure this effect, his lovely daughter Louise, late belle of Louisiana—the fame of whose beauty had been before her, even in Texas—acted as mistress of the ceremonies—moving about among the admiring guests with the smile of a queen, and the grace of a goddess.

On that occasion was she the cynosure of a hundred pairs of eyes, the happiness of a score of hearts, and perhaps the torture of as many more: for not all were blessed who beheld her beauty.

Was she herself happy?

The interrogatory may appear singular—almost absurd. Surrounded by friends—admirers—one, at least, who adored her—a dozen whose incipient love could but end in adoration—young planters, lawyers, embryo statesmen, and some with reputation already achieved—sons of Mars in armour, or with armour late laid aside—how could she be otherwise than proudly, supremely happy?

A stranger might have asked the question; one superficially acquainted with Creole character—more especially the character of the lady in question.

But mingling in that splendid throng was a man who was no stranger to either; and who, perhaps, more than any one present, watched her every movement; and endeavoured more than any other to interpret its meaning. Cassius Calhoun was the individual thus occupied.

She went not hither, nor thither, without his following her—not close, like a shadow; but by stealth, flitting from place to place; upstairs, and downstairs; standing in corners, with an air of apparent abstraction; but all the while with eyes turned askant upon his cousin’s face, like a plain-clothes policeman employed on detective duty.

Strangely enough he did not seem to pay much regard to her speeches, made in reply to the compliments showered upon her by several would-be winners of a smile—not even when these were conspicuous and respectable, as in the case of young Hancock of the dragoons. To all such he listened without visible emotion, as one listens to a conversation in no way affecting the affairs either of self or friends.

It was only after ascending to the azotea, on observing his cousin near the parapet, with her eye turned interrogatively towards the plain, that his detective zeal became conspicuous—so much so as to attract the notice of others. More than once was it noticed by those standing near: for more than once was repeated the act which gave cause to it.

At intervals, not very wide apart, the young mistress of Casa del Corvo might have been seen to approach the parapet, and look across the plain, with a glance that seemed to interrogate the horizon of the sky.

Why she did so no one could tell. No one presumed to conjecture, except Cassius Calhoun. He had thoughts upon the subject—thoughts that were torturing him.

When a group of moving forms appeared upon the prairie, emerging from the garish light of the setting sun—when the spectators upon the azotea pronounced it a drove of horses in charge of some mounted men—the ex-officer of volunteers had a suspicion as to who was conducting that cavallada.

Another appeared to feel an equal interest in its advent, though perhaps from a different motive. Long before the horse-drove had attracted the observation of Poindexter’s guests, his daughter had noted its approach—from the time that a cloud of dust soared up against the horizon, so slight and filmy as to have escaped detection by any eye not bent expressly on discovering it.

From that moment the young Creole, under cover of a conversation carried on amid a circle of fair companions, had been slyly scanning the dust-cloud as it drew nearer; forming conjectures as to what was causing it, upon knowledge already, and as she supposed, exclusively her own.

“Wild horses!” announced the major commandant of Fort Inge, after a short inspection through his pocket telescope. “Some one bringing them in,” he added, a second time raising the glass to his eye. “Oh! I see now—it’s Maurice the mustanger, who occasionally helps our men to a remount. He appears to be coming this way—direct to your place, Mr Poindexter.”

“If it be the young fellow you have named, that’s not unlikely,” replied the owner of Casa del Corvo. “I bargained with him to catch me a score or two; and maybe this is the first instalment he’s bringing me.”

“Yes, I think it is,” he added, after a look through the telescope.

“I am sure of it,” said the planter’s son. “I can tell the horseman yonder to be Maurice Gerald.”

The planter’s daughter could have done the same; though she made no display of her knowledge. She did not appear to be much interested in the matter—indeed, rather indifferent. She had become aware of being watched by that evil eye, constantly burning upon her.

The cavallada came up, Maurice sitting handsomely on his horse, with the spotted mare at the end of his lazo.

“What a beautiful creature!” exclaimed several voices, as the captured mustang was led up in front of the house, quivering with excitement at a scene so new to it.

“It’s worth a journey to the ground to look at such an animal!” suggested the major’s wife, a lady of enthusiastic inclinings. “I propose we all go down! What say you, Miss Poindexter?”

“Oh, certainly,” answered the mistress of the mansion, amidst a chorus of other voices crying out—

“Let us go down! Let us go down!”

Led by the majoress, the ladies filed down the stone stairway—the gentlemen after; and in a score of seconds the horse-hunter, still seated in his saddle, became, with his captive, the centre of the distinguished circle.

Henry Poindexter had hurried down before the rest, and already, in the frankest manner, bidden the stranger welcome.

Between the latter and Louise only a slight salutation could be exchanged. Familiarity with a horse-dealer—even supposing him to have had the honour of an introduction—would scarce have been tolerated by the “society.”

Of the ladies, the major’s wife alone addressed him in a familiar way; but that was in a tone that told of superior position, coupled with condescension. He was more gratified by a glance—quick and silent—when his eye changed intelligence with that of the young Creole.

Hers was not the only one that rested approvingly upon him. In truth, the mustanger looked splendid, despite his travel-stained habiliments. His journey of over twenty miles had done little to fatigue him. The prairie breeze had freshened the colour upon his cheeks; and his full round throat, naked to the breast-bone, and slightly bronzed with the sun, contributed to the manliness of his mien. Even the dust clinging to his curled hair could not altogether conceal its natural gloss, nor the luxuriance of its growth; while a figure tersely knit told of strength and endurance beyond the ordinary endowment of man. There were stolen glances, endeavouring to catch his, sent by more than one of the fair circle. The pretty niece of the commissary smiled admiringly upon him. Some said the commissary’s wife; but this could be only a slander, to be traced, perhaps, to the doctor’s better half—the Lady Teazle of the cantonment.

“Surely,” said Poindexter, after making an examination of the captured mustang, “this must be the animal of which old Zeb Stump has been telling me?”

“It ur thet eyedenticul same,” answered the individual so described, making his way towards Maurice with the design of assisting him. “Ye-es, Mister Peintdexter; the eyedenticul critter—a maar, es ye kin all see for yurselves—”

“Yes, yes,” hurriedly interposed the planter, not desiring any further elucidation.

“The young fellur hed grupped her afore I got thur; so I wur jess in the nick o’ time ’bout it. She mout a been tuck elswhar, an then Miss Lewaze thur mout a missed hevin’ her.”

“It is true indeed, Mr Stump! It was very thoughtful of you. I know not how I shall ever be able to reciprocate your kindness?”

“Reciperkate! Wal, I spose thet air means to do suthin in return. Ye kin do thet, miss, ’ithout much difeequilty. I han’t dud nothin’ for you, ceptin’ make a bit o’ a journey acrost the purayra. To see yur bewtyful self mounted on thet maar, wi’ yur ploomed het upon yur head, an yur long-tailed pettykote streakin’ it ahint you, ’ud pay old Zeb Stump to go clur to the Rockies, and back agin.”

“Oh, Mr Stump! you are an incorrigible flatterer! Look around you! you will see many here more deserving of your compliments than I.”

“Wal, wal!” rejoined Zeb, casting a look of careless scrutiny towards the ladies, “I ain’t a goin’ to deny thet thur air gobs o’ putty critters hyur—dog-goned putty critters; but es they used to say in ole Loozyanney, thur air but one Lewaze Peintdexter.”

A burst of laughter—in which only a few feminine voices bore part—was the reply to Zeb’s gallant speech.

“I shall owe you two hundred dollars for this,” said the planter, addressing himself to Maurice, and pointing to the spotted mare. “I think that was the sum stipulated for by Mr Stump.”

“I was not a party to the stipulation,” replied the mustanger, with a significant but well-intentioned smile. “I cannot take your money. She is not for sale.”

“Oh, indeed!” said the planter, drawing back with an air of proud disappointment; while his brother planters, as well as the officers of the Fort, looked astonished at the refusal of such a munificent price. Two hundred dollars for an untamed mustang, when the usual rate of price was from ten to twenty! The mustanger must be mad?

He gave them no time to descant upon his sanity.

“Mr Poindexter,” he continued, speaking in the same good-humoured strain, “you have given me such a generous price for my other captives—and before they were taken too—that I can afford to make a present—what we over in Ireland call a ‘luckpenny.’ It is our custom there also, when a horse-trade takes place at the house, to give the douceur, not to the purchaser himself, but to one of the fair members of his family. May I have your permission to introduce this Hibernian fashion into the settlements of Texas?”

“Certainly, by all means!” responded several voices, two or three of them unmistakably with an Irish accentuation.

“Oh, certainly, Mr Gerald!” replied the planter, his conservatism giving way to the popular will—“as you please about that.”

“Thanks, gentlemen—thanks!” said the mustanger, with a patronising look towards men who believed themselves to be his masters. “This mustang is my luckpenny; and if Miss Poindexter will condescend to accept of it, I shall feel more than repaid for the three days’ chase which the creature has cost me. Had she been the most cruel of coquettes, she could scarce have been more difficult to subdue.”

“I accept your gift, sir; and with gratitude,” responded the young Creole—for the first time prominently proclaiming herself, and stepping freely forth as she spoke. “But I have a fancy,” she continued, pointing to the mustang—at the same time that her eye rested inquiringly on the countenance of the mustanger—“a fancy that your captive is not yet tamed? She but trembles in fear of the unknown future. She may yet kick against the traces, if she find the harness not to her liking; and then what am I to do—poor I?”

“True, Maurice!” said the major, widely mistaken as to the meaning of the mysterious speech, and addressing the only man on the ground who could possibly have comprehended it; “Miss Poindexter speaks very sensibly. That mustang has not been tamed yet—any one may see it. Come, my good fellow! give her the lesson.

“Ladies and gentlemen!” continued the major, turning towards the company, “this is something worth your seeing—those of you who have not witnessed the spectacle before. Come, Maurice; mount, and show us a specimen of prairie horsemanship. She looks as though she would put your skill to the test.”

“You are right, major: she does!” replied the mustanger, with a quick glance, directed not towards the captive quadruped, but to the young Creole; who, with all her assumed courage, retired tremblingly behind the circle of spectators.

“No matter, my man,” pursued the major, in a tone intended for encouragement. “In spite of that devil sparkling in her eye, I’ll lay ten to one you’ll take the conceit out of her. Try!”

Without losing credit, the mustanger could not have declined acceding to the major’s request. It was a challenge to skill—to equestrian prowess—a thing not lightly esteemed upon the prairies of Texas.

He proclaimed his acceptance of it by leaping lightly out of his saddle, resigning his own steed to Zeb Stump, and exclusively giving his attention to the captive.

The only preliminary called for was the clearing of the ground. This was effected in an instant—the greater part of the company—with all the ladies—returning to the azotea.

With only a piece of raw-hide rope looped around the under jaw, and carried headstall fashion behind the ears—with only one rein in hand—Maurice sprang to the back of the wild mare.

It was the first time she had ever been mounted by man—the first insult of the kind offered to her.

A shrill spiteful scream spoke plainly her appreciation of and determination to resent it. It proclaimed defiance of the attempt to degrade her to the condition of a slave!

With equine instinct, she reared upon her hind legs, for some seconds balancing her body in an erect position. Her rider, anticipating the trick, had thrown his arms around her neck; and, close clasping her throat, appeared part of herself. But for this she might have poised over upon her back, and crushed him beneath her.

The uprearing of the hind quarters was the next “trick” of the mustang—sure of being tried, and most difficult for the rider to meet without being thrown. From sheer conceit in his skill, he had declined saddle and stirrup, that would now have stood him in stead; but with these he could not have claimed accomplishment of the boasted feat of the prairies—to tame the naked steed.

He performed it without them. As the mare raised her hind quarters aloft, he turned quickly upon her back, threw his arms around the barrel of her body, and resting his toes upon the angular points of her fore shoulders, successfully resisted her efforts to unhorse him.

Twice or three times was the endeavour repeated by the mustang, and as often foiled by the skill of the mustanger; and then, as if conscious that such efforts were idle, the enraged animal plunged no longer; but, springing away from the spot, entered upon a gallop that appeared to have no goal this side the ending of the earth.

It must have come to an end somewhere; though not within sight of the spectators, who kept their places, waiting for the horse-tamer’s return.

Conjectures that he might be killed, or, at the least, badly “crippled,” were freely ventured during his absence; and there was one who wished it so. But there was also one upon whom such an event would have produced a painful impression—almost as painful as if her own life depended upon his safe return. Why Louise Poindexter, daughter of the proud Louisiana sugar-planter—a belle—a beauty of more than provincial repute—who could, by simply saying yes, have had for a husband the richest and noblest in the land—why she should have fixed her fancy, or even permitted her thoughts to stray, upon a poor horse-hunter of Texas, was a mystery that even her own intellect—by no means a weak one—was unable to fathom.

Perhaps she had not yet gone so far as to fix her fancy upon him. She did not think so herself. Had she thought so, and reflected upon it, perhaps she would have recoiled from the contemplation of certain consequences, that could not have failed to present themselves to her mind.

She was but conscious of having conceived some strange interest in a strange individual—one who had presented himself in a fashion that favoured fanciful reflections—one who differed essentially from the common-place types introduced to her in the world of social distinctions.

She was conscious, too, that this interest—originating in a word, a glance, a gesture—listened to, or observed, amid the ashes of a burnt prairie—instead of subsiding, had ever since been upon the increase!

It was not diminished when Maurice the mustanger came riding back across the plain, with the wild mare between his legs—no more wild—no longer desiring to destroy him—but with lowered crest and mien submissive, acknowledging to all the world that she had found her master!

Without acknowledging it to the world, or even to herself, the young Creole was inspired with a similar reflection.

“Miss Poindexter!” said the mustanger, gliding to the ground, and without making any acknowledgment to the plaudits that were showered upon him—“may I ask you to step up to her, throw this lazo over her neck, and lead her to the stable? By so doing, she will regard you as her tamer; and ever after submit to your will, if you but exhibit the sign that first deprived her of her liberty.”

A prude would have paltered with the proposal—a coquette would have declined it—a timid girl have shrunk back.

Not so Louise Poindexter—a descendant of one of the filles-à-la-casette. Without a moment’s hesitation—without the slightest show of prudery or fear—she stepped forth from the aristocratic circle; as instructed, took hold of the horsehair rope; whisked it across the neck of the tamed mustang; and led the captive off towards the caballeriza of Casa del Corvo.

As she did so, the mustanger’s words were ringing in her ears, and echoing through her heart with a strange foreboding weird signification.

“She will regard you as her tamer; and ever after submit to your will, if you but exhibit the sign that first deprived her of her liberty.”