Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Thirteen. A Prairie Pic-Nic

The first rays from a rosy aurora, saluting the flag of Fort Inge, fell with a more subdued light upon an assemblage of objects occupying the parade-ground below—in front of the “officers’ quarters.”

A small sumpter-waggon stood in the centre of the group; having attached to it a double span of tight little Mexican mules, whose quick impatient “stomping,” tails spitefully whisked, and ears at intervals turning awry, told that they had been for some time in harness, and were impatient to move off—warning the bystanders, as well, against a too close approximation to their heels.

Literally speaking, there were no bystanders—if we except a man of colossal size, in blanket coat, and slouch felt hat; who, despite the obscure light straggling around his shoulders, could be identified as Zeb Stump, the hunter.

He was not standing either, but seated astride his “ole maar,” that showed less anxiety to be off than either the Mexican mules or her own master.

The other forms around the vehicle were all in motion—quick, hurried, occasionally confused—hither and thither, from the waggon to the door of the quarters, and back again from the house to the vehicle.

There were half a score of them, or thereabouts; varied in costume as in the colour of their skins. Most were soldiers, in fatigue dress, though of different arms of the service. Two would be taken to be mess-cooks; and two or three more, officers’ servants, who had been detailed from the ranks.

A more legitimate specimen of this profession appeared in the person of a well-dressed darkie, who moved about the ground in a very authoritative manner; deriving his importance, from his office of valet de tout to the major in command of the cantonment. A sergeant, as shown by his three-barred chevron, was in charge of the mixed party, directing their movements; the object of which was to load the waggon with eatables and drinkables—in short, the paraphernalia of a pic-nic.

That it was intended to be upon a grand scale, was testified by the amplitude and variety of the impedimenta. There were hampers and baskets of all shapes and sizes, including the well known parallelopipedon, enclosing its twelve necks of shining silver-lead; while the tin canisters, painted Spanish brown, along with the universal sardine-case, proclaimed the presence of many luxuries not indigenous to Texas.

However delicate and extensive the stock of provisions, there was one in the party of purveyors who did not appear to think it complete. The dissatisfied Lucullus was Zeb Stump.

“Lookee hyur, surgint,” said he, addressing himself confidentially to the individual in charge, “I hain’t seed neery smell o’ corn put inter the veehicle as yit; an’, I reck’n, thet out on the purayra, thur’ll be some folks ud prefar a leetle corn to any o’ thet theer furrin French stuff. Sham-pain, ye call it, I b’lieve.”

“Prefer corn to champagne! The horses you mean?”

“Hosses be durned. I ain’t talkin’ ’bout hoss corn. I mean M’nongaheela.”

“Oh—ah—I comprehend. You’re right about that, Mr Stump. The whisky mustn’t be forgotten, Pomp. I think I saw a jar inside, that’s intended to go?”

“Yaw—yaw, sagint,” responded the dark-skinned domestic; “dar am dat same wesicle. Hya it is!” he added, lugging a large jar into the light, and swinging it up into the waggon.

Old Zeb appearing to think the packing now complete, showed signs of impatience to be off.

“Ain’t ye riddy, surgint?” he inquired, shifting restlessly in his stirrups.

“Not quite, Mr Stump. The cook tells me the chickens want another turn upon the spit, before we can take ’em along.”

“Durn the chickens, an the cook too! What air any dung-hill fowl to compare wi’ a wild turkey o’ the purayra; an how am I to shoot one, arter the sun hev clomb ten mile up the sky? The major sayed I war to git him a gobbler, whativer shed happen. ’Tain’t so durnation eezy to kill turkey gobbler arter sun-up, wi’ a clamjamferry like this comin’ clost upon a fellur’s heels? Ye mustn’t surpose, surgint, that thet ere bird air as big a fool as the sodger o’ a fort. Of all the cunnin’ critters as ferquents these hyur purayras, a turkey air the cunninest; an to git helf way roun’ one o’ ’em, ye must be up along wi’ the sun; and preehap a leetle urlier.”

“True, Mr Stump. I know the major wants a wild turkey. He told me so; and expects you to procure one on the way.”

“No doubt he do; an preehap expex me likeways to purvid him wi’ a baffler’s tongue, an hump—seein’ as thur ain’t sech a anymal on the purayras o’ South Texas—nor hain’t a been for good twenty yurs past—noterthstandin’ what Eur-óp-ean writers o’ books hev said to the contrary, an ’specially French ’uns, as I’ve heern. Thur ain’t no burner ’bout hyur. Thur’s baar, an deer, an goats, an plenty o’ gobblers; but to hev one o’ these critters for yur dinner, ye must git it urly enuf for yur breakfist. Unless I hev my own time, I won’t promise to guide yur party, an git gobbler both. So, surgint, ef ye expex yur grand kumpny to chaw turkey-meat this day, ye’ll do well to be makin’ tracks for the purayra.”

Stirred by the hunter’s representation, the sergeant did all that was possible to hasten the departure of himself and his parti-coloured company; and, shortly after, the provision train, with Zeb Stump as its guide, was wending its way across the extensive plain that lies between the Leona and the “River of Nuts.”

The parade-ground had been cleared of the waggon and its escort scarce twenty minutes, when a party of somewhat different appearance commenced assembling upon the same spot.

There were ladies on horseback; attended, not by grooms, as at the “meet” in an English hunting-field, but by the gentlemen who were to accompany them—their friends and acquaintances—fathers, brothers, lovers, and husbands. Most, if not all, who had figured at Poindexter’s dinner party, were soon upon the ground.

The planter himself was present; as also his son Henry, his nephew Cassius Calhoun, and his daughter Louise—the young lady mounted upon the spotted mustang, that had figured so conspicuously on the occasion of the entertainment at Casa del Corvo.

The affair was a reciprocal treat—a simple return of hospitality; the major and his officers being the hosts, the planter and his friends the invited guests. The entertainment about to be provided, if less pretentious in luxurious appointments, was equally appropriate to the time and place. The guests of the cantonment were to be gratified by witnessing a spectacle—grand as rare—a chase of wild steeds!

The arena of the sport could only be upon the wild-horse prairies—some twenty miles to the southward of Fort Inge. Hence the necessity for an early start, and being preceded by a vehicle laden with an ample commissariat.

Just as the sunbeams began to dance upon the crystal waters of the Leona, the excursionists were ready to take their departure from the parade-ground—with an escort of two-score dragoons that had been ordered to ride in the rear. Like the party that preceded them, they too were provided with a guide—not an old backwoodsman in battered felt hat, and faded blanket coat, astride a scraggy roadster; but a horseman completely costumed and equipped, mounted upon a splendid steed, in every way worthy to be the chaperone of such a distinguished expedition.

“Come, Maurice!” cried the major, on seeing that all had assembled, “we’re ready to be conducted to the game. Ladies and gentlemen! this young fellow is thoroughly acquainted with the haunts and habits of the wild horses. If there’s a man in Texas, who can show us how to hunt them, ’tis Maurice the mustanger.”

“Faith, you flatter me, major!” rejoined the young Irishman, turning with a courteous air towards the company; “I have not said so much as that. I can only promise to show you where you may find them.”

“Modest fellow!” soliloquised one, who trembled, as she gave thought to what she more than half suspected to be an untruth.

“Lead on, then!” commanded the major; and, at the word, the gay cavalcade, with the mustanger in the lead, commenced moving across the parade-ground—while the star-spangled banner, unfurled by the morning breeze, fluttered upon its staff as if waving them an elegant adieu!

A twenty-mile ride upon prairie turf is a mere bagatelle—before breakfast, an airing. In Texas it is so regarded by man, woman, and horse.

It was accomplished in less than three hours—without further inconvenience than that which arose from performing the last few miles of it with appetites uncomfortably keen.

Fortunately the provision waggon, passed upon the road, came close upon their heels; and, long before the sun had attained the meridian line, the excursionists were in full pic-nic under the shade of a gigantic pecân tree, that stood near the banks of the Nueces.

No incident had occurred on the way—worth recording. The mustanger, as guide, had ridden habitually in the advance; the company, with one or two exceptions, thinking of him only in his official capacity—unless when startled by some feat of horsemanship—such as leaping clear over a prairie stream, or dry arroyo, which others were fain to ford, or cross by the crooked path.

There may have been a suspicion of bravado in this behaviour—a desire to exhibit. Cassius Calhoun told the company there was. Perhaps the ex-captain spoke the truth—for once.

If so, there was also some excuse. Have you ever been in a hunting-field, at home, with riding habits trailing the sward, and plumed hats proudly nodding around you? You have: and then what? Be cautious how you condemn the Texan mustanger. Reflect, that he, too, was under the artillery of bright eyes—a score pair of them—some as bright as ever looked love out of a lady’s saddle. Think, that Louise Poindexter’s were among the number—think of that, and you will scarce feel surprised at the ambition to “shine.”

There were others equally demonstrative of personal accomplishments—of prowess that might prove manhood. The young dragoon, Hancock, frequently essayed to show that he was not new to the saddle; and the lieutenant of mounted rifles, at intervals, strayed from the side of the commissary’s niece for the performance of some equestrian feat, without looking exclusively to her, his reputed sweetheart, as he listened to the whisperings of applause.

Ah, daughter of Poindexter! Whether in the salons of civilised Louisiana, or the prairies of savage Texas, peace could not reign in thy presence! Go where thou wilt, romantic thoughts must spring up—wild passions be engendered around thee!