Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Fourteen. The Manada

Had their guide held the prairies in complete control—its denizens subject to his secret will—responsible to time and place—he could not have conducted the excursionists to a spot more likely to furnish the sport that had summoned them forth.

Just as the sparkling Johannisberger—obtained from the German wine-stores of San Antonio—had imparted a brighter blue to the sky, and a more vivid green to the grass, the cry “Musteños!” was heard above the hum of conversation, interrupting the half-spoken sentiment, with the peal of merry laughter. It came from a Mexican vaquero, who had been stationed as a vidette on an eminence near at hand.

Maurice—at the moment partaking of the hospitality of his employers, freely extended to him—suddenly quaffed off the cup; and springing to his saddle, cried out—


“No,” answered the Mexican; “manada.”

“What do the fellows mean by their gibberish?” inquired Captain Calhoun.

“Musteños is only the Mexican for mustangs,” replied the major; “and by ‘manada’ he means they are wild mares—a drove of them. At this season they herd together, and keep apart from the horses; unless when—”

“When what?” impatiently asked the ex-officer of volunteers, interrupting the explanation.

“When they are attacked by asses,” innocently answered the major.

A general peal of laughter rendered doubtful the naïvété of the major’s response—imparting to it the suspicion of a personality not intended.

For a moment Calhoun writhed under the awkward misconception of the auditory; but only for a moment. He was not the man to succumb to an unlucky accident of speech. On the contrary, he perceived the chance of a triumphant reply; and took advantage of it.

“Indeed!” he drawled out, without appearing to address himself to any one in particular. “I was not aware that mustangs were so dangerous in these parts.”

As Calhoun said this, he was not looking at Louise Poindexter or he might have detected in her eye a glance to gratify him.

The young Creole, despite an apparent coolness towards him, could not withhold admiration at anything that showed cleverness. His case might not be so hopeless?

The young dragoon, Hancock, did not think it so; nor yet the lieutenant of rifles. Both observed the approving look, and both became imbued with the belief that Cassius Calhoun had—or might have—in his keeping, the happiness of his cousin.

The conjecture gave a secret chagrin to both, but especially to the dragoon.

There was but short time for him to reflect upon it; the manada was drawing near.

“To the saddle!” was the thought upon every mind, and the cry upon every tongue.

The bit was rudely inserted between teeth still industriously grinding the yellow corn; the bridle drawn over shoulders yet smoking after the quick skurry of twenty miles through the close atmosphere of a tropical morn; and, before a hundred could have been deliberately counted, every one, ladies and gentlemen alike, was in the stirrup, ready to ply whip and spur.

By this time the wild mares appeared coming over the crest of the ridge upon which the vidette had been stationed. He, himself a horse-catcher by trade, was already mounted, and in their midst—endeavouring to fling his lazo over one of the herd. They were going at mad gallop, as if fleeing from a pursuer—some dreaded creature that was causing them to “whigher” and snort! With their eyes strained to the rear, they saw neither the sumpter waggon, nor the equestrians clustering around it, but were continuing onward to the spot; which chanced to lie directly in the line of their flight.

“They are chased!” remarked Maurice, observing the excited action of the animals.

“What is it, Crespino?” he cried out to the Mexican, who, from his position, must have seen any pursuer that might be after them.

There was a momentary pause, as the party awaited the response. In the crowd were countenances that betrayed uneasiness, some even alarm. It might be Indians who were in pursuit of the mustangs!

“Un asino cimmaron!” was the phrase that came from the mouth of the Mexican, though by no means terminating the suspense of the picknickers. “Un macho!” he added.

“Oh! That’s it! I thought it was!” muttered Maurice. “The rascal must be stopped, or he’ll spoil our sport. So long as he’s after them, they’ll not make halt this side the sky line. Is the macho coming on?”

“Close at hand, Don Mauricio. Making straight for myself.”

“Fling your rope over him, if you can. If not, cripple him with a shot—anything to put an end to his capers.”

The character of the pursuer was still a mystery to most, if not all, upon the ground: for only the mustanger knew the exact signification of the phrases—“un asino cimmaron,” “un macho.”

“Explain, Maurice!” commanded the major. “Look yonder!” replied the young Irishman, pointing to the top of the hill.

The two words were sufficient. All eyes became directed towards the crest of the ridge, where an animal, usually regarded as the type of slowness and stupidity, was seen advancing with the swiftness of a bird upon the wing.

But very different is the “asino cimmaron” from the ass of civilisation—the donkey be-cudgelled into stolidity.

The one now in sight was a male, almost as large as any of the mustangs it was chasing; and if not fleet as the fleetest, still able to keep up with them by the sheer pertinacity of its pursuit!

The tableau of nature, thus presented on the green surface of the prairie, was as promptly produced as it could have been upon the stage of a theatre, or the arena of a hippodrome.

Scarce a score of words had passed among the spectators, before the wild mares were close up to them; and then, as if for the first time, perceiving the mounted party, they seemed to forget their dreaded pursuer, and shied off in a slanting direction.

“Ladies and gentlemen!” shouted the guide to a score of people, endeavouring to restrain their steeds; “keep your places, if you can. I know where the herd has its haunt. They are heading towards it now; and we shall find them again, with a better chance of a chase. If you pursue them at this moment, they’ll scatter into yonder chapparal; and ten to one if we ever more get sight of them.

“Hola, Señor Crespino! Send your bullet through that brute. He’s near enough for your escopette, is he not?”

The Mexican, detaching a short gun—“escopeta”—from his saddle-flap, and hastily bringing its butt to his shoulder, fired at the wild ass.

The animal brayed on hearing the report; but only as if in defiance. He was evidently untouched. Crespino’s bullet had not been truly aimed.

“I must stop him!” exclaimed Maurice, “or the mares will run on till the end of daylight.”

As the mustanger spoke, he struck the spur sharply into the flanks of his horse. Like an arrow projected from its bow, Castro shot off in pursuit of the jackass, now galloping regardlessly past.

Half a dozen springs of the blood bay, guided in a diagonal direction, brought his rider within casting distance; and like a flash of lightning, the loop of the lazo was seen descending over the long ears.

On launching it, the mustanger halted, and made a half-wheel—the horse going round as upon a pivot; and with like mechanical obedience to the will of his rider, bracing himself for the expected pluck.

There was a short interval of intense expectation, as the wild ass, careering onward, took up the slack of the rope. Then the animal was seen to rise erect on its hind legs, and fall heavily backward upon the sward—where it lay motionless, and apparently as dead, as if shot through the heart!

It was only stunned, however, by the shock, and the quick tightening of the loop causing temporary strangulation; which the Mexican mustanger prolonged to eternity, by drawing his sharp-edged macheté across its throat.

The incident caused a postponement of the chase. All awaited the action of the guide; who, after “throwing” the macho, had dismounted to recover his lazo.

He had succeeded in releasing the rope from the neck of the prostrate animal, when he was seen to coil it up with a quickness that betokened some new cause of excitement—at the same time that he ran to regain his saddle.

Only a few of the others—most being fully occupied with their own excited steeds—observed this show of haste on the part of the mustanger. Those who did, saw it with surprise. He had counselled patience in the pursuit. They could perceive no cause for the eccentric change of tactics, unless it was that Louise Poindexter, mounted on the spotted mustang, had suddenly separated from the company, and was galloping off after the wild mares, as if resolved on being foremost of the field!

But the hunter of wild horses had not construed her conduct in this sense. That uncourteous start could scarce be an intention—except on the part of the spotted mustang? Maurice had recognised the manada, as the same from which he had himself captured it: and, no doubt, with the design of rejoining its old associates, it was running away with its rider!

So believed the guide; and the belief became instantly universal.

Stirred by gallantry, half the field spurred off in pursuit. Calhoun, Hancock, and Crossman leading, with half a score of young planters, lawyers, and legislators close following—each as he rode off reflecting to himself, what a bit of luck it would be to bring up the runaway.

But few, if any, of the gentlemen felt actual alarm. All knew that Louise Poindexter was a splendid equestrian; a spacious plain lay before her, smooth as a race-track; the mustang might gallop till it tired itself down; it could not throw her; there could be little chance of her receiving any serious injury?

There was one who did not entertain this confident view. It was he who had been the first to show anxiety—the mustanger himself.

He was the last to leave the ground. Delayed in the rearrangement of his lazo—a moment more in remounting—he was a hundred paces behind every competitor, as his horse sprang forward upon the pursuit.

Calhoun was a like distance in the lead, pressing on with all the desperate energy of his nature, and all the speed he could extract from the heels of his horse. The dragoon and rifleman were a little in his rear; and then came the “ruck.”

Maurice soon passed through the thick of the field, overlapped the leaders one by one; and forging still further ahead, showed Cassius Calhoun the heels of his horse.

A muttered curse was sent hissing through the teeth of the ex-officer of volunteers, as the blood bay, bounding past, concealed from his sight the receding form of the spotted mustang.

The sun, looking down from the zenith, gave light to a singular tableau. A herd of wild mares going at reckless speed across the prairie; one of their own kind, with a lady upon its back, following about four hundred yards behind; at a like distance after the lady, a steed of red bay colour, bestridden by a cavalier picturesquely attired, and apparently intent upon overtaking her; still further to the rear a string of mounted men—some in civil, some in military, garb; behind these a troop of dragoons going at full gallop, having just parted from a mixed group of ladies and gentlemen—also mounted, but motionless, on the plain, or only stirring around the same spot with excited gesticulations!

In twenty minutes the tableau was changed. The same personages were upon the stage—the grand tapis vert of the prairie—but the grouping was different, or, at all events, the groups were more widely apart. The manada had gained distance upon the spotted mustang; the mustang upon the blood bay; and the blood bay—ah! his competitors were no longer in sight, or could only have been seen by the far-piercing eye of the caracara, soaring high in the sapphire heavens.

The wild mares—the mustang and its rider—the red horse, and his—had the savanna to themselves!