Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Fifteen. The Runaway Overtaken

For another mile the chase continued, without much change. The mares still swept on in full flight, though no longer screaming or in fear. The mustang still uttered an occasional neigh, which its old associates seemed not to notice; while its rider held her seat in the saddle unshaken, and without any apparent alarm.

The blood bay appeared more excited, though not so much as his master; who was beginning to show signs either of despondency or chagrin.

“Come, Castro!” he exclaimed, with a certain spitefulness of tone. “What the deuce is the matter with your heels—to-day of all others? Remember, you overtook her before—though not so easily, I admit. But now she’s weighted. Look yonder, you dull brute! Weighted with that which is worth more than gold—worth every drop of your blood, and mine too. The yegua pinta seems to have improved her paces. Is it from training; or does a horse run faster when ridden?

“What if I lose sight of her? In truth, it begins to look queer! It would be an awkward situation for the young lady. Worse than that—there’s danger in it—real danger. If I should lose sight of her, she’d be in trouble to a certainty!”

Thus muttering, Maurice rode on: his eyes now fixed upon the form still flitting away before him; at intervals interrogating, with uneasy glances, the space that separated him from it.

Up to this time he had not thought of hailing the rider of the runaway.

His shouts might have been heard; but no words of warning, or instruction. He had refrained: partly on this account; partly because he was in momentary expectation of overtaking her; and partly because he knew that acts, not words, were wanted to bring the mustang to a stand.

All along he had been flattering himself that he would soon be near enough to fling his lazo over the creature’s neck, and control it at discretion. He was gradually becoming relieved of this hallucination.

The chase now entered among copses that thickly studded the plain, fast closing into a continuous chapparal. This was a new source of uneasiness to the pursuer. The runaway might take to the thicket, or become lost to his view amid the windings of the wood.

The wild mares were already invisible—at intervals. They would soon be out of sight altogether. There seemed no chance of their old associate overtaking them.

“What mattered that? A lady lost on a prairie, or in a chapparal—alone, or in the midst of a manada—either contingency pointed to certain danger.”

A still more startling peril suggested itself to the mind of the mustanger—so startling as to find expression in excited speech.

“By heavens!” he ejaculated, his brow becoming more clouded than it had been from his first entering upon the chase. “If the stallions should chance this way! ’Tis their favourite stamping ground among these mottos. They were here but a week ago; and this—yes—’tis the month of their madness!”

The spur of the mustanger again drew blood, till its rowels were red; and Castro, galloping at his utmost speed, glanced back upbraidingly over his shoulder.

At this crisis the manada disappeared from, the sight both of the blood-bay and his master; and most probably at the same time from that of the spotted mustang and its rider. There was nothing mysterious in it. The mares had entered between the closing of two copses, where the shrubbery hid them from view.

The effect produced upon the runaway appeared to proceed from some magical influence. As if their disappearance was a signal for discontinuing the chase, it suddenly slackened pace; and the instant after came to a standstill!

Maurice, continuing his gallop, came up with it in the middle of a meadow-like glade—standing motionless as marble—its rider, reins in hand, sitting silent in the saddle, in an attitude of easy elegance, as if waiting for him to ride up!

“Miss Poindexter!” he gasped out, as he spurred his steed within speaking distance: “I am glad that you have recovered command of that wild creature. I was beginning to be alarmed about—”

“About what, sir?” was the question that startled the mustanger.

“Your safety—of course,” he replied, somewhat stammeringly. “Oh, thank you, Mr Gerald; but I was not aware of having been in any danger. Was I really so?”

“Any danger!” echoed the Irishman, with increased astonishment. “On the back of a runaway mustang—in the middle of a pathless prairie!”

“And what of that? The thing couldn’t throw me. I’m too clever in the saddle, sir.”

“I know it, madame; but that accomplishment would have availed you very little had you lost yourself, a thing you were like enough to have done among these chapparal copses, where the oldest Texan can scarce find his way.”

“Oh—lost myself! That was the danger to be dreaded?”

“There are others, besides. Suppose you had fallen in with—”

“Indians!” interrupted the lady, without waiting for the mustanger to finish his hypothetical speech. “And if I had, what would it have mattered? Are not the Comanches en paz at present? Surely they wouldn’t have molested me, gallant fellows as they are? So the major told us, as we came along. ’Pon my word, sir, I should seek, rather than shun, such an encounter. I wish to see the noble savage on his native prairie, and on horseback; not, as I’ve hitherto beheld him, reeling around the settlements in a state of debasement from too freely partaking of our fire-water.”

“I admire your courage, miss; but if I had the honour of being one of your friends, I should take the liberty of counselling a little caution. The ‘noble savage’ you speak of, is not always sober upon the prairies; and perhaps not so very gallant as you’ve been led to believe. If you had met him—”

“If I had met him, and he had attempted to misbehave himself, I would have given him the go-by, and ridden, straight back to my friends. On such a swift creature as this, he must have been well mounted to have overtaken me. You found some difficulty—did you not?”

The eyes of the young Irishman, already showing astonishment, became expanded to increased dimensions—surprise and incredulity being equally blended in their glance.

“But,” said he, after a speechless pause, “you don’t mean to say that you could have controlled— that the mustang was not running away with you? Am I to understand—”

“No—no—no!” hastily rejoined the fair equestrian, showing some slight embarrassment. “The mare certainly made off with me—that is, at the first—but I—I found, that is—at the last—I found I could easily pull her up. In fact I did so: you saw it?”

“And could you have done it sooner?”

A strange thought had suggested the interrogatory; and with more than ordinary interest the questioner awaited the reply.

“Perhaps—perhaps—I might; no doubt, if I had dragged a little harder upon the rein. But you see, sir, I like a good gallop—especially upon a prairie, where there’s no fear of running over pigs, poultry, or people.”

Maurice looked amaze. In all his experience—even in his own native land, famed for feminine braverie—above all in the way of bold riding—he had met no match for the clever equestrian before him.

His astonishment, mixed with admiration, hindered him from making a ready rejoinder.

“To speak truth,” continued the young lady, with an air of charming simplicity, “I was not sorry at being run off with. One sometimes gets tired of too much talk—of the kind called complimentary. I wanted fresh air, and to be alone. So you see, Mr Gerald, it was rather a bit of good fortune: since it saved explanations and adieus.”

“You wanted to be alone?” responded the mustanger, with a disappointed look. “I am sorry I should have made the mistake to have intruded upon you. I assure you, Miss Poindexter, I followed, because I believed you to be in danger.”

“Most gallant of you, sir; and now that I know there was danger, I am truly grateful. I presume I have guessed aright: you meant the Indians?”

“No; not Indians exactly—at least, it was not of them I was thinking.”

“Some other danger? What is it, sir? You will tell me, so that I may be more cautious for the future?”

Maurice did not make immediate answer. A sound striking upon his ear had caused him to turn away—as if inattentive to the interrogatory.

The Creole, perceiving there was some cause for his abstraction, likewise assumed a listening attitude. She heard a shrill scream, succeeded by another and another, close followed by a loud hammering of hoofs—the conjunction of sounds causing the still atmosphere to vibrate around her.

It was no mystery to the hunter of horses. The words that came quick from his lips—though not designed—were a direct answer to the question she had put.

“The wild stallions!” he exclaimed, in a tone that betokened alarm. “I knew they must be among those mottes; and they are!”

“Is that the danger of which you have been speaking?”

“It is.”

“What fear of them? They are only mustangs!”

“True, and at other times there is no cause to fear them. But just now, at this season of the year, they become as savage as tigers, and equally as vindictive. Ah! the wild steed in his rage is an enemy more to be dreaded than wolf, panther, or bear.”

“What are we to do?” inquired the young lady, now, for the first time, giving proof that she felt fear—by riding close up to the man who had once before rescued her from a situation of peril, and gazing anxiously in his face, as she awaited the answer.

“If they should charge upon us,” answered Maurice, “there are but two ways of escape. One, by ascending a tree, and abandoning our horses to their fury.”

“The other?” asked the Creole, with a sang froid that showed a presence of mind likely to stand the test of the most exciting crisis. “Anything but abandon our animals! ’Twould be but a shabby way of making our escape!”

“We shall not have an opportunity of trying it, I perceive it is impracticable. There’s not a tree within sight large enough to afford us security. If attacked, we have no alternative but to trust to the fleetness of our horses. Unfortunately,” continued he, with a glance of inspection towards the spotted mare, and then at his own horse, “they’ve had too much work this morning. Both are badly blown. That will be our greatest source of danger. The wild steeds are sure to be fresh.”

“Do you intend us to start now?”

“Not yet. The longer we can breathe our animals the better. The stallions may not come this way; or if so, may not molest us. It will depend on their mood at the moment. If battling among themselves, we may look out for their attack. Then they have lost their reason—if I may so speak—and will recklessly rush upon one of their own kind—even with a man upon his back. Ha! ’tis as I expected: they are in conflict. I can tell by their cries! And driving this way, too!”

“But, Mr Gerald; why should we not ride off at once, in the opposite direction?”

“’Twould be of no use. There’s no cover to conceal us, on that side—nothing but open plain. They’ll be out upon it before we could get a sufficient start, and would soon overtake us. The place we must make for—the only safe one I can think of—lies the other way. They are now upon the direct path to it, if I can judge by what I hear; and, if we start too soon, we may ride into their teeth. We must wait, and try to steal away behind them. If we succeed in getting past, and can keep our distance for a two-mile gallop, I know a spot, where we shall be as safe as if inside the corrals of Casa del Corvo. You are sure you can control the mustang?”

“Quite sure,” was the prompt reply: all idea of deception being abandoned in presence of the threatening peril.