Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Seventeen. The Mustang Trap

No longer in dread of any danger, the young Creole looked interrogatively around her.

There was a small lake—in Texan phraseology a “pond”—with countless horse-tracks visible along its shores, proving that the place was frequented by wild horses—their excessive number showing it to be a favourite watering place. There was a high rail fence—constructed so as to enclose the pond, and a portion of the contiguous prairie, with two diverging wings, carried far across the plain, forming a funnel-shaped approach to a gap; which, when its bars were up, completed an enclosure that no horse could either enter or escape from.

“What is it for?” inquired the lady, indicating the construction of split rails.

“A mustang trap,” said Maurice.

“A mustang trap?”

“A contrivance for catching wild horses. They stray between the wings; which, as you perceive, are carried far out upon the plain. The water attracts them; or they are driven towards it by a band of mustangers who follow, and force them on through the gap. Once within the corral, there is no trouble in taking them. They are then lazoed at leisure.”

“Poor things! Is it yours? You are a mustanger? You told us so?”

“I am; but I do not hunt the wild horse in this way. I prefer being alone, and rarely consort with men of my calling. Therefore I could not make use of this contrivance, which requires at least a score of drivers. My weapon, if I may dignify it by the name, is this—the lazo.”

“You use it with great skill? I’ve heard that you do; besides having myself witnessed the proof.”

“It is complimentary of you to say so. But you are mistaken. There are men on these prairies ‘to the manner born’—Mexicans—who regard, what you are pleased to call skill, as sheer clumsiness.”

“Are you sure, Mr Gerald, that your modesty is not prompting you to overrate your rivals? I have been told the very opposite.”

“By whom?”

“Your friend, Mr Zebulon Stump.”

“Ha—ha! Old Zeb is but indifferent authority on the subject of the lazo.”

“I wish I could throw the lazo,” said the young Creole. “They tell me ’tis not a lady-like accomplishment. What matters—so long as it is innocent, and gives one a gratification?”

“Not lady-like! Surely ’tis as much so as archery, or skating? I know a lady who is very expert at it.”

“An American lady?”

“No; she’s Mexican, and lives on the Rio Grande; but sometimes comes across to the Leona—where she has relatives.”

“A young lady?”

“Yes. About your own age, I should think, Miss Poindexter.”


“Not so tall as you.”

“But much prettier, of course? The Mexican ladies, I’ve heard, in the matter of good looks, far surpass us plain Americanos.”

“I think Creoles are not included in that category,” was the reply, worthy of one whose lips had been in contact with the famed boulder of Blarney.

“I wonder if I could ever learn to fling it?” pursued the young Creole, pretending not to have been affected by the complimentary remark. “Am I too old? I’ve been told that the Mexicans commence almost in childhood; that that is why they attain to such wonderful skill?”

“Not at all,” replied Maurice, encouragingly. “’Tis possible, with a year or two’s practice, to become a proficient lazoer. I, myself, have only been three years at; and—”

He paused, perceiving he was about to commit himself to a little boasting.

“And you are now the most skilled in all Texas?” said his companion, supplying the presumed finale of his speech.

“No, no!” laughingly rejoined he. “That is but a mistaken belief on the part of Zeb Stump, who judges my skill by comparison, making use of his own as a standard.”

“Is it modesty?” reflected the Creole. “Or is this man mocking me? If I thought so, I should go mad!”

“Perhaps you are anxious to get back to your party?” said Maurice, observing her abstracted air. “Your father may be alarmed by your long absence? Your brother—your cousin—”

“Ah, true!” she hurriedly rejoined, in a tone that betrayed either pique, or compunction. “I was not thinking of that. Thanks, sir, for reminding me of my duty. Let us go back!”

Again in the saddle, she gathered up her reins, and plied her tiny spur—both acts being performed with an air of languid reluctance, as if she would have preferred lingering a little longer in the “mustang trap.”

Once more upon the prairie, Maurice conducted his protégée by the most direct route towards the spot where they had parted from the picnic party.

Their backward way led them across a peculiar tract of country—what in Texas is called a “weed prairie,” an appellation bestowed by the early pioneers, who were not very choice in their titles.

The Louisianian saw around her a vast garden of gay flowers, laid out in one grand parterre, whose borders were the blue circle of the horizon—a garden designed, planted, nurtured, by the hand of Nature.

The most plebeian spirit cannot pass through such a scene without receiving an impression calculated to refine it. I’ve known the illiterate trapper—habitually blind to the beautiful—pause in the midst of his “weed prairie,” with the flowers rising breast high around him, gaze for a while upon their gaudy corollas waving beyond the verge of his vision; then continue his silent stride with a gentler feeling towards his fellow-man, and a firmer faith in the grandeur of his God.

“Pardieu! ’tis very beautiful!” exclaimed the enthusiastic Creole, reining up as if by an involuntary instinct.

“You admire these wild scenes, Miss Poindexter?”

“Admire them? Something more, sir! I see around me all that is bright and beautiful in nature: verdant turf, trees, flowers, all that we take such pains to plant or cultivate; and such, too, as we never succeed in equalling. There seems nothing wanting to make this picture complete—’tis a park perfect in everything!”

“Except the mansion?”

“That would spoil it for me. Give me the landscape where there is not a house in sight—slate, chimney, or tile—to interfere with the outlines of the trees. Under their shadow could I live; under their shadow let me—”

The word: “love” uppermost in her thoughts—was upon the tip of her tongue.

She dexterously restrained herself from pronouncing it—changing it to one of very different signification—“die.”

It was cruel of the young Irishman not to tell her that she was speaking his own sentiments—repeating them to the very echo. To this was the prairie indebted for his presence. But for a kindred inclination—amounting almost to a passion—he might never have been known as Maurice the mustanger.

The romantic sentiment is not satisfied with a “sham.” It will soon consume itself, unless supported by the consciousness of reality. The mustanger would have been humiliated by the thought, that he chased the wild horse as a mere pastime—a pretext to keep him upon the prairies. At first, he might have condescended to make such an acknowledgment—but he had of late become thoroughly imbued with the pride of the professional hunter.

His reply might have appeared chillingly prosaic.

“I fear, miss, you would soon tire of such a rude life—no roof to shelter you—no society—no—”

“And you, sir; how is it you have not grown tired of it? If I have been correctly informed—your friend, Mr Stump, is my authority—you’ve been leading this life for several years. Is it so?”

“Quite true: I have no other calling.”

“Indeed! I wish I could say the same. I envy you your lot. I’m sure I could enjoy existence amid these beautiful scene for ever and ever!”

“Alone? Without companions? Without even a roof to shelter you?”

“I did not say that. But, you’ve not told me. How do you live? Have you a house?”

“It does not deserve such a high-sounding appellation,” laughingly replied the mustanger. “Shed would more correctly serve for the description of my jacalé, which may be classed among the lowliest in the land.”

“Where is it? Anywhere near where we’ve been to-day?”

“It is not very far from where we are now. A mile, perhaps. You see those tree-tops to the west? They shade my hovel from the sun, and shelter it from the storm.”

“Indeed! How I should like to have a look at it! A real rude hut, you say?”

“In that I have but spoken the truth.”

“Standing solitary?”

“I know of no other within ten miles of it.”

“Among trees, and picturesque?”

“That depends upon the eye that beholds it.”

“I should like to see it, and judge. Only a mile you say?”

“A mile there—the same to return—would be two.”

“That’s nothing. It would not take us a score of minutes.”

“Should we not be trespassing on the patience of your people?”

“On your hospitality, perhaps? Excuse me, Mr Gerald!” continued the young lady, a slight shadow suddenly overcasting her countenance. “I did not think of it! Perhaps you do not live alone? Some other shares your—jacalé—as you call it?”

“Oh, yes, I have a companion—one who has been with me ever since I—”

The shadow became sensibly darker.

Before the mustanger could finish his speech, his listener had pictured to herself a certain image, that might answer to the description of his companion: a girl of her own age—perhaps more inclining to embonpoint—with a skin of chestnut brown; eyes of almond shade, set piquantly oblique to the lines of the nose; teeth of more than pearly purity; a tinge of crimson upon the cheeks; hair like Castro’s tail; beads and bangles around neck, arms, and ankles; a short kirtle elaborately embroidered; mocassins covering small feet; and fringed leggings, laced upon limbs of large development. Such were the style and equipments of the supposed companion, who had suddenly become outlined in the imagination of Louise Poindexter.

“Your fellow tenant of the jacalé might not like being intruded upon by visitors—more especially a stranger?”

“On the contrary, he’s but too glad to see visitors at any time—whether strangers or acquaintances. My foster-brother is the last man to shun society; of which, poor fellow! he sees precious little on the Alamo.”

“Your foster-brother?”

“Yes. Phelim O’Neal by name—like myself a native of the Emerald Isle, and shire of Galway; only perhaps speaking a little better brogue than mine.”

“Oh! the Irish brogue. I should so like to hear it spoken by a native of Galway. I am told that theirs is the richest. Is it so, Mr Gerald?”

“Being a Galwegian myself, my judgment might not be reliable; but if you will condescend to accept Phelim’s hospitality for half-an-hour, he will, no doubt, give you an opportunity of judging for yourself.”

“I should be delighted. ’Tis something so new. Let papa and the rest of them wait. There are plenty of ladies without me; or the gentlemen may amuse themselves by tracing up our tracks. ’Twill be as good a horse hunt as they are likely to have. Now, sir, I’m ready to accept your hospitality.”

“There’s not much to offer you, I fear. Phelim has been several days by himself, and as he’s but an indifferent hunter, his larder is likely to be low. ’Tis fortunate you had finished luncheon before the stampede.”

It was not Phelim’s larder that was leading Louise Poindexter out of her way, nor yet the desire to listen to his Connemara pronunciation. It was not curiosity to look at the jacalé of the mustanger; but a feeling of a far more irresistible kind, to which she was yielding, as if she believed it to be her fate!

She paid a visit to the lone hut, on the Alamo; she entered under its roof; she scanned with seeming interest its singular penates; and noted, with pleased surprise, the books, writing materials, and other chattels that betokened the refinement of its owner; she listened with apparent delight to the palthogue of the Connemara man, who called her a “coleen bawn;” she partook of Phelim’s hospitality—condescendingly tasting of everything offered, except that which was most urgently pressed upon her, “a dhrap of the crayther, drawn fresh from the dimmyjan;” and finally made her departure from the spot, apparently in the highest spirits.

Alas! her delight was short-lived: lasting only so long as it was sustained by the excitement of the novel adventure. As she recrossed the flower prairie, she found time for making a variety of reflections; and there was one that chilled her to the very core of her heart.

Was it the thought that she had been acting wrongly in keeping her father, her brother, and friends in suspense about her safety? Or had she become conscious of playing a part open to the suspicion of being unfeminine?

Not either. The cloud that darkened her brow in the midst of that blossoming brightness, was caused by a different, and far more distressing, reflection. During all that day, in the journey from the fort, after overtaking her in the chase, in the pursuit while protecting her, lingering by her side on the shore of the lake, returning across the prairie, under his own humble roof—in short everywhere—her companion had only been polite—had only behaved as a gentleman!