Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Eighteen. Jealousy upon the Trail

Of the two-score rescuers, who had started in pursuit of the runaway, but few followed far. Having lost sight of the wild mares, the mustang, and the mustanger, they began to lose sight of one another; and before long became dispersed upon the prairie—going single, in couples, or in groups of three and four together. Most of them, unused to tracking up a trail, soon strayed from that taken by the manada; branching off upon others, made, perhaps, by the same drove upon some previous stampede.

The dragoon escort, in charge of a young officer—a fresh fledgling from West Point—ran astray upon one of these ramifications, carrying the hindmost of the field along with it.

It was a rolling prairie through which the pursuit was conducted, here and there intersected by straggling belts of brushwood. These, with the inequalities of the surface, soon hid the various pursuing parties from one another; and in twenty minutes after the start, a bird looking from the heavens above, might have beheld half a hundred horsemen, distributed into half a score of groups—apparently having started from a common centre—spurring at full speed towards every quarter of the compass!

But one was going in the right direction—a solitary individual, mounted upon a large strong-limbed chestnut horse; that, without any claim to elegance of shape, was proving the possession both of speed and bottom. The blue frock-coat of half military cut, and forage cap of corresponding colour, were distinctive articles of dress habitually worn by the ex-captain of volunteer cavalry—Cassius Calhoun. He it was who directed the chestnut on the true trail; while with whip and spur he was stimulating the animal to extraordinary efforts. He was himself stimulated by a thought—sharp as his own spurs—that caused him to concentrate all his energies upon the abject in hand.

Like a hungry hound he was laying his head along the trail, in hopes of an issue that might reward him for his exertions.

What that issue was he had but vaguely conceived; but on occasional glance towards his holsters—from which protruded the butts of a brace of pistols—told of some sinister design that was shaping itself in his soul.

But for a circumstance that assisted him, he might, like the others, have gone astray. He had the advantage of them, however, in being guided by two shoe-tracks he had seen before. One, the larger, he recollected with a painful distinctness. He had seen it stamped upon a charred surface, amid the ashes of a burnt prairie. Yielding to an undefined instinct, he had made a note of it in his memory, and now remembered it.

Thus directed, the ci-devant captain arrived among the copses, and rode into the glade where the spotted mustang had been pulled up in such a mysterious manner. Hitherto his analysis had been easy enough. At this point it became conjecture. Among the hoof-prints of the wild mares, the shoe-tracks were still seen, but no longer going at a gallop. The two animals thus distinguished must have been halted, and standing in juxtaposition.

Whither next? Along the trail of the manada, there was no imprint of iron; nor elsewhere! The surface on all sides was hard, and strewn with pebbles. A horse going in rude gallop, might have indented it; but not one passing over it at a tranquil pace.

And thus had the spotted mustang and blood bay parted from that spot. They had gone at a walk for some score yards, before starting on their final gallop towards the mustang trap.

The impatient pursuer was puzzled. He rode round and round, and along the trail of the wild mares, and back again, without discovering the direction that had been taken by either of the ridden horses.

He was beginning to feel something more than surprise, when the sight of a solitary horseman advancing along the trail interrupted his uncomfortable conjectures.

It was no stranger who was drawing near. The colossal figure, clad in coarse habiliments, bearded to the buttons of his blanket coat, and bestriding the most contemptible looking steed that could have been found within a hundred miles of the spot, was an old acquaintance. Cassius Calhoun knew Zebulon Stump, and Zeb Stump knew Cash Calhoun, long before either had set foot upon the prairies of Texas.

“You hain’t seed nuthin’ o’ the young lady, hev ye, Mister Calhoun?” inquired the hunter, as he rode up, with an unusual impressiveness of manner. “No, ye hain’t,” he continued, as if deducing his inference from the blank looks of the other. “Dog-gone my cats! I wonder what the hell hev becomed o’ her! Kewrious, too; sech a rider as she air, ter let the durned goat o’ a thing run away wi’ her. Wal! thur’s not much danger to be reeprehended. The mowstanger air putty sartin to throw his rope aroun’ the critter, an that ’ll put an eend to its capers. Why hev ye stopped hyur?”

“I’m puzzled about the direction they’ve taken. Their tracks show they’ve been halted here; but I can see the shod hoofs no farther.”

“Whoo! whoo! yur right, Mister Cashus! They hev been halted hyur; an been clost thegither too. They hain’t gone no further on the trail o’ the wild maars. Sartin they hain’t. What then?”

The speaker scanned the surface of the plain with an interrogative glance; as if there, and not from Cassius Calhoun, expecting an answer to his question.

“I cannot see their tracks anywhere,” replied the ex-captain.

“No, kan’t ye? I kin though. Lookee hyur! Don’t ye see them thur bruises on the grass?”


“Durn it! thur plain es the nose on a Jew’s face. Thur’s a big shoe, an a little un clost aside o’ it. Thet’s the way they’ve rud off, which show that they hain’t follered the wild maars no further than hyur. We’d better keep on arter them?”

“By all means!”

Without further parley, Zeb started along the new trail; which, though still undiscernible to the eye of the other, was to him as conspicuous as he had figuratively declared it.

In a little while it became visible to his companion—on their arrival at the place where the fugitives had once more urged their horses into a gallop to escape from the cavallada, and where the shod tracks deeply indented the turf.

Shortly after their trail was again lost—or would have been to a scrutiny less keen than that of Zeb Stump—among the hundreds of other hoof-marks seen now upon the sward.

“Hilloo!” exclaimed the old hunter, in some surprise at the new sign. “What’s been a doin’ hyur? This air some ’at kewrious.”

“Only the tracks of the wild mares!” suggested Calhoun. “They appear to have made a circuit, and come round again?”

“If they hev it’s been arter the others rud past them. The chase must a changed sides, I reck’n.”

“What do you mean, Mr Stump?”

“That i’stead o’ them gallupin’ arter the maars, the maars hev been gallupin’ arter them.”

“How can you tell that?”

“Don’t ye see that the shod tracks air kivered by them o’ the maars? Maars—no! By the ’turnal airthquake!—them’s not maar-tracks. They air a inch bigger. Thur’s been studs this way—a hul cavayurd o’ them. Geehosofat! I hope they hain’t—”

“Haven’t what?”

“Gone arter Spotty. If they hev, then thur will be danger to Miss Peintdexter. Come on!”

Without waiting for a rejoinder, the hunter started off at a shambling trot, followed by Calhoun, who kept calling to him for an explanation of his ambiguous words.

Zeb did not deign to offer any—excusing himself by a backward sweep of the hand, which seemed to say, “Do not bother me now: I am busy.”

For a time he appeared absorbed in taking up the trail of the shod horses—not so easily done, as it was in places entirely obliterated by the thick trampling of the stallions. He succeeded in making it out by piecemeal—still going on at a trot.

It was not till he had arrived within a hundred yards of the arroyo that the serious shadow disappeared from his face; and, checking the pace of his mare, he vouchsafed the explanation once more demanded from him.

“Oh! that was the danger,” said Calhoun, on hearing the explanation. “How do you know they have escaped it?”

“Look thur!”

“A dead horse! Freshly killed, he appears? What does that prove?”

“That the mowstanger hes killed him.”

“It frightened the others off, you think, and they followed no further?”

“They follered no further; but it wa’n’t adzackly thet as scared ’em off. Thur’s the thing as kep them from follerin’. Ole Hickory, what a jump!”

The speaker pointed to the arroyo, on the edge of which both riders had now arrived.

“You don’t suppose they leaped it?” said Calhoun. “Impossible.”

“Leaped it clur as the crack o’ a rifle. Don’t ye see thur toe-marks, both on this side an the t’other? An’ Miss Peintdexter fust, too! By the jumpin’ Geehosofat, what a gurl she air sure enuf! They must both a jumped afore the stellyun war shot; else they kedn’t a got at it. Thur’s no other place whar a hoss ked go over. Geeroozalem! wa’n’t it cunnin’ o’ the mowstanger to throw the stud in his tracks, jest in the very gap?”

“You think that he and my cousin crossed here together?”

“Not adzackly thegither,” explained Zeb, without suspecting the motive of the interrogatory. “As I’ve sayed, Spotty went fust. You see the critter’s tracks yonner on t’other side?”

“I do.”

“Wal—don’t ye see they air kivered wi’ them o’ the mowstanger’s hoss?”


“As for the stellyuns, they hain’t got over—ne’er a one o’ the hul cavayurd. I kin see how it hez been. The young fellur pulled up on t’other side, an sent a bullet back inter this brute’s karkidge. ’Twar jest like closin’ the gap ahint him; an the pursooers, seein’ it shet, guv up the chase, an scampered off in a different direckshun. Thur’s the way they hev gone—up the side o’ the gully!”

“They may have crossed at some other place, and continued the pursuit?”

“If they dud, they’d hev ten mile to go, afore they ked git back hyur—five up, an five back agin. Not a bit o’ that, Mister Calhoun. To needn’t be uneezy ’bout Miss Lewaze bein’ pursooed by them any further. Arter the jump, she’s rud off along wi’ the mowstanger—both on ’em as quiet as a kupple o’ lambs. Thur wa’n’t no danger then; an by this time, they oughter be dog-goned well on torst rejoinin’ the people as stayed by the purvision waggon.”

“Come on!” cried Calhoun, exhibiting as much impatience as when he believed his cousin to be in serious peril. “Come on, Mr Stump! Let us get back as speedily as possible!”

“Not so fast, if you pleeze,” rejoined Zeb, permitting himself to slide leisurely out of his saddle, and then drawing his knife from his sheath. “I’ll only want ye to wait for a matter o’ ten minutes, or thereabout.”

“Wait! For what?” peevishly inquired Calhoun.

“Till I kin strip the hide off o’ this hyur sorrel. It appear to be a skin o’ the fust qualerty; an oughter fetch a five-dollar bill in the settlements. Five-dollar bills ain’t picked up every day on these hyur purayras.”

“Damn the skin!” angrily ejaculated the impatient Southerner. “Come on, an leave it!”

“Ain’t a goin’ to do anythin’ o’ the sort,” coolly responded the hunter, as he drew the sharp edge of his blade along the belly of the prostrate steed. “You kin go on if ye like, Mister Calhoun; but Zeb Stump don’t start till he packs the hide of this hyur stellyun on the krupper o’ his old maar. Thet he don’t.”

“Come, Zeb; what’s the use of talking about my going back by myself? You know I can’t find my way?”

“That air like enough. I didn’t say ye ked.”

“Look here, you obstinate old case! Time’s precious to me just at this minute. It ’ll take you a full half-hour to skin the horse.”

“Not twenty minutes.”

“Well, say twenty minutes. Now, twenty minutes are of more importance to me than a five-dollar bill. You say that’s the value of the skin? Leave it behind; and I agree to make good the amount.”

“Wal—that air durned gin’rous, I admit—dog-goned gin’rous. But I mussent except yur offer. It ’ud be a mean trick o’ me—mean enuf for a yeller-bellied Mexikin—to take yur money for sech a sarvice as thet: the more so es I ain’t no stranger to ye, an myself a goin’ the same road. On the t’other hand, I kan’t afford to lose the five dollars’ worth o’ hoss-hide which ud be rotten as punk—to say nuthin’ o’ it’s bein’ tored into skreeds by the buzzarts and coyoats—afore I mout find a chance to kum this way agin.”

“’Tis very provoking! What am I to do?”

“You air in a hurry? Wal—I’m sorry to discommerdate ye. But—stay! Thur’s no reezun for yur waitin’ on me. Thur’s nuthin’ to hinder ye from findin’ yur way to the waggon. Ye see that tree stannin’ up agin the sky-line—the tall poplar yonner?”

“I do.”

“Wal; do you remember ever to hev seed it afore? It air a queery lookin’ plant, appearin’ more like a church steeple than a tree.”

“Yes—yes!” said Calhoun. “Now you’ve pointed it out, I do remember it. We rode close past it while in pursuit of the wild mares?”

“You dud that very thing. An’ now, as ye know it, what air to hinder you from ridin’ past it agin; and follering the trail o’ the maars back’ard? That ud bring ye to yur startin’-peint; where, ef I ain’t out o’ my reck’nin’, ye’ll find yur cousin, Miss Peintdexter, an the hul o’ yur party enjoying themselves wi’ that ’ere French stuff, they call shampain. I hope they’ll stick to it, and spare the Monongaheela—of which licker I shed like to hev a triflin’ suck arter I git back myself.”

Calhoun had not waited for the wind-up of this characteristic speech. On the instant after recognising the tree, he had struck the spurs into the sides of his chestnut, and gone off at a gallop, leaving old Zeb at liberty to secure the coveted skin.

“Geeroozalem!” ejaculated the hunter, glancing up, and noticing the quick unceremonious departure. “It don’t take much o’ a head-piece to tell why he air in sech a durned hurry. I ain’t myself much guv torst guessin’; but if I ain’t doggonedly mistaken it air a clur case o’ jellacy on the trail!”

Zeb Stump was not astray in his conjecture. It was jealousy that urged Cassius Calhoun to take that hasty departure—black jealousy, that had first assumed shape in a kindred spot—in the midst of a charred prairie; that had been every day growing stronger from circumstances observed, and others imagined; that was now intensified so as to have become his prevailing passion.

The presentation and taming of the spotted mustang; the acceptance of that gift, characteristic of the giver, and gratifying to the receiver, who had made no effort to conceal her gratification; these, and other circumstances, acting upon the already excited fancy of Cassius Calhoun, had conducted him to the belief: that in Maurice the mustanger he would find his most powerful rival.

The inferior social position of the horse-hunter should have hindered him from having such belief, or even a suspicion.

Perhaps it might have done so, had he been less intimately acquainted with the character of Louise Poindexter. But, knowing her as he did—associating with her from the hour of childhood—thoroughly understanding her independence of spirit—the braverie of her disposition, bordering upon very recklessness—he could place no reliance on the mere idea of gentility. With most women this may be depended upon as a barrier, if not to mésalliance, at least to absolute imprudence; but in the impure mind of Cassius Calhoun, while contemplating the probable conduct of his cousin, there was not even this feeble support to lean upon!

Chafing at the occurrences of the day—to him crookedly inauspicious—he hurried back towards the spot where the pic-nic had been held. The steeple-like tree guided him back to the trail of the manada; and beyond that there was no danger of straying. He had only to return along the path already trodden by him.

He rode at a rapid pace—faster than was relished by his now tired steed—stimulated by bitter thoughts, which for more than an hour were his sole companions—their bitterness more keenly felt in the tranquil solitude that surrounded him.

He was but little consoled by a sight that promised other companionship: that of two persons on horseback, riding in advance, and going in the same direction as himself, upon the same path. Though he saw but their backs—and at a long distance ahead—there was no mistaking the identity of either. They were the two individuals that had brought that bitterness upon his spirit.

Like himself they were returning upon the trail of the wild mares; which, when first seen, they had just struck, arriving upon it from a lateral path. Side by side—their saddles almost chafing against each other—to all appearance absorbed in a conversation of intense interest to both, they saw not the solitary horseman approaching them in a diagonal direction.

Apparently less anxious than he to rejoin the party of picknickers, they were advancing at a slow pace—the lady a little inclining to the rear.

Their proximity to one another—their attitudes in the saddle—their obvious inattention to outward objects—the snail-like pace at which they were proceeding—these, along with one or two other slighter circumstances observed by Calhoun, combined to make an impression on his mind—or rather to strengthen one already made—that almost drove him mad.

To gallop rapidly up, and rudely terminate the tête-à-tête, was but the natural instinct of the chivalric Southerner. In obedience to it he spitefully plied the spur; and once more forced his jaded chestnut into an unwilling canter.

In a few seconds, however, he slackened pace—as if changing his determination. The sound of his horse’s hoofs had not yet warned the others of his proximity—though he was now less than two hundred yards behind them! He could hear the silvery tones of his cousin’s voice bearing the better part of the conversation. How interesting it must be to both to have hindered them from perceiving his approach!

If he could but overhear what they were saying?

It seemed a most unpropitious place for playing eavesdropper; and yet there might be a chance?

The seeming interest of the dialogue to the individuals engaged in it gave promise of such opportunity. The turf of the savannah was soft as velvet. The hoof gliding slowly over it gave forth not the slightest sound.

Calhoun was still too impatient to confine himself to a walk; but his chestnut was accustomed to that gait, peculiar to the horse of the South-Western States—the “pace”; and into this was he pressed.

With hoofs horizontally striking the sward—elevated scarce an inch above the ground—he advanced swiftly and noiselessly; so quick withal, that in a few seconds he was close upon the heels of the spotted mustang, and the red steed of the mustanger!

He was then checked to a pace corresponding to theirs; while his rider, leaning forward, listened with an eagerness that evinced some terrible determination. His attitude proclaimed him in the vein for vituperation of the rudest kind—ready with ribald tongue; or, if need be, with knife and pistol!

His behaviour depended on a contingency—on what might be overheard.

As chance, or fate, willed it, there was nothing. If the two equestrians were insensible to external sounds, their steeds were not so absorbed. In a walk the chestnut stepped heavily—the more so from being fatigued. His footfall proclaimed his proximity to the sharp ears, both of the blood-bay and spotted mustang; that simultaneously flung up their heads, neighing as they did so.

Calhoun was discovered.

“Ha! cousin Cash!” cried the lady, betraying more of pique than surprise; “you there? Where’s father, and Harry, and the rest of the people?”

“Why do you ask that, Loo? I reckon you know as well as I.”

“What! haven’t you come out to meet us? And they too—ah! your chestnut is all in a sweat! He looks as if you had been riding a long race—like ourselves?”

“Of coarse he has. I followed you from the first—in hopes of being of some service to you.”

“Indeed! I did not know that you were after us. Thank you, cousin! I’ve just been saying thanks to this gallant gentleman, who also came after, and has been good enough to rescue both Luna and myself from a very unpleasant dilemma—a dreadful danger I should rather call it. Do you know that we’ve been chased by a drove of wild steeds, and had actually to ride for our lives?”

“I am aware of it.”

“You saw the chase then?”

“No. I only knew it by the tracks.”

“The tracks! And were you able to tell by that?”

“Yes—thanks to the interpretation of Zeb Stump.”

“Oh! he was with you? But did you follow them to—to—how far did you follow them?”

“To a crevasse in the prairie. You leaped over it, Zeb said. Did you?”

“Luna did.”

“With you on her back?”

“I wasn’t anywhere else! What a question, cousin Cash! Where would you expect me to have been? Clinging to her tail? Ha! ha! ha!”

“Did you leap it?” inquired the laugher, suddenly changing tone. “Did you follow us any farther?”

“No, Loo. From the crevasse I came direct here, thinking you had got back before me. That’s how I’ve chanced to come up with you.”

The answer appeared to give satisfaction.

“Ah! I’m glad you’ve overtaken us. We’ve been riding slowly. Luna is so tired. Poor thing! I don’t know how I shall ever get her back to the Leona.”

Since the moment of being joined by Calhoun, the mustanger had not spoken a word. However pleasant may have been his previous intercourse with the young Creole, he had relinquished it, without any apparent reluctance; and was now riding silently in the advance, as if by tacit understanding he had returned to the performance of the part for which he had been originally engaged.

For all that, the eye of the ex-captain was bent blightingly upon him—at times in a demoniac glare—when he saw—or fancied—that another eye was turned admiringly in the same direction.

A long journey performed by that trio of travellers might have led to a tragical termination. Such finale was prevented by the appearance of the picknickers; who soon after surrounding the returned runaway, put to flight every other thought by the chorus of their congratulations.