Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Twenty Three. Vows of Vengeance

Calhoun, chafing in his chamber, was not the object of such assiduous solicitude. Notwithstanding the luxurious appointments that surrounded him, he could not comfort himself with the reflection: that he was cared for by living creature. Truly selfish in his own heart, he had no faith in friendships; and while confined to his couch—not without some fears that it might be his death-bed—he experienced the misery of a man believing that no human being cared a straw whether he should live or die.

Any sympathy shown to him, was upon the score of relationship. It could scarce have been otherwise. His conduct towards his cousins had not been such as to secure their esteem; while his uncle, the proud Woodley Poindexter, felt towards him something akin to aversion, mingled with a subdued fear.

It is true that this feeling was only of recent origin; and rose out of certain relations that existed between uncle and nephew. As already hinted, they stood to one another in the relationship of debtor and creditor—or mortgagor and mortgagee—the nephew being the latter. To such an extent had this indebtedness been carried, that Cassius Calhoun was in effect the real owner of Casa del Corvo; and could at any moment have proclaimed himself its master.

Conscious of his power, he had of late been using it to effect a particular purpose: that is, the securing for his wife, the woman he had long fiercely loved—his cousin Louise. He had come to know that he stood but little chance of obtaining her consent: for she had taken but slight pains to conceal her indifference to his suit. Trusting to the peculiar influence established over her father, he had determined on taking no slight denial.

These circumstances considered, it was not strange that the ex-officer of volunteers, when stretched upon a sick bed, received less sympathy from his relatives than might otherwise have been extended to him.

While dreading, death—which for a length of time he actually did—he had become a little more amiable to those around him. The agreeable mood, however, was of short continuance; and, once assured of recovery, all the natural savageness of his disposition was restored, along with the additional bitterness arising from his recent discomfiture.

It had been the pride of his life to exhibit himself as a successful bully—the master of every crowd that might gather around him. He could no longer claim this credit in Texas; and the thought harrowed his heart to its very core.

To figure as a defeated man before all the women of the settlement—above all in the eyes of her he adored, defeated by one whom he suspected of being his rival in her affections—a more nameless adventurer—was too much to be endured with equanimity. Even an ordinary man would have been pained by the infliction. Calhoun writhed under it.

He had no idea of enduring it, as an ordinary man would have done. If he could not escape from the disgrace, he was determined to revenge himself upon its author; and as soon as he had recovered from the apprehensions entertained about the safety of his life, he commenced reflecting upon this very subject.

Maurice, the mustanger, must die! If not by his (Calhoun’s) own hand, then by the hand of another, if such an one was to be found in the settlement. There could not be much difficulty in procuring a confederate. There are bravoes upon the broad prairies of Texas, as well as within the walls of Italian cities. Alas! there is no spot upon earth where gold cannot command the steel of the assassin.

Calhoun possessed gold—more than sufficient for such a purpose; and to such purpose did he determine upon devoting at least a portion of it.

In the solitude of his sick chamber he set about maturing his plans; which comprehended the assassination of the mustanger. He did not purpose doing the deed himself. His late defeat had rendered him fearful of chancing a second encounter with the same adversary—even under the advantageous circumstances of a surprise. He had become too much encowardised to play the assassin. He wanted an accomplice—an arm to strike for him. Where was he to find it?

Unluckily he knew, or fancied he knew, the very man. There was a Mexican at the time making abode in the village—like Maurice himself—a mustanger; but one of those with whom the young Irishman had shown a disinclination to associate.

As a general rule, the men of this peculiar calling are amongst the greatest reprobates, who have their home in the land of the “Lone Star.” By birth and breed they are mostly Mexicans, or mongrel Indians; though, not unfrequently, a Frenchman, or American, finds it a congenial calling. They are usually the outcasts of civilised society—oftener its outlaws—who, in the excitement of the chase, and its concomitant dangers, find, perhaps, some sort of salvo for a conscience that has been severely tried.

While dwelling within the settlements, these men are not unfrequently the pests of the society that surrounds them—ever engaged in broil and debauch; and when abroad in the exercise of their calling, they are not always to be encountered with safety. More than once is it recorded in the history of Texas how a company of mustangers has, for the nonce, converted itself into a band of cuadrilla of salteadores; or, disguised as Indians, levied black mail upon the train of the prairie traveller.

One of this kidney was the individual who had become recalled to the memory of Cassius Calhoun. The latter remembered having met the man in the bar-room of the hotel; upon several occasions, but more especially on the night of the duel. He remembered that he had been one of those who had carried him home on the stretcher; and from some extravagant expressions he had made use of, when speaking of his antagonist, Calhoun had drawn the deduction, that the Mexican was no friend to Maurice the mustanger.

Since then he had learnt that he was Maurice’s deadliest enemy—himself excepted.

With these data to proceed upon the ex-captain had called the Mexican to his counsels, and the two were often closeted together in the chamber of the invalid.

There was nothing in all this to excite suspicion—even had Calhoun cared for that. His visitor was a dealer in horses and horned cattle. Some transaction in horseflesh might be going on between them. So any one would have supposed. And so for a time thought the Mexican himself: for in their first interview, but little other business was transacted between them. The astute Mississippian knew better than to declare his ultimate designs to a stranger; who, after completing an advantageous horse-trade, was well supplied with whatever he chose to drink, and cunningly cross-questioned as to the relations in which he stood towards Maurice the mustanger.

In that first interview, the ex-officer volunteers learnt enough, to know that he might depend upon his man for any service he might require—even to the committal of murder.

The Mexican made no secret of his heartfelt hostility to the young mustanger. He did not declare the exact cause of it; but Calhoun could guess, by certain innuendos introduced during the conversation, that it was the same as that by which he was himself actuated—the same to which may be traced almost every quarrel that has occurred among men, from Troy to Texas—a woman!

The Helen in this case appeared to be some dark-eyed donçella dwelling upon the Rio Grande, where Maurice had been in the habit of making an occasional visit, in whose eyes he had found favour, to the disadvantage of her own conpaisano.

The Mexican did not give the name; and Calhoun, as he listened to his explanations, only hoped in his heart that the damsel who had slighted him might have won the heart of his rival.

During his days of convalescence, several interviews had taken place between the ex-captain and the intended accomplice in his purposes of vengeance—enough, one might suppose, to have rendered them complete.

Whether they were so, or not, and what the nature of their hellish designs, were things known only to the brace of kindred confederates. The outside world but knew that Captain Cassius Calhoun and Miguel Diaz—known by the nickname “El Coyote,” appeared to have taken a fancy for keeping each other’s company; while the more respectable portion of it wondered at such an ill-starred association.