Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Twenty Four. On the Azotea

There are no sluggards on a Texan plantation. The daybreak begins the day; and the bell, conch, or cow-horn, that summons the dark-skinned proletarians to their toil, is alike the signal for their master to forsake his more luxurious couch.

Such was the custom of Casa del Corvo under its original owners: and the fashion was followed by the family of the American planter—not from any idea of precedent, but simply in obedience to the suggestions of Nature. In a climate of almost perpetual spring, the sweet matutinal moments are not to be wasted in sleep. The siesta belongs to the hours of noon; when all nature appears to shrink under the smiles of the solar luminary—as if surfeited with their superabundance.

On his reappearance at morn the sun is greeted with renewed joy. Then do the tropical birds spread their resplendent plumage—the flowers their dew-besprinkled petals—to receive his fervent kisses. All nature again seems glad, to acknowledge him as its god.

Resplendent as any bird that flutters among the foliage of south-western Texas—fair as any flower that blooms within it—gladdest was she who appeared upon the housetop of Casa del Corvo.

Aurora herself, rising from her roseate couch, looked not fresher than the young Creole, as she stood contemplating the curtains of that very couch, from which a Texan sun was slowly uplifting his globe of burning gold.

She was standing upon the edge of the azotea that fronted towards the east; her white hand resting upon the copestone of the parapet still wet with the dews of the night, under her eyes was the garden, enclosed within a curve of the river; beyond the bluff formed by the opposite bank; and further still, the wide-spreading plateau of the prairie.

Was she looking at a landscape, that could scarce fail to challenge admiration? No.

Equally was she unconscious of the ascending sun; though, like some fair pagan, did she appear to be in prayer at its apprising!

Listened she to the voices of the birds, from garden and grove swelling harmoniously around her?

On the contrary, her ear was not bent to catch any sound, nor her eye intent upon any object. Her glance was wandering, as if her thoughts went not with it, but were dwelling upon some theme, neither present nor near.

In contrast with the cheerful brightness of the sky, there was a shadow upon her brow; despite the joyous warbling of the birds, there was the sign of sadness on her cheek.

She was alone. There was no one to take note of this melancholy mood, nor inquire into its cause.

The cause was declared in a few low murmured words, that fell, as if involuntarily, from her lips.

“He may be dangerously wounded—perhaps even to death?”

Who was the object of this solicitude so hypothetically expressed?

The invalid that lay below, almost under her feet, in a chamber of the hacienda—her cousin Cassius Calhoun?

It could scarce be he. The doctor had the day before pronounced him out of danger, and on the way to quick recovery. Any one listening to her soliloquy—after a time continued in the same sad tone—would have been convinced it was not he.

“I may not send to inquire. I dare not even ask after him. I fear to trust any of our people. He may be in some poor place—perhaps uncourteously treated—perhaps neglected? Would that I could convey to him a message—something more—without any one being the wiser! I wonder what has become of Zeb Stump?”

As if some instinct whispered her, that there was a possibility of Zeb making his appearance, she turned her eyes towards the plain on the opposite side of the river—where a road led up and down. It was the common highway between Fort Inge and the plantations on the lower Leona. It traversed the prairie at some distance from the river bank; approaching it only at one point, where the channel curved in to the base of the bluffs. A reach of the road, of half a mile in length, was visible in the direction of the Fort; as also a cross-path that led to a ford; thence running on to the hacienda. In the opposite direction—down the stream—the view was open for a like length, until the chapparal on both sides closing in, terminated the savanna.

The young lady scanned the road leading towards Fort Inge. Zeb Stump should come that way. He was not in sight; nor was any one else.

She could not feel disappointment. She had no reason to expect him. She had but raised her eyes in obedience to an instinct.

Something more than instinct caused her, after a time, to turn round, and scrutinise the plain in the opposite quarter.

If expecting some one to appear that way, she was not disappointed. A horse was just stepping out from among the trees, where the road debouched from the chapparal. He was ridden by one, who, at first sight, appeared to be a man, clad in a sort of Arab costume; but who, on closer scrutiny, and despite the style of equitation—à la Duchesse de Berri—was unquestionably of the other sex—a lady. There was not much of her face to be seen; but through the shadowy opening of the rebozo—rather carelessly tapado—could be traced an oval facial outline, somewhat brownly “complected,” But with a carmine tinting upon the cheeks, and above this a pair of eyes whose sparkle appeared to challenge comparison with the brightest object either on the earth, or in the sky.

Neither did the loosely falling folds of the lady’s scarf, nor her somewhat outré attitude in the saddle, hinder the observer from coming to the conclusion, that her figure was quite as attractive as her face.

The man following upon the mule, six lengths of his animal in the rear, by his costume—as well as the respectful distance observed—was evidently only an attendant.

“Who can that woman be?” was the muttered interrogatory of Louise Poindexter, as with quick action she raised the lorgnette to her eyes, and directed it upon the oddly apparelled figure. “Who can she be?” was repeated in a tone of greater deliberation, as the glass came down, and the naked eye was entrusted to complete the scrutiny. “A Mexican, of course; the man on the mule her servant. Some grand señora, I suppose? I thought they had all gone to the other side of the Rio Grande. A basket carried by the attendant. I wonder what it contains; and what errand she can have to the Port—it may be the village. ’Tis the third time I’ve seen her passing within this week? She must be from some of the plantations below!”

What an outlandish style of riding! Par Dieu! I’m told it’s not uncommon among the daughters of Anahuac. What if I were to take to it myself? No doubt it’s much the easiest way; though if such a spectacle were seen in the States it would be styled unfeminine. How our Puritan mammas would scream out against it! I think I hear them. Ha, ha, ha!

The mirth thus begotten was but of momentary duration. There came a change over the countenance of the Creole, quick as a drifting cloud darkens the disc of the sun. It was not a return to that melancholy so late shadowing it; though something equally serious—as might be told by the sudden blanching of her cheeks.

The cause could only be looked for in the movements of the scarfed equestrian on the other side of the river. An antelope had sprung up, out of some low shrubbery growing by the roadside. The creature appeared to have made its first bound from under the counter of the horse—a splendid animal, that, in a moment after, was going at full gallop in pursuit of the affrighted “pronghorn;” while his rider, with her rebozo suddenly flung from her face, its fringed ends streaming behind her back, was seen describing, with her right arm, a series of circular sweeps in the air!

“What is the woman going to do?” was the muttered interrogatory of the spectator upon the house-top. “Ha! As I live, ’tis a lazo!”

The señora was not long in giving proof of skill in the use of the national implement:—by flinging its noose around the antelope’s neck, and throwing the creature in its tracks!

The attendant rode up to the place where it lay struggling; dismounted from his mule; and, stooping over the prostrate pronghorn, appeared to administer the coup de grace. Then, flinging the carcass over the croup of his saddle, he climbed back upon his mule, and spurred after his mistress—who had already recovered her lazo, readjusted her scarf, and was riding onward, as if nothing had occurred worth waiting for!

It was at that moment—when the noose was seen circling in the air—that the shadow had reappeared upon the countenance or the Creole. It was not surprise that caused it, but an emotion of a different character—a thought far more unpleasant.

Nor did it pass speedily away. It was still there—though a white hand holding the lorgnette to her eye might have hindered it from being seen—still there, as long as the mounted figures were visible upon the open road; and even after they had passed out of sight behind the screening of the acacias.

“I wonder—oh, I wonder if it be she! My own age, he said—not quite so tall. The description suits—so far as one may judge at this distance. Has her home on the Rio Grande. Comes occasionally to the Leona, to visit some relatives. Who are they? Why did I not ask him the name? I wonder—oh, I wonder if it be she!”