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Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Thirty Five. An Uncourteous Host

“The chicken-hearted fool! Fool myself, to have trusted to such a hope! I might have known she’d cajole the young calf, and let the scoundrel escape. I could have shot him from behind the tree—dead as a drowned rat! And without risking anything—even disgrace! Not a particle of risk. Uncle Woodley would have thanked me—the whole settlement would have said I had done right. My cousin, a young lady, betrayed by a common scamp—a horse, trader—who would have said a word against it? Such a chance! Why have I missed it? Death and the devil—it may not trump up again!”

Such were the reflections of the ex-captain of cavalry, while at some paces distance following his two cousins on their return to the hacienda.

“I wonder,” muttered he, on re-entering the patio, “whether the blubbering baby be in earnest? Going after to apologise to the man who has made a fool of his sister! Ha—ha! It would be a good joke were it not too serious to be laughed at. He is in earnest, else why that row in the stable? ’Tis he bringing but his horse! It is, by the Almighty!”

The door of the stable, as is customary in Mexican haciendas opened upon the paved patio.

It was standing ajar; but just as Calhoun turned his eye upon it, a man coming from the inside pushed it wide open; and then stepped over the threshold, with a saddled horse following close after him.

The man had a Panama hat upon his head, and a cloak thrown loosely around his shoulders. This did not hinder Calhoun from recognising his cousin Henry, as also the dark brown horse that belonged to him.

“Fool! So—you’ve let him off?” spitefully muttered the ex-captain, as the other came within whispering distance. “Give me back my bowie and pistol. They’re not toys suited to such delicate fingers as yours! Bah! Why did you not use them as I told you? You’ve made a mess of it!”

“I have,” tranquilly responded the young planter. “I know it. I’ve insulted—and grossly too—a noble fellow.”

“Insulted a noble fellow! Ha—ha—ha! You’re mad—by heavens, you’re mad!”

“I should have been had I followed your counsel, cousin Cash. Fortunately I did not go so far. I have done enough to deserve being called worse than fool; though perhaps, under the circumstances, I may obtain forgiveness for my fault. At all events, I intend to try for it, and without losing time.”

“Where are you going?”

“After Maurice the mustanger—to apologise to him for my misconduct.”

“Misconduct! Ha—ha—ha! Surely you are joking?”

“No. I’m in earnest. If you come along with me, you shall see!”

“Then I say again you are mad! Not only mad, but a damned natural-born idiot! you are, by Jesus Christ and General Jackson!”

“You’re not very polite, cousin Cash; though, after the language I’ve been lately using myself, I might excuse you. Perhaps you will, one day imitate me, and make amends for your rudeness.”

Without adding another word, the young gentleman—one of the somewhat rare types of Southern chivalry—sprang to his saddle; gave the word, to his horse; and rode hurriedly through the saguan.

Calhoun stood upon the stones, till the footfall of the horse became but faintly distinguishable in the distance.

Then, as if acting under some sudden impulse, he hurried along the verandah to his own room; entered it; reappeared in a rough overcoat; crossed back to the stable; went in; came out again with his own horse saddled and bridled; led the animal along the pavement, as gently as if he was stealing him; and once outside upon the turf, sprang upon his back, and rode rapidly away.

For a mile or more he followed the same road, that had been taken by Henry Poindexter. It could not have been with any idea of overtaking the latter: since, long before, the hoofstrokes of Henry’s horse had ceased to be heard; and proceeding at a slower pace, Calhoun did not ride as if he cared about catching up with his cousin.

He had taken the up-river road. When about midway between Casa del Corvo and the Fort, he reined up; and, after scrutinising the chapparal around him, struck off by a bridle-path leading back toward the bank of the river. As he turned into it he might have been heard muttering to himself—

“A chance still left; a good one, though not so cheap as the other. It will cost me a thousand dollars. What of that, so long as I get rid of this Irish curse, who has poisoned every hour of my existence! If true to his promise, he takes the route to his home by an early hour in the morning. What time, I wonder. These men of the prairies call it late rising, if they be abed till daybreak! Never mind. There’s yet time for the Coyote to get before him on the road! I know that. It must be the same as we followed to the wild horse prairies. He spoke of his hut upon the Alamo. That’s the name of the creek where we had our pic-nic. The hovel cannot be far from there! The Mexican must know the place, or the trail leading to it; which last will be sufficient for his purpose and mine. A fig for the shanty itself! The owner may never reach it. There may be Indians upon the road! There must be, before daybreak in the morning!”

As Calhoun concluded this string of strange reflections, he had arrived at the door of another “shanty”—that of the Mexican mustanger. The jacalé was the goal of his journey.

Having slipped out of his saddle, and knotted his bridle to a branch, he set foot upon the threshold.

The door was standing wide open. From the inside proceeded a sound, easily identified as the snore of a slumberer.

It was not as of one who sleeps either tranquilly, or continuously. At short intervals it was interrupted—now by silent pauses—anon by hog-like gruntings, interspersed with profane words, not perfectly pronounced, but slurred from a thick tongue, over which, but a short while before, must have passed a stupendous quantity of alcohol.

“Carrambo! carrai! carajo—chingara! mil diablos!” mingled with more—perhaps less—reverential exclamations of “Sangre de Cristo! Jesus! Santissima Virgen! Santa Maria! Dios! Madre de Dios!” and the like, were uttered inside the jacalé, as if the speaker was engaged in an apostrophic conversation with all the principal characters of the Popish Pantheon.

Calhoun paused upon the threshold, and listened.

“Mal—dit—dit—o!” muttered the sleeper, concluding the exclamation with a hiccup. “Buen—buenos nove-dad-es! Good news, por sangre Chrees—Chreest—o! Si S’ñor Merican—cano! Nove—dad—es s’perbos! Los Indyos Co—co—manchees on the war-trail—el rastro de guerra. God bless the Co—co—manchees!”

“The brute’s drunk!” said his visitor, mechanically speaking aloud.

“H’la S’ñor!” exclaimed the owner of the jacalé, aroused to a state of semi-consciousness by the sound of a human voice. “Quien llama! Who has the honour—that is, have I the happiness—I, Miguel Diaz—el Co—coyoté, as the leperos call me. Ha, ha! coyo—coyot. Bah! what’s in a name? Yours, S’ñor? Mil demonios! who are you?”

Partially raising himself from his reed couch, the inebriate remained for a short time in a sitting attitude—glaring, half interrogatively, half unconsciously, at the individual whose voice had intruded itself into his drunken dreams.

The unsteady examination lasted only for a score of seconds. Then the owner of the jacalé, with an unintelligible speech, subsided into a recumbent position; when a savage grunt, succeeded by a prolonged snore, proved him to have become oblivious to the fact that his domicile contained a guest.

“Another chance lost!” said the latter, hissing the words through his teeth, as he turned disappointedly from the door.

“A sober fool and a drunken knave—two precious tools wherewith, to accomplish a purpose like mine! Curse the luck! All this night it’s been against me! It maybe three long hours before this pig sleeps off the swill that has stupefied him. Three long hours, and then what would be the use of him? ’Twould be too late—too late!”

As he said this, he caught the rein of his bridle, and stood by the head of his horse, as if uncertain what course to pursue.

“No use my staying here! It might be daybreak before the damned liquor gets out of his skull. I may as well go back to the hacienda and wait there; or else—or else—”

The alternative, that at this crisis presented itself, was nor, spoken aloud. Whatever it may have been, it had the effect of terminating the hesitancy that living over him, and stirring him to immediate action.

Roughly tearing his rein from the branch, and passing it over his horse’s head, he sprang into the saddle, and rode off from the jacalé in a direction the very opposite to that in which he had approached it.

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