Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Forty. The Marked Bullet

Before coming up with the scout, an incident occurred to vary the monotony of the march. Instead of keeping along the avenue, the major had conducted his command in a diagonal direction through the chapparal. He had done this to avoid giving unnecessary pain to the afflicted father; who would otherwise have looked upon the life-blood of his son, or at least what the major believed to be so. The gory spot was shunned, and as the discovery was not yet known to any other save the major himself, and the tracker who had made it, the party moved on in ignorance of the existence of such a dread sign.

The path they were now pursuing was a mere cattle-track, scarce broad enough for two to ride abreast. Here and there were glades where it widened out for a few yards, again running into the thorny chapparal.

On entering one of these glades, an animal sprang out of the bushes, and bounded off over the sward. A beautiful creature it was, with its fulvous coat ocellated with rows of shining rosettes; its strong lithe limbs supporting a smooth cylindrical body, continued into a long tapering tail; the very type of agility; a creature rare even in these remote solitudes—the jaguar.

Its very rarity rendered it the more desirable as an object to test the skill of the marksman; and, notwithstanding the serious nature of the expedition, two of the party were tempted to discharge their rifles at the retreating animal.

They were Cassius Calhoun, and a young planter who was riding by his side.

The jaguar dropped dead in its tracks: a bullet having entered its body, and traversed the spine in a longitudinal direction.

Which of the two was entitled to the credit of the successful shot? Calhoun claimed it, and so did the young planter.

The shots had been fired simultaneously, and only one of them had hit.

“I shall show you,” confidently asserted the ex-officer, dismounting beside the dead jaguar, and unsheathing his knife. “You see, gentlemen, the ball is still in the animal’s body? If it’s mine, you’ll find my initials on it—C.C.—with a crescent. I mould my bullets so that I can always tell when I’ve killed my game.”

The swaggering air with which he held up the leaden missile after extracting it told that he had spoken the truth. A few of the more curious drew near and examined the bullet. Sure enough it was moulded as Calhoun had declared, and the dispute ended in the discomfiture of the young planter.

The party soon after came up with the tracker, waiting to conduct them along a fresh trail.

It was no longer a track made by two horses, with shod hooves. The turf showed only the hoof-marks of one; and so indistinctly, that at times they were undiscernible to all eyes save those of the tracker himself.

The trace carried them through the thicket, from glade to glade—after a circuitous march—bringing them back into the lane-like opening, at a point still further to the west.

Spangler—though far from being the most accomplished of his calling—took it; up as fast as the people could ride after him. In his own mind he had determined the character of the animal whose footmarks he was following. He knew it to be a mustang—the same that had stood under the cottonwood whilst its rider was smoking a cigar—the same whose hoof-mark he had seen deeply indented in a sod saturated with human blood.

The track of the States horse he had also followed for a short distance—in the interval, when he was left alone. He saw that it would conduct him back to the prairie through which they had passed; and thence, in all likelihood, to the settlements on the Leona.

He had forsaken it to trace the footsteps of the shod mustang; more likely to lead him to an explanation of that red mystery of murder—perhaps to the den of the assassin.

Hitherto perplexed by the hoof-prints of two horses alternately overlapping each other, he was not less puzzled now, while scrutinising the tracks of but one.

They went not direct, as those of an animal urged onwards upon a journey; but here and there zigzagging; occasionally turning upon themselves in short curves; then forward for a stretch; and then circling again, as if the mustang was either not mounted, or its rider was asleep in the saddle!

Could these be the hoof-prints of a horse with a man upon his back—an assassin skulking away from the scene of assassination, his conscience freshly excited by the crime?

Spangler did not think so. He knew not what to think. He was mystified more than ever. So confessed he to the major, when being questioned as to the character of the trail.

A spectacle that soon afterwards came under his eyes—simultaneously seen by every individual of the party—so far from solving the mystery, had the effect of rendering it yet more inexplicable.

More than this. What had hitherto been but an ambiguous affair—a subject for guess and speculation—was suddenly transformed into a horror; of that intense kind that can only spring from thoughts of the supernatural.

No one could say that this feeling of horror had arisen without reason.

When a man is seen mounted on a horse’s back, seated firmly in the saddle, with limbs astride in the stirrups, body erect, and hand holding the rein—in short, everything in air and attitude required of a rider; when, on closer scrutiny, it is observed: that there is something wanting to complete the idea of a perfect equestrian; and, on still closer scrutiny, that this something is the head, it would be strange if the spectacle did not startle the beholder, terrifying him to the very core of his heart.

And this very sight came before their eyes; causing them simultaneously to rein up, and with as much suddenness, as if each had rashly ridden within less than his horse’s length of the brink of an abyss!

The sun was low down, almost on a level with the sward. Facing westward, his disc was directly before them. His rays, glaring redly in their eyes, hindered them from having a very accurate view, towards the quarter of the west. Still could they see that strange shape above described—a horseman without a head!

Had only one of the party declared himself to have seen it, he would have been laughed at by his companions as a lunatic. Even two might have been stigmatised in a similar manner.

But what everybody saw at the same time, could not be questioned; and only he would have been thought crazed, who should have expressed incredulity about the presence of the abnormal phenomenon.

No one did. The eyes of all were turned in the same direction, their gaze intently fixed on what was either a horseman without the head, or the best counterfeit that could have been contrived.

Was it this? If not, what was it?

These interrogatories passed simultaneously through the minds of all. As no one could answer them, even to himself, no answer was vouchsafed. Soldiers and civilians sate silent in their saddles—each expecting an explanation, which the other was unable to supply.

There could be heard only mutterings, expressive of surprise and terror. No one even offered a conjecture.

The headless horseman, whether phantom or real, when first seen, was about entering the avenue—near the debouchure of which the searchers had arrived. Had he continued his course, he must have met them in the teeth—supposing their courage to have been equal to the encounter.

As it was, he had halted at the same instant as themselves; and stood regarding them with a mistrust that may have been mutual.

There was an interval of silence on both sides, during which a cigar stump might have been heard falling upon the sward. It was then the strange apparition was most closely scrutinised by those who had the courage: for the majority of the men sate shivering in their stirrups—through sheer terror, incapable even of thought!

The few who dared face the mystery, with any thought of accounting for it, were baffled in their investigation by the glare of the setting sun. They could only see that there was a horse of large size and noble shape, with a man upon his back. The figure of the man was less easily determined, on account of the limbs being inserted into overalls, while his shoulders were enveloped in an ample cloak-like covering.

What signified his shape, so long as it wanted that portion most essential to existence? A man without a head—on horseback, sitting erect in the saddle, in an attitude of ease and grace—with spurs sparkling upon his heels—the bridle-rein held in one hand—the other where it should be, resting lightly upon his thigh!

Great God! what could it mean?

Was it a phantom? Surely it could not be human?

They who viewed it were not the men to have faith either in phantoms, or phantasmagoria. Many of them had met Nature in her remotest solitudes, and wrestled with her in her roughest moods. They were not given to a belief in ghosts.

But the confidence of the most incredulous was shaken by a sight so strange—so absolutely unnatural—and to such an extent, that the stoutest hearted of the party was forced mentally to repeat the words:—

“Is it a phantom? Surely it cannot be human?”

Its size favoured the idea of the supernatural. It appeared double that of an ordinary man upon an ordinary horse. It was more like a giant on a gigantic steed; though this might have been owing to the illusory light under which it was seen—the refraction of the sun’s rays passing horizontally through the tremulous atmosphere of the parched plain.

There was but little time to philosophise—not enough to complete a careful scrutiny of the unearthly apparition, which every one present, with hand spread over his eyes to shade them from the dazzling glare, was endeavouring to make.

Nothing of colour could be noted—neither the garments of the man, nor the hairy coat of the horse. Only the shape could be traced, outlined in sable silhouette against the golden background of the sky; and this in every change of attitude, whether fronting the spectators, or turned stern towards them, was still the same—still that inexplicable phenomenon: a horseman without a head!

Was it a phantom? Surely it could not be human?

“’Tis old Nick upon horseback!” cried a fearless frontiersman, who would scarce have quailed to encounter his Satanic majesty even in that guise. “By the ’tarnal Almighty, it’s the devil himself.”

The boisterous laugh which succeeded the profane utterance of the reckless speaker, while it only added to the awe of his less courageous comrades, appeared to produce an effect on the headless horseman. Wheeling suddenly round—his horse at the same time sending forth a scream that caused either the earth or the atmosphere to tremble—he commenced galloping away.

He went direct towards the sun; and continued this course, until only by his motion could he be distinguished from one of those spots that have puzzled the philosopher—at length altogether disappearing, as though he had ridden into the dazzling disc!