Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Forty One. Cuatro Cavalleros

The party of searchers, under the command of the major, was not the only one that went forth from Fort Inge on that eventful morning.

Nor was it the earliest to take saddle. Long before—in fact close following the dawn of day—a much smaller party, consisting of only four horsemen, was seen setting out from the suburbs of the village, and heading their horses in the direction of the Nueces.

These could not be going in search of the dead body of Henry Poindexter. At that hour no one suspected that the young man was dead, or even that he was missing. The riderless horse had not yet come in to tell the tale of woe. The settlement was still slumbering, unconscious that innocent blood had been spilt.

Though setting out from nearly the same point, and proceeding in a like direction, there was not the slightest similarity between the two parties of mounted men. Those earliest a-start were all of pure Iberian blood; or this commingled with Aztecan. In other words they were Mexicans.

It required neither skill nor close scrutiny to discover this. A glance at themselves and their horses, their style of equitation, the slight muscular development of their thighs and hips—more strikingly observable in their deep-tree saddles—the gaily coloured serapés shrouding their shoulders, the wide velveteen calzoneros on their legs, the big spurs on their boots, and broad-brimmed sombreros on their heads, declared them either Mexicans, or men who had adopted the Mexican costume.

That they were the former there was not a question. The sallow hue; the pointed Vandyke beard, covering the chin, sparsely—though not from any thinning by the shears—the black, close-cropped chevelure; the regular facial outline, were all indisputable characteristics of the Hispano-Moro-Aztecan race, who now occupy the ancient territory of the Moctezumas.

One of the four was a man of larger frame than any of his companions. He rode a better horse; was more richly apparelled; carried upon his person arms and equipments of a superior finish; and was otherwise distinguished, so as to leave no doubt about his being the leader of the cuartilla.

He was a man of between thirty and forty years of age, nearer to the latter than the former; though a smooth, rounded cheek—furnished with a short and carefully trimmed whisker—gave him the appearance of being younger than he was.

But for a cold animal eye, and a heaviness of feature that betrayed a tendency to behave with brutality—if not with positive cruelty—the individual in question might have been described as handsome.

A well formed mouth, with twin rows of white teeth between the lips, even when these were exhibited in a smile, did not remove this unpleasant impression. It but reminded the beholder of the sardonic grin that may have been given by Satan, when, after the temptation had succeeded, he gazed contemptuously back upon the mother of mankind.

It was not his looks that had led to his having become known among his comrades by a peculiar nick-name; that of an animal well known upon the plains of Texas.

His deeds and disposition had earned for him the unenviable soubriquet “El Coyote.”

How came he to be crossing the prairie at this early hour of the morning—apparently sober, and acting as the leader of others—when on the same morning, but a few hours before, he was seen drunk in his jacalé—so drunk as to be unconscious of having a visitor, or, at all events, incapable of giving that visitor a civil reception?

The change of situation though sudden—and to some extent strange—is not so difficult of explanation. It will be understood after an account has been given of his movements, from the time of Calhoun’s leaving him, till the moment of meeting him in the saddle, in company with his three conpaisanos.

On riding away from his hut, Calhoun had left the door, as he had found it, ajar; and in this way did it remain until the morning—El Coyote all the time continuing his sonorous slumber.

At daybreak he was aroused by the raw air that came drifting over him in the shape of a chilly fog. This to some extent sobered him; and, springing up from his skin-covered truck, he commenced staggering over the floor—all the while uttering anathemas against the cold, and the door for letting it in.

It might be expected that he would have shut to the latter on the instant; but he did not. It was the only aperture, excepting some holes arising from dilapidation, by which light was admitted into the interior of the jacalé; and light he wanted, to enable him to carry out the design that had summoned him to his feet.

The grey dawn, just commencing to creep in through the open doorway, scarce sufficed for his purpose; and it was only after a good while spent in groping about, interspersed with a series of stumblings, and accompanied by a string of profane exclamations, that he succeeded in finding that he was searching for: a large two-headed gourd, with a strap around its middle, used as a canteen for carrying water, or more frequently mezcal.

The odour escaping from its uncorked end told that it had recently contained this potent spirit; but that it was now empty, was announced by another profane ejaculation that came from the lips of its owner, as he made the discovery.

“Sangre de Cristo!” he cried, in an accent of angry disappointment, giving the gourd a shake to assure himself of its emptiness. “Not a drop—not enough to drown a chiga! And my tongue sticking to my teeth. My throat feels as if I had bolted a brazero of red-hot charcoal. Por Dios! I can’t stand it. What’s to be done? Daylight? It is. I must up to the pueblita. It’s possible that Señor Doffer may have his trap open by this time to catch the early birds. If so, he’ll find a customer in the Coyote. Ha, ha, ha!”

Slinging the gourd strap around his neck, and thrusting his head through the slit of his serapé, he set forth for the village.

The tavern was but a few hundred yards from his hut, on the same side of the river, and approachable by a path, that he could have travelled with his eyes under “tapojos.” In twenty minutes after, he was staggering past the sign-post of the “Rough and Ready.”

He chanced to be in luck. Oberdoffer was in his bar-room, serving some early customers—a party of soldiers who had stolen out of quarters to swallow their morning dram.

“Mein Gott, Mishter Dees!” said the landlord, saluting the newly arrived guest, and without ceremony forsaking six credit customers, for one that he knew to be cash. “Mein Gott! is it you I sees so early ashtir? I knowsh vat you vant. You vant your pig coord fill mit ze Mexican spirits—ag—ag—vat you call it?”

“Aguardiente! You’ve guessed it, cavallero. That’s just what I want.”

“A tollar—von tollar ish the price.”

“Carrambo! I’ve paid it often enough to know that. Here’s the coin, and there’s the canteen. Fill, and be quick about it!”

“Ha! you ish in a hurry, mein herr. Fel—I von’t keeps you waitin’; I suppose you ish off for the wild horsh prairish. If there’s anything goot among the droves, I’m afeart that the Irishmans will pick it up before you. He went off lasht night. He left my housh at a late hour—after midnight it wash—a very late hour, to go a shourney! But he’s a queer cushtomer is that mushtanger, Mister Maurish Sherralt. Nobody knows his ways. I shouldn’t say anythings againsht him. He hash been a goot cushtomer to me. He has paid his bill like a rich man, and he hash plenty peside. Mein Gott! his pockets wash cramm mit tollars!”

On hearing that the Irishman had gone off to the “horsh prairish,” as Oberdoffer termed them, the Mexican by his demeanour betrayed more than an ordinary interest in the announcement.

It was proclaimed, first by a slight start of surprise, and then by an impatience of manner that continued to mark his movements, while listening to the long rigmarole that followed.

It was clear that he did not desire anything of this to be observed. Instead of questioning his informant upon the subject thus started, or voluntarily displaying any interest in it, he rejoined in a careless drawl—

“It don’t concern me, cavallero. There are plenty of musteños on the plains—enough to give employment to all the horse-catchers in Texas. Look alive, señor, and let’s have the aguardiente!”

A little chagrined at being thus rudely checked in his attempt at a gossip, the German Boniface hastily filled the gourd canteen; and, without essaying farther speech, handed it across the counter, took the dollar in exchange, chucked the coin into his till, and then moved back to his military customers, more amiable because drinking upon the score.

Diaz, notwithstanding the eagerness he had lately exhibited to obtain the liquor, walked out of the bar-room, and away from the hotel, without taking the stopper from his canteen, or even appearing to think of it!

His excited air was no longer that of a man merely longing for a glass of ardent spirits. There was something stronger stirring within, that for the time rendered him oblivious of the appetite.

Whatever it may have been it did not drive him direct to his home: for not until he had paid a visit to three other hovels somewhat similar to his own—all situated in the suburbs of the pueblita, and inhabited by men like himself—not till then, did he return to his jacalé.

It was on getting back, that he noticed for the first time the tracks of a shod horse; and saw where the animal had been tied to a tree that stood near the hut.

“Carrambo!” he exclaimed, on perceiving this sign, “the Capitan Americano has been here in the night. Por Dios! I remember something—I thought I had dreamt it. I can guess his errand. He has heard of Don Mauricio’s departure. Perhaps he’ll repeat his visit, when he thinks I’m in a proper state to receive him? Ha! ha! It don’t matter now. The thing’s all understood; and I sha’n’t need any further instructions from him, till I’ve earned his thousand dollars. Mil pesos! What a splendid fortune! Once gained, I shall go back to the Rio Grande, and see what can be done with Isidora.”

After delivering the above soliloquy, he remained at his hut only long enough to swallow a few mouthfuls of roasted tasajo, washing them down with as many gulps of mezcal. Then having caught and caparisoned his horse, buckled on his huge heavy spurs, strapped his short carbine to the saddle, thrust a pair of pistols into their holsters, and belted the leathern sheathed macheté on his hip, he sprang into the stirrups, and rode rapidly away.

The short interval that elapsed, before making his appearance on the open plain, was spent in the suburbs of the village—waiting for the three horsemen who accompanied him, and who had been forewarned of their being wanted to act as his coadjutors, in some secret exploit that required their assistance.

Whatever it was, his trio of confrères appeared to have been made acquainted with the scheme; or at all events that the scene of the exploit was to be on the Alamo. When a short distance out upon the plain, seeing Diaz strike off in a diagonal direction, they called out to warn him, that he was not going the right way.

“I know the Alamo well,” said one of them, himself a mustanger. “I’ve hunted horses there many a time. It’s southwest from here. The nearest way to it is through an opening in the chapparal you see out yonder. You are heading too much to the west, Don Miguel!”

“Indeed!” contemptuously retorted the leader of the cuartilla. “You’re a gringo, Señor Vicente Barajo! You forget the errand we’re upon; and that we are riding shod horses? Indians don’t go out from Port Inge and then direct to the Alamo to do—no matter what. I suppose you understand me?”

“Oh true!” answered Señor Vicente Barajo, “I beg your pardon, Don Miguel. Carrambo! I did not think of that.”

And without further protest, the three coadjutors of El Coyote fell into his tracks, and followed him in silence—scarce another word passing between him and them, till they had struck the chapparal, at a point several miles above the opening of which Barajo had made mention.

Once under cover of the thicket, the four men dismounted; and, after tying their horses to the trees, commenced a performance that could only be compared to a scene in the gentlemen’s dressing-room of a suburban theatre, preliminary to the representation of some savage and sanguinary drama.