Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Forty Two. Vultures on the Wing

He who has travelled across the plains of Southern Texas cannot fail to have witnessed a spectacle of common occurrence—a flock of black vultures upon the wing.

An hundred or more in the flock, swooping in circles, or wide spiral gyrations—now descending almost to touch the prairie award, or the spray of the chapparal—anon soaring upward by a power in which the wing bears no part—their pointed pinions sharply cutting against the clear sky—they constitute a picture of rare interest, one truly characteristic of a tropical clime.

The traveller who sees it for the first time will not fail to rein up his horse, and sit in his saddle, viewing it with feelings of curious interest. Even he who is accustomed to the spectacle will not pass on without indulging in a certain train of thought which it is calculated to call forth.

There is a tale told by the assemblage of base birds. On the ground beneath them, whether seen by the traveller or not, is stretched some stricken creature—quadruped, or it may be man—dead, or it may be dying.

On the morning that succeeded that sombre night, when the three solitary horsemen made the crossing of the plain, a spectacle similar to that described might have been witnessed above the chapparal into which they had ridden. A flock of black vultures, of both species, was disporting above the tops of the trees, near the point where the avenue angled.

At daybreak not one could have been seen. In less than an hour after, hundreds were hovering above the spot, on widespread wings, their shadows sailing darkly over the green spray of the chapparal.

A Texan traveller entering the avenue, and observing the ominous assemblage, would at once have concluded, that there was death upon his track.

Going farther, he would have found confirmatory evidence, in a pool of blood trampled by the hooves of horses.

Not exactly over this were the vultures engaged in their aerial evolutions. The centre of their swoopings appeared to be a point some distance off among the trees; and there, no doubt, would be discovered the quarry that had called them together.

At that early hour there was no traveller—Texan, or stranger—to test the truth of the conjecture; but, for all that, it was true.

At a point in the chapparal, about a quarter of a mile from the blood-stained path, lay stretched upon the ground the object that was engaging the attention of the vultures.

It was not carrion, nor yet a quadruped; but a human being—a man!

A young man, too, of noble lineaments and graceful shape—so far as could be seen under the cloak that shrouded his recumbent form—with a face fair to look upon, even in death.

Was he dead?

At first sight any one would have said so, and the black birds believed it. His attitude and countenance seemed to proclaim it beyond question.

He was lying upon his back, with face upturned to the sky—no care being taken to shelter it from the sun. His limbs, too, were not in a natural posture; but extended stiffly along the stony surface, as if he had lost the power to control them.

A colossal tree was near, a live oak, but it did not shadow him. He was outside the canopy of its frondage; and the sun’s beams, just beginning to penetrate the chapparal, were slanting down upon his pale face—paler by reflection from a white Panama hat that but partially shaded it.

His features did not seem set in death: and as little was it like sleep. It had more the look of death than sleep. The eyes were but half closed; and the pupils could be seen glancing through the lashes, glassy and dilated. Was the man dead?

Beyond doubt, the black birds believed that he was. But the black birds were judging only by appearances. Their wish was parent to the thought. They were mistaken.

Whether it was the glint of the sun striking into his half-screened orbs, or nature becoming restored after a period of repose, the eyes of the prostrate man were seen to open to their full extent, while a movement was perceptible throughout his whole frame.

Soon after he raised himself a little; and, resting upon his elbow, stared confusedly around him.

The vultures soared upward into the air, and for the time maintained a higher flight.

“Am I dead, or living?” muttered he to himself. “Dreaming, or awake? Which is it? Where am I?”

The sunlight was blinding him. He could see nothing, till he had shaded his eyes with his hand; then only indistinctly.

“Trees above—around me! Stones underneath! That I can tell by the aching of my bones. A chapparal forest! How came I into it?

“Now I have it,” continued he, after a short spell of reflection. “My head was dashed against a tree. There it is—the very limb that lifted me out of the saddle. My left leg pains me. Ah! I remember; it came in contact with the trunk. By heavens, I believe it is broken!”

As he said this, he made an effort to raise himself into an erect attitude. It proved a failure. His sinister limb would lend him no assistance: it was swollen at the knee-joint—either shattered or dislocated.

“Where is the horse? Gone off, of course. By this time, in the stables of Casa del Corvo. I need not care now. I could not mount him, if he were standing by my side.

“The other?” he added, after a pause. “Good heavens! what a spectacle it was! No wonder it scared the one I was riding!

“What am I to do? My leg may be broken. I can’t stir from this spot, without some one to help me. Ten chances to one—a hundred—a thousand—against any one coming this way; at least not till I’ve become food for those filthy birds. Ugh! the hideous brutes; they stretch out their beaks, as if already sure of making a meal upon me!

“How long have I been lying here? The surf don’t seem very high. It was just daybreak, as I climbed into the saddle. I suppose I’ve been unconscious about an hour. By my faith, I’m in a serious scrape? In all likelihood a broken limb—it feels broken—with no surgeon to set it; a stony couch in the heart of a Texan chapparal—the thicket around me, perhaps for miles—no chance to escape from it of myself—no hope of human creature coming to help me—wolves on the earth, and vultures in the air! Great God! why did I mount, without making sure of the rein? I may have ridden my last ride!”

The countenance of the young man became clouded; and the cloud grew darker, and deeper, as he continued to reflect upon the perilous position in which a simple accident had placed him.

Once more he essayed to rise to his feet, and succeeded; only to find, that he had but one leg on which he could rely! It was no use, standing upon it; and he lay down again.

Two hours were passed without any change in his situation; during which he had caused the chapparal to ring with a loud hallooing. He only desisted from this, under the conviction: that there was no one at all likely to hear him.

The shouting caused thirst; or at all events hastened the advent of this appetite—surely coming on as the concomitant of the injuries he had received.

The sensation was soon experienced to such an extent that everything else—even the pain of his wounds—became of trifling consideration.

“It will kill me, if I stay here?” reflected the sufferer. “I must make an effort to reach water. If I remember aright there’s a stream somewhere in this chapparal, and not such a great way off. I must get to it, if I have to crawl upon my hands and knees. Knees! and only one in a condition to support me! There’s no help for it but try. The longer I stay here, the worse it will be. The sun grows hotter. It already burns into my brain. I may lose my senses, and then—the wolves—the vultures—”

The horrid apprehension caused silence and shuddering. After a time he continued:

“If I but knew the right way to go. I remember the stream well enough. It runs towards the chalk prairie. It should be south-east, from here. I shall try that way. By good luck the sun guides me. If I find water all may yet be well. God give me strength to reach it!”

With this prayer upon his lips, he commenced making his way through the thicket—creeping over the stony ground, and dragging after him his disabled leg, like some huge Saurian whose vertebrae have been disjointed by a blow!

Lizard-like, he continued his crawl.

The effort was painful in the extreme; but the apprehension from which he suffered was still more painful, and urged him to continue it.

He well knew there was a chance of his falling a victim to thirst—almost a certainty, if he did not succeed in finding water.

Stimulated by this knowledge he crept on.

At short intervals he was compelled to pause, and recruit his strength by a little rest. A man does not travel far, on his hands and knees, without feeling fatigued. Much more, when one of the four members cannot be employed in the effort.

His progress was slow and irksome. Besides, it was being made under the most discouraging circumstances. He might not be going in the right direction? Nothing but the dread of death could have induced him to keep on.

He had made about a quarter of a mile from the point of starting, when it occurred to him that a better plan of locomotion might be adopted—one that would, at all events, vary the monotony of his march.

“Perhaps,” said he, “I might manage to hobble a bit, if I only had a crutch? Ho! my knife is still here. Thank fortune for that! And there’s a sapling of the right size—a bit of blackjack. It will do.”

Drawing the knife—a “bowie”—from his belt, he cut down the dwarf-oak; and soon reduced it to a rude kind of crutch; a fork in the tree serving for the head.

Then rising erect, and fitting the fork into his armpit, he proceeded with his exploration.

He knew the necessity of keeping to one course; and, as he had chosen the south-east, he continued in this direction.

It was not so easy. The sun was his only compass; but this had now reached the meridian, and, in the latitude of Southern Texas, at that season of the year, the midday sun is almost in the zenith. Moreover, he had the chapparal to contend with, requiring constant détours to take advantage of its openings. He had a sort of guide in the sloping of the ground: for he knew that downward he was more likely to find the stream.

After proceeding about a mile—not in one continued march, but by short stages, with intervals of rest between—he came upon a track made by the wild animals that frequent the chapparal. It was slight, but running in a direct line—a proof that it led to some point of peculiar consideration—in all likelihood a watering-place—stream, pond, or spring.

Any of these three would serve his purpose; and, without longer looking to the sun, or the slope of the ground, he advanced along the trail—now hobbling upon his crutch, and at times, when tired of this mode, dropping down upon his hands and crawling as before.

The cheerful anticipations he had indulged in, on discovering the trail, soon, came to a termination. It became blind. In other words it ran out—ending in a glade surrounded by impervious masses of underwood. He saw, to his dismay, that it led from the glade, instead of towards it. He had been following it the wrong way!

Unpleasant as was the alternative, there was no other than to return upon his track. To stay in the glade would have been to die there.

He retraced the trodden path—going on beyond the point where he had first struck it.

Nothing but the torture of thirst could have endowed him with strength or spirit to proceed. And this was every moment becoming more unendurable.

The trees through which he was making way were mostly acacias, interspersed with cactus and wild agave. They afforded scarce any shelter from the sun, that now in mid-heaven glared down through their gossamer foliage with the fervour of fire itself.

The perspiration, oozing through every pore of his skin, increased the tendency to thirst—until the appetite became an agony!

Within reach of his hand were the glutinous legumes of the mezquites, filled with mellifluous moisture. The agaves and cactus plants, if tapped, would have exuded an abundance of juice. The former was too sweet, the latter too acrid to tempt him.

He was acquainted with the character of both. He knew that, instead of allaying his thirst, they would only have added to its intensity.

He passed the depending pods, without plucking them. He passed the succulent stalks, without tapping thorn.

To augment his anguish, he now discovered that the wounded limb was, every moment, becoming more unmanageable. It had swollen to enormous dimensions. Every step caused him a spasm of pain. Even if going in the direction of the doubtful streamlet, he might never succeed in reaching it? If not, there was no hope for him. He could but lie down in the thicket, and die!

Death would not be immediate. Although suffering acute pain in his head, neither the shock it had received, nor the damage done to his knee, were like to prove speedily fatal. He might dread a more painful way of dying than from wounds. Thirst would be his destroyer—of all shapes of death perhaps the most agonising.

The thought stimulated him to renewed efforts; and despite the slow progress he was able to make—despite the pain experienced in making it—he toiled on.

The black birds hovering above, kept pace with his halting step and laborious crawl. Now more than a mile from the point of their first segregation, they were all of them still there—their numbers even augmented by fresh detachments that had become warned of the expected prey. Though aware that the quarry still lived and moved, they saw that it was stricken. Instinct—perhaps rather experience—told them it must soon succumb.

Their shadows crossed and recrossed the track upon which he advanced—filling him with ominous fears for the end.

There was no noise: for these birds are silent in their flight—even when excited by the prospect of a repast. The hot sun had stilled the voices of the crickets and tree-toads. Even the hideous “horned frog” reclined listless along the earth, sheltering its tuberculated body under the stones.

The only sounds to disturb the solitude of the chapparal were those made by the sufferer himself—the swishing of his garments, as they brushed against the hirsute plants that beset the path; and occasionally his cries, sent forth in the faint hope of their being heard.

By this time, blood was mingling with the sweat upon his skin. The spines of the cactus, and the clawlike thorns of the agave, had been doing their work; and scarce an inch of the epidermis upon his face, hands, and limbs, that was not rent with a laceration.

He was near to the point of despondence—in real truth, he had reached it: for after a spell of shouting he had flung himself prostrate along the earth, despairingly indifferent about proceeding farther.

In all likelihood it was the attitude that saved him. Lying with his ear close to the surface, he heard a sound—so slight, that it would not have been otherwise discernible.

Slight as it was, he could distinguish it, as the very sound for which his senses were sharpened. It was the murmur of moving water!

With an ejaculation of joy, he sprang to his feet, as if nothing were amiss; and made direct towards the point whence proceeded the sound.

He plied his improvised crutch with redoubled energy. Even the disabled leg appeared to sustain him. It was strength and the love of life, struggling against decrepitude and the fear of death.

The former proved victorious; and, in ten minutes after, he lay stretched along the sward, on the banks of a crystal streamlet—wondering why the want of water could have caused him such indescribable agony!