Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Forty Three. The Cup and the Jar

Once more the mustanger’s hut! Once more his henchman, astride of a stool in the middle of the floor! Once more his hound lying astretch upon the skin-covered hearth, with snout half buried in the cinders!

The relative positions of the man and the dog are essentially the same—as when seen on a former occasion—their attitudes almost identical. Otherwise there is a change in the picture since last painted—a transformation at once striking and significant.

The horse-hide door, standing ajar, still hangs upon its hinges; and the smooth coats of the wild steeds shine lustrously along the walls. The slab table, too, is there, the trestle bedstead, the two stools, and the “shake down” of the servitor.

But the other “chattels” wont to be displayed against the skin tapestry are either out of sight, or displaced. The double gun has been removed from its rack; the silver cup, hunting horn, and dog-call, are no longer suspended from their respective pegs; the saddle, bridles, ropes, and serapés are unslung; and the books, ink, pens, and papeterie have entirely disappeared.

At first sight it might be supposed that Indians have paid a visit to the jacalé, and pillaged it of its penates.

But no. Had this been the case, Phelim would not be sitting so unconcernedly on the stool, with his carroty scalp still upon his head.

Though the walls are stripped nothing has been carried away. The articles are still there, only with a change of place; and the presence of several corded packages, lying irregularly over the floor—among which is the leathern portmanteau—proclaims the purpose of the transposition.

Though a clearing out has not been made, it is evident that one is intended.

In the midst of the general displacement, one piece of plenishing was still seen in its accustomed corner—the demijohn. It was seen by Phelim, oftener than any other article in the room: for no matter in what direction he might turn his eyes, they were sure to come round again to that wicker-covered vessel that stood so temptingly in the angle.

“Ach! me jewel, it’s there yez are!” said he, apostrophising the demijohn for about the twentieth time, “wid more than two quarts av the crayther inside yer bewtifull belly, and not doin’ ye a bit av good, nayther. If the tinth part av it was inside av me, it wud be a moighty binnefit to me intistines. Trath wud it that same. Wudn’t it, Tara?”

On hearing his name pronounced, the dog raised his head and looked inquiringly around, to see what was wanted of him.

Perceiving that his human companion was but talking to himself, he resumed his attitude of repose.

“Faix! I don’t want any answer to that, owld boy. It’s meself that knows it, widout tillin’. A hape av good a glass of that same potyeen would do me; and I dar’n’t touch a dhrap, afther fwhat the masther sid to me about it. Afther all that packin’, too, till me throat is stickin’ to me tongue, as if I had been thryin’ to swallow a pitch plaster. Sowl! it’s a shame av Masther Maurice to make me promise agaynst touchin’ the dhrink—espacially when it’s not goin’ to be wanted. Didn’t he say he wudn’t stay more than wan night, whin he come back heeur; an shure he won’t conshume two quarts in wan night—unless that owld sinner Stump comes along wid him. Bad luck to his greedy gut! he gets more av the Manongahayla than the masther himsilf.

“There’s wan consolashun, an thank the Lord for it, we’re goin’ back to the owld sad, an the owld place at Ballyballagh. Won’t I have a skinful when I get thare—av the raal stuff too, instid of this Amerikyan rotgut! Hooch—hoop—horoo! The thought av it’s enough to sit a man mad wid deloight. Hooch—hoop—horoo!”

Tossing his wide-awake up among the rafters, and catching it as it came down again, the excited Galwegian several times repeated his ludicrous shibboleth. Then becoming tranquil he sate for awhile in silence—his thoughts dwelling with pleasant anticipation on the joys that awaited him at Ballyballagh.

They soon reverted to the objects around him—more especially to the demijohn in the corner. On this once more his eyes became fixed in a gaze, in which increasing covetousness was manifestly visible.

“Arrah, me jewel!” said he, again apostrophising the vessel, “ye’re extramely bewtifull to look at—that same ye arr. Shure now, yez wudn’t till upon me, if I gave yez a thrifle av a kiss? Ye wudn’t be the thraiter to bethray me? Wan smack only. Thare can be no harum in that. Trath, I don’t think the masther ’ud mind it—when he thinks av the throuble I’ve had wid this packin’, an the dhry dust gettin’ down me throat. Shure he didn’t mane me to kape that promise for this time—which differs intirely from all the rest, by razon av our goin’ away. A dhry flittin’, they say, makes a short sittin’. I’ll tell the masther that, whin he comes back; an shure it ’ll pacify him. Besoides, there’s another ixcuse. He’s all av tin hours beyant his time; an I’ll say I took a thriflin’ dhrap to kape me from thinkin’ long for him. Shure he won’t say a word about it. Be Sant Pathrick! I’ll take a smell at the dimmyjan, an trust to good luck for the rist. Loy down, Tara, I’m not agoin’ out.”

The staghound had risen, seeing the speaker step towards the door.

But the dumb creature had misinterpreted the purpose—which was simply to take a survey of the path by which the jacalé was approached, and make sure, that, his master was not likely to interrupt him in his intended dealings with the demijohn.

Becoming satisfied that the coast was clear, he glided back across the floor; uncorked the jar; and, raising it to his lips, swallowed something more than a “thriflin’ dhrap av its contints.”

Then putting it back in its place, he returned to his seat on the stool.

After remaining quiescent for a considerable time, he once more proceeded to soliloquise—now and then changing his speech to the apostrophic form—Tara and the demijohn being the individuals honoured by his discourse.

“In the name av all the angels, an the divils to boot, I wondher what’s kapin’ the masther! He sid he wud be heeur by eight av the clock in the marnin’, and it’s now good six in the afthernoon, if thare’s any truth in a Tixas sun. Shure thare’s somethin’ detainin’ him? Don’t yez think so, Tara?”

This time Tara did vouchsafe the affirmative “sniff”—having poked his nose too far into the ashes.

“Be the powers! then, I hope it’s no harum that’s befallen him! If there has, owld dog, fwhat ’ud become av you an me? Thare might be no Ballyballagh for miny a month to come; unliss we cowld pay our passage wid these thraps av the masther’s. The drinkin’ cup—raal silver it is—wud cover the whole expinse av the voyage. Be japers! now that it stroikes me, I niver had a dhrink out av that purty little vessel. I’m shure the liquor must taste swater that way. Does it, I wondher—trath, now’s just the time to thry.”

Saying this, he took the cup out of the portmanteau, in which he had packed it; and, once more uncorking the demijohn, poured out a portion of its contents—of about the measure of a wineglassful.

Quaffing it off at a single gulp, he stood smacking his lips—as if to assure himself of the quality of the liquor.

“Sowl! I don’t know that it does taste betther,” said he, still holding the cup in one hand, and the jar in the other. “Afther all, I think, it’s swater out av the dimmyjan itself, that is, as far as I cyan remimber. But it isn’t givin’ the gawblet fair play. It’s so long since I had the jar to me mouth, that I a’most forget how it tasted that way. I cowld till betther if I thryed thim thegither. I’ll do that, before I decoide.”

The demijohn was now raised to his lips; and, after several “glucks” was again taken away.

Then succeeded a second series of smacking, in true connoisseur fashion, with the head held reflectingly steadfast.

“Trath! an I’m wrong agane!” said he, accompanying the remark with another doubtful shake of the head. “Althegither asthray. It’s swater from the silver. Or, is it only me imaginayshin that’s desavin’ me? It’s worth while to make shure, an I can only do that by tastin’ another thrifle out av the cup. That wud be givin’ fair play to both av the vessels; for I’ve dhrunk twice from the jar, an only wanst from the silver. Fair play’s a jewil all the world over; and thare’s no raison why this bewtiful little mug showldn’t be trated as dacently as that big basket av a jar. Be japers! but it shall tho’!”

The cup was again called into requisition; and once more a portion of the contents of the demijohn were transferred to it—to be poured immediately after down the insatiable throat of the unsatisfied connoisseur.

Whether he eventually decided in favour of the cup, or whether he retained his preference for the jar, is not known. After the fourth potation, which was also the final one, he appeared to think he had tasted sufficiently for the time, and laid both vessels aside.

Instead of returning to his stool, however, a new idea came across his mind; which was to go forth from the hut, and see whether there was any sign to indicate the advent of his master.

“Come, Tara!” cried he, striding towards the door. “Let us stip up to the bluff beyant, and take a look over the big plain. If masther’s comin’ at all, he shud be in sight by this. Come along, ye owld dog! Masther Maurice ’ll think all the betther av us, for bein’ a little unazy about his gettin’ back.”

Taking the path through the wooded bottom—with the staghound close at his heels—the Galwegian ascended the bluff, by one of its sloping ravines, and stood upon the edge of the upper plateau.

From this point he commanded a view of a somewhat sterile plain; that stretched away eastward, more than a mile, from the spot where he was standing.

The sun was on his back, low down on the horizon, but shining from a cloudless sky. There was nothing to interrupt his view. Here and there, a stray cactus plant, or a solitary stem of the arborescent yucca, raised its hirsute form above the level of the plain. Otherwise the surface was smooth; and a coyoté could not have crossed it without being seen.

Beyond, in the far distance, could be traced the darker outline of trees—where a tract of chapparal, or the wooded selvedge of a stream stretched transversely across the llano.

The Galwegian bent his gaze over the ground, in the direction in which he expected his master should appear; and stood silently watching for him.

Ere long his vigil was rewarded. A horseman was seen coming out from among the trees upon the other side, and heading towards the Alamo.

He was still more than a mile distant; but, even at that distance, the faithful servant could identify his master. The striped serapé of brilliant hues—a true Navajo blanket, which Maurice was accustomed to take with him when travelling—was not to be mistaken. It gleamed gaudily under the glare of the setting sun—its bands of red, white, and blue, contrasting with the sombre tints of the sterile plain.

Phelim only wondered, that his master should have it spread over his shoulders on such a sultry evening instead of folded up, and strapped to the cantle of his saddle!

“Trath, Tara! it looks quare, doesn’t it? It’s hot enough to roast a stake upon these stones; an yit the masther don’t seem to think so. I hope he hasn’t caught a cowld from stayin’ in that close crib at owld Duffer’s tavern. It wasn’t fit for a pig to dwill in. Our own shanty’s a splindid parlour to it.”

The speaker was for a time silent, watching the movements of the approaching horseman—by this time about half a mile distant, and still drawing nearer.

When his voice was put forth again it was in a tone altogether changed. It was still that of surprise, with an approach towards merriment. But it was mirth that doubted of the ludicrous; and seemed to struggle under restraint.

“Mother av Moses!” cried he. “What can the masther mane? Not contint with havin’ the blankyet upon his showldhers, be japers, he’s got it over his head!

“He’s playin’ us a thrick, Tara. He wants to give you an me a surproise. He wants to have a joke agaynst us!

“Sowl! but it’s quare anyhow. It looks as if he had no head. In faix does it! Ach! what cyan it mane? Be the Howly Virgin! it’s enough to frighten wan, av they didn’t know it was the masther!

“Is it the masther? Be the powers, it’s too short for him! The head? Saint Patrick presarve us, whare is it? It cyan’t be smothered up in the blankyet? Thare’s no shape thare! Be Jaysus, thare’s somethin’ wrong! What does it mane, Tara?”

The tone of the speaker had again undergone a change. It was now close bordering upon terror—as was also the expression of his countenance.

The look and attitude of the staghound were not very different. He stood a little in advance—half cowering, half inclined to spring forward—with eyes glaring wildly, while fixed upon the approaching horseman—now scarce two hundred yards from the spot!

As Phelim put the question that terminated his last soliloquy, the hound gave out a lugubrious howl, that seemed intended for an answer.

Then, as if urged by some canine instinct, he bounded off towards the strange object, which puzzled his human companion, and was equally puzzling him.

Rushing straight on, he gave utterance to a series of shrill yelps; far different from the soft sonorous baying, with which he was accustomed to welcome the coming home of the mustanger.

If Phelim was surprised at what he had already seen, he was still further astonished by what now appeared to him.

As the dog drew near, still yelping as he ran, the blood-bay—which the ex-groom had long before identified as his master’s horse—turned sharply round, and commenced galloping back across the plain!

While performing the wheel, Phelim saw—or fancied he saw—that, which not only astounded him, but caused the blood to run chill through his veins, and his frame to tremble to the very tips of his toes.

It was a head—that of the man on horseback; but, instead of being in its proper place, upon his shoulders, it was held in the rider’s hand, just behind the pommel of the saddle!

As the horse turned side towards him, Phelim saw, or fancied he saw, the face—ghastly and covered with gore—half hidden behind the shaggy hair of the holster!

He saw no more. In another instant his back was turned towards the plain; and, in another, he was rushing down the ravine, as fast as his enfeebled limbs would carry him!