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Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Forty Six. A Secret Confided

The first dawn of day witnessed an unusual stir in and around the hacienda of Casa del Corvo. The courtyard was crowded with men—armed, though not in the regular fashion. They carried long hunting rifles, having a calibre of sixty to the pound; double-barrelled shot guns; single-barrelled pistols; revolvers; knives with long blades; and even tomahawks!

In their varied attire of red flannel shirts, coats of coloured blanket, and “Kentucky jeans,” trowsers of brown “homespun,” and blue “cottonade,” hats of felt and caps of skin, tall boots of tanned leather, and leggings of buck—these stalwart men furnished a faithful picture of an assemblage, such as may be often seen in the frontier settlements of Texas.

Despite the bizarrerie of their appearance, and the fact of their carrying weapons, there was nothing in either to proclaim their object in thus coming together. Had it been for the most pacific purpose, they would have been armed and apparelled just the same.

But their object is known.

A number of the men so met, had been out on the day before, along with the dragoons. Others had now joined the assemblage—settlers who lived farther away, and hunters who had been from home.

The muster on this morning was greater than on the preceding day—even exceeding the strength of the searching party when supplemented by the soldiers.

Though all were civilians, there was one portion of the assembled crowd that could boast of an organisation. Irregular it may be deemed, notwithstanding the name by which its members were distinguished. These were the “Regulators.”

There was nothing distinctive about them, either in their dress, arms, or equipments. A stranger would not have known a Regulator from any other individual. They knew one another.

Their talk was of murder—of the murder of Henry Poindexter—coupled with the name of Maurice the mustanger.

Another subject was discussed of a somewhat cognate character. Those who had seen it, were telling those who had not—of the strange spectacle that had appeared to them the evening before on the prairie.

Some were at first incredulous, and treated the thing as a joke. But the wholesale testimony—and the serious manner in which it was given—could not long be resisted; and the existence of the headless horseman became a universal belief. Of course there was an attempt to account for the odd phenomenon, and many forms of explanation were suggested. The only one, that seemed to give even the semblance of satisfaction, was that already set forward by the frontiersman—that the horse was real enough, but the rider was a counterfeit.

For what purpose such a trick should be contrived, or who should be its contriver, no one pretended to explain.

For the business that had brought them togther, there was but little time wasted in preparation. All were prepared already.

Their horses were outside—some of them held in hand by the servants of the establishment, but most “hitched” to whatever would hold them.

They had come warned of their work, and only waited for Woodley Poindexter—on this occasion their chief—to give the signal for setting forth.

He only waited in the hope of procuring a guide; one who could conduct them to the Alamo—who could take them to the domicile of Maurice the mustanger.

There was no such person present. Planters, merchants, shopkeepers, lawyers, hunters, horse and slave-dealers, were all alike ignorant of the Alamo.

There was but one man belonging to the settlement supposed to be capable of performing the required service—old Zeb Stump. But Zeb could not be found. He was absent on one of his stalking expeditions; and the messengers sent to summon him were returning, one after another, to announce a bootless errand.

There was a woman, in the hacienda itself, who could have guided the searchers upon their track—to the very hearthstone of the supposed assassin.

Woodley Poindexter knew it not; and perhaps well for him it was so. Had the proud planter suspected that in the person of his own child, there was a guide who could have conducted kim to the lone hut on the Alamo, his sorrow for a lost son would have been stifled by anguish for an erring daughter.

The last messenger sent in search of Stump came back to the hacienda without him. The thirst for vengeance could be no longer stayed, and the avengers went forth.

They were scarce out of sight of Casa del Corvo, when the two individuals, who could have done them such signal service, became engaged in conversation within the walls of the hacienda itself.

There was nothing clandestine in the meeting, nothing designed. It was a simple contingency, Zeb Stump having just come in from his stalking excursion, bringing to the hacienda a portion of the “plunder”—as he was wont to term it—procured by his unerring rifle.

Of course to Zeb Stump, Louise Poindexter was at home. She was even eager for the interview—so eager, as to have kep almost a continual watch along the river road, all the day before, from the rising to the setting of the sun.

Her vigil, resumed on the departure of the noisy crowd, was soon after rewarded by the sight of the hunter, mounted on his old mare—the latter laden with the spoils of the chase—slowly moving along the road on the opposite side of the river, and manifestly making for the hacienda.

A glad sight to her—that rude, but grand shape of colossal manhood. She recognised in it the form of a true friend—to whose keeping she could safely entrust her most secret confidence. And she had now such a secret to confide to him; that for a night and a day had been painfully pent up within her bosom.

Long before Zeb had set foot upon the flagged pavement of the patio, she had gone out into the verandah to receive him.

The air of smiling nonchalance with which he approached, proclaimed him still ignorant of the event which had cast its melancholy shadow over the house. There was just perceptible the slightest expression of surprise, at finding the outer gate shut, chained, and barred.

It had not been the custom of the hacienda—at least during its present proprietary.

The sombre countenance of the black, encountered within the shadow of the saguan, strengthened Zeb’s surprise—sufficiently to call forth an inquiry.

“Why, Pluto, ole fellur! whatsomdiver air the matter wi’ ye? Yur lookin’ like a ’coon wi’ his tail chopped off—clost to the stump at thet! An’ why air the big gate shet an barred—in the middle o’ breakfist time? I hope thur hain’t nuthin’ gone astray?”

“Ho! ho! Mass ’Tump, dat’s jess what dar hab goed stray—dat’s preecise de ting, dis chile sorry t’ say—berry much goed stray. Ho! berry, berry much!”

“Heigh!” exclaimed the hunter, startled at the lugubrious tone. “Thur air sommeat amiss? What is’t, nigger? Tell me sharp quick. It can’t be no wuss than yur face shows it. Nothin’ happened to yur young mistress, I hope? Miss Lewaze—”

“Ho—ho! nuffin’ happen to de young Missa Looey. Ho—ho! Bad enuf ’thout dat. Ho! de young missa inside de house yar, ’Tep in, Mass’ ’Tump. She tell you de drefful news herseff.”

“Ain’t yur master inside, too? He’s at home, ain’t he?”

“Golly, no. Dis time no. Massa ain’t ’bout de house at all nowhar. He wa’ hya a’most a quarrer ob an hour ago. He no hya now. He off to de hoss prairas—wha de hab de big hunt ’bout a momf ago. You know, Mass’ Zeb?”

“The hoss purayras! What’s tuk him thur? Who’s along wi’ him?”

“Ho! ho! dar’s Mass Cahoon, and gobs o’ odder white genlum. Ho! ho! Dar’s a mighty big crowd ob dem, dis nigga tell you.”

“An’ yur young Master Henry—air he gone too?”

“O Mass’ ’Tump! Dat’s wha am be trubble. Dat’s de whole ob it. Mass’ Hen’ he gone too. He nebber mo’ come back. De hoss he been brought home all kibbered over wif blood. Ho! ho! de folks say Massa Henry he gone dead.”

“Dead! Yur jokin’? Air ye in airnest, nigger?”

“Oh! I is, Mass’ ’Tump. Sorry dis chile am to hab say dat am too troo. Dey all gone to sarch atter de body.”

“Hyur! Take these things to the kitchen. Thur’s a gobbler, an some purayra chickens. Whar kin I find Miss Lewaze?”

“Here, Mr Stump. Come this way!” replied a sweet voice well known to him, but now speaking in accents so sad he would scarce have recognised it.

“Alas! it is too true what Pluto has been telling you. My brother is missing. He has not been seen since the night before last. His horse came home, with spots of blood upon the saddle. O Zeb! it’s fearful to think of it!”

“Sure enuf that air ugly news. He rud out somewhar, and the hoss kim back ’ithout him? I don’t weesh to gie ye unneedcessary pain, Miss Lewaze; but, as they air still sarchin’ I mout be some help at that ere bizness; and maybe ye won’t mind tellin’ me the particklers?”

These were imparted, as far as known to her. The gardes scene and its antecedents were alone kept back. Oberdoffer was given as authority for the belief, that Henry had gone off after the mustanger.

The narrative was interrupted by bursts of grief, changing to indignation, when she came to tell Zeb of the suspicion entertained by the people—that Maurice was the murderer.

“It air a lie!” cried the hunter, partaking of the same sentiment: “a false, parjured lie! an he air a stinkin’ skunk that invented it. The thing’s impossible. The mowstanger ain’t the man to a dud sech a deed as that. An’ why shed he have dud it? If thur hed been an ill-feelin’ atween them. But thur wa’n’t. I kin answer for the mowstanger—for more’n oncest I’ve heern him talk o’ your brother in the tallest kind o’ tarms. In coorse he hated yur cousin Cash—an who doesn’t, I shed like to know? Excuse me for sayin’ it. As for the other, it air different. Ef thar hed been a quarrel an hot blood atween them—”

“No—no!” cried the young Creole, forgetting herself in the agony of her grief. “It was all over. Henry was reconciled. He said so; and Maurice—”

The astounded look of the listener brought a period to her speech. Covering her face with her hands, she buried her confusion in a flood of tears.

“Hoh—oh!” muttered Zeb; “thur hev been somethin’? D’ye say, Miss Lewaze, thur war a—a—quarrel atween yur brother—”

“Dear, dear Zeb!” cried she, removing her hands, and confronting the stalwart hunter with an air of earnest entreaty, “promise me, you will keep my secret? Promise it, as a friend—as a brave true-hearted man! You will—you will?”

The pledge was given by the hunter raising his broad palm, and extending it with a sonorous slap over the region of his heart.

In five minutes more he was in possession of a secret which woman rarely confides to man—except to him who can profoundly appreciate the confidence.

The hunter showed less surprise than might have been expected; merely muttering to himself:—

“I thort it wild come to somethin’ o’ the sort—specially arter thet ere chase acrost the purayra.”

“Wal, Miss Lewaze,” he continued, speaking in a tone of kindly approval, “Zeb Stump don’t see anythin’ to be ashamed o’ in all thet. Weemen will be weemen all the world over—on the purayras or off o’ them; an ef ye have lost yur young heart to the mowstanger, it wud be the tallest kind o’ a mistake to serpose ye hev displaced yur affeckshuns, as they calls it. Though he air Irish, he aint none o’ the common sort; thet he aint. As for the rest ye’ve been tellin’ me, it only sarves to substantify what I’ve been sayin’—that it air parfickly unpossible for the mowstanger to hev dud the dark deed; that is, ef thur’s been one dud at all. Let’s hope thur’s nothin’ o’ the kind. What proof hez been found? Only the hoss comin’ home wi’ some rid spots on the seddle?”

“Alas! there is more. The people were all out yesterday. They followed a trail, and saw something, they would not tell me what. Father did not appear as if he wished me to know what they had seen; and I—I feared, for reasons, to ask the others. They’ve gone off again—only a short while—just as you came in sight on the other side.”

“But the mowstanger? What do it say for hisself?”

“Oh, I thought you knew. He has not been found either. Mon Dieu! mon Dieu! He, too, may have fallen by the same hand that has struck down my brother!”

“Ye say they war on a trail? His’n I serpose? If he be livin’ he oughter be foun’ at his shanty on the crik. Why didn’t they go thar? Ah! now I think o’t, thur’s nobody knows the adzack sittavashun o’ that ere domycile ’ceptin’ myself I reckon: an if it war that greenhorn Spangler as war guidin’ o’ them he’d niver be able to lift a trail acrost the chalk purayra. Hev they gone that way agin?”

“They have. I heard some of them say so.”

“Wal, if they’re gone in sarch o’ the mowstanger I reck’n I mout as well go too. I’ll gie tall odds I find him afore they do.”

“It is for that I’ve been so anxious to see you. There am many rough men along with papa. As they went away I heard them use wild words. There were some of those called ‘Regulators.’ They talked of lynching and the like. Some of them swore terrible oaths of vengeance. O my God! if they should find him, and he cannot make clear his innocence, in the height of their angry passions—cousin Cassius among the number—you understand what I mean—who knows what may be done to him? Dear Zeb, for my sake—for his, whom you call friend—go—go! Reach the Alamo before them, and warn him of the danger! Your horse is slow. Take mine—any one you can find in the stable—”

“Thur’s some truth in what ye say,” interrupted the hunter, preparing to move off. “Thur mout be a smell o’ danger for the young fellur; an I’ll do what I kin to avart it. Don’t be uneezay, Miss Lewaze. Thur’s not sech a partickler hurry. Thet ere shanty ain’t agoin’ ter be foun’ ’ithout a spell o’ sarchin’. As to ridin’ yur spotty I’ll manage better on my ole maar. Beside, the critter air reddy now if Plute hain’t tuk off the saddle. Don’t be greetin’ yur eyes out—thet’s a good chile! Maybe it’ll be all right yit ’bout yur brother; and as to the mowstanger, I hain’t no more surspishun o’ his innersense than a unborn babby.”

The interview ended by Zeb making obeisance in backwoodsman style, and striding out of the verandah; while the young Creole glided off to her chamber, to soothe her troubled spirit in supplications for his success.

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