Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Forty Eight. Isidora

The sun has just risen clear above the prairie horizon, his round disc still resting upon the sward, like a buckler of burnished gold. His rays are struggling into the chapparal, that here and there diversifies the savanna. The dew-beads yet cling upon the acacias, weighting their feathery fronds, and causing them to droop earthward, as if grieving at the departure of the night, whose cool breeze and moist atmosphere are more congenial to them than the fiery sirocco of day. Though the birds are stirring—for what bird could sleep under the shine of such glorious sunrise?—it is almost too early to expect human being abroad—elsewhere than upon the prairies of Texas. There, however, the hour of the sun’s rising is the most enjoyable of the day; and few there are who spend it upon the unconscious couch, or in the solitude of the chamber.

By the banks of the Leona, some three miles below Fort Inge, there is one who has forsaken both, to stray through the chapparal. This early wanderer is not afoot, but astride a strong, spirited horse, that seems impatient at being checked in his paces. By this description, you may suppose the rider to be a man; but, remembering that the scene is in Southern Texas still sparsely inhabited by a Spano-Mexican population—you are equally at liberty to conjecture that the equestrian is a woman. And this, too, despite the round hat upon the head—despite the serapé upon the shoulders, worn as a protection against the chill morning air—despite the style of equitation, so outré to European ideas, since the days of La Duchesse de Berri; and still further, despite the crayon-like colouring on the upper lip, displayed in the shape of a pair of silken moustaches. More especially may this last mislead; and you may fancy yourself looking upon some Spanish youth, whose dark but delicate features bespeak the hijo de algo, with a descent traceable to the times of the Cid.

If acquainted with the character of the Spano-Mexican physiognomy, this last sign of virility does not decide you as to the sex. It may be that the rider in the Texan chapparal, so distinguished, is, after all, a woman!

On closer scrutiny, this proves to be the case. It is proved by the small hand clasping the bridle-rein; by the little foot, whose tiny toes just touch the “estribo”—looking less in contrast with the huge wooden block that serves as a stirrup; by a certain softness of shape, and pleasing rotundity of outline, perceptible even through the thick serapé of Saltillo; and lastly, by the grand luxuriance of hair coiled up at the back of the head, and standing out in shining clump beyond the rim of the sombrero. After noting these points, you become convinced that you are looking upon a woman, though it may be one distinguished by certain idiosyncrasies. You are looking upon the Doña Isidora Covarubio de los Llanos.

You are struck by the strangeness of her costume—still more by the way she sits her horse. In your eyes, unaccustomed to Mexican modes, both may appear odd—unfeminine—perhaps indecorous.

The Doña Isidora has no thought—not even a suspicion—of there being anything odd in either. Why should she? She is but following the fashion of her country and her kindred. In neither respect is she peculiar.

She is young, but yet a woman. She has seen twenty summers, and perhaps one more. Passed under the sun of a Southern sky, it is needless to say that her girlhood is long since gone by. In her beauty there is no sign of decadence. She is fair to look upon, as in her “buen quince” (beautiful fifteen), Perhaps fairer. Do not suppose that the dark lining on her lip damages the feminine expression of her face. Rather does it add to its attractiveness. Accustomed to the glowing complexion of the Saxon blonde, you may at first sight deem it a deformity. Do not so pronounce, till you have looked again. A second glance, and—my word for it—you will modify your opinion. A third will do away with your indifference; a fourth change it to admiration!

Continue the scrutiny, and it will end in your becoming convinced: that a woman wearing a moustache—young, beautiful, and brunette—is one of the grandest sights which a beneficent Nature offers to the eye of man.

It is presented in the person of Isidora Covarubio de los Llanos. If there is anything unfeminine in her face, it is not this; though it may strengthen a wild, almost fierce, expression, at times discernible, when her white teeth gleam conspicuously under the sable shadow of the “bigotite.”

Even then is she beautiful; but, like that of the female jaguar, ’tis a beauty that inspires fear rather than affection.

At all times it is a countenance that bespeaks for its owner the possession of mental attributes not ordinarily bestowed upon her sex. Firmness, determination, courage—carried to the extreme of reckless daring—are all legible in its lines. In those cunningly-carved features, slight, sweet, and delicate, there is no sign of fainting or fear. The crimson that has struggled through the brown skin of her cheeks would scarce forsake them in the teeth of the deadliest danger.

She is riding alone, through the timbered bottom of the Leona. There is a house not far off; but she is leaving it behind her. It is the hacienda of her uncle, Don Silvio Martinez, from the portals of which she has late issued forth.

She sits in her saddle as firmly as the skin that covers it. It is a spirited horse, and has the habit of showing it by his prancing paces. But you have no fear for the rider: you are satisfied of her power to control him.

A light lazo, suited to her strength, is suspended from the saddle-bow. Its careful coiling shows that it is never neglected. This almost assures you, that she understands how to use it. She does—can throw it, with the skill of a mustanger.

The accomplishment is one of her conceits; a part of the idiosyncrasy already acknowledged.

She is riding along a road—not the public one that follows the direction of the river. It is a private way leading from the hacienda of her uncle, running into the former near the summit of a hill—the hill itself being only the bluff that abuts upon the bottom lands of the Leona.

She ascends the sloping path—steep enough to try the breathing of her steed. She reaches the crest of the ridge, along which trends the road belonging to everybody.

She reins up; though not to give her horse an opportunity of resting. She has halted, because of having reached the point where her excursion is to terminate.

There is an opening on one side of the road, of circular shape, and having a superficies of some two or three acres. It is grass-covered and treeless—a prairie in petto. It is surrounded by the chapparal forest—very different from the bottom timber out of which she has just emerged. On all sides is the enclosing thicket of spinous plants, broken only by the embouchures of three paths, their triple openings scarce perceptible from the middle of the glade.

Near its centre she has pulled up, patting her horse upon the neck to keep him quiet. It is not much needed. The scaling of the “cuesta” has done that for him. He has no inclination either to go on, or tramp impatiently in his place.

“I am before the hour of appointment,” mutters she, drawing a gold watch from under her serapé, “if, indeed, I should expect him at all. He may not come? God grant that he be able!

“I am trembling! Or is it the breathing of the horse? Valga me Dios, no! ’Tis my own poor nerves!

“I never felt so before! Is it fear? I suppose it is.

“’Tis strange though—to fear the man I love—the only one I over have loved: for it could not have been love I had for Don Miguel. A girl’s fancy. Fortunate for me to have got cured of it! Fortunate my discovering him to be a coward. That disenchanted me—quite dispelled the romantic dream in which he was the foremost figure. Thank my good stars, for the disenchantment; for now I hate him, now that I hear he has grown—Santissima! can it be true that he has become—a—a salteador?

“And yet I should have no fear of meeting him—not even in this lone spot!

“Ay de mi! Fearing the man I love, whom I believe to be of kind, noble nature—and having no dread of him I hate, and know to be cruel and remorseless! ’Tis strange—incomprehensible!

“No—there is nothing strange in it. I tremble not from any thought of danger—only the danger of not being beloved. That is why I now shiver in my saddle—why I have not had one night of tranquil sleep since my deliverance from those drunken savages.

“I have never told him of this; nor do I know how he may receive the confession. It must, and shall be made. I can endure the uncertainty no longer. In preference I choose despair—death, if my hopes deceive me!

“Ha! There is a hoof stroke! A horse comes down the road! It is his? Yes. I see glancing through the trees the bright hues of our national costume. He delights to wear it. No wonder; it so becomes him!

“Santa Virgin! I’m under a serapé, with a sombrero on my head. He’ll mistake me for a man! Off, ye ugly disguises, and let me seem what I am—a woman.”

Scarce quicker could be the transformation in a pantomime. The casting off the serapé reveals a form that Hebe might have envied; the removal of the hat, a head that would have inspired the chisel of Canova!

A splendid picture is exhibited in that solitary glade; worthy of being framed, by its bordering of spinous trees, whose hirsute arms seem stretched out to protect it.

A horse of symmetrical shape, half backed upon his haunches, with nostrils spread to the sky, and tail sweeping the ground; on his back one whose aspect and attitude suggest a commingling of grand, though somewhat incongruous ideas, uniting to form a picture, statuesque as beautiful.

The pose of the rider is perfect. Half sitting in the saddle, half standing upon the stirrup, every undulation of her form is displayed—the limbs just enough relaxed to show that she is a woman.

Notwithstanding what she has said, on her face there is no fear—at least no sign to betray it. There is no quivering lip—no blanching of the cheeks.

The expression is altogether different. It is a look of love—couched under a proud confidence, such as that with which the she-eagle awaits the wooing of her mate.

You may deem the picture overdrawn—perhaps pronounce it unfeminine.

And yet it is a copy from real life—true as I can remember it; and more than once had I the opportunity to fix it in my memory.

The attitude is altered, and with the suddenness of a coup d’éclair; the change being caused by recognition of the horseman who comes galloping into the glade. The shine of the gold-laced vestments had misled her. They are worn not by Maurice Gerald, but by Miguel Diaz!

Bright looks become black. From her firm seat in the saddle she subsides into an attitude of listlessness—despairing rather than indifferent; and the sound that escapes her lips, as for an instant they part over her pearl-like teeth, is less a sigh than an exclamation of chagrin.

There is no sign of fear in the altered attitude—only disappointment, dashed with defiance.

El Coyote speaks first.

“H’la! S’ñorita, who’d have expected to find your ladyship in this lonely place—wasting your sweetness on the thorny chapparal?”

“In what way can it concern you, Don Miguel Diaz?”

“Absurd question, S’ñorita! You know it can, and does; and the reason why. You well know how madly I love you. Fool was I to confess it, and acknowledge myself your slave. ’Twas that that cooled you so quickly.”

“You are mistaken, Señor. I never told you I loved you. If I did admire your feats of horsemanship, and said so, you had no right to construe it as you’ve done. I meant no more than that I admired them—not you. ’Tis three years ago. I was a girl then, of an age when such things have a fascination for our sex—when we are foolish enough to be caught by personal accomplishments rather than moral attributes. I am now a woman. All that is changed, as—it ought to be.”

“Carrai! Why did you fill me with false hopes? On the day of the herradero, when I conquered the fiercest bull and tamed the wildest horse in your father’s herds—a horse not one of his vaqueros dared so much as lay hands upon—on that day you smiled—ay, looked love upon me. You need not deny it, Doña Isidora! I had experience, and could read the expression—could tell your thoughts, as they were then. They are changed, and why? Because I was conquered by your charms, or rather because I was the silly fool to acknowledge it; and you, like all women, once you had won and knew it, no longer cared for your conquest. It is true, S’ñorita; it is true.”

“It is not, Don Miguel Diaz. I never gave you word or sign to say that I loved, or thought of you otherwise than as an accomplished cavalier. You appeared so then—perhaps were so. What are you now? You know what’s said of you, both here and on the Rio Grande!”

“I scorn to reply to calumny—whether it proceeds from false friends or lying enemies. I have come here to seek explanations, not to give them.”

“Prom whom?”

“Prom your sweet self, Doña Isidora.”

“You are presumptive, Don Miguel Diaz! Think, Señor, to whom you are addressing yourself. Remember, I am the daughter of—”

“One of the proudest Haciendados in Tamaulipas, and niece to one of the proudest in Texas. I have thought of all that; and thought too that I was once a haciendado myself and am now only a hunter of horses. Carrambo! what of that? You’re not the woman to despise a man for the inferiority of his rank. A poor mustanger stands as good a chance in your eyes as the owner of a hundred herds. In that respect, I have proof of your generous spirit!”

“What proof?” asked she, in a quick, entreating tone, and for the first time showing signs of uneasiness. “What evidence of the generosity you are so good as to ascribe to me?”

“This pretty epistle I hold in my hand, indited by the Doña Isidora Covarubio de los Llanos, to one who, like myself, is but a dealer in horseflesh. I need not submit it to very close inspection. No doubt you can identify it at some distance?”

She could, and did; as was evinced by her starting in the saddle—by her look of angry surprise directed upon Diaz.

“Señor! how came you in possession of this?” she asked, without any attempt to disguise her indignation.

“It matters not. I am in possession of it, and of what for many a day I have been seeking; a proof, not that you had ceased to care for me—for this I had good reason to know—but that you had begun to care for him. This tells that you love him—words could not speak plainer. You long to look into his beautiful eyes. Mil demonios! you shall never see them again!”

“What means this, Don Miguel Diaz?”

The question was put not without a slight quivering of the voice that seemed to betray fear. No wonder it should. There was something in the aspect of El Coyote at that moment well calculated to inspire the sentiment.

Observing it, he responded, “You may well show fear: you have reason. If I have lost you, my lady, no other shall enjoy you. I have made up my mind about that.”

“About what?”

“What I have said—that no other shall call you his, and least of all Maurice the mustanger.”


“Ay, indeed! Give me a promise that you and he shall never meet again, or you depart not from this place!”

“You are jesting, Don Miguel?”

“I am in earnest, Doña Isidora.”

The manner of the man too truly betrayed the sincerity of his speech. Coward as he was, there was a cold cruel determination in his looks, whilst his hand was seen straying towards the hilt of his macheté.

Despite her Amazonian courage, the woman could not help a feeling of uneasiness. She saw there was a danger, with but slight chance of averting it. Something of this she had felt from the first moment of the encounter; but she had been sustained by the hope, that the unpleasant interview might be interrupted by one who would soon change its character.

During the early part of the dialogue she had been eagerly listening for the sound of a horse’s hoof—casting occasional and furtive glances through the chapparal, in the direction where she hoped to hear it.

This hope was no more. The sight of her own letter told its tale: it had not reached its destination.

Deprived of this hope—hitherto sustaining her—she next thought of retreating from the spot.

But this too presented both difficulties and dangers. It was possible for her to wheel round and gallop off; but it was equally possible for her retreat to be intercepted by a bullet. The butt of El Coyote’s pistol was as near to his hand as the hilt of his macheté.

She was fully aware of the danger. Almost any other woman would have given way to it. Not so Isidora Covarubio de los Llanos. She did not even show signs of being affected by it.

“Nonsense!” she exclaimed, answering his protestation with an air of well dissembled incredulity. “You are making sport of me, Señor. You wish to frighten me. Ha! ha! ha! Why should I fear you? I can ride as well—fling my lazo as sure and far as you, Look at this I see how skilfully I can handle it!”

While so speaking—smiling as she spoke—she had lifted the lazo from her saddle-bow and was winding it round her head, as if to illustrate her observations.

The act had a very different intent, though it was not perceived by Diaz; who, puzzled by her behaviour, sate speechless in his saddle.

Not till he felt the noose closing around his elbows did he suspect her design; and then too late to hinder its execution. In another instant his arms were pinioned to his sides—both the butt of his pistol and the hilt of his macheté beyond the grasp of his fingers!

He had not even time to attempt releasing himself from the loop. Before he could lay hand upon the rope, it tightened around his body, and with a violent pluck jerked him out of his saddle—throwing him stunned and senseless to the ground.

“Now, Don Miguel Diaz!” cried she who had caused this change of situation, and who was now seen upon her horse, with head turned homeward, the lazo strained taut from the saddle-tree. “Menace me no more! Make no attempt to release yourself. Stir but a finger, and I spur on! Cruel villain! coward as you are, you would have killed me—I saw it in your eye. Ha! the tables are turned, and now—”

Perceiving that there was no rejoinder, she interrupted her speech, still keeping the lazo at a stretch, with her eyes fixed upon the fallen man.

El Coyote lay upon the ground, his arms enlaced in the loop, without stirring, and silent as a stick of wood. The fall from his horse had deprived him of speech, and consciousness at the same time. To all appearance he was dead—his steed alone showing life by its loud neighing, as it reared back among the bushes.

“Holy Virgin! have I killed him?” she exclaimed, reining her horse slightly backward, though still keeping him headed away, and ready to spring to the spur. “Mother of God! I did not intend it—though I should be justified in doing even that: for too surely did he intend to kill me! Is he dead, or is it a ruse to get me near? By our good Guadaloupe! I shall leave others to decide. There’s not much fear of his overtaking me, before I can reach home; and if he’s in any danger the people of the hacienda will get back soon enough to release him. Good day, Don Miguel Diaz! Hasta luego!”

With these words upon her lips—the levity of which proclaimed her conscience clear of having committed a crime she drew a small sharp-bladed knife from beneath the bodice of her dress; severed the rope short off from her saddle-bow; and, driving the spur deep into the flanks of her horse, galloped off out of the glade—leaving Diaz upon the ground, still encircled by the loop of the lazo!