Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Fifty One. Twice Intoxicated

Our story takes us back to the lone hut on the Alamo, so suddenly forsaken by the gambling guests, who had made themselves welcome in the absence of its owner.

It is near noon of the following day, and he has not yet come home. The ci-devant stable-boy of Bally-ballagh is once more sole occupant of the jacalé—once more stretched along the floor, in a state of inebriety; though not the same from which we have seen him already aroused. He has been sober since, and the spell now upon him has been produced by a subsequent appeal to the Divinity of drink.

To explain, we must go back to that hour between midnight and morning, when the monté players made their abrupt departure.

The sight of three red savages, seated around the slab table, and industriously engaged in a game of cards, had done more to restore Phelim to a state of sobriety than all the sleep he had obtained.

Despite a certain grotesqueness in the spectacle, he had not seen such a ludicrous sight, as was proved by the terrific screech with which he saluted them. There was nothing laughable in what followed. He had no very clear comprehension of what did follow. He only remembered that the trio of painted warriors suddenly gave up their game, flung their cards upon the floor, stood over him for a time with naked blades, threatening his life; and then, along with a fourth who had joined them, turned their backs abruptly, and rushed pellmell out of the place!

All this occupied scarce twenty seconds of time; and when he had recovered from his terrified surprise, he found himself once more alone in the jacalé!

Was the sleeping, or awake? Drunk, or dreaming? Was the scene real? Or was it another chapter of incongruous impossibilities, like that still fresh before his mind?

But no. The thing was no fancy. It could not be. He had seen the savages too near to be mistaken as to their reality. He had heard them talking in a tongue unknown to him. What could it be but Indian jargon? Besides, there were the pieces of pasteboard strewn over the floor!

He did not think of picking one up to satisfy himself of their reality. He was sober enough, but not sufficiently courageous for that. He could not be sure of their not burning his fingers—those queer cards? They might belong to the devil?

Despite the confusion of his senses, it occurred to him that the hut was no longer a safe place to stay in. The painted players might return to finish their game. They had left behind not only their cards, but everything else the jacalé contained; and though some powerful motive seemed to have caused their abrupt departure, they might re-appear with equal abruptness.

The thought prompted the Galwegian to immediate action; and, blowing out the candle, so as to conceal his movements, he stole softly out of the hut.

He did not go by the door. The moon was shining on the grass-plat in front. The savages might still be there.

He found means of exit at the back, by pulling one of the horse hides from its place, and squeezing himself through the stockade wall.

Once outside, he skulked off under the shadow of the trees.

He had not gone far when a clump of dark objects appeared before him. There was a sound, as of horses champing their bitts, and the occasional striking of a hoof. He paused in his steps, screening his body behind the trunk of a cypress.

A short observation convinced him, that what he saw was a group of horses. There appeared to be four of them; no doubt belonging to the four warriors, who had turned the mustanger’s hut into a gaming-house. The animals appeared to be tied to a tree, but for all that, their owners might be beside them.

Having made this reflection, he was about to turn back and go the other way; but just at that moment he heard voices in the opposite direction—the voices of several men speaking in tones of menace and command.

Then came short, quick cries of affright, followed by the baying of a hound, and succeeded by silence, at intervals interrupted by a swishing noise, or the snapping of a branch—as if several men were retreating through the underwood in scared confusion!

As he continued to listen, the noises sounded nearer. The men who made them were advancing towards the cypress tree.

The tree was furnished with buttresses all around its base, with shadowy intervals between. Into one of these he stepped hastily; and, crouching close, was completely screened by the shadow.

He had scarce effected his concealment, when four men came rushing up; and, without stopping, hastened on towards the horses.

As they passed by him, they were exchanging speeches which the Irishman could not understand; but their tone betrayed terror. The excited action of the men confirmed it. They were evidently retreating from some enemy that had filled them with fear.

There was a glade where the moon-beams fell upon the grass. It was just outside the shadow of the cypress. To reach the horses they had to cross it; and, as they did so, the vermilion upon their naked skins flashed red under the moonlight.

Phelim identified the four gentlemen who had made so free with the hospitality of the hut.

He kept his place till they had mounted, and rode off—till he could tell by the tramp of their horses that they had ascended the upper plain, and gone off in a gallop—as men who were not likely to come back again.

“Doesn’t that bate Banagher?” muttered he, stepping out from his hiding-place, and throwing up his arms in astonishment. “Be japers! it diz. Mother av Moses! fwhat cyan it mane anyhow? What are them divvils afther? An fwhat’s afther them? Shure somethin’ has given them a scare—that’s plain as a pikestaff. I wondher now if it’s been that same. Be me sowl it’s jist it they’ve encounthered. I heerd the hound gowlin, an didn’t he go afther it. O Lard! what cyan it be? May be it’ll be comin’ this way in purshoot av them?”

The dread of again beholding the unexplained apparition, or being beheld by it, caused him to shrink once more under the shadow of the tree; where he remained for some time longer in a state of trembling suspense.

“Afther all, it must be some thrick av Masther Maurice. Maybe to give me a scare; an comin’ back he’s jist been in time to frighten off these ridskins that intinded to rub an beloike to murther us too. Sowl! I hope it is that. How long since I saw it first? Trath! it must be some considerable time. I remimber having four full naggins, an that’s all gone off. I wondher now if them Indyins has come acrass av the dimmyjan? I’ve heerd that they’re as fond of the crayther as if their skins was white. Sowl! if they’ve smelt the jar there won’t be a dhrap in it by this time. I’ll jist slip back to the hut an see. If thare’s any danger now it won’t be from them. By that tarin’ gallop, I cyan tell they’ve gone for good.”

Once more emerging from the shadowy stall, he made his way back towards the jacalé.

He approached it with caption, stopping at intervals to assure himself that no one was near.

Notwithstanding the plausible hypothesis he had shaped out for himself, he was still in dread of another encounter with the headless horseman—who twice on his way to the hut might now be inside of it.

But for the hope of finding a “dhrap” in the demijohn, he would not have ventured back that night. As it was, the desire to obtain a drink was a trifle stronger than his fears; and yielding to it, he stepped doubtfully into the darkness.

He made no attempt to rekindle the light. Every inch of the floor was familiar to him; and especially that corner where he expected to find the demijohn.

He tried for it. An exclamation uttered in a tone of disappointment told that it was not there.

“Be dad!” muttered he, as he grumblingly groped about; “it looks as if they’d been at it. Av coorse they hav, else fwhy is it not in its place? I lift it thare—shure I lift it thare.”

“Ach, me jewel! an it’s thare yez are yet,” he continued, as his hand came in contact with the wickerwork; “an’ bad luck to their imperence—impty as an eggshill! Ach! ye greedy gutted bastes! If I’d a known yez were goin’ to do that, I’d av slipped a thrifle av shumach juice into the jar, an made raal firewater av it for ye—jist fwhat yez wants. Divil burn ye for a set av rid-skinned thieves, stalin’ a man’s liquor when he’s aslape! Och-an-anee! fwhat am I to do now? Go to slape agane? I don’t belave I cyan, thinkin’ av tham an the tother, widout a thrifle av the crayther to comfort me. An’ thare isn’t a dhrap widin twenty—Fwhat—fwhat! Howly Mary! Mother av Moses! Sant Pathrick and all the others to boot, fwhat am I talkin’ about? The pewther flask—the pewther flask! Be japers! it’s in the thrunk—full to the very neck! Didn’t I fill it for Masther Maurice to take wid him the last time he went to the sittlements? And didn’t he forget to take it? Lard have mercy on me! If the Indyins have laid their dhirty claws upon that I shall be afther takin’ lave at me sinses.”

“Hoo—hoop—hoorro!” he cried, after an interval of silence, during which he could be heard fumbling among the contents of the portmanteau. “Hoo—hoop—hoorro! thanks to the Lord for all his mercies. The rid-skins haven’t been cunnin’ enough to look thare. The flask as full as a tick—not wan av them has had a finger on it. Hoo—hoop—hoorro!”

For some seconds the discoverer of the spirituous treasure, giving way to a joyous excitement, could be heard in the darkness, dancing over the floor of the jacalé.

Then there was an interval of silence, succeeded by the screwing of a stopper, and after that a succession of “glucks,” that proclaimed the rapid emptying of a narrow-necked vessel.

After a time this sound was suspended, to be replaced by a repeated, smacking of lips, interlarded with grotesque ejaculations.

Again came the gluck-gluck, again the smackings, and so on alternately, till an empty flask was heard falling upon the floor.

After that there were wild shouts—scraps of song intermingled with cheers and laughter—incoherent ravings about red Indians and headless horsemen, repeated over and over again, each time in more subdued tones, till the maudlin gibberish at length ended in loud continuous snoring!