Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Fifty Two. An Awakener

Phelim’s second slumber was destined to endure for a more protracted term than his first. It was nearly noon when he awoke from it; and then only on receiving a bucket of cold water full in his face, that sobered him almost as quickly as the sight of the savages.

It was Zeb Stump who administered the douche.

After parting from the precincts of Casa del Corvo, the old hunter had taken the road, or rather trail, which he knew to be the most direct one leading to the head waters of the Nueces.

Without staying to notice tracks or other “sign,” he rode straight across the prairie, and into the avenue already mentioned.

Prom what Louise Poindexter had told him—from a knowledge of the people who composed the party of searchers—he knew that Maurice Gerald was in danger.

Hence his haste to reach the Alamo before them—coupled with caution to keep out of their way.

He knew that if he came up with the Regulators, equivocation would be a dangerous game; and, nolens volens, he should be compelled to guide them to the dwelling of the suspected murderer.

On turning the angle of the avenue, he had the chagrin to see the searchers directly before him, clumped up in a crowd, and apparently engaged in the examination of “sign.”

At the same time he had the satisfaction to know that his caution was rewarded, by himself remaining unseen.

“Durn them!” he muttered, with bitter emphasis. “I mout a know’d they’d a bin hyur. I must go back an roun’ the tother way. It’ll deelay me better’n a hour. Come, ole maar! This air an obstruckshun you, won’t like. It’ll gi’e ye the edition o’ six more mile to yur journey. Ee-up, ole gal! Roun’ an back we go!”

With a strong pull upon the rein, he brought the mare short round, and rode back towards the embouchure of the avenue.

Once outside, he turned along the edge of the chapparal, again entering it by the path which on the day before had been taken by Diaz and his trio of confederates. From this point he proceeded without pause or adventure until he had descended to the Alamo bottom-land, and arrived within a short distance, though still out of sight of the mustanger’s dwelling.

Instead of riding boldly up to it, he dismounted from his mare; and leaving her behind him, approached the jacalé with his customary caution.

The horse-hide door was closed; but there was a large aperture in the middle of it, where a portion of the skin had been cut out. What was the meaning of that?

Zeb could not answer the question, even by conjecture.

It increased his caution; and he continued his approach with as much stealth, as if he had been stalking an antelope.

He kept round by the rear—so as to avail himself of the cover afforded by the trees; and at length, having crouched into the horse-shed at the back, he knelt down and listened.

There was an opening before his eyes; where one of the split posts had been pushed out of place, and the skin tapestry torn off. He saw this with some surprise; but, before he could shape any conjecture as to its cause, his ears were saluted with a sonorous breathing, that came out through the aperture. There was also a snore, which he fancied he could recognise, as proceeding from Irish nostrils.

A glance through the opening settled the point. The sleeper was Phelim.

There was an end to the necessity for stealthy manoeuvring. The hunter rose to his feet, and stepping round to the front, entered by the door—which he found unbolted.

He made no attempt to rouse the sleeper, until after he had taken stock of the paraphernalia upon the floor.

“Thur’s been packin’ up for some purpiss,” he observed, after a cursory glance. “Ah! Now I reccollex. The young fellur sayed he war goin’ to make a move from hyur some o’ these days. Thet ere anymal air not only soun’ asleep, but dead drunk. Sartin he air—drunk as Backis. I kin tell that by the smell o’ him. I wonder if he hev left any o’ the licker? It air dewbious. Not a drop, dog-gone him! Thur’s the jar, wi’ the stop plug out o’ it, lyin’ on its side; an thur’s the flask, too, in the same preedikamint—both on ’em fall o’ empiness. Durn him for a drunken cuss! He kin suck up as much moister as a chalk purayra.

“Spanish curds! A hul pack on ’em scattered abeout the place. What kin he ha’ been doin’ wi’ them? S’pose he’s been havin’ a game o’ sollatury along wi’ his licker.”

“But what’s cut the hole in the door, an why’s the tother broken out at the back? I reckon he kin tell. I’ll roust him, an see. Pheelum! Pheelum!”

Phelim made no reply.

“Pheelum, I say! Pheelum!”

Still no reply. Although the last summons was delivered in a shout loud enough to have been heard half a mile off, there was no sign made by the slumberer to show that he even heard it.

A rude shaking administered by Zeb had no better effect. It only produced a grunt, immediately succeeded by a return to the same stentorous respiration.

“If ’twa’n’t for his snorin’ I mout b’lieve him to be dead. He air dead drunk, an no mistake; intoxerkated to the very eends o’ his toe-nails. Kickin’ him ’ud be no use. Dog-goned, ef I don’t try this.”

The old hunter’s eye, as he spoke, was resting upon a pail that stood in a corner of the cabin. It was full of water, which Phelim, for some purpose, had fetched from the creek. Unfortunately for himself, he had not wasted it.

With a comical expression in his eye, Zeb took up the pail; and swilled the whole of its contents right down upon the countenance of the sleeper.

It had the effect intended. If not quite sobered, the inebriate was thoroughly awakened; and the string of terrified ejaculations that came from his lips formed a contrasting accompaniment to the loud cachinnations of the hunter.

It was some time before sufficient tranquillity was restored, to admit of the two men entering upon a serious conversation.

Phelim, however, despite his chronic inebriety, was still under the influence of his late fears, and was only too glad to see Zeb Stump, notwithstanding the unceremonious manner in which he had announced himself.

As soon as an understanding was established between them, and without waiting to be questioned, he proceeded to relate in detail, as concisely as an unsteady tongue and disordered brain would permit, the series of strange sights and incidents that had almost deprived him of his senses.

It was the first that Zeb Stump had heard of the Headless Horseman.

Although the report concerning this imperfect personage was that morning broadly scattered around Fort Inge, and along the Leona, Zeb, having passed through the settlement at an early hour, and stopped only at Casa del Corvo, had not chanced upon any one who could have communicated such a startling item of intelligence. In fact, he had exchanged speech only with Pluto and Louise Poindexter; neither of whom had at that time heard anything of the strange creature encountered, on the evening before, by the party of searchers. The planter, for some reason or another, had been but little communicative, and his daughter had not held converse with any of the others.

At first Zeb was disposed to ridicule the idea of a man without a head. He called it “a fantassy of Pheelum’s brain, owin’ to his havin’ tuk too much of the corn-juice.”

He was puzzled, however, by Phelim’s persistence in declaring it to be a fact—more especially when he reflected on the other circumstances known to him.

“Arrah, now, how could I be mistaken?” argued the Irishman. “Didn’t I see Masther Maurice, as plain as I see yourself at this minnit? All except the hid, and that I had a peep at as he turned to gallop away. Besides, thare was the Mexican blanket, an the saddle wid the rid cloth, and the wather guards av spotted skin; and who could mistake that purty horse? An’ havn’t I towld yez that Tara went away afther him, an thin I heerd the dog gowlin’, jist afore the Indyins—”

“Injuns!” exclaimed the hunter, with a contemptuous toss of the head. “Injuns playin’ wi’ Spanish curds! White Injuns, I reck’n.”

“Div yez think they waren’t Indyins, afther all?”

“Ne’er a matter what I think. Thur’s no time to talk o’ that now. Go on, an tell me o’ all ye seed an heern.”

When Phelim had at length unburdened his mind, Zeb ceased to question him; and, striding out of the hut, squatted down, Indian fashion, upon the grass.

His object was, as he said himself, to have “a good think;” which, he had often declared, he could not obtain while “hampered wi’ a house abeout him.”

It is scarcely necessary to say, that the story told by the Galwegian groom only added to the perplexity he already experienced.

Hitherto there was but the disappearance of Henry Poindexter to be accounted for; now there was the additional circumstance of the non-return of the mustanger to his hut—when it was known that he had started for it, and should, according to a notice given to his servant, have been there at an early hour on the day before.

Far more mystifying was the remarkable story of his being seen riding about the prairie without a head, or with one carried in his hands! This last might be a trick. What else could it be?

Still was it a strange time for tricks—when a man had been murdered, and half the population of the settlement wore out upon the track of the murderer—more especially improbable, that the supposed assassin should be playing them!

Zeb Stump had to deal with, a difficult concatenation—or rather conglomeration of circumstances—events without causes—causes without sequence—crimes committed without any probable motive—mysteries that could only be explained by an appeal to the supernatural.

A midnight meeting between Maurice Gerald and Louise Poindexter—a quarrel with her brother, occasioned by the discovery—Maurice having departed for the prairies—Henry having followed to sue for forgiveness—in all this the sequence was natural and complete.

Beyond began the chapter of confusions and contradictions.

Zeb Stump knew the disposition of Maurice Gerald in regard to Henry Poindexter. More than once he had heard the mustanger speak of the young planter. Instead of having a hostility towards him, he had frequently expressed admiration of his ingenuous and generous character.

That he could have changed from being his friend to become his assassin, was too improbable for belief. Only by the evidence of his eyes could Zeb Stump have been brought to believe it.

After spending a full half hour at his “think,” he had made but little progress towards unravelling the network of cognate, yet unconnected, circumstances. Despite an intellect unusually clear, and the possession of strong powers of analysis, he was unable to reach any rational solution of this mysterious drama of many acts.

The only thing clear to him was, that four mounted men—he did not believe them to be Indians—had been making free with the mustanger’s hut; and that it was most probable that these had something to do with the murder that had been committed. But the presence of these men at the jacalé, coupled with the protracted absence of its owner, conducted his conjectures to a still more melancholy conclusion: that more than one man had fallen a sacrifice to the assassin, and that the thicket might be searched for two bodies, instead of one!

A groan escaped from the bosom of the backwoodsman as this conviction forced itself upon his mind. He entertained for the young Irishman a peculiar affection—strong almost as that felt by a father for his son; and the thought that he had been foully assassinated in some obscure corner of the chapparal, his flesh to be torn by the beak of the buzzard and the teeth of the coyoté, stirred the old hunter to the very core of his heart.

He groaned again, as he reflected upon it; until, without action, he could no longer bear the agonising thought, and, springing to his feet, he strode to and fro over the ground, proclaiming, in loud tones, his purpose of vengeance.

So absorbed was he with his sorrowful indignation, that he saw not the staghound as it came skulking up to the hut.

It was not until he heard Phelim caressing the hound in his grotesque Irish fashion, that he became aware of the creature’s presence. And then he remained indifferent to it, until a shout of surprise, coupled with his own name, attracted his attention.

“What is it, Pheelum? What’s wrong? Hes a snake bit ye?”

“Oh, Misther Stump, luk at Tara! See! thare’s somethin’ tied about his neck. It wasn’t there when he lift. What do yez think it is?”

The hunter’s eyes turned immediately upon the hound. Sure enough there was something around the animal’s neck: a piece of buckskin thong. But there was something besides—a tiny packet attached to the thong, and hanging underneath the throat!

Zeb drawing his knife, glided towards the dog. The creature recoiled in fear.

A little coaxing convinced him that there was no hostile intent; and he came up again.

The thong was severed, the packet laid open; it contained a card!

There was a name upon the card, and writing—writing in what appeared to be red ink; but it was blood!

The rudest backwoodsman knows how to read. Even Zeb Stump was no exception; and he soon deciphered the characters traced upon the bit of pasteboard.

As he finished, a cry rose from his lips, in strange contrast with the groans he had been just uttering. It was a shout of gladness, of joy!

“Thank the Almighty for this!” he added; “and thank my ole Katinuck schoolmaster for puttin’ me clar through my Webster’s spellin’-book. He lives, Pheelum! he lives! Look at this. Oh, you can’t read. No matter. He lives! he lives!”

“Who? Masther Maurice? Thin the Lord be thanked—”

“Wagh! thur’s no time to thank him now. Get a blanket an some pieces o’ horse-hide thong. Ye kin do it while I catch up the ole maar. Quick! Helf an hour lost, an we may be too late!”