Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Fifty Three. Just in Time

“Half-an-hour lost, and we may be too late!”

They were the last words of the hunter, as he hurried away from the hut.

They were true, except as to the time. Had he said half-a-minute, he would have been nearer the mark. Even at the moment of their utterance, the man, whose red writing had summoned assistance, was once more in dread danger—once more surrounded by the coyotés.

But it was not these he had need to fear. A far more formidable foe was threatening his destruction.

Maurice Gerald—by this time recognised as the man in the cloak and Panama hat—after doing battle with the wolves, as already described, and being rescued by his faithful Tara, had fought repose in sleep.

With full confidence in the ability of his canine companion to protect him against the black birds, or the more dangerous quadrupeds, with which he had been in conflict, he soon found, and for several hours enjoyed it.

He awoke of his own accord. Finding his strength much restored, he once more turned his attention to the perils that surrounded him.

The dog had rescued him from the jackals, and would still protect him against their attacks, should they see fit to renew it. But to what end? The faithful creature could not transport him from the spot; and to stay there would be to die of hunger—perhaps of the wounds he had received?

He rose to his feet, but found that he could not stand upright. Feebleness was now added to his other infirmity; and after struggling a pace or two, he was glad to return to a recumbent position.

At this crisis a happy thought occurred to him. Tara might take a message to the hut!

“If I could but get him to go,” said he, as he turned inquiringly towards the dog. “Come hither, old fellow!” he continued, addressing himself to the dumb animal; “I want you to play postman for me—to carry a letter. You understand? Wait till I’ve got it written. I shall then explain myself more fully.”

“By good luck I’ve got a card,” he added, feeling for his case. “No pencil! That don’t matter. There’s plenty of ink around; and for a pen I can use the thorn of yonder maguey.”

He crept up to the plant thus designated; broke off one of the long spines terminating its great leaves; dipped it in the blood of a coyoté that lay near; and drawing forth a card, traced some characters upon it.

With a strip of thong, the card was then attached to the neck of the staghound, after being wrapped up in a piece of oilcloth torn from the lining of the Panama hat.

It only remained to despatch the canine post upon his errand. This proved a somewhat difficult task. The dumb creature, despite a wondrous intelligence, could not comprehend why he should forsake the side of one he had so faithfully befriended; and for a long time resisted the coaxings and chidings, meant to warn him away.

It was only after being scolded in a tone of assumed anger, and beaten by the black-jack crutch—stricken by the man whose life he had so lately saved, that he had consented to leave the spot. Even canine affection could not endure this; and with repeated looks of reproach, cast backwards as he was chased off, he trotted reluctantly into the chapparal.

“Poor fellow!” soliloquised Maurice, as the dog disappeared from his view. “’Tis like boating one’s self, or one’s dearest friend! Well, I shall make up for it in extra kindness if I have the good fortune to see him again.

“And now, that he is gone, I must provide against the coming back of these villainous coyotés. They will be sure to come, once they discover that I’m alone.”

A scheme had been already considered.

A tree stood near—the pecân already alluded to—having two stout branches that extended horizontally and together, at six or seven feet from the ground.

Taking off his cloak, and spreading it out upon the grass, with his knife he cut a row of holes along each edge.

Then unwinding from his waist the sash of china crape, he tore it up the middle, so as to make two strips, each several yards long.

The cloak was now extended between the branches, and fast tied by the strips of crape—thus forming a sort of hammock capable of containing the body of a man laid out at full length.

The maker of it knew that the coyotés are not tree climbers; and, reclining on his suspended couch, he could observe with indifference their efforts to assail him.

He took all this trouble, feeling certain they would return. If he had any doubt, it was soon set at rest, by seeing them, one after the other, come skulking out of the chapparal, lopping a pace or two, at intervals, pausing to reconnoitre, and then advancing towards the scene of their late conflict.

Emboldened by the absence of the enemy most dreaded by them, the pack was soon reassembled, once more exhibiting the truculent ferocity for which these cowardly creatures are celebrated.

It was first displayed in a very unnatural manner—by the devouring of their own dead—which was done in less time than it would have taken the spectator in the tree to have counted a score.

To him their attention was next directed. In swinging his hammock, he had taken no pains to conceal it. He had suspended it high enough to be out of their reach; and that he deemed sufficient for his purpose.

The cloak of dark cloth was conspicuous, as well as the figure outlined within it. The coyotés clustered underneath—their appetites whetted by the taste of blood. It was a sight to see them lick their red lips after their unnatural repast—a fearful sight!

He who saw it scarce regarded them—not even when they were springing up to lay hold of his limbs, or at times attempting to ascend by the trunk of the tree! He supposed there was no danger.

There was danger, however, on which he had not reckoned; and not till the coyotés have desisted from their idle attempts, and stretched themselves, panting, under the tree, did he begin to perceive it.

Of all the wild denizens, either of prairie or chapparal, the coyoté is that possessed of the greatest cunning. The trapper will tell you it is the “cunningest varmint in creation.” It is a fox in astuteness—a wolf in ferocity. It may be tamed, but it will turn at any time to tear the hand that caresses it. A child can scare it with a stick, but a disabled man may dread its attack. Alone it has the habit of a hare; but in packs—and it hunts only in packs—its poltroonery is less observable; sometimes under the influence of extreme hunger giving place to a savageness of disposition that assumes the semblance of courage.

It is the coyotés’ cunning that is most to be feared; and it was this that had begun to excite fresh apprehension in the mind of the mustanger.

On discovering that they could not reach him—a discovery they were not long in making—instead of scattering off from the spot, the wolves, one and all, squatted down upon the grass; while others, stragglers from the original troop, were still coming into the glade. He saw that they intended a siege.

This should not have troubled him, seeing that he was secure in his suspended couch.

Nor would it, but for another source of trouble, every moment making itself more manifest—that from which he had so lately had such a narrow escape. He was once more on the eve of being tortured by thirst.

He blamed himself for having been so simple, as not to think of this before climbing up to the tree. He might easily have carried up a supply of water. The stream was there; and for want of a better vessel, the concave blades of the maguey would have served as a cistern.

His self-reproaches came too late. The water was under his eyes, only to tantalise him; and by so doing increase his eagerness to obtain it. He could not return to the stream, without running the gauntlet of the coyotés, and that would be certain death. He had but faint hopes that the hound would return and rescue him a second time—fainter still that his message would reach the man for whom it was intended. A hundred to one against that.

Thirst is quick in coming to a man whose veins are half-emptied of their blood. The torture proclaimed itself apace. How long was it to continue?

This time it was accompanied by a straying of the senses. The wolves, from being a hundred, seemed suddenly to have increased their number tenfold. A thousand appeared to encompass the tree, filling the whole ground of the glade! They came nearer and nearer. Their eyes gave out a lurid light. Their red tongues lapped the hanging cloth; they tore it with their teeth. He could feel their fetid breath, as they sprang up among the branches!

A lucid interval told him that it was all fancy. The wolves were still there; but only a hundred of them—as before, reclining upon the grass, pitiably awaiting a crisis! It came before the period of lucidity had departed; to the spectator unexpected as inexplicable. He saw the coyotés suddenly spring to their feet, and rush off into the thicket, until not one remained within the glade.

Was this, too, a fancy? He doubted the correctness of his vision. He had begun to believe that his brain was distempered.

But it was clear enough now. There were no coyotés. What could have frightened them off?

A cry of joy was sent forth from his lips, as he conjectured a cause. Tara had returned? Perhaps Phelim along with him? There had been time enough for the delivery of the message. For two hours he had been besieged by the coyotés.

He turned upon his knee, and bending over the branch, scanned the circle around him. Neither hound nor henchman was in sight. Nothing but branches and bushes!

He listened. No sound, save an occasional howl, sent back by the coyotés that still seemed to continue their retreat! More than ever was it like an illusion. What could have caused their scampering?

No matter. The coast was clear. The streamlet could now be approached without danger. Its water sparkled under his eyes—its rippling sounded sweet to his ears.

Descending from the tree, he staggered towards its bank, and reached it.

Before stooping to drink, he once more looked around him. Even the agony of thirst could not stifle the surprise, still fresh in his thoughts. To what was he indebted for his strange deliverance?

Despite his hope that it might be the hound, he had an apprehension of danger.

One glance, and he was certain of it. The spotted yellow skin shining among the leaves—the long, lithe form crawling like a snake out of the underwood was not to be mistaken. It was the tiger of the New World—scarce less dreaded than his congener of the Old—the dangerous jaguar.

Its presence accounted for the retreat of the coyotés.

Neither could its intent be mistaken. It, too, had scented blood, and was hastening to the spot where blood had been sprinkled, with that determined air that told it would not be satisfied till after partaking of the banquet.

Its eyes were upon him, who had descended from the tree—its steps were towards him—now in slow, crouching gait; but quicker and quicker, as if preparing for a spring.

To retreat to the tree would have been sheer folly. The jaguar can climb like a cat. The mustanger knew this.

But even had he been ignorant of it, it would have been all the same, as the thing was no longer possible. The animal had already passed that tree, upon which he had found refuge, and there was t’other near that could be reached in time.

He had no thought of climbing to a tree—no thought of any thing, so confused were his senses—partly from present surprise, partly from the bewilderment already within his brain.

It was a simple act of unreasoning impulse that led him to rush on into the stream, until he stood up to his waist in the water.

Had he reasoned, he would have known that this would do nothing to secure his safety. If the jaguar climbs like a cat, it also swims with the ease of an otter; and is as much to be dreaded in the water as upon the land.

Maurice made no such reflection. He suspected that the little pool, towards the centre of which he had waded, would prove but poor protection. He was sure of it when the jaguar, arriving upon the bank above him, set itself in that cowering attitude that told of its intention to spring.

In despair he steadied himself to receive the onset of the fierce animal.

He had nought wherewith to repel it—no knife—no pistol—no weapon of any kind—not even his crutch! A struggle with his bare arms could but end in his destruction.

A wild cry went forth from his lips, as the tawny form was about launching itself for the leap.

There was a simultaneous scream from the jaguar. Something appeared suddenly to impede it; and instead of alighting on the body of its victim, it fell short, with a dead plash upon the water!

Like an echo of his own, a cry came from the chapparal, close following a sound that had preceded it—the sharp “spang” of a rifle.

A huge dog broke through the bushes, and sprang with a plunge into the pool where the jaguar had sunk below the surface. A man of colossal size advanced rapidly towards the bank; another of lesser stature treading close upon his heels, and uttering joyful shouts of triumph.

To the wounded man these sights and sounds were more like a vision than the perception of real phenomena. They were the last thoughts of that day that remained in his memory. His reason, kept too long upon the rack, had given way. He tried to strangle the faithful hound that swam fawningly around him and struggled against the strong arms that, raising him out of the water, bore him in friendly embrace to the bank!

His mind had passed from a horrid reality, to a still more horrid dream—the dream of delirium.