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Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Fifty Five. Un Dia de Novedades

Don Silvio Martinez was one of the few Mexican ricos, who had chosen to remain in Texas, after the conquest of that country by the stalwart colonisers from the North.

A man of more than mature age, of peaceful habits, and taking no part in politics, he accepted the new situation without any great regret. He was the more easily reconciled to it, from a knowledge, that his loss of nationality was better than counterbalanced by his gain of security against Comanche incursions; which, previous to the coming of the new colonists, had threatened the complete depopulation of the country.

The savage was not yet entirely subdued; but his maraud was now intermittent, and occurred only at long intervals. Even this was an improvement on the old régime.

Don Silvio was a ganadero,—a grazier, on a grand scale. So grand that his ganaderia was leagues in length and breadth, and contained within its limits many thousands of horses and horned cattle.

He lived in a large rectangular one-storied house—more resembling a jail than a dwelling—surrounded by extensive enclosures—corrales.

It was usually a quiet place; except during the time of the herradero, or cattle-branding; when for days it became the scene of a festivity almost Homeric.

These occasions were only of annual occurrence.

At all other times the old haciendado—who was a bachelor to boot—led a tranquil and somewhat solitary life; a sister older than himself being his only companion. There were occasional exceptions to this rule: when his charming sobrina rode across from the Rio Grande to pay him and his sister a visit. Then the domicile of Don Silvio became a little more lively.

Isidora was welcome whenever she came; welcome to come and go when she pleased; and do as she pleased, while under her uncle’s roof. The sprightliness of her character was anything but displeasing to the old haciendado; who was himself far from being of a sombre disposition. Those traits, that might have appeared masculine in many other lands, were not so remarkable in one, where life is held by such precarious tenure; where the country house is oft transformed into a fortress, and the domestic hearth occasionally bedewed with the blood of its inmates!

Is it surprising that in such a land women should be found, endowed with those qualities that have been ascribed to Isidora? If so, it is not the less true that they exist.

As a general thing the Mexican woman is a creature of the most amiable disposition; douce—if we may be allowed to borrow from a language that deals more frequently with feminine traits—to such an extent, as to have become a national characteristic. It is to the denizens of the great cities, secure from Indian incursion, that this character more especially applies. On the frontiers, harried for the last half century by the aboriginal freebooter, the case is somewhat different. The amiability still exists; but often combined with a bravourie and hardihood masculine in seeming, but in reality heroic.

Since Malinché, more than one fair heroine has figured in the history of Anahuac.

Don Silvio Martinez had himself assisted at many a wild scene and ceremony. His youth had been passed amid perils; and the courage of Isidora—at times degenerating into absolute recklessness—so far from offending, rather gave him gratification.

The old gentleman loved his darling sobrina, as if she had been his own child; and had she been so, she would not have been more certain of succeeding to his possessions.

Every one knew, that, when Don Silvio Martinez should take leave of life, Isidora Covarubio de los Llanos would be the owner of—not his broad acres, but—his leagues of land, as also his thousands of horses and horned cattle.

With this understanding, it is needless to say, that the señorita carried respect with her wherever she went, or that the vassals of the Hacienda Martinez honoured her as their future mistress.

Independently of this was she regarded. Hers were just the qualities to win the esteem of the dashing rancheros; and there was not one upon the estate, but would have drawn his macheté at her nod, and used it to the shedding of blood.

Miguel Diaz spoke the truth, when he said he was in danger. Well might he believe it. Had it pleased Isidora to call together her uncle’s vaqueros, and send them to chastise him, it would have been speedily done—even to hanging him upon the nearest tree!

No wonder he had made such haste to get away from the glade.

As already stated, the real home of Isidora was upon the other side of the Rio Grande—separated by some three-score miles from the Hacienda Martinez. But this did not hinder her from paying frequent visits to her relations upon the Leona.

There was no selfishness in the motive. The prospect of the rich inheritance had nothing to do with it. She was an expectant heiress without that: for her own father was a rico. But she liked the company of her uncle and aunt. She also enjoyed the ride from river to river—oft made by her between morning and night, and not unfrequently alone!

Of late these visits had become of much more frequent occurrence.

Had she grown fonder of the society of her Texan relatives—fonder as they grew older? If not, what was her motive?

Imitating her own frankness of character, it may at once be declared.

She came oftener to the Leona, in the hope of meeting with Maurice Gerald.

With like frankness may it be told, that she loved him.

Beyond doubt, the young Irishman was in possession of her heart. As already known, he had won it by an act of friendship; though it may have been less the service he had done, than the gallantry displayed in doing it, that had put the love-spell on the daring Isidora.

Perhaps, too, she saw in him other captivating qualities, less easily defined. Whether these had been undesignedly exhibited, or with the intention to effect a conquest, he alone can tell. He has himself said, No; and respect is due to his declaration. But it is difficult to believe, that mortal man could have gazed into the eyes of Isidora de los Llanos without wishing them to look longingly upon him.

Maurice may have spoken the truth; but we could better believe him, had he seen Louise Poindexter before becoming acquainted with Isidora.

The episode of the burnt prairie was several weeks subsequent to the adventure with the intoxicated Indians.

Certainly something appears to have occurred between him and the Mexican maiden, that leads her to believe she has a hope—if not a claim—upon his affections.

It has come to that crisis, that she can no longer rest satisfied. Her impulsive spirit cannot brook ambiguity. She knows that she loves him. She has determined to make frank confession of it; and to ask with like frankness whether her passion be reciprocated. Hence her having made an appointment that could not be kept.

For that day Don Miguel Diaz had interfered between her and her purpose.

So thought she, as she galloped out of the glade, and hastened back to the hacienda of her uncle.

Astride her grey steed she goes at a gallop.

Her head is bare; her coiffure disarranged; her rich black tresses streaming back beyond her shoulders, no longer covered by scarf or serapé. The last she has left behind her, and along with it her vicuña hat.

Her eyes are flashing with excitement; her cheeks flushed to the colour of carmine.

The cause is known.

And also why she is riding in such hot haste. She has herself declared it.

On nearing the house, she is seen to tighten her rein. The horse is pulled in to a slower pace—a trot; slower still—a walk; and, soon after, he is halted in the middle of the road.

His rider has changed her intention; or stops to reflect whether she should.

She sits reflecting.

“On second thoughts—perhaps—better not have him taken? It would create a terrible scandal, everywhere. So far, no one knows of —. Besides, what can I say myself—the only witness? Ah! were I to tell these gallant Texans the story, my own testimony would be enough to have him punished with a harsh hand. No! let him live. Ladron as he is, I do not fear him. After what’s happened he will not care to come near me. Santa Virgen! to think that I could have felt a fancy for this man—short-lived as it was!

“I must send some one back to release him. One who can keep my secret—who? Benito, the mayor-domo—faithful and brave. Gracias a Dios! Yonder’s my man—as usual busied in counting his cattle. Benito! Benito!”

“At your orders, s’ñorita?”

“Good Benito, I want you to do me a kindness. You consent?”

“At your orders, s’ñorita?” repeats the mayor-domo, bowing low.

“Not orders, good Benito. I wish you to do me a favour.”

“Command me, s’ñorita!”

“You know the spot of open ground at the top of the hill—where the three roads meet?”

“As well as the corral of your uncle’s hacienda.”

“Good! Go there. You will find a man lying upon the ground, his arms entangled in a lazo. Release, and let him go free. If he be hurt—by a harsh fall he has had—do what you can to restore him; but don’t tell him who sent you. You may know the man—I think you do. No matter for that. Ask him no questions, nor answer his, if he should put any. Once you have seen him on his legs, let him make use of them after his own fashion. You understand?”

“Perfectamente, s’ñorita. Your orders shall be obeyed to the letter.”

“Thanks, good Benito. Uncle Silvio will like you all the better for it; though you mustn’t tell him of it. Leave that to me. If he shouldn’t—if he shouldn’t—well! one of these days there may be an estate on the Rio Grande that will stand in need of a brave, faithful steward—such an one as I know you to be.”

“Every one knows that the Doña Isidora is gracious as she is fair.”

“Thanks—thanks! One more request. The service I ask you to do for me must be known to only three individuals. The third is he whom you are sent to succour. You know the other two?”

“S’ñorita, I comprehend. It shall be as you wish it.”

The mayor-domo is moving off on horseback, it need scarce be said. Men of his calling rarely set foot to the earth—never upon a journey of half a league in length.

“Stay! I had forgotten!” calls out the lady, arresting him. “You will find a hat and serapé. They are mine. Bring them, and I shall wait for you here, or meet you somewhere along the way.”

Bowing, he again rides away. Again is he summoned to stop.

“On second thoughts, Señor Benito, I’ve made up my mind to go along with you. Vamos!”

The steward of Don Silvio is not surprised at caprice, when exhibited by the niece of his employer. Without questioning, he obeys her command, and once more heads his horse for the hill.

The lady follows. She has told him to ride in the advance. She has her reason for departing from the aristocratic custom.

Benito is astray in his conjecture. It is not to caprice that he is indebted for the companionship of the señorita. A serious motive takes her back along the road.

She has forgotten something more than her wrapper and hat—that little letter that has caused her so much annoyance.

The “good Benito” has not had all her confidence; nor can he be entrusted with this. It might prove a scandal, graver than the quarrel with Don Miguel Diaz.

She rides back in hopes of repossessing herself of the epistle. How stupid not to have thought of it before!

How had El Coyote got hold of it? He must have had it from José!

Was her servant a traitor? Or had Diaz met him on the way, and forced the letter from him?

To either of these questions an affirmative answer might be surmised.

On the part of Diaz such an act would have been natural enough; and as for José, it is not the first time she has had reason for suspecting his fidelity.

So run her thoughts as she re-ascends the slope, leading up from the river bottom.

The summit is gained, and the opening entered; Isidora now riding side by side with the mayor-domo.

No Miguel Diaz there—no man of any kind; and what gives her far greater chagrin, not a scrap of paper!

There is her hat of vicuña wool—her seraph of Saltillo, and the loop end of her lazo—nothing more.

“You may go home again, Señor Benito! The man thrown from his horse must have recovered his senses—and, I suppose, his saddle too. Blessed be the virgin! But remember, good Benito Secrecy all the same. Entiende, V?”

“Yo entiendo, Doña Isidora.”

The mayor-domo moves away, and is soon lost to sight behind the crest of the hill.

The lady of the lazo is once more alone in the glade. She springs out of her saddle; dons serapé and sombrero; and is again the beau-ideal of a youthful hidalgo.

She remounts slowly, mechanically—as if her thoughts do not company the action. Languidly she lifts her limb over the horse. The pretty foot is for a second or two poised in the air.

Her ankle, escaping from the skirt of her enagua, displays a tournure to have crazed Praxiteles. As it descends on the opposite side of the horse, a cloud seems to overshadow the sun. Simon Stylites could scarce have closed his eyes on the spectacle.

But there is no spectator of this interesting episode; not even the wretched José; who, the moment after, comes skulking into the glade.

He is questioned, without circumlocution, upon the subject of the strayed letter.

“What have you done with it, sirrah?”

“Delivered it, my lady.”

“To whom?”

“I left it at—at—the posada,” he replies, stammering and turning pale. “Don Mauricio had gone out.”

“A lie, lepero! You gave it to Don Miguel Diaz. No denial, sir! I’ve seen it since.”

“O Señora, pardon! pardon! I am not guilty—indeed I am not.”

“Stupid, you should have told your story better. You have committed yourself. How much did Don Miguel pay you for your treason?”

“As I live, lady, it was not treason. He—he—forced it from me—by threats—blows. I—I—was not paid.”

“You shall be, then! I discharge you from my service; and for wages take that, and that, and that—”

For at least ten times are the words repeated—the riding whip at each repetition descending upon the shoulders of the dishonest messenger.

He essays to escape by running off. In vain. He is brought up again by the dread of being ridden over, and trampled under the hoofs of the excited horse.

Not till the blue wheals appear upon his brown skin, does the chastisement cease.

“Now, sirrah; from my sight! and let me see you no more. Al monte! al monte!”

With ludicrous alacrity the command is obeyed. Like a scared cat the discharged servitor rushes out of the glade; only too happy to hide himself, and his shame, under the shadows of the thorny thicket.

But a little while longer does Isidora remain upon the spot—her anger giving place to a profound chagrin. Not only has she been baffled from carrying out her design; but her heart’s secret is now in the keeping of traitors!

Once more she heads her horse homeward. She arrives in time to be present at a singular spectacle. The people—peons, vaqueros, and employés of every kind—are hurrying to and fro, from field to corral, from corral to courtyard one and all giving tongue to terrified ejaculations. The men are on their feet arming in confused haste; the woman on their knees, praying pitifully to heaven—through the intercession of a score of those saints, profusely furnished by the Mexican hierarchy to suit all times and occasions.

“What is causing the commotion?”

This is the question asked by Isidora.

The mayor-domo—who chances to be the first to present himself—is the individual thus interrogated.

A man has been murdered somewhere out upon the prairie.

The victim is one of the new people who have lately taken possession of Caso del Corvo—the son of the American haciendado himself.

Indians are reported to have done the deed.

Indians! In this word is the key to the excitement among Don Silvio’s servitors.

It explains both the praying and the hurried rushing to arms.

The fact that a man has been murdered—a slight circumstance in that land of unbridled emotions—would have produced no such response—more especially when the man was a stranger, an “Americano.”

But the report that Indians are abroad, is altogether a different affair. In it there is an idea of danger.

The effect produced on Isidora is different. It is not fear of the savages. The name of the “asesinado” recalls thoughts that have already given her pain. She knows that there is a sister, spoken of as being wonderfully beautiful. She has herself looked upon this beauty, and cannot help believing in it.

A keener pang proceeds from something else she has heard: that this peerless maiden has been seen in the company of Maurice Gerald. There is no fresh jealousy inspired by the news of the brother’s death—only the old unpleasantness for the moment revived.

The feeling soon gives place to the ordinary indifference felt for the fate of those with whom we have no acquaintance.

Some hours later, and this indifference becomes changed to a painful interest; in short, an apprehension. There are fresh reports about the murder. It has been committed, not by Comanches; but by a white man—by Maurice the mustanger!

There are no Indians near.

This later edition of “novedades,” while tranquilising Don Silvio’s servants, has the contrary effect upon his niece. She cannot rest under the rumour; and half-an-hour afterwards, she is seen reining up her horse in front of the village hotel.

For some weeks, with motive unknown, she has been devoting herself to the study of La lengua Americana. Her vocabulary of English words, still scanty, is sufficient for her present purpose; which is to acquire information, not about the murder, but the man accused of committing it.

The landlord, knowing who she is, answers her inquiries with obsequious politeness.

She learns that Maurice Gerald is no longer his guest, with “full particulars of the murder,” so far as known.

With a sad heart she rides back to the Hacienda Martinez. On reaching the house, she finds its tranquillity again disturbed. The new cause of excitement might have been deemed ludicrous; though it is not so regarded by the superstitious peons. A rare rumour has reached the place. A man without a head—un hombre descabezado—has been seen riding about the plains, somewhere near the Rio Nueces!

Despite its apparent absurdity, there can be no doubting the correctness of the report. It is rife throughout the settlement. But there is still surer confirmation of it. A party of Don Silvio’s own people—herdsmen out in search of strayed cattle—have seen the cavallero descabezado; and, desisting from their search, had ridden away from him, as they would have done from the devil!

The vaqueros—there are three of them—are all ready to swear to the account given. But their scared looks furnish a more trustworthy evidence of its truthfulness.

The sun goes down upon a congeries of frightful rumours. Neither these nor the protestations of Don Silvio and his sister can prevent their capricious niece from carrying out a resolution she seems suddenly to have formed—which is, to ride back to the Rio Grande. It makes no difference to her, that a murder has been committed on the road she will have to take; much less that near it has been seen the ghastly apparition of a headless horseman! What to any other traveller should cause dismay, seems only to attract Isidora.

She even proposes making the journey alone! Don Silvio offers an escort—half a score of his vaqueros, armed to the teeth. The offer is rejected. Will she take Benito? No. She prefers journeying alone. In short, she is determined upon it.

Next morning she carries out this determination. By day-break she is in the saddle; and, in less than two hours after, riding, not upon the direct road to the Rio Grande, but along the banks of the Alamo!

Why has she thus deviated from her route? Is she straying?

She looks not like one who has lost her way. There is a sad expression upon her countenance, but not one of inquiry. Besides, her horse steps confidently forward, as if under his rider’s direction, and guided by the rein.

Isidora is not straying. She has not lost her way.

Happier for her, if she had.

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