Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Fifty Eight. Recoiling from a Kiss

For full ten minutes was the wild chorus kept up, the mare all the time squealing like a stuck pig; while the dog responded in a series of lugubrious howls, that reverberated along the cliffs on both sides of the creek.

To the distance of a mile might the sounds have been heard; and as Zeb Stump was not likely to be so far from the hut, he would be certain to hear them.

Convinced of this, and that the hunter would soon respond to the signal he had himself arranged, Phelim stood square upon the threshold, in hopes that the lady visitor would stay outside—at least, until he should be relieved of the responsibility of admitting her.

Notwithstanding her earnest protestations of amity, he was still suspicious of some treasonable intention towards his master; else why should Zeb have been so particular about being summoned back?

Of himself, he had abandoned the idea of offering resistance. That shining pistol, still before his eyes, had cured him of all inclination for a quarrel with the strange equestrian; and so far as the Connemara man was concerned, she might have gone unresisted inside.

But there was another from Connemara, who appeared more determined to dispute her passage to the hut—one whom a whole battery of great guns would not have deterred from protecting its owner. This was Tara.

The staghound was not acting as if under the excitement of a mere senseless alarm. Mingling with his prolonged sonorous “gowl” could be heard in repeated interruptions a quick sharp bark, that denoted anger. He had witnessed the attitude of the intruder—its apparent hostility—and drawing his deductions, had taken stand directly in front of Phelim and the door, with the evident determination that neither should be reached except over his own body, and after running the gauntlet of his formidable incisors.

Isidora showed no intention of undertaking the risk. She had none. Astonishment was, for the time, the sole feeling that possessed her.

She remained transfixed to the spot, without attempting to say a word.

She stood expectingly. To such an eccentric prelude there should be a corresponding finale. Perplexed, but patiently, she awaited it.

Of her late alarm there was nothing left. What she saw was too ludicrous to allow of apprehension; though it was also too incomprehensible to elicit laughter.

In the mien of the man, who had so oddly comported himself, there was no sign of mirth. If anything, a show of seriousness, oddly contrasting with the comical act he had committed; and which plainly proclaimed that he had not been treating her to a joke.

The expression of helpless perplexity that had become fixed upon her features, continued there; until a tall man, wearing a faded blanket coat, and carrying a six-foot rifle, was seen striding among the tree-trunks, at the rate of ten miles to the hour. He was making direct for the jacalé.

At sight of the new-comer her countenance underwent a change. There was now perceptible upon it a shade of apprehension; and the little pistol was clutched with renewed nerve by the delicate hand that still continued to hold it.

The act was partly precautionary, partly mechanical. Nor was it unnatural, in view of the formidable-looking personage who was approaching, and the earnest excited manner with which he was hurrying forward to the hut.

All this became altered, as he advanced into the open ground, and suddenly stopped on its edge; a look of surprise quite as great as that upon the countenance of the lady, supplanting his earnest glances.

Some exclamatory phrases were sent through his teeth, unintelligible in the tumult still continuing, though the gesture that accompanied them seemed to proclaim them of a character anything but gentle.

On giving utterance to them, he turned to one side; strode rapidly towards the screaming mare; and, laying hold of her tail—which no living man save himself would have dared to do—he released her from the torments she had been so long enduring.

Silence was instantly restored; since the mare, abandoned by her fellow choristers, as they became accustomed to her wild neighs, had been, for some time, keeping up the solo by herself.

The lady was not yet enlightened. Her astonishment continued; though a side glance given to the droll individual in the doorway told her, that he had successfully accomplished some scheme with which he had been entrusted.

Phelim’s look of satisfaction was of short continuance. It vanished, as Zeb Stump, having effected the deliverance of the tortured quadruped, faced round to the hut—as he did so, showing a cloud upon the corrugations of his countenance, darkly ominous of an angry storm.

Even the presence of beauty did not hinder it from bursting. “Durn, an dog-gone ye, for a Irish eedyit! Air this what ye’ve brought me back for! An’ jest as I wur takin’ sight on a turkey, not less ’n thirty poun’ weight, I reck’n; skeeart afore he ked touch trigger, wi’ the skreek o’ thet cussed critter o’ a maar. Damned little chance for breakfust now.”

“But, Misther Stump, didn’t yez till me to do it? Ye sid if any wan showld come to the cyabin—”

“Bah! ye fool! Ye don’t serpose I meened weemen, did ye?”

“Trath! I didn’t think it wus wan, whin she furst presented hersilf. Yez showld a seen the way she rid up—sittin’ astraddle on her horse.”

“What matter it, how she wur sittin’! Hain’t ye seed thet afore, ye greenhorn? It’s thur usooal way ’mong these hyur Mexikin sheemales. Ye’re more o’ a woman than she air, I guess; an twenty times more o’ a fool. Thet I’m sartint o’. I know her a leetle by sight, an somethin’ more by reeport. What hev fetched the critter hyur ain’t so difeequilt to comprehend; tho’ it may be to git it out o’ her, seein’ as she kin only talk thet thur Mexikin lingo; the which this chile can’t, nor wudn’t ef he kud.”

“Sowl, Misther Stump! yez be mistaken. She spakes English too. Don’t yez, misthress?”

“Little Inglees,” returned the Mexican, who up to this time had remained listening. “Inglees poco pocito.”

“O—ah!” exclaimed Zeb, slightly abashed at what he had been saying. “I beg your pardin, saynoritta. Ye kin habla a bit o’ Amerikin, kin ye? Moocho bono—so much the betterer. Ye’ll be able to tell me what ye mout be a wantin’ out hyur. Ye hain’t lost yur way, hev ye?”

“No, señor,” was the reply, after a pause. “In that case, ye know whar ye air?”

“Si, señor—si—yes, of Don Mauricio Zyerral, this the—house?”

“Thet air the name, near as a Mexikin mouth kin make it, I reck’n. ’Tain’t much o’ a house; but it air his’n. Preehaps ye want to see the master o’t?”

“O, señor—yees—that is for why I here am—por esta yo soy aqui.”

“Wal; I reck’n, thur kin be no objecshun to yur seein’ him. Yur intenshuns ain’t noways hostile to the young fellur, I kalklate. But thur ain’t much good in yur talkin’ to him now. He won’t know yo from a side o’ sole-leather.”

“He is ill? Has met with some misfortune? El güero has said so.”

“Yis. I towlt her that,” interposed Phelim, whose carroty hair had earned for him the appellation “El güero.”

“Sartin,” answered Zeb. “He air wounded a bit; an jest now a leetle dulleerious. I reck’n it ain’t o’ much consekwence. He’ll be hisself agin soon’s the ravin’ fit’s gone off o’ him.”

“O, sir! can I be his nurse till then? Por amor dios! Let me enter, and watch over him? I am his friend—un amigo muy afficionado.”

“Wal; I don’t see as thur’s any harm in it. Weemen makes the best o’ nusses I’ve heern say; tho’, for meself, I hain’t hed much chance o’ tryin’ ’em, sincst I kivered up my ole gurl unner the sods o’ Massissipi. Ef ye want to take a spell by the side o’ the young fellur, ye’re wilkim—seein’ ye’re his friend. Ye kin look arter him, till we git back, an see thet he don’t tummel out o’ the bed, or claw off them thur bandidges, I’ve tied roun him.”

“Trust me, good sir, I shall take every care of him. But tell me what has caused it? The Indians? No, they are not near? Has there been a quarrel with any one?”

“In thet, saynoritta; ye’re beout as wise as I air meself. Thur’s been a quarrel wi’ coyeats; but that ain’t what’s gin him the ugly knee. I foun’ him yesterday, clost upon sun-down, in the chapparal beyont. When we kim upon him, he war up to his waist in the water o’ a crik as runs through thur, jest beout to be attakted by one o’ them spotty critters yur people call tigers. Wal, I relieved him o’ that bit o’ danger; but what happened afore air a mystery to me. The young fellur had tuk leeve o’ his senses, an ked gie no account o’ hisself. He hain’t rekivered them yet; an’, thurfore, we must wait till he do.”

“But you are sure, sir, he is not badly injured? His wounds—they are not dangerous?”

“No danger whatsomediver. Nuthin’ beyont a bit o’ a fever, or maybe a touch o’ the agey, when that goes off o’ him. As for the wounds, they’re only a wheen o’ scratches. When the wanderin’ hev gone out o’ his senses, he’ll soon kum roun, I reck’n. In a week’s time, ye’ll see him as strong as a buck.”

“Oh! I shall nurse him tenderly!”

“Wal, that’s very kind o’ you; but—but—”

Zeb hesitated, as a queer thought came before his mind. It led to a train of reflections kept to himself. They were these:

“This air the same she, as sent them kickshaws to the tavern o’ Rough an Ready. Thet she air in love wi’ the young fellur is clur as Massissipi mud—in love wi’ him to the eends o’ her toe nails. So’s the tother. But it air equally clur that he’s thinkin’ o’ the tother, an not o’ her. Now ef she hears him talk about tother, as he hev been a doin’ all o’ the night, thur’ll be a putty consid’able rumpus riz inside o’ her busom. Poor thing! I pity her. She ain’t a bad sort. But the Irish—Irish tho’ he be—can’t belong to both; an I know he freezes to the critter from the States. It air durned awkurd—Better ef I ked pursuade her not to go near him—leastwise till he gets over ravin’ about Lewaze.

“But, miss,” he continued, addressing himself to the Mexican, who during his long string of reflections had stood impatiently silent, “don’t ye think ye’d better ride home agin; an kum back to see him arter he gits well. He won’t know ye, as I’ve sayed; an it would be no use yur stayin’, since he ain’t in any danger o’ makin’ a die of it.”

“No matter, that he may not know me. I should tend him all the same. He may need some things—which I can send, and procure for him.”

“Ef ye’re boun’ to stay then,” rejoined Zeb, relentingly, as if some new thought was causing him to consent, “I won’t interfere to say, no. But don’t you mind what he’ll be palaverin’ about. Ye may hear some queer talk out o’ him, beout a man bein’ murdered, an the like. That’s natral for any one as is dulleerious. Don’t be skeeart at it. Beside, ye may hear him talkin’ a deal about a woman, as he’s got upon his mind.”

“A woman!”

“Jest so. Ye’ll hear him make mention o’ her name.”

“Her name! Señor, what name?”

“Wal, it air the name o’ his sister, I reck’n. Fact, I’m sure o’ it bein’ his sister.”

“Oh! Misther Stump. If yez be spakin’ av Masther Maurice—”

“Shut up, ye durned fool! What is’t to you what I’m speakin’ beout? You can’t unnerstan sech things. Kum along!” he continued, moving off, and motioning the Connemara man to follow him. “I want ye a leetle way wi’ me. I killed a rattle as I wur goin’ up the crik, an left it thur. Kum you, an toat it back to the shanty hyur, lest some varmint may make away wi’ it; an lest, arter all, I moutn’t strike turkey agin.”

“A rattle. Div yez mane a rattle-snake?”

“An’ what shed I mean?”

“Shure, Misther Stump, yez wudn’t ate a snake. Lard! wudn’t it poison yez?”

“Pisen be durned! Didn’t I cut the pisen out, soon ’s I killed the critter, by cuttin’ off o’ its head?”

“Trath! an for all that, I wudn’t ate a morsel av it, if I was starvin’.”

“Sturve, an be durned to ye! Who axes ye to eet it. I only want ye to toat it home. Kum then, an do as I tell ye; or dog-goned, ef I don’t make ye eet the head o’ the reptile,—pisen, fangs an all!”

“Be japers, Misther Stump, I didn’t mane to disobey you at all—at all. Shure it’s Phaylim O’Nale that’s reddy to do your biddin’ anyhow. I’m wid ye for fwhativer yez want; aven to swallowin the snake whole. Saint Pathrick forgive me!”

“Saint Patrick be durned! Kum along!”

Phelim made no farther remonstrance; but, striking into the tracks of the backwoodsman, followed him through the wood.

Isidora entered the hut; advanced towards the invalid reclining upon his couch; with fierce fondness kissed his fevered brow, fonder and fiercer kissed his unconscious lips; and then recoiled from them, as if she had been stung by a scorpion!

Worse than scorpion’s sting was that which had caused her to spring back.

And yet ’twas but a word—a little word—of only two syllables!

There was nothing strange in this. Oft, on one word—that soft short syllabic “Yes”—rests the happiness of a life; while oft, too oft, the harsher negative is the prelude to a world of war!