Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Sixty Two. Waiting for the Cue

Never, since its erection, was there such a trampling of hoofs around the hut of the horse-catcher—not even when its corral was filled with fresh-taken mustangs.

Phelim, rushing out from the door, is saluted by a score of voices that summon him to stop.

One is heard louder than the rest, and in tones of command that proclaim the speaker to be chief of the party.

“Pull up, damn you! It’s no use—your trying to escape. Another step, and ye’ll go tumbling in your tracks. Pull up, I say!”

The command takes effect upon the Connemara man, who has been making direct for Zeb Stump’s mare, tethered on the other side of the opening. He stops upon the instant.

“Shure, gintlemen, I don’t want to escyape,” asseverates he, shivering at the sight of a score of angry faces, and the same number of gun-barrels bearing upon his person; “I had no such intinshuns. I was only goin’ to—”

“Run off, if ye’d got the chance. Ye’d made a good beginning. Here, Dick Tracey! half-a-dozen turns of your trail-rope round him. Lend a hand, Shelton! Damned queer-looking curse he is! Surely, gentlemen, this can’t be the man we’re in search of?”

“No, no! it isn’t. Only his man John.”

“Ho! hilloa, you round there at the back! Keep your eyes skinned. We havn’t got him yet. Don’t let as much as a cat creep past you. Now, sirree! who’s inside?”

“Who’s insoide? The cyabin div yez mane?”

“Damn ye! answer the question that’s put to ye!” says Tracey, giving his prisoner a touch of the trail-rope. “Who’s inside the shanty?”

“O Lard! Needs must whin the divvel dhrives. Wil, then, thare’s the masther for wan—”

“Ho! what’s this?” inquires Woodley Poindexter, at this moment, riding up, and seeing the spotted mare. “Why—it—it’s Looey’s mustang!”

“It is, uncle,” answers Cassius Calhoun, who has ridden up along with him.

“I wonder who’s brought the beast here?”

“Loo herself, I reckon.”

“Nonsense! You’re jesting, Cash?”

“No, uncle; I’m in earnest.”

“You mean to say my daughter has been here?”

“Has been—still is, I take it.”

“Impossible?”

“Look yonder, then!”

The door has just been opened. A female form is seen inside.

“Good God, it is my daughter!”

Poindexter drops from his saddle, and hastens up to the hut—close followed by Calhoun. Both go inside.

“Louises what means this? A wounded man! Is it he—Henry?”

Before an answer can be given, his eye falls upon a cloak and hat—Henry’s!

“It is; he’s alive! Thank heaven!” He strides towards the couch.

The joy of an instant is in an instant gone. The pale face upon the pillow is not that of his son. The father staggers back with a groan.

Calhoun seems equally affected. But the cry from him is an exclamation of horror; after which he slinks cowed-like out of the cabin.

“Great God!” gasps the planter; “what is it? Can you explain, Louise?”

“I cannot, father. I’ve been here but a few minutes. I found him as you see. He is delirious.”

“And—and—Henry?”

“They have told me nothing. Mr Gerald was alone when I entered. The man outside was absent, and has just returned. I have not had time to question him.”

“But—but, how came you to be here?”

“I could not stay at home. I could not endure the uncertainty any longer. It was terrible—alone, with no one at the house; and the thought that my poor brother—Mon dieu! Mon dieu!”

Poindexter regards his daughter with a perplexed, but still inquiring, look.

“I thought I might find Henry here.”

“Here! But how did you know of this place? Who guided you? You are by yourself!”

“Oh, father! I knew the way. You remember the day of the hunt—when the mustang ran away with me. It was beyond this place I was carried. On returning with Mr Gerald, he told me he lived here. I fancied I could find the way back.”

Poindexter’s look of perplexity does not leave him, though another expression becomes blended with it. His brow contracts; the shadow deepens upon it; though whatever the dark thought, he does not declare it.

“A strange thing for you to have done, my daughter. Imprudent—indeed dangerous. You have acted like a silly girl. Come—come away! This is no place for a lady—for you. Get to your horse, and ride home again. Some one will go with you. There may be a scene here, you should not be present at. Come, come!” The father strides forth from the hut, the daughter following with reluctance scarce concealed; and, with like unwillingness, is conducted to her saddle.

The searchers, now dismounted, are upon the open ground in front.

They are all there. Calhoun has made known the condition of things inside; and there is no need for them to keep up their vigilance.

They stand in groups—some silent, some conversing. A larger crowd is around the Connemara man; who lies upon the grass, last tied in the trail-rope. His tongue is allowed liberty; and they question him, but without giving much credit to his answers.

On the re-appearance of the father and daughter, they face towards them, but stand silent. For all this, they are burning with eagerness to have an explanation of what is passing. Their looks proclaim it.

Most of them know the young lady by sight—all by fame, or name. They feel surprise—almost wonder—at seeing her there. The sister of the murdered man under the roof of his murderer!

More than ever are they convinced that this is the state of the case. Calhoun, coming forth from the hut, has spread fresh intelligence among them—facts that seem to confirm it. He has told them of the hat, the cloak—of the murderer himself, injured in the death-struggle!

But why is Louise Poindexter there—alone—unaccompanied by white or black, by relative or slave? A guest, too: for in this character does she appear! Her cousin does not explain it—perhaps he cannot. Her father—can he? Judging by his embarrassed air, it is doubtful.

Whispers pass from lip to ear—from group to group. There are surmises—many, but none spoken aloud. Even the rude frontiersmen respect the feelings—filial as parental—and patiently await the éclaircissement.

“Mount, Louise! Mr Yancey will ride home with you.” The young planter thus pledged was never more ready to redeem himself. He is the one who most envies the supposed happiness of Cassius Calhoun. In his soul he thanks Poindexter for the opportunity.

“But, father!” protests the young lady, “why should I no wait for you? You are not going to stay here?” Yancey experiences a shock of apprehension. “It is my wish, daughter, that you do as I tell you. Let that be sufficient.”

Yancey’s confidence returns. Not quite. He knows enough of that proud spirit to be in doubt whether it may yield obedience—even to the parental command.

It gives way; but with an unwillingness ill disguised, even in the presence of that crowd of attentive spectators.

The two ride off; the young planter taking the lead, his charge slowly following—the former scarce able to conceal his exultation, the latter her chagrin.

Yancey is more distressed than displeased, at the melancholy mood of his companion. How could it be otherwise, with such a sorrow at her heart? Of course he ascribes it to that.

He but half interprets the cause. Were he to look steadfastly into the eye of Louise Poindexter, he might there detect an expression, in which sorrow for the past is less marked, than fear for the future.

They ride on through the trees—but not beyond ear-shot of the people they have left behind them.

Suddenly a change comes over the countenance of the Creole—her features lighting up, as if some thought of joy, or at least of hope, had entered her soul.

She stops reflectingly—her escort constrained to do the same.

“Mr Yancey,” says she, after a short pause, “my saddle has got loose. I cannot sit comfortably in it. Have the goodness to look to the girths!”

Yancey leaps to the ground, delighted with the duty thus imposed upon him.

He examines the girths. In his opinion they do not want tightening. He does not say so; but, undoing the buckle, pulls upon the strap with all his strength.

“Stay!” says the fair equestrian, “let me alight. You will get better at it then.”

Without waiting for his assistance, she springs from her stirrup, and stands by the side of the mustang.

The young man continues to tug at the straps, pulling with all the power of his arms.

After a prolonged struggle, that turns him red in the face, he succeeds in shortening them by a single hole.

“Now, Miss Poindexter; I think it will do.”

“Perhaps it will,” rejoins the lady, placing her hand upon the horn of her saddle, and giving it a slight shake. “No doubt it will do now. After all ’tis a pity to start back so soon. I’ve just arrived here after a fast gallop; and my poor Luna has scarce had time to breathe herself. What if we stop here a while, and let her have a little rest? ’Tis cruel to take her back without it.”

“But your father? He seemed desirous you should—”

“That I should go home at once. That’s nothing. ’Twas only to get me out of the way of these rough men—that was all. He won’t care; so long as I’m out of sight. ’Tis a sweet place, this; so cool, under the shade of these fine trees—just now that the sun is blazing down upon the prairie. Let us stay a while, and give Luna a rest! We can amuse ourselves by watching the gambols of these beautiful silver fish in the stream. Look there, Mr Yancey! What pretty creatures they are!”

The young planter begins to feel flattered. Why should his fair companion wish to linger there with him? Why wish to watch the iodons, engaged in their aquatic cotillon—amorous at that time of the year?

He conjectures a reply conformable to his own inclinations.

His compliance is easily obtained.

“Miss Poindexter,” says he, “it is for you to command me. I am but too happy to stay here, as long as you wish it.”

“Only till Luna be rested. To say the truth, sir, I had scarce got out of the saddle, as the people came up. See! the poor thing is still panting after our long gallop.”

Yancey does not take notice whether the spotted mustang is panting or no. He is but too pleased to comply with the wishes of its rider.

They stay by the side of the stream.

He is a little surprised to perceive that his companion gives but slight heed, either to the silver fish, or the spotted mustang. He would have liked this all the better, had her attentions been transferred to himself.

But they are not. He can arrest neither her eye nor her ear. The former seems straying upon vacancy; the latter eagerly bent to catch every sound that comes from the clearing.

Despite his inclinations towards her, he cannot help listening himself. He suspects that a serious scene is there being enacted—a trial before Judge Lynch, with a jury of “Regulators.”

Excited talk comes echoing through the tree-trunks. There is an earnestness in its accents that tells of some terrible determination.

Both listen; the lady like some tragic actress, by the side-scene of a theatre, waiting for her cue.

There are speeches in more than one voice; as if made by different men; then one longer than the rest—a harangue.

Louise recognises the voice. It is that of her cousin Cassius. It is urgent—at times angry, at times argumentative: as if persuading his audience to something they are not willing to do.

His speech comes to an end; and immediately after it, there are quick sharp exclamations—cries of assent—one louder than the rest, of fearful import.

While listening, Yancey has forgotten the fair creature by his side.

He is reminded of her presence, by seeing her spring away from the spot, and, with a wild but resolute air, glide towards the jacalé!