Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Sixty Three. A Jury of Regulators

The cry, that had called the young Creole so suddenly from the side of her companion, was the verdict of a jury—in whose rude phrase was also included the pronouncing of the sentence.

The word “hang” was ringing in her ears, as she started away from the spot.

While pretending to take an interest in the play of the silver fish, her thoughts were upon that scene, of less gentle character, transpiring in front of the jacalé.

Though the trees hindered her from having a view of the stage, she knew the actors that were on it; and could tell by their speeches how the play was progressing.

About the time of her dismounting, a tableau had been formed that merits a minute description.

The men, she had left behind, were no longer in scattered groups; but drawn together into a crowd, in shape roughly resembling the circumference of a circle.

Inside it, some half-score figures were conspicuous—among them the tall form of the Regulator Chief, with three or four of his “marshals.” Woodley Poindexter was there, and by his side Cassius Calhoun. These no longer appeared to act with authority, but rather as spectators, or witnesses, in the judicial drama about being enacted.

Such in reality was the nature of the scene. It was a trial for Murder—a trial before Justice Lynch—this grim dignitary being typified in the person of the Regulator Chief—with a jury composed of all the people upon the ground—all except the prisoners.

Of these there are two—Maurice Gerald and his man Phelim.

They are inside the ring, both prostrate upon the grass; both fast bound in raw-hide ropes, that hinder them from moving hand or foot.

Even their tongues are not free. Phelim has been cursed and scared into silence; while to his master speech is rendered impossible by a piece of stick fastened bitt-like between his teeth. It has been done to prevent interruption by the insane ravings, that would otherwise issue from his lips.

Even the tight-drawn thongs cannot keep him in place. Two men, one at each shoulder, with a third seated upon his knees, hold him to the ground. His eyes alone are free to move; and these rolling in their sockets glare upon his guards with wild unnatural glances, fearful to encounter.

Only one of the prisoners is arraigned on the capital charge; the other is but doubtfully regarded as an accomplice.

The servant alone has been examined—asked to confess all he knows, and what he has to say for himself. It is no use putting questions to his master.

Phelim has told his tale—too strange to be credited; though the strangest part of it—that relating to his having seen a horseman without ahead—is looked upon as the least improbable!

He cannot explain it; and his story but strengthens the suspicion already aroused—that the spectral apparition is a part of the scheme of murder!

“All stuff his tales about tiger-fights and Indians!” say those to whom he has been imparting them. “A pack of lies, contrived to mislead us—nothing else.”

The trial has lasted scarce ten minutes; and yet the jury have come to their conclusion.

In the minds of most—already predisposed to it—there is a full conviction that Henry Poindexter is a dead man, and that Maurice Gerald is answerable for his death.

Every circumstance already known has been reconsidered; while to these have been added the new facts discovered at the jacalé—the ugliest of which is the finding of the cloak and hat.

The explanations given by the Galwegian, confused and incongruous, carry no credit. Why should they? They are the inventions of an accomplice.

There are some who will scarce stay to hear them—some who impatiently cry out, “Let the murderer be hanged!”

As if this verdict had been anticipated, a rope lies ready upon the ground, with a noose at its end. It is only a lazo; but for the purpose Calcraft could not produce a more perfect piece of cord.

A sycamore standing near offers a horizontal limb—good enough for a gallows.

The vote is taken viva voce.

Eighty out of the hundred jurors express their opinion: that Maurice Gerald must die. His hour appears to have come.

And yet the sentence is not carried into execution. The rope is suffered to lie guileless on the grass. No one seems willing to lay hold of it!

Why that hanging back, as if the thong of horse-hide was a venomous snake, that none dares to touch?

The majority—the plurality, to use a true Western word—has pronounced the sentence of death; some strengthening it with rude, even blasphemous, speech. Why is it not carried out?

Why? For want of that unanimity, that stimulates to immediate action—for want of the proofs to produce it.

There is a minority not satisfied—that with less noise, but equally earnest emphasis, have answered “No.”

It is this that has caused a suspension of the violent proceedings.

Among this minority is Judge Lynch himself—Sam Manly, the Chief of the Regulators. He has not yet passed sentence; or even signified his acceptance of the acclamatory verdict.

“Fellow citizens!” cries he, as soon as he has an opportunity of making himself heard, “I’m of the opinion, that there’s a doubt in this case; and I reckon we ought to give the accused the benefit of it—that is, till he be able to say his own say about it. It’s no use questioning him now, as ye all see. We have him tight and fast; and there’s not much chance of his getting clear—if guilty. Therefore, I move we postpone the trial, till—”

“What’s the use of postponing it?” interrupts a voice already loud for the prosecution, and which can be distinguished as that of Cassius Calhoun. “What’s the use, Sam Manly? It’s all very well for you to talk that way; but if you had a friend foully murdered—I won’t say cousin, but a son, a brother—you might not be so soft about it. What more do you want to show that the skunk’s guilty? Further proofs?”

“That’s just what we want, Captain Calhoun.”

“Cyan you give them, Misther Cashius Calhoun?” inquires a voice from the outside circle, with a strong Irish accent.

“Perhaps I can.”

“Let’s have them, then!”

“God knows you’ve had evidence enough. A jury of his own stupid countrymen—”

“Bar that appellashun!” shouts the man, who has demanded the additional evidence. “Just remember, Misther Calhoun, ye’re in Texas, and not Mississippi. Bear that in mind; or ye may run your tongue into trouble, sharp as it is.”

“I don’t mean to offend any one,” says Calhoun, backing out of the dilemma into which his Irish antipathies had led him; “even an Englishman, if there’s one here.”

“Thare ye’re welcome—go on!” cries the mollified Milesian.

“Well, then, as I was saying, there’s been evidence enough—and more than enough, in my opinion. But if you want more, I can give it.”

“Give it—give it!” cry a score of responding voices; that keep up the demand, while Calhoun seems to hesitate.

“Gentlemen!” says he, squaring himself to the crowd, as if for a speech, “what I’ve got to say now I could have told you long ago. But I didn’t think it was needed. You all know what’s happened between this man and myself; and I had no wish to be thought revengeful. I’m not; and if it wasn’t that I’m sure he has done the deed—sure as the head’s on my body—”

Calhoun speaks stammeringly, seeing that the phrase, involuntarily escaping from his lips, has produced a strange effect upon his auditory—as it has upon himself.

“If not sure—I—I should still say nothing of what I’ve seen, or rather heard: for it was in the night, and I saw nothing.”

“What did you hear, Mr Calhoun?” demands the Regulator Chief, resuming his judicial demeanour, for a time forgotten in the confusion of voting the verdict. “Your quarrel with the prisoner, of which I believe everybody has heard, can have nothing to do with your testimony here. Nobody’s going to accuse you of false swearing on that account. Please proceed, sir. What did you hear? And where, and when, did you hear it?”

“To begin, then, with the time. It was the night my cousin was missing; though, of course, we didn’t miss him till the morning. Last Tuesday night.”

“Tuesday night. Well?”

“I’d turned in myself; and thought Henry had done the same. But what with the heat, and the infernal musquitoes, I couldn’t get any sleep.

“I started up again; lit a cigar; and, after smoking it awhile in the room, I thought of taking a turn upon the top of the house.

“You know the old hacienda has a flat roof, I suppose? Well, I went up there to get cool; and continued to pull away at the weed.

“It must have been then about midnight, or maybe a little earlier. I can’t tell: for I’d been tossing about on my bed, and took no note of the time.

“Just as I had smoked to the end of my cigar, and was about to take a second out of my case, I heard voices. There were two of them.

“They were up the river, as I thought on the other side. They were a good way off, in the direction of the town.

“I mightn’t have been able to distinguish them, or tell one from ’tother, if they’d been talking in the ordinary way. But they weren’t. There was loud angry talk; and I could tell that two men were quarrelling.

“I supposed it was some drunken rowdies, going home from Oberdoffer’s tavern, and I should have thought no more about it. But as I listened, I recognised one of the voices; and then the other. The first was my cousin Henry’s—the second that of the man who is there—the man who has murdered him.”

“Please proceed, Mr Calhoun! Let us hear the whole of the evidence you have promised to produce. It will be time enough then to state your opinions.”

“Well, gentlemen; as you may imagine, I was no little surprised at hearing my cousin’s voice—supposing him asleep in his bed. So sure was I of its being him, that I didn’t think of going to his room, to see if he was there. I knew it was his voice; and I was quite as sure that the other was that of the horse-catcher.

“I thought it uncommonly queer, in Henry being out at such a late hour: as he was never much given to that sort of thing. But out he was. I couldn’t be mistaken about that.

“I listened to catch what the quarrel was about; but though I could distinguish the voices, I couldn’t make out anything that was said on either side. What I did hear was Henry calling him by some strong names, as if my cousin had been first insulted; and then I heard the Irishman threatening to make him rue it. Each loudly pronounced the other’s name; and that convinced me about its being them.

“I should have gone out to see what the trouble was; but I was in my slippers; and before I could draw on a pair of boots, it appeared to be all over.

“I waited for half an hour, for Henry to come home. He didn’t come; but, as I supposed he had gone back to Oberdoffer’s and fallen in with some of the fellows from the Fort, I concluded he might stay there a spell, and I went back to my bed.

“Now, gentlemen, I’ve told you all I know. My poor cousin never came back to Casa del Corvo—never more laid his side on a bed,—for that we found by going to his room next morning. His bed that night must have been somewhere upon the prairie, or in the chapparal; and there’s the only man who knows where.”

With a wave of his hand the speaker triumphantly indicated the accused—whose wild straining eyes told how unconscious he was of the terrible accusation, or of the vengeful looks with which, from all sides, he was now regarded.

Calhoun’s story was told with a circumstantiality, that went far to produce conviction of the prisoner’s guilt. The concluding speech appeared eloquent of truth, and was followed by a clamourous demand for the execution to proceed.

“Hang! hang!” is the cry from fourscore voices.

The judge himself seems to waver. The minority has been diminished—no longer eighty, out of the hundred, but ninety repeat the cry. The more moderate are overborne by the inundation of vengeful voices.

The crowd sways to and fro—resembling a storm fast increasing to a tempest.

It soon comes to its height. A ruffian rushes towards the rope. Though none seem to have noticed it, he has parted from the side of Calhoun—with whom he has been holding a whispered conversation. One of those “border ruffians” of Southern descent, ever ready by the stake of the philanthropist, or the martyr—such as have been late typified in the military murderers of Jamaica, who have disgraced the English name to the limits of all time.

He lays hold of the lazo, and quickly arranges its loop around the neck of the condemned man—alike unconscious of trial and condemnation.

No one steps forward to oppose the act. The ruffian, bristling with bowie-knife and pistols, has it all to himself or, rather, is he assisted by a scoundrel of the same kidney—one of the ci-devant guards of the prisoner.

The spectators stand aside, or look tranquilly upon the proceedings. Most express a mute approval—some encouraging the executioners with earnest vociferations of “Up with him! Hang him!”

A few seem stupefied by surprise; a less number show sympathy; but not one dares to give proof of it, by taking part with the prisoner.

The rope is around his neck—the end with the noose upon it. The other is being swung over the sycamore.

“Soon must the soul of Maurice Gerald go back to its God!”