Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Sixty Four. A Series of Interludes

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

It was the thought of every actor in that tragedy among the trees. No one doubted that, in another moment, they would see his body hoisted into the air, and swinging from the branch of the sycamore.

There was an interlude, not provided for in the programme. A farce was being performed simultaneously; and, it might be said, on the same stage. For once the tragedy was more attractive, and the comedy was progressing without spectators.

Not the less earnest were the actors in it. There were only two—a man and a mare. Phelim was once more re-enacting the scenes that had caused surprise to Isidora.

Engrossed by the arguments of Calhoun—by the purposes of vengeance which his story was producing—the Regulators only turned their attention to the chief criminal. No one thought of his companion—whether he was, or was not, an accomplice. His presence was scarce perceived—all eyes being directed with angry intent upon the other.

Still less was it noticed, when the ruffians sprang forward, and commenced adjusting the rope. The Galwegian was then altogether neglected.

There appeared an opportunity of escape, and Phelim was not slow to take advantage of it.

Wriggling himself clear of his fastenings, he crawled off among the legs of the surging crowd.

No one seemed to see, or care about, his movements. Mad with excitement, they were pressing upon each other—the eyes of all turned upward to the gallows tree.

To have seen Phelim skulking off, it might have been supposed, that he was profiting by the chance offered for escape—saving his own life, without thinking of his master.

It is true he could have done nothing, and he knew it. He had exhausted his advocacy; and any further interference on his part would have been an idle effort, or only to aggravate the accusers. It was but slight disloyalty that he should think of saving himself—a mere instinct of self-preservation—to which he seemed yielding, as he stole off among the trees. So one would have conjectured.

But the conjecture would not have done justice to him of Connemara. In his flight the faithful servant had no design to forsake his master—much less leave him to his fate, without making one more effort to effect his delivery from the human bloodhounds who had hold of him. He knew he could do nothing of himself. His hope lay in summoning Zeb Stump, and it was to sound that signal—which had proved so effective before—that he was now stealing off from the scene, alike of trial and execution.

On getting beyond the selvedge of the throng, he had glided in among the trees; and keeping these between him and the angry crowd, he ran on toward the spot where the old mare still grazed upon her tether.

The other horses standing “hitched” to the twigs, formed a tolerably compact tier all round the edge of the timber. This aided in screening his movements from observation, so that he had arrived by the side of the mare, without being seen by any one.

Just then he discovered that he had come without the apparatus necessary to carry out his design. The cactus branch had been dropped where he was first captured, and was still kicking about among the feet of his captors. He could not get hold of it, without exposing himself to a fresh seizure, and this would hinder him from effecting the desired end.

He had no knife—no weapon of any kind—wherewith he might procure another nopal.

He paused, in painful uncertainty as to what he should do. Only for an instant. There was no time to be lost. His master’s life was in imminent peril, menaced at every moment. No sacrifice would be too great to save him; and with this thought the faithful Phelim rushed towards the cactus-plant; and, seizing one of its spinous branches in his naked hands, wrenched it from the stem.

His fingers were fearfully lacerated in the act; but what mattered that, when weighed against the life of his beloved master? With equal recklessness he ran up to the mare; and, at the risk of being kicked back again, took hold of her tail, and once more applied the instrument of torture!

By this time the noose had been adjusted around the mustanger’s neck, carefully adjusted to avoid fluke or failure. The other end, leading over the limb of the tree, was held in hand by the brace of bearded bullies—whose fingers appeared itching to pull upon it. In their eyes and attitudes was an air of deadly determination. They only waited for the word.

Not that any one had the right to pronounce it. And just for this reason was it delayed. No one seemed willing to take the responsibility of giving that signal, which was to send a fellow-creature to his long account. Criminal as they might regard him—murderer as they believed him to be—all shied from doing the sheriff’s duty. Even Calhoun instinctively held back.

It was not for the want of will. There was no lack of that on the part of the ex-officer, or among the Regulators. They showed no sign of retreating from the step they had taken. The pause was simply owing to the informality of the proceedings. It was but the lull in the storm that precedes the grand crash.

It was a moment of deep solemnity—every one silent as the tomb. They were in the presence of death, and knew it,—death in its most hideous shape, and darkest guise. Most of them felt that they were abetting it. All believed it to be nigh.

With hushed voice, and hindered gesture, they stood rigid as the tree-trunks around them. Surely the crisis had come?

It had; but not that crisis by everybody expected, by themselves decreed. Instead of seeing Maurice Gerald jerked into the air, far different was the spectacle they were called upon to witness,—one so ludicrous as for a time to interrupt the solemnity of the scene, and cause a suspension of the harsh proceedings.

The old mare—that they knew to be Zeb Stump’s—appeared to have gone suddenly mad. She had commenced dancing over the sward, flinging her heels high into the air, and screaming with all her might. She had given the cue to the hundred horses that stood tied to the trees; and all of them had commenced imitating: her wild capers, while loudly responding to her screams!

Enchantment could scarce have produced a quicker transformation than occurred in the tableau formed in front of the jacalé hut. Not only was the execution suspended, but all other proceedings that regarded the condemned captive.

Nor was the change of a comical character. On the contrary, it was accompanied by looks of alarm, and cries of consternation!

The Regulators rushed to their arms—some towards their horses.

“Indians!” was the exclamation upon every lip, though unheard through the din. Nought but the coming of Comanches could have caused such a commotion—threatening to result in a stampede of the troop!

For a time men ran shouting over the little lawn, or stood silent with scared countenances.

Most having secured their horses, cowered behind them—using them by way of shield against the chances of an Indian arrow.

There were but few upon the ground accustomed to such prairie escapades; and the fears of the many were exaggerated by their inexperience to the extreme of terror.

It continued, till their steeds, all caught up, had ceased their wild whighering; and only one was heard—the wretched creature that had given them the cue.

Then was discovered the true cause of the alarm; as also that the Connemara man had stolen off.

Fortunate for Phelim he had shown the good sense to betake himself to the bushes. Only by concealment had he saved his skin: for his life was now worth scarce so much as that of his master.

A score of rifles were clutched with angry energy,—their muzzles brought to bear upon the old mare.

But before any of them could be discharged, a man standing near threw his lazo around her neck, and choked her into silence.

Tranquillity is restored, and along with it a resumption of the deadly design. The Regulators are still in the same temper.

The ludicrous incident, whilst perplexing, has not provoked their mirth; but the contrary.

Some feel shame at the sorry figure they have cut, in the face of a false alarm; while others are chafed at the interruption of the solemn ceremonial.

They return to it with increased vindictiveness—as proved by their oaths, and angry exclamations.

Once more the vengeful circle closes around the condemned—the terrible tableau is reconstructed.

Once more the ruffians lay hold of the rope; and for the second time every one is impressed with the solemn thought:

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

Thank heaven, there is another interruption to that stern ceremonial of death.

How unlike to death is that bright form flitting under the shadows,—flashing out into the open sunlight.

“A woman! a beautiful woman!”

’Tis only a silent thought; for no one essays to speak. They stand rigid as ever, but with strangely altered looks. Even the rudest of them respect the presence of that fair intruder. There is submission in their attitude, as if from a consciousness of guilt.

Like a meteor she pauses through their midst—glides on without giving a glance on either side—without speech, without halt—till she stoops over the condemned man, still lying gagged the grass.

With a quick clutch she lays hold of the lazo; which the two hangmen, taken by surprise, have let loose.

Grasping it with both her hands, she jerks it from theirs. “Texans! cowards!” she cries, casting a scornful look upon the crowd. “Shame! shame!”

They cower under the stinging reproach. She continues:—

“A trial indeed! A fair trial! The accused without counsel—condemned without being heard! And this you call justice? Texan justice? My scorn upon you—not men, but murderers!”

“What means this?” shouts Poindexter, rushing up, and seizing his daughter by the arm. “You are mad—Loo—mad! How come you to be here? Did I not tell you to go home? Away—this instant away; and do not interfere with what does not concern you!”

“Father, it does concern me!”

“How?—how?—oh true—as a sister! This man is the murderer of your brother.”

“I will not—cannot believe it. Never—never! There was no motive. O men! if you be men, do not act like savages. Give him a fair trial, and then—then—”

“He’s had a fair trial,” calls one from the crowd, who seems to speak from instigation; “Ne’er a doubt about his being guilty. It’s him that’s killed your brother, and nobody else. And it don’t look well, Miss Poindexter—excuse me for saying it;—but it don’t look just the thing, that you should be trying to screen him from his deserving.”

“No, that it don’t,” chime in several voices. “Justice must take its course!” shouts one, in the hackneyed phrase of the law courts.

“It must!—it must!” echoes the chorus. “We are sorry to disoblige you, miss; but we must request you to leave. Mr Poindexter, you’d do well to take your daughter away.”

“Come, Loo! ’Tis not the place You must come away. You refuse! Good God! my daughter; do you mean to disobey me? Here, Cash; take hold of her arm, and conduct her from the spot. If you refuse to go willingly, we must use force, Loo. A good girl now. Do as I tell you. Go! Go!”

“No, father, I will not—I shall not—till you have promised—till these men promise—”

“We can’t promise you anything, miss—however much we might like it. It ain’t a question for women, no how. There’s been a crime committed—a murder, as ye yourself know. There must be no cheating of justice. There’s no mercy for a murderer!”

“No mercy!” echo a score of angry voices. “Let him be hanged—hanged—hanged!”

The Regulators are no longer restrained by the fair presence. Perhaps it has but hastened the fatal moment. The soul of Cassius Calhoun is not the only one in that crowd stirred by the spirit of envy. The horse hunter is now hated for his supposed good fortune.

In the tumult of revengeful passion, all gallantry is forgotten,—that very virtue for which the Texan is distinguished.

The lady is led aside—dragged rather than led—by her cousin, and at the command of her father. She struggles in the hated arms that hold her—wildly weeping, loudly protesting against the act of inhumanity.

“Monsters! murderers!” are the phrases that fall from her lips.

Her struggles are resisted; her speeches unheeded. She is borne back beyond the confines of the crowd—beyond the hope of giving help to him, for whom she is willing to lay down her life!

Bitter are the speeches Calhoun is constrained to hear—heartbreaking the words now showered upon him. Better for him he had not taken hold of her.

It scarce consoles him—that certainty of revenge. His rival will soon be no more; but what matters it? The fair form writhing in his grasp can never be consentingly embraced. He may kill the hero of her heart, but not conquer for himself its most feeble affection!