Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Sixty Five. Still another Interlude

For a third time is the tableau reconstructed—spectators and actors in the dread drama taking their places as before.

The lazo is once more passed over the limb; the same two scoundrels taking hold of its loose end—this time drawing it towards them till it becomes taut.

For the third time arises the reflection:

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

Now nearer than ever does the unfortunate man seem to his end. Even love has proved powerless to save him! Wha power on earth can be appealed to after this? None likely to avail.

But there appears no chance of succour—no time for it. There is no mercy in the stern looks of the Regulators—only impatience. The hangmen, too, appear in a hurry—as if they were in dread of another interruption. They manipulate the rope with the ability of experienced executioners. The physiognomy of either would give colour to the assumption, that they had been accustomed to the calling.

In less than sixty seconds they shall have finished the “job.”

“Now then, Bill! Are ye ready?” shouts one to the other—by the question proclaiming, that they no longer intend to wait for the word.

“All right!” responds Bill. “Up with the son of a skunk! Up with him!”

There is a pull upon the rope, but not sufficient to raise the body into an erect position. It tightens around the neck; lifts the head a little from the ground, but nothing more!

Only one of the hangmen has given his strength to the pull. “Haul, damn you!” cries Bill, astonished at the inaction of his assistant. “Why the hell don’t you haul?”

Bill’s back is turned towards an intruder, that, seen by the other, has hindered him from lending a hand. He stands as if suddenly transformed into stone!

“Come!” continues the chief executioner. “Let’s go at it again—both together. Yee—up! Up with him!”

“No ye don’t!” calls out a voice in the tones of a stentor; while a man of colossal frame, carrying a six-foot rifle, is seen rushing out from among the trees, in strides that bring him almost instantly into the thick of the crowd.

“No ye don’t!” he repeats, stopping over the prostrate body, and bringing his long rifle to bear upon the ruffians of the rope. “Not yet a bit, as this coon kalkerlates. You, Bill Griffin; pull that piece o’ pleeted hoss-hair but the eighth o’ an inch tighter, and ye’ll git a blue pill in yer stummuk as won’t agree wi’ ye. Drop the rope, durn ye! Drop it!”

The screaming of Zeb Stump’s mare scarce created a more sudden diversion than the appearance of Zeb himself—for it was he who had hurried upon the ground.

He was known to nearly all present; respected by most; and feared by many.

Among the last were Bill Griffin, and his fellow rope-holder. No longer holding it: for at the command to drop it, yielding to a quick perception of danger, both had let go; and the lazo lay loose along the sward.

“What durned tom-foolery’s this, boys?” continues the colossus, addressing himself to the crowd, still speechless from surprise. “Ye don’t mean hangin’, do ye?”

“We do,” answers a stern voice. “And why not?” asks another.

“Why not! Ye’d hang a fellur-citizen ’ithout trial, wud ye?”

“Not much of a fellow-citizen—so far as that goes. Besides, he’s had a trial—a fair trial.”

“I’deed. A human critter to be condemned wi’ his brain in a state o’ dulleerium! Sent out o’ the world ’ithout knowin’ that he’s in it! Ye call that a fair trial, do ye?”

“What matters it, if we know he’s guilty? We’re all satisfied about that.”

“The hell ye air! Wagh! I aint goin’ to waste words wi’ sech as you, Jim Stoddars. But for you, Sam Manly, an yerself, Mister Peintdexter—shurly ye aint agreed to this hyur proceeding which, in my opeenyun, ’ud be neyther more nor less ’n murder?”

“You haven’t heard all, Zeb Stump,” interposes the Regulator Chief, with the design to justify his acquiescence in the act. “There are facts—!”

“Facts be durned! An’ fancies, too! I don’t want to hear ’em. It’ll be time enuf for thet, when the thing kum to a reg’lar trial; the which shurly nob’dy hyur’ll objeck to—seein’ as thur aint the ghost o’ a chance for him to git off. Who air the individooal that objecks?”

“You take too much upon you, Zeb Stump. What is it your business, we’d like to know? The man that’s been murdered wasn’t your son; nor your brother, nor your cousin neither! If he had been, you’d be of a different way of thinking, I take it.”

It is Calhoun who has made this interpolation—spoken before with so much success to his scheme.

“I don’t see that it concerns you,” he continues, “what course we take in this matter.”

“But I do. It consarns me—fust, because this young fellur’s a friend o’ mine, though he air Irish, an a strenger; an secondly, because Zeb Stump aint a goin’ to stan’ by, an see foul play—even tho’ it be on the purayras o’ Texas.”

“Foul play be damned! There’s nothing of the sort. And as for standing by, we’ll see about that. Boys! you’re not going to be scared from your duty by such swagger as this? Let’s make a finish of what we’ve begun. The blood of a murdered man cries out to us. Lay hold of the rope!”

“Do; an by the eturnal! the fust that do ’ll drop it a leetle quicker than he grups it. Lay a claw on it—one o’ ye—if ye darr. Ye may hang this poor critter as high’s ye like; but not till ye’ve laid Zeb’lon Stump streetched dead upon the grass, wi’ some o’ ye alongside o’ him. Now then! Let me see the skunk thet’s goin’ to tech thet rope!”

Zeb’s speech is followed by a profound silence. The people keep their places—partly from the danger of accepting his challenge, and partly from the respect due to his courage and generosity. Also, because there is still some doubt in the minds of the Regulators, both as to the expediency, and fairness, of the course which Calhoun is inciting them to take.

With a quick instinct the old hunter perceives the advantage he has gained, and presses it.

“Gie the young fellur a fair trial,” urges he. “Let’s take him to the settlement, an hev’ him tried thur. Ye’ve got no clur proof, that he’s had any hand in the black bizness; and durn me! if I’d believe it unless I seed it wi’ my own eyes. I know how he feeled torst young Peintdexter. Instead o’ bein’ his enemy, thur aint a man on this ground hed more o’ a likin’ for him—tho’ he did hev a bit o’ shindy wi’ his precious cousin thur.”

“You are perhaps not aware, Mr Stump,” rejoins the Regulator Chief, in a calm voice, “of what we’ve just been hearing?”

“What hev ye been hearin’?”

“Evidence to the contrary of what you assert. We have proof, not only that there was bad blood between Gerald and young Poindexter, but that a quarrel took place on the very night—”

“Who sez thet, Sam Manly?”

“I say it,” answers Calhoun, stepping a little forward, so as to be seen by Stump.

“O, you it air, Mister Cash Calhoun! You know thur war bad blood atween ’em? You seed the quarrel ye speak o’?”

“I haven’t said that I saw it, Zeb Stump. And what’s more I’m not going to stand any cross-questioning by you. I have given my evidence, to those who have the right to hear it; and that’s enough. I think, gentlemen, you’re satisfied as to the verdict. I don’t see why this old fool should interrupt—”

“Ole fool!” echoes the hunter, with a screech; “Ole fool! Hell an herrikins! Ye call me an ole fool? By the eturnal God! ye’ll live to take back that speech, or my name aint Zeblun Stump, o’ Kaintucky. Ne’er a mind now; thur’s a time for everythin’, an yur time may come, Mister Cash Calhoun, sooner than ye surspecks it.”

“As for a quarrel atween Henry Peintdexter an the young fellur hyur,” continues Zeb, addressing himself to the Regulator Chief, “I don’t believe a word on’t; nor won’t, so long’s thur’s no better proof than his palaverin’. From what this chile knows, it don’t stan’ to reezun. Ye say ye’ve got new facks? So’ve I too. Facks I reck’n thet’ll go a good way torst explicatin o’ this mysteerus bizness, twisted up as it air.”

“What facts?” demands the Regulator Chief. “Let’s hear them, Stump.”

“Thur’s more than one. Fust place what do ye make o’ the young fellur bein’ wownded hisself? I don’t talk o’ them scratches ye see; I believe them’s done by coyoats that attackted him, arter they see’d he wur wownded. But look at his knee Somethin’ else than coyoats did that. What do you make o’ it, Sam Manly?”

“Well, that—some of the boys here think there’s been a struggle between him and—”

“Atween him an who?” sharply interrogates Zeb.

“Why, the man that’s missing.”

“Yes, that’s he who we mean,” speaks one of the “boys” referred to. “We all know that Harry Poindexter wouldn’t a stood to be shot down like a calf. They’ve had a tussle, and a fall among the rocks. That’s what’s given him the swellin’ in the knee. Besides, there’s the mark of a blow upon his head—looks like it had been the butt of a pistol. As for the scratches, we can’t tell what’s made them. Thorns may be; or wolves if you like. That foolish fellow of his has a story about a tiger; but it won’t do for us.”

“What fellur air ye talkin’ o’? Ye mean Irish Pheelum? Where air he?”

“Stole away to save his carcass. We’ll find him, as soon as we’ve settled this business; and I guess a little hanging will draw the truth out of him.”

“If ye mean abeout the tiger, ye’ll draw no other truth out o’ him than hat ye’ve got a’ready. I see’d thet varmint myself, an war jest in time to save the young fellur from its claws. But thet aint the peint. Ye’ve had holt o’ the Irish, I ’spose. Did he tell ye o’ nothin’ else he seed hyur?”

“He had a yarn about Indians. Who believes it?”

“Wal; he tolt me the same story, and that looks like some truth in’t. Besides, he declurs they wur playin’ curds, an hyur’s the things themselves. I found ’em lying scattered about the floor o’ the shanty. Spanish curds they air.”

Zeb draws the pack out of his pocket, and hands it over to the Regulator Chief.

The cards, on examination, prove to be of Mexican manufacture—such as are used in the universal game of monté—the queen upon horseback “cavallo”—the spade represented by a sword “espada”—and the club “baston” symbolised by the huge paviour-like implement, seen in picture-books in the grasp of hairy Orson.

“Who ever heard of Comanches playing cards?” demands he, who has scouted the evidence about the Indians. “Damned ridiculous!”

“Ridiklus ye say!” interposes an old trapper who had been twelve months a prisoner among the Comanches. “Ridiklus it may be; but it’s true f’r all that. Many’s the game this coon’s seed them play, on a dressed burner hide for their table. That same Mexikin montay too. I reckon they’ve larned it from thar Mexikin captives; of the which they’ve got as good as three thousand in thar different tribes. Yes, sirree!” concludes the trapper. “The Keymanchees do play cards—sure as shootin’.”

Zeb Stump is rejoiced at this bit of evidence, which is more than he could have given himself. It strengthens the case for the accused. The fact, of there having been Indians in the neighbourhood, tends to alter the aspect of the affair in the minds of the Regulators—hitherto under the belief that the Comanches were marauding only on the other side of the settlement.

“Sartin sure,” continues Zeb, pressing the point in favour of an adjournment of the trial, “thur’s been Injuns hyur, or some thin’ durned like—Geesus Geehosofat! Whar’s she comin’ from?”

The clattering of hoofs, borne down from the bluff, salutes the ear of everybody at the same instant of time.

No one needs to inquire, what has caused Stump to give utterance to that abrupt interrogatory. Along the top of the cliff, and close to its edge, a horse is seen, going at a gallop. There is a woman—a lady—upon his back, with hat and hair streaming loosely behind her—the string hindering the hat from being carried altogether away!

So wild is the gallop—so perilous from its proximity to the precipice—you might suppose the horse to have run away with his rider.

But no. You may tell that he has not, by the actions of the equestrian herself. She seems not satisfied with the pace; but with whip, spur, and voice keeps urging him to increase it!

This is plain to the spectators below; though they are puzzled and confused by her riding so close to the cliff.

They stand in silent astonishment. Not that they are ignorant of who it is. It would be strange if they were. That woman equestrian—man-seated in the saddle—once seen was never more to be forgotten.

She is recognised at the first glance. One and all know the reckless galloper to be the guide—from whom, scarce half-an-hour ago, they had parted upon the prairie.