Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Sixty Six. Chased by Comanches

It was Isidora who had thus strangely and suddenly shown herself. What was bringing her back? And why was she riding at such a perilous pace?

To explain it, we must return to that dark reverie, from which she was startled by her encounter with the “Tejanos.”

While galloping away from the Alamo, she had not thought of looking back, to ascertain whether she was followed. Absorbed in schemes of vengeance, she had gone on—without even giving a glance behind.

It was but slight comfort to her to reflect: that Louise Poindexter had appeared equally determined upon parting from the jacalé. With a woman’s intuitive quickness, she suspected the cause; though she knew, too well, it was groundless.

Still, there was some pleasure in the thought: that her rival, ignorant of her happy fortune, was suffering like herself.

There was a hope, too, that the incident might produce estrangement in the heart of this proud Creole lady towards the man so condescendingly beloved; though it was faint, vague, scarce believed in by her who conceived it.

Taking her own heart as a standard, she was not one to lay much stress on the condescension of love: her own history was proof of its levelling power. Still was there the thought that her presence at the jacalé had given pain, and might result in disaster to the happiness of her hated rival.

Isidora had begun to dwell upon this with a sort of subdued pleasure; that continued unchecked, till the time of her rencontre with the Texans.

On turning back with these, her spirits underwent a change. The road to be taken by Louise, should have been the same as that, by which she had herself come. But no lady was upon it.

The Creole must have changed her mind, and stayed by the jacalé—was, perhaps, at that very moment performing the métier Isidora had so fondly traced out for herself?

The belief that she was about to bring shame upon the woman who had brought ruin upon her, was the thought that now consoled her.

The questions put by Poindexter, and his companions, sufficiently disclosed the situation. Still clearer was it made by the final interrogations of Calhoun; and, after her interrogators had passed away, she remained by the side of the thicket—half in doubt whether to ride on to the Leona, or go back and be the spectator of a scene, that, by her own contrivance, could scarce fail to be exciting.

She is upon the edge of the chapparal, just inside the shadow of the timber. She is astride her grey steed, that stands with spread nostril and dilated eye, gazing after the cavallada that has late parted from the spot—a single horseman in the rear of the rest. Her horse might wonder why he is being thus ridden about; but he is used to sudden changes in the will of his capricious rider.

She is looking in the same direction—towards the alhuehueté;—whose dark summit towers above the bluffs of the Alamo.

She sees the searchers descend; and, after them, the man who has so minutely questioned her. As his head sinks below the level of the plain, she fancies herself alone upon it.

In this fancy she is mistaken.

She remains irresolute for a time—ten—fifteen—twenty minutes.

Her thoughts are not to be envied. There is not much sweetness in the revenge, she believes herself instrumental in having accomplished. If she has caused humiliation to the woman she hates, along with it she may have brought ruin upon the man whom she loves? Despite all that has passed, she cannot help loving him!

“Santissima Virgen!” she mutters with a fervent earnestness. “What have I done? If these men—Los Reguladores—the dreaded judges I’ve heard of—if they should find him guilty, where may it end? In his death! Mother of God! I do not desire that. Not by their hands—no! no! How wild their looks and gestures—stern—determined! And when I pointed out the way, how quickly they rode off, without further thought of me! Oh, they have made up their minds. Don Mauricio is to die! And he a stranger among them—so have I heard. Not of their country, or kindred; only of the same race. Alone, friendless, with many enemies. Santissima! what am I thinking of? Is not he, who has just left me, that cousin of whom I’ve heard speak! Ay de mi! Now do I understand the cause of his questioning. His heart, like mine own—like mine own!”

She sits with her gaze bent over the open plain. The grey steed still frets under restraint, though the cavallada has long since passed out of sight. He but responds to the spirit of his rider; which he knows to be vacillating—chafing under some irresolution.

’Tis the horse that first discovers a danger, or something that scents of it. He proclaims it by a low tremulous neigh, as if to attract her attention; while his head, tossed back towards the chapparal, shows that the enemy is to be looked for in that direction.

Who, or what is it?

Warned by the behaviour of her steed, Isidora faces to the thicket, and scans the path by which she has lately passed through it. It is the road, or trail, leading to the Leona. ’Tis only open to the eye for a straight stretch of about two hundred yards. Beyond, it becomes screened by the bushes, through which it goes circuitously.

No one is seen upon it—nothing save two or three lean coyotés, that skulk under the shadow of the trees—scenting the shod tracks, in the hope of finding some scrap, that may have fallen from the hurrying horsemen.

It is not these that have caused the grey to show such excitement. He sees them; but what of that? The prairie-wolf is a sight to him neither startling, nor rare. There is something else—something he has either scented, or heard.

Isidora listens: for a time without hearing aught to alarm her. The howl-bark of the jackal does not beget fear at any time; much less in the joy of the daylight. She hears only this. Her thoughts again return to the “Tejanos”—especially to him who has last parted from her side. She is speculating on the purpose of his earnest interrogation; when once more she is interrupted by the action of her horse.

The animal shows impatience at being kept upon the spot; snuffs the air; snorts; and, at length, gives utterance to a neigh, far louder than before!

This time it is answered by several others, from horses that appear to be going along the road—though still hidden behind the trees. Their hoof-strokes are heard at the same time.

But not after. The strange horses have either stopped short, or gone off at a gentle pace, making no noise!

Isidora conjectures the former. She believes the horses to be ridden; and that their riders have checked them up, on hearing the neigh of her own.

She quiets him, and listens.

A humming is heard through the trees. Though indistinct, it can be told to be the sound of men’s voices—holding a conversation in a low muttered tone.

Presently it becomes hushed, and the chapparal is again silent. The horsemen, whoever they are, continue halted—perhaps hesitating to advance.

Isidora is scarce astonished at this, and not much alarmed. Some travellers, perhaps, en route for the Rio Grande—or, it may be, some stragglers from the Texan troop—who, on hearing a horse neigh, have stopped from an instinct of precaution. It is only natural—at a time, when Indians are known to be on the war-path.

Equally natural, that she should be cautious about encountering the strangers—whoever they may be; and, with this thought, she rides softly to one side—placing herself and her horse under cover of a mezquit tree; where she again sits listening.

Not long, before discovering that the horsemen have commenced advancing towards her—not along the travelled trail, but through the thicket! And not all together, but as if they had separated, and were endeavouring to accomplish a surround!

She can tell this, by hearing the hoof-strokes in different directions: all going gently, but evidently diverging from each other; while the riders are preserving a profound silence, ominous either of cunning or caution—perhaps of evil intent?

They may have discovered her position? The neighing of her steed has betrayed it? They may be riding to get round her—in order to advance from different sides, and make sure of her capture?

How is she to know that their intent is not hostile? She has enemies—one well remembered—Don Miguel Diaz. Besides, there are the Comanches—to be distrusted at all times, and now no longer en paz.

She begins to feel alarm. It has been long in arising; but the behaviour of the unseen horsemen is at least suspicious. Ordinary travellers would have continued along the trail. These are sneaking through the chapparal!

She looks around her, scanning her place of concealment. She examines, only to distrust it. The thin, feathery frondage of the mezquit will not screen her from an eye passing near. The hoof-strokes tell, that more than one cavalier is coming that way. She must soon be discovered.

At the thought, she strikes the spur into her horse’s side, and rides out from the thicket. Then, turning along the trail, she trots on into the open plain, that extends towards the Alamo.

Her intention is to go two or three hundred yards—beyond range of arrow, or bullet—then halt, until she can discover the character of those who are advancing—whether friends, or to be feared.

If the latter, she will trust to the speed of her gallant grey to carry her on to the protection of the “Tejanos.”

She does not make the intended halt. She is hindered by the horsemen, at that moment seen bursting forth from among the bushes, simultaneously with each other, and almost as soon as herself!

They spring out at different points; and, in converging lines, ride rapidly towards her!

A glance shows them to be men of bronze-coloured skins, and half naked bodies—with red paint on their faces, and scarlet feathers sticking up out of their hair.

“Los Indios!” mechanically mutters the Mexican, as, driving the rowels against the ribs of her steed, she goes off at full gallop for the alhuehueté.

A quick glance behind shows her she is pursued; though she knows it without that. The glance tells her more,—that the pursuit is close and earnest—so earnest that the Indians, contrary to their usual custom, do not yell!

Their silence speaks of a determination to capture her; and as if by a plan already preconcerted!

Hitherto she has had but little fear of an encounter with the red rovers of the prairie. For years have they been en paz—both with Texans and Mexicans; and the only danger to be dreaded from them was a little rudeness when under the influence of drink—just as a lady, in civilised life, may dislike upon a lonely road, to meet a crowd of “navigators,” who have been spending their day at the beer-house.

Isidora has passed through a peril of this kind, and remembers it—with less pain from the thought of the peril itself, than the ruin it has led to.

But her danger is different now. The peace is past. There is war upon the wind. Her pursuers are no longer intoxicated with the fire-water of their foes. They are thirsting for blood; and she flies to escape not only dishonour, but it may be death!

On over that open plain, with all the speed she can take out of her horse,—all that whip, and spur, and voice can accomplish!

She alone speaks. Her pursuers are voiceless—silent as spectres!

Only once does she glance behind. There are still but four of them; but four is too many against one—and that one a woman!

There is no hope, unless she can get within hail of the Texans.

She presses on for the alhuehueté.