Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Sixty Eight. The Disappointed Campaigners

The campaign against the Comanches proved one of the shortest—lasting only three or four days. It was discovered that these Ishmaelites of the West did not mean war—at least, on a grand scale. Their descent upon the settlements was only the freak of some young fellows, about to take out their degree as braves, desirous of signalising the event by “raising” a few scalps, and capturing some horses and horned cattle.

Forays of this kind are not unfrequent among the Texan Indians. They are made on private account—often without the knowledge of the chief, or elders of the tribe—just as an ambitious young mid, or ensign, may steal off with a score of companions from squadron or camp, to cut out an enemy’s craft, or capture his picket guard. These marauds are usually made by young Indians out on a hunting party, who wish to return home with something to show besides the spoils of the chase; and the majority of the tribe is often ignorant of them till long after the event. Otherwise, they might be interdicted by the elders; who, as a general thing, are averse to such filibustering expeditions—deeming them not only imprudent, but often injurious to the interests of the community. Only when successful are they applauded.

On the present occasion several young Comanches had taken out their war-diploma, by carrying back with them the scalps of a number of white women and boys. The horses and horned cattle were also collected; but these, being less convenient of transport than the light scalp-locks, had been recaptured.

The red-skinned filibusters, overtaken by a detachment of Mounted Rifles, among the hills of the San Saba, were compelled to abandon their four-footed booty, and only saved their own skins by a forced retreat into the fastnesses of the “Llano Estacado.”

To follow them beyond the borders of this sterile tract would have required a commissariat less hastily established than that with which the troops had sallied forth; and, although the relatives of the scalped settlers clamoured loudly for retaliation, it could only be promised them after due time and preparation.

On discovering that the Comanches had retreated beyond their neutral ground, the soldiers of Uncle Sam had no choice but to return to their ordinary duties—each detachment to its own fort—to await further commands from the head-quarters of the “department.”

The troops belonging to Port Inge—entrusted with the guardianship of the country as far as the Rio Nueces—were surprised on getting back to their cantonment to discover that they had been riding in the wrong direction for an encounter with the Indians! Some of them were half mad with disappointment: for there were several—young Hancock among the number—who had not yet run their swords through a red-skin, though keenly desirous of doing so!

No doubt there is inhumanity in the idea. But it must be remembered, that these ruthless savages have given to the white man peculiar provocation, by a thousand repetitions of three diabolical crimes—rape, rapine, and murder.

To talk of their being the aborigines of the country—the real, but dispossessed, owners of the soil—is simple nonsense. This sophism, of the most spurious kind, has too long held dominion over the minds of men. The whole human race has an inherent right to the whole surface of the earth: and if any infinitesimal fraction of the former by chance finds itself idly roaming over an extended portion of the latter, their exclusive claim to it is almost too absurd for argument—even with the narrowest-minded disciple of an aborigines society.

Admit it—give the hunter his half-dozen square miles—for he will require that much to maintain him—leave him in undisputed possession to all eternity—and millions of fertile acres must remain untilled, to accommodate this whimsical theory of national right. Nay, I will go further, and risk reproach, by asserting:—that not only the savage, so called, but civilised people should be unreservedly dispossessed—whenever they show themselves incapable of turning to a good account the resources which Nature has placed within their limits.

The exploitation of Earth’s treasures is a question not confined to nations. It concerns the whole family of mankind.

In all this there is not one iota of agrarian doctrine—not a thought of it. He who makes these remarks is the last man to lend countenance to communism.

It is true that, at the time spoken of, there were ruffians in Texas who held the life of a red-skin at no higher value than an English gamekeeper does that of a stoat, or any other vermin, that trespasses on his preserves. No doubt these ruffians are there still: for ten years cannot have effected much change in the morality of the Texan frontier.

But, alas! we must now be a little cautious about calling names. Our own story of Jamaica—by heaven! the blackest that has blotted the pages of history—has whitewashed these border filibusteros to the seeming purity of snow!

If things are to be judged by comparison, not so fiendish, then, need appear the fact, that the young officers of Fort Inge were some little chagrined at not having an opportunity to slay a score or so of red-skins. On learning that, during their absence, Indians had been seen on the other side, they were inspired by a new hope. They might yet find the opportunity of fleshing their swords, transported without stain—without sharpening, too—from the military school of West Point.

It was a fresh disappointment to them, when a party came in on the same day—civilians who had gone in pursuit of the savages seen on the Alamo—and reported: that no Indians had been there!

They came provided with proofs of their statement, which otherwise would have been received with incredulity—considering what had occurred.

The proofs consisted in a collection of miscellaneous articles—an odd lot, as an auctioneer would describe it—wigs of horse-hair, cocks’ feathers stained blue, green, or scarlet, breech-clouts of buckskin, mocassins of the same material, and several packages of paint, all which they had found concealed in the cavity of a cottonwood tree!

There could be no new campaign against Indians; and the aspiring spirits of Fort Inge were, for the time, forced to content themselves with such incidents as the situation afforded.

Notwithstanding its remoteness from any centre of civilised life, these were at the time neither tame nor uninteresting. There were several subjects worth thinking and talking about. There was the arrival, still of recent date, of the most beautiful woman ever seen upon the Alamo; the mysterious disappearance and supposed assassination of her brother; the yet more mysterious appearance of a horseman without a head; the trite story of a party of white men “playing Indian”; and last, though not of least interest, the news that the suspected murderer had been caught, and was now inside the walls of their own guardhouse—mad as a maniac!

There were other tales told to the disappointed campaigners—of sufficient interest to hinder them from thinking: that at Fort Inge they had returned to dull quarters. The name of Isidora Covarubio do los Llanos—with her masculine, but magnificent, beauty—had become a theme of conversation, and something was also said, or surmised, about her connection with the mystery that occupied all minds.

The details of the strange scenes upon the Alamo—the discovery of the mustanger upon his couch—the determination to hang him—the act delayed by the intervention of Louise Poindexter—the respite due to the courage of Zeb Stump—were all points of the most piquant interest—suggestive of the wildest conjectures.

Each became in turn the subject of converse and commentary, but none was discussed with more earnestness than that which related to the innocence, or guilt, of the man accused of murder.

“Murder,” said the philosophic Captain Sloman, “is a crime which, in my opinion, Maurice the mustanger is incapable of committing. I think, I know the fellow well enough to be sure about that.”

“You’ll admit,” rejoined Crossman, of the Rifles, “that the circumstances are strong against him? Almost conclusive, I should say.”

Crossman had never felt friendly towards the young Irishman. He had an idea, that on one occasion the commissary’s niece—the belle of the Fort—had looked too smilingly on the unknown adventurer.

“I consider it anything but conclusive,” replied Sloman.

“There’s no doubt about young Poindexter being dead, and having been murdered. Every one believes that. Well; who else was likely to have done it? The cousin swears to having overheard a quarrel between him and Gerald.”

“That precious cousin would swear to anything that suited his purpose,” interposed Hancock, of the Dragoons. “Besides, his own shindy with the same man is suggestive of suspicion—is it not?”

“And if there was a quarrel,” argued the officer of infantry, “what then? It don’t follow there was a murder.”

“Then you think the fellow may have killed Poindexter in a fair fight?”

“Something of the sort is possible, and even probable. I will admit that much.”

“But what did they have a difficulty about?” asked Hancock. “I heard that young Poindexter was on friendly terms with the horse-hunter—notwithstanding what had happened between him and Calhoun. What could they have quarrelled about?”

“A singular interrogation on your part, Lieutenant Hancock!” answered the infantry officer, with a significant emphasis on the pronoun. “As if men ever quarrelled about anything except—”

“Except women,” interrupted the dragoon with a laugh.

“But which woman, I wonder? It could not be anything relating to young Poindexter’s sister?”

“Quien sabe?” answered Sloman, repeating the Spanish phrase with an ambiguous shrug of the shoulders.

“Preposterous!” exclaimed Crossman. “A horse-catcher daring to set his thoughts on Miss Poindexter! Preposterous!”

“What a frightful aristocrat you are, Crossman! Don’t you know that love is a natural democrat; and mocks your artificial ideas of distinction. I don’t say that in this case there’s been anything of the kind. Miss Poindexter’s not the only woman that might have caused a quarrel between the two individuals in question. There are other damsels in the settlement worth getting angry about—to say nothing of our own fair following in the Fort; and why not—”

“Captain Sloman,” petulantly interrupted the lieutenant of Rifles. “I must say that, for a man of your sense, you talk very inconsiderately. The ladies of the garrison ought to be grateful to you for the insinuation.”

“What insinuation, sir?”

“Do you suppose it likely that there’s one of them would condescend to speak to the person you’ve named?”

“Which? I’ve named two.”

“You understand me well enough, Sloman; and I you. Our ladies will, no doubt, feel highly complimented at having their names connected with that of a low adventurer, a horse-thief, and suspected assassin!”

“Maurice the mustanger may be the last—suspected, and that is all. He is neither of the two first; and as for our ladies being above speech with him, in that as in many other things, you may be mistaken, Mr Crossman. I’ve seen more of this young Irishman than you—enough to satisfy me that, so far as breeding goes, he may compare notes with the best of us. Our grand dames needn’t be scared at the thought of his acquaintance; and, since you have raised the question, I don’t think they would shy from it—some of them at least—if it were offered them. It never has. So far as I have observed, the young fellow has behaved with a modesty that betokens the true gentleman. I have seen him in their presence more than once, and he has conducted himself towards them as if fully sensible of his position. For that matter, I don’t think he cares a straw about one or other of them.”

“Indeed! How fortunate for those, who might otherwise have been his rivals!”

“Perhaps it is,” quietly remarked the captain of infantry.

“Who knows?” asked Hancock, intentionally giving a turn to the ticklish conversation. “Who knows but the cause of quarrel—if there’s been one—might not be this splendid señorita so much talked about? I haven’t seen her myself; but, by all accounts, she’s just the sort to make two fellows as jealous as a pair of tiger-cats.”

“It might be—who knows?” drawled Crossman, who found contentment in the thought that the handsome Irishman might have his amorous thoughts turned in any other direction than towards the commissary’s quarters.

“They’ve got him in the guard-house,” remarked Hancock, stating a fact that had just been made known to him: for the conversation above detailed occurred shortly after their return from the Comanche campaign. “His droll devil of a serving man is along with him. What’s more; the major has just issued an order to double the guard! What does it mean, Captain Sloman—you who know so much of this fellow and his affairs? Surely there’s no danger of his making an attempt to steal out of his prison?”

“Not likely,” replied the infantry officer, “seeing that he hasn’t the slightest idea that he’s inside of one. I’ve just been to the guard-house to have a look at him. He’s mad as a March hare; and wouldn’t know his own face in a looking-glass.”

“Mad! In what way?” asked Hancock and the others, who were yet but half enlightened about the circumstances of the mustanger’s capture.

“A brain fever upon him—delirious?”

“Is that why the guards have been doubled? Devilish queer if it is. The major himself must have gone mad!”

“Maybe it’s the suggestion—command I should rather say—of the majoress. Ha! ha! ha!”

“But what does it mean? Is the old maje really afraid of his getting out of the guard-house?”

“No—not that, I fancy. More likely an apprehension of somebody else getting into it.”

“Ah! you mean, that—”

“I mean that for Maurice the Mustanger there’s more safety inside than out. Some queer characters are about; and there’s been talk of another Lynch trial. The Regulators either repent of having allowed him a respite; or there’s somebody hard at work in bringing about this state of public opinion. It’s lucky for him that the old hunter has stood his friend; and it’s but a continuation of his good luck that we’ve returned so opportunely. Another day, and we might have found the guardhouse empty—so far as its present occupants are concerned. Now, thank God! the poor fellow shall have a fair trial.”

“When is it to take place?”

“Whenever he has recovered his senses, sufficiently to know that he’s being tried!”

“It may be weeks before that.”

“And it may be only days—hours. He don’t appear to be very bad—that is, bodily. It’s his mind that’s out of order—more, perhaps, from some strange trouble that has come over him, than any serious hurt he has received. A day may make all the difference; and, from what I’ve just heard, the Regulators will insist on his being tried as soon as he shows a return to consciousness. They say, they won’t wait for him to recover from his wounds!”

“Maybe he’ll be able to tell a story that’ll clear him. I hope so.”

This was said by Hancock.

“I doubt it,” rejoined Crossman, with an incredulous shake of the head. “Nous verrons!”

“I’m sure of it,” said Sloman. “Nos veremos!” he added, speaking in a tone that seemed founded less upon confidence than a wish that was father to the thought.