Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Sixty Nine. Mystery and Mourning

There is mourning in the mansion of Casa del Corvo, and mystery among the members of Woodley Poindexter’s family.

Though now only three in number, their intercourse is less frequent than before, and marked by a degree of reserve that must spring from some deep-seated cause.

They meet only at the hour of meals—then conversing only on such topics as cannot well be shunned.

There is ample explanation of the sorrow, and much of the solemnity.

The death—no longer doubted—of an only son—an only brother—unexpected and still unexplained—should account for the melancholy mien both of father and daughter.

It might also explain the shadow seated constantly on the brow of the cousin.

But there is something beyond this. Each appears to act with an irksome restraint in the presence of the others—even during the rare occasions, on which it becomes necessary to converse on the family misfortune!

Beside the sorrow common to all three, they appear to have separate griefs that do not, and cannot, commingle.

The once proud planter stays within doors—pacing from room to room, or around, the enclosed corridor—bending beneath a weight of woe, that has broken down his pride, and threatens to break his heart. Even strong paternal affection, cruelly bereaved, can scarce account for the groans, oft accompanied by muttered curses, that are heard to issue from his lips!

Calhoun rides abroad as of yore; making his appearance only at the hours of eating and sleeping, and not regularly then.

For a whole day, and part of a night, he has been absent from the place. No one knows where; no one has the right to inquire.

Louise confines herself to her own room, though not continuously. There are times when she may be seen ascending to the azotea—alone and in silent meditation.

There, nearer to Heaven, she seeks solace for the sorrows that have assailed her upon Earth—the loss of a beloved brother—the fear of losing one far more beloved, though in a different sense—perhaps, a little also, the thought of a scandal already attaching to her name.

Of these three sorrows the second is the strongest. The last but little troubles her; and the first, for a while keenly felt, is gradually growing calmer.

But the second—the supreme pain of all—is but strengthened and intensified by time!

She knows that Maurice Gerald is shut up within the walls of a prison—the strong walls of a military guard-house.

It is not their strength that dismays her. On the contrary, she has fears for their weakness!

She has reasons for her apprehension. She has heard of the rumours that are abroad; rumours of sinister significance. She has heard talk of a second trial, under the presidency of Judge Lynch and his rude coadjutors—not the same Judge Lynch who officiated in the Alamo, nor all of the same jury; but a court still less scrupulous than that of the Regulators; composed of the ruffianism, that at any hour can be collected within the bounds of a border settlement—especially when proximate to a military post.

The reports that have thus gone abroad are to some a subject of surprise. Moderate people see no reason why the prisoner should be again brought to trial in that irregular way.

The facts, that have late come to light, do not alter the case—at least, in any way to strengthen the testimony against him.

If the four horsemen seen were not Indians—and this has been clearly shown by the discovery of the disguises—it is not the less likely that they have had to do with the death of young Poindexter. Besides, there is nothing to connect them with the mustanger, any more than if they had been real Comanches.

Why, then, this antipathy against the respited prisoner, for the second time surging up?

There is a strangeness about the thing that perplexes a good many people.

There are a few that understand, or suspect, the cause. A very few: perhaps only three individuals.

Two of them are Zeb Stump and Louise Poindexter; the third Captain Cassius Calhoun.

The old hunter, with instinct keenly on the alert, has discovered some underhanded action—the actors being Miguel Diaz and his men, associated with a half-score of like characters of a different race—the “rowdies” of the settlement. Zeb has traced the action to its instigator—the ex-captain of volunteer cavalry.

He has communicated his discovery to the young Creole, who is equal to the understanding of it. It is the too clear comprehension of its truth that now inspires her with a keen solicitude.

Anxiously she awaits every word of news—watches the road leading from the Fort to Casa del Corvo, as if the sentence of her own death, or the security of her life, hung upon the lips of some courier to come that way!

She dares not show herself at the prison. There are soldiers on guard, and spectators around it—a crowd of the idle curious, who, in all countries, seem to feel some sort of sombre enjoyment in the proximity of those who have committed great crimes.

There is an additional piquancy in the circumstances of this one. The criminal is insane; or, at all events, for the time out of his senses.

The guard-house doors are at all hours besieged—to the great discomfort of the sentries—by people eager to listen to the mutterings of the delirious man. A lady could not pass in without having scores of eyes turned inquiringly upon her. Louise Poindexter cannot run the gauntlet of those looks without risk to her reputation.

Left to herself, perhaps she would have attempted it. Watched by a father whose suspicions are already awakened; by a near relation, equally interested in preserving her spotless, before the eyes of the world—she has no opportunity for the act of imprudence.

She can only stay at home; now shut up in her solitary chamber, solaced by the remembrance of those ravings to which she had listened upon the Alamo; now upon the azotea, cheered by the recollection of that sweet time spent among the mezquite trees, the spot itself almost discernible, where she had surrendered the proudest passion of her heart; but saddened by the thought that he to whom she surrendered it is now humiliated—disgraced—shut up within the walls of a gaol—perchance to be delivered from it only unto death!

To her it was happy tidings, when, upon the morning of the fourth day, Zeb Stump made his appearance at Casa del Corro, bringing the intelligence; that the “hoss-sogers hed kum back to the Fort.”

There was significance in the news thus ungrammatically imparted. There was no longer a danger of the perpetration of that foul act hitherto apprehended: a prisoner taken from his guards, not for rescue, but ruin!

“Ee needn’t be uneezy ’beout thet ere ewent,” said Zeb, speaking with a confidence he had not shown for some time. “Thur’s no longer a danger o’ it comin’ to pass, Miss Lewaze. I’ve tuk preecaushins agin it.”

“Precautions! How, Zeb?”

“Wal; fust place, I’ve seed the major clost arter his comin’ back, an gied him a bit o’ my mind. I tolt him the hul story, as fur’s I know it myself. By good luck he ain’t agin the young fellur, but the tother way I reck’n. Wal, I tolt him o’ the goin’s on o’ the hul crew—Amerikins, Mexikins, an all o’ them—not forgettin’ thet ugly Spanyard o’ the name o’ Dee-ez, thet’s been one o’ the sarciest o’ the lot. The ree-sult’s been thet the major hez doubled the sentries roun’ the prison, an’s goin’ to keep ’em doubled.”

“I am so glad! You think there is no longer any fear from that quarter?”

“If you mean the quarter o’ Mister Migooel Dee-ez, I kin swar to it. Afore he thinks o’ gittin’ any b’dy else out o’ a prison, he’s got to git hisself out.”

“What; Diaz in prison! How? When? Where?”

“You’ve asked three seprit questyuns, Miss Lewaze, all o’ a heep. Wal; I reck’n the conveenientest way to answer ’em ’ll be to take ’em backurds. An’ fust as to the whar. As to thet, thur’s but one prison in these parts, as ’ud be likely to hold him. Thet is the guard-house at the Fort. He’s thur.”

“Along with—”

“I know who ye’re goin’ to name—the young fellur. Jest so. They’re in the same buildin’, tho’ not ’zackly in the same room. Thur’s a purtition atween ’em; tho’ for thet matter they kin convarse, ef they’re so inclined. Thur’s three others shet up along wi’ the Mexikin—his own cussed cummarades. The three ’ll have somethin’ to talk ’beout ’mong themselves, I reck’n.”

“This is good news, Zeb. You told me yesterday that Diaz was active in—”

“Gittin’ hisself into a scrape, which he hev been successful in effectuatin’. He’s got hisself into the jug, or someb’y else hev did thet bizness for him.”

“But how—when—you’ve not told me?”

“Geehosophat! Miss Lewaze. Gi’ me a leetle time. I hain’t drew breath yit, since I kim in. Yur second questyun war when. It air eezy answered. ’Beout a hour agone thet ere varmint wur trapped an locked up. I war at the shettin’ o’ the door ahint him, an kum straight custrut hyur arter it war done.”

“But you have not yet said why he is arrested.”

“I hain’t hed a chance. It air a longish story, an ’ll take a leetle time in the tellin’. Will ye listen to it now, or arter—?”

“After what, Mr Stump?”

“Wal, Miss Lewaze, I only meened arter—arter—I git the ole mare put up. She air stannin’ thur, as if she’d like to chaw a yeer o’ corn, an somethin’ to wet it down. Both she ’nd me’s been on a longish tramp afore we got back to the Fort; which we did scace a hour ago.”

“Pardon me, dear Mr Stump, for not thinking of it. Pluto; take Mr Stump’s horse to the stable, and see that it is fed. Florinde! Florinde! What will you eat, Mr Stump?”

“Wal, as for thet, Miss Lewaze, thank ye all the same, but I ain’t so partikler sharp set. I war only thinkin’ o’ the maar. For myself, I ked go a kupple o’ hours longer ’ithout eetin’, but ef thur’s sech a thing as a smell o’ Monongaheely ’beout the place, it ’ud do this ole karkidge o’ mine a power o’ good.”

“Monongahela? plenty of it. Surely you will allow me to give you something better?”

“Better ’n Monongaheely!”

“Yes. Some sherry—champagne—brandy if you prefer it.”

“Let them drink brandy as like it, and kin’ git it drinkable. Thur may be some o’ it good enuf; an ef thur air, I’m shor it’ll be foun’ in the house o’ a Peintdexter. I only knows o’ the sort the sutler keeps up at the Fort. Ef thur ever wur a medicine, thet’s one. It ’ud rot the guts out o’ a alleygatur. No; darn thur French lickers; an specially thur brandy. Gi’ me the pure corn juice; an the best o’ all, thet as comes from Pittsburgh on the Monongaheely.”

“Florinde! Florinde!”

It was not necessary to tell the waiting-maid for what she was wanted. The presence of Zeb Stump indicated the service for which she had been summoned. Without waiting to receive the order she went off, and the moment after returned, carrying a decanter half-filled with what Zeb called the “pure corn juice,” but which was in reality the essence of rye—for from this grain is distilled the celebrated “Monongahela.”

Zeb was not slow to refresh himself. A full third of the contents of the decanter were soon put out of sight—the other two-thirds remaining for future potations that might be required in the course of the narration upon which he was about to enter.