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Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Seventy Two. Zeb Stump on the Trail

After getting clear of the enclosures of Casa del Corvo, the hunter headed his animal up stream—in the direction of the Port and town.

It was the former he intended to reach—which he did in a ride of less than a quarter of an hour.

Commonly it took him three to accomplish this distance; but on this occasion he was in an unusual state of excitement, and he made speed to correspond. The old mare could go fast enough when required—that is when Zeb required her and he had a mode of quickening her speed—known only to himself, and only employed upon extraordinary occasions. It simply consisted in drawing the bowie knife from his belt, and inserting about in inch of its blade into the mare’s hip, close to the termination of the spine.

The effect was like magic; or, if you prefer the figure—electricity. So spurred, Zeb’s “critter” could accomplish a mile in three minutes; and more than once had she been called upon to show this capability, when her owner was chased by Comanches.

On the present occasion there was no necessity for such excessive speed; and the Fort was reached after fifteen minutes’ sharp trotting.

On reaching it, Zeb slipped out of the saddle, and made his way to the quarters of the commandant; while the mare was left panting upon the parade ground.

The old hunter had no difficulty in obtaining an interview with the military chief of Fort Inge. Looked upon by the officers as a sort of privileged character, he had the entrée at all times, and could go in without countersign, or any of the other formalities usually demanded from a stranger. The sentry passed him, as a matter of course—the officer of the guard only exchanged with him a word of welcome; and the adjutant at once announced his name to the major commanding the cantonment.

From his first words, the latter appeared to have been expecting him.

“Ah! Mr Stump! Glad to see you so soon. Have you made any discovery in this queer affair? From your quick return, I can almost say you have. Something, I hope, in favour of this unfortunate young fellow. Notwithstanding that appearances are strongly against him, I still adhere to my old opinion—that he’s innocent. What have you learnt?”

“Wal, Maje,” answered Zeb, without making other obeisance than the simple politeness of removing his hat; “what I’ve larnt aint much, tho’ enough to fetch me back to the Fort; where I didn’t intend to come, till I’d gone a bit o’ a jurney acrosst the purayras. I kim back hyur to hev a word wi’ yurself.”

“In welcome. What is it you have to say?”

“That ye’ll keep back this trial as long’s ye kin raisonably do so. I know thur’s a pressyur from the outside; but I know, too, that ye’ve got the power to resist it, an what’s more, Maje—yo’ve got the will.”

“I have. You speak quite truly about that, Mr Stump. And as to the power, I have that, too, in a certain sense. But, as you are aware, in our great republic, the military power must always be subservient to the civil—unless under martial-law, which God forbid should ever be required among us—even here in Texas. I can go so far as to hinder any open violation of the law; but I cannot go against the law itself.”

“T’ant the law I want ye to go agin. Nothin’ o’ the sort, Maje. Only them as air like to take it into thur own hands, an twist it abeout to squar it wi’ thur own purpisses. Thur’s them in this Settlement as ’ud do thet, ef they ain’t rustrained. One in espeecial ’ud like to do it; an I knows who thet one air—leestwise I hev a tolable clur guess o’ him.”


“Yur good to keep a seecret, Maje? I know ye air.”

“Mr Stump, what passes here is in confidence. You may speak your mind freely.”

“Then my mind air: thet the man who hez dud this murder ain’t Maurice the Mowstanger.”

“That’s my own belief. You know it already. Have you nothing more to communicate?”

“Wal, Maje, preehaps I ked communerkate a leetle more ef you insist upon it. But the time ain’t ripe for tellin’ ye what I’ve larnt—the which, arter all, only mounts to surspishuns. I may be wrong; an I’d rayther you’d let me keep ’em to myself till I hev made a short exkurshun acrost to the Nooeces. Arter thet, ye’ll be welkum to what I know now, besides what I may be able to gather off o’ the parayras.”

“So far as I am concerned, I’m quite contented to wait for your return; the more willingly that I know you are acting on the side of justice. But what would you have me do?”

“Keep back the trial, Maje—only that. The rest will be all right.”

“How long? You know that it must come on according to the usual process in the Criminal Court. The judge of this circuit will not be ruled by me, though he may yield a little to my advice. But there is a party, who are crying out for vengeance; and he may be ruled by them.”

“I know the party ye speak o’. I know their leader; an maybe, afore the trial air over, he may be the kriminal afore the bar.”

“Ah! you do not believe, then, that these Mexicans are the men!”

“Can’t tell, Maje, whether they air or ain’t. I do b’lieve thet they’ve hed a hand in the bizness; but I don’t b’lieve thet they’ve been the prime movers in’t. It’s him I want to diskiver. Kin ye promise me three days?”

“Three days! For what?”

“Afore the trial kims on.”

“Oh! I think there will be no difficulty about that. He is now a prisoner under military law. Even if the judge of the Supreme Court should require him to be delivered up inside that time, I can make objections that will delay his being taken from the guard-house. I shall undertake to do that.”

“Maje! ye’d make a man a’most contented to live under marshul law. No doubt thur air times when it air the best, tho’ we independent citizens don’t much like it. All I’ve got to say air, thet ef ye stop this trial for three days, or tharahout, preehaps the prisoner to kim afore the bar may be someb’y else than him who’s now in the guard-house—someb’y who jest at this mom’t hain’t the smallest serspishun o’ bein’ hisself surspected. Don’t ask me who. Only say ye’ll streetch a pint, an gi’ me three days?”

“I promise it, Mr Stump. Though I may risk my commission as an officer in the American army, I give you an officer’s promise, that for three days Maurice the Mustanger shall not go out of my guard-house. Innocent or guilty, for that time he shall be protected.”

“Yur the true grit, Maje; an dog-gone me, ef I don’t do my beest to show ye some day, thet I’m sensible o’t. I’ve nuthin’ more to say now, ’ceptin’ to axe thet ye’ll not tell out o’ doors what I’ve been tellin’ you. Thur’s them outside who, ef they only knew what this coon air arter, ’ud move both heving an airth to circumwent his intenshuns.”

“They’ll have no help from me—whoever it is you are speaking of. Mr Stump, you may rely upon my pledged word.”

“I know’t, Maje, I know’t. God bless ye for a good ’un. Yer the right sort for Texas!”

With this complimentary leave-taking the hunter strode out of head-quarters, and made his way back to the place where he had left his old mare.

Once more mounting her, he rode rapidly away. Having cleared the parade ground, and afterwards the outskirts of the village, he returned on the same path that had conducted him from Casa Del Corvo.

On reaching the outskirts of Poindexter’s plantation, he left the low lands of the Leona bottom, and spurred his old mare ’gainst the steep slope ascending to the upper plain.

He reached it, at a point where the chapparal impinged upon the prairie, and there reined up under the shade of a mezquit tree. He did not alight, nor show any sign of an intention to do so; but sate in the saddle, stooped forward, his eyes turned upon the ground, in that vacant gaze which denotes reflection.

“Dog-gone my cats!” he drawled out in slow soliloquy. “Thet ere sarkimstance are full o’ signiferkince. Calhoun’s hoss out the same night, an fetched home a’ sweetin’ all over. What ked that mean? Durn me, ef I don’t surspect the foul play hev kum from that quarter. I’ve thort so all along; only it air so ridiklous to serpose thet he shed a killed his own cousin. He’d do that, or any other villinous thing, ef there war a reezun for it. There ain’t—none as I kin think o’. Ef the property hed been a goin’ to the young un, then the thing mout a been intellygible enuf. But it want. Ole Peintdexter don’t own a acre o’ this hyur groun’; nor a nigger thet’s upon it. Thet I’m sartin’ ’beout. They all belong to that cuss arready; an why shed he want to get shot o’ the cousin? Thet’s whar this coon gets flummixed in his kalkerlations. Thar want no ill will atween ’em, as ever I heerd o’. Thur’s a state o’ feelin’ twixt him an the gurl, thet he don’t like, I know. But why shed it temp him to the killin’ o’ her brother?

“An’ then thur’s the mowstanger mixed in wi’ it, an that shindy ’beout which she tolt me herself; an the sham Injuns, an the Mexikin shemale wi’ the har upon her lip; an the hossman ’ithout a head, an hell knows what beside! Geesus Geehosofat! it ’ud puzzle the brain pan o’ a Looeyville lawyer!

“Wal—there’s no time to stan’ speklatin’ hyur. Wi’ this bit o’ iron to assiss me, I may chance upon somethin’ thet’ll gie a clue to a part o’ the bloody bizness, ef not to the hul o’ it; an fust, as to the direcshun in which I shed steer?”

He looked round, as if in search of some one to answer the interrogatory.

“It air no use beginnin’ neer the Fort or the town. The groun’ abeout both on ’em air paddled wi’ hoss tracks like a cattle pen. I’d best strike out into the purayra at onst, an take a track crossways o’ the Rio Grande route. By doin’ thet I may fluke on the futmark I’m in search o’. Yes—ye-es! thet’s the most sensiblest idee.”

As if fully satisfied on this score, he took up his bridle-rein, muttered some words to his mare, and commenced moving off along the edge of the chapparal.

Having advanced about a mile in the direction of the Nueces river, he abruptly changed his course; but with a coolness that told of a predetermined purpose.

It was now nearly due west, and at right angles to the different trails going towards the Rio Grande.

There was a simultaneous change in his bearing—in the expression of his features—and his attitude in the saddle. No longer looking listlessly around, he sate stooping forward, his eye carefully scanning the sward, over a wide space on both sides of the path he was pursuing.

He had ridden about a mile in the new direction, when something seen upon the ground caused him to start, and simultaneously pull upon the bridle-rein.

Nothing loth, the “critter” came to a stand; Zeb, at the same time, flinging himself out of the saddle.

Leaving the old mare to ruminate upon this eccentric proceeding, he advanced a pace or two, and dropped down upon his knees.

Then drawing the piece of curved iron out of his capacious pocket, he applied it to a hoof-print conspicuously outlined in the turf. It fitted.

“Fits!” he exclaimed, with a triumphant gesticulation, “Dog-goned if it don’t!”

“Tight as the skin o’ a tick!” he continued, after adjusting the broken shoe to the imperfect hoof-print, and taking it up again. “By the eturnal! that ere’s the track o’ a creetur—mayhap a murderer!”

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