Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Seventy Three. The Prairie Island

A herd of a hundred horses—or three times the number—pasturing upon a prairie, although a spectacle of the grandest kind furnished by the animal kingdom, is not one that would strike a Texan frontiersman as either strange, or curious. He would think it stranger to see a single horse in the same situation.

The former would simply be followed by the reflection: “A drove of mustangs.” The latter conducts to a different train of thought, in which there is an ambiguity. The solitary steed might be one of two things: either an exiled stallion, kicked out of his own cavallada, or a roadster strayed from some encampment of travellers.

The practised eye of the prairie-man would soon decide which.

If the horse browsed with a bit in his mouth, and a saddle on his shoulders, there would be no ambiguity—only the conjecture, as to how he had escaped from his rider.

If the rider were upon his back, and the horse still browsing, there would be no room for conjecture—only the reflection, that the former must be a lazy thick-headed fellow, not to alight and let his animal graze in a more commodious fashion.

If, however, the rider, instead of being suspected of having a thick head, was seen to have no head at all, then would there be cue for a thousand conjectures, not one of which might come within a thousand miles of the truth.

Such a horse; and just such a rider, were seen upon the prairies of South-Western Texas in the year of our Lord 1850 something. I am not certain as to the exact year—the unit of it—though I can with unquestionable certainty record the decade.

I can speak more precisely as to the place; though in this I must be allowed latitude. A circumference of twenty miles will include the different points where the spectral apparition made itself manifest to the eyes of men—both on prairie and in chapparal—in a district of country traversed by several northern tributaries of the Rio de Nueces, and some southern branches of the Rio Leona.

It was seen not only by many people; but at many different times. First, by the searchers for Henry Poindexter and his supposed murderer; second, by the servant of Maurice the mustanger; thirdly, by Cassius Calhoun, on his midnight exploration of the chapparal; fourthly, by the sham Indians on that same night: and, fifthly, by Zeb Stump on the night following.

But there were others who saw it elsewhere and on different occasions—hunters, herdsmen, and travellers—all alike awed, alike perplexed, by the apparition.

It had become the talk not only of the Leona settlement, but of others more distant. Its fame already reached on one side to the Rio Grande, and on the other was rapidly extending to the Sabine. No one doubted that such a thing had been seen. To have done so would have been to ignore the evidence of two hundred pairs of eyes, all belonging to men willing to make affidavit of the fact—for it could not be pronounced a fancy. No one denied that it had been seen. The only question was, how to account for a spectacle so peculiar, as to give the lie to all the known laws of creation.

At least half a score of theories were started—more or less feasible—more or less absurd. Some called it an “Indian dodge;” others believed it a “lay figure;” others that it was not that, but a real rider, only so disguised as to have his head under the serapé that shrouded his shoulders, with perhaps a pair of eye-holes through which he could see to guide his horse; while not a few pertinaciously adhered to the conjecture, started at a very early period, that the Headless Horseman was Lucifer himself!

In addition to the direct attempts at interpreting the abnormal phenomenon, there was a crowd of indirect conjectures relating to it. Some fancied that they could see the head, or the shape of it, down upon the breast, and under the blanket; others affirmed to having actually seen it carried in the rider’s hand; while others went still further, and alleged: that upon the head thus seen there was a hat—a black-glaze sombrero of the Mexican sort, with a band of gold bullion above the brim!

There were still further speculations, that related less to the apparition itself than to its connection with the other grand topic of the time—the murder of young Poindexter.

Most people believed there was some connection between the two mysteries; though no one could explain it. He, whom everybody believed, could have thrown some light upon the subject, was still ridden by the night-mare of delirium.

And for a whole week the guessing continued; during which the spectral rider was repeatedly seen; now going at a quick gallop, now moving in slow, tranquil pace, across the treeless prairie: his horse at one time halted and vaguely gazing around him; at another with teeth to the ground, industriously cropping the sweet gramma grass, that makes the pasturage of South-Western Texas (in my opinion) the finest in the world.

Rejecting many tales told of the Headless Horseman—most of them too grotesque to be recorded—one truthful episode must needs be given—since it forms an essential chapter of this strange history.

In the midst of the open, prairie there is a “motte”—a coppice, or clump of trees—of perhaps three or four acres in superficial extent. A prairie-man would call it an “island,” and with your eyes upon the vast verdant sea that surrounds it, you could not help being struck with the resemblance.

The aboriginal of America might not perceive it. It is a thought of the colonist transmitted to his descendants; who, although they may never have looked upon the great ocean, are nevertheless au fait to its phraseology.

By the timber island in question—about two hundred yards from its edge—a horse is quietly pasturing. He is the same that carries the headless rider; and this weird equestrian is still bestriding him, with but little appearance of change, either in apparel or attitude, since first seen by the searchers. The striped blanket still hangs over his shoulders, cloaking the upper half of his person; while the armas-de-agua, strapped over his limbs, cover them from thigh to spur, concealing all but their outlines.

His body is bent a little forward, as if to ease the horse in getting his snout to the sward; which the long bridle-rein, surrendered to its full length, enables him to do, though still retained in hand, or resting over the “horn” of the saddle.

Those who asserted that they saw a head, only told the truth. There is a head; and, as also stated, with a hat upon it—a black sombrero, with bullion band as described.

The head rests against the left thigh, the chin being nearly down on a level with the rider’s knee. Being on the near side it can only be seen, when the spectator is on the same; and not always then, as it is at times concealed by a corner of the serapé.

At times too can a glimpse be obtained of the face. Its features are well formed, but wearing a sad expression; the lips of livid colour, slightly parted, showing a double row of white teeth, set in a grim ghastly smile.

Though there is no perceptible change in the personnel of the Headless Horseman there is something new to be noted. Hitherto he has been seen going alone. Now he is in company.

It cannot be called agreeable;—consisting as it does of wolves—half a score of them squatting closely upon the plain, and at intervals loping around him.

By the horse they are certainly not liked; as is proved by the snorting and stamping of his hoof, when one of them ventures upon a too close proximity to his heels.

The rider seems more indifferent to a score of birds—large dark birds—that swoop in shadowy circles around his shoulders. Even when one bolder than the rest has the audacity to alight upon him, he has made no attempt to disturb it, raising neither hand nor arm to drive it away!

Three times one of the birds has alighted thus—first upon the right shoulder, then upon the left, and then midway between—upon the spot where the head should be!

The bird does not stay upon its singular perch, or only for an instant. If the rider does not feel the indignity the steed does; and resists it by rearing upward, with a fierce neighing, that frights the vultures off—to return again only after a short interval of shyness.

His steed thus browsing, now in quiet, now disturbed by the too near approach of the wolves—anon by the bold behaviour of the birds—goes the Headless Horseman, step by step, and with long pauses of pasturing, around the prairie island.