Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Seventy Four. A Solitary Stalker

The singular spectacle described—extraordinary it might be termed—was too grave to appear grotesque. There was some thing about it that savoured of the outre-monde. Human eyes could not have beholden it, without the shivering of a human frame, and the chilling of human blood.

Was it seen by human eyes in this fresh phase—with the wolves below, and the vultures above?

It was.

By one pair; and they belonging to the only man in all Texas who had arrived at something like a comprehension of the all-perplexing mystery.

It was not yet altogether clear to him. There were points that still puzzled him. He but know it was neither a dummy, nor the Devil.

His knowledge did not except him from the universal feeling of dread. Despite the understanding of what the thing was, he shuddered as he gazed upon it.

He gazed upon it from the “shore” of the prairie-island; himself unseen under its shadows, and apparently endeavouring to remain so.

And yet, with all his trembling and the desire to keep concealed, he was following it round and round, on the circumference of an inner circle, as if some magnetic power was constraining him to keep on the same radius, of which the point occupied by the Headless Horseman was a prolongation!

More than this. He had seen the latter before entering the island. He had seen him far off, and might easily have shunned him. But instead of doing so, he had immediately commenced making approach towards him!

He had continued it—using the timber as a screen, and acting as one who stalks the timid stag, with the difference of a heart-dread which no deer-stalker could ever know.

He had continued it; until the shelter of the motte gave him a momentary respite, not from fear, but the apprehension of a failure.

He had not ridden ten miles across the prairie without a design; and it was this that caused him to go so cautiously—guiding his horse over the softest turf, and through the selvedge of the chapparal—in such a way as neither to expose his person to view, nor cause a rustle among the branches, that might be heard to the distance of ten yards.

No one observing his manoeuvres as he moved amid the timber island, could have mistaken their meaning—at least so far as related to the object for which they were being made.

His eye was upon the Headless Horseman, his whole soul absorbed in watching the movements of the latter—by which he appeared to regulate his own.

At first, fear seemed to be his prevailing thought. After a time, it was succeeded by an impatience that partially emboldened him. The latter plainly sprang from his perceiving, that the Headless Horseman, instead of approaching the timber, still kept at a regular distance of two hundred yards from its edge.

That this chafed him was evident from a string of soliloquies, muttered half aloud. They were not free from blasphemy; but that was characteristic of the man who pronounced them.

“Damn the infernal brute! If he’d only come twenty yards nearer, I could fetch him. My gun won’t carry that distance. I’d miss him for sure, and then it’ll be all up. I may never get the chance again. Confound him! He’s all of twenty yards too far off.” As if the last was an ambiguity rather than a conviction, the speaker appeared to measure with his eye the space that separated him from the headless rider—all the while holding in hand a short Yäger rifle, capped and cocked—ready for instant discharge.

“No use,” he continued, after a process of silent computation. “I might hit the beast with a spent ball, but only to scare without crippling him. I must have patience, and wait till he gets a little nearer. Damn them wolves! He might come in, if it wasn’t for them. So long as they’re about him, he’ll give the timber a wide berth. It’s the nature of these Texas howes—devil skin them!

“I wonder if coaxing would do any good?” he proceeded, after a pause. “Maybe the sound of a man’s voice would bring the animal to a stand? Doubtful. He’s not likely to ’ve heard much of that lately. I suppose it would only frighten him! The sight of my horse would be sure to do it, as it did before; though that was in the moonlight. Besides, he was chased by the howling staghound. No wonder his being wild, then, ridden as he is by hell knows what; for it can’t be—Bah! After all, there must be some trick in it; some damned infernal trick!”

For a while the speaker checked his horse with a tight rein. And, leaning forward, so as to get a good view through the trees, continued to scan the strange shape that was slowly skirting the timber.

“It’s his horse—sure as shootin’! His saddle, serapé, and all. How the hell could they have come into the possession of the other?”

Another pause of reflection.

“Trick, or no trick, it’s an ugly business. Whoever’s planned it, must know all that happened that night; and by God, if that thing lodged there, I’ve got to get it back. What a fool; to have bragged about it as I did! Curse the crooked luck!

“He won’t come nearer. He’s provokingly shy of the timber. Like all his breed, he knows he’s safest in the open ground.

“What’s to be done? See if I can call him up. May be he may like to hear a human voice. If it’ll only fetch him twenty yards nearer, I’ll be satisfied. Hanged if I don’t try.”

Drawing a little closer to the edge of the thicket, the speaker pronounced that call usually employed by Texans to summon a straying horse.

“Proh—proh—proshow! Come kindly! come, old horse!”

The invitation was extended to no purpose. The Texan steed did not seem to understand it; at all events, as an invitation to friendly companionship. On the contrary, it had the effect of frightening him; for no sooner fell the “proh” upon his ear, than letting go the mouthful of grass already gathered, he tossed his head aloft with a snort that proclaimed far greater fear than that felt for either wolf or vulture!

A mustang, he knew that his greatest enemy was man—a man mounted upon a horse; and by this time his scent had disclosed to him the proximity of such a foe.

He stayed not to see what sort of man, or what kind of horse. His first instinct had told him that both were enemies.

As his rider by this time appeared to have arrived at the same conclusion, there was no tightening of the rein; and he was left free to follow his own course—which carried him straight off over the prairie.

A bitter curse escaped from the lips of the unsuccessful stalker as he spurred out into the open ground.

Still more bitter was his oath, as he beheld the Headless Horseman passing rapidly beyond reach—unscathed by the bullet he had sent to earnestly after him.