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Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Seventy Five. On the Trail

Zeb Stump stayed but a short while on the spot, where he had discovered the hoof-print with the broken shoe.

Six seconds sufficed for its identification; after which he rose to his feet, and continued along the trail of the horse that had made it.

He did not re-mount, but strode forward on foot; the old mare, obedient to a signal he had given her, keeping at a respectful distance behind him.

For more than a mile he moved on in this original fashion—now slowly, as the trail became indistinct—quickening his pace where the print of the imperfect shoe could be seen without difficulty.

Like an archaeologist engaged upon a tablet of hieroglyphic history, long entombed beneath the ruins of a lost metropolis—whose characters appear grotesque to all except himself—so was it with Zeb Stump, as he strode on, translating the “sign” of the prairie.

Absorbed in the act, and the conjectures that accompanied it, he had no eyes for aught else. He glanced neither to the green savannah that stretched inimitably around, nor to the blue sky that spread specklessly above him. Alone to the turf beneath his feet was his eye and attention directed.

A sound—not a sight—startled him from his all-engrossing occupation. It was the report of a rifle; but so distant, as to appear but the detonation of a percussion-cap that had missed fire.

Instinctively he stopped; at the same time raising his eyes, but without unbending his body.

With a quick glance the horizon was swept, along the half dozen points whence the sound should have proceeded.

A spot of bluish smoke—still preserving its balloon shape—was slowly rolling up against the sky. A dark blotch beneath indicated the outlines of an “island” of timber.

So distant was the “motte,” the smoke, and the sound, that only the eye of an experienced prairie-man would have seen the first, or his ear heard the last, from the spot where Zeb Stump was standing.

But Zeb saw the one, and heard the other.

“Durned queery!” he muttered, still stooped in the attitude of a gardener dibbing in his young cabbage-plants.

“Dog-goned queery, to say the leest on’t. Who in ole Nick’s name kin be huntin’ out thur—whar theer ain’t game enuf to pay for the powder an shet? I’ve been to thet ere purayra island; an I know there ain’t nothin’ thur ’ceptin’ coyoats. What they get to live on, only the Eturnal kin tell!”

“Wagh!” he went on, after a short silence. “Some storekeeper from the town, out on a exkurshun, as he’d call it, who’s proud o’ poppin’ away at them stinkin’ varmints, an ’ll go hum wi’ a story he’s been a huntin’ wolves! Wal. ’Tain’t no bizness o’ myen. Let yurd-stick hev his belly-ful o’ sport. Heigh! thur’s somethin’ comin’ this way. A hoss an somebody on his back—streakin’ it as if hell war arter him, wi’ a pitchfork o’ red-het lightnin’! What! As I live, it air the Headless! It is, by the jumpin’ Geehosophat!”

The observation of the old hunter was quite correct. There could be no mistake about the character of the cavalier, who, just clearing himself from the cloud of sulphureous smoke—now falling, dispersed over the prairie—came galloping on towards the spot where Zeb stood. It was the horseman without a head.

Nor could there be any doubt as to the direction he was taking—as straight towards Zeb as if he already saw, and was determined on coming up with him!

A braver man than the backwoodsman could not have been found within the confines of Texas. Cougar, or jaguar—bear, buffalo, or Red Indian—he could have encountered without quailing. Even a troop of Comanches might have come charging on, without causing him half the apprehension felt at sight of that solitary equestrian.

With all his experience of Nature in her most secret haunts—despite the stoicism derived from that experience—Zeb Stump was not altogether free from superstitious fancies. Who is?

With the courage to scorn a human foe—any enemy that might show itself in a natural shape, either of biped or quadruped—still was he not stern enough to defy the abnormal; and Bayard himself would have quailed at sight of the cavalier who was advancing to the encounter—apparently determined upon its being deadly!

Zeb Stump not only quailed; but, trembling in his tall boots of alligator leather, sought concealment.

He did so, long before the Headless Horseman had got within hailing distance; or, as he supposed, within sight of him.

Some bushes growing close by gave him the chance of a hiding place; of which, with instinctive quickness, he availed himself.

The mare, standing saddled by his side, might still have betrayed him?

But, no. He had not gone to his knees, without thinking of that.

“Hunker down!” he cried, addressing himself to his dumb companion, who, if wanting speech, proved herself perfect in understanding. “Squat, ye ole critter; or by the Eturnal ye’ll be switched off into hell!”

As if dreading some such terrible catastrophe, the scraggy quadruped dropped down upon her fore knees; and then, lowering her hind quarters, laid herself along the grass, as though thinking her day’s work done—she was free to indulge in a fiesta.

Scarce had Zeb and his roadster composed themselves their new position, when the Headless Horseman came charging up.

He was going at full speed; and Zeb was but too well pleased to perceive that he was likely to continue it.

It was sheer chance that had conducted him that way; and not from having seen either the hunter or his sorry steed.

The former—if not the latter—was satisfied at being treated in that cavalier style; but, long before the Headless Horseman had passed out of sight, Zeb had taken his dimensions, and made himself acquainted with his character.

Though he might be a mystery to all the world beside, he was no longer so to Zebulon Stump.

As the horse shot past in fleet career, the skirt of the serapé, flouted up by the wind, displayed to Stump’s optics a form well known to him—in a dress he had seen before. It was a blouse of blue cottonade, box-plaited over the breast; and though its vivid colour was dashed with spots of garish red, the hunter was able to recognise it.

He was not so sure about the face seen low down upon the saddle, and resting against the rider’s leg.

There was nothing strange in his inability to recognise it.

The mother, who had oft looked fondly on that once fair countenance, would not have recognised it now.

Zeb Stump only did so by deduction. The horse, the saddle, the holsters, the striped blanket, the sky-blue coat and trousers—even the hat upon the head—were all known to him. So, too, was the figure that stood almost upright in the stirrups. The head and face must belong to the same—notwithstanding their unaccountable displacement.

Zeb saw it by no uncertain glance. He was permitted a full, fair view of the ghastly spectacle.

The steed, though going at a gallop, passed within ten paces of him.

He made no attempt to interrupt the retreating rider—either by word or gesture. Only, as the form became unmasked before his eyes, and its real meaning flashed across his mind, he muttered, in a slow, sad tone:

“Gee-hos-o-phat! It air true, then! Poor young fellur—dead—dead!”

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