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Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Seventy Six. Lost in the Chalk

Still continuing his fleet career, the Headless Horseman galloped on over the prairie—Zeb Stump following only with his eyes; and not until he had passed out of sight, behind some straggling groves of mezquite, did the backwoodsman abandon his kneeling position.

Then only for a second or two did he stand erect—taking council with himself as to what course he should pursue.

The episode—strange as unexpected—had caused some disarrangement in his ideas, and seemed to call for a change in his plans. Should he continue along the trail he was already deciphering; or forsake it for that of the steed that had just swept by?

By keeping to the former, he might find out much; but by changing to the latter he might learn more?

He might capture the Headless Horseman, and ascertain from him the why and wherefore of his wild wanderings?

While thus absorbed, in considering what course he had best take, he had forgotten the puff of smoke, and the report heard far off over the prairie.

Only for a moment, however. They were things to be remembered; and he soon remembered them.

Turning his eyes to the quarter where the smoke had appeared, he saw that which caused him to squat down again; and place himself, with more impressement than ever, under cover of the mezquites. The old mare, relishing the recumbent attitude, had still kept to it; and there was no necessity for re-disposing of her.

What Zeb now saw was a man on horseback—a real horseman, with a head upon his shoulders.

He was still a long way off; and it was not likely he had seen the tall form of the hunter, standing shored up among the bushes—much less the mare, lying beneath them. He showed no signs of having done so.

On the contrary, he was sitting stooped in the saddle, his breast bent down to the pommel, and his eyes actively engaged in reading the ground, over which he was guiding his horse.

There could be no difficulty in ascertaining his occupation. Zeb Stump guessed it at a glance. He was tracking the headless rider.

“Ho, ho!” muttered Zeb, on making this discovery; “I ain’t the only one who’s got a reezun for solvin’ this hyur myst’ry! Who the hell kin he be? I shed jest like to know that.”

Zeb had not long to wait for the gratification of his wish. As the trail was fresh, the strange horseman could take it up at a trot—in which pace he was approaching.

He was soon within identifying distance.

“Gee—hosophat!” muttered the backwoodsman; “I mout a know’d it wud be him; an ef I’m not mistook about it, hyurs goin’ to be a other chapter out o’ the same book—a other link as ’ll help me to kumplete the chain o’ evydince I’m in sarch for. Lay clost, ye critter! Ef ye make ere a stir—even to the shakin’ o’ them long lugs o’ yourn—I’ll cut yur darned throat.”

The last speech was an apostrophe to the “maar”—after which Zeb waxed silent, with his head among the spray of the acacias, and his eyes peering through the branches in acute scrutiny of him who was coming along.

This was a man, who, once seen, was not likely to be soon forgotten. Scarce thirty years old, he showed a countenance, scathed, less with care than the play of evil passions.

But there was care upon it now—a care that seemed to speak of apprehension—keen, prolonged, yet looking forward with a hope of being relieved from it.

Withal it was a handsome face: such as a gentleman need not have been ashamed of, but for that sinister expression that told of its belonging to a blackguard.

The dress—but why need we describe it? The blue cloth frock of semi-military cut—the forage cap—the belt sustaining a bowie-knife, with a brace of revolving pistols—all have been mentioned before as enveloping and equipping the person of Captain Cassius Calhoun.

It was he.

It was not the batterie of small arms that kept Zeb Stump from showing himself. He had no dread of an encounter with the ex-officer of Volunteers. Though he instinctively felt hostility, he had as yet given no reason to the latter for regarding him as an enemy. He remained in shadow, to have a better view of what was passing under the sunlight.

Still closely scrutinising the trail of the Headless Horseman, Calhoun trotted past.

Still closely keeping among the acacias, Zeb Stump looked after, till the same grove, that had concealed the former, interposed its verdant veil between him and the ex-captain of cavalry.

The backwoodsman’s brain having become the recipient of new thoughts, required a fresh exercise of its ingenuity.

If there was reason before for taking the trail of the Headless Horseman, it was redoubled now.

With but short time spent in consideration, so Zeb concluded; and commenced making preparations for a stalk after Cassius Calhoun.

These consisted in taking hold of the bridle, and giving the old mare a kick; that caused her to start instantaneously to her feet.

Zeb stood by her side, intending to climb into the saddle and ride out into the open plain—as soon as Calhoun should be out of sight.

He had no thoughts of keeping the latter in view. He needed no such guidance. The two fresh trails would be sufficient for him; and he felt as sure of finding the direction in which both would lead, as if he had ridden alongside the horseman without a head, or him without a heart.

With this confidence he cleared out from among the acacias, and took the path just trodden by Calhoun.

For once in his life, Zeb Stump had made a mistake. On rounding the mezquite grove, behind which both had made disappearance, he discovered he had done so.

Beyond, extended a tract of chalk prairie; over which one of the horsemen appeared to have passed—him without the head.

Zeb guessed so, by seeing the other, at some distance before him, riding to and fro, in transverse stretches, like a pointer quartering the stubble in search of a partridge.

He too had lost the trail, and was endeavouring to recover it.

Crouching under cover of the mezquites, the hunter remained a silent spectator of his movements.

The attempt terminated in a failure. The chalk surface defied interpretation—at least by skill such as that of Cassius Calhoun.

After repeated quarterings he appeared to surrender his design; and, angrily plying the spur, galloped off in the direction of the Leona.

As soon as he was out of sight, Zeb also made an effort to take up the lost trail. But despite his superior attainments in the tracking craft, he was compelled to relinquish it.

A fervid sun was glaring down upon the chalk; and only the eye of a salamander could have withstood the reflection of its rays.

Dazed almost to blindness, the backwoodsman determined upon turning late back; and once more devoting his attention to the trail from which he had been for a time seduced.

He had learnt enough to know that this last promised a rich reward for its exploration.

It took him but a short time to regain it.

Nor did he lose any in following it up. He was too keenly impressed with its value; and with this idea urging him, he strode rapidly on, the mare following as before.

Once only did he make pause; at a point where the tracks of two horses converged with that he was following.

From this point the three coincided—at times parting and running parallel, for a score of yards or so, but again coming together and overlapping one another.

The horses were all shod—like that which carried the broken shoe—and the hunter only stopped to see what he could make out of the hoof marks. One was a “States horse;” the other a mustang—though a stallion of great size, and with a hoof almost as large as that of the American.

Zeb had his conjectures about both.

He did not stay to inquire which had gone first over the ground. That was as clear to him, as if he had been a spectator at their passing. The stallion had been in the lead,—how far Zeb could not exactly tell; but certainly some distance beyond that of companionship. The States horse had followed; and behind him, the roadster with the broken shoe—also an American.

All three had gone over the same ground, at separate times, and each by himself. This Zeb Stump could tell with as much ease and certainty, as one might read the index of a dial, or thermometer.

Whatever may have been in his thoughts, he said nothing, beyond giving utterance to the simple exclamation “Good!” and, with satisfaction stamped upon his features, he moved on, the old mare appearing to mock him by an imitative stride!

“Hyur they’ve seppurated,” he said, once again coming to a stop, and regarding the ground at his feet. “The stellyun an States hoss hev goed thegither—thet air they’ve tuk the same way. Broken-shoe hev strayed in a diffrent direkshun.”

“Wonder now what thet’s for?” he continued, after standing awhile to consider. “Durn me ef I iver seed sech perplexin’ sign! It ud puzzle ole Dan’l Boone hisself.”

“Which on ’em shed I foller fust? Ef I go arter the two I know whar they’ll lead. They’re boun’ to kim up in thet puddle o’ blood. Let’s track up tother, and see whether he hev rud into the same procksimmuty! To the right abeout, ole gal, and keep clost ahint me—else ye may get lost in the chapparal, an the coyoats may make thur supper on yur tallow. Ho! ho! ho!”

With this apostrophe to his “critter,” ending in a laugh at the conceit of her “tallow,” the hunter turned off on the track of the third horse.

It led him along the edge of an extended tract of chapparal; which, following all three, he had approached at a point well known to him, as to the reader,—where it was parted by the open space already described.

The new trail skirted the timber only for a short distance. Two hundred yards from the embouchure of the avenue, it ran into it; and fifty paces further on Zeb came to a spot where the horse had stood tied to a tree.

Zeb saw that the animal had proceeded no further: for there was another set of tracks showing where it had returned to the prairie—though not by the same path.

The rider had gone beyond. The foot-marks of a man could be seen beyond—in the mud of a half-dry arroyo—beside which the horse had been “hitched.”

Leaving his critter to occupy the “stall” where broken-shoe had for some time fretted himself, the old hunter glided off upon the footmarks of the dismounted rider.

He soon discovered two sets of them—one going—another coming back.

He followed the former.

He was not surprised at their bringing him out into the avenue—close to the pool of blood—by the coyotés long since licked dry.

He might have traced them right up to it, but for the hundreds of horse tracks that had trodden the ground like a sheep-pen.

But before going so far, he was stayed by the discovery of some fresh “sign”—too interesting to be carelessly examined. In a place where the underwood grew thick, he came upon a spot where a man had remained for some time. There was no turf, and the loose mould was baked hard and smooth, evidently by the sole of a boot or shoe.

There were prints of the same sole leading out towards the place of blood, and similar ones coming back again. But upon the branches of a tree between, Zeb Stump saw something that had escaped the eyes not only of the searchers, but of their guide Spangler—a scrap of paper, blackened and half-burnt—evidently the wadding of a discharged gun!

It was clinging to the twig of a locust-tree, impaled upon one of its spines!

The old hunter took it from the thorn to which, through rain and wind, it had adhered; spread it carefully across the palm of his horny hand; and read upon its smouched surface a name well known to him; which, with its concomitant title, bore the initials, “C.C.C.”

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