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Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Seventy Seven. Another Link

It was less surprise, than gratification, that showed itself on the countenance of Zeb Stump, as he deciphered the writing on the paper.

“That ere’s the backin’ o’ a letter,” muttered he. “Tells a goodish grist o’ story; more’n war wrote inside, I reck’n. Been used for the wad’ o’ a gun! Wal; sarves the cuss right, for rammin’ down a rifle ball wi’ a patchin’ o’ scurvy paper, i’stead o’ the proper an bessest thing, which air a bit o’ greased buckskin.”

“The writin’ air in a sheemale hand,” he continued, looking anew at the piece of paper. “Don’t signerfy for thet. It’s been sent to him all the same; an he’s hed it in purzeshun. It air somethin’ to be tuk care o’.”

So saying, he drew out a small skin wallet, which contained his tinder of “punk,” along with his flint and steel; and, after carefully stowing away the scrap of paper, he returned the sack to his pocket.

“Wal!” he went on in soliloquy, as he stood silently considering, “I kalkerlate as how this ole coon ’ll be able to unwind a good grist o’ this clue o’ mystery, tho’ thur be a bit o’ the thread broken hyur an thur, an a bit o’ a puzzle I can’t clurly understan’. The man who hev been murdered, whosomdiver he may be, war out thur by thet puddle o’ blood, an the man as did the deed, whosomdiver he be, war a stannin’ behint this locust-tree. But for them greenhorns, I mout a got more out o’ the sign. Now thur ain’t the ghost o’ a chance. They’ve tramped the hul place into a durnationed mess, cuvortin’ and caperin’ abeout.

“Wal, ’tair no use goin’ furrer thet way. The bessest thing now air to take the back track, if it air possable, an diskiver whar the hoss wi’ the broke shoe toted his rider arter he went back from this leetle bit o’ still-huntin’. Thurfor, ole Zeb’lon Stump, back ye go on the boot tracks!”

With this grotesque apostrophe to himself, he commenced retracing the footmarks that had guided him to the edge of the opening. Only in one or two places were the footprints at all distinct. But Zeb scarce cared for their guidance.

Having already noted that the man who made them had returned to the place where the horse had been left, he knew the back track would lead him there.

There was one place, however, where the two trails did not go over the same ground. There was a forking in the open list, through which the supposed murderer had made his way. It was caused by an obstruction,—a patch of impenetrable thicket. They met again, but not till that on which the hunter was returning straggled off into an open glade of considerable size.

Having become satisfied of this, Zeb looked around into the glade—for a time forsaking the footsteps of the pedestrian.

After a short examination, he observed a trail altogether distinct, and of a different character. It was a well-marked path entering the opening on one side, and going out on the other: in short, a cattle-track.

Zeb saw that several shod horses had passed along it, some days before: and it was this that caused him to come back and examine it.

He could tell to a day—to an hour—when the horses had passed; and from the sign itself. But the exercise of his ingenuity was not needed on this occasion. He knew that the hoof-prints were those of the horses ridden by Spangler and his party—after being detached from the main body of searchers who had gone home with the major.

He had heard the whole story of that collateral investigation—how Spangler and his comrades had traced Henry Poindexter’s horse to the place where the negro had caught it—on the outskirts of the plantation.

To an ordinary intellect this might have appeared satisfactory. Nothing more could be learnt by any one going over the ground again.

Zeb Stump did not seem to think so. As he stood looking along it, his attitude showed indecision.

“If I ked make shur o’ havin’ time,” he muttered, “I’d foller it fust. Jest as like as not I’ll find a fluke thur too. But thur’s no sartinty ’beout the time, an I’d better purceed to settle wi’ the anymal as cast the quarter shoe.”

He had turned to go out of the glade, when a thought once more stayed him.

“Arter all, it kin be eezy foun’ at any time. I kin guess whar it’ll lead, as sartint, as if I’d rud ’longside the skunk thet made it—straight custrut to the stable o’ Caser Corver.

“It’s a durned pity to drop this un,—now whiles I’m hyur upon the spot. It’ll gie me the makin’ o’ another ten-mile jurney, an thur moutn’t be time. Dog-goned ef I don’t try a leetle way along it. The ole maar kin wait till I kum back.”

Bracing himself for a new investigation, he started off upon the cattle-track, trodden by the horses of Spangler and his party.

To the hoof-marks of these he paid but slight attention; at times, none whatever. His eye only sought those of Henry Poindexter’s horse. Though the others were of an after time, and often destroyed the traces he was most anxious to examine, he had no difficulty in identifying the latter. As he would have himself said, any greenhorn could do that. The young planter’s horse had gone over the ground at a gallop. The trackers had ridden slowly.

As far as Zeb Stump could perceive, the latter had made neither halt nor deviation. The former had.

It was about three-quarters of a mile from the edge of the venue.

It was not a halt the galloping horse had made, but only a slight departure from his direct course; as if something he had seen—wolf, jaguar, cougar, or other beast of prey—had caused him to shy.

Beyond he had continued his career; rapid and reckless as ever.

Beyond the party along with Spangler had proceeded—without staying to inquire why the horse had shied from his track.

Zeb Stump was more inquisitive, and paused upon this spot.

It was a sterile tract, without herbage, and covered with shingle and sand. A huge tree overshadowed it, with limbs extending horizontally. One of these ran transversely to the path over which the horses had passed—so low that a horseman, to shun contact with it, would have to lower his head. At this branch Zeb Stump stood gazing. He observed an abrasion upon the bark; that, though very slight, must have been caused by contact with some substance, as hard, if not sounder, than itself.

“Thet’s been done by the skull o’ a human critter,” reasoned he—“a human critter, that must a been on the back o’ a hoss—this side the branch, an off on the t’other. No livin’ man ked a stud sech a cullizyun as thet, an kep his seat i’ the seddle.

“Hooraw!” he triumphantly exclaimed, after a cursory examination of the ground underneath the tree. “I thort so. Thur’s the impreshun o’ the throwed rider. An’ thur’s whar he hez creeped away. Now I’ve got a explication o’ thet big bump as hez been puzzlin’ me. I know’d it wan’t did by the claws o’ any varmint; an it didn’t look like the blow eyther o’ a stone or a stick. Thet ere’s the stick that hez gi’n it.”

With an elastic step—his countenance radiant of triumph—the old hunter strode away from the tree, no longer upon the cattle path, but that taken by the man who had been so violently dismounted.

To one unaccustomed to the chapparal, he might have appeared going without a guide, and upon a path never before pressed by human foot.

A portion of it perhaps had not. But Zeb was conducted by signs which, although obscure to the ordinary eye, were to him intelligible as the painted lettering upon a finger-post. The branch contorted to afford passage for a human form—the displaced tendrils of a creeping plant—the scratched surface of the earth—all told that a man had passed that way. The sign signified more—that the man was disabled—had been crawling—a cripple!

Zeb Stump continued on, till he had traced this cripple to the banks of a running stream.

It was not necessary for him to go further. He had made one more splice of the broken thread. Another, and his clue would be complete!

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