Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Seventy Eight. A Horse-Swop

With an oath, a sullen look, and a brow black as disappointment could make it, Calhoun turned away from the edge of the chalk prairie, where he had lost the traces of the Headless Horseman.

“No use following further! No knowing where he’s gone now! No hope of finding him except by a fluke! If I go back to the creek I might see him again; but unless I get within range, it’ll end as it’s done before. The mustang stallion won’t let me come near him—as if the brute knows what I’m wanting!

“He’s even cunninger than the wild sort—trained to it, I suppose, by the mustanger himself. One fair shot—if I could only get that, I’d settle his courses.

“There appears no chance of stealing upon him; and as to riding him down, it can’t be done with a slow mule like this.

“The sorrel’s not much better as to speed, though he beats this brute in bottom. I’ll try him to-morrow, with the new shoe.

“If I could only get hold of something that’s fast enough to overtake the mustang! I’d put down handsomely for a horse that could do it.

“There must be one of the sort in the settlement. I’ll see when I get back. If there be, a couple of hundred, ay or three, won’t hinder me from having him.”

After he had made these mutterings Calhoun rode away from the chalk prairie, his dark countenance strangely contrasting with its snowy sheen. He went at a rapid rate; not sparing his horse, already jaded with a protracted journey—as could be told by his sweating coat, and the clots of half-coagulated blood, where the spur had been freely plied upon his flanks. Fresh drops soon appeared as he cantered somewhat heavily on—his head set for the hacienda of Casa del Corvo.

In less than an hour after, his rider was guiding him among the mezquites that skirted the plantation.

It was a path known to Calhoun. He had ridden over it before, though not upon the same horse. On crossing the bed of an arroyo—dry from a long continuance of drought—he was startled at beholding in the mud the tracks of another horse. One of them showed a broken shoe, an old hoof-print, nearly eight days old. He made no examination to ascertain the time. He knew it to an hour.

He bent over it, with a different thought—a feeling of surprise commingled with a touch of superstition. The track looked recent, as if made on the day before. There had been wind, rain, thunder, and lightning. Not one of these had wasted it. Even the angry elements appeared to have passed over without destroying it—as if to spare it for a testimony against the outraged laws of Nature—their God.

Calhoun dismounted, with the design to obliterate the track of the three-quarter shoe. Better for him to have spared himself the pains. The crease of his boot-heel crushing in the stiff mud was only an additional evidence as to who had ridden the broken-shoed horse. There was one coming close behind capable of collecting it.

Once more in his saddle, the ex-officer rode on—reflecting on his own astuteness.

His reflections had scarce reached the point of reverie, when the hoof-stroke of a horse—not his own—came suddenly within hearing. Not within sight: for the animal making them was still screened by the chapparal.

Plainly was it approaching; and, although at a slow pace, the measured tread told of its being guided, and not straying. It was a horse with a rider upon his back.

In another instant both were in view; and Calhoun saw before him Isidora Covarubio de los Llanos; she at the same instant catching sight of him!

It was a strange circumstance that these two should thus encounter one another—apparently by chance, though perhaps controlled by destiny. Stranger still the thought summoned up in the bosoms of both.

In Calhoun, Isidora saw the man who loved the woman she herself hated. In Isidora, Calhoun saw the woman who loved him he both hated and had determined to destroy.

This mutual knowledge they had derived partly from report, partly from observation, and partly from the suspicious circumstances under which more than once they had met. They were equally convinced of its truth. Each felt certain of the sinister entanglement of the other; while both believed their own to be unsuspected.

The situation was not calculated to create a friendly feeling between them. It is not natural that man, or woman, should like the admirer of a rival. They can only be friends at that point where jealousy prompts to the deadliest vengeance; and then it is but a sinister sympathy.

As yet no such had arisen between Cassius Calhoun and Isidora Covarubio de los Llanos.

If it had been possible, both might have been willing to avoid the encounter. Isidora certainly was.

She had no predilection for the ex-officer of dragoons; and besides the knowledge that he was the lover of her rival, there was another thought that now rendered his presence, if not disagreeable, at least not desirable.

She remembered the chase of the sham Indians, and its ending. She knew that among the Texans there had been much conjecture as to her abrupt disappearance, after appealing to them for protection.

She had her own motive for that, which she did not intend to declare; and the man about meeting her might be inclined to ask questions on the subject.

She would have passed with a simple salutation—she could not give less than that. And perhaps he might have done the same; but for a thought which at that moment came into his mind, entirely unconnected with the reflections already there engendered.

It was not the lady herself who suggested the thought. Despite her splendid beauty, he had no admiration for her. In his breast, ruthless as it might have been, there was no space left for a second passion—not even a sensual one—for her thus encountered in the solitude of the chapparal, with Nature whispering wild, wicked suggestions.

It was no idea of this that caused him to rein up in the middle of the path; remove the cap from his crown; and, by a courtly salutation, invite a dialogue with Isidora.

So challenged, she could not avoid the conversation; that commenced upon the instant—Calhoun taking the initiative.

“Excuse me, señorita,” said he, his glance directed more upon her steed than herself; “I know it’s very rude thus to interrupt your ride; especially on the part of a stranger, as with sorrow I am compelled to call myself.”

“It needs no apology, señor. If I’m not mistaken, we have met before—upon the prairie, out near the Nueces.”

“True—true!” stammered Calhoun, not caring to dwell upon the remembrance. “It was not of that encounter I wished to speak; but what I saw afterwards, as you came galloping along the cliff. We all wondered what became of you.”

“There was not much cause for wonder, cavallero. The shot which some of your people fired from below, disembarrassed me of my pursuers. I saw that they had turned back, and simply continued my journey.”

Calhoun exhibited no chagrin at being thus baffled. The theme upon which he designed to direct his discourse had not yet turned up; and in it he might be more successful.

What it was might have been divined from his glance—half connoisseur, half horse-jockey—still directed toward the steed of Isidora.

“I do not say, señorita, that I was one of those who wondered at your sudden disappearance. I presumed you had your own reasons for not coming on to us; and, seeing you ride as you did, I felt no fear for your safety. It was your riding that astonished me, as it did all of my companions. Such a horse you had! He appeared to glide, rather than gallop! If I mistake not, it’s the same you are now astride of. Am I right, señora? Pardon me for asking such an insignificant question.”

“The same? Let me see? I make use of so many. I think I was riding this horse upon that day. Yes, yes; I am sure of it. I remember how the brute betrayed me.”

“Betrayed you! How?”

“Twice he did it. Once as you and your people were approaching. The second time, when the Indians—ay Dios! not Indians, as I’ve since heard—were coming through the chapparal.”

“But how?”

“By neighing. He should not have done it. He’s had training enough to know better than that. No matter. Once I get him back to the Rio Grande he shall stay there. I shan’t ride him again. He shall return to his Pastures.”

“Pardon me, señorita, for speaking to you on such a subject; but I can’t help thinking that it’s a pity.”

“What’s a pity?”

“That a steed so splendid as that should be so lightly discarded. I would give much to possess him.”

“You are jesting, cavallero. He is nothing beyond the common; perhaps a little pretty, and quick in his paces. My father has five thousand of his sort—many of them prettier, and, no doubt, some faster than he. He’s a good roadster; and that’s why I’m riding him now. If it weren’t that I’m on my way home to the Rio Grande, and the journey is still before me, you’d be welcome to have him, or anybody else who cared for him, as you seem to do. Be still, musteño mio! You see there’s somebody likes you better than I do.”

The last speech was addressed to the mustang, who, like its rider, appeared impatient for the conversation to come to a close.

Calhoun, however, seemed equally desirous of prolonging, or, at all events, bringing it to a different termination.

“Excuse me, señorita,” said he, assuming an air of businesslike earnestness, at the same time speaking apologetically; “if that be all the value you set upon the grey mustang, I should be only too glad to make an exchange with you. My horse, if not handsome, is estimated by our Texan dealers as a valuable animal. Though somewhat slow in his paces, I can promise that he will carry you safely to your home, and will serve you well afterwards.”

“What, señor!” exclaimed the lady, in evident astonishment, “exchange your grand American frison for a Mexican mustang! The offer is too generous to appear other than a jest. You know that on the Rio Grande one of your horses equals in value at least three, sometimes six, of ours?”

Calhoun knew this well enough; but he knew also that the mustang ridden by Isidora would be to him worth a whole stableful of such brutes as that he was bestriding. He had been an eye-witness to its speed, besides having heard of it from others. It was the thing he stood in need of—the very thing. He would have given, not only his “grand frison” in exchange, but the full price of the mustang by way of “boot.”

Fortunately for him, there was no attempt at extortion. In the composition of the Mexican maiden, however much she might be given to equestrian tastes, there was not much of the “coper.” With five thousand horses in the paternal stables, or rather straying over the patrimonial plains, there was but slight motive for sharp practice; and why should she deny such trifling gratification, even though the man seeking it was a stranger—perhaps an enemy?

She did not.

“If you are in earnest, señor,” was her response, “you are welcome to what you want.”

“I am in earnest, señorita.”

“Take him, then!” said she, leaping out of her saddle, and commencing to undo the girths, “We cannot exchange saddles: yours would be a mile too big for me!”

Calhoun was too happy to find words for a rejoinder. He hastened to assist her in removing the saddle; after which he took off his own.

In less than five minutes the horses were exchanged—the saddles and bridles being retained by their respective owners.

To Isidora there was something ludicrous in the transference. She almost laughed while it was being carried on.

Calhoun looked upon it in a different light. There was a purpose present before his mind—one of the utmost importance.

They parted without much further speech—only the usual greetings of adieu—Isidora going off on the frison; while the ex-officer, mounted on the grey mustang, continued his course in the direction of Casa del Corvo.