Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Seventy Nine. An Untiring Tracker

Zeb was not long in arriving at the spot where he had “hitched” his mare. The topography of the chapparal was familiar to him; and he crossed it by a less circuitous route than that taken by the cripple.

He once more threw himself upon the trail of the broken shoe, in full belief that it would fetch out not a hundred miles from Casa del Corvo.

It led him along a road running almost direct from one of the crossings of the Rio Grande to Fort Inge. The road was a half-mile in width—a thing not uncommon in Texas, where every traveller selects his own path, alone looking to the general direction.

Along one edge of it had gone the horse with the damaged shoe.

Not all the way to Fort Inge. When within four or five miles of the post, the trail struck off from the road, at an angle of just such degree as followed in a straight line would bring out by Poindexter’s plantation. So confident was Zeb of this, that he scarce deigned to keep his eye upon the ground; but rode forwards, as if a finger-post was constantly by his side.

He had long before given up following the trail afoot. Despite his professed contempt for “horse-fixings”—as he called riding—he had no objection to finish his journey in the saddle—fashed as he now was with the fatigue of protracted trailing over prairie and through chapparal. Now and then only did he cast a glance upon the ground—less to assure himself he was on the track of the broken shoe, than to notice whether something else might not be learnt from the sign, besides its mere direction.

There were stretches of the prairie where the turf, hard and dry, had taken no impression. An ordinary traveller might have supposed himself the first to pass over the ground. But Zeb Stump was not of this class; and although he could not always distinguish the hoof marks, he knew within an inch where they would again become visible—on the more moist and softer patches of the prairie.

If at any place conjecture misled him, it was only for a short distance, and he soon corrected himself by a traverse.

In this half-careless, half-cautious way, he had approached within a mile of Poindexter’s plantation. Over the tops of the mezquite trees the crenelled parapet was in sight; when something he saw upon the ground caused a sudden change in his demeanour. A change, too, in his attitude; for instead of remaining on the back of his mare, he flung himself out of the saddle; threw the bridle upon her neck; and, rapidly passing in front of her, commenced taking up the trail afoot.

The mare made no stop, but continued on after him—with an air of resignation, as though she was used to such eccentricities.

To an inexperienced eye there was nothing to account for this sudden dismounting. It occurred at a place where the turf appeared untrodden by man, or beast. Alone might it be inferred from Zeb’s speech, as he flung himself out of the saddle:

“His track! goin’ to hum!” were the words muttered in a slow, measured tone; after which, at a slower pace, the dismounted hunter kept on along the trail.

In a little time after it conducted him into the chapparal; and in less to a stop—sudden, as if the thorny thicket had been transformed into a chevaux-de-frise, impenetrable both to him and his “critter.”

It was not this. The path was still open before him—more open than ever. It was its openness that had furnished him with a cause for discontinuing his advance.

The path sloped down into a valley below—a depression in the prairie, along the concavity of which, at times, ran a tiny stream—ran arroyo. It was now dry, or only occupied by stagnant pools, at long distances apart. In the mud-covered channel was a man, with a horse close behind him—the latter led by the bridle.

There was nothing remarkable in the behaviour of the horse; he was simply following the lead of his dismounted rider.

But the man—what was he doing? In his movements there was something peculiar—something that would have puzzled an uninitiated spectator.

It did not puzzle Zeb Stump; or but for a second of time.

Almost the instant his eye fell upon it, he read the meaning of the manoeuvre, and mutteringly pronounced it to himself.

“Oblitturatin’ the print o’ the broken shoe, or tryin’ to do thet same! ’Taint no use, Mister Cash Calhoun—no manner o’ use. Ye’ve made yur fut marks too deep to deceive me; an by the Eturnal I’ll foller them, though they shed conduck me into the fires o’ hell?”

As the backwoodsman terminated his blasphemous apostrophe, the man to whom it pointed, having finished his task of obscuration, once more leaped into his saddle, and hurried on.

On foot the tracker followed; though without showing any anxiety about keeping him in sight.

There was no need for that. The sleuth hound on a fresh slot could not be more sure of again viewing his victim, than was Zeb Stump of coming up with his. No chicanery of the chapparal—no twistings or doublings—could save Calhoun now.

The tracker advanced freely; not expecting to make halt again, till he should come within sight of Casa del Corvo.

Little blame to him that his reckoning proved wrong. Who could have foretold such an interruption as that occasioned by the encounter between Cassius Calhoun and Isidora Covarubio de los Llanos?

Though at sight of it, taken by surprise—perhaps something more—Zeb did not allow his feelings to betray his presence near the spot.

On the contrary, it seemed to stimulate him to increased caution.

Turning noiselessly round, he whispered some cabalistic words into the care of his “critter;” and then stole silently forward under cover of the acacias.

Without remonstrance, or remark, the mare followed. He soon came to a fall stop—his animal doing the same, in imitation so exact as to appear its counterpart.

A thick growth of mezquite trees separated him from the two individuals, by this time engaged in a lively interchange of speech.

He could not see them, without exposing himself to the danger of being detected in his eaves-dropping; but he heard what they said all the same.

He kept his place—listening till the horse trade was concluded, and for some time after.

Only when they had separated, and both taken departure did he venture to come forth from his cover.

Standing upon the spot lately occupied by the “swoppers,” and looking “both ways at once,” he exclaimed—

“Geehosophat! thur’s a compack atween a he an’ she-devil; an’ durn’d ef I kin tell, which hez got the bessest o’ the bargin!”