Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Eighty. A Doorway Well Watched

It was some time before Zeb Stump sallied forth from the covert where he had been witness to the “horse swop.” Not till both the bargainers had ridden entirely out of sight. Then he went not after either; but stayed upon the spot, as if undecided which he should follow.

It was not exactly this that kept him to the place; but the necessity of taking what he was in the habit of calling a “good think.”

His thoughts were about the exchange of the horses: for he had heard the whole dialogue relating thereto, and the proposal coming from Calhoun. It was this that puzzled, or rather gave him reason for reflection. What could be the motive?

Zeb knew to be true what the Mexican had said: that the States horse was, in market value, worth far more than the mustang. He knew, moreover, that Cassius Calhoun was the last man to be “coped” in a horse trade. Why, then, had he done the “deal?”

The old hunter pulled off his felt hat; gave his hand a twist or two through his unkempt hair; transferred the caress to the grizzled beard upon his chin—all the while gazing upon the ground, as if the answer to his mental interrogatory was to spring out of the grass.

“Thur air but one explication o’t,” he at length muttered: “the grey’s the faster critter o’ the two—ne’er a doubt ’beout thet; an Mister Cash wants him for his fastness: else why the durnation shed he a gin a hoss thet ’ud sell for four o’ his sort in any part o’ Texas, an twicet thet number in Mexiko? I reck’n he’s bargained for the heels. Why? Durn me, ef I don’t suspect why. He wants—he—heigh—I hev it—somethin’ as kin kum up wi’ the Headless!

“Thet’s the very thing he’s arter—sure as my name’s Zeb’lon Stump. He’s tried the States hoss an foun’ him slow. Thet much I knowd myself. Now he thinks, wi’ the mowstang, he may hev a chance to overhaul the tother, ef he kin only find him agin; an for sartin he’ll go in sarch o’ him.

“He’s rad on now to Casser Corver—maybe to git a pick o’ somethin’ to eat. He won’t stay thur long. ’Fore many hours hev passed, somebody ’ll see him out hyur on the purayra; an thet somebody air boun’ to be Zeb’lon Stump.

“Come, ye critter!” he continued, turning to the mare, “ye thort ye wur a goin’ hum, did ye? Yur mistaken ’beout that. Ye’ve got to squat hyur for another hour or two—if not the hul o’ the night. Never mind, ole gurl! The grass don’t look so had; an ye shell hev a chance to git yur snout to it. Thur now—eet your durned gut-full!”

While pronouncing this apostrophe, he drew the head-stall over the ears of his mare; and, chucking the bridle across the projecting tree of the saddle, permitted her to graze at will.

Having secured her in the chapparal where he had halted, he walked on—along the track taken by Calhoun.

Two hundred yards farther on, and the jungle terminated. Beyond stretched an open plain; and on its opposite side could be seen the hacienda of Casa del Corvo.

The figure of a horseman could be distinguished against its whitewashed façade—in another moment lost within the dark outline of the entrance.

Zeb knew who went in.

“From this place,” he muttered, “I kin see him kum out; an durn me, ef I don’t watch till he do kum out—ef it shed be till this time o’ the morrow. So hyur goes for a spell o’ patience.”

He first lowered himself to his knees. Then, “squirming” round till his back came in contact with the trunk of a honey-locust, he arranged himself into a sitting posture. This done, he drew from his capacious pocket a wallet, containing a “pone” of corn-bread, a large “hunk” of fried “hog-meat,” and a flask of liquor, whose perfume proclaimed it “Monongahela.”

Having eaten about half the bread, and a like quantity of the meat, he returned the remaining moieties to the wallet; which he suspended over head upon a branch. Then taking a satisfactory swig from the whiskey-flask, and igniting his pipe, he leant back against the locust—with arms folded over his breast, and eyes bent upon the gateway of Casa del Corvo.

In this way he kept watch for a period of full two hours; never changing the direction of his glance; or not long enough for any one to pass out unseen by him.

Forms came out, and went in—several of them—men and women. But even in the distance their scant light-coloured garments, and dusky complexions, told them to be only the domestics of the mansion. Besides, they were all on foot; and he, for whom Zeb was watching, should come on horseback—if at all.

His vigil was only interrupted by the going down of the sun; and then only to cause a change in his post of observation. When twilight began to fling its purple shadows over the plain, he rose to his feet; and, leisurely unfolding his tall figure, stood upright by the stem of the tree—as if this attitude was more favourable for “considering.”

“Thur’s jest a posserbillity the skunk mout sneak out i’ the night?” was his reflection. “Leastways afore the light o’ the mornin’; an I must make sure which way he takes purayra.

“’Taint no use my toatin’ the maar after me,” he continued, glancing in the direction where the animal had been left. “She’d only bother me. Beside, thur’s goin’ to be a clurrish sort o’ moonlight; an she mout be seen from the nigger quarter. She’ll be better hyur—both for grass and kiver.”

He went back to the mare; took off the saddle; fastened the trail-rope round her neck, tying the other end to a tree; and then, unstrapping his old blanket from the cantle, he threw it across his left arm, and walked off in the direction of Casa del Corvo.

He did not proceed pari passu; but now quicker, and now more hesitatingly—timing himself, by the twilight—so that his approach might not be observed from the hacienda.

He had need of this caution: for the ground which he had to pass was like a level lawn, without copse or cover of any kind. Here and there stood a solitary tree—dwarf-oak or algarobia, but not close enough to shelter him from being seen through the windows—much less from the azotea.

Now and then he stopped altogether—to wait for the deepening of the twilight.

Working his way in this stealthy manner, he arrived within less than two hundred yards of the walls—just as the last trace of sunlight disappeared from the sky.

He had reached the goal of his journey—for that day—and the spot on which he was likely to pass the night.

A low stemless bush grew near; and, laying himself down behind it, he resumed the espionage, that could scarce be said to have been interrupted.

Throughout the live-long night Zeb Stump never closed both eyes at the same time. One was always on the watch; and the unflagging earnestness, with which he maintained it, proclaimed him to be acting under the influence of some motive beyond the common.

During the earlier hours he was not without sounds to cheer, or at least relieve, the monotony of his lonely vigil. There was the hum of voices from the slave cabins; with now and then a peal of laughter. But this was more suppressed than customary; nor was it accompanied by the clear strain of the violin, or the lively tink-a-tink of the banjo—sounds almost characteristic of the “negro-quarter,” at night.

The sombre silence that hung over the “big house” extended to the hearths of its sable retainers.

Before midnight the voices became hushed, and stillness reigned everywhere; broken only at intervals by the howl of a straying hound—uttered in response to the howl-bark of a coyoté taking care to keep far out upon the plain.

The watcher had spent a wearisome day, and could have slept—but for his thoughts. Once when these threatened to forsake him, and he was in danger of dozing, he started suddenly to his feet; took a turn or two over the sward; and, then lying down again, re-lit his pipe; stuck his head into the heart of the bush; and smoked away till the bowl was burnt empty.

During all this time, he kept his eyes upon the great gateway of the mansion; whose massive door—he could tell by the moonlight shining upon it—remained shut.

Again did he change his post of observation; the sun’s rising—as its setting had done—seeming to give him the cue.

As the first tint of dawn displayed itself on the horizon, he rose gently to his feet; clutched the blanket so as to bring its edges in contact across his breast; and, turning his back upon Casa del Corvo, walked slowly away—taking the same track by which he had approached it on the preceding night.

And again with unequal steps: at short intervals stopping and looking back—under his arm, or over his shoulder.

Nowhere did he make a prolonged pause; until reaching the locust-tree, under whose shade he had made his evening meal; and there, in the same identical attitude, he proceeded to break his fast.

The second half of the “pone” and the remaining moiety of the pork, soon disappeared between his teeth; after which followed the liquor that had been left in his flask.

He had refilled his pipe, and was about relighting it, when an object came before his eyes, that caused him hastily to return his flint and steel to the pouch from which he had taken them.

Through the blue mist of the morning the entrance of Casa del Corvo showed a darker disc. The door had been drawn open.

Almost at the same instant a horseman was seen to sally forth, mounted upon a small grey horse; and the door was at once closed behind him.

Zeb Stump made no note of this. He only looked to see what direction the early traveller would take.

Less than a score of seconds sufficed to satisfy him. The horse’s head and the face of the rider were turned towards himself.

He lost no time in trying to identify either. He did not doubt of its being the same man and horse, that had passed that spot on the evening before; and he was equally confident they were going to pass it again.

What he did was to shamble up to his mare; in some haste get her saddled and bridled; and then, having taken up his trail rope, lead her off into a cover—from which he could command a view of the chapparal path, without danger of being himself seen.

This done, he awaited the arrival of the traveller on the grey steed—whom he knew to be Captain Cassius Calhoun.

He waited still longer—until the latter had trotted past; until he had gone quite through the belt of chapparal, and in the hazy light of the morning gradually disappeared on the prairie beyond.

Not till then did Zeb Stump clamber into his saddle; and, “prodding” his solitary spur against the ribs of his roadster, cause the latter to move on.

He went after Cassius Calhoun; but without showing the slightest concern about keeping the latter in sight!

He needed not this to guide him. The dew upon the grass was to him a spotless page—the tracks of the grey mustang a type, as legible as the lines of a printed book.

He could read them at a trot; ay, going at a gallop!