Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Eighty One. Heads Down—Heels Up!

Without suspicion that he had been seen leaving the house—except by Pluto, who had saddled the grey mustang—Calhoun rode on across the prairie.

Equally unsuspicious was he, in passing the point where Zeb Stump stood crouching in concealment.

In the dim light of the morning he supposed himself unseen by human eye; and he recked not of any other.

After parting from the timbered border, he struck off towards the Nueces; riding at a brisk trot—now and then increasing to a canter.

Por the first six or eight miles he took but little note of aught that was around. An occasional glance along the horizon seemed to satisfy him; and this extended only to that portion of the vast circle before his face. He looked neither to the right nor the left; and only once behind—after getting some distance from the skirt of the chapparal.

Before him was the object—still unseen—upon which his thoughts were straying.

What that object was he and only one other knew—that other Zeb Stump—though little did Calhoun imagine that mortal man could have a suspicion of the nature of his early errand.

The old hunter had only conjectured it; but it was a conjecture of the truth of which he was as certain, as if the ex-captain had made him his confidant. He knew that the latter had gone off in search of the Headless Horseman—in hopes of renewing the chase of yesterday, with a better chance of effecting a capture.

Though bestriding a steed fleet as a Texan stag, Calhoun was by no means sanguine of success. There were many chances against his getting sight of the game he intended to take: at least two to one; and this it was that formed the theme of his reflections as he rode onward.

The uncertainty troubled him; but he was solaced by a hope founded upon some late experiences.

There was a particular place where he had twice encountered the thing he was in search of. It might be there again?

This was an embayment of green sward, where the savannah was bordered by the chapparal, and close to the embouchure of that opening—where it was supposed the murder had been committed!

“Odd he should always make back there?” reflected Calhoun, as he pondered upon the circumstance. “Damned ugly odd it is! Looks as if he knew—. Bah! It’s only because the grass is better, and that pond by the side of it. Well! I hope he’s been thinking that way this morning. If so, there’ll be a chance of finding him. If not, I must go on through the chapparal; and hang me if I like it—though it be in the daylight. Ugh!

“Pish! what’s there to fear—now that he’s safe in limbo? Nothing but the bit of lead; and it I must have, if I should ride this thing till it drops dead in its tracks. Holy Heaven! what’s that out yonder?”

These last six words were spoken aloud. All the rest had been a soliloquy in thought.

The speaker, on pronouncing them, pulled up, almost dragging the mustang on its haunches; and with eyes that seemed ready to start from their sockets, sate gazing across the plain.

There was something more than surprise in that stedfast glance—there was horror.

And no wonder: for the spectacle upon which it rested was one to terrify the stoutest heart.

The sun had stolen up above the horizon of the prairie, and was behind the rider’s back, in the direct line of the course he had been pursuing. Before him, along the heaven’s edge, extended a belt of bluish mist—the exhalation arising out of the chapparal—now not far distant. The trees themselves were unseen—concealed under the film floating over them, that like a veil of purple gauze, rose to a considerable height above their tops—gradually merging into the deeper azure of the sky.

On this veil, or moving behind it—as in the transparencies of a stage scene—appeared a form strange enough to have left the spectator incredulous, had he not beheld it before. It was that of the Headless Horseman.

But not as seen before—either by Calhoun himself, or any of the others. No. It was now altogether different. In shape the same; but in size it was increased to tenfold its original dimensions!

No longer a man, but a Colossus—a giant. No longer a horse, but an animal of equine shape, with the towering height and huge massive bulk of a mastodon!

Nor was this all of the new to be noted about the Headless Horseman. A still greater change was presented in his appearance; one yet more inexplicable, if that could possibly be. He was no longer walking upon the ground, but against the sky; both horse and rider moving in an inverted position! The hoofs of the former were distinctly perceptible upon the upper edge of the film; while the shoulders—I had almost said head—of the latter were close down to the line of the horizon! The serapé shrouding them hung in the right direction—not as regarded the laws of gravity, but the attitude of the wearer. So, too, the bridle reins, the mane, and sweeping tail of the horse. All draped upwards!

When first seen, the spectral form—now more spectre-like than ever—was going at a slow, leisurely walk. In this pace it for some time continued—Calhoun gazing upon it with a heart brimful of horror.

All of a sudden it assumed a change. Its regular outlines became confused by a quick transformation; the horse having turned, and gone off at a trot in the opposite direction, though still with his heels against the sky!

The spectre had become alarmed, and was retreating!

Calhoun, half palsied with fear, would have kept his ground, and permitted it to depart, but for his own horse; that, just then shying suddenly round, placed him face to face with the explanation.

As he turned, the tap of a shod hoof upon the prairie turf admonished him that a real horseman was near—if that could be called real, which had thrown such a frightful shadow.

“It’s the mirage!” he exclaimed, with the addition of an oath to give vent to his chagrin. “What a fool I’ve been to let it humbug me! There’s the damned thing that did it: the very thing I’m in search of. And so close too! If I’d known, I might have got hold of him before he saw me. Now for a chase; and, by God, I’ll grup him, if I have to gallop to the other end of Texas!”

Voice, spur, and whip were simultaneously exerted to prove the speaker’s earnestness; and in five minutes after, two horsemen were going at full stretch across the prairie—their horses both to the prairie born—one closely pursuing the other—the pursued without a head; the pursuer with a heart that throbbed under a desperate determination.

The chase was not a long one—at least, so far as it led over the open prairie; and Calhoun had begun to congratulate himself on the prospect of a capture.

His horse appeared the swifter; but this may have arisen from his being more earnestly urged; or that the other was not sufficiently scared to care for escaping. Certainly the grey steed gained ground—at length getting so close, that Calhoun made ready his rifle.

His intention was to shoot the horse down, and so put an end to the pursuit.

He would have fired on the instant, but for the fear of a miss. But having made more than one already, he restrained himself from pulling trigger, till he could ride close enough to secure killing shot.

While thus hesitating, the chase veered suddenly from off the treeless plain, and dashed into the opening of the timber.

This movement, unexpected by the pursuer, caused him to lose ground; and in the endeavour to regain it, more than a half mile of distance was left behind him.

He was approaching a spot well, too well, known to him—the place where blood had been spilt.

On any other occasion he would have shunned it; but there was in his heart a thought that hindered him from dwelling upon memories of the past—steeling it against all reflection, except a cold fear for the future. The capture of the strange equestrian could alone allay this fear—by removing the danger he dreaded.

Once more he had gained ground in the chase. The spread nostrils of his steed were almost on a line with the sweeping tail of that pursued. His rifle lay ready in his left hand, its trigger guard covered by the fingers of his right. He was searching for a spot to take aim at.

In another second the shot would have been fired, and a bullet sent between the ribs of the retreating horse, when the latter, as if becoming aware of the danger, made a quick curvet to the off side; and then, aiming a kick at the snout of his pursuer, bounded on in a different direction!

The suddenness of the demonstration, with the sharp, spiteful “squeal” that accompanied it—appearing almost to speak of an unearthly intelligence—for the moment disconcerted Calhoun; as it did the horse he was riding.

The latter came to a stop; and refused to go farther; till the spur, plunged deep between his ribs, once more forced him to the gallop.

And now more earnestly than ever did his rider urge him on; for the pursued, no longer keeping to the path, was heading direct for the thicket. The chase might there terminate, without the chased animal being either killed or captured.

Hitherto Calhoun had only been thinking of a trial of speed. He had not anticipated such an ending, as was now both possible and probable; and with a more reckless resolve, he once more raised his rifle for the shot.

By this time both were close in to the bushes—the Headless Horseman already half-screened by the leafy branches that swept swishing along his sides. Only the hips of his horse could be aimed at; and upon these was the gun levelled.

The sulphureous smoke spurted forth from its muzzle; the crack was heard simultaneously; and, as if caused by the discharge, a dark object came whirling through the cloud, and fell with a dull “thud” upon the turf.

With a bound and a roll—that brought it among the feet of Calhoun’s horse—it became stationary.

Stationary, but not still. It continued to oscillate from side to side, like a top before ceasing to spin.

The grey steed snorted, and reared back. His rider uttered a cry of intensified alarm.

And no wonder. If read in Shakespearean lore, he might have appropriately repeated the words “Shake not those gory locks”: for, on the ground beneath, was the head of a man—still sticking in its hat—whose stiff orbicular brim hindered it from staying still.

The face was toward Calhoun—upturned at just such an angle as to bring it full before him. The features were bloodstained, wan, and shrivelled; the eyes open, but cold and dim, like balls of blown glass; the teeth gleaming white between livid lips, yet seemingly set in an expression of careless contentment.

All this saw Cassius Calhoun.

He saw it with fear and trembling. Not for the supernatural or unknown, but for the real and truly comprehended.

Short was his interview with that silent, but speaking head. Ere it had ceased to oscillate on the smooth sward, he wrenched his horse around; struck the rowels deep; and galloped away from the ground!

No farther went he in pursuit of the Headless Horseman—still heard breaking through the bushes—but back—back to the prairie; and on, on, to Casa del Corvo!