Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Eighty Two. A Queer Parcel

The backwoodsman, after emerging from the thicket, proceeded as leisurely along the trail, as if he had the whole day before him, and no particular motive for making haste.

And yet, one closely scrutinising his features, might there have observed an expression of intense eagerness; that accorded with his nervous twitching in the saddle, and the sharp glances from time to time cast before him.

He scarce deigned to look upon the “sign” left by Calhoun. It he could read out of the corner of his eye. As to following it, the old mare could have done that without him!

It was not this knowledge that caused him to hang back; for he would have preferred keeping Calhoun in sight. But by doing this, the latter might see him; and so frustrate the end he desired to attain.

This end was of more importance than any acts that might occur between; and, to make himself acquainted with the latter, Zeb Stump trusted to the craft of his intellect, rather than the skill of his senses.

Advancing slowly and with caution—but with that constancy that ensures good speed—he arrived at length on the spot where the mirage had made itself manifest to Calhoun.

Zeb saw nothing of this. It was gone; and the sky stretched down to the prairie—the blue meeting the green in a straight unbroken line.

He saw, however, what excited him almost as much as the spectre would have done: two sets of horse-tracks going together—those that went after being the hoof-marks of Calhoun’s new horse—of which Zeb had already taken the measure.

About the tracks underneath he had no conjecture—at least as regarded their identification. These he knew, as well as if his own mare had made them.

“The skunk’s hed a find!” were the words that escaped him, as he sate gazing upon the double trail. “It don’t foller from thet,” he continued, in the same careless drawl, “thet he hez made a catch. An’ yit, who knows? Durn me, ef he moutn’t! Thur’s lots o’ chances for his doin’ it. The mowstang may a let him come clost up—seein’ as he’s ridin’ one o’ its own sort; an ef it dud—ay, ef it dud—

“What the durnation am I stannin’ hyur for? Thur ain’t no time to be wasted in shiller-shallerin’. Ef he shed grup thet critter, an git what he wants from it, then I mout whissel for what I want, ’ithout the ghost o’ a chance for gettin’ it.

“I must make a better rate o’ speed. Gee-up, ole gurl; an see ef ye can’t overtake that ere grey hoss, as scuttled past half-a-hour agone. Now for a spell o’ yur swiftness, the which you kin show along wi’ any o’ them, I reckon—thet air when ye’re pressed. Gee-up!”

Instead of using the cruel means employed by him when wanting his mare to make her best speed, he only drove the old spur against her ribs, and started her into a trot. He had no desire to travel more rapidly than was consistent with caution; and while trotting he kept his eyes sharply ranging along the skyline in front of him.

“From the way his track runs,” was his reflection, “I kin tell pretty nigh whar it’s goin’ to fetch out. Everything seems to go that way; an so did he, poor young fellur—never more to come back. Ah, wal! ef t’aint possible to ree-vive him agin, may be it air to squar the yards wi’ the skunk as destroyed him. The Scripter sez, ‘a eye for a eye, an a tooth for a tooth,’ an I reckin I’ll shet up somebody’s daylights, an spoil the use o’ thur ivories afore I hev done wi’ him. Somebody as don’t suspeeshun it neyther, an that same—. Heigh! Yonner he goes! An’ yonner too the Headless, by Geehosophat! Full gallup both; an durn me, if the grey aint a overtakin’ him!

“They aint comin’ this way, so ’tain’t no use in our squattin’, ole gurl. Stan’ steady for all that. He mout see us movin’.

“No fear. He’s too full o’ his frolic to look anywhar else, than straight custrut afore him. Ha! jest as I expected—into the openin’! Right down it, fast as heels kin carry ’em!

“Now, my maar, on we go agin!”

Another stage of trotting—with his eyes kept steadfastly fixed upon the chapparal gap—brought Zeb to the timber.

Although the chase had long since turned the angle of the avenue, and was now out of sight, he did not go along the open ground; but among the bushes that bordered it.

He went so as to command a view of the clear track for some distance ahead; at the same time taking care that neither himself, nor his mare, might be seen by any one advancing from the opposite direction.

He did not anticipate meeting any one—much less the man who soon after came in sight.

He was not greatly surprised at hearing a shot: for he had been listening for it, ever since he had set eyes on the chase. He was rather in surprise at not hearing it sooner; and when the crack did come, he recognised the report of a yäger rifle, and knew whose gun had been discharged.

He was more astonished to see its owner returning along the lane—in less than five minutes after the shot had been fired—returning, too, with a rapidity that told of retreat!

“Comin’ back agin—an so soon!” he muttered, on perceiving Calhoun. “Dog-goned queery thet air! Thur’s somethin’ amiss, more’n a miss, I reck’n. Ho, ho, ho! Goin’, too, as if hell war arter him! Maybe it’s the Headless hisself, and thur’s been a changin’ about in the chase—tit for tat! Darn me, ef it don’t look like it! I’d gie a silver dollar to see thet sort o’ a thing. He, he, he, ho, ho, hoo!”

Long before this, the hunter had slipped out of his saddle, and taken the precaution to screen both himself and his animal from the chance of being seen by the retreating rider—who promise soon to pass the spot.

And soon did he pass it, going at such a gait, and with such a wild abstracted air, that Zeb would scarce have been perceived had he been standing uncovered in the avenue!

“Geehosophat!” mentally ejaculated the backwoodsman, as the passion-scathed countenance came near enough to be scrutinised. “If hell ain’t arter, it’s inside o’ him! Durn me, ef thet face ain’t the ugliest picter this coon ever clapped eyes on. I shed pity the wife as gets him. Poor Miss Peintdexter! I hope she’ll be able to steer clur o’ havin’ sech a cut-throat as him to be her lord an master.

“What’s up anyhow? Thar don’t ’pear to be anythin’ arter him? An’ he still keeps on! Whar’s he boun’ for now? I must foller an see.

“To hum agin!” exclaimed the hunter, after going on to the edge of the chapparal, and observed Calhoun still going at a gallop, with head turned homeward. “Hum agin, for sartin!

“Now, ole gurl!” he continued, having remained silent till the grey horse was nearly out of sight, “You an me goes t’other way. We must find out what thet shot wur fired for.”

In ten minutes after, Zeb had alighted from his mare, and lifted up from the ground an object, the stoutest heart might have felt horror in taking hold of—disgust, even, in touching!

Not so the old hunter. In that object he beheld the lineaments of a face well known to him—despite the shrivelling of the skin, and the blood streaks that so fearfully falsified its expression—still dear to him, despite death and a merciless mutilation.

He had loved that face, when it belonged to a boy; he now cherished it, belonging not to anybody!

Clasping the rim of the hat that fitted tightly to the temples—Zeb endeavoured to take it off. He did not succeed. The head was swollen so as almost to burst the bullion band twisted around it!

Holding it in its natural position, Zeb stood for a time gazing tenderly on the face.

“Lord, O Lordy!” he drawlingly exclaimed, “what a present to take back to his father, to say nothin’ o’ the sister! I don’t think I’ll take it. It air better to bury the thing out hyur, an say no more abeout it.

“No; durn me ef I do! What am I thinkin’ o’? Tho’ I don’t exackly see how it may help to sarcumstantiate the chain o’ evvydince, it may do somethin’ torst it. Durned queery witness it ’ll be to purduce in a coort o’ justis!”

Saying this, he unstrapped his old blanket; and, using it as a wrapper, carefully packed within it head, hat, and all.

Then, hanging the strange bundle over the horn of his saddle, he remounted his mare, and rode reflectingly away.