Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Eighty Three. Limbs of the Law

On the third day after Maurice Gerald became an inmate of the military prison the fever had forsaken him, and he no longer talked incoherently. On the fourth he was almost restored to his health and strength. The fifth was appointed for his trial!

This haste—that elsewhere would have been considered indecent—was thought nothing of in Texas; where a man may commit a capital offence, be tried, and hanged within the short space of four-and-twenty hours!

His enemies, who were numerous, for some reason of their own, insisted upon despatch: while his friends, who were few, could urge no good reason against it.

Among the populace there was the usual clamouring for prompt and speedy justice; fortified by that exciting phrase, old as the creation itself: “that the blood of the murdered man was calling from the ground for vengeance.”

The advocates of an early trial were favoured by a fortuitous circumstance. The judge of the Supreme Court chanced just then to be going his circuit; and the days devoted to clearing the calendar at Fort Inge, had been appointed for that very week.

There was, therefore, a sort of necessity, that the case of Maurice Gerald, as of the other suspected murderers, should be tried within a limited time.

As no one objected, there was no one to ask for a postponement; and it stood upon the docket for the day in question—the fifteenth of the month.

The accused might require the services of a legal adviser. There was no regular practitioner in the place: as in these frontier districts the gentlemen of the long robe usually travel in company with the Court; and the Court had not yet arrived. For all that, a lawyer had appeared: a “counsellor” of distinction; who had come all the way from San Antonio, to conduct the case. As a volunteer he had presented himself!

It may have been generosity on the part of this gentleman, or an eye to Congress, though it was said that gold, presented by fair fingers, had induced him to make the journey.

When it rains, it rains. The adage is true in Texas as regards the elements; and on this occasion it was true of the lawyers.

The day before that appointed for the trial of the mustanger, a second presented himself at Fort Inge, who put forward his claim to be upon the side of the prisoner.

This gentleman had made a still longer journey than he of San Antonio; a voyage, in fact: since he had crossed the great Atlantic, starting from the metropolis of the Emerald Isle. He had come for no other purpose than to hold communication with the man accused of having committed a murder!

It is true, the errand that had brought him did not anticipate this; and the Dublin solicitor was no little astonished when, after depositing his travelling traps under the roof of Mr Oberdoffer’s hostelry, and making inquiry about Maurice Gerald, he was told that the young Irishman was shut up in the guard-house.

Still greater the attorney’s astonishment on learning the cause of his incarceration.

“Fwhat! the son of a Munsther Gerald accused of murdher! The heir of Castle Ballagh, wid its bewtiful park and demesne. Fwy, I’ve got the papers in my portmantyee here. Faugh-a-ballagh! Show me the way to him!”

Though the “Texan” Boniface was inclined to consider his recently arrived guest entitled to a suspicion of lunacy, he assented to his request; and furnished him with a guide to the guard-house.

If the Irish attorney was mad, there appeared to be method in his madness. Instead of being denied admittance to the accused criminal, he was made welcome to go in and out of the military prison—as often as it seemed good to him.

Some document he had laid before the eyes of the major-commandant, had procured him this privilege; at the same time placing him en rapport, in a friendly way, with the Texan “counsellor.”

The advent of the Irish attorney at such a crisis gave rise to much speculation at the Port, the village, and throughout the settlement. The bar-room of the “Rough and Ready” was rife with conjecturers—quidnuncs they could scarcely be called: since in Texas the genus does not exist.

A certain grotesqueness about the man added to the national instinct for guessing—which had been rendered excruciatingly keen through some revelations, contributed by “Old Duffer.”

For all that, the transatlantic limb of the law proved himself tolerably true to the traditions of his craft. With the exception of the trifling imprudences already detailed—drawn from him in the first moments of surprise—he never afterwards committed himself; but kept his lips close as an oyster at ebb tide.

There was not much time for him to use his tongue. On the day after his arrival the trial was to take place; and during most of the interval he was either in the guard-house along with the prisoner, or closeted with the San Antonio counsel.

The rumour became rife that Maurice Gerald had told them a tale—a strange weird story—but of its details the world outside remained in itching ignorance.

There was one who knew it—one able to confirm it—Zeb Stump the hunter.

There may have been another; but this other was not in the confidence either of the accused or his counsel.

Zeb himself did not appear in their company. Only once had he been seen conferring with them. After that he was gone—both from the guard-house and the settlement, as everybody supposed, about his ordinary business—in search of deer, “baar,” or “gobbler.”

Everybody was in error. Zeb for the time had forsaken his usual pursuits, or, at all events, the game he was accustomed to chase, capture, and kill.

It is true he was out upon a stalking expedition; but instead of birds or beasts, he was after an animal of neither sort; one that could not be classed with creatures either of the earth or the air—a horseman without a head!