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Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Eighty Six. A Texan Court

It is the dawn of another day. The Aurora, rising rose-coloured from the waves of a West Indian sea, flings its sweetest smile athwart the savannas of Texas.

Almost on the same instant that the rosy light kisses the white sand-dunes of the Mexican Gulf, does it salute the flag on Fort Inge, nearly a hundred leagues distant: since there is just this much of an upward inclination between the coast at Matagorda and the spurs of the Guadalupe mountains, near which stand this frontier post.

The Aurora has just lighted up the flag, that at the same time flouting out from its staff spreads its broad field of red, white, and blue to the gentle zephyrs of the morning.

Perhaps never since that staff went up, has the star-spangled banner waved over a scene of more intense interest than is expected to occur on this very day.

Even at the early hour of dawn, the spectacle may be said to have commenced. Along with the first rays of the Aurora, horsemen may be seen approaching the military post from all quarters of the compass. They ride up in squads of two, three, or half a dozen; dismount as they arrive; fasten their horses to the stockade fences, or picket them upon the open prairie.

This done, they gather into groups on the parade-ground; stand conversing or stray down to the village; all, at one time or another, taking a turn into the tavern, and paying their respects to Boniface behind the bar.

The men thus assembling are of many distinct types and nationalities. Almost every country in Europe has furnished its quota; though the majority are of that stalwart race whose ancestors expelled the Indians from the “Bloody Ground;” built log cabins on the sites of their wigwams; and spent the remainder of their lives in felling the forests of the Mississippi. Some of them have been brought up to the cultivation of corn; others understand better the culture of cotton; while a large number, from homes further south, have migrated into Texas to speculate in the growth and manufacture of sugar and tobacco.

Most are planters by calling and inclination; though there are graziers and cattle-dealers, hunters and horse-dealers, storekeepers, and traders of other kinds—not a few of them traffickers in human flesh!

There are lawyers, land-surveyors, and land-speculators, and other speculators of no proclaimed calling—adventurers ready to take a hand in whatever may turn up—whether it be the branding of cattle, a scout against Comanches, or a spell of filibustering across the Rio Grande.

Their costumes are as varied as their callings. They have been already described: for the men now gathering around Fort Inge are the same we have seen before assembled in the courtyard of Casa del Corvo—the same with an augmentation of numbers.

The present assemblage differs in another respect from that composing the expedition of searchers. It is graced by the presence of women—the wives, sisters, and daughters of the men. Some are on horseback; and remain in the saddle—their curtained cotton-bonnets shading their fair faces from the glare of the sun; others are still more commodiously placed for the spectacle—seated under white waggon-tilts, or beneath the more elegant coverings of “carrioles” and “Jerseys.”

There is a spectacle—at least there is one looked for. It is a trial long talked of in the Settlement.

Superfluous to say that it is the trial of Maurice Gerald—known as Maurice the mustanger.

Equally idle to add, that it is for the murder of Henry Poindexter.

It is not the high nature of the offence that has attracted such a crowd, nor yet the characters of either the accused or his victim—neither much known in the neighbourhood.

The same Court—it is the Supreme Court of the district, Uvalde—has been in session there before—has tried all sorts of cases, and all kinds of men—thieves, swindlers, homicides, and even murderers—with scarce fourscore people caring to be spectators of the trial, or staying to hear the sentence!

It is not this which has brought so many settlers together; but a series of strange circumstances, mysterious and melodramatic; which seem in some way to be connected with the crime, and have been for days the sole talk of the Settlement.

It is not necessary to name these circumstances: they are already known.

All present at Fort Inge have come there anticipating: that the trial about to take place will throw light on the strange problem that has hitherto defied solution.

Of course there are some who, independent of this, have a feeling of interest in the fate of the prisoner. There are others inspired with a still sadder interest—friends and relatives of the man supposed to have been murdered: for it must be remembered, that there is yet no evidence of the actuality of the crime.

But there is little doubt entertained of it. Several circumstances—independent of each other—have united to confirm it; and all believe that the foul deed has been done—as firmly as if they had been eye-witnesses of the act.

They only wait to be told the details; to learn the how, and the when, and the wherefore.

Ten o’clock, and the Court is in session.

There is not much change in the composition of the crowd; only that a sprinkling of military uniforms has become mixed with the more sober dresses of the citizens. The soldiers of the garrison have been dismissed from morning parade; and, free to take their recreation for the day, have sought it among the ranks of the civilian spectators. There stand they side by side—soldiers and citizens—dragoons, riflemen, infantry, and artillery, interspersed among planters, hunters, horse-dealers, and desperate adventurers, having just heard the “Oyez!” of the Court crier—grotesquely pronounced “O yes!”—determined to stand there till they hear the last solemn formulary from the lips of the judge: “May God have mercy on your soul!”

There is scarce one present who does not expect ere night to listen to this terrible final phrase, spoken from under the shadow of that sable cap, that denotes the death doom of a fellow creature.

There may be only a few who wish it. But there are many who feel certain, that the trial will end in a conviction; and that ere the sun has set, the soul of Maurice Gerald will go back to its God!

The Court is in session.

You have before your mind’s eye a large hall, with a raised daïs at one side; a space enclosed between panelled partitions; a table inside it; and on its edge a box-like structure, resembling the rostrum of a lecture-room, or the reading-desk in a church.

You see judges in ermine robes; barristers in wigs of grey, and gowns of black, with solicitors attending on them; clerks, ushers, and reporters; blue policemen with bright buttons standing here and there; and at the back a sea of heads and faces, not always kempt or clean.

You observe, moreover, a certain subdued look on the countenances of the spectators—not so much an air of decorum, as a fear of infringing the regulations of the Court.

You must get all this out of your mind, if you wish to form an idea of a Court of justice on the frontiers of Texas—as unlike its homonym in England as a bond of guerillas to a brigade of Guardsmen.

There is no court-house, although there is a sort of public room used for this and other purposes. But the day promises to be hot, and the Court has decided to sit under a tree!

And under a tree has it established itself—a gigantic live-oak, festooned with Spanish moss—standing by the edge of the parade-ground, and extending its shadow afar over the verdant prairie.

A large deal table is placed underneath, with half a score of skin-bottomed chairs set around it, and on its top a few scattered sheets of foolscap paper, an inkstand with goose-quill pens, a well-thumbed law-book or two, a blown-glass decanter containing peach-brandy, a couple of common tumblers, a box of Havannah cigars, and another of lucifer-matches.

Behind these paraphernalia sits the judge, not only un-robed in ermine, but actually un-coated—the temperature of the day having decided him to try the case in his shirt-sleeves!

Instead of a wig, he wears his Panama hat, set slouchingly over one cheek, to balance the half-smoked, half-chewed Havannah projecting from the other.

The remaining chairs are occupied by men whose costume gives no indication of their calling.

There are lawyers among them—attorneys, and counsellors, there called—with no difference either in social or legal status; the sheriff and his “deputy”; the military commandant of the fort; the chaplain; the doctor; several officers; with one or two men of undeclared occupations.

A little apart are twelve individuals grouped together; about half of them seated on a rough slab bench, the other half “squatted” or reclining along the grass.

It is the jury—an “institution” as germane to Texas as to England; and in Texas ten times more true to its trust; scorning to submit to the dictation of the judge—in England but too freely admitted.

Around the Texan judge and jury—close pressing upon the precincts of the Court—is a crowd that may well be called nondescript. Buckskin hunting-shirts; blanket-coats—even under the oppressive heat; frocks of “copperas stripe” and Kentucky jeans; blouses of white linen, or sky-blue cottonade; shirts of red flannel or unbleached “domestic”; dragoon, rifle, infantry, and artillery uniforms, blend and mingle in that motley assemblage.

Here and there is seen a more regular costume—one more native to the country—the jaqueta and calzoneros of the Mexican, with the broad sombrero shading his swarthy face of picaresque expression.

Time was—and that not very long ago—when men assembled in this same spot would all have been so attired.

But then there was no jury of twelve, and the judge—Juez de Letras—was a far more important personage, with death in his nod, and pardon easily obtained by those who could put onzas in his pocket.

With all its rude irregularity—despite the absence of effete forms—of white ermine, and black silk—of uniformed alguazils, or bright-buttoned policemen—despite the presence of men that, to the civilised eye, may appear uncouth—even savage I hesitate not to say, that among these red flannel-shirts and coats of Kentucky jean, the innocent man is as safe—ay far safer—to obtain justice, and the guilty to get punished, than amidst the formalities and hair-splitting chicaneries of our so-called civilisation.

Do not mistake those men assembled under the Texan tree—however rough their exterior may seem to your hypercritical eye—do not mistake them for a mob of your own “masses,” brutalised from their very birth by the curse of over-taxation. Do not mistake them, either, for things like yourselves—filled to the throat with a spirit of flunkeyism—would that it choked you!—scorning all that is grand and progressive—revering only the effete, the superficial, and the selfish.

I am talking to you, my middle-class friend, who fancy yourself a citizen of this our English country. A citizen, forsooth; without even the first and scantiest right of citizenship—that of choosing your parliamentary representative.

You fancy you have this right. I have scarce patience to tell you, you are mistaken.

Ay, grandly mistaken, when you imagine yourself standing on the same political platform with those quasi-rude frontiersmen of Texas.

Nothing of the kind. They are “sovereign citizens”—the peers of your superiors, or of those who assume so to call themselves, and whose assumption you are base enough to permit without struggle—almost without protest!

In most assemblies the inner circle is the more select. The gem is to be found in the centre at Port Inge.

In that now mustered the order is reversed. Outside is the elegance. The fair feminine forms, bedecked in their best dresses, stand up in spring waggons, or sit in more elegant equipages, sufficiently elevated to see over the heads of the male spectators.

It is not upon the judge that their eyes are bent, or only at intervals. The glances are given to a group of three men, placed near the jury, and not very far from the stem of the tree. One is seated, and two standing. The former is the prisoner at the bar; the latter the sheriff’s officers in charge of him.

It was originally intended to try several other men for the murder; Miguel Diaz and his associates, as also Phelim O’Neal.

But in the course of a preliminary investigation the Mexican mustanger succeeded in proving an alibi, as did also his trio of companions. All four have been consequently discharged.

They acknowledged having disguised themselves as Indians: for the fact being proved home to them, they could not do less.

But they pretended it to have been a joke—a travestie; and as there was proof of the others being at home—and Diaz dead drunk—on the night of Henry Poindexter’s disappearance, their statement satisfied those who had been entrusted with the inquiry.

As to the Connemara man, it was not thought necessary to put him upon trial. If an accomplice, he could only have acted at the instigation of his master; and he might prove more serviceable in the witness-box than in the dock.

Before the bar, then—if we may be permitted the figure of speech—there stands but one prisoner, Maurice Gerald—known to those gazing upon him as Maurice the mustanger.

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