Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Eighty Seven. A False Witness

There are but few present who have any personal acquaintance with the accused; though there are also but a few who have never before heard his name. Perhaps not any.

It is only of late that this has become generally known: for previous to the six-shot duel with Calhoun, he had no other reputation than that of an accomplished horse-catcher.

All admitted him to be a fine young fellow—handsome, dashing, devoted to a fine horse, and deeming it no sin to look fondly on a fair woman—free of heart, as most Irishmen are, and also of speech, as will be more readily believed.

But neither his good, nor evil, qualities were carried to excess. His daring rarely exhibited itself in reckless rashness; while as rarely did his speech degenerate into “small talk.”

In his actions there was observable a certain juste milieu. His words were alike well-balanced; displaying, even over his cups, a reticence somewhat rare among his countrymen.

No one seemed to know whence he came; for what reason he had settled in Texas; or why he had taken to such a queer “trade,” as that of catching wild horses—a calling not deemed the most reputable.

It seemed all the more strange to those who knew: that he was not only educated, but evidently a “born gentleman”—a phrase, however, of but slight significance upon the frontiers of Texas.

There, too, was the thing itself regarded with no great wonder; where “born noblemen,” both of France and the “Faderland,” may oft be encountered seeking an honest livelihood by the sweat of their brow.

A fig for all patents of nobility—save those stamped by the true die of Nature!

Such is the sentiment of this far free land.

And this sort of impress the young Irishman carries about him—blazoned like the broad arrow. There is no one likely to mistake him for either fool or villain.

And yet he stands in the presence of an assembly, called upon to regard him as an assassin—one who in the dead hour of night has spilled innocent blood, and taken away the life of a fellow-creature!

Can the charge be true? If so, may God have mercy on his soul!

Some such reflection passes through the minds of the spectators, as they stand with eyes fixed upon him, waiting for his trial to begin.

Some regard him with glances of simple curiosity; others with interrogation; but most with a look that speaks of anger and revenge.

There is one pair of eyes dwelling upon him with an expression altogether unlike the rest—a gaze soft, but steadfast—in which fear and fondness seem strangely commingled.

There are many who notice that look of the lady spectator, whose pale face, half hid behind the curtains of a calèche, is too fair to escape observation.

There are few who can interpret it.

But among these, is the prisoner himself; who, observing both the lady and the look, feels a proud thrill passing through his soul, that almost compensates for the humiliation he is called upon to undergo. It is enough to make him, for the time, forget the fearful position in which he is placed.

For the moment, it is one of pleasure. He has been told of much that transpired during those dark oblivious hours. He now knows that what he had fancied to be only a sweet, heavenly vision, was a far sweeter reality of earth.

That woman’s face, shining dream-like over his couch, was the same now seen through the curtains of the calèche; and the expression upon it tells him: that among the frowning spectators he has one friend who will be true to the end—even though it be death!

The trial begins.

There is not much ceremony in its inception. The judge takes off his hat strikes a lucifer-match; and freshly ignites his cigar.

After half a dozen draws, he takes the “weed” from between his teeth, lays it still smoking along the table, and says—

“Gentlemen of the jury! We are here assembled to try a case, the particulars of which are, I believe, known to all of you. A man has been murdered,—the son of one of our most respected citizens; and the prisoner at the bar is accused of having committed the crime. It is my duty to direct you as to the legal formalities of the trial. It is yours to decide—after hearing the evidence to be laid before you—whether or not the accusation be sustained.”

The prisoner is asked, according to the usual formality,—“Guilty, or not guilty?”

“Not guilty,” is the reply; delivered in a firm, but modest tone.

Cassius Calhoun, and some “rowdies” around him, affect an incredulous sneer.

The judge resumes his cigar, and remains silent.

The counsel for the State, after some introductory remarks, proceeds to introduce the witnesses for the prosecution.

First called is Franz Oberdoffer.

After a few unimportant interrogatories about his calling, and the like, he is requested to state what he knows of the affair. This is the common routine of a Texan trial.

Oberdoffer’s evidence coincides with the tale already told by him: how on the night that young Poindexter was missed, Maurice Gerald had left his house at a late hour—after midnight. He had settled his account before leaving; and appeared to have plenty of money. It was not often Oberdoffer had known him so well supplied with cash. He had started for his home on the Nueces; or wherever it was. He had not said where he was going. He was not on the most friendly terms with witness. Witness only supposed he was going there, because his man had gone the day before, taking all his traps upon a pack-mule—everything, except what the mustanger himself carried off on his horse.

What had he carried off?

Witness could not remember much in particular. He was not certain of his having a gun. He rather believed that he had one—strapped, Mexican fashion, along the side of his saddle.

He could speak with certainty of having seen pistols in the holsters, with a bowie-knife in the mustanger’s belt. Gerald was dressed as he always went—in Mexican costume, and with a striped Mexican blanket. He had the last over his shoulders as he rode off. The witness thought it strange, his leaving at that late hour of the night. Still stranger, that he had told witness of his intention to start the next morning.

He had been out all the early part of the night, but without his horse—which he kept in the tavern stable. He had started off immediately after returning. He stayed only long enough to settle his account. He appeared excited, and in a hurry. It was not with drink. He filled his flask with Kirschenwasser; but did not drink of it before leaving the hotel. Witness could swear to his being sober. He knew that he was excited by his manner. While he was saddling his horse—which he did for himself—he was all the time talking, as if angry. Witness didn’t think it was at the animal. He believed he had been crossed by somebody, and was angry at something that had happened to him, before coming back to the hotel. Had no idea where Gerald had been to; but heard afterwards that he had been seen going out of the village, and down the river, in the direction of Mr Poindexter’s plantation. He had been seen going that way often for the last three or four days of his sojourn at the hotel—both by day and night—on foot as well as horseback—several times both ways.

Such are the main points of Oberdoffer’s evidence relating to the movements of the prisoner.

He is questioned about Henry Poindexter.

Knew the young gentleman but slightly, as he came very seldom to the hotel. He was there on the night when last seen. Witness was surprised to see him there—partly because he was not in the habit of coming, and partly on account of the lateness of the hour.

Young Poindexter did not enter the house. Only looked inside the saloon; and called witness to the door.

He asked after Mr Gerald. He too appeared sober, but excited; and, upon being told that the mustanger was gone away, became very much more excited. Said he wished very much to see Gerald that very night; and asked which way he had gone. Witness directed him along the Rio Grande trace—thinking the mustanger had taken it. Said he knew the road, and went off, as if intending to overtake the mustanger.

A few desultory questions, and Oberdoffer’s evidence is exhausted.

On the whole it is unfavourable to the accused; especially the circumstance of Gerald’s having changed his intention as to his time of starting. His manner, described as excited and angry,—perhaps somewhat exaggerated by the man who naïvely confesses to a grudge against him. That is especially unfavourable. A murmur through the court tells that it has made this impression.

But why should Henry Poindexter have been excited too? Why should he have been following after Gerald in such hot haste, and at such an unusual hour—unusual for the young planter, both as regarded his haunts and habits?

Had the order been reversed, and Gerald inquiring about and going after him, the case would have been clearer. But even then there would have been an absence of motive. Who can show this, to satisfy the jury?

Several witnesses are called; but their testimony rather favours the reverse view. Some of them testify to the friendly feeling that existed between the prisoner and the man he stands charged with having murdered.

One is at length called up who gives evidence of the opposite. It is Captain Cassius Calhoun.

His story produces a complete change in the character of the trial. It not only discloses a motive for the murder, but darkens the deed tenfold.

After a craftily worded preface, in which he declares his reluctance to make the exposure, he ends by telling all: the scene in the garden; the quarrel; the departure of Gerald, which he describes as having been accompanied by a threat; his being followed by Henry; everything but the true motive for this following, and his own course of action throughout. These two facts he keeps carefully to himself.

The scandalous revelation causes a universal surprise—alike shared by judge, jury, and spectators. It exhibits itself in an unmistakable manner—here in ominous whisperings, there in ejaculations of anger.

These are not directed towards the man who has testified; but against him who stands before them, now presumptively charged with a double crime: the assassination of a son—the defilement of a daughter!

A groan had been heard as the terrible testimony proceeded. It came from a man of more than middle age—of sad subdued aspect—whom all knew to be the father of both these unfortunates.

But the eyes of the spectators dwell not on him. They look beyond, to a curtained calèche, in which is seen seated a lady: so fair, as long before to have fixed their attention.

Strange are the glances turned upon her; strange, though not inexplicable: for it is Louise Poindexter who occupies the carriage.

Is she there of her own accord—by her own free will?

So runs the inquiry around, and the whispered reflections that follow it.

There is not much time allowed them for speculation. They have their answer in the crier’s voice, heard pronouncing the name—

“Louise Poindexter!”

Calhoun has kept his word.