Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Ninety Two. A Reluctant Return

Calhoun clutches at the trailing bridle.

The horse tries to avoid him, but cannot. His head is secured by the tangled rein; and he can only bound about in a circle, of which his nose is the centre.

The rider takes no heed, nor makes any attempt to elude the capture; but sits stiff and mute in the saddle, leaving the horse to continue his “cavortings.”

After a brief struggle the animal is secured.

The captor utters an exclamation of joy.

It is suddenly checked, and by a thought. He has not yet fully accomplished his purpose.

What is this purpose?

It is a secret known only to himself; and the stealthy glance cast around tells, that he has no wish to share it with another.

After scanning the selvedge of the thicket, and listening a second or two, he resumes action.

A singular action it might appear, to one ignorant of its object. He draws his knife from its sheath; clutches a corner of the serapé; raises it above the breast of the Headless rider; and then bends towards him, as if intending to plunge the blade into his heart!

The arm is uplifted. The blow is not likely to be warded off.

For all that it is not struck. It is stayed by a shout sent forth from the chapparal—by the edge of which a man has just made his appearance. The man is Zeb Stump.

“Stop that game!” cries the hunter, riding out from the underwood and advancing rapidly through the low bushes; “stop it, durn ye!”

“What game?” rejoins the ex-officer with a dismayed look, at the same time stealthily returning his knife to its sheath. “What the devil are you talking about? This brute’s got caught by the bridle. I was afraid he might get away again. I was going to cut his damned throat—so as to make sure of him.”

“Ah, thet’s what ye’re arter. Wal, I reck’n thur’s no need to cut the critter’s throat. We kin skewer it ’ithout thet sort o’ bloody bizness. It air the hoss’s throat ye mean, I s’pose?”

“Of course I mean the horse.”

“In coorse. As for the man, someb’y’s dud thet for him arready—if it be a man. What do you make o’ it, Mister Cash Calhoun?”

“Damned if I know what to make of it. I haven’t had time to get a good look at it. I’ve just this minute come up. By heaven!” he continues, feigning a grand surprise, “I believe it’s the body of a man; and dead!”

“Thet last air probibble enuf. ’Tain’t likely he’d be alive wi’ no head on his shoulders. Thar’s none under the blanket, is thar?”

“No; I think not. There cannot be?”

“Lift it a leetle, an see.”

“I don’t like touching it. It’s such a cursed queer-looking thing.”

“Durn it, ye wan’t so partickler a minnit ago. What’s kim over ye now?”

“Ah!” stammers Calhoun, “I was excited with chasing it. I’d got angry at the damned thing, and was determined to put an end to its capers.”

“Never mind then,” interposes Zeb,—“I’ll make a inspecshun o’ it. Ye-es,” he continues, riding nearer, and keeping his eyes fixed upon the strange shape. “Ye-es, it’s the body o’ a man, an no mistake! Dead as a buck, an stiff as a hunch o’ ven’son in a hard frost!”

“Hullo!” he exclaims, on raising the skirt of the serapé, “it’s the body o’ the man whose murder’s bein’ tried—yur own cousin—young Peintdexter! It is, by the Eturnal God!”

“I believe you are right. By heaven it is he!”

“Geehosophat!” proceeds Zeb, after counterfeiting surprise at the discovery, “this air the mysteeriousest thing o’ all. Wal; I reck’n thur’s no use in our stayin’ hyur to spek’late upon it. Bessest thing we kin do ’s to take the body back, jest as it’s sot in the seddle—which it appears putty firm. I know the hoss too; an I reck’n, when he smell my ole maar a bit, he’ll kum along ’ithout much coaxin’. Gee up, ole gurl! an make yurself know’d to him. Thur now! Don’t ye see it’s a preevious acquaintance o’ yourn; though sarting the poor critter appears to hev hed rough usage o’ late; an ye mout well be excused for not reconisin’ him. ’Tair some time since he’s hed a curry to his skin.”

While the hunter is speaking, the horse bestridden by the dead body, and the old mare, place their snouts in contact—then withdraw them with a sniff of recognition.

“I thort so,” exclaims Zeb, taking hold of the strayed bridle, and detaching it from the mezquite; “the stellyun’s boun to lead quietly enuf—so long as he’s in kumpny with the maar. ’T all events, ’twon’t be needcessary to cut his throat to keep him from runnin’ away. Now, Mister Calhoun,” he continues, glancing stealthily at the other, to witness the effect produced by his speeches; “don’t ye think we’d better start right away? The trial may still be goin’ on; an’, ef so, we may be wanted to take a part in it. I reck’n thet we’ve got a witness hyur, as ’ll do somethin’ torst illoocidatin’ the case—either to the hangin’ the mowstanger, or, what air more likely, clurrin’ him althogither o’ the churge. Wal, air ye riddy to take the back track?”

“Oh, certainly. As you say, there’s no reason for our remaining here.”

Zeb moves off first, leading the captive alongside of him. The latter makes no resistance; but rather seems satisfied at being conducted in company.

Calhoun rides slowly—a close observer might say reluctantly in the rear.

At a point where the path angles abruptly round a clump of trees, he reins up, and appears to consider whether he should go on, or gallop back.

His countenance betrays terrible agitation. Zeb Stump, admonished by the interrupted footfall, becomes aware that his travelling companion has stopped.

He pulls up his mare; and facing round, regards the loiterer with a look of interrogation.

He observes the agitated air, and perfectly comprehends its cause.

Without saying a word, he lowers his long rifle from its rest upon his left shoulder; lays it across the hollow of his arm, ready at an instant’s notice to be carried to his cheek. In this attitude he sits eyeing the ex-captain of cavalry. There is no remark made. None is needed. Zeb’s gesture is sufficient. It plainly says:—“Go back if ye dare!”

The latter, without appearing to notice it, takes the hint; and moves silently on.

But no longer is he permitted to ride in the rear. Without saying it, the old hunter has grown suspicious, and makes an excuse for keeping behind—with which his compagnon du voyage is compelled to put up.

The cavalcade advances slowly through the chapparal.

It approaches the open prairie.

At length the sky line comes in sight.

Something seen upon the distant horizon appears to impress Calhoun with a fresh feeling of fear; and, once more reining up, he sits considering.

Dread is the alternative that occupies his mind. Shall he plunge back into the thicket, and hide himself from the eyes of men? Or go on and brave the dark storm that is fast gathering around him?

He would give all he owns in the world—all that he ever hopes to own—even Louise Poindexter herself—to be relieved of the hated presence of Zeb Stump—to be left for ten minutes alone with the Headless Horseman!

It is not to be. The sleuth-hound, that has followed him thus far, seems more than ever inexorable. Though loth to believe it, instinct tells him: that the old hunter regards him as the real captive, and any attempt on his part to steal away, will but end in his receiving a bullet in the back!

After all, what can Zeb Stump say, or do? There is no certainty that the backwoodsman knows anything of the circumstance that is troubling him?

And after all, there may be nothing to be known?

It is evident that Zeb is suspicious. But what of that? Only the friendless need fear suspicion; and the ex-officer is not one of these. Unless that little tell-tale be discovered, he has nothing to fear; and what chance of its being discovered? One against ten. In all likelihood it stayed not where it was sent, but was lost in the secret recesses of the chapparal?

Influenced by this hope, Calhoun regains courage; and with an air of indifference, more assumed than real, he rides out into the open prairie—close followed by Zeb Stump on his critter—the dead body of Henry Poindexter bringing up the rear!