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Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Ninety Three. A Body Beheaded

Forsaken by two-thirds of its spectators—abandoned, by one-half of the jury—the trial taking place under the tree is of necessity interrupted.

There is no adjournment of the Court—only an interregnum, unavoidable, and therefore tacitly agreed to.

The interlude occupies about an hour; during which the judge smokes a couple of cigars; takes about twice that number of drinks from the bottle of peach brandy; chats familiarly with the counsel, the fragment of a jury, and such spectators as, not having horses, or not caring to give them a gallop, have stayed by the tree.

There is no difficulty in finding a subject of conversation. That is furnished by the incident that has just transpired—strange enough to be talked about not only for an hour, but an age.

The spectators converse of it, while with excited feelings they await the return of those who have started on the chase.

They are in hopes that the Headless Horseman will be captured. They believe that his capture will not only supply a clue to the mystery of his being, but will also throw light on that of the murder.

There is one among them who could explain the first—though ignorant of the last. The accused could do this; and will, when called upon to continue his confession.

Under the direction of the judge, and by the advice of his counsel, he is for the time preserving silence.

After a while the pursuers return; not all together, but in straggling squads—as they have despairingly abandoned the pursuit.

All bring back the same story. None of them has been near enough to the Headless rider to add one iota to what is already known of him. His entity remains mythical as ever!

It is soon discovered that two who started in the chase have not reappeared. They are the old hunter and the ex-captain of volunteers. The latter has been last seen heading the field, the former following not far behind him.

No one saw either of them afterward. Are they still continuing on? Perhaps they may have been successful?

All eyes turn towards the prairie, and scan it with inquiring glances. There is an expectation that the missing men may be seen on their way back—with a hope that the Headless Horseman may be along with them.

An hour elapses, and there is no sign of them—either with or without the wished-for captive.

Is the trial to be further postponed?

The counsel for the prosecution urges its continuance; while he for the accused is equally desirous of its being delayed. The latter moves an adjournment till to-morrow; his plea the absence of an important witness in the person of Zeb Stump, who has not yet been examined.

There are voices that clamour for the case to be completed.

There are paid claquers in the crowd composing a Texan Court, as in the pit of a Parisian theatre. The real tragedy has its supporters, as well as the sham!

The clamourers succeed in carrying their point. It is decided to go on with the trial—as much of it as can be got through without the witness who is absent. He may be back before the time comes for calling him. If not, the Court can then talk about adjournment.

So rules the judge; and the jury signify their assent. The spectators do the same.

The prisoner is once more directed to stand up, and continue the confession so unexpectedly interrupted.

“You were about to tell us what you saw,” proceeds the counsel for the accused, addressing himself to his client. “Go on, and complete your statement. What was it you saw?”

“A man lying at full length upon the grass.”


“Yes; in the sleep of death.”


“More than dead; if that were possible. On bending over him, I saw that he had been beheaded!”

“What! His head cut off?”

“Just so. I did not know it, till I knelt down beside him. He was upon his face—with the head in its natural position. Even the hat was still on it!

“I was in hopes he might be asleep; though I had a presentiment there was something amiss. The arms were extended too stiffly for a sleeping man. So were the legs. Besides, there was something red upon the grass, that in the dim light I had not at first seen.

“As I stooped low to look at it, I perceived a strange odour—the salt smell that proceeds from human blood.

“I no longer doubted that it was a dead body I was bending over; and I set about examining it.

“I saw there was a gash at the back of the neck, filled with red, half-coagulated blood. I saw that the head was severed from the shoulders!”

A sensation of horror runs through the auditory—accompanied by the exclamatory cries heard on such occasions.

“Did you know the man?”

“Alas! yes.”

“Without seeing his face?”

“It did not need that. The dress told who it was—too truly.”

“What dress?”

“The striped blanket covering his shoulders and the hat upon his head. They were my own. But for the exchange we had made, I might have fancied it was myself. It was Henry Poindexter.”

A groan is again heard—rising above the hum of the excited hearers.

“Proceed, sir!” directs the examining counsel. “State what other circumstances came under your observation.”

“On touching the body, I found it cold and stiff. I could see that it had been dead for some length of time. The blood was frozen nearly dry; and had turned black. At least, so it appeared in the grey light: for the sun was not yet up.

“I might have mistaken the cause of death, and supposed it to have been by the beheading. But, remembering the shot I had heard in the night, it occurred to me that another wound would be found somewhere—in addition to that made by the knife.

“It proved that I was right. On turning the body breast upward, I perceived a hole in the serapé; that all around the place was saturated with blood.

“On lifting it up, and looking underneath, I saw a livid spot just over the breast-bone. I could tell that a bullet had entered there; and as there was no corresponding wound at the back, I knew it must be still inside the body.”

“In your opinion, was the shot sufficient to have caused death, without the mutilation that, you think, must have been done afterwards?”

“Most certainly it was. If not instantaneous, in a few minutes—perhaps seconds.”

“The head was cut off, you say. Was it quite severed from the body?”

“Quite; though it was lying close up—as if neither head nor body had moved after the dismemberment.”

“Was it a clean out—as if done by a sharp-edged weapon?”

“It was.”

“What sort of weapon would you say?”

“It looked like the cut of a broad axe; but it might have been done with a bowie-knife; one heavily weighted at the back of the blade.”

“Did you notice whether repeated strokes had been given? Or had the severance been effected by a single cut?”

“There might have been more than one. But there was no appearance of chopping. The first cut was a clean slash; and must have gone nearly, if not quite, through. It was made from the back of the neck; and at right angles to the spine. From that I knew that the poor fellow must have been down on his face when the stroke was delivered.”

“Had you any suspicion why, or by whom, the foul deed had been done?”

“Not then, not the slightest. I was so horrified, I could not reflect. I could scarce think it real.

“When I became calmer, and saw for certain that a murder had been committed, I could only account for it by supposing that there had been Comanches upon the ground, and that, meeting young Poindexter, they had killed him out of sheer wantonness.

“But then there was his scalp untouched—even the hat still upon his head!”

“You changed your mind about its being Indians?”

“I did.”

“Who did you then think it might be?”

“At the time I did not think of any one. I had never heard of Henry Poindexter having an enemy—either here or elsewhere. I have since had my suspicions. I have them now.”

“State them.”

“I object to the line of examination,” interposes the prosecuting counsel. “We don’t want to be made acquainted with, the prisoner’s suspicions. Surely it is sufficient if he be allowed to proceed with his very plausible tale?”

“Let him proceed, then,” directs the judge, igniting a fresh Havannah.

“State how you yourself acted,” pursues the examiner. “What did you do, after making the observations you have described?”

“For some time I scarce knew what to do—I was so perplexed by what I saw beside me. I felt convinced that there had been a murder; and equally so that it had been done by the shot—the same I had heard.

“But who could have fired it? Not Indians. Of that I felt sure.

“I thought of some prairie-pirate, who might have intended plunder. But this was equally improbable. My Mexican blanket was worth a hundred dollars. That would have been taken. It was not, nor anything else that Poindexter had carried about him. Nothing appeared to have been touched. Even the watch was still in his waistcoat pocket, with the chain around his neck glistening through the gore that had spurted over it!

“I came to the conclusion: that the deed must have been done for the satisfaction of some spite or revenge; and I tried to remember whether I had ever heard of any one having a quarrel with young Poindexter, or a grudge against him.

“I never had.

“Besides, why had the head been cut off?

“It was this that filled me with astonishment—with horror.

“Without attempting to explain it, I bethought me of what was best to be done.

“To stay by the dead body could serve no purpose. To bury it would have been equally idle.

“Then I thought of galloping back to the Fort, and getting assistance to carry it to Casa del Corvo.

“But if I left it in the chapparal, the coyotés might discover it; and both they and the buzzards would be at it before we could get back. Already the vultures were above—taking their early flight. They appeared to have espied it.

“Mutilated as was the young man’s form, I could not think of leaving it, to be made still more so. I thought of the tender eyes that must soon behold it—in tears.”

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