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Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Ninety Four. The Mystery Made Clear

The accused pauses in his recital. No one offers any observation—either to interrupt, or hurry him on.

There is a reluctance to disturb the chain of a narrative, all know to be unfinished; and every link of which has been binding them to a closer and more earnest attention.

Judge, jury, and spectators remain breathlessly silent; while their eyes—many with mouths agape—are attentively turned upon the prisoner.

Amidst solemn stillness he is permitted to proceed.

“My next idea was to cover the body with the cloak—as well as the serapé still around the shoulders. By so doing it would be protected from both wolves and buzzards—at least till we could get back to fetch it away.

“I had taken off the cloak for this purpose; when a different plan suggested itself—one that appeared in every way better.

“Instead of returning to the Port alone, I should take the body along with me. I fancied I could do this, by laying it across the croup, and lashing it to the saddle with my lazo.

“I led my horse up to the spot, and was preparing to put the body upon him, when I perceived that there was another horse upon the ground. It was that lately ridden by him who was now no more.

“The animal was near by, browsing upon the grass—as tranquilly as if nothing had happened to disturb it.

“As the bridle trailed upon the ground, I had no difficulty in catching hold of it. There was more in getting the horse to stand still—especially when brought alongside what lay upon the ground.

“Holding the reins between my teeth, I lifted the body up, and endeavoured to place it crosswise in the saddle.

“I succeeded in getting it there, but it would not remain. It was too stiff to bend over, and there was no way to steady it.

“Besides, the horse became greatly excited, at sight of the strange load he was being called upon to carry.

“After several attempts, I saw I could not succeed.

“I was about to give up the idea, when another occurred to me—one that promised better. It was suggested by a remembrance of something I had read, relating to the Gauchos of South America. When one dies, or is killed by accident, in some remote station of the Pampas, his comrades carry his corpse to their distant home—strapped in the saddle, and seated in the same attitude, as though he were still alive.

“Why should I not do the same with the body of Henry Poindexter?

“I made the attempt—first trying to set him on his own horse.

“But the saddle being a flat one, and the animal still remaining restive, I did not succeed.

“There was but one other chance of our making the home journey together: by exchanging horses.

“I knew that my own would not object. Besides, my Mexican saddle, with its deep tree, would answer admirably for the purpose.

“In a short while I had the body in it, seated erect,—in the natural position. Its stiffness, that had obstructed me before, now served to keep it in its place. The rigid limbs were easily drawn into the proper stride; and with the feet inserted into the stirrups, and the water-guards buckled tightly over the thighs, there was little chance of the body slipping off.

“To make it thoroughly secure, I cut a length from my lazo; and, warping it round the waist, fastened one end to the pommel in front, the other to the cantle behind.

“A separate piece tied to the stirrups, and passing under the belly of the horse, kept the feet from swinging about.

“The head still remained to be dealt with. It too must be taken along.

“On lifting it from the ground, and endeavouring to detach it from the hat, I found that this could not be done. It was swollen to enormous dimensions; and the sombrero adhered to it—close as the skin itself.

“Having no fear that they would fall apart, I tied a piece of string to the buckle of the band; and hung both hat and head over the horn of the saddle.

“This completed my preparations for the journey.

“I mounted the horse of the murdered man; and, calling upon my own to follow me—he was accustomed to do so without leading—I started to ride back to the settlement.

“In less than five minutes after, I was knocked out of my saddle—and my senses at the same time.

“But for that circumstance I should not be standing here,—at all events, not in the unpleasant position I now hold.”

“Knocked out of your saddle!” exclaims the judge. “How was that?”

“A simple accident; or rather was it due to my own carelessness. On mounting the strange horse I neglected to take hold of the bridle. Accustomed to guide my own—often with only my voice and knees—I had grown regardless of the reins. I did not anticipate an occurrence of the kind that followed.

“The horse I was on, had only stopped three lengths of itself, from the place where I had bestridden him, when something caused him to shy to one side, and break into a gallop.

“I need not say something; for I knew what it was. He had looked round, and seen the other coming on behind, with that strange shape upon his back, that now in the broad light of day was enough to frighten horse or man.

“I clutched at the bridle; but, before I could lay my hand upon it, the horse was at his full speed.

“At first I was but little alarmed; indeed not at all. I supposed I should soon recover the reins, and bring the runaway to a stand.

“But I soon found this could not be so easily done. They had strayed forward, almost to the animal’s ears; and I could not reach them, without laying myself flat along the neck.

“While endeavouring to secure the bridle, I took no heed of the direction in which the horse was taking me. It was only when I felt a sharp twitching against my cheeks, that I discovered he had forsaken the open tract, and was carrying me through the chapparal.

“After that I had no time to make observations—no chance even to look after the lost reins. I was enough occupied in dodging the branches of the mezquites, that stretched out their spinous arms as if desiring to drag me from the saddle.

“I managed to steer clear of them, though not without getting scratches.

“But there was one I could not avoid—the limb of a large tree that projected across the path. It was low down—on a level with my breast—and the brute, shying from something that had given him a fresh start, shot right under it.

“Where he went afterwards I do not attempt to say. You all know that—I believe, better than I. I can only tell you, that, after unhorsing, he left me under the limb, with a lump upon my forehead and a painful swelling in the knee; neither of which I knew anything about till two hours afterwards.

“When my senses came back to me, I saw the sun high up in the heavens, and some scores of turkey buzzards wheeling in circles above me. I could tell by the craning of their necks what was the prey they were expecting.

“The sight of them, as well as my thirst—that was beginning to grow painful—prompted me to move away from the place.

“On rising to my feet, I discovered that I could not walk. Worse still, I was scarce able to stand.

“To stay on that spot was to perish—at least I so thought at the time.

“Urged by the thought, I exerted all the strength left me, in an effort to reach water.

“I knew there was a stream near by; and partly by crawling,—partly by the help of a rude crutch procured in the thicket—I succeeded in reaching it.

“Having satisfied my thirst, I felt refreshed; and soon after fell asleep.

“I awoke to find myself surrounded by coyotés.

“There were at least two score of them; and although at first I had no fear—knowing their cowardly nature—I was soon brought to a different way of thinking.

“They saw that I was disabled; and for this reason had determined upon attacking me.

“After a time they did so—clustering around and springing upon me in a simultaneous onslaught.

“I had no weapon but my knife; and it was fortunate I had that. Altogether unarmed, I must have been torn to pieces, and devoured.

“With the knife I was able to keep them off, stabbing as many as I could get a fair stroke at. Half-a-dozen, I should think, were killed in this way.

“For all that it would have ended ill for me. I was becoming enfeebled by the blood fast pouring from my veins, and must soon have succumbed, but for an unexpected chance that turned up in my favour.

“I can scarce call it chance. I am more satisfied, to think it was the hand of God.”

On pronouncing this speech the young Irishman turns his eyes towards Heaven, and stands for a time as if reflecting reverentially.

Solemn silence around tells that the attitude is respected. The hearts of all, even the rudest of his listeners, seem touched with the confidence so expressed.

“It showed itself,” he continues, “in the shape of an old comrade—one ofttimes more faithful than man himself—my staghound, Tara.

“The dog had been straying—perhaps in search of me—though I’ve since heard a different explanation of it, with which I need not trouble you. At all events, he found me; and just in time to be my rescuer.

“The coyotés scattered at his approach; and I was saved from a fearful fate—I may say, out of the jaws of death.

“I had another spell of sleep, or unconsciousness—whichever it may have been.

“On awaking I was able to reflect. I knew that the dog must have come from my jacalé; which I also knew to be several miles distant. He had been taken thither, the day before, by my servant, Phelim.

“The man should still be there; and I bethought me of sending him a message—the staghound to be its bearer.

“I wrote some words on a card, which I chanced to have about me.

“I was aware that my servant could not read; but on seeing the card he would recognise it as mine, and seek some one who could decipher what I had written upon it.

“There would be the more likelihood of his doing so, seeing that the characters were traced in blood.

“Wrapping the card in a piece of buckskin, to secure it against being destroyed, I attached it to Tara’s neck.

“With some difficulty I succeeded in getting the animal to leave me. But he did so at length; and, as I had hoped, to go home to the hut.

“It appears that my message was duly carried; though it was only yesterday I was made acquainted with the result.

“Shortly after the dog took his departure, I once more fell asleep—again awaking to find myself in the presence of an enemy—one more terrible than I had yet encountered.

“It was a jaguar.

“A conflict came off between us; but how it ended, or after what time, I am unable to tell. I leave that to my brave rescuer, Zeb Stump; who, I hope, will soon return to give an account of it—with much besides that is yet mysterious to me, as to yourselves.

“All I can remember since then is a series of incongruous dreams—painful phantasmagoria—mingled with pleasant visions—ah! some that were celestial—until the day before yesterday, when I awoke to find myself the inmate of a prison—with a charge of murder hanging over my head!

“Gentlemen of the jury! I have done.”

“Si non vero e ben trovato,” is the reflection of judge, jury, and spectators, as the prisoner completes his recital.

They may not express it in such well-turned phrase; but they feel it—one and all of them.

And not a few believe in the truth, and reject the thought of contrivance. The tale is too simple—too circumstantial—to have been contrived, and by a man whose brain is but just recovered from the confusion of fevered fancies.

It is altogether improbable he should have concocted such a story. So think the majority of those to whom it has been told.

His confession—irregular as it may have been—has done more for his defence than the most eloquent speech his counsel could have delivered.

Still it is but his own tale; and other testimony will be required to clear him.

Where is the witness upon whom so much is supposed to depend. Where is Zeb Stump?

Five hundred pairs of eyes turn towards the prairie, and scan the horizon with inquiring gaze. Five hundred hearts throb with a mad impatience for the return of the old hunter—with or without Cassius Calhoun—with or without the Headless Horse, man—now no longer either myth or mystery, but a natural phenomenon, explained and comprehended.

It is not necessary to say to that assemblage, that the thing is an improbability—much less to pronounce it impossible. They are Texans of the south-west—denizens of the high upland plateau, bordering upon the “Staked Plain,” from which springs the lovely Leona, and where the river of Nuts heads in a hundred crystal streams.

They are dwellers in a land, where death can scarce be said to have its successor in decay; where the stag struck down in its tracks—or the wild steed succumbing to some hapless chance—unless by wild beasts devoured, will, after a time, bid defiance both to the laws of corruption and the teeth of the coyoté; where the corpse of mortal man himself, left uncoffined and uncovered, will, in the short period of eight-and-forty hours, exhibit the signs, and partake of the qualities, of a mummy freshly exhumed from the catacombs of Egypt!

But few upon the ground who are not acquainted with this peculiarity of the Texan climate—that section of it close to the Sierra Madro—and more especially among the spurs of the Llano Estacado.

Should the Headless Horseman be led back under the live oak, there is not one who will be surprised to see the dead body of Henry Poindexter scarce showing the incipient signs of decomposition. If there be any incredulity about the story just told them, it is not on this account; and they stand in impatient expectation, not because they require it to be confirmed.

Their impatience may be traced to a different cause—a suspicion, awakened at an early period of the trial, and which, during its progress, has been gradually growing stronger; until it has at length assumed almost the shape of a belief.

It is to confirm, or dissipate this, that nearly every man upon the ground—every woman as well—chafes at the absence of that witness, whose testimony is expected to restore the accused to his liberty, or consign him to the gallows tree.

Under such an impression, they stand interrogating the level line—where sky and savannah mingle the soft blue of the sapphire with the vivid green of the emerald.

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