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Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Ninety Six. Stole Away!

The announcement of the name produces a vivid impression upon the Court.

It is accompanied by a cry—sent up by the spectators, with a simultaneity that proclaims them animated by a common sentiment.

It is not a cry of surprise; but one of far different augury. It has a double meaning, too: at once proclaiming the innocence of the accused, and the guilt of him who has been the most zealous amongst the accusers.

Against the latter, the testimony of Zeb Stump has done more than direct suspicion. It confirms that already aroused; and which has been growing stronger, as fact after fact has been unfolded: until the belief becomes universal: that Maurice Gerald is not the man who should be on trial for the murder of Henry Poindexter.

Equally is it believed that Calhoun is the man. The scrap of smeared paper has furnished the last link in the chain of evidence; and, though this is but circumstantial, and the motive an inconceivable mystery, there is now scarce any one who has a doubt about the doer of the deed.

After a short time spent in examining the envelope—passed from hand to hand among the jurymen—the witness who has hinted at having something more to tell, is directed to continue his narration.

He proceeds to give an account of his suspicions—those that originally prompted him to seek for “sign” upon the prairie. He tells of the shot fired by Calhoun from the copse; of the chase that succeeded; and the horse trade that came after. Last of all, he describes the scene in the chapparal, where the Headless Horseman has been caught—giving this latest episode in all its details, with his own interpretation of it.

This done, he makes a pause, and stands silent, as if awaiting the Court to question him.

But the eyes of the auditory are no longer fixed upon him. They know that his tale is completed; or, if not so, they need no further testimony to guide their conclusions.

They do not even stay for the deliberations of the Court, now proceeding to sift the evidence. Its action is too slow for men who have seen justice so near being duped—themselves along with it; and—swayed by a bitter reactionary spirit—revenge, proceeding from self-reproach—they call loudly for a change in the programme.

The Court is assailed with the cries:—

“Let the Irishman go—he is innocent! We don’t want any farther evidence. We’re convinced of it. Let him go free!”

Such is the talk that proceeds from the excited spectators.

It is followed by other speeches equally earnest:—

“Let Cassius Calhoun be arrested, and put upon his trial! It’s he that’s done the deed! That’s why he’s shown so bitter against the other! If he’s innocent, he’ll be able to prove it. He shall have a fair trial; but tried he shall be. Come, judge; we’re waiting upon you! Order Mr Calhoun to be brought before the Court. An innocent man’s been there long enough. Let the guilty take his place!”

The demand, at first made by some half dozen voices, soon becomes a clamour, universally endorsed by the assemblage.

The judge dares not refuse compliance with a proposal so energetically urged: and, despite the informality, Cassius Calhoun is called upon to come before the Court.

The summons of the crier, thrice loudly pronounced, receives no response; and all eyes go in search of Calhoun.

There is only one pair that looks in the right direction—those of Zeb Stump.

The ci-devant witness is seen suddenly to forsake the spot on which he has been giving his testimony, and glide towards his old mare—still alongside the horse late relieved of his ghastly rider.

With an agility that surprises every one, the old hunter springs upon the mare’s back, and spurs her from under the tree.

At the same instant the spectators catch sight of a man, moving among the horses that stand picketed over the plain.

Though proceeding stealthily, as if to avoid being observed, he moves at a rapid rate—making for a particular quarter of the cavallada.

“’Tis he! ’Tis Calhoun!” cries the voice of one who has recognised him.

“Trying to steal off!” proclaims another.

“Follow him!” shouts the judge, in a tone of stern command. “Follow, and bring him back!”

There is no need for the order to be repeated. Ere the words are well out, it is in the act of being obeyed—by scores of men who rush simultaneously towards their horses.

Before reaching them, Calhoun has reached his—a grey mustang, standing on the outskirts of the cavallada.

It is the same he has lately ridden in chase of the Headless Horseman. The saddle is still upon its back, and the bitt between its teeth.

From the commotion observable under the tree, and the shouting that accompanies it, he has become cognisant of that terrible signal—the “hue and cry.”

Concealment is no longer possible; and, changing from the stealthy pace to a quick earnest run, he bounds upon the animal’s back.

Giving a wild glance backward, he heads it towards the prairie—going off at a gallop.

Fifty horses are soon laid along his track—their riders roused to the wildest excitement by some words pronounced at their parting.

“Bring him back—dead or alive!” was the solemn phrase,—supposed to have been spoken by the major.

No matter by whom. It needs not the stamp of official warrant to stimulate the pursuers. Their horror of the foul deed is sufficient for this—coupled with the high respect in which the victim of it had been held.

Each man spurs onward, as if riding to avenge the death of a relative—a brother; as if each was himself eager to become an instrument in the execution of justice!

Never before has the ex-captain of cavalry been in such danger of his life; not while charging over the red battle-field of Buena Vista; not while stretched upon the sanded floor of Oberdoffer’s bar-room, with the muzzle of the mustanger’s pistol pointed at his head!

He knows as much; and, knowing it, spurs on at a fearful pace—at intervals casting behind a glance, quick, furtive, and fierce.

It is not a look of despair. It has not yet come to this; though at sight of such a following—within hearing of their harsh vengeful cries—one might wonder he could entertain the shadow of a hope.

He has.

He knows that he is mounted on a fleet horse, and that there is a tract of timber before him.

True, it is nearly ten miles distant. But what signify ten miles? He is riding at the rate of twenty to the hour; and in half an hour he may find shelter in the chapparal?

Is this the thought that sustains him?

It can scarce be. Concealment in the thicket—with half a score of skilled trackers in pursuit—Zeb Stump at their head!

No: it cannot be this. There is no hiding-place for him; and he knows it.

What, then, hinders him from sinking under despair, and at once resigning himself to what must be his ultimate destiny?

Is it the mere instinct of the animal, giving way to a blind unreasoning effort at impossible escape?

Nothing of the kind. The murderer of Henry Poindexter is not mad. In his attempt to elude the justice he now dreads, he is not trusting to such slender chances as either a quick gallop across the prairie, or a possible concealment in the timber beyond.

There is a still farther beyond—a border. Upon this his thoughts are dwelling, and his hopes have become fixed.

There are, indeed, two borders. One that separates two nations termed civilised. There is a law of extradition between them. For all this the red-handed assassin may cheat justice—often does—by an adroit migration from one to the other—a mere change of residence and nationality.

But it is not this course Calhoun intends to take. However ill observed the statute between Texas and Mexico, he has no intention to take advantage of its loose observance. He dreads to risk such a danger. With the consciousness of his great crime, he has reason.

Though riding toward the Rio Grande, it is not with the design of crossing it. He has bethought him of the other border—that beyond which roams the savage Comanche—the Ishmaelite of the prairies—whose hand is against every man with a white skin; but will be lifted lightly against him, who has spilled the white man’s blood!

In his tent, the murderer may not only find a home, but hope for hospitality—perhaps promotion, in the red career of his adoption!

It is from an understanding of these circumstances, that Calhoun sees a chance of escape, that support him against despair; and, though he has started in a direct line for the Rio Grande, he intends, under cover of the chapparal, to flee towards the Llano Estacado.

He does not dread the dangers of this frightful desert; nor any others that may lie before him. They can be but light compared with those threatening behind.

He might feel regret at the terrible expatriation forced upon him—the loss of wealth, friends, social status, and civilisation—more than all, the severance from one too wildly, wickedly loved—perhaps never to be seen again!

But he has no time to think even of her. To his ignoble nature life is dearer than love. He fancies that life is still before him; but it is no fancy that tells him, death is behind—fast travelling upon his tracks!

The murderer makes haste—all the haste that can be taken out of a Mexican mustang—swift as the steeds of Arabia, from which it can claim descent.

Ere this the creature should be tired. Since the morning it has made more than a score miles—most of them going at a gallop.

But it shows no signs of fatigue. Like all its race—tough as terriers—it will go fifty—if need be a hundred—without staggering in its tracks.

What a stroke of good fortune—that exchange of horses with the Mexican maiden! So reflects its rider. But for it he might now be standing under the sombre shadow of the live oak, in the stern presence of a judge and jury, abetted and urged on to convict him, by the less scrupulous Lynch and his cohort of Regulators.

He is no longer in dread of such a destiny. He begins to fancy himself clear of all danger. He glances back over the plain, and sees his pursuers still far behind him.

He looks forward, and, in the dark line looming above the bright green of the savannah, descries the chapparal. He has no doubt of being able to reach it, and then his chance of escape will be almost certain.

Even if he should not succeed in concealing himself within the thicket, who is there to overtake him? He believes himself to be mounted on the fastest horse that is making the passage of the prairie.

Who, then, can come up with him?

He congratulates himself on the chance that has given him such a steed. He may ascribe it to the devil. He cannot attribute it to God!

And will God permit this red-handed ruffian to escape? Will He not stretch forth His almighty arm, and stay the assassin in his flight?

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