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Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Ninety Seven. The Chase of the Assassin

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

These interrogatories are put by those who have remained under the tree.

They are answered by an instinct of justice—the first negatively, the second in the affirmative. He will not, and He will.

The answers are but conjectural; doubtfully so, as Calhoun goes galloping off; a little less doubtful as Zeb Stump is descried starting after him; and still less, when a hundred horsemen—soldiers and civilians—spring forward in the pursuit.

The doubt diminishes as the last of the pursuers is seen leaving the ground. All seem to believe that the last at starting will be first in the chase: for they perceive that it is Maurice the mustanger mounted on a horse whose fleetness is now far famed.

The exclamations late ringing through the court have proclaimed not only a fresh postponement of his trial, but its indefinite adjournment. By the consent of the assemblage, vociferously expressed, or tacitly admitted, he feels that he is free.

The first use he makes of his liberty is to rush towards the horse late ridden by the headless rider—as all know—his own.

At his approach the animal recognises its master; proclaims it by trotting towards him, and giving utterance to a glad “whigher!”

Despite the long severance, there is scarce time to exchange congratulations. A single word passes the lips of the mustanger, in response to the neigh of recognition; and in the next instant he is on the back of the blood-bay, with the bridle in his grasp.

He looks round for a lazo; asks for it appealingly, in speech directed to the bystanders.

After a little delay one is thrown to him, and he is off.

The spectators stand gazing after. There is no longer a doubt as to the result. The wish, almost universal, has become a universal belief. God has decreed that the assassin shall not escape; but that he will be overtaken, captured, and brought back before that same tribunal, where he so late stood a too willing witness!

And the man, so near suffering death through his perjured testimony, is the instrument chosen to carry out the Divine decree!

Even the rude Regulators—with their practical habitudes of life, but little regarding the idea of Divine interference—cannot help having the impression of this poetical justice.

One and all give way to it, as the red stallion springs off over the prairie, carrying Maurice Gerald upon his back.

After his departure, an episode occurs under the shadow of the live oak. It is not this that hinders it from being observed; but because every one has turned face towards the plain, and watches the chase, fast receding from view.

There is one scanning it with a look unlike the others. A lady strains her eyes through the curtains of a calèche—her glance telling of a thought within dissimilar to that felt by the common spectators.

It is no mere curiosity that causes her twin breasts to sink and swell in quick spasmodic breathing. In her eye, still showing sadness, there is a gleam of triumph as it follows the pursuer—tempered with mercy, as it falls upon the pursued; while from her lips, slightly parted, escapes the prayer: “God have mercy on the guilty man!”

Delayed a little at mounting—and more in procuring the lazo—Maurice Gerald is the very latest to leave the ground. On clearing the skirt of the crowd, now dispersed over the parade, he sees the others far ahead—a distance of several hundred yards separating him from the rearmost.

He thinks nothing of this. Confident in the qualities of his steed, he knows he will not long ride in the rear.

And the blood-bay answers his expectations. As if joyed at being relieved from his inert load—to him an incubus inexplicable—and inspired by the pressure of his master’s knees, the noble horse springs off over the prairie turf—in long sinewy strides, showing that his body still retains its strength, and his limbs their elasticity.

He soon closes upon the hindmost; overtakes one; then another, and another, till he has surged far ahead of the “field.”

Still on, over the rolling ridges—across the stream-beds between—on, over soft turf, and sharp shingle, till at length his competitors lose sight of him—as they have already done of the grey mustang and its rider.

There is but one of the pursuing party who continues to keep him in view—a tall man, mounted upon what might be taken for the sorriest of steeds—an old mustang mare.

Her speed tells a different tale; produced though it be by the strangest of spurs—the keen blade of a bowie-knife.

It is Zeb Stump who makes use of this quaint, but cruel, means of persuasion.

Still the old mare cannot keep pace with the magnificent stallion of the mustanger. Nor does Zeb expect it. He but aims at holding the latter in sight; and in this he is so far successful.

There is yet another who beholds the blood-bay making his vigorous bounds. He beholds him with “beard upon the shoulder.” It is he who is pursued.

Just as he has begun to feel hopeful of escape, Calhoun, looking back, catches sight of the red stallion; no longer with that strange shape upon his back, but one as well recognised, and to him even more terrible. He perceives it to be Maurice, the mustanger—the man he would have devoted—was so near devoting—to the most disgraceful of deaths!

He sees this man coming after—his own conscience tells him—as an avenger!

Is it the hand of God that directs this enemy on his track? He trembles as he asks himself the question. From any other pursuer there might have been a chance of escaping. There is none from Maurice Gerald!

A cold shiver runs through the frame of the fugitive. He feels as if he were fighting against Fate; and that it is idle to continue the contest!

He sits despairingly in his saddle; scarce caring to ply the spur; no longer believing that speed can avail him!

His flight is now merely mechanical—his mind taking no part in the performance.

His soul is absorbed with the horror of a dread death—not less dread, from his knowing that he deserves it.

The sight of the chapparal, close at hand, inspires him with a fresh hope; and, forcing the fatigued horse into a last feeble effort, he struggles on towards it.

An opening presents itself. He enters it; and continues his gallop for a half mile further.

He arrives at a point, where the path turns sharply round some heavy timber. Beyond that, he might enter the underwood, and get out of sight of his pursuer.

He knows the place, but too well. It has been fatal to him before. Is it to prove so again?

It is. He feels that it is, and rides irresolutely. He hears the hoofstroke of the red horse close upon the heels of his own; and along with it the voice of the avenging rider, summoning him to stop!

He is too late for turning the corner,—too late to seek concealment in the thicket,—and with a cry he reins up.

It is a cry partly of despair, partly of fierce defiance—like the scream of a chased jaguar under bay of the bloodhounds.

It is accompanied by a gesture; quick followed by a flash, a puff of white smoke, and a sharp detonation, that tell of the discharge of a revolver.

But the bullet whistles harmlessly through the air; while in the opposite direction is heard a hishing sound—as from the winding of a sling—and a long serpent seems to uncoil itself in the air!

Calhoun sees it through the thinning smoke. It is darting straight towards him!

He has no time to draw trigger for a second shot—no time even to avoid the lazo’s loop. Before he can do either, he feels it settling over his shoulders; he hears the dread summons, “Surrender, you assassin!” he sees the red stallion turn tail towards him; and, in the next instant, experiences the sensation of one who has been kicked from a scaffold!

Beyond this he feels, hears, and sees nothing more.

He has been jerked out of his saddle; and the shock received in his collision with the hard turf has knocked the breath out of his body, as well as the sense out of his soul!

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