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Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Ninety Eight. Not Dead yet

The assassin lies stretched along the earth—his arms embraced by the raw-hide rope—to all appearance dead.

But his captor does not trust to this. He believes it to be only a faint—it may be a feint—and to make sure it is not the latter, he remains in his saddle, keeping his lazo upon the strain.

The blood-bay, obedient to his will, stands firm as the trunk of a tree—ready to rear back, or bound forward, on receiving the slightest sign.

It is a terrible tableau; though far from being strange in that region of red-handed strife, that lies along the far-stretching frontier of Tamaulipas and Texas.

Oft—too oft—has the soaring vulture looked down upon such a scene—with joy beholding it, as promising a banquet for its filthy beak!

Even now half a score of these ravenous birds, attracted by the report of the pistol, are hovering in the air—their naked necks elongated in eager anticipation of a feast!

One touch of the spur, on the part of him seated in the saddle, would give them what they want.

“It would serve the scoundrel right,” mutters the mustanger to himself. “Great God, to think of the crime he has committed! Killed his own cousin, and then cut off his head! There can be no doubt that he has done both; though from what motive, God only can tell,—or himself, if he be still alive.

“I have my own thoughts about it. I know that he loves her; and it may be that the brother stood in his way.

“But how, and why? That is the question that requires an answer. Perhaps it can only be answered by God and himself?”

“Yur mistaken beout thet, young fellur,” interposes a voice breaking in on the soliloquy. “Thur’s one who kin tell the how and the why, jest as well as eyther o’ them ye’ve made mention o’; and thet individooal air ole Zeb Stump, at your sarvice. But ’taint the time to talk o’ sech things now; not hyur ain’t the place neythur. We must take him back unner the live oak, whar he’ll git treated accordin’ to his desarvins. Durn his ugly picter! It would sarve him right to make it uglier by draggin’ him a spell at the eend o’ yur trail-rope.

“Never mind beout that. We needn’t volunteer to be Henry Peintdexter’s ’vengers. From what they know now, I reck’n that kin be trusted to the Regulators.”

“How are we to get him back? His horse has galloped away!”

“No difeequilty beout that, Mister Gerald. He’s only fainted a bit; or maybe, playin’ possum. In eyther case, I’ll soon roust him. If he ain’t able to make tracks on the hoof he kin go a hossback, and hyur’s the critter as ’ll carry him. I’m sick o’ the seddle myself, an I reck’n the ole gal’s a leetle bit sick o’ me—leestwise o’ the spur I’ve been a prickin’ into her. I’ve made up my mind to go back on Shanks’s maar, an as for Mister Cash Calhoun, he’s welkim to hev my seat for the reeturn jerney. Ef he don’t stop shammin an sit upright, we kin pack him acrost the crupper, like a side o’ dead buck-meat. Yo-ho! he begins to show sign! He’ll soon rekiver his senses—all seven o’ ’em, I reck’n—an then he kin mount the maar o’ hisself.

“Yee-up, ole hoss!” continues Zeb, grasping Calhoun by the collar of his coat, and giving him a vigorous shake. “Yee-up, I say; an kum along wi’ us! Ye’re wanted. Thar’s somebody desirin’ to have a talk wi’ you!”

“Who? where?” inquires the captive, slowly recovering consciousness, and staring unsteadily around him. “Who wants me?”

“Wal; I do for one; an—”

“Ah! you it is, Zeb Stump! and—and—?”

“An’ that air’s Mister Maurice Gerald the mowstanger. You’ve seed him afore, I reck’n? He wants ye for two. Beside, thar’s a good grist o’ others as ud like to see ye agin—back thar by the Port. So ye’d best get upon yur legs, an’ go along wi’ us.”

The wretched man rises to his feet. In so doing, he discovers that his arms are encircled by a lazo.

“My horse?” he exclaims, looking inquiringly around. “Where is my horse?”

“Ole Nick only knows whar he air by this time. Like enuf gone back to the Grand, whar he kim from. Arter the gallupin ye’ve gi’n him, I reck’n he air sick o’ the swop; an’s goed off to take a spell o’ rest on his native pasters.”

Calhoun gazes on the old hunter with something more than astonishment. The swop! Even this, too, is known to him!

“Now, then,” pursues Zeb, with a gesture of impatience. “’Twon’t do to keep the Court a-waitin’. Are ye riddy?”

“Ready for what?”

“Fust an foremost, to go back along wi’ me an Mister Gerald. Second an second-most, to stan’ yur trial.”

“Trial! I stand trial!”

“You, Mister Cash Calhoun.”

“On what charge?”

“The churge o’ killin’ Henry Peintdexter—yur own cousin.”

“It’s a lie! A damned slanderous lie; and whoever says it—!”

“Shet up yur head!” cries Zeb, with an authoritative gesture. “Ye’re only wastin’ breath. Ef this chile ain’t mistook about it, ye’ll need all ye’ve got afore long. Kum, now! make riddy to reeturn wi’ us! The judge air awaitin’; the jury air awaitin’; an justice air waitin’, too—in the shape o’ three score Reg’lators.”

“I’m not going back,” doggedly responds Calhoun. “By what authority do you command me? You have no warrant?”

“Hain’t I, though?” interrupts Zeb. “What d’ye call this?” he adds, pointing to his rifle. “Thur’s my warrant, by the grace o’ God; an by thet same, this chile air a goin’ to execute it. So no more o’ yur durned palaver: for I ain’t the sort to stan’ it. Take yur choice, Mister Cash Calhoun. Mount thet old maar o’ mine, an kum along quickly; or try the toother dodge, an git toated like a packidge o’ merchandice: for back yur boun’ to go—I swar it by the Eturnal!”

Calhoun makes no reply. He glances at Stump—at Gerald—despairingly around him; then stealthily towards a six-shooter, protruding from the breast-pocket of his coat—the counterpart of that shaken out of his hand, as the rope settled around him.

He makes an effort to reach the pistol—feeble, because only half resolved.

He is restrained by the lazo; perhaps more by a movement on the part of Zeb; who, with a significant gesture, brings his long gun to the level.

“Quick!” exclaims the hunter. “Mount, Mister Calhoun! Thur’s the maar awaitin’ for ye. Inter the seddle, I say!”

Like a puppet worked by the wires of the showman, the ex-captain of cavalry yields compliance with the commands of the backwoodsman. He does so, from a consciousness that there is death—certain death—in disobeying them.

Mechanically he mounts the mare; and, without resistance, suffers her to be led away from the spot.

Zeb, afoot, strides on in advance.

The mare, at bridle-length, follows upon his tracks.

The mustanger rides reflectingly behind; thinking less of him held at the end of his lazo, than of her, who by a generous self-sacrifice, has that day riveted around his heart a golden chain—only by death to be undone!

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