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The Best of Thomas Mayne Reid
The Headless Horseman
The stag of Texas, reclining in midnight lair, is startled from his slumbers by the hoofstroke of a horse.
He does not forsake his covert, nor yet rise to his feet. His domain is shared by the wild steeds of the savannah, given to nocturnal straying. He only uprears his head; and, with antlers o’ertopping the tall grass, listens for a repetition of the sound.
Again is the hoofstroke heard, but with altered intonation. There is a ring of metal – the clinking of steel against stone.
The sound, significant to the ear of the stag, causes a quick change in his air and attitude. Springing clear of his couch, and bounding a score of yards across the prairie, he pauses to look back upon the disturber of his dreams.
In the clear moonlight of a southern sky, he recognises the most ruthless of his enemies – man. One is approaching upon horseback.
Yielding to instinctive dread, he is about to resume his flight: when something in the appearance of the horseman – some unnatural seeming – holds him transfixed to the spot.
With haunches in quivering contact with the sward, and frontlet faced to the rear, he continues to gaze – his large brown eyes straining upon the intruder in a mingled expression of fear and bewilderment.
What has challenged the stag to such protracted scrutiny?
The horse is perfect in all its parts – a splendid steed, saddled, bridled, and otherwise completely caparisoned. In it there appears nothing amiss – nothing to produce either wonder or alarm. But the man – the rider? Ah! About him there is something to cause both – something weird – something wanting!
By heavens! it is the head!
Even the unreasoning animal can perceive this; and, after gazing a moment with wildered eyes – wondering what abnormal monster thus mocks its cervine intelligence – terror-stricken it continues its retreat; nor again pauses, till it has plunged through the waters of the Leona, and placed the current of the stream between itself and the ghastly intruder.
Heedless of the affrighted deer – either of its presence, or precipitate flight – the Headless Horseman rides on.
He, too, is going in the direction of the river. Unlike the stag, he does not seem pressed for time; but advances in a slow, tranquil pace: so silent as to seem ceremonious.
Apparently absorbed in solemn thought, he gives free rein to his steed: permitting the animal, at intervals, to snatch a mouthful of the herbage growing by the way. Nor does he, by voice or gesture, urge it impatiently onward, when the howl-bark of the prairie-wolf causes it to fling its head on high, and stand snorting in its tracks.
He appears to be under the influence of some all-absorbing emotion, from which no common incident can awake him. There is no speech – not a whisper – to betray its nature. The startled stag, his own horse, the wolf, and the midnight moon, are the sole witnesses of his silent abstraction.
His shoulders shrouded under a serape, one edge of which, flirted up by the wind, displays a portion of his figure: his limbs encased in “water-guards” of jaguar-skin: thus sufficiently sheltered against the dews of the night, or the showers of a tropical sky, he rides on – silent as the stars shining above, unconcerned as the cicada that chirrups in the grass beneath, or the prairie breeze playing with the drapery of his dress.
Something at length appears to rouse from his reverie, and stimulate him to greater speed – his steed, at the same time. The latter, tossing up its head, gives utterance to a joyous neigh; and, with outstretched neck, and spread nostrils, advances in a gait gradually increasing to a canter. The proximity of the river explains the altered pace.
The horse halts not again, till the crystal current is surging against his flanks, and the legs of his rider are submerged knee-deep under the surface.
The animal eagerly assuages its thirst; crosses to the opposite side; and, with vigorous stride, ascends the sloping bank.
Upon the crest occurs a pause: as if the rider tarried till his steed should shake the water from its flanks. There is a rattling of saddle-flaps, and stirrup-leathers, resembling thunder, amidst a cloud of vapour, white as the spray of a cataract.
Out of this self-constituted nimbus, the Headless Horseman emerges; and moves onward, as before.
Apparently pricked by the spur, and guided by the rein, of his rider, the horse no longer strays from the track; but steps briskly forward, as if upon a path already trodden.