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The Headless Horseman

Mayne Reid

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Tags: Fiction » Gothic and Horror Fiction

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The Headless Horseman: A Strange Tale of Texas is a novel by Mayne Reid, first published in 1866. Based on the author's adventures in the United States, it tells the story of Louise Poindexter, who is being courted by the arrogant and vindictive Cassius Calhoun and the dashing but poor mustanger Maurice Gerald. Calhoun plots to eliminate his rival when tragedy strikes: Louise's brother, the young Henry Poindexter, is murdered. All clues point to Maurice Gerald as the assassin. At the same time, a headless rider is spotted in the Poindexter plantation.

This book has 452 pages in the PDF version, and was originally published in 1866.

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Excerpt from The Headless Horseman

On the great plain of Texas, about a hundred miles southward from the old Spanish town of San Antonio de Bejar, the noonday sun is shedding his beams from a sky of cerulean brightness. Under the golden light appears a group of objects, but little in unison with the landscape around them: since they betoken the presence of human beings, in a spot where there is no sign of human habitation.

The objects in question are easily identified—even at a great distance. They are waggons; each covered with its ribbed and rounded tilt of snow-white “Osnaburgh.”

There are ten of them—scarce enough to constitute a “caravan” of traders, nor yet a “government train.” They are more likely the individual property of an emigrant; who has landed upon the coast, and is wending his way to one of the late-formed settlements on the Leona.

Slowly crawling across the savannah, it could scarce be told that they are in motion; but for their relative-position, in long serried line, indicating the order of march.

The dark bodies between each two declare that the teams are attached; and that they are making progress is proved, by the retreating antelope, scared from its noonday siesta, and the long-shanked curlew, rising with a screech from the sward—both bird and beast wondering at the string of strange behemoths, thus invading their wilderness domain.

Elsewhere upon the prairie, no movement may be detected—either of bird or quadruped. It is the time of day when all tropical life becomes torpid, or seeks repose in the shade; man alone, stimulated by the love of gain, or the promptings of ambition, disregarding the laws of nature, and defying the fervour of the sun.

So seems it with the owner of the tilted train; who, despite the relaxing influence of the fierce mid-day heat, keeps moving on.

That he is an emigrant—and not one of the ordinary class—is evidenced in a variety of ways. The ten large waggons of Pittsburgh build, each hauled by eight able-bodied mules; their miscellaneous contents: plenteous provisions, articles of costly furniture, even of luxe, live stock in the shape of coloured women and children; the groups of black and yellow bondsmen, walking alongside, or straggling foot-sore in the rear; the light travelling carriage in the lead, drawn by a span of sleek-coated Kentucky mules, and driven by a black Jehu, sweltering in a suit of livery; all bespeak, not a poor Northern-States settler in search of a new home, but a rich Southerner who has already purchased one, and is on his way to take possession of it.

And this is the exact story of the train. It is the property of a planter who has landed at Indianola, on the Gulf of Matagorda; and is now travelling overland—en route for his destination.

In the cortège that accompanies it, riding habitually at its head, is the planter himself—Woodley Poindexter—a tall thin man of fifty, with a slightly sallowish complexion, and aspect proudly severe. He is simply though not inexpensively clad: in a loosely fitting frock of alpaca cloth, a waistcoat of black satin, and trousers of nankin. A shirt of finest linen shows its plaits through the opening of his vest—its collar embraced by a piece of black ribbon; while the shoe, resting in his stirrup, is of finest tanned leather. His features are shaded by a broad-brimmed Leghorn hat.

Two horsemen are riding alongside—one on his right, the other on the left—a stripling scarce twenty, and a young man six or seven years older. The former is his son—a youth, whose open cheerful countenance contrasts, not only with the severe aspect of his father, but with the somewhat sinister features on the other side, and which belong to his cousin.

The youth is dressed in a French blouse of sky-coloured “cottonade,” with trousers of the same material; a most appropriate costume for a southern climate, and which, with the Panama hat upon his head, is equally becoming.

The cousin, an ex-officer of volunteers, affects a military undress of dark blue cloth, with a forage cap to correspond.

There is another horseman riding near, who, only on account of having a white skin—not white for all that—is entitled to description. His coarser features, and cheaper habiliments; the keel-coloured “cowhide” clutched in his right hand, and flirted with such evident skill, proclaim him the overseer—and whipper up—of the swarthy pedestrians composing the entourage of the train.

The travelling carriage, which is a “carriole”—a sort of cross between a Jersey waggon and a barouche—has two occupants. One is a young lady of the whitest skin; the other a girl of the blackest. The former is the daughter of Woodley Poindexter—his only daughter. She of the sable complexion is the young lady’s handmaid.

The emigrating party is from the “coast” of the Mississippi—from Louisiana. The planter is not himself a native of this State—in other words a Creole; but the type is exhibited in the countenance of his son—still more in that fair face, seen occasionally through the curtains of the carriole, and whose delicate features declare descent from one of those endorsed damsels—filles à la casette—who, more than a hundred years ago, came across the Atlantic provided with proofs of their virtue—in the casket!

A grand sugar planter of the South is Woodley Poindexter; one of the highest and haughtiest of his class; one of the most profuse in aristocratic hospitalities: hence the necessity of forsaking his Mississippian home, and transferring himself and his “penates,”—with only a remnant of his “niggers,”—to the wilds of south-western Texas.

The sun is upon the meridian line, and almost in the zenith. The travellers tread upon their own shadows. Enervated by the excessive heat, the white horsemen sit silently in their saddles. Even the dusky pedestrians, less sensible to its influence, have ceased their garrulous “gumbo;” and, in straggling groups, shamble listlessly along in the rear of the waggons.

The silence—solemn as that of a funereal procession—is interrupted only at intervals by the pistol-like crack of a whip, or the loud “wo-ha,” delivered in deep baritone from the thick lips of some sable teamster.

Slowly the train moves on, as if groping its way. There is no regular road. The route is indicated by the wheel-marks of some vehicles that have passed before—barely conspicuous, by having crushed the culms of the shot grass.

End of excerpt.

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