The Dread Rider

The Dread Rider by George Waldo Browne

The Dread Rider by George Waldo Browne

“A stranger tale ne’er graced the poet’s art,
And fiction never played a wilder part.”

The spirit of the dying day ebbing out in a flood of golden light, streams athwart the western sky from the horizon almost to the zenith.

Majestic Mississippi, “Father of the Waters” like a funeral train is moving sluggishly on in a lonely way toward the sea.

Suddenly, a human form is mirrored in Nature’s solemn scene; a fairy figure glides to the brink of the somber waters; a woman’s voice breaks the stillness.

“Oh, Father in Heaven, look down in pity upon me! Forgive me, forgive me! but betrayed,
deserted, spurned by parents and scorned by the world, life is a burden I can no longer bear! Oh, mother, father, forget your erring child and the wrongs she has done you! In her silent grave let her faults and crimes be hidden! Oh, perfidious man! you know not what you have done; you know not the anguish of a broken heart! But it will soon be over. Home, friends, joy and sorrow, I bid you all adieu, forever-ever !”

A sudden splash a few tiny bubbles rising to the surface, and the placid river sweeps on as tranquil as before.

Partially obscured by fleeting, hazy clouds, the great, round moon floats high in the
heavens, looking down upon a settler’s humble cabin far away on the bank of the
lonely Red river.

Its inmates wrapped in the quiet of repose, the forest home stands like a sentinel in
the pale moonlight. Around, the encircling timber casts its sable gloom far out over the
clearing, while through the tree-tops the wild wind surges in musical tones.

Out from the somber growth steal a dozen dark objects — forms of crouching men. Swiftly they glide across the opening. The lone cabin is quickly reached. No barrier stays their onward course. With bitter maledictions, they force an entrance, and the defenseless occupants are aroused from
their slumber to find themselves rudely seized and borne from their couches of rest.

‘Midst shrieks, and curses, and shots and fierce fighting, they are dragged out into the night.

In spite of tears and pitiful entreaties, the fair wife and helpless babe are stricken down
with cruel blows. In desperation, the man tries to turn aside his foes; as well to battle with fate.
Up from the dwelling, only a moment ago a happy home, springs a cloud of smoke and forked
tongues of fire; rapidly spreading, leaping higher and higher, till the building is one living sheet of flame.

Away from the heat of the glaring furnace, the midnight fiends, bear their victim.

Over the branch of a neighboring tree a coil of rope is thrown. One end is secured in a noose
around the captive’s neck.. Willing hands seize the other, and, covered with blood from ghastly wounds, weak, faint, yet still struggling, suffering untold agony, he is swung Into mid-air!

With a flood of silvery light, the moon darts from her retreat, and the flames, with increased fury,
flash higher than ever, gleaming far above the treetops. In weird, fantastic hues, the elements blending glare for a moment upon the scene disclosing in fearful distinctness, the bodies of the murdered wife and babe, the husband’s lifeless form dangling from its support, and the figures of the marauding demons skulking away into the shadows of the forest; and then, as if blinded by the frightful spectacle, the moon is veiled in darkness, and the fire dies to smoldering embers. All is shrouded in gloom, and bound by a deathly stillness, save the wind sighing a mournful requiem.

The scenes of our story are for the most part, laid out on the Texas border, during the reign of the rifle and bowie. Thus, if any of the incidents we shall portray may seem too startling to be real, too strange to be true, we wish it to be borne in mind that they occurred when the Lone Star State was in its darkest hour, when robbers and outlaws made up a good share of its inhabitants, when deeds of lawlessness were everyday occurrences, when no man felt safe at home or abroad without his trusty “guards” — rifle and bowie.

Shelby county lying in western Texas, on the border of that wild and broken tract of country known as the “Red Lands,” was, in 1839, rather thinly populated; and the most important settlement to be found. in the whole county was Chesterville, situated near Chester Plain, in its extreme western part, and only two hours’ ride from the border of the “Red Lands.” In and around this settlement the scenes of our narrative are laid.

Our story opens at a shooting-match, which is being held back of Chesterville, where nearly all of the male inhabitants of that place have congregated, to “try their hand.” A shooting-match was not in those days an uncommon affair, yet, no matter how often they occurred, there were always pleasure and excitement enough about them to warrant a full attendance.

Among the most prominent at the match and comprising about one-half of those there assembled,were a score of men, self-styled “Rangers and Regulators,” who had banded together for the protection of the settlement against the depredations of outlaws who had been harassing the country, and who were supposed to have their rendezvous sortie here in the wilds of the Red Lands. In fact, these Regulators had but just returned from an unsuccessful expedition against these outlaws, and were now making up for their defeat by trying their skill at target-shooting.

One by one the men had taken their turn and some splendid shots had been made, but when the others saw the leader of the Regulators, Curtis Dash, come forward to try his never-failing rifle, they knew that defeat awaited them for Curt Dash was considered the best shot in Shelby County.

In appearance, Curt Dash presented a perfect model of manly beauty; he was a little above medium height and size; his features were regular, and extremely handsome; his face was cleanly shaven, with the exception of a glossy brown mustache and imperial, which seemed to give firmness to his pleasant countenance. and enhance his good looks. But there was, nevertheless, a sort of haughtiness about him which would not strike a stranger favorably; however, this, upon closer acquaintance would seem to wear away, and he would become a true friend, but as an enemy he was to be dreaded. He had his faults as well as other men, and most prominent among them was the pride he possessed in his skill as a marksman. Nothing would wound his feelings, or excite his enmity so quickly as to depreciate his skill with the rifle, His friends knew this, and, accordingly, never spoke of his marksmanship, except to praise. A. man of a reckless devil-may-care air, with a character as varied as the changes of nature; a man of indomitable will and iron resolution; a man of the peculiar stamp so often found in border life; such was Curt Dash, the leader of the Regulators.

Dash took his position upon the shooting stand; and, after taking careful and deliberate aim, sent a ball crashing through the target.

Scarcely had the report of his rifle died away, when eager friends seized the target and brought it forward for the inspection of the crowd; he had made the best shot of the day. The edge of the bullet had cut the center mark.

So absorbed was the assembly in examining the target, and praising the skill of their leader that no one saw the approach of a horseman, till suddenly a loud laugh rung out upon the air; and looking up they beheld, standing scarcely a rod from them, a strange horseman. He was a man of medium size, and with a frame compactly built. There was nothing in his dress to excite wonder; but there was something in his wild looks not to be forgotten. Once he may have been handsome; but that day was past. His skin, naturally dark, was tanned and sun-burned till it was of an almost blackened hue; his hair, which had been jet b1ack was now of an iron-gray, hanging down over his shoulders in long, tangled masses. In his full black eyes, which seemed to pierce the observer through and through, burned deep the slumbering fires of insanity. His quite prominent nose, was the only feature that remained unmarred. But, as if to make up for this
leniency, time had placed a terrible disfigurement upon his face, in the shape of a huge, blood-red scar which extended diagonally across his right cheek, adding an awful expression to his otherwise wild and unnatural appearance. And, not seeming satisfied with what Nature and Time and, perhaps, something else had done for him, he wore, as if to lend additional terror to his looks, a heavy, fierce looking, coal-black mustache,. whose flowing ends fell down upon his breast.

He was mounted upon a powerfully. Built, fleet-footed, dark-roan steed, which, like its rider, apparently was endowed with a wild, restless spirit.

The stranger’s only weapon of defense was a long, heavy, dark-stained, single-barreled rifle, which he handled with the skill of an experienced rifleman.

The silence which had fallen upon the crowd was broken by the strange horseman exclaiming:

What have you there?”

“A specimen of my skill with the rifle,” answered Curt, seizing the target and holding it before the stranger.

“Bah” exclaimed the horseman, contemptuously, hardly deigning to notice the board, “you don’t boast of such shooting as that I hope!”

“It would puzzle that rusty barrel of yours to beat it” exclaimed Curt.

“It would be nothing to boast of answered the stranger, with a scornful laugh, which sent Dash’s hot blood tingling through his veins.

“We should like to see some of your vaunted skill. Dare you show it.”

“I am always ready to prove my words, and If I don’t beat that bungling shot, my finger shall never press the trigger again.”

“Enough said, stranger,” cried Curt; “now we only want the proof. Here, Trask,” he added, turning to one of the regulators, “put up another target, and we’ll see if we are going to be outdone by this unnamed braggart.” The crowd had maintained silence, watching the scene with strange interest, and then the Regulators gathered around their leader with words of encouragement. Trash soon announced the target ready, when the stranger turned in his saddle, as if going to shoot without mounting.

“What not going to dismount ?” demanded one of the Regulators.

” No! I always shoot from the horse,” replied the stranger, turning his roan half round, as he spoke, when it was seen for the first time that be was maimed. His left leg was gone above the knee!

Turning his horse back to its former position, the unknown brought his rifle to shoulder, and, for an instant, the livid scar upon his cheek was pressed upon its stock; then, a sharp, ringing report. The target was quickly seized and brought forward: the stranger’s bullet had driven the center-cross clear out. Curt Dash’s shot,was fairly beaten!

Curt Dash stood motionless as a statue, the color coming and going from his face, his gaze fixed intently upon his strange victor; then in a calm, measured tone he said;

“It was a chance shot. You can’t do it again, Mister One Leg. I will wager my rifle!”

“Pshaw!” cried the stranger, “because you can’t shoot you think it something wonderful. I can do it a thousand times, without once missing. Put up that board again, twice as far off as before, and I will show you something worth boasting about.”

While a new target was being put up, One Leg commenced to reload his rifle; but, in the act of taking a bullet from his pouch, it slipped from his fingers and dropped to the earth. One of the regulators picked it up, and noticed that it was of a peculiar color; and after hastily examining it, exclaimed:

“A copper bullet, as true as I am a living sinner!”

“Yes,” answered the man of mystery, while a strange light lit up his features, making him look like a smiling demon; “I aways use copper bullets!”

“Ah!” exclaimed an old mountaineer, known as Gil Ray, of Rocky Mountain fame, “none but Greasers and cowardly sneaks use poison bullets.”

One Leg bestowed upon him a look of malignant scorn, then turned to his rifle, when again that frightful scar pressed upon its stock; again the sharp spang, and again the copper bullet cut clear the center-cross!

“Now, boaster, are you satisfied” asked he of the roan steed, as the excited company examined the board.

“By heavens” cried Curt Dash, fiercely, as, goaded to desperation, he no longer tried to control his passion; “this is but boy’s play! You can’t shoot like that before the muzzle!”

“My rifle never fails me,” retorted the other, quickly, “whether pointed at a board or a yelping cur.”

By lightning, Cap!” cried one of the Regulators, burly Hank Webber, whose gigantic form towered head and shoulders above all the others, as he, pushed through the crowd toward the stranger, before Curt had time to speak or act, “let me go for the wail-eyed cuss! No man can talk that language here and live, while I’m ’round!”

“Hold on, Hank!” cried Curt; “I think I can handle Mister One Leg, if he did beat me at the target. it is my quarrel, and I must have the first try.”

“Well, Cap, I s’pose it will have to be as you say, but I should like to git one lift at him,” replied the giant, withdrawing.

“Stranger,” cried the Regulator chief, turning to the horseman, “you have insulted me; I demand satisfaction. I challenge you to meet me before the muzzle. If you are not a coward, you will accept.”

Without seeming to notice the hot words of the angry Texan, the stranger commenced to reload his rifle., not appearing to know or care that there was a score of men in that excited band only waiting a word from their leader to rush upon him and rend him limb from limb.

As soon as his rifle was carefully loaded, the Unknown, as if enjoying the terrible suspense, turned slowly upon Curt, saying Very well, my obliging bantam, I am ready for you, now!”

“Not now!” cried Curt. “I am not prepared. But in the morning I will be ready for you; and will meet you on this place.”

“All right,” said the stranger; “any way to accommodate. But, remember, I must meet you upon horse,” and he pointed to his missing leg, significantly.

“It matters not to me how I meet you.” “As I am a stranger in this place, perhaps some of you will be kind enough to tell me where I can find food for my horse and lodging for myself to-night,” said the stranger. “You will find all you want at Burley’s Prairie Home,” answered Mark Waring. “A part of us are going there now, and you can accompany us.”

The shooting match had come to a sudden and unexpected end.