Chapter 3 - The Yellow Chief by Mayne Reid

A Changed Plantation.

We pass over a period of five years succeeding the scene recorded.

During this time there was but little change on the plantation of Squire Blackadder; either in the dwellers on the estate, or the administration of its affairs. Neither castigation by the cowskin, nor the punishment of the pump, was discontinued. Both were frequent, and severe as ever; and whatever of work could by such means be extracted from human muscles, was taken out of the unhappy slaves who called Mr Snively their “obaseeah.” Withal, the plantation did not prosper. Blount, plunging yet deeper into dissipation, drained it of every dollar of its profits, intrenching even on the standard value of the estate. The number of its hands had become reduced, till there were scarce enough left for its cultivation; and, despite the constant cracking of Mr Snively’s whip, weeds began to show themselves in the cotton fields, and decay around the “gin” house.

At the end of these five years, however, came a change, complete as it was cheerful.

The buildings underwent repair, “big house” as well as out-offices; while the crops, once more carefully cultivated, presented a flourishing appearance. In the court-yard and negro quarters the change was still more striking. Instead of sullen faces, and skins grey with dandruff, or brown with dirt, ill-concealed under the tattered copperas-stripe, could now be seen smiling countenances, with clean white shirts covering an epidermis that shone with the hue of health. Instead of profane language and loud threats, too often followed by the lash, could be heard the twanging of the banjo, accompanied by its simple song, and the cheerful voice of Sambo excited in “chaff,” or light-hearted laughter.

The change is easily explained. It was not the same Sambo, nor the same “obaseeah,” nor yet the same massa. The whole personnel of the place was different. A planter of the patriarchal type had succeeded to the tyrant; and Squire Blackadder was gone away, few of his neighbours knew whither, and fewer cared. By his cruelty he had lost caste, as by the courses pursued by his son—the latter having almost brought him to Bankruptcy. To escape this, he had sold his plantation, though still retaining his slaves—most of them being unsaleable on account of their well-known wickedness.

Taking these along with him, he had “started west.”

To one emigrating from the banks of the Mississippi this may seem an unfitting expression. But at the time a new “west” and a “far” one had just entered on the stage of colonisation. It was called California, a country at that time little known; for it had late come into the possession of the United States, and the report of its golden treasures, although on the way, had not yet reached the meridian of the Mississippi.

It was its grand agricultural wealth, worth far more than its auriferous riches, that was attracting planter Blackadder to its plains—this and the necessity of escaping from the too respectable society that had sprung up around him in the “Choctaw Purchase.”

He had not taken departure alone. Three or four other families, not very dissimilar either in circumstances or character, had gone off along with him.

Let us follow upon their track. Though three months have elapsed since their leaving the eastern side of the Mississippi, we shall be in time to overtake them; for they are still wending their slow and weary way across the grand prairie.

The picture presented by an emigrating party is one long since become common; yet never can it be regarded without a degree of interest. It appeals to a pleasant sentiment, recalling the earliest, and perhaps most romantic period of our history. The huge Conestoga wagon, with its canvas tilt bleached to a snowy whiteness by many a storm of rain, not inappropriately styled the “ship of the prairies;” its miscellaneous load of tools and utensils, with house furniture and other Penates, keeping alive the remembrance of the home left behind, still more forcibly brought to mind by those dear faces half hid under the screening canvas; the sun-tanned and stalwart horsemen, with guns on shoulder, riding in advance or around it; and, if a Southern migration, the sable cohort forming its sure accompaniment, all combine to form a tableau that once seen will ever be remembered.

And just such a picture was that presented by the migrating party of Mississippi planters en route for far California. It was a “caravan” of the smaller kind—only six wagons in all—with eight or ten white men for its escort. The journey was full of danger, and they knew this who had undertaken it. But their characters had hindered them from increasing their number; and, in the case of more than one, the danger left behind was almost as much dreaded as any that might be before them.

They were following one of the old “trails” of the traders, at that time becoming used by the emigrants, and especially those from the South-western States. It was the route running up the Arkansas to Bent’s Fort, and thence striking northward along the base of the Rocky Mountains to the pass known as “Bridger’s.”

At that time the pass and the trails on both sides of it were reported “safe.” That is, safe by comparison. The Indians had been awed by a sight unusual to them—the passage through their territory of large bodies of United States troops—Doniphan’s expedition to New Mexico, with those of Cooke and Kearney to California. For a short interval it had restrained them from their attacks upon the traders’ caravan—even from the assassination of the lonely trapper.

As none of Blackadder’s party was either very brave, or very reckless, they were proceeding with very great caution, keeping scouts in the advance by day, and guards around their camps by night.

And thus, watchful and wary, had they reached Bent’s Fort, in safety. Thence an Indian hunter who chanced to be hanging around the fort—a Choctaw who spoke a little English—was engaged to conduct them northward to the Pass; and, resuming their journey under his guidance, they had reached Bijou Creek, a tributary of the Platte, and one of the most beautiful streams of prairie-land.

They had formed their encampment for the night, after the fashion practised upon the prairies—with the wagons locked tongue and wheel, inclosing a hollow space—the corral—so called after a word brought by the prairie-merchants from New Mexico. (Note 1.)

The travellers were more than usually cheerful. The great chain of the Rocky Mountains was in sight, with Long’s Peak raising its snow-covered summit, like a vast beaconing star to welcome, and show them the way, into the land of promise that lay beyond it.

They expected, moreover, to reach Saint Vrain’s Fort, by the evening of the next day; where, safe from Indian attack, and relieved from camp watching, they could once more rest and recruit themselves.

But in that hour of relaxation, while they were looking at Long’s Peak, its snowy crown still gilded by the rays of the setting sun, there was a cloud coming from that same quarter that threatened to overwhelm them.

It was not the darkening of the night, nor mist from the mountain-sides; but a dusky shadow more to be feared than either.

They had no fear of it. They neither saw, nor knew of its existence; and, as they gathered around their camp-fire to make their evening repast, they were as gay as such men might be expected to be, under similar circumstances.

To many of them it was the last meal they were ever destined to eat; as was that night the last of their lives. Before another sun had shone upon Long’s Peak, one-half their number was sleeping the sleep of death—their corralled wagons enclosing a space afterward to become their cemetery.

Note 1. The Spanish word for inclosure, adopted at an early period by the prairie-traders, and now become part of our language.