Chapter 4 - The Yellow Chief by Mayne Reid

A Painted Party.

About five miles from the spot upon which the emigrants were encamped, and almost at the same hour, another party had pitched their tents upon the plain.

There was not the slightest resemblance between the two sets of travellers, either in personal appearance, in the language spoken, or in their camp-equipments.

The latter were all horsemen, unencumbered with wagons, and without even the impedimenta of tents.

On dismounting they had simply staked the horses on the grass, and laid down upon the buffalo robes, that were to serve them both as shelter and for couches.

There were about two score of them in all; and all without exception were men. Not a woman or child was among them. They were young men too; though to this there were several exceptions.

To have told the colour of their skins it would have been necessary to submit them to ablution: since that portion of it not covered by a breech-clout with legging continuations of leather, was so besmeared with paint that not a spot of the natural tint could be detected.

After this, it is scarce necessary to say, that they were Indians; or to add that their painted bodies, nude from neck to waist, proclaimed them “on the war-trail.”

There were other evidences of this, in the manner in which they were armed. Most of them carried guns. On a hunting excursion they would have had bows and arrows—the prairie tribes preferring these weapons in the chase. (Note 1.) They had their spears, too, slung lance-fashion by the side of the saddle; with tomahawks stuck in their belts. All of them were furnished with the lazo.

Among them was one sufficiently conspicuous to be at once recognised as their chief. His superior dress and adornment told of his title to this distinction; while there was that in his bearing toward the others, that placed it beyond doubt. They seemed not only to fear, but respect him; as if something more than the accident of hereditary rank gave him a claim to command them.

And he on his side seemed to rule them; not despotically, but with a firmness of tone and bearing that brooked no disobedience. On alighting from his horse on the spot selected for their camp, the animal was unsaddled by another, and taken away to the pasturing place; while the chief himself, doffing a splendid cloak of white wolf-skins, spread it on the grass, and lay down upon it. Then taking a pipe from his embroidered pouch, and lighting it, he seemed to give himself up to silent meditation—as if he had no need to take further trouble about the affairs of the camp, and none of the others would venture to intrude upon his privacy.

None did, save his immediate attendant; who brought him his supper, after it had been prepared, and assisted also in arranging his sleeping-place.

Between him and his attendant not a word was exchanged, and only a few with one of the others. They related to setting the camp sentinels, with some instructions about a scout that might be expected to come in during the night.

After that the chief stretched himself along his robe, refilled the pipe with fresh tobacco taken from his pouch, and for some time lay smoking with his eyes fixed upon the moon. Her light, resplendent in the pure atmosphere of the upland prairies, falling full upon him, displayed a figure of fine proportions—indicating both toughness and strength.

As to the face, nothing could have been told of it, even had it been seen under sunlight. Striped with vermilion on a ground of ochreous earth, with strange devices on the forehead and cheeks, it resembled a painted escutcheon more than a human face. The features, however, showing a certain rotundity, told them to be those of a young man, who, but for the disfiguring of the paint, might have appeared handsome.

Still was there something in his eyes as they glanced under the silvery moonlight, that betrayed an evil disposition. No water could have washed out of them that cast at once sinister and sad.

It was strange that one so youthful—for he seemed certainly not over twenty-five—could have obtained such control over the turbulent spirits around him. One and all of them, though also young, were evidently of this character. He was either the son of some chief long and universally venerated, or a youthful brave who had performed feats of valour entitling him to respect.

The band, over which he exercised sway, could be only an expeditionary party belonging to some one of the large prairie tribes; and the material composing it pointed to its being one of those roving troops of young and reckless braves, often encountered upon the plains—the terror of trappers and traders.

There was something unusual in this chief of youthful mien, keeping apart from his comrades, and holding them in such control.

While they were carousing around their camp-fire, he was quietly smoking his pipe; and after they had gone to sleep, he was still seen lying wide awake upon his wolf-skins!

It was a singular place in which he and his followers had encamped; a spot romantically picturesque. It was in a gorge or glen forming a flat meadow of about six acres in extent, and covered with grass of the short grama (Note 2) species. It was inclosed on three sides by a bluff rising sheer up from the plain, and bisected by the tiniest of streams, whose water came spout-like over the precipice, with a fall of some twenty feet. On the side open toward the east could be obtained a clear view of the prairie, undulating away to the banks of Bijou Creek. With the moon shining down on the soft grassy sward; the Indian horses grouped and grazing on it; the warriors lying asleep upon their robes; the stream glistening like a serpent as it swept silently past them; the cascade sparkling above; and around the dark framing of cliffs; you have a picture of Rocky Mountain life, that, though rare to you, is common to those who have traversed that region of romance.

It did not appear to have any charm for the young chief, who lay stretched upon the wolf-skins. Evidently thinking of something else, he took no note of the scenery around him, further than now and then to raise himself upon his elbow, and gaze for a time toward that portion of it that was least picturesque; the monotonous surface of the plain stretching eastward. That he was scanning it not for itself, but something that he expected to appear upon it, would have been made manifest to one who could have known his thoughts. Expressed in English they would have run thus:

“Waboga should have been here by this. I wonder what’s detaining him. He must have seen our signal, and should know where to find us. May be that moon hinders him from stealing a horse out of their camp. As their guide they ought to trust him to go anywhere. Well, come he or not, I shall attack them all the same—this night. Oh! what a sweet vengeance! But the sweeter, if I can only take them alive—one and all. Then, indeed, shall I have true revenge!

“What can be keeping the Choctaw? I should not have trusted him, but that he speaks the white man’s tongue. They’d have suspected any other. He’s stupid, and may spoil my plans. I want them—must have them alive!

“Now, if he should turn traitor and put them on their guard? Perhaps take them on to the fort? No—no; he would not do that. He hates the white man as much as I myself, and with nearly as good reason. Besides, he dare not do it. If he did—”

The soliloquy of the recumbent chief was suddenly interrupted, and his thoughts diverted into a different channel, by a sound reaching his ear, that seemed to come from the distant prairie. It was the hoof-stroke of a horse; but so faint, that only a practised ear could have heard, much less make out what was causing it.

In an instant he had changed his attitude, and lay with cheek closely pressed to the turf. In another instant, he muttered to himself:

“A horse—a single horse—must be the Choctaw!”

He raised himself upon his knees and looked out over the plain. A low ridge ran obliquely up to the mouth of the gorge in which the Indians were reposing. There was a clump of bushes upon its crest; and over the tops of these he could perceive a small disk, darker than the foliage. He knew it had not been there before.

While he was scanning it, there came, as if out of the bushes, three short barks, followed by a prolonged lugubrious howl. It seemed the cry of the prairie-wolf. But he knew it was not this; for soon after it was repeated with a different intoning.

Simultaneously with the second utterance, a similar cry was sent back as if in answer. It was the response of the camp-guard, who was keeping watch among the horses. And in this there was an intonation different from either of the others. It was evidently understood by him who had signalled from without, and told him he might safely approach: for the instant after, the dark spot above the bushes was seen moving along behind them; and presently appeared by the side of the clump, in the shape of a man on horseback.

It was a horseman in the garb of a white hunter; but the moon falling full upon his face, showed the copper-coloured skin of an Indian.

He rode forward to the edge of the camp; exchanged some words with the horse-guard, that had answered his signal; and then came on toward the chief, who had risen to receive him. The salutation told him to be the Choctaw so impatiently expected.

“Waboga has delayed long,” said the chief, half-reproachfully. “It is now after midnight. He knows we must make our attack before morning.”

“The Yellow chief need not be troubled about the time. The sleeping-place of the white travellers is near at hand. It will take but an hour to reach it. Waboga was detained against his will.”

“Ha! how?”

“The pale faces had grown suspicious, and watched him. Some trappers, on their way to Saint Vrain’s Fort, came up with the emigrant train after sunrise, and stayed with it till the noon halt. They must have said something against the guide. All day after, Waboga could see that the white men were watching him.”

“Then they are not encamped where I wished them?”

“They are. The Yellow chief may rest sure of it. They were not so suspicious as that; but allowed the guide to conduct them to their sleeping-place. It is in the creek bend where Waboga was instructed to take them.”

“Good! And their numbers?”

“Nine white men in all—with their women and children. Of the blacks, about five times as many—men, squaws, and papooses.”

“No matter for them: they won’t resist. Describe the whites.”

“The chief of the caravan, a man of middle age—a planter. Waboga well knows his kind. He remembers them when a boy dwelling beyond the Big river—in the land of which his people have been despoiled.”

“A planter. Any family with him?”

“A son who has seen some twenty-four summers—like the father in everything but age; a daughter, grown to a woman—not like either. She is fair as a flower of the prairie.”

“It is she—it is they!” muttered the chief to himself, his eyes glistening in the moonlight with an expression at once triumphant and diabolical. “Oh! ’twill be a sweet revenge!”

“Of the other whites,” continued the Choctaw, “one is a tall man, who has much to do with the management. He acts under the orders of the planter. He carries a great whip, and often uses it on the shoulders of the black slaves.”

“He shall have his punishment, too. But not for that. They deserve it.”

“The other six white men are—”

“No matter; only tell me how they are armed. Will they make resistance?”

Waboga did not think they would—not much. He believed they would let themselves be taken alive.

“Enough!” exclaimed the Cheyenne chief—for it was to this tribe the Indian belonged. “The time has come. Go wake our warriors, and hold yourself ready to guide us.”

Then, turning upon his heel, he commenced gathering up his arms, that lay scattered around the robe on which he had been reposing.

His body-servant, already aroused, was soon in attendance upon him; while the slumbering warriors, one after another, startled from savage dreams, sprang to their feet, and hurried toward their horses.

The best-drilled squadron of light cavalry could not have got half so quickly into their saddles, as did this painted troop of Cheyennes.

In less than ten minutes after receiving the command to march, they were riding beyond the bounds of their bivouac—equipped for any kind of encounter!

Note 1. They have several reasons for this preference. The arrow does its death-work silently, without alarming the game; besides, powder and lead cost more than arrow-sticks, which can also be recovered.

Note 2. Grama, the New Mexican name for a species of grass forming the finest pastured of the prairies—the famed buffalo grass not excepted.