Chapter 5 - The Yellow Chief by Mayne Reid

A Traitorous Guide.

As already known, the emigrants had corralled their wagons on the banks of Bijou Creek.

The spot selected, or rather to which their Indian guide had conducted them, was in a bend of the stream, that looped around the encampment in the shape of a horse’s shoe. It enclosed an area of some four or five acres of grassy ground—resembling a new-mown meadow.

With an eye to security, it could not, to all appearance, have been better chosen. The creek, running sluggishly around the loop, was deep enough to foil any attempt at fording; while the narrow, isthmus-like neck could be defended with advantage. It had not been the choice of the travellers themselves, but of their Indian guide, who, as already stated, had presented himself to them at Bent’s Fort, and been engaged to conduct them through Bridger’s Pass. Speaking the white man’s tongue, though but indifferently, and being a Choctaw, as he declared himself, they had no suspicion of his honesty, until that very day, when a band of free trappers, who chanced to pass them on the route, and who knew something of the Indian’s character, had warned them to beware of him. They had obeyed the warning, so far as lay in the power of men so little acquainted with the prairies. And how could they suspect a guide who had chosen for their night’s camping-place a spot that seemed the very place for their security? How could they suppose that the deep, slow stream, running silently around them, could have been designed for any other purposes than that of defence? It never entered their minds to suppose it could be intended as a trap. Why should it?

If anything could have given them this thought it would have been what they had heard from the trappers. Some of them had reflected upon the character given of their guide. But more discredited it, believing it to be only ill-will on the part of the whites towards the Indian—like themselves, a hunter. Others said it was a trapper joke—a story told to scare them.

There was something odd in the eagerness the Indian had shown in directing them to their present camping-ground. It was some distance from the travelled track, where they had seen other places that appeared sufficiently suitable. Why should he have taken the trouble to bring them to the bend of the creek?

The man who made this reflection was Snively, the overseer. Snively didn’t like the look of the “redskin,” though he was a Choctaw, and spoke a little English. That he had come originally from the other side of the Mississippi was not proof of his being honest; for Mr Snively had no great faith in the integrity of men tailing from the “Choctaw Purchase”—whatever the colour of their skin—red, white, or black.

His suspicions about the guide, communicated to his fellow-travellers, were adopted by several of them, though not by their leader. Squire Blackadder scouted the idea of treason, as also did his son.

Why should the Choctaw betray them? It was not as if he had been one of the prairie Indians, and belonging to some predatory band. He was merely a wanderer from his own tribe, who, in the Reserve allotted to them west of Arkansas State, were now living as an inoffensive and half-civilised people. He could have no motive in leading them astray, but the contrary. He was not to receive his recompense for acting as their guide until after their arrival on the other side of the mountains. A good sum had been promised him. Was it likely he should do anything to forfeit it? So reasoned Squire Blackadder and several of the emigrants who accompanied him.

Snively and the others were not satisfied, and resolved to keep a sharp eye upon the Indian.

But, watchful as they were from that time forward, they failed to see him, as he slipped out of their camp, near the mid-hour of night, taking along with him one of the best horses belonging to the caravan!

He must have got away by leading the animal for some distance along the edge of the stream, concealed under the shadow of the banks. Otherwise, on the open prairie, with the moon shining down upon its treeless sward, he could not have eluded the vigilance of the camp-guards, one of whom was Snively himself.

It was only by an accident that his departure was discovered, just before daybreak. The horse he had taken chanced to be a mare, that some weeks before had dropped a foal. It was too fine a creature to be left behind upon the prairies, and had been therefore brought along with its dam.

The colt, after a time missing its mother, ran hinnying about, till its cries of distress startled the camp from its slumbers. Then a search on all sides resulted in the universal conviction that their guide had betrayed them—or, at all events, had stolen off, taking the mare along with him!

There was no more sleep for the eyes of the emigrants. One and all ran wildly around the wagons—the whites meeting each other with cautions and curses, alike contradictory; the blacks—men, women, and children—huddling together, and giving voice to their fears in shrieks and chattering.

And, in the midst of this confusion, a dark mass was seen moving across the prairie, upon which the white light of the moon was already becoming blended with that of the grey dawn.

At first it came slowly and silently, as though stealing toward the camp. Then, as if concealment was no longer deemed necessary, the mass broke into a scattered cloud, showing it to be composed of horsemen.

Their trampling sounded upon the turf, at the same time that a wild yell, issuing simultaneously from threescore throats, struck terror into the hearts of the emigrants. There could be no mistaking that cry. It was the war-whoop of the Cheyennes.

The travellers had no time to reflect upon it—it was the slogan of attack; and, before they could think of any plan for defending themselves, the dusky horsemen were at hand, swooping down upon them like the breath of a tornado!

The emigrants were not all cowards. Three or four were men of courage, and not the least courageous was Snively the overseer. Still was it more by a mechanical impulse, than any hope of successfully defending themselves, that they discharged their guns in the faces of the approaching foemen.

It did not stay the impetuosity of the charge. Their shots were returned by a volley from the guns of their savage assailants, followed up by a thrusting of spears; and, in less than ten minutes’ time, the corral was captured.

When the day broke, it disclosed a scene, since then, alas! far from unfrequent on the prairies. A wagon train, with its tilts torn down, and the contents strewed around it; the cattle that had drawn it along standing near, and wondering what had befallen it; their owners in captivity, some of them bound hand and foot, others lying lifeless upon the turf!

Embracing all, a cohort of painted savages—some keeping guard over the captives, others indulging in on unchecked Saturnalia; some dead-drunk, others reeling in a state of half intoxication—each with cup in hand, filled with the fire-water taken from the captured wagons!

Such was the spectacle on Bijou Creek on that morning, when the emigrant train of the ex-Mississippi planter fell into the hands of a war-party of Cheyennes, led by the Yellow Chief.