Chapter 6 - The Yellow Chief by Mayne Reid

Two Trappers.

The gorge in which the young Cheyenne chief and his followers had made their night bivouac, was only one of a series of similar glens, that with short intervals between, notched the foot of the sierra (Note 1) where it edged upon the open prairie. It was not the main chain of the Rocky Mountains, but a spur running out into the plain.

About a mile farther along, and nearer to Bijou Creek, was another gorge, not very dissimilar in size, but somewhat so in character. Instead of an embouchure open to the plain, it was shut in on all sides by bluffs, rising abruptly above it to the height of over a hundred feet.

There was an outlet nevertheless; where a tiny spring-branch, gurgling forth from the bottom of the encircling cliffs, passed out into the open country, after making its way through a cañon (pronounced Kenyon) which it had no doubt cut for itself in the course of countless ages.

But as it needed a cleft no wider than might admit the body of a man, not much wider was it, from top to bottom of the cliff. A traveller might have passed within a hundred yards of its outer face, looking towards the plain, without perceiving this break in the precipice or taking it only for a fissure in the façade of the rocks.

The enclosed space inside, in one other respect differed from the glen that had been occupied by the Indians. Its bottom was thickly timbered with cotton-wood and other trees; while along the ledges of the cliff, and wherever a crevice afforded root-accommodation grew piñons (Note 2) and the creeping cliff cedar.

It seemed a favourite haunt of the owls and bats, but only at night. By day the birds appeared to have full possession of it—filling it with their sweet music, and fearing only the rapacious white-headed eagle, that occasionally “whetted his saw” (Note 3) or laughed his maniac laugh, perched on the cliffs overhead.

Only from the heights above could a view be had of the “hole” (Note 4); and to get this required climbing, beyond anything curiosity was likely to encourage. No prairie traveller would have taken the trouble, unless he chanced to be a German geologist, hammer in hand, or a botanist of the same inquiring race, in search of rare plants. Led by the love of science, these simple but ardent explorers go everywhere, into every cranny and corner of the earth—even the “holes” of the Rocky Mountains, where often have their dead bodies been found, with heads stripped of their skins by the knife of the indiscriminating savage.

Ascending the cliff from the outside, and looking down into the gorge described, you might fancy that no human being had ever entered it. To do so would cost some exertion. And danger, too: for there was a hundred feet of precipitous rock to be scaled downward, at the risk of getting a broken neck.

Some one had taken this risk, however; for on the same night in which the Cheyenne chief had sallied out to attack the emigrant camp, only a little later and nearer morning, a fire might have been seen glimmering among the cotton-wood trees that covered the bottom of the glen.

It could only have been seen from a particular point above, where no one was likely to be straying. On all other sides it was concealed by the thick foliage of the trees, through which its smoke, scattering as it passed upward, became dissipated into thin haze before reaching the crest of the cliffs.

By this fire, far remote from the hearths of civilisation, two men were seated, bearing but slight resemblance to each other. One was characteristic of the scene; his costume and accoutrements, in short, his tout-ensemble, proclaiming him unmistakeably a trapper. Hunting-shirt of dressed deer-hide, fringed at cape and skirt, leggings of like material, moccasins soled with parflêche (Note 5) and on his head, a felt hat with crown and brim showing long service. His hair, close cropped, gave little framing to his face, that was naturally dark in colour, but darker with dirt, sun-tan, and wrinkles. It looked the face of a man who had seen nearly sixty summers, and quite as many winters.

His companion was not over half his age, nor in any way like the man we have taken for a trapper, although garbed in the costume common to “mountain men” (the Rocky Mountain trappers so style themselves). He wore the hunting-shirt, leggings, and moccasins; but all were tastefully cut and elaborately embroidered.

It might have been the difference between youth and age; and both may have been trappers alike. Still there was something about the younger man—a delicacy of feature and refinement of manner—very different from those who take to this rude adventurous calling.

A thought of the kind seemed to have come uppermost in the mind of his older companion, as they sate by their camp-fire just kindled. It still wanted half an hour of sunrise; and they had issued out of their skin lodge, standing close by, to cook their morning meal. It was preparatory to starting out on a tour of inspection to their traps, set overnight in the streams near at hand. A large flitch of buffalo-meat, comprising several hump-ribs, was roasting in the blaze; and they were waiting till it should be sufficiently done.

It was the elder who spoke first; at least upon a subject foreign to the preparation of their repast.

“Durn it, Ned!” said he, “I hev been dreemin’ ’bout ye last night.”

“Indeed! I hope that nothing promises bad luck. Bah! why should I think of luck, one way or the other? For me there can be none in the future worse than I’ve had in the past. What was your dream, ’Lije?”

“Oh! nutin’ much. I only thort I seed ye alongside o’ a gurl; an’ she war a pullin’ at ye to get ye away from the mountings. She war tryin’ to toat you along wi’ her.”

“She didn’t succeed, I suppose?”

“Wal; I woke up afore it kim to thet. But ef’t hed been the gurl as I seed in my dreem, an’ it war all true, I reck’n she’d ’a hed a good chance.”

“And pray what girl did you see in your dream?”

“Maybe you’d like to purnounce the name; ef ye do, I’d say Clar’ Blackedder. She war the very gurl as war a draggin’ at ye.”

At the mention of the name “Ned” heaved a deep sigh, though the sizzling of the hump-ribs hindered his companion from hearing it. But, by the brighter light caused by the fat falling among the cinders, a shadow could be seen suddenly overspreading his countenance, his features at the same assuming a cast, half-sad, half-angry.

“Not much danger of that dream coming true,” he said, with an effort at composing them. “Clara Blackadder has no doubt long ago changed her name; and forgotten mine too.”

“I don’t think she’s dud eyther one or the tother. Weemen air a kewrous kind o’ varmint; an’ cling on to thar affecshuns a deal harder’n we do. Beside; that gurl wa’n’t one o’ the changin’ sort. I knowed her since she war knee high to a duck. She war the only one o’ the hul family o’ Blackedders worth knowin’; for a bigger cuss than the brother wa’n’t nowhar to be foun’ in Massissippi, ’ceptin’ ’twar the ole squire hisself. That gurl loved you, Ned; an’ ef you’d tuk the right way wi’ her, you mout yourself ’a had the changin’ o’ her name.”

“What way?”

“Whipped her off on the crupper o’ yur seddle—jest es these hyar purairia Injuns sometimes does. Ye shed a dud thet an’ said no more about it, eyther to her father, or to anybody else. It’s the way I dud myself wi’ Sal Slocum, down thar in Tennersee bottom, nigh on thirty yeern ago, ’fore I went down to the Choctaw Purchiss. Dick, her ole dad, war all agin me havin’ his gurl, ’cause he hed a spite at me, for beatin’ him at a shootin’ match. ’Twa’n’t no use his oppersishun. I got my critter seddled up, one night when Dick war soun’ asleep in his shanty, an’ I toated Sal off, an’ took her afore a Methody preecher, who coupled us thegither in the shakin’ o’ a goat’s tail. An’ I niver hed reezun to rue it. Sal made me a good wife, as long as she lived. I hain’t hed a better ’un since.”

The young man smiled sadly at the strange ideas of his trapper companion; but the subject being a painful one to him, he made no rejoinder.

“Thet’s what you oughter dud wi’ Clar’ Blackedder,” persisted the trapper, without noticing his companion’s chagrin, “cut cl’ar away wi’ her. Ef ye’d a hed her for yur wife, it ’ud a been diff’rent for ye now. Instead o’ bein’ hyar in the mountains, mopin’ yer innards out—for I kin see ye’re doin’ thet, Ned—ye mout now been settled in the State o’ Massissippi workin’ a cotton plantashun wi’ a smart chance o’ niggers on’t. Not as I myself shed care ’bout eyther; for arter twenty yeern o’ ramblin’ over these hyar reejuns, I ain’t fit to live in the settlements. It’s diff’rent wi’ you, however, who ain’t noways shooted for a trapper’s life—though I will say thar ain’t a better shot nor hunter in all these purairias. Anybody kin see ye’re only hyar for a diff’rent purpiss; tho I reck’n ’Lije Orton air the only ’un to which ye’ve confided yur secret. Wal; you know I like ye, Ned; an’ that’s why I don’t like to see ye so down in the dumps. They’ve been on yur ever since yur left the Massissippi; and I reck’n yur’ll find no cure for ’em out hyar.”

“Admitted, ’Lije, that I still think of Miss Blackadder. As I know you are my friend, I will admit it. But what would you have me do?”

“Go back to the Choctaw Purchiss, get once more ’longside the gurl, an’ do wi’ her as I did wi’ Sal Slocum—run away wi’ her.”

“But she may be married? Or perhaps no longer cares for me?”

This was said with a sigh.

“Neyther one nor t’other. ’Lije Orton air willin’ to bet high thet. First place, thar wur reezuns she wudn’t git married eezy. The ole Squire her dad, wa’n’t poplar about the Purchiss; an’ I don’t think he wur over rich. The young ’un must a spent most o’ the shiners as come in for the cotton. I know you wudn’t a cared ’bout that; but others wud; an’ I guess Clar’ Blackadder wa’n’t like to hev her choice ’mong the sons o’ the best planters; an’ I guess too she wa’n’t the gurl to hev any o’ the second-rates. Then she liked you powerful. She told me so, time I wur back thar, jest arter you left. Yes, Ned; she liked you, an’ take this chile’s wud for it, she’ll stick to thet likin’ as death to a dead nigger.”

Quaint and queer as was the trapper’s talk, it was pleasant to the ear of Edward O’Neil: for such was the name of the young man—the same who had made suit for the hand of Clara Blackadder, and been scornfully rejected by her father.

Of his life since that time the story is easily supplied. On leaving the State of Mississippi he had gone westward into that of Arkansas; staying for some time at Little Rock. He had afterwards made his way to the Rocky Mountains, in the hope that among their deep defiles he might be enabled to bury the sorrow that was preying upon him. Chance had brought him in contact with ’Lije Orton, a noted trapper of the time; and something besides had made them trapping companions, as well as fast friends: for ’Lije, though of rude habit and exterior, was at the heart true as steel.

The young Irishman, smiling at the crude simile of his companion, made no reply. Indeed, there was no opportunity; for, while delivering it, ’Lije saw that the buffalo-ribs were sufficiently roasted; and, leaning forward over the fire, he transferred them from the spit to a large wooden platter, taken out of his “possible sack” (The “Trapper’s travelling bag”). Before any response could be given, he had separated the ribs with his knife; and, taking hold of one in both hands, he commenced stripping it with his teeth, as quickly and adroitly as could have been done by the hungriest coyoté (Pronounce, Cohote. The “Prairie-Wolf” (Canis latrans)).

Note 1. Sierra, The Spanish word for “saw.” It also signifies a mountain chain or ridge, the idea having no doubt come from the denticulated appearance of the Spanish mountain chains, seen en profile, against the sky. What we call the Rocky Mountains, are known among Mexicans as the Sierra Madre (mother chain). Spurs and branching ranges have particular names, as Sierra Mogollon, Sierra Guadalupe, etc. This word is being adopted into our language, and will soon be thoroughly “naturalised” as “cañon,” “ranche,” and others. Cerro is a different word, and signifies an isolated mountain or high hill, as “Cerro dorilo.”

Note 2. Pronounced Peenyon. It is the edible or “nut pine” (pinus edulis), of which there are several distinct species throughout Texas, Mexico, the Rocky Mountains, and California. They afford food to several tribes of Indians, and are also an article of consumption in many white (Mexican) settlements.

Note 3. There is a remarkable resemblance between the call-note of the bald eagle, and the sound made in sharpening a large saw. And by a little stretch of fancy, it may be likened to the shrill hysterical laughter, sometimes heard from the insane.

Note 4. “Hole.” The trapper name for an enclosed gorge of the kind described.

Note 5. Sole-leather made from the hide of the buffalo bull, tanned Indian fashion. A French trapper word signifying arrow-proof, on account of its being used for shields by the prairie Indians.