Chapter 7 - The Yellow Chief by Mayne Reid

Breakfast Interrupted.

The two trappers had got about half through their Homeric meal, when a sound reached their ears, that caused them not only to stop mastication, but hold the half-polished ribs suspended, as if they would have dropped them out of their hands! It was a shot they heard—first one, and then several others following in quick succession. They were heard only indistinctly, as if fired far off upon the prairie. But even thus, the sounds were not agreeable; for the report of fire-arms in that solitary region has a significance, and not always a safe one. It might be a friend, who had discharged his gun; but it is more likely to be an enemy. Evidently so believed the two trappers, else they would not have fixed their camping-place in a spot so difficult of access—requiring them to wade waist-deep in water, and twice too, every time they went a hundred yards from their tent! The spring-branch occupying the full bed of the cañon, the only way by which they could conveniently pass out to the plain, nailed for this semi-immersion. But the same gave them protection against idle intruders.

“Speel up, Ned!” cried his companion, “an’ see what you kin see.”

The request was at once complied with; the young trapper, flinging down his half-picked bone, commenced climbing the steep face of the rock, assisted by the branches of the cedars. ’Lije remained below, continuing his matutinal meal.

In a few seconds time O’Neil had reached the summit of the cliff; and with a small binocular glass, which he had taken up along with him, commenced examining the country in the direction whence the shots appeared to have come.

It was yet only the earliest dawn, and the plain towards the east was still shrouded in darkness. But as the young man kept gazing through the glass, a quick flash came before its field, followed by the report of a gun. At the same instant sparks flew up, as if from a fire that had been trampled upon, and on the still morning air, he could hear the confused sounds of strife, in which human voices appeared to be intermingled with the yelling of demons!

“D’ye see anything, boy?” called his comrade from below. “I hyurd another shot out purairiaward. You must ’a seed the flash o’t?”

“More than that,” responded the young man, speaking with bated breath. “Come up, ’Lije! There’s a fight going on not far off. Some travellers have been encamped, as I can tell by the sparkling of their fires. They appear to have been attacked, and by Indians. Come up, quick!”

The old trapper, grumbling his chagrin at being interrupted in his déjeuner, dropped the buffalo-rib; and taking his rifle along with him, commenced ascending the cliff.

By the time he had joined his companion on the summit, the day had almost dawned; for the morning twilight is of short duration on the head waters of the Southern Platte.

Looking eastward over the plain, they could now see something more than the gleaming of camp-fires; the white tilts of waggons set in corralled shape, and around dark forms, of both men and horses, swarming and moving like bees hiving upon a branch. They could hear, too, the sounds of strife still continuing, or it might be the exulting shouts succeeding a triumph.

“A camp o’ whites,” said the old trapper, half speaking to himself, and half to his comrade. “That’s clar from their havin’ waggons. And they’ve been attackted by Injuns; that’s equally sartin from the shouts. Thar’s no mistakin’ them yells. They kedn’t come from any other than an Injun’s throat. I wonder who the whites kin be?”

His young comrade, equally wondering, but still busy with his binocular, made no rejoinder.

“A party o’ emigratin’ travellers, I reck’n?” pursued the old trapper. “Can’t ’a be any o’ Bent’s or Saint Vrain’s people. They wudn’t a got surprised that eezy, nor ’ud they a’ gone under so quick. Sartint sure hev they gone under. Listen to them yells! Thet’s the conquerin’ screech o’ Injuns, sure as my name’s ’Lije Orton!”

His companion did not need any assurance, beyond what he himself heard and saw. There could be no doubt about its being a travelling party, either of emigrants or prairie-traders, that had succumbed to an onslaught of savages.

Neither were they long doubtful as to the character of the travellers. The sun, now peeping up over the far prairie edge, illumined the scene of strife, showing half-a-dozen waggons, with some of their canvas covers dragged off; and around them the dark forms of a savage cohort.

“It’s a karryvan o’ emigrants, as I tuk it for,” said the trapper. “Rayther a small ’un at thet! What durned fools they must a’ been to ventur’ acrosst the purairias wi’ sech a trifle o’ strength as they ’pear to have! They’re all ‘rubbed out’ now, I reck’n; or them as lives is captered, an’ in the hands o’ the Injuns.

“If them Injuns be, as I suspect they ur—Yellow Chief an’ his band—the Lord pitty them poor critters! They’d better got rubbed out in the scrimmage, and thar ’ud a been an eend o’t.”

“Yellow Chief!” repeated the trapper’s companion. “Ah! if it be he, the cruel ruffian, and he have captives, you are right, ’Lije, in pitying them. I heard some terrible tales of him last time I was over at Bent’s Fort. Whoever the Indians be, they are certain to have taken some captives. An emigrant train, there should be women and children along with it? Surely the savages will not kill them! Can we do nothing towards rescuing them? Think, ’Lije!”

“I am a-thinkin’, an’ hev been, ever since I kim up hyur. But ’tain’t no use. We mout think our heads off, ’ithout devisin’ any way to be o’ use to them. We’d only git ourselves into the same trap as they’re in—an’ maybe wuss; for them Cheyennes—’specially Yellow Chief’s gang—he’s late tuk a desperate anger agin’ us trappers, because, as they say, some o’ our fellurs carried off one o’ thar squaws from the place whar they war campin’ last spring in the middle Park. If it’s the Cheyenne tribe, as is squeelin’ out thar, the furrer we keep away from ’em, the longer we’ll hev har on our heads. Hilloa! what’s thet thing comin’ on yonder?”

The exclamation, as the query that followed, was called forth at sight of a dark object, that seemed to be moving over the prairie, and in the direction of the cliff—from the top of which the two trappers, themselves concealed behind a cedar-tree, were scanning the outward plain. It had the appearance of a human being; but one so diminutive in size and of such dusky hue, that it might have passed for a fresh dropped buffalo calf, or one of the dark-brown wolves sometimes seen among the mountains. And it seemed to go with a crouching gait, unlike the upright attitude of man!

“It’s a nigger!” cried the old trapper, as the moving object began to get near. “A nigger, an’ a boy at thet! Durn me ef ’taint! What a cunnin’ young darkey he be. Look how he winds about through the bushes, crawlin’ from scrub to scrub! Durn me ef thet boy ain’t wuth his weight in best beaver skins! Now, I kin see how it air. He’s been one o’ the karryvan, which by thet, I reck’n, must be from the South; one o’ thar slaves sartin; an’ seeing his master rubbed out, he’s tuk leg bail on his own account. Wagh! he’s comin’ right this way! Ned, yu’re soopler than I’m; skoot out, an’ try ef ye kin catch him, while I stay hyur, an’ look out for what’s a doin’ yonder. Grit your claws on the darkey, ef ye ken, an’ we may larn all about it.”

O’Neil sprang down the cliff; and wading through the cañon, was soon alongside the black-skinned fugitive—a negro boy, as anticipated.

There was no chase required for the catching him: the darkey was already breathless and broken down, after his long run; and submitted to being taken prisoner without any attempt at running away—the more readily no doubt on seeing that his captor was white.

The young Irishman did not question him on the spot: but at once conducting him into the cove, called to his comrade to come down.

“Wall, ye young imp o’ darkness!” began the trapper, as soon as he had descended, “whar hev you come from, so skeeart-like?”

“From de wagins, massa—de wagins, whar da wa camp—”

“What wagons?”

“De wagins dat we’re all a trabellin’ wif, cross de big praira. Dar war de white folk and de collr’d people, all ob de plantash’n; an’ I ’speck dey all kill’d ceptin’ maseff.”

“Who kilt them?”

“De Injuns, dem as war paint’d red, an white, an’ ebery colour—dey come gallop up on da hosses jess as our folks wa ’bout to git breakfass; an’ ’fore we know what we doin’ dey fire dar gun, an’ run dar long ’pears troo de people. O, massa! I’se sure ebbery body gone killed.”

“Wharfor de ye think thet?”

“Kase I see ole massa fall down an’ de blood ’treaming out o’ him face, and den I see de obasseah fire shot from his gun, and den de young missa she holler out, an’ so did all de ress ob de women an’ chilren, boaf de bracks an’ de whites. Gorramity! how dey did ’cream!”

“What war the name o’ yur ole massa, as ye call him? Kin ye tell us that?”

“Law, boss, sartin I kin tell dat. Ebbery body know de name ob ole massa. He call de Squiah Brackedder.”

“Squire Brackedder!”

“Squire Blackadder?” asked O’Neil, listening with intense anxiety for the answer.

“Ya, massa; dat am de name.”

“Whar did ye come from? Kin ye tell thet, darkey?”

“From Massissippy ’tate—de ole plantashun ain’t berry fur from de town o’ Vickburg, on de big ribba.”

This was about all the information the negro lad could give.

It was sufficient for the time. On obtaining it, the trapper threw up his hands, and gave utterance to a loud “Phew;” while his companion stood silent, as if suddenly struck dumb!