Chapter 11 - The Yellow Chief by Mayne Reid

Captors and Captives.

Once more in the gorge, where the young Cheyenne chief and his band had encamped, before making attack upon the emigrant caravan.

It is the day succeeding that event, an hour before mid-day, with a bright sun shining down from a cloudless sky. The stage is the same, but somewhat changed the characters who figure upon it, having received an addition of more than double the number. The Indians are there; but even they do not seem the same. From the quiet earnest attitude of an expeditionary band, they have been transformed into a crowd of shouting savages.

Foxes before the quarry was run down, they are now ravening wolves.

Some are carousing, some lying on the grass in a state of helpless inebriety; while others, restrained by the authority of their chief, have kept sober, and stand guard over their new-made captives.

Only a few are needed for this duty. Three sentinels are deemed sufficient—one to each group; for the prisoners have been separated into three distinct parties—holding places apart from one another. The negroes, men, women, and children, driven into a compact ring, occupy an angular space between two projections of the cliff. There, huddled together, they have no thought of attempting to escape.

To them their new condition of captivity is not so very different from that to which they have been all their lives accustomed; and, beyond some apprehension of danger, they have not much to make them specially discontented. The Indian who stands beside them, with the butt of his long spear resting upon the turf, seems to know that his guard duty is a sinecure.

So also the sentinel who keeps watch over the white women—five in all, with about three times as many children—boys and girls of various degrees of age.

There is one among them, to whom none of these last can belong. She is old enough to be a wife; but the light airy form and virginal grace proclaim her still inexperienced in marriage, as in the cares of maternity. It is Clara Blackadder.

Seated alongside the others, though unlike them in most respects, she seems sad as any.

If she has no anxiety about the children around her, she has grief for those of older years—for a father, whom but a few hours before she had seen lying dead upon the prairie turf, and whose grey hairs, besprinkled with blood, are still before her eyes.

It is his scalp that hangs from the point of a spear, stuck upright in the ground, not ten paces from where she sits!

There is yet another group equally easy to guard; for the individuals composing it are all securely tied, hand, neck, and foot.

There are six of them, and all white men. There had been nine in the emigrant party. Three are not among the prisoners; but besides the white scalp accounted for, two others, similarly placed on spears, tell the tale of the missing ones. They have shared the fate of the leader of the caravan, having been killed in the attack upon it.

Among the six who survive are Snively, the overseer, and Blount Blackadder, the former showing a gash across his cheek, evidently made by a spear-blade. At best it was but an ill-favoured face, but this gives to it an expression truly horrible.

A top belonging to one of the wagons has been brought away—the wagons themselves having been set on fire, out of sheer wanton wickedness; such cumbrous things being of no value to the light cavalry of the Cheyennes.

The single tilt appears in the camping-place, set up as a tent; and inside it the chief, somnolent after a sleepless night, and wearied with the work of the morning, is reclining in siesta.

Waboga, with the body-servant, keeps sentry outside it. Not that they fear danger, or even intrusion; but both know there is a spectacle intended—some ceremony at which they will be wanted, and at any moment of time.

Neither can tell what it is to be—whether tragic or comic; though both surmise it is not likely to be the latter.

The white men are not so fast bound, as to hinder them from conversing. In a low tone, telling of fear, they discuss among themselves the probability of what is to be done with them.

That they will have to suffer punishment, is not the question; only what it is to be, and whether it is to be death. It may be even worse: death preceded by torture. But death of itself is sufficient to terrify them; and beyond this their conjectures do not extend.

“I don’t think they’ll kill us,” said Snively. “As for myself, they ought to be satisfied with what they’ve done already. They could only have wanted the plunder—they’ve got all that; and what good can our lives be to them?”

“Our lives, not much,” rejoins a disconsolate planter. “You forget our scalps! The Indians value them more than anything else—especially the young braves, as these appear to be.”

“There’s reason in that, I know,” answers the overseer. “But I’ve heard that scalps don’t count, if taken from the heads of prisoners; and they’ve made us that.”

“It won’t make much difference to such as them,” pursues the apprehensive planter. “Look at them! Three-fourths of them drunk, and likely at any minute to take the notion into their heads to scalp us, if only for a frolic! I feel frightened every time they turn their eyes this way.”

Of the six men, there are four more frightened when the carousing savages turn their eyes in another direction—towards the group of white women. One of these is a widow, made so that same morning, her husband at the time lying scalped upon the prairie—his scalp of luxuriant black curls hanging before her face, upon the bloody blade of a lance!

Three others have husbands among the men—the fourth a brother!

The men regarding them, and thinking of what may be their fate, relapse into silence, as if having suddenly bet speech. It is the speechlessness of despair.