Chapter 18 - The Yellow Chief by Mayne Reid

The Stalkers Astonished.

Making their way up the steep mountain-path, climbing over fallen tree-trunks, obstructed by thicket and scaur, the trappers at length got close to the cliff which, as ’Lije Orton had told them, looked down on the camping-place of the Cheyennes.

They had ceased talking aloud, and communicated with one another only in whispers. There was a deathlike stillness in the pure mountain air, and they knew that the slightest sound might make known their approach to the enemy.

They had thrown themselves into a deployed line, after the manner of skirmishers, crouching silently among the stunted pines, and gliding rapidly forward where the ground was without cover. Orton was directing them by signs; O’Neil stepping close by his side, and near enough for the slightest whisper to be heard between them.

The young Irishman still kept impatiently urging the advance. Every moment of delay seemed a month to the heart of the lover. Over and over again came before his mind that hideous picture his fancy had painted—Clara Blackadder struggling in the embrace of a savage! And that savage the Yellow Chief of the Cheyennes!

These fancies were like the waves of a tempestuous sea, following one another at intervals. As each rose grimly before him, he came near groaning aloud. He was only restrained by knowing the necessity for silence. As a relief he kept constantly whispering to his old comrade, and urging him to a more rapid advance.

“Dod rot it, Ned!” replied the latter; “don’t be so hurrified ’bout it. We’ll git theer in good time, take this chile’s word for it. Theer’s been plenty o’ licker in the emigrant wagons, I guess. Them Massissippy planters don’t offen go travellin’ ’thout a good stock o’ corn. An’ as for the Injuns, they ain’t a-goin’ to trouble theerselves ’bout weemen as long ’s the licker lasts. Don’t you be uneezy; we’ll git up time enuf to purtect the gurl, an’ chestise the skunks has ev captered her; you see if we don’t.”

“But why go creeping this way? Once upon the cliff, we must declare ourselves. We can’t get down among them, as you say; and since it must all be done with our rifles, the first shot will discover us.”

“So it will; diskiver us to a sartinty. But theer’s jest the pint. That fust shot must be deelivered by all o’ us at the same instinck o’ time. Unless we make a latter o’ them, as the French trappers call it, they’d be off in the shakin’ o’ a goat’s tail, prehaps takin’ thar prisners along wi’ ’em. An’ whar ’ud we be to foller ’em? Thurfor, we must fix things so’st’ every one may take sight on a different Injun at the same time; an’ then, afore they kin git clar out o’ the gully, we’ll be loaded for a second shot. I guess that’ll make ’em think o’ somethin’ else than toatin’ off thar captives. Keep yur patience, young fellur! Trust to ole ’Lije Orton, when he sez yur gurl air still safe an’ soun’.”

The anxious lover, despite his anxiety, could not help feeling confidence in the words thus whispered. More than once had he seen ’Lije Orton acting under circumstances of a like trying nature, and as often coming out triumphant. With an effort he restrained his impatience, and imitated the cautious approach of his comrade.

They were soon sufficiently near the edge of the cliff to hear a murmur of voices rising up out of the valley. As the ears of all were well attuned to such sounds, they knew them to be the voices of Indians. And these could be no other than Yellow Chief, and his band of marauders.

A halt was made; and a hurried council held, about the best mode of making attack.

“There must be ne’er a noise among ye,” whispered ’Lije, “not the speakin’ o’ a word, till we’ve got one fire at ’em. Then churge yur rifles agen, quick’s ever you kin. Two sets o’ shots oughter thin ’em, so as they won’t mind ’beout thar captives, nor any thin’ else, ’ceptin’ to streak it—that air, sech as be left o’ ’em.”

This counsel was delivered in a whisper, and in the same way passed along the line.

“Only one half o’ ye fire at a time,” continued ’Lije. “You fellurs on the left shoot first. Let the tothers resarve for the second volley. ’Twon’t do to waste two bullets on the same redskin. Leave Yellow Chief to me. I hev got a ole score to settle wi’ that Injun.”

With these precautions, communicated from left to right, the trappers once more advanced—no longer as skirmishers, but in line, and as near to one another as the inequality of the ground would permit.

They could now hear the voice of a man, who talked loudly and in a tone of authority. They could even make out some of the words, for they were in English!

This gave them a surprise; but they had scarce time to think of it, when there arose a chorus of cries, uttered in quick sharp intonation, that told of some unusual occurrence. Among these were the screams of women.

At the same instant the trampling of hoofs resounded along the rocks, as if a horse was going off at a gallop over the hard turf of the prairie. Then succeeded another chorus of yells—a confused din—and soon after the pattering of many hoofs, as of a whole troop of horses following the first.

The sound, reaching the ears of the trappers, carried their eyes out toward the plain; where they beheld a sight that caused one and all of them wild throbbings of the heart. Upon the prairie, just clearing the scarped edge of the cliff, was a woman on horseback. At a glance they could tell it was a young girl; but as her back was toward them, they could see neither face nor features. She was in a lady’s saddle; and urging her horse onward as if riding for life—her skirt and hair streaming loosely behind her.

There was one among them that knew who she was. The quick instinct of love told Edward O’Neil well the fugitive upon horseback was Clara Blackadder. His instincts were aided by remembrance. That magnificent head of hair, black as the plumage of a raven, was well remembered by him. It had often been before his fancy in a lone bivouac—at night entwining itself with his dreams.

“O Heavens!” he exclaimed, “it is Clara herself!”

“Yur right, Ned,” responded ’Lije, gazing intently after her. “Darned ef it ain’t her, that very gurl! She’s a-tryin’ to git away from ’em. See! thar goes the hul o’ the Injuns arter her, gallopin’ like h—!”

As Orton spoke, the pursuers began to appear, one after another passing outside the cliff-line—urging their horses onward with blows and loud vociferations.

Several of the trappers raised their rifles to the level, and seemed calculating the distance.

“For yur lives, don’t shoot!” cautioned ’Lije, speaking in a constrained voice, and making himself better understood by a wave of the hand. “It kin do ne’er a good now, but only spile all. Let ’em go off. Ef the gurl gits clur, we’ll soon track her up. Ef she don’t, they’re boun’ to bring her back, an’ then we kin settle wi’ ’em. I reck’n they’re not all arter her. Theer’s some o’ the skunks still below. Let’s jest see to them; an’ then we kin lay out our plans for them’s have rid out in the purshoot.”

’Lije’s counsel was unanimously accepted, and the gun-barrels brought down again.

“Lie clost hyur,” he again counselled, “while some o’ us steal forard an’ reconnoitre. Harry, s’pose you kum ’longs wi’ me?”

His purpose was understood by Black Harris, who instantly volunteered to accompany the old trapper—his senior in years, and his equal in rank among the “mountain men.”

“Now, boys!” muttered ’Lije on leaving them, “lie close as I’ve tolt you, and ne’er a word out o’ one o’ ye till we git back.”

So saying, he crept forward, Black Harris by his side—the two going on hands and knees, and with as much caution as if they had been approaching a herd of antelopes.

The glance of the others did not follow them. All eyes were turned downward to the prairie; watching the pursuit, now far off and still going farther across the open plain.

But no one watched with such anxiety as O’Neil. It absorbed his whole soul, like some pent-up agony. His very breathing seemed suspended, as he crouched behind the dwarf cedar-tree, calculating the distance between pursuers and pursued. How he regretted having left his horse behind him! What would he not have given at that moment to be on the back of his brave steed, and galloping to the rescue of his beloved!

Perhaps his suffering would have been still more acute, but for the words just spoken by his old comrade. The girl would either get off, or be brought back; and either way there was hope of saving her. With this thought to console him, he witnessed the spectacle of the pursuit with more equanimity. So, watching it with eager eyes, he awaited the result of the reconnoissance.

Crouching slowly and cautiously along, Orton and Harris at length reached the edge of the cliff, and looked down into the valley below. A glance enabled them to comprehend the situation. It was just as they had conjectured. The white and negro captives seen in separate groups, guarded by something less than a moiety of the Indian band, and these reeling over the ground half intoxicated.

“They’ll be a eezy capter now,” said ’Lije, “and we must capter ’em. Arter that, we kin kill ’em ’ithout much noise.”

“Why not bring up the rest, and shoot ’em whar they stand? We can rub out every redskin of ’em at a single volley.”

“Sartin we could; but don’t ye see, old hoss, that ’ud niver do. Ye forget the gurl; an she are the only one ’o the hul lot wuth savin’, I reckin; the only one I’d give a darn to waste powder for. Ef we wur to fire a shot, the purshooers out yonner ’ud be surtin to hear it, and then good-bye to the gurl—that is, if they git their claws on her agin.”

“I see what you mean; an you’re right. We must bag this lot below, without makin a rumpus; then we can set our traps for the others.”

“Jess so, Harry.”

“How are we to do it, think ye, ’Lije? We’ll have to go back to whar we left our horses, and ride round by the open eend of the valley. That way we’ll have them shut up like sheep in a pen.”

“No, Harry; we han’t time to go back for the anymals. Afore we ked git roun’ thar, the purshooers mout catch the gurl and be comin’ back. Then it ’ud be no go. I bethinks me o’ a better way.”

Black Harris waited to hear what it was.

“I know a pass,” continued ’Lije, “by the which we may git down wi’ a leetle streetchin’ o’ the arms. If we kin only reech bottom afore they sees us, we’ll make short work o’ ’em. But we must be cunnin’ beout it. Ef but a one o’ the skunks hev the chance to eescape, the gurl’ll be lost sure. Thar aint a second o’ time to be wasted. Let’s back to the boys, an at oncest down inter the gully.”