Chapter 20 - The Yellow Chief by Mayne Reid

A Ride for more than Life.

Nerved by the fear of a terrible fate, did the escaping captive urge forward her swift horse, encouraging the animal both with words and caresses.

He knew her voice, and did his best. He seemed to know, also, why he was thus put to the top of his speed, for under such circumstances the horse seems to be stirred by something more than instinct.

The one ridden by Clara Blackadder was a hunter, of the best Kentucky breed, and might have distanced any of the mustangs mounted by the Indians.

But there was another of the same race among his pursuers—one superior in size, strength, and swiftness even to himself. It was the horse that had belonged to the young lady’s brother, appropriated by Blue Dick, and now following with the mulatto upon his back.

She did not know who. She only knew that one of the pursuers was coming close after her, and saw that the rest had fallen far behind. But, to her terror, she saw that this single horseman was gradually gaining upon her.

Had she been a strong man and armed, she might have reined up, and given him combat. But she knew that the weakest of the Indian warriors would be more than a match for her: and, if overtaken, she must succumb.

There was no hope for her, but in the swiftness of her horse; and once more she spoke words of encouragement, patting him on the neck with her little hands, while striking the heel of her tiny boot against his sides.

The Kentucky blood, answering to this urgency, did his best; and galloped onward, as if his own life, as well as that of the rider, depended upon his speed.

It was all to no purpose. Ere the fleeing girl had made another mile across the prairie, the close clattering of hoofs gave warning that the pursuer was rapidly drawing near; and, giving a glance black, she saw him within less than a hundred lengths from the heels of her own horse.

She saw, besides, what rendered her fears yet more agonising, that it was no Indian who was thus hotly pursuing her, but a man in a cotton shirt—he who was once a slave on her father’s plantation. It was the Yellow Chief divested of his Indian habiliments, whom now, from what she had heard, she must believe to be her brother.

And a brother so cruel—so unnatural! She trembled at the thought of the encounter!

It could not be avoided. In ten minutes more he was riding by her side.

Clutching the bridle-rein of her horse, he drew the animal down upon its haunches—at once putting an end to the pursuit.

“No, no, Miss Clarey!” he tauntingly cried out, “you shan’t escape me so easily. You and I don’t part company, till you’ve served me and mine as I’ve served you and yours. It makes no matter if I am your brother, as Old Nan says. You’ve got to come back with me, and see how you’ll like being a slave. We keep slaves among the Indians, just as you proud planters of Mississippi. Come along with me, and see!”

The young lady offered no resistance; nor did she say a word in reply. From what she had already seen and experienced, she knew it would be idle; and resigning the rein, she permitted her horse to be controlled by him who had so easily overtaken her.

Turning about upon the prairie, captor and captive commenced retracing their tracks; the former sitting erect in his saddle, exultant of success; the latter with bent attitude, and eyes regarding the ground in a look of despair.

The Indians soon came up with their chief; and the captive was conducted back toward the scene where she had witnessed so much suffering.

And what was to be her torture? She could not tell. She did not even think of it. Her spirit was crushed beyond the power of reflection.

The chase had occupied about half an hour. It took over twice the time for the Indians to return. The sun had already sunk low over the ridge of the Rocky Mountains, and it was twilight within the little valley. But, as they advanced, there was light enough for them to distinguish the other captives still lying on the grass, and their comrades keeping guard over them.

So thought the Yellow Chief, as, on reaching the crest of the ridge that ran transversely across the entrance, he glanced up the gorge, and saw the different groups to all appearance as he had left them.

Riding in the front, he was about to descend the slope, when an exclamation from the rear caused him to rein up, and look back.

Several of the Indians, who had also mounted the ridge, were seen halted upon its summit, as if something was causing them surprise or alarm.

It could not be anything seen in the encampment. Their faces were not turned in that direction, but along the mountain line to the northward.

The chief, suddenly wheeling about, trotted back to the summit; and there saw what was causing surprise to his followers, and what now, also, astonished himself. Making out from the mountain, and scattering over the prairie, was a troop of horses without riders. In such a place they might have passed for wild steeds, with some mules among them, for they saw also these. But they were near enough nor to be mistaken for mustangs.

Besides, it was seen that they all carried saddles on their backs, and bridles over their necks—the reins of most of them trailing down to the grass.

The red marauders knew at a glance what it meant. It could be nothing else than the cavallada of some camp that had “stampeded.”

An encampment of whites, or men of their own colour? This was the question that, for a while, occupied their attention, as they stood regarding the movements of the animals.

It did not take them long to arrive at a conclusion. The strange horses, at first scampering in different directions, had wheeled back toward a common centre; and in a drove were now coming toward the spot occupied by the Indians. As they drew nearer, the style of the saddles and other riding-gear told the Cheyennes that their owners were not Indians.

On first seeing them, the Yellow Chief had commanded his followers to take position behind a clump of trees standing upon the slope of the ridge, and hindering observation from the northward. There, for a time, they continued to observe the movements of the riderless horses.

What seemed strange was, that there were no men following them. If escaping from a camp in broad daylight, as it still was, they should have been seen, and some attempt made to recapture them. But, as they strayed under the eyes of the Indians, no owners appeared to be after them.

For some time the Cheyenne chief and his followers sat gazing upon the cavallada, and endeavouring to explain its presence.

They could make nothing out of it, beyond the fact of its being a troop of stampeded animals.

And these could only have come from a camp of whites; for neither the horses nor their trappings were such as are in use among Indians. There were American horses among them, very different from the mustang of the prairies.

Had they got away in the night, when their owners were asleep? Not likely. Even thus they would have been trailed and overtaken. Besides, when the Indians first set eyes on them, they were galloping excitedly, as if freshly stampeded. They were now getting quieted after their scare—whatever it may have been—some of them, as they stepped along, stooping their heads to gather a mouthful of grass.

To the Indians it was a tempting sight. Horse-stealing is their regular profession, and success at it one of their boasted accomplishments. A young brave, returning to his tribe with the captured horse of an enemy, is received almost with as much triumph and congratulation as if he carried the scalp of that enemy on the point of his spear.

They remained in ambush only long enough to see that there were no men within sight of the straying horses; and to reflect that, even if the owners were near, they must be afoot, and therefore helpless to hinder their cattle from being captured. A dash after the drove would do it. They were all provided with their lazos, and there could be little difficulty in securing the strays, to all appearance docile, as if jaded after a long journey. With the quickness of lightning these thoughts passed through the minds of the marauders; and simultaneously they turned their eyes upon the chief, as if seeking permission to ride off in pursuit. Not only was it given, but he himself determined to lead the chase.

Among his other evil passions, cupidity was one; and, by Indian law, the prize belongs to him who takes it. The chance of adding two or three fine horses to his stock was not to be slighted; and turning to one of the men who kept guard over the captive girl, he ordered him to take her on to the encampment.

Then, setting the example to his followers, he rode out from behind the copse, and, at an easy pace, directed his course toward the sauntering cavallada.