Chapter 21 - The Yellow Chief by Mayne Reid

A Pleasanter Captivity.

If the sight of the straying horses had caused surprise to the Indians, not less astonished were they who, within the valley, had been awaiting their approach. The trappers, placed in a well-contrived ambush, had seen Yellow Chief as he ascended to the crest of the ridge, and noticed his strange movements. Divided into two parties, they were stationed near the entrance of the gorge, about one-half their number on each side of it. Two lateral ravines running some distance into the face of the rocky cliff, and thickly studded with scrub-cedars, afforded them a place of concealment. Their plan was to let the returned pursuers pass in, and then, rushing out, to close up the entrance, and thus cut off their retreat. Trusting to their guns, pistols, and knives, as well as the panic which the surprise would undoubtedly create, they intended making a battue of the savages—to strike a grand “coup,” as they themselves expressed it. There was no talk of giving quarter. The word was not even mentioned. In the minds of these men the thought of mercy to an Indian enemy has little place; less for a Cheyenne; and less still for the band of braves led by the Yellow Chief—a name lately distinguished for treacherous hostility toward trappers as well as cruelty of every kind.

“Let’s kill every redskin of them!” was the resolution understood by all, and spoken by several, as they separated to take their places in ambuscade. When they saw the Indians mount upon the summit of the ridge, the chief already descending, they felt as if their design was soon to be accomplished. They were near enough to the savages to make out the expression upon their countenances. They saw no signs denoting doubt. In five minutes more the unconscious enemy would be through the gap, and then—

And then was it that the exclamation was heard from those upon the hill, causing the chief suddenly to turn his horse and ride back.

What could it mean? Not one of the trappers could guess. Even ’Lije Orton was puzzled by the movement.

“Thar must be somethin’ queery on tother side,” he whispered to O’Neil, who was in ambush by his side. “That ere movement can’t a be from anything they’ve seed hyar. They waant lookin’ this way. Durn me, if I kin make out what stopped ’em!”

Of all those awaiting the approach of the Indians, no one suffered so much from seeing them halt as the young Irishman. For the first time in five years he had a view of that face, almost every night appearing to him in his dreams. She was near enough for him to trace the lineaments of those features, indelibly impressed upon his memory. If he saw change in them, it was only that they appeared more beautiful than ever. The wan hue of sadness, and that pallor of complexion, natural to a daughter of the South, had been replaced by a red suffusion upon her cheeks, caused by the chase, the capture, and the terrible excitement of the situation; and she seemed to glow with beauty. And there was something that at the moment rendered her still more beautiful in the eyes of O’Neil. During the interval of hasty action since entering the Indian encampment, he had found time to place himself in communication with some of the white captives, her companions on the journey. From them he had learnt enough to know, that Clara Blackadder was yet unwedded; something, too, of her mood of habitual melancholy, as if there was a void in her heart, none of them understood!

As he knelt behind the cedar-trees, expectant of her return, he had indulged in sweet conjectures as to its cause; and when he saw her upon the ridge, riding down as it were into his arms, a thrill of delightful anticipation passed over his spirit. He could scarce restrain himself from rushing forth to receive her; and it was with difficulty the old trapper could keep him silent in his concealment.

Still more difficult as the Indians halted on the hill.

“They may ride off again,” said he, in an agonised whisper, to his more patient comrade. “Supposing they suspect our presence? They may gallop off, and take her along with them? We have no horses to follow. We should never overtake them afoot.”

“You kedn’t ef we charged on ’em now. They’re ayont the carry o’ our guns. Ef they git a glimps o’ one o’ us, they’ll be sartin to stampede. Don’t show the tip o’ yur nose, Ned; for yur life, don’t!”

The counsel might not have been heeded. O’Neil was in an agony of impatient apprehension. It seemed so easy to rush up to the summit of the ridge, and rescue her he so dearly loved. He felt as if he could have outrun the swiftest horse, and alone vanquished the full band of savages that surrounded her!

Yielding to the impetuosity of his long-constrained passion, he might have made the suicidal attempt, had he not been stayed by the next movement of the Indians, who, to the surprise of all, both prisoners and trappers, were seen to turn their backs upon the encampment, leaving the young girl in the charge of a single savage! Even then Orton found it difficult to restrain O’Neil from leaping out from his ambush and rushing toward his beloved. It seemed now so easy to rescue her!

The old trapper was again compelled to use force, throwing his arms around and holding him in his place.

“A minnit more, ye fool!” was the hurried though not very complimentary speech hissed into O’Neil’s ear. “Hev patience one minnit, and she’ll coflumix right into yur arms, like a barked squirrel from the branch o’ a tree. Hish!”

The last exclamation was simultaneous with a movement on the part of the Indian who had been left in charge of the captive. In obedience to the hurried order of his chief, the savage had taken the bridle of her horse, and commenced leading the animal down the slope in the direction of the ravine, his eyes straying over the ground of the encampment.

Before entering the gap, he looked ahead! The silence there seemed somewhat to astonish him. It was strange there was no movement. He could see several of his comrades lying upon the grass, and others standing over the captives, these still in their planes just as he remembered them, when starting forth on the pursuit.

The Indians upon the ground seemed natural enough. They were those who had drunk too freely of the white man’s fire-water. But the guards standing erect—leaning upon their long lances—it was odd they should be so silent, so motionless! He knew his comrades to be trained to a certain stoicism; but, considering the exciting scenes that had occurred, this was beyond expectation.

For all, the thing caused him no suspicion. How could he have a thought of what had transpired in his absence?

He advanced without further pause, leading the captive’s horse, till he had passed through the gap of the gorge. Whether he then saw enough to tell him of the trap into which he had fallen can never be known. If he did, he had no time either to reflect upon or escape from it. A man, gliding silently out from the bushes, sprang like a panther upon the croup of his horse; and before he could turn to see who thus assailed him, a bowie-knife had gone deep into his dorsal ribs, causing him to drop dead to the ground without uttering a groan!

It was the bowie-knife of old ’Lije Orton that had inflicted the fatal stab.

At the same instant another man, rushing out from the same cover, clasped the captive girl in his arms, and tenderly lifted her from the saddle.

She was surprised, but not terrified. There could be no more terror there. If there had, it would have passed in a moment, when in her deliverer she recognised one who, for five long years, had been alike the torture and solace of her thoughts.