Chapter 25 Dangers of the prairie—Our travellers attacked by Indians, an_elivered in a remarkable manner.
There are periods in the life of almost all men when misfortunes seem to crow_pon them in rapid succession, when they escape from one danger only t_ncounter another, and when, to use a well-known expression, they succeed i_eaping out of the frying-pan at the expense of plunging into the fire.
So was it with our three friends upon this occasion. They were scarcely rid o_he Blackfeet, who found them too watchful to be caught napping, when, abou_aybreak one morning they encountered a roving band of Camanchee Indians, wh_ore such a warlike aspect that Joe deemed it prudent to avoid them i_ossible.
“They don’t see us yit, I guess,” said Joe, as he and his companions drove th_orses into a hollow between the grassy waves of the prairie, “any if we onl_an escape their sharp eyes till we’re in yonder clump o’ willows, we’re saf_nough.”
“But why don’t you ride up to them, Joe,” inquired Dick, “and make peac_etween them and the Pale-faces, as you ha’ done with other bands?”
“Because it’s o’ no use to risk our scalps for the chance o’ makin’ peace wi’ a rovin’ war-party. Keep yer head down, Henri! If they git only a sight o’ th_op o’ yer cap, they’ll be down on us like a breeze o’ _wind_.”
“Hah! let dem come!” said Henri.
“They’ll come without askin’ yer leave,” remarked Joe drily.
Notwithstanding his defiant expression, Henri had sufficient prudence t_nduce him to bend his head and shoulders, and in a few minutes they reache_he shelter of the willows unseen by the savages. At least so thought Henri, Joe was not quite sure about it, and Dick hoped for the best.
In the course of half an hour the last of the Camanchees was seen to hover fo_ second on the horizon, like a speck of black against the sky, and then t_isappear.
Immediately the three hunters bolted on their steeds and resumed thei_ourney; but before that evening closed they had sad evidence of the savag_ature of the band from which they had escaped. On passing the brow of _light eminence, Dick, who rode first, observed that Crusoe stopped an_nuffed the breeze in an anxious, inquiring manner.
“What is’t, pup?” said Dick, drawing up, for he knew that his faithful do_ever gave a false alarm.
Crusoe replied by a short, uncertain bark, and then bounding forward, disappeared behind a little wooded knoll. In another moment a long, disma_owl floated over the plains. There was a mystery about the dog’s conduc_hich, coupled with his melancholy cry, struck the travellers with _uperstitious feeling of dread, as they sat looking at each other in surprise.
“Come, let’s clear it up,” cried Joe Blunt, shaking the reins of his steed, and galloping forward. A few strides brought them to the other side of th_noll where, scattered upon the torn and bloody turf, they discovered th_calped and mangled remains of about twenty or thirty human beings. Thei_kulls had been cleft by the tomahawk, and their breasts pierced by th_calping-knife; and from the position in which many of them lay, it wa_vident that they had been slain while asleep.
Joe’s brow flushed, and his lips became tightly compressed, as he muttere_etween his set teeth, “Their skins are white.”
A short examination sufficed to show that the men who had thus bee_arbarously murdered while they slept had been a band of trappers, or hunters; but what their errand had been, or whence they came, they could not discover.
Everything of value had been carried off, and all the scalps had been taken.
Most of the bodies, although much mutilated, lay in a posture that led ou_unters to believe they had been killed while asleep; but one or two were cu_lmost to pieces, and from the blood-bespattered and trampled sward around, i_eemed as if they had struggled long and fiercely for life. Whether or not an_f the savages had been slain, it was impossible to tell, for if such had bee_he case, their comrades, doubtless, had carried away their bodies. That the_ad been slaughtered by the party of Camanchees who had been seen at daybreak, was quite clear to Joe; but his burning desire to revenge the death of th_hite men had to be stifled, as his party was so small.
Long afterwards it was discovered that this was a band of trappers who, lik_hose mentioned at the beginning of this volume, had set out to avenge th_eath of a comrade; but God, who has retained the right of vengeance in Hi_wn hand, saw fit to frustrate their purpose, by giving them into the hands o_he savages whom they had set forth to slay.
As it was impossible to bury so many bodies, the travellers resumed thei_ourney, and left them to bleach there in the wilderness; but they rode th_hole of that day almost without uttering a word. Meanwhile the Camanchees, who had observed the trio, and had ridden away at first for the purpose o_eceiving them into the belief that they had passed unobserved, doubled o_heir track, and took a long sweep in order to keep out of sight until the_ould approach under the shelter of a belt of woodland towards which th_ravellers now approached.
The Indians adopted this course instead of the easier method of simpl_ursuing so weak a party, because the plains at this part were bordered by _ong stretch of forest into which the hunters could have plunged, and rendere_ursuit more difficult, if not almost useless. The détour thus taken was s_xtensive that the shades of evening were beginning to descend before the_ould put their plan into execution. The forest lay about a mile to the righ_f our hunters, like some dark mainland, of which the prairie was the sea, an_he scattered clumps of wood the islands.
“There’s no lack o’ game here,” said Dick Varley, pointing to a herd o_uffaloes which rose at their approach, and fled away towards the wood.
“I think we’ll ha’ thunder soon,” remarked Joe. “I never feel it onnattera_ot like this without looking out for a plump.”
“Hah! den ve better look hout for one goot tree to get b’low,” suggeste_enri. “Voilà!” he added, pointing with his finger towards the plain; “dere a_ lot of wild hosses.”
A troop of about thirty wild horses appeared, as he spoke, on the brow of _idge, and advanced slowly towards them.
“Hist!” exclaimed Joe, reining up; “hold on, lads. Wild horses! my rifle to _op-gun there’s wilder men on t’other side o’ them.”
“What mean you, Joe?” inquired Dick, riding close up.
“D’ye see the little lumps on the shoulder o’ each horse?” said Joe. “Them’_njun’s _feet_ ; an’ if we don’t want to lose our scalps we’d better make fo_he forest.”
Joe proved himself to be in earnest by wheeling round and making straight fo_he thick woods as fast as his horse could run. The others followed, drivin_he pack-horses before them.
The effect of this sudden movement on the so-called “wild horses” was ver_emarkable, and to one unacquainted with the habits of the Camanchee Indians, must have appeared almost supernatural. In the twinkling of an eye every stee_ad a rider on its back, and before the hunters had taken five strides in th_irection of the forest, the whole band were in hot pursuit, yelling lik_uries.
The manner in which these Indians accomplish this feat is very singular, an_mplies great activity and strength of muscle on the part of the savages.
The Camanchees are low in stature, and usually are rather corpulent. In thei_ovements on foot they are heavy and ungraceful, and they are, on the whole, _lovenly and unattractive race of men. But the instant they mount their horse_hey seem to be entirely changed, and surprise the spectator with the ease an_legance of their movements. Their great and distinctive peculiarity a_orsemen is the power they have acquired of throwing themselves suddenly o_ither side of their horse’s body, and clinging on in such a way that no par_f them is visible from the other side save the foot by which they cling. I_his manner they approach their enemies at full gallop, and without risin_gain to the saddle, discharge their arrows at them over their horses’ backs, or even under their necks.
This apparently magical feat is accomplished by means of a halter o_orsehair, which is passed round under the neck of the horse, and both end_raided into the mane, on the withers, thus forming a loop which hangs unde_he neck and against the breast. This being caught by the hand, makes a sling, into which the elbow falls, taking the weight of the body on the middle of th_pper arm. Into this loop the rider drops suddenly and fearlessly, leaving hi_eel to hang over the horse’s back, to steady him, and also to restore him t_is seat when desired.
By this stratagem the Indians had approached on the present occasion almos_ithin rifle range before they were discovered, and it required the utmos_peed of the hunters’ horses to enable them to avoid being overtaken. One o_he Indians, who was better mounted than his fellows, gained on the fugitive_o much that he came within arrow range, but reserved his shaft until the_ere close on the margin of the wood, when, being almost alongside of Henri, he fitted an arrow to his bow. Henri’s eye was upon him, however; letting g_he line of the pack-horse which he was leading, he threw forward his rifle, but at the same moment the savage disappeared behind his horse, and an arro_hizzed past the hunter’s ear.
Henri fired at the horse, which dropped instantly, hurling the astonishe_amanchee upon the ground, where he lay for some time insensible. In a fe_econds pursued and pursuers entered the wood, where both had to advance wit_aution, in order to avoid being swept off by the overhanging branches of th_rees.
Meanwhile the sultry heat of which Joe had formerly spoken increase_onsiderably, and a rumbling noise, as if of distant thunder, was heard; bu_he flying hunters paid no attention to it, for the led horses gave them s_uch trouble, and retarded their flight so much, that the Indians wer_radually and visibly gaining on them.
“We’ll ha’ to let the packs go,” said Joe, somewhat bitterly, as he looke_ver his shoulder. “Our scalps ’ll pay for’t if we don’t.”
Henri uttered a peculiar and significant _hiss_ between his teeth, as he said, “P’raps ve better stop and fight!”
Dick said nothing, being resolved to do exactly what Joe Blunt bid him; an_rusoe, for reasons best known to himself, also said nothing, but bounde_long beside his master’s horse, casting an occasional glance upwards to catc_ny signal that might be given.
They had passed over a considerable space of ground, and were forcing thei_ay, at the imminent hazard of their necks, through a densely-clothed part o_he wood, when the sound above referred to increased, attracting the attentio_f both parties. In a few seconds the air was filled with a steady an_ontinuous rumbling sound, like the noise of a distant cataract. Pursuers an_ugitives drew rein instinctively, and came to a dead stand, while th_umbling increased to a roar, and evidently approached them rapidly, though a_et nothing to cause it could be seen, except that there was a dense, dar_loud overspreading the sky to the southward. The air was oppressively stil_nd hot.
“What can’t be?” inquired Dick, looking at Joe, who was gazing with a_xpression of wonder, not unmixed with concern, at the southern sky.
“Dunno, boy. I’ve bin more in the woods than in the clearin’ in my day, but _iver heerd the likes o’ that.”
“It am like t’ondre,” said Henri; “mais it nevair do stop.”
This was true. The sound was similar to continuous, uninterrupted thunder. O_t came with a magnificent roar that shook the very earth, and revealed itsel_t last in the shape of a mighty whirlwind. In a moment the distant woods ben_efore it, and fell like grass before the scythe. It was a whirling hurricane, accompanied by a deluge of rain such as none of the party had ever befor_itnessed. Steadily, fiercely, irresistibly, it bore down upon them, while th_rash of falling, snapping, and uprooting trees mingled with the dir_rtillery of that sweeping storm like the musketry on a battle-field.
“Follow me, lads!” shouted Joe, turning his horse and dashing at full spee_owards a rocky eminence that offered shelter. But shelter was not needed. Th_torm was clearly defined. Its limits were as distinctly marked by its Creato_s if it had been a living intelligence sent forth to put a belt of desolatio_ound the world; and, although the edge of devastation was not five hundre_ards from the rock behind which the hunters were stationed, only a few drop_f ice-cold rain fell upon them.
It passed directly between the Camanchee Indians and their intended victims, placing between them a barrier which it would have taken days to cut through.
The storm blew for an hour, then it travelled onward in its might, and wa_ost in distance. Whence it came and whither it went none could tell; but, fa_s the eye could see on either hand, an avenue a quarter of a mile wide wa_ut through the forest. It had levelled everything with the dust; the ver_rass was beaten flat, the trees were torn, shivered, snapped across, an_rushed; and the earth itself in many places was ploughed up and furrowed wit_eep scars. The chaos was indescribable, and it is probable that centurie_ill not quite obliterate the work of that single hour.
While it lasted, Joe and his comrades remained speechless and awe-stricken.
When it passed, no Indians were to be seen. So our hunters remounted thei_teeds, and, with feelings of gratitude to God for having delivered them alik_rom savage foes and from the destructive power of the whirlwind, resume_heir journey towards the Mustang Valley.