DANGERS OF THE PRAIRIE -- OUR
TRAVELLERS ATTACKED BY INDIANS, AND DELIVERED IN A
There are periods in the life of almost
all men when misfortunes seem to crowd upon them in
rapid succession, when they escape from one danger
only to encounter another, and when, to use a well-known
expression, they succeed in leaping 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 of the
Blackfeet, who found them too watchful to be caught
napping, when, about daybreak one morning they encountered
a roving band of Camanchee Indians, who wore such
a warlike aspect that Joe deemed it prudent to avoid
them if possible.
“They don’t see us yit,
I guess,” said Joe, as he and his companions
drove the horses into a hollow between the grassy waves
of the prairie, “any if we only can escape their
sharp eyes till we’re in yonder clump o’
willows, we’re safe enough.”
“But why don’t you ride
up to them, Joe,” inquired Dick, “and make
peace between 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’ the top 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 to induce him to bend
his head and shoulders, and in a few minutes they
reached the 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 for a second
on the horizon, like a speck of black against the
sky, and then to disappear.
Immediately the three hunters bolted
on their steeds and resumed their journey; but before
that evening closed they had sad evidence of the savage
nature of the band from which they had escaped.
On passing the brow of a slight eminence, Dick, who
rode first, observed that Crusoe stopped and snuffed
the breeze in an anxious, inquiring manner.
“What is’t, pup?”
said Dick, drawing up, for he knew that his faithful
dog never 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,
dismal howl floated over the plains. There was
a mystery about the dog’s conduct which, coupled
with his melancholy cry, struck the travellers with
a superstitious 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 the knoll where, scattered
upon the torn and bloody turf, they discovered the
scalped and mangled remains of about twenty or thirty
human beings. Their skulls had been cleft by
the tomahawk, and their breasts pierced by the scalping-knife;
and from the position in which many of them lay, it
was evident that they had been slain while asleep.
Joe’s brow flushed, and his
lips became tightly compressed, as he muttered between
his set teeth, “Their skins are white.”
A short examination sufficed to show
that the men who had thus been barbarously 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 our hunters to believe they had been killed
while asleep; but one or two were cut almost to pieces,
and from the blood-bespattered and trampled sward
around, it seemed as if they had struggled long and
fiercely for life. Whether or not any of the
savages had been slain, it was impossible to tell,
for if such had been the case, their comrades, doubtless,
had carried away their bodies. That they had
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 the white
men had to be stifled, as his party was so small.
Long afterwards it was discovered
that this was a band of trappers who, like those mentioned
at the beginning of this volume, had set out to avenge
the death of a comrade; but God, who has retained the
right of vengeance in His own hand, saw fit to frustrate
their purpose, by giving them into the hands of the
savages whom they had set forth to slay.
As it was impossible to bury so many
bodies, the travellers resumed their journey, and
left them to bleach there in the wilderness; but they
rode the whole 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
of deceiving them into the belief that they had passed
unobserved, doubled on their track, and took a long
sweep in order to keep out of sight until they could
approach under the shelter of a belt of woodland towards
which the travellers now approached.
The Indians adopted this course instead
of the easier method of simply pursuing so weak a
party, because the plains at this part were bordered
by a long stretch of forest into which the hunters
could have plunged, and rendered pursuit more difficult,
if not almost useless. The detour thus taken
was so extensive that the shades of evening were beginning
to descend before they could put their plan into execution.
The forest lay about a mile to the right of our hunters,
like some dark mainland, of which the prairie was
the sea, and the scattered clumps of wood the islands.
“There’s no lack o’
game here,” said Dick Varley, pointing to a herd
of buffaloes which rose at their approach, and fled
away towards the wood.
“I think we’ll ha’
thunder soon,” remarked Joe. “I never
feel it onnatteral hot like this without looking out
for a plump.”
“Hah! den ve better
look hout for one goot tree to get b’low,”
suggested Henri. “Voila!” he added,
pointing with his finger towards the plain; “dere
am a lot of wild hosses.”
A troop of about thirty wild horses
appeared, as he spoke, on the brow of a ridge, and
advanced slowly towards them.
“Hist!” exclaimed Joe,
reining up; “hold on, lads. Wild horses!
my rifle to a pop-gun there’s wilder men on
t’other side o’ them.”
“What mean you, Joe?” inquired Dick, riding
“D’ye see the little lumps
on the shoulder o’ each horse?” said Joe.
“Them’s Injun’s feet; an’
if we don’t want to lose our scalps we’d
better make for the forest.”
Joe proved himself to be in earnest
by wheeling round and making straight for the thick
woods as fast as his horse could run. The others
followed, driving the pack-horses before them.
The effect of this sudden movement
on the so-called “wild horses” was very
remarkable, and to one unacquainted with the habits
of the Camanchee Indians, must have appeared almost
supernatural. In the twinkling of an eye every
steed had a rider on its back, and before the hunters
had taken five strides in the direction of the forest,
the whole band were in hot pursuit, yelling like furies.
The manner in which these Indians
accomplish this feat is very singular, and implies
great activity and strength of muscle on the part of
The Camanchees are low in stature,
and usually are rather corpulent. In their movements
on foot they are heavy and ungraceful, and they are,
on the whole, a slovenly and unattractive race of
men. But the instant they mount their horses
they seem to be entirely changed, and surprise the
spectator with the ease and elegance of their movements.
Their great and distinctive peculiarity as horsemen
is the power they have acquired of throwing themselves
suddenly on either side of their horse’s body,
and clinging on in such a way that no part of them
is visible from the other side save the foot by which
they cling. In this manner they approach their
enemies at full gallop, and without rising again 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 of horsehair, which is passed
round under the neck of the horse, and both ends braided
into the mane, on the withers, thus forming a loop
which hangs under the 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 the upper arm. Into this loop
the rider drops suddenly and fearlessly, leaving his
heel to hang over the horse’s back, to steady
him, and also to restore him to his seat when desired.
By this stratagem the Indians had
approached on the present occasion almost within rifle
range before they were discovered, and it required
the utmost speed of the hunters’ horses to enable
them to avoid being overtaken. One of the Indians,
who was better mounted than his fellows, gained on
the fugitives so much that he came within arrow range,
but reserved his shaft until they were 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 go the 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 arrow whizzed past the hunter’s
Henri fired at the horse, which dropped
instantly, hurling the astonished Camanchee upon the
ground, where he lay for some time insensible.
In a few seconds pursued and pursuers entered the
wood, where both had to advance with caution, in order
to avoid being swept off by the overhanging branches
of the trees.
Meanwhile the sultry heat of which
Joe had formerly spoken increased considerably, and
a rumbling noise, as if of distant thunder, was heard;
but the flying hunters paid no attention to it, for
the led horses gave them so much trouble, and retarded
their flight so much, that the Indians were gradually
and visibly gaining on them.
“We’ll ha’ to let
the packs go,” said Joe, somewhat bitterly, as
he looked over 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; and Crusoe,
for reasons best known to himself, also said nothing,
but bounded along beside his master’s horse,
casting an occasional glance upwards to catch any
signal that might be given.
They had passed over a considerable
space of ground, and were forcing their way, at the
imminent hazard of their necks, through a densely-clothed
part of the wood, when the sound above referred to
increased, attracting the attention of both parties.
In a few seconds the air was filled with a steady
and continuous rumbling sound, like the noise of a
distant cataract. Pursuers and fugitives drew
rein instinctively, and came to a dead stand, while
the rumbling increased to a roar, and evidently approached
them rapidly, though as yet nothing to cause it could
be seen, except that there was a dense, dark cloud
overspreading the sky to the southward. The air
was oppressively still and hot.
“What can’t be?”
inquired Dick, looking at Joe, who was gazing with
an expression 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 I niver heerd the likes o’ that.”
“It am like t’ondre,”
said Henri; “maïs it nevair do stop.”
This was true. The sound was
similar to continuous, uninterrupted thunder.
On it came with a magnificent roar that shook the
very earth, and revealed itself at last in the shape
of a mighty whirlwind. In a moment the distant
woods bent before 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 before witnessed. Steadily, fiercely, irresistibly,
it bore down upon them, while the crash of falling,
snapping, and uprooting trees mingled with the dire
artillery of that sweeping storm like the musketry
on a battle-field.
“Follow me, lads!” shouted
Joe, turning his horse and dashing at full speed towards
a rocky eminence that offered shelter. But shelter
was not needed. The storm was clearly defined.
Its limits were as distinctly marked by its Creator
as if it had been a living intelligence sent forth
to put a belt of desolation round the world; and, although
the edge of devastation was not five hundred yards
from the rock behind which the hunters were stationed,
only a few drops of 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 was lost in distance.
Whence it came and whither it went none could tell;
but, far as the eye could see on either hand, an avenue
a quarter of a mile wide was cut through the forest.
It had levelled everything with the dust; the very
grass was beaten flat, the trees were torn, shivered,
snapped across, and crushed; and the earth itself in
many places was ploughed up and furrowed with deep
scars. The chaos was indescribable, and it is
probable that centuries will 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 their steeds, and, with feelings of gratitude
to God for having delivered them alike from savage
foes and from the destructive power of the whirlwind,
resumed their journey towards the Mustang Valley.