Dally not with the gods, but get thee gone. --Shakspeare.
Mahtoree had scarcely given the first intimation of his real design, before a general discharge from the borderers proved how well they understood it. The distance, and the rapidity of the flight, however, rendered the fire harmless. As a proof how little he regarded the hostility of their party, the Dahcotah chieftain answered the report with a yell; and, flourishing his carabine above his head, he made a circuit on the plain, followed by his chosen warriors, in scorn of the impotent attempt of his enemies. As the main body continued the direct course, this little band of the elite, in returning from its wild exhibition of savage contempt, took its place in the rear, with a dexterity and a concert of action that showed the manoeuvre had been contemplated.
Volley swiftly succeeded volley, until the enraged squatter was reluctantly compelled to abandon the idea of injuring his enemies by means so feeble. Relinquishing his fruitless attempt, he commenced a rapid pursuit, occasionally discharging a rifle in order to give the alarm to the garrison, which he had prudently left under the command of the redoubtable Esther herself. In this manner the chase was continued for many minutes, the horsemen gradually gaining on their pursuers, who maintained the race, however, with an incredible power of foot.
As the little speck of blue rose against the heavens, like an island issuing from the deep, the savages occasionally raised a yell of triumph. But the mists of evening were already gathering along the whole of the eastern margin of the prairie, and before the band had made half of the necessary distance, the dim outline of the rock had melted into the haze of the back ground. Indifferent to this circumstance, which rather favoured than disconcerted his plans, Mahtoree, who had again ridden in front, held on his course with the accuracy of a hound of the truest scent, merely slackening his speed a little, as the horses of his party were by this time thoroughly blown. It was at this stage of the enterprise, that the old man rode up to the side of Middleton, and addressed him as follows in English--
"Here is likely to be a thieving business, and one in which I must say I have but little wish to be a partner."
"What would you do? It would be fatal to trust ourselves in the hands of the miscreants in our rear."
"Tut, for miscreants, be they red or be they white. Look ahead, lad, as if ye were talking of our medicines, or perhaps praising the Teton beasts. For the knaves love to hear their horses commended, the same as a foolish mother in the settlements is fond of hearing the praises of her wilful child. So; pat the animal and lay your hand on the gewgaws, with which the Red-skins have ornamented his mane, giving your eye as it were to one thing, and your mind to another. Listen; if matters are managed with judgment, we may leave these Tetons as the night sets in."
"A blessed thought!" exclaimed Middleton, who retained a painful remembrance of the look of admiration, with which Mahtoree had contemplated the loveliness of Inez, as well as of his subsequent presumption in daring to wish to take the office of her protector on himself.
"Lord, Lord! what a weak creatur' is man, when the gifts of natur' are smothered in bookish knowledge, and womanly manners! Such another start would tell these imps at our elbows that we were plotting against them, just as plainly as if it were whispered in their ears by a Sioux tongue. Ay, ay, I know the devils; they look as innocent as so many frisky fawns, but there is not one among them all that has not an eye on our smallest motions. Therefore, what is to be done is to be done in wisdom, in order to circumvent their cunning. That is right; pat his neck and smile, as if you praised the horse, and keep the ear on my side open to my words. Be careful not to worry your beast, for though but little skilled in horses, reason teaches that breath is needful in a hard push, and that a weary leg makes a dull race. Be ready to mind the signal, when you hear a whine from old Hector. The first will be to make ready; the second, to edge out of the crowd; and the third, to go--am I understood?"
"Perfectly, perfectly," said Middleton, trembling in his excessive eagerness to put the plan in instant execution, and pressing the little arm, which encircled his body, to his heart. "Perfectly. Hasten, hasten."
"Ay, the beast is no sloth," continued the trapper in the Teton language, as if he continued the discourse, edging cautiously through the dusky throng at the same time, until he found himself riding at the side of Paul. He communicated his intentions in the same guarded manner as before. The high-spirited and fearless bee-hunter received the intelligence with delight, declaring his readiness to engage the whole of the savage band, should it become necessary to effect their object. When the old man drew off from the side of this pair also, he cast his eyes about him to discover the situation occupied by the naturalist.
The Doctor, with infinite labour to himself and Asinus, had maintained a position in the very centre of the Siouxes, so long as there existed the smallest reason for believing that any of the missiles of Ishmael might arrive in contact with his person. After this danger had diminished, or rather disappeared entirely, his own courage revived, while that of his steed began to droop. To this mutual but very material change was owing the fact, that the rider and the ass were now to be sought among that portion of the band who formed a sort of rear-guard. Hither, then, the trapper contrived to turn his steed, without exciting the suspicions of any of his subtle companions.
"Friend," commenced the old man, when he found himself in a situation favourable to discourse, "should you like to pass a dozen years among the savages with a shaved head, and a painted countenance, with, perhaps, a couple of wives and five or six children of the half breed, to call you father?"
"Impossible!" exclaimed the startled naturalist. "I am indisposed to matrimony in general, and more especially to all admixture of the varieties of species, which only tend to tarnish the beauty and to interrupt the harmony of nature. Moreover, it is a painful innovation on the order of all nomenclatures."
"Ay, ay, you have reason enough for your distaste to such a life; but should these Siouxes get you fairly into their village, such would be your luck, as certain as that the sun rises and sets at the pleasure of the Lord."
"Marry me to a woman who is not adorned with the comeliness of the species!" responded the Doctor. "Of what crime have I been guilty, that so grievous a punishment should await the offence? To marry a man against the movements of his will, is to do a violence to human nature!"
"Now, that you speak of natur', I have hopes that the gift of reason has not altogether deserted your brain," returned the old man, with a covert expression playing about the angles of his deep set eyes, which betrayed he was not entirely destitute of humour. "Nay, they may conceive you a remarkable subject for their kindness, and for that matter marry you to five or six. I have known, in my days, favoured chiefs who had numberless wives."
"But why should they meditate this vengeance?" demanded the Doctor, whose hair began to rise, as if each fibre was possessed of sensibility; "what evil have I done?"
"It is the fashion of their kindness. When they come to learn that you are a great medicine, they will adopt you in the tribe, and some mighty chief will give you his name, and perhaps his daughter, or it may be a wife or two of his own, who have dwelt long in his lodge, and of whose value he is a judge by experience."
"The Governor and Founder of natural harmony protect me!" ejaculated the Doctor. "I have no affinity to a single consort, much less to duplicates and triplicates of the class! I shall certainly essay a flight from their abodes before I mingle in so violent a conjunction."
"There is reason in your words; but why not attempt the race you speak of now?"
The naturalist looked fearfully around, as if he had an inclination to make an instant exhibition of his desperate intention; but the dusky figures, who were riding on every side of him, seemed suddenly tripled in number, and the darkness, that was already thickening on the prairie, appeared in his eyes to possess the glare of high noon.
"It would be premature, and reason forbids it," he answered. "Leave me, venerable venator, to the council of my own thoughts, and when my plans are properly classed, I will advise you of my resolutions."
"Resolutions!" repeated the old man, shaking his head a little contemptuously as he gave the rein to his horse, and allowed him to mingle with the steeds of the savages. "Resolution is a word that is talked of in the settlements, and felt on the borders. Does my brother know the beast on which the Pale-face rides?" he continued, addressing a gloomy looking warrior in his own tongue, and making a motion with his arm that at the same time directed his attention to the naturalist and the meek Asinus.
The Teton turned his eyes for a minute on the animal, but disdained to manifest the smallest portion of that wonder he had felt, in common with all his companions, on first viewing so rare a quadruped. The trapper was not ignorant, that while asses and mules were beginning to be known to those tribes who dwelt nearest the Mexicos, they were not usually encountered so far north as the waters of La Platte. He therefore managed to read the mute astonishment, that lay so deeply concealed in the tawny visage of the savage, and took his measures accordingly.
"Does my brother think that the rider is a warrior of the Pale-faces?" he demanded, when he believed that sufficient time had elapsed, for a full examination of the pacific mien of the naturalist.
The flash of scorn, which shot across the features of the Teton, was visible, even by the dim light of the stars.
"Is a Dahcotah a fool?" was the answer.
"They are a wise nation, whose eyes are never shut; much do I wonder, that they have not seen the great medicine of the Big-knives!"
"Wagh!" exclaimed his companion, suffering the whole of his amazement to burst out of his dark rigid countenance at the surprise, like a flash of lightning illuminating the gloom of midnight.
"The Dahcotah knows that my tongue is not forked. Let him open his eyes wider. Does he not see a very great medicine?"
The light was not necessary to recall to the savage each feature in the really remarkable costume and equipage of Dr. Battius. In common with the rest of the band, and in conformity with the universal practice of the Indians, this warrior, while he had suffered no gaze of idle curiosity to disgrace his manhood, had not permitted a single distinctive mark, which might characterise any one of the strangers, to escape his vigilance. He knew the air, the stature, the dress, and the features, even to the colour of the eyes and of the hair, of every one of the Big-knives, whom he had thus strangely encountered, and deeply had he ruminated on the causes, which could have led a party, so singularly constituted, into the haunts of the rude inhabitants of his native wastes. He had already considered the several physical powers of the whole party, and had duly compared their abilities with what he supposed might have been their intentions. Warriors they were not, for the Big-knives, like the Siouxes, left their women in their villages when they went out on the bloody path. The same objections applied to them as hunters, and even as traders, the two characters under which the white men commonly appeared in their villages. He had heard of a great council, at which the Menahashah, or Long-knives, and the Washsheomantiqua, or Spaniards, had smoked together, when the latter had sold to the former their incomprehensible rights over those vast regions, through which his nation had roamed, in freedom, for so many ages. His simple mind had not been able to embrace the reasons why one people should thus assume a superiority over the possessions of another, and it will readily be perceived, that at the hint just received from the trapper, he was not indisposed to fancy that some of the hidden subtilty of that magical influence, of which he was so firm a believer, was about to be practised by the unsuspecting subject of their conversation, in furtherance of these mysterious claims. Abandoning, therefore, all the reserve and dignity of his manner, under the conscious helplessness of ignorance, he turned to the old man, and stretching forth his arms, as if to denote how much he lay at his mercy, he said--
"Let my father look at me. I am a wild man of the prairies; my body is naked; my hands empty; my skin red. I have struck the Pawnees, the Konzas, the Omahaws, the Osages, and even the Long-knives. I am a man amid warriors, but a woman among the conjurors. Let my father speak: the ears of the Teton are open. He listens like a deer to the step of the cougar."
"Such are the wise and uns'archable ways of One who alone knows good from evil!" exclaimed the trapper, in English. "To some He grants cunning, and on others He bestows the gift of manhood! It is humbling, and it is afflicting to see so noble a creatur' as this, who has fou't in many a bloody fray, truckling before his superstition like a beggar asking for the bones you would throw to the dogs. The Lord will forgive me for playing with the ignorance of the savage, for He knows I do it in no mockery of his state, or in idle vaunting of my own; but in order to save mortal life, and to give justice to the wronged, while I defeat the deviltries of the wicked! Teton," speaking again in the language of the listener, "I ask you, is not that a wonderful medicine? If the Dahcotahs are wise, they will not breathe the air he breathes, nor touch his robes. They know, that the Wahconshecheh (bad spirit) loves his own children, and will not turn his back on him that does them harm."
The old man delivered this opinion in an ominous and sententious manner, and then rode apart as if he had said enough. The result justified his expectations. The warrior, to whom he had addressed himself, was not slow to communicate his important knowledge to the rest of the rear-guard, and, in a very few moments, the naturalist was the object of general observation and reverence. The trapper, who understood that the natives often worshipped, with a view to propitiate, the evil spirit, awaited the workings of his artifice, with the coolness of one who had not the smallest interest in its effects. It was not long before he saw one dark figure after another, lashing his horse and galloping ahead into the centre of the band, until Weucha alone remained nigh the persons of himself and Obed. The very dulness of this grovelling-minded savage, who continued gazing at the supposed conjuror with a sort of stupid admiration, opposed now the only obstacle to the complete success of his artifice.
Thoroughly understanding the character of this Indian, the old man lost no time in getting rid of him also. Riding to his side he said, in an affected whisper--
"Has Weucha drunk of the milk of the Big-knives, to-day?"
"Hugh!" exclaimed the savage, every dull thought instantly recalled from heaven to earth by the question.
"Because the great captain of my people, who rides in front, has a cow that is never empty. I know it will not be long before he will say, Are any of my red brethren dry?"
The words were scarcely uttered, before Weucha, in his turn, quickened the gait of his beast, and was soon blended with the rest of the dark group, who were riding, at a more moderate pace, a few rods in advance. The trapper, who knew how fickle and sudden were the changes of a savage mind, did not lose a moment in profiting by this advantage. He loosened the reins of his own impatient steed, and in an instant he was again at the side of Obed.
"Do you see the twinkling star, that is, may be, the length of four rifles above the prairie; hereaway, to the North I mean?"
"Ay, it is of the constellation---"
"A tut for your constellations, man; do you see the star I mean? Tell me, in the English of the land, yes or no."
"The moment my back is turned, pull upon the rein of your ass, until you lose sight of the savages. Then take the Lord for your dependence, and yonder star for your guide. Turn neither to the right hand, nor to the left, but make diligent use of your time, for your beast is not quick of foot, and every inch of prairie you gain, is a day added to your liberty, or to your life."
Without waiting to listen to the queries, which the naturalist was about to put, the old man again loosened the reins of his horse, and presently he too was blended with the group in front.
Obed was now alone. Asinus willingly obeyed the hint which his master soon gave, rather in desperation than with any very collected understanding of the orders he had received, and checked his pace accordingly. As the Tetons however rode at a hand-gallop, but a moment of time was necessary, after the ass began to walk, to remove them effectually from before the vision of his rider. Without plan, expectation, or hope of any sort, except that of escaping from his dangerous neighbours, the Doctor first feeling, to assure himself that the package, which contained the miserable remnants of his specimens and notes was safe at his crupper, turned the head of the beast in the required direction, and kicking him with a species of fury, he soon succeeded in exciting the speed of the patient animal into a smart run. He had barely time to descend into a hollow and ascend the adjoining swell of the prairie, before he heard, or fancied he heard, his name shouted, in good English, from the throats of twenty Tetons. The delusion gave a new impulse to his ardour; and no professor of the saltant art ever applied himself with greater industry, than the naturalist now used his heels on the ribs of Asinus. The conflict endured for several minutes without interruption, and to all appearances it might have continued to the present moment, had not the meek temper of the beast become unduly excited. Borrowing an idea from the manner in which his master exhibited his agitation, Asinus so far changed the application of his own heels, as to raise them simultaneously with a certain indignant flourish into the air, a measure that instantly decided the controversy in his favour. Obed took leave of his seat, as of a position no longer tenable, continuing, however, the direction of his flight, while the ass, like a conqueror, took possession of the field of battle, beginning to crop the dry herbage, as the fruits of victory.
When Doctor Battius had recovered his feet, and rallied his faculties, which were in a good deal of disorder from the hurried manner in which he had abandoned his former situation, he returned in quest of his specimens and of his ass. Asinus displayed enough of magnanimity to render the interview amicable, and thenceforth the naturalist continued the required route with very commendable industry, but with a much more tempered discretion.
In the mean time, the old trapper had not lost sight of the important movements that he had undertaken to control. Obed had not been mistaken in supposing that he was already missed and sought, though his imagination had corrupted certain savage cries into the well-known sounds that composed his own latinized name. The truth was simply this. The warriors of the rearguard had not failed to apprise those in front of the mysterious character, with which it had pleased the trapper to invest the unsuspecting naturalist. The same untutored admiration, which on the receipt of this intelligence had driven those in the rear to the front, now drove many of the front to the rear. The Doctor was of course absent, and the outcry was no more than the wild yells, which were raised in the first burst of savage disappointment.
But the authority of Mahtoree was prompt to aid the ingenuity of the trapper, in suppressing these dangerous sounds. When order was restored, and the former was made acquainted with the reason why his young men had betrayed so strong a mark of indiscretion, the old man, who had taken a post at his elbow, saw, with alarm, the gleam of keen distrust that flashed in his swarthy visage.
"Where is your conjuror?" demanded the chief, turning suddenly to the trapper, as if he meant to make him responsible for the re-appearance of Obed.
"Can I tell my brother the number of the stars? The ways of a great medicine are not like the ways of other men."
"Listen to me, grey-head, and count my words," continued the other, bending on his rude saddle-bow, like some chevalier of a more civilised race, and speaking in the haughty tones of absolute power; "the Dahcotahs have not chosen a woman for their chief; when Mahtoree feels the power of a great medicine, he will tremble; until then he will look with his own eyes, without borrowing sight from a Pale-face. If your conjuror is not with his friends in the morning, my young men shall look for him. Your ears are open. Enough."
The trapper was not sorry to find that so long a respite was granted. He had before found reason to believe, that the Teton partisan was one of those bold spirits, who overstep the limits which use and education fix to the opinions of man, in every state of society, and he now saw plainly that he must adopt some artifice to deceive him, different from that which had succeeded so well with his followers. The sudden appearance of the rock, however, which hove up, a bleak and ragged mass, out of the darkness ahead, put an end for the present to the discourse, Mahtoree giving all his thoughts to the execution of his designs on the rest of the squatter's movables. A murmur ran through the band, as each dark warrior caught a glimpse of the desired haven, after which the nicest ear might have listened in vain, to catch a sound louder than the rustling of feet among the tall grass of the prairie.
But the vigilance of Esther was not easily deceived. She had long listened anxiously to the suspicious sounds, which approached the rock across the naked waste, nor had the sudden outcry been unheard by the unwearied sentinels of the rock. The savages, who had dismounted at some little distance, had not time to draw around the base of the hill in their customary silent and insidious manner, before the voice of the Amazon was raised, demanding--
"Who is beneath? Answer, for your lives! Siouxes or devils, I fear ye not!"
No answer was given to this challenge, every warrior halting where he stood, confident that his dusky form was blended with the shadows of the plain. It was at this moment that the trapper determined to escape. He had been left with the rest of his friends, under the surveillance of those who were assigned to the duty of watching the horses, and as they all continued mounted, the moment appeared favourable to his project. The attention of the guards was drawn to the rock, and a heavy cloud driving above them at that instant, obscured even the feeble light which fell from the stars. Leaning on the neck of his horse, the old man muttered--
"Where is my pup? Where is it--Hector--where is it, dog?"
The hound caught the well-known sounds, and answered by a whine of friendship, which threatened to break out into one of his piercing howls. The trapper was in the act of raising himself from this successful exploit, when he felt the hand of Weucha grasping his throat, as if determined to suppress his voice by the very unequivocal process of strangulation. Profiting by the circumstance, he raised another low sound, as in the natural effort of breathing, which drew a second responsive cry from the faithful hound. Weucha instantly abandoned his hold of the master in order to wreak his vengeance on the dog. But the voice of Esther was again heard, and every other design was abandoned in order to listen.
"Ay, whine and deform your throats as you may, ye imps of darkness," she said, with a cracked but scornful laugh; "I know ye; tarry, and ye shall have light for your misdeeds. Put in the coal, Phoebe; put in the coal; your father and the boys shall see that they are wanted at home, to welcome their guests."
As she spoke, a strong light, like that of a brilliant star, was seen on the very pinnacle of the rock; then followed a forked flame, which curled for a moment amid the windings of an enormous pile of brush, and flashing upward in an united sheet, it wavered to and fro, in the passing air, shedding a bright glare on every object within its influence. A taunting laugh was heard from the height, in which the voices of all ages mingled, as though they triumphed at having so successfully exposed the treacherous intentions of the Tetons.
The trapper looked about him to ascertain in what situations he might find his friends. True to the signals, Middleton and Paul had drawn a little apart, and now stood ready, by every appearance, to commence their flight at the third repetition of the cry. Hector had escaped his savage pursuer, and was again crouching at the heels of his master's horse. But the broad circle of light was gradually increasing in extent and power, and the old man, whose eye and judgment so rarely failed him, patiently awaited a more propitious moment for his enterprise.
"Now, Ishmael, my man, if sight and hand ar' true as ever, now is the time to work upon these Redskins, who claim to own all your property, even to wife and children! Now, my good man, prove both breed and character!"
A distant shout was heard in the direction of the approaching party of the squatter, assuring the female garrison that succour was not far distant. Esther answered to the grateful sounds by a cracked cry of her own, lifting her form, in the first burst of exultation, above the rock in a manner to be visible to all below. Not content with this dangerous exposure of her person, she was in the act of tossing her arms in triumph, when the dark figure of Mahtoree shot into the light and pinioned them to her side. The forms of three other warriors glided across the top of the rock, looking like naked demons flitting among the clouds. The air was filled with the brands of the beacon, and a heavy darkness succeeded, not unlike that of the appalling instant, when the last rays of the sun are excluded by the intervening mass of the moon. A yell of triumph burst from the savages in their turn, and was rather accompanied than followed by a long, loud whine from Hector.
In an instant the old man was between the horses of Middleton and Paul, extending a hand to the bridle of each, in order to check the impatience of their riders.
"Softly, softly," he whispered, "their eyes are as marvellously shut for the minute, as if the Lord had stricken them blind; but their ears are open. Softly, softly; for fifty rods, at least, we must move no faster than a walk."
The five minutes of doubt that succeeded appeared like an age to all but the trapper. As their sight was gradually restored, it seemed to each that the momentary gloom, which followed the extinction of the beacon, was to be replaced by as broad a light as that of noon-day. Gradually the old man, however, suffered the animals to quicken their steps, until they had gained the centre of one of the prairie bottoms. Then laughing in his quiet manner he released the reins and said--
"Now, let them give play to their legs; but keep on the old fog to deaden the sounds."
It is needless to say how cheerfully he was obeyed. In a few more minutes they ascended and crossed a swell of the land, after which the flight was continued at the top of their horses' speed, keeping the indicated star in view, as the labouring bark steers for the light which points the way to a haven and security.Next