Seven and Nine Years
Camanches and Apaches.
JERSEY CITY, N. J.
PUBLISHED BY CLARK JOHNSON, M.D.
Another morning dawned; again we were brought forth, and from the information gained from the old trapper, I knew that our time for action had come. Lying in a group on the green sward, we watched the movements of our enemies with painful interest. Our hands and feet were bound, but we were not otherwise secured, and were therefore enabled to sit up and look around us; we saw that the Indians were divested of every superfluous article of dress or ornament, that their movements might be light and unimpeded. We saw them enter the woods and return with clubs freshly cut from the trees, an ominous indication of the fate in store for us. To the number of several hundred the savages had gathered upon the plain, and were arranging the preliminaries for their fiendish sport. We watched their preparations with a peculiar interest; at length all seemed in readiness—two rows of Indians stretched along the plain for a distance of about three hundred yards—all were armed with clubs, and stood facing each other; an interval of three or four paces [Pg 48]separating the ranks. Between these lines we had to run and receive blows in passing, from all who were quick enough to hit us. We were told that if any of our number achieved the apparently impossible feat of passing the entire line, and could reach the foot of the cliff without being overtaken that our lives would be spared. I asked the old trapper if he believed this. "Not by a durn sight," was his reply; "its all a cussed injun lie, just to make us do our puttiest; they'll roast us all the same, blast 'em." I was satisfied that the promise was of no value, even if they should adhere to it; for the fleetest runner could never pass the lines.
Several of the warriors now approached us, and untied one of the Mexicans; he was to run first. Although an athletic and active specimen of his race, he was quickly disposed of; running barely ten paces before he was stretched senseless, and brought back helpless and bleeding, while the air resounded with the wild yells of the savage bystanders. Three of the other captives soon met the same fate, and then it came my turn; I was unbound and led forward and stood awaiting the signal to begin the terrible race. Within a few moments a wild scheme had formed itself in my mind, and although fully realizing its desperate nature, I had determined to make the effort, even if I perished in the attempt. I had noticed that, with the exception of those forming the lines between which I was to run, the Indians all stood behind me; [Pg 49]and for a considerable space around me the ground was entirely clear. My plan was to start as if with the intention of entering the lane of savages, but to suddenly diverge to the right or left, as might seem most expedient, and run directly down the valley, with the hope that I might be able to reach the dense and tangled forest which fringed it, and conceal myself in its recesses until I could find some way out of my rock-environed prison. As I look back at it now, I can only wonder that I should have had the hardihood to attempt it. Not an Indian among the hundreds around but knew well all the paths and windings of the wooded borders of the valley, even supposing that I were fortunate enough to reach it; but that was improbable. Among so many it was likely there would be several able to outstrip me in speed, fast runner as I deemed myself; and if overtaken, I could expect nothing but more cruel treatment than I had yet experienced. Besides, although I did not know it at the time, the valley had but two entrances, and these were constantly guarded by a watchful picket. But at the time I thought of none of these things—"drowning men will catch at straws," says the old adage—and my hastily formed plan seemed to me to promise success. Having formed my resolution I was necessitated to put it in practice at once. The Indians were already impatient for another victim, and the signal being given I started on my race for life at the top of my speed. At first I [Pg 50]ran directly for the living lane, where my enemies waited with poised clubs each eager to strike the first blow, but as I neared it I made a sudden break to the right, and gathering all my energies for one mighty effort, I broke through a group of old men and idlers who were watching the sport. Despite their efforts to intercept me I cleared them in an instant, and ran down the valley with the whole yelling mob at my heels. Some half dozen of my pursuers being swifter of foot forged ahead of their comrades, but they did not seem to gain upon me, and for a time it seemed that I would distance them entirely; but I had overestimated my strength, and to my alarm found myself growing weak, and running heavily and with painful effort.
I had now, however, nearly reached the timber, and strained every nerve to gain its welcome shadow; looking back, I saw that one of my pursuers was within two hundred yards of me, and gaining rapidly; straining every nerve, I kept up my headlong pace, but when within fifty paces of the woods and with my enemy but little further behind me, I tripped and fell, and had barely time to spring to my feet before he was upon me; he was entirely unarmed, having thrown away his club during the chase. As he rushed upon me, I met him with a blow from my fist, delivered with all the force of which I was capable. Striking him directly under the chin, it knocked him completely off his feet, and he measured his length [Pg 51]upon the grass. I turned with a spring, and was about to plunge into the thicket, when the dense undergrowth parted directly before me, and I stood face to face with an Indian of gigantic size and most singular appearance. For a moment I was completely paralyzed; not so my new opponent. Realizing the situation at a glance, he sprang upon me, and bore me to the ground with scarcely an effort. Emerging from the lethargy which had enthralled me for a moment, I struggled frantically to free myself, but in vain. Several others had now come up, and my fallen antagonist, who had been stunned for a moment, recovered himself, with his temper not at all improved by the rough handling he had received, and snatching a knife from the belt of one of the new comers, aimed a blow at me which would have ended my life on the instant, and prevented this narrative from being written. My captor seized his arm, and rebuked him so sternly, that he slunk away abashed. I was then allowed to rise to my feet, and my hands being bound, the huge Indian, who seemed to be in authority, and of whom the others evidently stood in awe consigned me to the custody of two warriors, and dismissing the rest with a wave of his hand, again disappeared in the thicket.
Led between my two guards, I was soon taken back to the village, followed by an excited crowd of Indians, who showed a disposition to handle me pretty roughly, but their unwelcome attentions were [Pg 52]prevented by my conductors who pushed rapidly through the crowd, and soon reached the lodge in which I had previously been confined. I was soon reinstalled in my gloomy prison, and after tying me in the usual manner, my attendants left me to solitude and misery.
Bitterly disappointed by the failure of my daring scheme at the very moment when it seemed to promise success, my thoughts were the reverse of pleasant; and when my mind reverted to the fate of my wife, I suffered such mental agony, as I pray that you, kind reader, may never know.
Another night passed, and remembering the words of the old trapper, I awoke filled with the conviction that it was to be my last day on earth. The usual scanty meal was supplied to me, and about an hour later I was again brought forth upon the plain. I was soon among my companions in misfortune, and like them securely tied to stakes; but allowed to sit upright, as if the red demons wished us to fully observe the preparations now going forward.
Upon the level plain facing the temple, and at a short distance from it, scores of brawny savages were busily engaged planting firmly in the ground a row of massive posts; they were arranged in a semi-circle, and were about twenty in number. We saw many of the Indians go to the woods, tomahawk in hand; we heard the sounds of chopping, and saw them return with [Pg 53]bundles of faggots; we saw them fastening curiously fashioned chains of copper to the posts; we observed them painting their faces and bodies in hideous stripes of red and black. It was a scene of fearful import, for we knew but too well that it was the prelude to the torture. What were my companions' reflections I knew not, for they spoke but little. But the set and stern expression that showed itself on every face, told me plainly that they fully realized the terrible drama in which they were to be the principal actors. The appearance of all was ghastly in the extreme. Travel-stained, covered with dust, and with spots of dried blood, some showing fresh and bleeding wounds—souvenirs of yesterday's rough sport—our clothing torn and disarranged, we were indeed objects of pity, calculated to excite commiseration in the breasts of any others than the brutal and sanguinary wretches who were about to put us to a terrible death. As for me, my brain was on fire; and could I but have freed myself from my bonds I would gladly have sought instant death at the hands of the nearest savage, rather than to longer endure the ever present torture of mind, and the not more acute physical suffering which I was soon to undergo.
At last their preparations seemed completed, and the audience assembled. Camanches and Apaches alike gathered before the temple, forming a vast semi-circle. The terraces of the temple were occupied by the older men, and upon its summit were seated a [Pg 54]group of men in strange costumes, the priests of Quetzalcoatl. Directly in front of the temple a sort of throne had been erected, and upon it sat the aged chief, with his subordinates grouped around him. An old Indian of most repulsive aspect, seemed to direct the proceedings, assisted by about a hundred of the younger warriors. A number approached us, we were released from our fastenings and led forward; our ragged garments were soon stripped from our bodies, and with dextrous rapidity we were bound singly to the stakes already prepared for us.
To the hour of my death I can never forget that scene. For years it haunted me, and even now, at times I start from my sleep with a cry of terror as I fancy I see again that mob of yelling, painted demons, the crowded terraces of the temple gay with the bright colors of barbaric costumes, the little band of doomed captives, the fagots, stakes, and all the terrible instruments of death. Back of all, the snow white cliffs, fringed with the dark green foliage of the pines, and Heaven's sunshine falling over all, as if in mockery of the awful tragedy about to be enacted. I wake—and shuddering, thank God that it is only a dream.
But it was all too real then. At a signal from their leader the savage executioners heaped the fagots around us, placing them at a sufficient distance to insure the prolongation of our sufferings, so that we might die [Pg 55]slowly, and afford them ample time to fully enjoy our agonies. The fires were lighted, and the smoke rolled up in volumes, and threatened to suffocate us and put a speedy end to our torments. In a few seconds however, as the wood got fairly blazing, the smoke lifted, and as we began to writhe in agony, a yell of delight went up from more than three thousand savage throats. The heat grew more intense; my skin was scorched and blistered; dizzy and faint, I felt that the end was near, and longed for death as a speedy escape from such terrible pain. Some of my companions, rendered frantic by their sufferings, gave vent to screams of anguish; others endured in silence.
Mustering all my fortitude, as yet not a sound had escaped me; I had closed my eyes, and was fervently praying for the relief which I knew death must soon give me, when I was startled by a wild cry, followed by a yell of astonishment from the savage spectators. Opening my eyes I saw the same gigantic Indian who had recaptured me on the day previous, making his way rapidly through the crowd, who fell back to right and left with precipitate haste. Rushing directly towards me he scattered the blazing brands, released me as quick as thought, and dragged me to the front of the temple, while the air resounded with the yells and exclamations of the Indians. Raising his hand he hushed them into silence, and uttered a few words in the Camanche tongue; their meaning was lost upon me; I could only distinguish the word "Quetzalcoatl," [Pg 56]which I knew to be the name of their God. But the revulsion of feeling, and the terrible ordeal through which I had passed, proved too much for my exhausted frame; I swooned and sank insensible to the earth.