AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF BUFFALO BILL (COLONEL W.F. CODY)
ILLUSTRATED BY N.C. WYETH
by Cosmopolitan Book Corporation
Farrar & Rinehart Incorporated On Murray Hill, New York
Printed in the U.S.A. by Quinn & Boden Company, Inc. Rahway, N.J.
Dedicated to My Nephew and Niece, George Cody Goodman, Anna Bond Goodman, and family.
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
Buffalo Bill—Col. William F. Cody. Frontispiece
He Shoved a Pistol in the Man's Face and Said: "I'm Calling the Hand That's in Your Hat"
Chief Satanta Passed the Peace-Pipe to General Sherman and Said: "My Great White Brothers"
Winning My Name—"Buffalo Bill"
It Was No Time for Argument. I Fired and Killed Him
Pursued by Fifteen Bloodthirsty Indians, I Had a Running Fight of Eleven Miles
A Shower of Arrows Rained on Our Dead Mules from the Closing Circle of Red-Men
Stage-Coach Driving Was Full of Hair-Raising Adventures
I am about to take the back-trail through the Old West—the West that I knew and loved. All my life it has been a pleasure to show its beauties, its marvels and its possibilities to those who, under my guidance, saw it for the first time.
Now, going back over the ground, looking at it through the eyes of memory, it will be a still greater pleasure to take with me the many readers of this book. And if, in following me through some of the exciting scenes of the old days, meeting some of the brave men who made its stirring history, and listening to my camp-fire tales of the buffalo, the Indian, the stage-coach and the pony-express, their interest in this vast land of my youth, should be awakened, I should feel richly repaid.
The Indian, tamed, educated and inspired with a taste for white collars and moving-pictures, is as numerous as ever, but not so picturesque. On the little tracts of his great inheritance allotted him by civilization he is working out his own manifest destiny.
The buffalo has gone. Gone also is the stagecoach whose progress his pilgrimages often used to interrupt. Gone is the pony express, whose marvelous efficiency could compete with the wind, but not with the harnessed lightning flashed over the telegraph wires. Gone are the very bone-gatherers who laboriously collected the bleaching relics of the great herds that once dotted the prairies.
But the West of the old times, with its strong characters, its stern battles and its tremendous stretches of loneliness, can never be blotted from my mind. Nor can it, I hope, be blotted from the memory of the American people, to whom it has now become a priceless possession.
It has been my privilege to spend my working years on the frontier. I have known and served with commanders like Sherman, Sheridan, Miles, Custer and A.A. Carr—men who would be leaders in any army in any age. I have known and helped to fight with many of the most notable of the Indian warriors.
Frontiersmen good and bad, gunmen as well as inspired prophets of the future, have been my camp companions. Thus, I know the country of which I am about to write as few men now living have known it.
Recently, in the hope of giving permanent form to the history of the Plains, I staged many of the Indian battles for the films. Through the courtesy of the War and Interior Departments I had the help of the soldiers and the Indians.
Now that this work has been done I am again in the saddle and at your service for what I trust will be a pleasant and perhaps instructive journey over the old trails. We shall omit the hazards and the hardships, but often we shall leave the iron roads over which the Pullman rolls and, back in the hills, see the painted Indians winding up the draws, or watch the more savage Mormon Danites swoop down on the wagon-train. In my later years I have brought the West to the East—under a tent. Now I hope to bring the people of the East and of the New West to the Old West, and possibly here and there to supply new material for history.
I shall try to vary the journey, for frequent changes of scenes are grateful to travelers. I shall show you some of the humors as well as the excitements of the frontier. And our last halting-place will be at sunrise—the sunrise of the New West, with its waving grain-fields, fenced flocks and splendid cities, drawing upon the mountains for the water to make it fertile, and upon the whole world for men to make it rich.
I was born on a farm near Leclair, Scott County, Iowa, February 26, 1846. My father, Isaac Cody, had emigrated to what was then a frontier State. He and his people, as well as my mother, had all dwelt in Ohio. I remember that there were Indians all about us, looking savage enough as they slouched about the village streets or loped along the roads on their ponies. But they bore no hostility toward anything save work and soap and water.
We were comfortable and fairly prosperous on the little farm. My mother, whose maiden name was Mary Ann Leacock, took an active part in the life of the neighborhood. An education was scarce in those days. Even school teachers did not always possess it. Mother's education was far beyond the average, and the local school board used to require all applicants for teachers' position to be examined by her before they were entrusted with the tender intellects of the pioneer children.
But the love of adventure was in father's blood. The railroad—the only one I had ever seen—extended as far as Port Byron, Illinois, just across the Mississippi. When the discovery of gold in California in 1849 set the whole country wild, this railroad began to bring the Argonauts, bound for the long overland wagon journey across the Plains. Naturally father caught the excitement. In 1850 he made a start, but it was abandoned—why I never knew. But after that he was not content with Iowa. In 1853 our farm and most of our goods and chattels were converted into money. And in 1854 we all set out for Kansas, which was soon to be opened for settlers as a Territory.
Two wagons carried our household goods. A carriage was provided for my mother and sisters. Father had a trading-wagon built, and stocked it with red blankets, beads, and other goods with which to tempt the Indians. My only brother had been killed by a fall from a horse, so I was second in command, and proud I was of the job.
My uncle Elijah kept a general store at Weston, Missouri, just across the Kansas line. He was a large exporter of hemp as well as a trader. Also he was a slave-owner.
Weston was our first objective. Father had determined to take up a claim in Kansas and to begin a new life in this stirring country. Had he foreseen the dreadful consequences to himself and to his family of this decision we might have remained in Iowa, in which case perhaps I might have grown up an Iowa farmer, though that now seems impossible.
Thirty days of a journey that was a constant delight to me brought us to Weston, where we left the freight-wagons and mother and my sisters in the care of my uncle.
To my great joy father took me with him on his first trip into Kansas—where he was to pick out his claim and incidentally to trade with the Indians from our wagon. I shall never forget the thrill that ran through me when father, pointing to the block-house at Fort Leavenworth, said:
"Son, you now see a real military fort for the first time in your life." And a real fort it was. Cavalry—or dragoons as they called them then—were engaged in saber drill, their swords flashing in the sunlight. Artillery was rumbling over the parade ground. Infantry was marching and wheeling. About the Post were men dressed all in buckskin with coonskin caps or broad-brimmed slouch hats—real Westerners of whom I had dreamed. Indians of all sorts were loafing about—all friendly, but a new and different kind of Indians from any I had seen—Kickapoos, Possawatomies, Delawares, Choctaws, and other tribes, of which I had often heard. Everything I saw fascinated me.
These drills at the Fort were no fancy dress-parades. They meant business. A thousand miles to the west the Mormons were running things in Utah with a high hand. No one at Fort Leavenworth doubted that these very troops would soon be on their way to determine whether Brigham Young or the United States Government should be supreme there.
To the north and west the hostile Indians, constantly irritated by the encroachments of the white man, had become a growing menace. The block-houses I beheld were evidences of preparedness against this danger. And in that day the rumblings of the coming struggle over slavery could already be heard. Kansas—very soon afterward "Bleeding Kansas"—was destined to be an early battleground. And we were soon to know something of its tragedies.
Free-soil men and pro-slavery men were then ready to rush across the border the minute it was opened for settlement. Father was a Free-soil man. His brother Elijah who, as I have said, was a slave-owner, was a believer in the extension of slavery into the new territory.
Knowing that the soldiers I saw today might next week be on their way to battle made my eyes big with excitement. I could have stayed there forever. But father had other plans, and we were soon on our way. With our trading-wagon we climbed a hill—later named Sheridan's Ridge for General Philip Sheridan. From its summit we had a view of Salt Creek Valley, the most beautiful valley I have ever seen. In this valley lay our future home.
The hill was very steep, and I remember we had to "lock" or chain the wagon-wheels as we descended. We made camp in the valley. The next day father began trading with the Indians, who were so pleased with the bargains he had to offer that they sent their friends back to us when they departed. One of the first trades he made was for a little pony for me—a four-year-old—which I was told I should have to break myself. I named him Prince. I had a couple of hard falls, but I made up my mind I was going to ride that pony or bust, and—I did not bust.
The next evening, looking over toward the west, I saw a truly frontier sight—a line of trappers winding down the hillside with their pack animals. My mother had often told me of the trappers searching the distant mountains for fur-bearing animals and living a life of fascinating adventure. Here they were in reality.
While some of the men prepared the skins, others built a fire and began to get a meal. I watched them cook the dried venison, and was filled with wonder at their method of making bread, which was to wrap the dough about a stick and hold it over the coals till it was ready to eat. You can imagine my rapture when one of them—a pleasant-faced youth—looked up, and catching sight of me, invited me to share the meal.
Boys are always hungry, but I was especially hungry for such a meal as that. After it was over I hurried to camp and told my father all that had passed. At his request I brought the young trapper who had been so kind to me over to our camp, and there he had a long talk with father, telling him of his adventures by land and sea in all parts of the world.
He said that he looked forward with great interest to his arrival in Weston, as he expected to meet an uncle, Elijah Cody. He had seen none of his people for many years.
"If Elijah Cody is your uncle, I am too," said my father. "You must be the long-lost Horace Billings."
Father had guessed right. Horace had wandered long ago from the Ohio home and none of his family knew of his whereabouts. He had been to South America and to California, joining a band of trappers on the Columbia River and coming with them back across the Plains.
When I showed him my pony he offered to help break him for me. With very little trouble he rode the peppery little creature this way and that, and at last when he circled back to camp I found the animal had been mastered.
In the days that followed Horace gave me many useful lessons as a horseman. He was the prettiest rider I had ever seen. There had been a stampede of horses from the Fort, and a reward of ten dollars a head had been offered for all animals brought in. That was easy money for Horace. I would gallop along at his side as he chased the fugitive horses. He had a long, plaited lariat which settled surely over the neck of the brute he was after. Then, putting a "della walt" on the pommel of his saddle, he would check his own mount and bring his captive to a sudden standstill. He caught and brought in five horses the first day, and must have captured twenty-five within the next few days, earning a sum of money which was almost a small fortune in that time.
Meanwhile the Territory had been opened for settlement. Our claim, over which the Great Salt Lake trail for California passed, had been taken up, and as soon as father and I, assisted by men he hired, could get our log cabin up, the family came on from Weston. The cabin was a primitive affair. There was no floor at first. But gradually we built a floor and partitions, and made it habitable. I spent all my spare time picking up the Kickapoo tongue from the Indian children in the neighborhood, and listening with both ears to the tales of the wide plains beyond.
The great freighting firm of Russell, Majors & Waddell was then sending its twenty-five wagon trains out from the Plains to carry supplies to the soldiers at the frontier forts. Leavenworth was the firm's headquarters. Russell stayed on the books, and Majors was the operating man on the Plains. The trains were wonderful to me, each wagon with its six yoke of oxen, wagon-masters, extra hands, assistants, bull-whackers and cavayard driver following with herds of extra oxen. I began at once making the acquaintance of the men, and by the end of 1854 I knew them all.
Up to this time, while bad blood existed between the Free-soilers and the pro-slavery men, it had not become a killing game. The pro-slavery Missourians were in the great majority. They harassed the Free-soilers considerably and committed many petty persecutions, but no blood was shed. Father's brother, Elijah, who kept the store at Weston, was known to be a pro-slavery man, and for a time it was taken for granted that father held the same views. But he was never at any pains to hide his own opinions, being a man who was afraid of nothing. John Brown of Ossawatomie, later hanged, for the Harper's Ferry raid, at Charlestown, Va., was his friend. So were Colonel Jim Lane and many other Abolitionists. He went to their houses openly, and they came to his. He worked hard with the men he had hired, cutting the wild hay and cordwood to sell to the Fort, and planting sod corn under the newly turned sod of the farm. He also made a garden, plowing and harrowing the soil and breaking up the sods by hitching horses to branching trees and drawing them over the ground. He minded his own business and avoided all the factional disputes with which the neighborhood abounded.
In June, 1856, when I was ten years old, father went to the Fort to collect his pay for hay and wood he had sold there. I accompanied him on my pony. On our return we saw a crowd of drunken horsemen in front of Riveley's trading-post—as stores were called on the frontier. There were many men in the crowd and they were all drunk, yelling and shooting their pistols in the air. They caught sight of us immediately and a few of them advanced toward us as we rode up. Father expected trouble, but he was not a man to turn back. We rode quietly up to them, and were about to continue on past when one of them yelled:
"There's that abolition cuss now. Git him up here and make him declar' hisself!"
"Git off that hoss, Cody!" shouted another.
By this time more than a dozen men were crowding about father, cursing and abusing him. Soon they tore him from his horse. One of them rolled a drygoods box from the store.
"Now," he said, "git up on that thar box, and tell us whar' ye stand."
Standing on the box, father looked at the ringleaders with no sign of fear.
"I am not ashamed of my views," he said, quietly. "I am not an Abolitionist, and never have been. I think it is better to let slavery alone in the States where it is now. But I am not at all afraid to tell you that I am opposed to its extension, and that I believe that it should be kept out of Kansas."
His speech was followed by a wild yell of derision. Men began crowding around him, cursing and shaking their fists. One of them, whom I recognized as Charlie Dunn, an employee of my Uncle Elijah, worked his way through the crowd, and jumped up on the box directly behind father. I saw the gleam of a knife. The next instant, without a groan, father fell forward stabbed in the back. Somehow I got off my pony and ran to his assistance, catching him as he fell. His weight overbore me but I eased him as he came to the ground.
Dunn was still standing, knife in hand, seeking a chance for another thrust.
"Look out, ye'll stab the kid!" somebody yelled. Another man, with a vestige of decency, restrained the murderer. Riveley came out of the store. There was a little breaking up of the crowd. Dunn was got away. What happened to him later I shall tell you in another chapter.
With the help of a friend I got father into a wagon, when the crowd had gone. I held his head in my lap during the ride home. I believed he was mortally wounded. He had been stabbed down through the kidneys, leaving an ugly wound. But he did not die of it—then. Mother nursed him carefully and had he been spared further persecution, he might have survived. But this was only the beginning.
The pro-slavers waited a few days, and finding there was no move to molest them, grew bold. They announced that they were coming to our house to finish their work.
One night we heard that a party was organized to carry out this purpose. As quietly as possible mother helped take father out into the sod corn, which then grew tall and thick close about the cabin. She put a shawl round him and a sun-bonnet on his head to disguise him as he was taken out.
There in the sod corn we made him a bed of hay and blankets and there we kept him for days, carrying food to him by night. These were anxious days for my mother and her little family. My first real work as a scout began then, for I had to keep constantly on the watch for raids by the ruffians, who had now sworn that father must die.
As soon as he was able to walk we decided that he must be got away. Twenty-five miles distant, at Grasshopper Falls, were a party of his friends. There he hoped one day to plant a colony. With the help of a few friends we moved him thither one night, but word of his whereabouts soon reached his enemies.
I kept constantly on the alert, and, hearing that a party had set out to murder him at the Falls, I got into the saddle and sped out to warn him.
At a ford on the way I ran into the gang, who had stopped to water their horses.
As I galloped past, one of them yelled: "There's Cody's kid now on his way to warn his father. Stop, you, and tell us where your old man is."
A pistol shot, to terrify me into obedience, accompanied the command. I may have been terrified, but it was not into obedience. I got out of there like a shot, and though they rode hard on my trail my pony was too fast for them. My warning was in time.
We got father as quickly as we could to Lawrence, which was an abolition stronghold, and where he was safe for the time being. He gradually got back a part of his strength, enough of it at any rate to enable him to take part in the repulse of a raid of Missourians who came over to burn Lawrence and lynch the Abolitionists. They were driven back across the Missouri River by the Lawrence men, who trapped them into an ambush and so frightened them that for the present they rode on their raids no more.
When father returned to Salt Creek Valley the persecutions began again. The gangsters drove off all our stock and killed all our pigs and even the chickens. One night Judge Sharpe, a disreputable old alcoholic who had been elected a justice of the peace, came to the house and demanded a meal. Mother, trembling for the safety of her husband, who lay sick upstairs, hastened to get it for him. As the old scoundrel sat waiting he caught sight of me.
"Look yere, kid," he shouted, "ye see this knife?"
He drew a long, wicked bowie. "Well, I'm going to sharpen that to finish up the job that Charlie Dunn began the other day." And scowling horribly at me he began whetting the knife on a stone he picked up from the table.
Now, I knew something about a gun, and there was a gun handy. It was upstairs, and I lost no time in getting it. Sitting on the stairs I cocked it and held it across my knees. I am sure that I should have shot him had he attempted to come up those stairs.
He didn't test my shooting ability, however. He got even with me by taking my beloved pony, Prince, when he left. Mother pleaded with him to leave it, for it was the only animal we had, but she might as well have pleaded with a wildcat.
We had now been reduced to utter destitution. Our only food was what rabbits and birds I could trap and catch with the help of our faithful old dog Turk, and the sod corn which we grated into flour. Father could be of no service to us. His presence, in fact, was merely a menace. So, with the help of Brown, Jim Lane and other Free-soilers, he made his way back to Ohio and began recruiting for his Grasshopper Falls colony.
He returned to us in the spring of '57 mortally ill. The wound inflicted by Dunn had at last fulfilled the murderer's purpose. Father died in the little log-house, the first man to shed his blood in the fight against the extension of slavery into the Northern Territories.
I was eleven years old, and the only man of the family. I made up my mind to be a breadwinner.
At that time the Fort was full of warlike preparations. A great number of troops were being assembled to send against the Mormons. Trouble had been long expected. United States Judges and Federal officers sent to the Territory of Utah had been flouted. Some of them never dared take their seats. Those who did asked assistance. Congress at last decided to give it to them. General Harney was to command the expedition. Col. Albert Sidney Johnston, afterward killed at Shiloh, where he fought on the Confederate side, was in charge of the expedition to which the earliest trains were to be sent.
Many of the soldiers had already pushed on ahead. Russell, Majors & Waddell were awarded the contract for taking them supplies and beef cattle. The supplies were forwarded in the long trains of twenty-five wagons, of which I have told you. The cattle were driven after the soldiers, the herds often falling many miles behind them.
I watched these great preparations eagerly, and it occurred to me that I ought to have a share in them. I went to Mr. Majors, whom I always called Uncle Aleck, and asked him for a job. I told him of our situation, and that I needed it very badly for the support of my mother and family.
"But you're only a boy, Billy," he objected. "What can you do?"
"I can ride as well as a man," I said. "I could drive cavayard, couldn't I?" Driving cavayard is herding the extra cattle that follow the wagon train.
Mr. Majors agreed that I could do this, and consented to employ me. I was to receive a man's wages, forty dollars a month and food, and the wages were to be paid to my mother while I was gone. With forty dollars a month she would be able to support her daughters and my baby brother in comfort. Before I was allowed to go to work Uncle Aleck handed me the oath which every one of his employees must sign. I did my best to live up to its provisions, but I am afraid that the profanity clause at least was occasionally violated by some of the bull-whackers. Here is the oath:
"We, the undersigned wagon-masters, assistants, teamsters and all other employees of the firm of Russell, Majors & Waddell, do hereby sign that we will not swear, drink whisky, play cards or be cruel to dumb beasts in any way, shape or form.
his (Signed) "WILLIAM FREDERICK X CODY." mark
I signed it with my mark, for I could not write then. After administering this ironclad oath Mr. Majors gave each man a Testament.
My first job was that of accompanying a herd of cattle destined for beef for the troops that had gone on ahead. Bill McCarthy, boss of the outfit, was a typical Westerner, rough but courageous, and with plenty of experience on the frontier.
We progressed peacefully enough till we made Plum Creek, thirty-six miles west of Fort Kearney, on the South Platte. The trip had been full of excitement for me. The camp life was rough, the bacon often rusty and the flour moldy, but the hard work gave us big appetites. Plainsmen learn not to be particular.
I remember that on some of our trips we obtained such "luxuries" as dried apples and beans as part of our supplies. We could only have these once every two or three days, and their presence in the mess was always a glad occasion.
We were nooning at Plum Creek, the cattle spread out over the prairie to graze in charge of two herders. Suddenly there was a sharp Bang! Bang! Bang! and a thunder of hoofs.
"Indians! They've shot the herders and stampeded the cattle!" cried McCarthy. "Get under the banks of the river, boys—use 'em for a breastwork!"
We obeyed orders quickly. The Platte, a wide, shallow, muddy stream, flows under banks which vary from five to thirty feet in height. Behind them we were in much the position of European soldiers in a trench. We had our guns, and if the Indians showed over the bank could have made it hot for them.
McCarthy told us to keep together and to make our way down the river to Fort Kearney, the nearest refuge. It was a long and wearying journey, but our lives depended on keeping along the river bed. Often we would have to wade the stream which, while knee-deep to the men, was well-nigh waist-deep to me. Gradually I fell behind, and when night came I was dragging one weary step after another—dog-tired but still clinging to my old Mississippi Yaeger rifle, a short muzzle-loader which carried a ball and two buckshot.
Darkness came, and I still toiled along. The men ahead were almost out of hearing. Presently the moon rose, dead ahead of me. And painted boldly across its face was the black figure of an Indian. There could be no mistaking him for a white man. He wore the war-bonnet of the Sioux, and at his shoulder was a rifle, pointed at someone in the bottom below him. I knew well enough that in another second he would drop one of my friends. So I raised my Yaeger and fired. I saw the figure collapse, and heard it come tumbling thirty feet down the bank, landing with a splash in the water.
McCarthy and the rest of the party, hearing the shot, came back in a hurry.
"What is it?" asked McCarthy, when he came up to me.
"I don't know," I said. "Whatever it is, it is down there in the water."
McCarthy ran over to the brave. "Hi!" he cried. "Little Billy's killed an Indian all by himself!"
Not caring to meet any of this gentleman's friends we pushed on still faster toward Fort Kearney, which we reached about daylight. We were given food and sent to bed, while the soldiers set out to look for our slain comrades and to try to recover our cattle.
Soldiers from Fort Leavenworth found the herders, killed and mutilated in the Indian fashion. But the cattle had been stampeded among the buffalo and it was impossible to recover a single head.
We were taken back to Leavenworth on one of the returning freight wagon-trains. The news of my exploit was noised about and made me the envy of all the boys of the neighborhood. The Leavenworth Times, published by D.B. Anthony, sent a reporter to get the story of the adventure, and in it my name was printed for the first time as the youngest Indian slayer of the Plains.
I was persuaded now that I was destined to lead a life on the Plains. The two months that our ill-fated expedition had consumed had not discouraged me. Once more I applied to Mr. Majors for a job.
"You seem to have a reputation as a frontiersman, Billy," he said; "I guess I'll have to give yon another chance." He turned me over to Lew Simpson, who was boss of a twenty-five wagon-train just starting with supplies for General Albert Sidney Johnston's army, which was then on its way to Great Salt Lake to fight the Mormons, whose Destroying Angels, or Danites, were engaged in many outrages on Gentile immigrants.
Simpson appeared to be glad to have me. "We need Indian fighters, Billy," he told me, and giving me a mule to ride assigned me to a job as cavayard driver.
Our long train, twenty-five wagons in a line, each with its six yoke of oxen, rolled slowly out of Leavenworth over the western trail. Wagon-master assistants, bull-whackers—thirty men in all not to mention the cavayard driver—it was an imposing sight. This was to be a long journey, clear to the Utah country, and I eagerly looked forward to new adventures.
The first of these came suddenly. We were strung out over the trail near the Platte, about twenty miles from the scene of the Indian attack on McCarthy's outfit, watching the buffalo scattered to right and left of us, when we heard two or three shots, fired in rapid succession.
Before we could find out who fired them, down upon us came a herd of buffalo, charging in a furious stampede. There was no time to do anything but jump behind our wagons. The light mess-wagon was drawn by six yoke of Texas steers which instantly became part of the stampede, tearing away over the prairie with the buffalo, our wagon following along behind. The other wagons were too heavy for the steers to gallop away with; otherwise the whole outfit would have gone.
I remember that one big bull came galloping down between two yoke of oxen, tearing away the gooseneck and the heavy chain with each lowered horn. I can still see him as he rushed away with these remarkable decorations dangling from either side. Whether or not his new ornaments excited the admiration of his fellows when the herd came to a stand later in the day, I can only guess.
The descent of the buffalo upon us lasted only a few minutes, but so much damage was done that three days were required to repair it before we could move on. We managed to secure our mess-wagon, again, which was lucky, for it contained all our provender.
We learned afterward that the stampede had been caused by a returning party of California gold-seekers, whose shots into the herd had been our first warning of what was coming. Twice before we neared the Mormon country we were attacked by Indians. The army was so far ahead that they had become bold. We beat off the attacks, but lost two men.
It was white men, however, not Indians, who were to prove our most dangerous enemies. Arriving near Green River we were nooning on a ridge about a mile and a half from a little creek, Halm's Fork, where the stock were driven to water. This was a hundred and fifteen miles east of Salt Lake City, and well within the limits of the Mormon country.
Most of the outfit had driven the cattle to the creek, a mile and a half distant, and were returning slowly, while the animals grazed along the way back to camp. I was with them. We were out of sight of the wagons.
As we rose the hill a big bearded man, mounted and surrounded by a party of armed followers, rode up to our wagon-master.
"Throw up your hands, Simpson!" said the leader, who knew Simpson's name and his position.
Simpson was a brave man, but the strangers had the drop and up went his hands. At the same time we saw that the wagons were surrounded by several hundred men, all mounted and armed, and the teamsters all rounded up in a bunch. We knew that we had fallen into the hands of the Mormon Danites, or Destroying Angels, the ruffians who perpetrated the dreadful Mountain Meadows Massacre of the same year. The leader was Lot Smith, one of the bravest and most determined of the whole crowd.
"Now, Simpson," he said, "we are going to be kind to you. You can have one wagon with the cattle to draw it. Get into it all the provisions and blankets you can carry, and turn right round and go back to the Missouri River. You're headed in the wrong direction."
"Can we have our guns?" asked Simpson.
"Not a gun."
"Not a six-shooter. Nothing but food and blankets."
"How are we going to protect ourselves on the way?"
"That's your business. We're doing you a favor to spare your lives."
All Simpson's protests were in vain. There were thirty of us against several hundred of them. Mormons stood over us while we loaded a wagon till it sagged with provisions, clothing and blankets. They had taken away every rifle and every pistol we possessed. Ordering us to hike for the East, and informing us that we would be shot down if we attempted to turn back, they watched us depart.
When we had moved a little way off we saw a blaze against the sky behind us, and knew that our wagon-train had been fired. The greasy bacon made thick black smoke and a bright-red flame, and for a long time the fire burned, till nothing was left but the iron bolts and axles and tires.
Smith's party, which had been sent out to keep all supplies from reaching Johnston's army, had burned two other wagon-trains that same day, as we afterward learned. The wagons were all completely consumed, and for the next few years the Mormons would ride out to the scenes to get the iron that was left in the ashes.
Turned adrift on the desert with not a weapon to defend ourselves was hardly a pleasant prospect. It meant a walk of a thousand miles home to Leavenworth. The wagon was loaded to its full capacity. There was nothing to do but walk. I was not yet twelve years old, but I had to walk with the rest the full thousand miles, and we made nearly thirty miles a day.
Fortunately we were not molested by Indians. From passing wagon-trains we got a few rifles, all they could spare, and with these we were able to kill game for fresh meat. I wore out three pairs of moccasins on that journey, and learned then that the thicker are the soles of your shoes, the easier are your feet on a long walk over rough ground.
After a month of hard travel we reached Leavenworth. I set out at once for the log-cabin home, whistling as I walked, and the first to welcome me was my old dog Turk, who came tearing toward me and almost knocked me down in his eagerness. I am sure my mother and sisters were mighty glad to see me. They had feared that I might never return.
My next journey over the Plains was begun under what, to me, were very exciting circumstances. I spent the winter of '57-'58 at school. My mother was anxious about my education. But the master of the frontier school wore out several armfuls of hazel switches in a vain effort to interest me in the "three R's."
I kept thinking of my short but adventurous past. And as soon as another opportunity offered to return to it I seized it eagerly.
That spring my former boss, Lew Simpson, was busily organizing a "lightning bull team" for his employers, Russell, Majors & Waddell. Albert Sidney Johnston's soldiers, then moving West, needed supplies, and needed them in a hurry. Thus far the mule was the reindeer of draft animals, and mule trains were forming to hurry the needful supplies to the soldiers.
But Simpson had great faith in the bull. A picked bull train, he allowed, could beat a mule train all hollow on a long haul. All he wanted was a chance to prove it.
His employers gave him the chance. For several weeks he had been picking his animals for the outfit. And now he was to begin what is perhaps the most remarkable race ever made across the Plains.
A mule train was to start a week after Simpson's lightning bulls began their westward course. Whichever outfit got to Fort Laramie first would be the winner. No more excitement could have been occasioned had the contestants been a reindeer and a jack-rabbit. To my infinite delight Simpson let me join his party.
My thousand-mile tramp over the Plains had cured me of the walking habit and I was glad to find that this time I was to have a horse to ride—part of the way, anyhow. I was to be an extra hand—which meant that by turns I was to be a bull-whacker, driver and general-utility man.
I remember that our start was a big event. Men, women and children watched our chosen animals amble out of Salt Creek. The "mule skinners," busy with preparations for their own departure, stopped work to jeer us.
"We'll ketch you in a couple of days or so!" yelled Tom Stewart, boss of the mule outfit.
But Simpson only grinned. Jeers couldn't shake his confidence either in himself or his long-horned motive power.
We made the first hundred and fifty miles easily. I was glad to be a plainsman once more, and took a lively interest in everything that went forward. We were really making speed, too, which added to the excitement. The ordinary bull team could do about fifteen miles a day. Under Simpson's command his specially selected bulls were doing twenty-five, and doing it right along.
But one day, while we were nooning about one hundred and fifty miles on the way, one of the boys shouted: "Here come the mules!"
Presently Stewart's train came shambling up, and a joyful lot the "mule skinners" were at what they believed their victory.
But it was a short-lived victory. At the end of the next three hundred miles we found them, trying to cross the Platte, and making heavy work of it. The grass fodder had told on the mules. Supplies from other sources were now exhausted. There were no farms, no traders, no grain to be had. The race had become a race of endurance, and the strongest stomachs were destined to be the winners.
Stewart made a bad job of the crossing. The river was high, and his mules quickly mired down in the quicksand. The more they pawed the deeper they went.
Simpson picked a place for crossing below the ford Stewart had chosen. He put enough bulls on a wagon to insure its easy progress, and the bulls wallowed through the sand on their round bellies, using their legs as paddles.
Steward pulled ahead again after he had crossed the river, but soon his mules grew too feeble to make anything like their normal speed. We passed them for good and all a few days farther on, and were far ahead when we reached the North Platte.
Thus ended a race that I shall never forget. Since that time the stage-coach has outdistanced the bull team, the pony express has swept past the stage-coach, the locomotive has done in an hour what the prairie schooner did in three or four days. Soon the aeroplane will be racing with the automobile for the cross-country record.
But the bull team and the mule team were the continental carriers of that day, and I am very glad that I took part—on the winning side—in a race between them.
We soon began meeting parties of soldiers, and lightening our loads by issuing supplies to them. When at last we reacted Fort Laramie, the outfit was ordered to Fort Walback, located in Cheyenne Pass, twenty-five miles from where Cheyenne stands today, and ninety miles from Fort Laramie.
This was in the very heart of the Indian country. Our animals were to haul in plows, tools and whatever was necessary in the constructing of the new fort then building. The wagon-beds were taken from the wagons to enable the hauling of greater loads. The beds were piled up at Fort Laramie, and I was assigned to watch them. It was here that I had abundant time and opportunity to study the West at first hand. Heretofore I had been on the march. Now I was on fixed post with plenty of time for observation.
Fort Laramie was an old frontier post, such as has not existed for many years. Nearby, three or four thousand Sioux, Northern Cheyennes and Northern Arapahoes were encamped, most of them spending much of the time at the post. Laramie had been established by a fur-trading company in 1834. In 1840 or thereabouts the Government bought it and made it a military post. It had become the most famous meeting-place of the Plains. Here the greatest Indian councils were held, and here also came the most celebrated of the Indian fighters, men whose names had long been known to me, but whom I never dared hope to see.
Kit Carson, Jim Bridger, Baker, Richards and other of the celebrated hunters, trappers and Indian fighters were as familiar about the post as are bankers in Wall Street. All these men fascinated me, especially Carson, a small, dapper, quiet man whom everybody held in profound respect.
I used to sit for hours and watch him and the others talk to the Indians in the sign language. Without a sound they would carry on long and interesting conversations, tell stories, inquire about game and trails, and discuss pretty much everything that men find worth discussing.
I was naturally desirous of mastering this mysterious medium of speech, and began my education in it with far more interest than I had given to the "three R's" back at Salt Creek. My wagon-beds became splendid playhouses for the Indian children from the villages, who are very much like other children, despite their red skins.
I joined them in their games, and from them picked up a fair working knowledge of the Sioux language. The acquaintance I formed here was to save my scalp and life later, but I little suspected it then.
I spent the summer of '58 in and about Laramie. I was getting to be a big, husky boy now, and felt that I had entered on what was to be my career—as indeed I had.
In January, '59, Simpson was ordered back to Missouri as brigade train-master of three wagon-trains, traveling a day apart. Because of much travel the grass along the regular trail was eaten so close that the feed for the bulls was scanty.
Instead of following the trail down the South Platte, therefore, Simpson picked a new route along the North Platte. There was no road, but the grass was still long, and forage for the cattle was necessary.
We had accomplished about half our journey with no sign of hostile Indians. Then one day, as Simpson, George Woods and I were riding ahead to overtake the lead train, a party of Sioux bore down on us, plainly intent on mischief. There was little time to act. No cover of any kind was to be had. For us three, even with our rifles, to have stood up against the Sioux in the open would have been suicide. Simpson had been trained to think quickly. Swinging the three mules so that they formed a triangle, he drew his six-shooter and dropped them where they stood.
"Now there's a little cover, boys," he said, and we all made ready for the attack.
Our plan of defense was now made for us. First rifles, then, at closer quarters, revolvers. If it came to a hand-to-hand conflict we had our knives as a last resort.
The Sioux drew up when they saw how quickly Simpson's wit had built a barricade for us. Then the arrows began to fly and among them spattered a few bullets. We were as sparing as possible with our shots. Most of them told. I had already learned how to use a rifle, and was glad indeed that I had. If ever a boy stood in need of that kind of preparedness I did.
Down came the Indians, with the blood-curdling yell which is always a feature of their military strategy. We waited till they got well within range. Then at Simpson's order we fired. Three ponies galloped riderless over the prairie, and our besiegers hesitated, then wheeled, and rode out of range. But our rest was short. Back they came. Again we fired, and had the good fortune to stop three more of them.
Simpson patted me encouragingly on the shoulder. "You're all right, Billy!" he said, and his praise was music to my ears.
By this time our poor dead mules, who had given their lives for ours, were stuck full of arrows. Woods had been winged in the shoulder. Simpson, carefully examining the wound, expressed his belief that the arrow which inflicted it had not been poisoned.
But we had little time to worry about that or anything else. Our enemies were still circling, just out of range. Here and there when they grew incautious we dropped a man or a pony. But we were still heavily outnumbered. They knew it and we knew it. Unless help came it was only a question of time till it was all over.
Daylight came and they still held off. Eagerly we looked to the westward, but no wagon-train appeared. We began to fear that something had happened to our friends, when, suddenly one of the Indians jumped up, and with every evidence of excitement signaled to the others. In an instant they were all mounted.
"They hear the crack of the bull-whip," said Woods.
He was right. Without another glance in our direction the Sioux galloped away toward the foot-hills, and as they disappeared we heard the welcome snap of the long bull-whip, and saw the first of our wagons coming up the trail. In that day, however, the plainsman was delivered out of one peril only to be plunged into another. His days seldom dragged for want of excitement.
When we got to Leavenworth, Simpson sent three of us ahead with the train-book record of the men's time, so that their money would be ready for them when they arrived at Leavenworth.
Our boss's admonition to ride only at night and to lie under cover in daytime was hardly needed. We cared for no more Indian adventures just then.
We made fairly good progress till we got to the Little Blue, in Colorado. It was an uncomfortable journey, finding our way by the stars at night and lying all day in such shelters as were to be found. But the inconvenience of it was far preferable to being made targets for Indian arrows.
We were sheltered one night from one of the fearful prairie blizzards that make fall and winter terrible. We had found a gulley washed out by an autumn storm, and it afforded a little protection against the wind. Looking down the ravine I saw ponies moving. I knew there were Indians near, and we looked about for a hiding-place.
At the head of the ravine I had noticed a cave-like hollow. I signaled to the two men to follow me, and soon we were snug in a safe hiding-place. As we were settling down to rest one of the men lit his pipe. As the cave was illuminated by the glow of the match there was a wild yell. I thought all the Indians in the world had jumped us. But the yell had come from my companions.
We were in the exact center of the most grew-some collection of human skulls and bones I have ever seen. Bones were strewn on the floor of the cave like driftwood. Skulls were grinning at us from every corner of the darkness. We had stumbled into a big grave where some of the Indians had hidden their dead away from the wolves after a battle. It may be that none of us were superstitious, but we got out of there in a hurry, and braved the peril of the storm and the Indians as best we could.
I was a rich boy when I got to Leavenworth. I had nearly a thousand dollars to turn over to my mother as soon as I should draw my pay. After a joyful reunion with the family I hitched up a pair of ponies, and drove her over so that she could witness this pleasing ceremony. As we were driving home, I heard her sobbing, and was deeply concerned, for this seemed to me no occasion for tears. I was quick to ask the reason, and her answer made me serious.
"You couldn't even write your name, Willie," she said. "You couldn't sign the payroll. To think my boy cannot so much as write his name!"
I thought that over all the way home, and determined it should never happen again.
In Uncle Aleck Majors' book, "Seventy Years on the Frontier," he relates how on every wagon-sheet and wagon-bed, on every tree and barn door, he used to find the name "William F. Cody" in a large, uncertain scrawl. Those were my writing lessons, and I took them daily until I had my signature plastered pretty well over the whole of Salt Creek Valley.
I went to school for a time after that, and at last began really to take an interest in education. But the Pike's Peak gold rush took me with it. I could never resist the call of the trail. With another boy who knew as little of gold-mining as I did we hired out with a bull-train for Denver, then called Aurora.
We each had fifty dollars when we got to the gold country, and with it we bought an elaborate outfit. But there was no mining to be done save by expensive machinery, and we had our labor for our pains. At last, both of us strapped, we got work as timber cutters, which lasted only until we found it would take us a week to fell a tree. At last we hired out once more as bull-whackers. That job we understood, and at it we earned enough money to take us home.
We hired a carpenter to build us a boat, loaded it with grub and supplies, and started gayly down the Platte for home. But the bad luck of that trip held steadily. The boat was overturned in swift and shallow water, and we were stranded, wet and helpless, on the bank, many miles from home or anywhere else.
Then a miracle happened. Along the trail we heard the familiar crack of a bull-whip, and when the train came up we found it was the same with which we had enlisted for the outward journey, returning to Denver with mining machinery. Among this machinery was a big steam-boiler, the first to be taken into Colorado. On the way out the outfit had been jumped by Indians. The wagon boss, knowing the red man's fear of cannon, had swung the great boiler around so that it had appeared to point at them. Never was so big a cannon. Even the 42-centimeter howitzers of today could not compare with it. The Indians took one look at it, then departed that part of the country as fast as their ponies could travel.
We stuck with the train into Denver and back home again, and glad we were to retire from gold-mining.
Soon after my return to Salt Creek Valley I decided on another and, I thought, a better way to make a fortune for myself and my family.
During my stay in and about Fort Laramie I had seen much of the Indian traders, and accompanied them on a number of expeditions. Their business was to sell to the Indians various things they needed, chiefly guns and ammunition, and to take in return the current Indian coin, which consisted of furs.
With the supplies bought by the money I had earned on the trip with Simpson, mother and my sisters were fairly comfortable. I felt that I should be able to embark in the fur business on my own account—not as a trader but as a trapper.
With my friend Dave Harrington as a companion I set out. Harrington was older than I, and had trapped before in the Rockies. I was sure that with my knowledge of the Plains and his of the ways of the fur-bearing animals, we should form an excellent partnership, as in truth we did.
We bought a yoke of oxen, a wagon-sheet, wagon, traps of all sorts, and strychnine with which to poison wolves. Also we laid in a supply of grub—no luxuries, but coffee, flour, bacon and everything that we actually needed to sustain life.
We headed west, and about two hundred miles from home we struck Prairie Creek, where we found abundant signs of beaver, mink, otter and other fur-bearing animals. No Indians had troubled us, and we felt safe in establishing headquarters here and beginning work. The first task was to build a dugout in a hillside, which we roofed with brush, long grass, and finally dirt, making everything snug and cozy. A little fireplace in the wall served as both furnace and kitchen. Outside we built a corral for the oxen, which completed our camp.
Our trapping was successful from the start, and we were sure that prosperity was at last in sight.
We set our steel traps along the "runs" used by the animals, taking great care to hide our tracks, and give the game no indication of the presence of an enemy. The pelts began to pile up in our shack. Most of the day we were busy at the traps, or skinning and salting the hides, and at night we would sit by our little fire and swap experiences till we fell asleep. Always there was the wail of the coyotes and the cries of other animals without, but as long as we saw no Indians we were not worried.
One night, just as we were dozing off, we heard a tremendous commotion in the corral. Harrington grabbed his gun and hurried out. He was just in time to see a big bear throw one of our oxen and proceed with the work of butchering him.
He fired, and the bear, slightly wounded, left the ox and turned his attention to his assailant. He was leaping at my partner, growling savagely when I, gun in hand, rounded the corner of the shack. I took the best aim I could get in the dark, and the bear, which was within a few feet of my friend, rolled over dead.
Making sure that he was past harming us we turned our attention to the poor bull, but he was too far gone to recover, and another bullet put him out of his misery.
We were now left without a team, and two hundred miles from home. But wealth in the shape of pelts was accumulating about us, and we determined to stick it out till spring. Then one of us could go to the nearest settlement for a teammate for our remaining steer, while the other stayed in charge of the camp.
This plan had to be carried out far sooner than we expected. A few days later we espied a herd of elk, which meant plentiful and excellent meat. We at once started in pursuit. Creeping stealthily along toward them, keeping out of sight, and awaiting an opportunity to get a good shot, I slipped on a stone in the creek bed.
"Snap!" went something and looking down I saw my foot hanging useless. I had broken my leg just above the ankle and my present career as a fur-trapper had ended.
I was very miserable when Harrington came up. I urged him to shoot me as he had the ox, but he laughingly replied that that would hardly do.
"I'll bring you out all right!" he said. "I owe you a life anyway for saving me from that bear. I learned a little something about surgery when I was in Illinois, and I guess I can fix you up."
He got me back to camp after a long and painful hour and with a wagon-bow, which he made into a splint, set the fracture. But our enterprise was at an end. Help would have to be found now, and before spring. One man and a cripple could never get through the winter.
It was determined that Harrington must go for this needful assistance just as soon as possible. He placed me on our little bunk, with plenty of blankets to cover me. All our provisions he put within my reach. A cup was lashed to a long sapling, and Harrington made a hole in the side of the dugout so that I could reach this cup out to a snow-bank for my water supply.
Lastly he cut a great pile of wood and heaped it near the fire. Without leaving the bunk I could thus do a little cooking, keep the fire up, and eat and sleep. It was not a situation that I would have chosen, but there was nothing else to do.
The nearest settlement was a hundred and twenty-five miles distant. Harrington figured that he could make the round trip in twenty days. My supplies were ample to last that long. I urged him to start as soon as possible, that he might the sooner return with a new yoke of oxen. Then I could be hauled out to where medical attendance was to be had.
I watched him start off afoot, and my heart was heavy. But soon I stopped thinking of my pain and began to find ways and means to cure my loneliness. We had brought with us a number of books, and these I read through most of my waking hours. But the days grew longer and longer for all that. Every morning when I woke I cut a notch in a long stick to mark its coming. I had cut twelve of these notches when one morning I was awakened from a sound sleep by the touch of a hand on my shoulder.
Instantly concluding that Harrington had returned, I was about to cry out in delight when I caught a glimpse of a war-bonnet, surmounting the ugly, painted face of a Sioux brave.
The brilliant colors that had been smeared on his visage told me more forcibly than words could have done that his tribe was on the warpath. It was a decidedly unpleasant discovery for me.
While he was asking me in the Sioux language what I was doing there, and how many more were in the party, other braves began crowding through the door till the little dugout was packed as full of Sioux warriors as it could hold.
Outside I could hear the stamping of horses and the voices of more warriors. I made up my mind it was all over but the scalping.
And then a stately old brave worked his way through the crowd and came toward my bunk. It was plain from the deference accorded him by the others that he was a chief. And as soon as I set eyes on him I recognized him as old Rain-in-the-Face, whom I had often seen and talked with at Fort Laramie, and whose children taught me the Sioux language as we played about the wagon-beds together. Among these children was the son who succeeded to the name of Rain-in-the-Face, and who years later, it is asserted, killed General George A. Custer in the massacre of the Little Big Horn.
I showed the chief my broken leg, and asked him if he did not remember me. He replied that he did. I asked him if he intended to kill the boy who had been his children's playmate. He consulted with his warriors, who had begun busily to loot the cabin. After a long parley the old man told me that my life would be spared, but my gun and pistol and all my provisions would be regarded as the spoils of the war.
Vainly I pointed out that he might as well kill me as leave me without food or the means to defend myself against wolves. He said that his young men had granted a great deal in consenting to spare my life. As for food, he pointed to the carcass of a deer that hung from the wall.
The next morning they mounted their ponies and galloped away. I was glad enough to see them go. I knew that my life had hung by a thread while I had been their involuntary host. Only my friendship with the children of old Rain-in-the-Face had saved me.
But, even with the Indians gone, I was in a desperate situation. As they had taken all my matches I had to keep the fire going continuously. This meant that I could not sleep long at a time, the lack of rest soon began to tell on me. I would cut slices from the deer carcass with my knife, and holding it over the fire with a long stick, cook it, eating it without salt. Coffee I must do without altogether.
The second day after the departure of the Indians a great snow fell. The drifts blocked the doorway and covered the windows. It lay to a depth of several feet on the roof over my head. My woodpile was covered by the snow that drifted in and it was with great difficulty that I could get enough wood to keep my little fire going. And on that fire depended my life. Worse than all these troubles was the knowledge that the heavy snow would be sure to delay Harrington.
I would lie there, day after day, a prey to all sorts of dark imaginings. I fancied him killed by Indians on the trail, or snowbound and starving on the Plains. Each morning my notches on my calendar stick were made. Gradually their number grew till at last the twentieth was duly cut. But no Harrington came.
The wolves, smelling meat within, had now begun to gather round in increasing numbers. They made the night hideous with their howlings, and pawed and scratched and dug at the snow by the doorway, determined to come in and make a meal of everything the dugout contained, myself included.
How I endured it I do not know. But the Plains teach men and boys fortitude. Many and many a time as I lay there I resolved that if I should ever be spared to go back to my home and friends, the frontier should know me no more.
It was on the twenty-ninth day, as marked on stick, when I had about given up hope, that I heard a cheerful voice shouting "Whoa!" and recognized it as the voice of Harrington. A criminal on the scafford with the noose about his neck and the trap sagging underneath his feet could not have welcomed a pardon more eagerly than I welcomed my deliverance out of this torture-chamber.
I could make no effort to open the door for him. But I found voice to answer him when he cried "Hello, Billy!" and in response to his question assured him that I was all right. He soon cleared a passageway through the snow, and stood beside me.
"I never expected to see you alive again," he said; "I had a terrible trip. I didn't think I should ever get through—caught in the snowstorm and laid up for three days. The cattle wandered away and I came within an ace of losing them altogether. When I got started again the snow was so deep I couldn't make much headway."
"Well, you're here," I said, giving him a hug.
Harrington had made a trip few men could have made. He had risked his life to save mine. All alone he had brought a yoke of oxen over a country where the trails were all obscured and the blinding snow made every added mile more perilous.
I was still unable to walk, and he had to do all the work of packing up for the trip home. In a few days he had loaded the pelts on board the wagon, covered it with the wagon-sheet we had used in the dugout, and made me a comfortable bed inside. We had three hundred beaver and one hundred otter skins to show for our work. That meant a lot of money when we should get them to the settlements.
On the eighth day of the journey home we reached a ranch on the Republican River, where we rested for a couple of days. Then we went on to the ranch where Harrington had obtained his cattle and paid for the yoke with twenty-five beaver skins, the equivalent of a hundred dollars in money.
At the end of twenty days' travel we reached Salt Creek Valley, where I was welcomed by my mother and sisters as one returned from the dead.
So grateful was my mother to Harrington for what he had done for me that she insisted on his making his home with us. This he decided to do, and took charge of our farm. The next spring, this man, who had safely weathered the most perilous of journeys over the Plains, caught cold while setting out some trees and fell ill. We brought a doctor from Lawrence, and did everything in our power to save him, but in a week he died. The loss of a member of our own family could not have affected us more.
I was now in my fifteenth year and possessed of a growing appetite for adventure. A very few months had so dulled the memory of my sufferings in the dugout that I had forgotten all about my resolve to forsake the frontier forever. I looked about me for something new and still more exciting.
I was not long in finding it. In April, 1860, the firm of Russell, Majors & Waddell organized the wonderful "Pony Express," the most picturesque messenger-service that this country has ever seen. The route was from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California, a distance of two thousand miles, across the Plains, over a dreary stretch of sagebrush and alkali desert, and through two great mountain ranges.
The system was really a relay race against time. Stations were built at intervals averaging fifteen miles apart. A rider's route covered three stations, with an exchange of horses at each, so that he was expected at the beginning to cover close to forty-five miles—a good ride when one must average fifteen miles an hour.
The firm undertaking the enterprise had been busy for some time picking the best ponies to be had for money, and the lightest, most wiry and most experienced riders. This was a life that appealed to me, and I struck for a job. I was pretty young in years, but I had already earned a reputation for coming safe out of perilous adventures, and I was hired.
Naturally our equipment was the very lightest. The messages which we carried were written on the thinnest paper to be found. These we carried in a waterproof pouch, slung under our arms. We wore only such clothing as was absolutely necessary.
The first trip of the Pony Express was made in ten days—an average of two hundred miles a day. But we soon began stretching our riders and making better time. Soon we shortened the time to eight days. President Buchanan's last Presidential message in December, 1860, was carried in eight days. President Lincoln's inaugural, the following March, took only seven days and seventeen hours for the journey between St. Joseph and Sacramento.
We soon got used to the work. When it became apparent to the men in charge that the boys could do better than forty-five miles a day the stretches were lengthened. The pay of the rider was from $100 to $125 a month. It was announced that the further a man rode the better would be his pay. That put speed and endurance into all of us.
Stern necessity often compelled us to lengthen our day's work even beyond our desires. In the hostile Indian country, riders were frequently shot. In such an event the man whose relief had been killed had to ride on to the next station, doing two men's ride. Road-agents were another menace, and often they proved as deadly as the Indians.
In stretching my own route I found myself getting further and further west. Finally I was riding well into the foothills of the Rockies. Still further west my route was pushed. Soon I rode from Red Buttes to Sweetwater, a distance of seventy-six miles. Road-agents and Indians infested this country. I never was quite sure when I started out when I should reach my destination, or whether I should never reach it at all.
One day I galloped into the station at Three Crossings to find that my relief had been killed in a drunken row the night before. There was no one to take his place. His route was eighty-five miles across country to the west. I had no time to think it over. Selecting a good pony out of the stables I was soon on my way.
I arrived at Rocky Ridge, the end of the new route, on schedule time, and turning back came on to Red Buttes, my starting-place. The round trip was 320 miles, and I made it in twenty-one hours and forty minutes.
Excitement was plentiful during my two years' service as a Pony Express rider. One day as I was leaving Horse Creek, a party of fifteen Indians jammed me in a sand ravine eight miles west of the station. They fired at me repeatedly, but my luck held, and I went unscathed. My mount was a California roan pony, the fastest in the stables. I dug the spurs into his sides, and, lying flat on his back, I kept straight on for Sweetwater Bridge eleven miles distant. A turn back to Horse Creek might have brought me more speedily to shelter, but I did not dare risk it.
The Indians came on behind, riding with all the speed they could put into their horses, but my pony drew rapidly ahead. I had a lead of two miles when I reached the station. There I found I could get no new pony. The stock-tender had been killed by the Indians during the night. All his ponies had been stolen and driven off. I kept on, therefore, to Plonts Station, twelve miles further along, riding the same pony—a ride of twenty-four miles on one mount. At Plonts I told the people what had happened at Sweetwater Bridge. Then, with a fresh horse, I finished my route without further adventure.
About the middle of September the Indians became very troublesome on the line of the stage along the Sweetwater, between Split Rock and Three Crossings. A stage had been robbed and two passengers killed outright. Lem Flowers, the driver, was badly wounded. The thievish redskins also drove stock repeatedly from the stations. They were continually lying in wait for passing stages and Pony Express riders. It was useless to keep the Express going until these depredations could be stopped. A lay-off of six weeks was ordered, and our time was our own.
While we were thus idle a party was organized to carry the war into the Indians' own country, and teach them that the white man's property must be let alone. This party I joined.
Stage-drivers, express-riders, stock-tenders and ranchmen, forty in number, composed this party. All were well armed; all were good shots, and brave, determined men. "Wild Bill" Hickock, another of the Western gunmen of whom I shall have something to tell later, was captain of the expedition. He had come recently to our division as a stage-driver and had the experience and courage necessary to that kind of leadership.
Twenty miles out from Sweetwater Bridge, at the head of Horse Creek, we found an Indian trail running north toward Powder River. We could see that the horses had been recently shod, conclusive proof that they were our stolen stock. We pushed on as fast as we could along the trail to the Powder, thence down this stream to within forty miles of where old Fort Reno now stands. Farther on, at Crazy Woman's Fork, we saw evidence that another party had joined our quarry. The trail was newly made. The Indians could be hardly more than twenty-four hours ahead of us. And plainly there was a lot of them.
When we reached Clear Creek, another tributary of the Powder, we saw horses grazing on the opposite bank. Horses meant Indians. Never before had the redskins been followed so far into their own country. Not dreaming that they would be pursued they had failed to put out scouts.
We quickly got the "lay" of their camp, and held a council to decide on how to attack them. We knew that they outnumbered us three to one—perhaps more. Without strategy, all we would get for our long chase would be the loss of our scalps.
"Wild Bill," who did not know the meaning of fear, made our plan for us. We were to wait till nightfall, and then, after creeping up as close as possible on the camp, make a grand ride right through it, open a general fire upon them, and stampede their horses.
It was a plan that called for nerve, but we were full of spirit, and the more danger there was in an enterprise the more we relished it. At our captain's signal we rushed pell-mell through their camp. Had we dropped from the clouds the Indians could not have been more astonished. At the sound of our shots they scattered in every direction, yelling warnings to each other as they fled.
Once clear of the camp we circled to the south and came back to make sure that we had done a thorough job. A few parting shots stampeded the stragglers. Then, with one hundred captured ponies—most, if not all of them, stolen from the Express and State stations—we rode back to Sweetwater Bridge.
The recovered horses were placed on the road again, and the Express was resumed. Slade, who was greatly pleased with our exploit, now assigned me as special or supernumerary rider. Thereafter while I was with him I had a comparatively easy time of it, riding only now and then, and having plenty of opportunity for seeking after the new adventures in which I delighted.
Alf Slade, stage-line superintendent, frontiersman, and dare-devil fighting man, was one of the far-famed gunmen of the Plains. These were a race of men bred by the perils and hard conditions of Western life. They became man-killers first from stern necessity. In that day the man who was not quick on the trigger had little chance with the outlaws among whom he had to live. Slade and "Wild Bill," with both of whom I became closely associated, were men of nerve and courage. But both, having earned the reputation of gun-fighters, became too eager to live up to it. Eventually both became outlaws.
Slade, though always a dangerous man, and extremely rough in his manner, never failed to treat me with kindness. Sober, he was cool and self-possessed, but never a man to be trifled with. Drunk, he was a living fury. His services to the company for which he worked were of high value. He was easily the best superintendent on the line. But his habit of man-killing at last resulted in his execution.
Another man who gained even greater notoriety than Slade was "Wild Bill" Hickock, a tall, yellow-haired giant who had done splendid service as a scout in the western sector of the Civil War.
"Wild Bill" I had known since 1857. He and I shared the pleasure of walking a thousand miles to the Missouri River, after the bull-train in which we both were employed had been burned by Lot Smith, the Mormon raider. Afterward we rode the Pony Express together.
While an express rider, Bill had the fight with the McCandless gang which will always form an interesting chapter in the history of the West.
Coming into his swing station at Rock Creek one day, Bill failed to arouse any one with his shouts for a fresh mount. This was a certain indication of trouble. It was the stock-tender's business to be on hand with a relief pony the instant the rider came in. The Pony Express did not tolerate delays.
Galloping into the yard, Bill dismounted and hurried to the stable. In the door he saw the stock-tender lying dead, and at the same instant a woman's screams rang from the cabin near by. Turning about, Bill found himself face to face with a ruffian who was rushing from the house, brandishing a six-shooter. He asked no questions, but pulled one of the two guns he carried and fired. No sooner had the man fallen, however, than a second, also armed, came out of the house. Hickock disposed of this fellow also, and then entered the place, where four others opened a fusillade on him.
Although the room was thick with smoke, and Bill had to use extreme care to avoid hitting the woman, who was screaming in the corner, he managed to kill two of his assailants with his revolvers and to ward off a blow with a rifle a third had leveled at him.
The blow knocked the weapon from his hand, but his knife was still left him, and with it he put the man with the rifle out of the way. His troubles were not at an end, however. Another man came climbing in the window to avenge his fellow gangsters. Bill reached for a rifle which lay on the floor and shot first.
When he took count a few minutes later he discovered that he had killed five men and wounded a sixth, who escaped in the thick of the fight.
The woman, who had been knocked unconscious by one of the desperadoes, was soon revived. She was the stock-tender's wife, and had been attacked the by gang as soon as they had slain her husband.
The passengers of the Overland stage, which rolled in as Bill was reviving the terrified woman, were given a view of Western life which none of them ever forgot.
Bill was the hero of the occasion, and a real hero he was, for probably never has a man won such a victory against such terrific odds in all the history of the war against the ruffians of the West.
It was at Springfield, Missouri, that Bill had his celebrated fight with Dave Tutt. The fight put an end to Tutt's career. I was a personal witness to another of his gun exploits, in which, though the chances were all against him, he protected his own life and incidentally his money. An inveterate poker player, he got into a game in Springfield with big players and for high stakes. Sitting by the table, I noticed that he seemed sleepy and inattentive. So I kept a close watch on the other fellows. Presently I observed that one of his opponents was occasionally dropping a card in his hat, which he held in his lap, until a number of cards had been laid away for future use in the game.
The pot had gone around several times and was steadily raised by some of the players, Bill staying right along, though he still seemed to be drowsy.
The bets kept rising. At last the man with the hatful of cards picked a hand out of his reserves, put the hat on his head and raised Bill two hundred dollars. Bill came back with a raise of two hundred, and as the other covered it he quietly shoved a pistol into his face and observed:
"I am calling the hand that is in your hat!"
Gathering in the pot with his left hand, he held the pistol with his right and inquired if any of the players had any objections to offer. They hastened to reply that they had no objections whatever and we went away from there.
"Bill," I said, when we were well outside the place, "I had been noticing that fellow's play right along, but I thought you hadn't. I was going to get into the game myself if he beat you out of that money."
"Billy," replied Hickock, "I don't want you ever to learn it, but that is one of my favorite poker tricks. It always wins against crooked players."
Not all of the gunmen of the West began straight. Some of them—many, in fact—were thieves and murderers from the beginning. Such were the members of the McCandless gang, which Hickock disposed of so thoroughly. All along the stage route were robbers and man-killers far more vicious than the Indians. Very early in my career as a frontiersman I had an encounter with a party of these from which I was extremely fortunate to escape with my life.
I employed the leisure afforded me by my assignment as an extra rider in hunting excursions, in which I took a keen delight. I was returning home empty-handed from a bear hunt, when night overtook me in a lonely spot near a mountain stream. I had killed two sage-hens and built a little fire over which to broil them before my night's rest.
Suddenly I heard a horse whinny farther up the stream. Thinking instantly of Indians, I ran quickly to my own horse to prevent him from answering the call, and thus revealing my presence.
Filled with uneasiness as to who and what my human neighbors might be, I resaddled my horse, and, leaving him tied where I could reach him in a hurry if need be, made my way up-stream to reconnoiter. As I came around a bend I received an unpleasant shock. Not one horse, but fifteen horses, were grazing just ahead of me.
On the opposite side of the creek a light shone high up the mountain bank—a light from the window of a dugout. I drew near very cautiously till I came within, sound of voices within the place, and discovered that its occupants were conversing in my own language. That relieved me. I knew the strangers to be white men. I supposed them to be trappers, and, walking boldly to the door, I knocked.
Instantly the voices ceased. There ensued absolute silence for a space, and then came-whisperings, and sounds of men quietly moving about the dirt floor.
"Who's there?" called someone.
"A friend and a white man," I replied.
The door opened, and a big, ugly-looking fellow stood before me.
"Come in," he ordered.
I accepted the invitation with hesitation, but there was nothing else to do. To retreat would have meant pursuit and probably death.
Eight of the most villainous-appearing ruffians I have ever set eyes upon sat about the dugout as I entered. Two of them I recognized at once as teamsters who had been employed by Simpson a few months before. Both had been charged with murdering a ranchman and stealing his horses. Simpson had promptly discharged them, and it was supposed that they had left the country.
I gave them no sign of recognition. I was laying my plans to get out of there as speedily as possible. I was now practically certain that I had uncovered the hiding-place of a gang of horse-thieves who could have no possible reason to feel anything but hostility toward an honest man. The leader of the gang swaggered toward me and inquired menacingly:
"Where are you going, young man, and who's with you?"
"I am entirely alone," I returned. "I left Horseshoe Station this morning for a bear hunt. Not finding any bears, I was going to camp out till morning. I heard one of your horses whinnying, and came up to your camp."
"Where is your horse?"
"I left him down the creek."
They proposed going for the horse, which was my only means of getting rid of their unwelcome society. I tried strategy to forestall them.
"I'll go and get him," I said. "I'll leave my gun here."
This, I fancied, would convince them that I intended to return, but it didn't.
"Jim and I will go with you," said one of the thieves. "You can leave your gun here if you want to. You won't need it."
I saw that if I was to get away at all I would have to be extremely alert. These were old hands, and were not to be easily fooled. I felt it safer, however, to trust myself with two men than with six, so I volunteered to show the precious pair where I had left the horse, and led them to my camp.
The animal was secured, and as one of the men started to lead him up the stream I picked up the two sage-hens I had intended for my evening meal. The more closely we approached the dugout the less I liked the prospect of reentering it. One plan of escape had failed. I was sure the ruffians had no intention of permitting me to leave them and inform the stage people of their presence in the country.
One more plan suggested itself to me, and I lost no time in trying it. Dropping one of the sage-hens, I asked the man behind me to pick it up. As he was groping for it in the darkness, I pulled one of my Colt's revolvers, and hit him a terrific blow over the head. He dropped to the ground, senseless.
Wheeling about, I saw that the other man, hearing the fall, had turned, his hand upon his revolver. It was no time for argument. I fired and killed him. Then, leaping on my horse, I dug the spurs into his sides, and back down the trail we went, over the rocks and rough ground toward safety.
My peril was far from past. At the sound of the shot the six men in the dugout tumbled forth in hot haste. They stopped an instant at the scene of the shooting, possibly to revive the man I had stunned and to learn from him what had happened.
They were too wise to mount their horses, knowing that, afoot, they could make better time over the rocky country than I could on horseback. Steadily I heard them gaining, and soon made up my mind that if I was to evade them at all I must abandon my horse.
Jumping off, I gave him a smart slap with the butt of my revolver which sent him down the valley. I turned and began to scramble up the mountainside.
I had climbed hardly forty feet when I heard them pass, following the sound of my horse's feet. I dodged behind a tree as they went by, and when I heard them firing farther down the trail I worked my way up the mountainside.
It was twenty-five miles to Horseshoe Station, and very hard traveling the first part of the way. But I got to the station, just before daylight, weary and footsore, but exceedingly thankful.
Tired as I was, I woke up the men at the station and told them of my adventure. Slade himself led the party that set out to capture my former hosts, and I went along, though nearly beat out.
Twenty of us, after a brisk ride, reached the dugout at ten o'clock in the morning. But the thieves had gone. We found a newly made grave where they had buried the man I had to kill, and a trail leading southwest toward Denver. That was all. But my adventure at least resulted in clearing the country of horse-thieves. Once the gang had gone, no more depredations occurred for a long time.
After a year's absence from home I began to long to see my mother and sisters again. In June, 1861, I got a pass over the stage-line, and returned to Leavenworth. The first rumblings of the great struggle that was soon to be known as the Civil War were already reverberating throughout the North; Sumter had been fired upon in April of that year. Kansas, as every schoolboy knows, was previously the bloody scene of some of the earliest conflicts.
My mother's sympathies were strongly with the Union. She knew that war was bound to come, but so confident was she in the strength of the Federal Government that she devoutly believed that the struggle could not last longer than six months at the utmost.
Fort Leavenworth and the town of Leavenworth were still important outfitting posts for the soldiers in the West and Southwest. The fort was strongly garrisoned by regular troops. Volunteers were undergoing training. Many of my boyhood friends were enlisting. I was eager to join them.
But I was still the breadwinner of the family, the sole support of my sisters and my invalid mother. Not because of this, but because of her love for me, my mother exacted from me a promise that I would not enlist for the war while she lived.
But during the summer of 1861 a purely local company, know as the Red-Legged Scouts, and commanded by Captain Bill Tuff, was organized. This I felt I could join without breaking my promise not to enlist for the war, and join it I did. The Red-Legged Scouts, while they cooeperated with the regular army along the borders of Missouri, had for their specific duty the protection of Kansas against raiders like Quantrell, and such bandits as the James Boys, the Younger Brothers, and other desperadoes who conducted a guerrilla warfare against Union settlers.
We had plenty to do. The guerrillas were daring fellows and kept us busy. They robbed banks, raided villages, burned buildings, and looted and plundered wherever there was loot or plunder to be had.
But Tuff was the same kind of a fighting man as they, and working in a better cause. With his scouts he put the fear of the law into the hearts of the guerrillas, and they notably decreased their depredations in consequence.
Whenever and wherever we found that the scattered bands were getting together for a general raid we would at once notify the regulars at Fort Scott or Fort Leavenworth to be ready for them. Quantrell once managed to collect a thousand men in a hurry, and to raid and sack Lawrence before the troops could head them off. But when we got on their trail they were driven speedily back into Missouri.
In the meantime we took care that little mischief was done by the gangs headed by the James Boys and the Youngers, who operated in Quantrell's wake and in small bands.
In the spring of '63 I left the Red-Legged Scouts to serve the Federal Government as guide and scout with the Ninth Kansas Cavalry. The Kiowas and Comanches were giving trouble along the old Santa Fe trail and among the settlements of western Kansas. The Ninth Kansas were sent to tame them and to protect immigrants and settlers.
This was work that I well understood. We had a lively summer, for the Indians kept things stirring, but after a summer of hard fighting we made them understand that the Great White Chief was a power that the Indians had better not irritate. November, '63, I returned with the command to Leavenworth. I had money in my pockets, for my pay had been $150 a month, and I was able to lay in an abundant supply of provisions for my family.
On the twenty-third day of December my mother passed away. Her life had been an extremely hard one, but she had borne up bravely under poverty and privation, supplying with her own teaching the education that the frontier schools could not give her children, and by her Christian example setting them all on a straight road through life.
Border ruffians killed her husband, almost within sight of her home. She passed months in terror and distress and, until I became old enough to provide for her, often suffered from direst poverty. Yet she never complained for herself; her only thoughts being for her children and the sufferings that were visited upon them because of their necessary upbringing in a rough and wild country.
My sister Julia was now married to Al Goodman, a fine and capable young man, and I was free to follow the promptings of an adventurous nature and go where my companions were fighting. In January, 1864, the Seventh Kansas Volunteers came to Leavenworth from the South, where they had been fighting since the early years of the war. Among them I found many of my old friends and schoolmates. I was no longer under promise not to take part in the war and I enlisted as a private.
In March of that year the regiment was embarked on steamboats and sent to Memphis, Tennessee, where we joined the command of General A.J. Smith. General Smith was organizing an army to fight the illiterate but brilliant Confederate General Forrest, who was then making a great deal of trouble in southern Tennessee.
While we were mobilizing near Memphis, Colonel Herrick of our regiment recommended me to General Smith for membership in a picked corps to be used for duty as scouts, messengers, and dispatch carriers. Colonel Herrick recounted my history as a plainsman, which convinced the commander that I would be useful in this special line of duty.
When I reported to General Smith, he invited me into his tent and inquired minutely into my life as a scout.
"You ought to be able to render me valuable service," he said.
When I replied that I should be only too glad to do so, he got out a map of Tennessee, and on it showed me where he believed General Forrest's command to be located. His best information was that the Confederate commander was then in the neighborhood of Okolona, Mississippi, about two hundred miles south, of Memphis.
He instructed me to disguise myself as a Tennessee boy, to provide myself with a farm horse from the stock in the camp, and to try to locate Forrest's main command. Having accomplished this, I was to gather all the information possible concerning the enemy's strength in men and equipment and defenses, and to make my way back as speedily as possible.
General Smith expected to start south the following morning, and he showed me on the map the wagon road he planned to follow, so that I might know where to find him on my return. He told me before we parted that the mission on which he was sending me was exceedingly dangerous. "If you are captured," he said, "you will be shot as a spy."
To this I replied that my Indian scouting trips had been equally dangerous, as capture meant torture and death, yet I had always willingly undertaken them.
"Do you think you can find Forrest's army?" he said. "Well, if you can't find an army as big as that you're a mighty poor scout," he said grimly.