THIS trip of Will's covered only two months, and was succeeded by another expedition, to the new post at Fort Wallace, at Cheyenne Pass.
Meanwhile mother had decided to improve the opportunity afforded by her geographical position, and under her supervision "The Valley Grove House" was going up.
The hotel commanded a magnificent prospect. Below lay the beautiful Salt Creek Valley. It derived its name from the saline properties of the little stream that rushed along its pebbly bed to empty its clear waters into the muddy Missouri. From the vantage-ground of our location Salt Creek looked like a silver thread, winding its way through the rich verdure of the valley. The region was dotted with fertile farms; from east to west ran the government road, known as the Old Salt Lake Trail, and back of us was Cody Hill, named for my father. Our house stood on the side hill, just above the military road, and between us and the hilltop lay the grove that gave the hotel its name. Government hill, which broke the eastern sky-line, hid Leavenworth and the Missouri River, culminating to the south in Pilot Knob, the eminence on which my father was buried, also beyond our view.
Mother's business sagacity was justified in the hotel venture. The trail began its half-mile ascent of Cody Hill just below our house, and at this point the expedient known as "doubling" was employed. Two teams hauled a wagon up the steep incline, the double team returning for the wagon left behind. Thus the progress of a wagon train, always slow, became a very snail's pace, and the hotel was insured a full quota of hungry trainmen.
Will found that his wages were of considerable aid to mother in the large expense incurred by the building of the hotel; and the winter drawing on, forbidding further freighting trips, he planned an expedition with a party of trappers. More money was to be made at this business during the winter than at any other time.
The trip was successful, and contained only one adventure spiced with danger, which, as was so often the case, Will twisted to his own advantage by coolness and presence of mind.
One morning, as he was making the round of his traps, three Indians appeared on the trail, each leading a pony laden with pelts. One had a gun; the others carried bows and arrows. The odds were three to one, and the brave with the gun was the most to be feared.
This Indian dropped his bridle-rein and threw up his rifle; but before it was at his shoulder Will had fired, and he fell forward on his face. His companions bent their bows, one arrow passing through Will's hat and another piercing his arm -- the first wound he ever received. Will swung his cap about his head.
"This way! Here they are!" he shouted to an imaginary party of friends at his back. Then with his revolver he wounded another of the Indians, who, believing reinforcements were at hand, left their ponies and fled.
Will took the ponies on the double-quick back to camp, and the trappers decided to pull up stakes at once. It had been a profitable season, and the few more pelts to be had were not worth the risk of an attack by avenging Indians; so they packed their outfit, and proceeded to Fort Laramie. Will realized a handsome sum from the sale of his captured furs, besides those of the animals he had himself trapped.
At the fort were two men bound east, and impatient to set out, and Will, in his haste to reach home, joined forces with them. Rather than wait for an uncertain wagon train, they decided to chance the dangers of the road. They bought three ponies and a pack-mule for the camp outfit, and sallied forth in high spirits.
Although the youngest of the party, Will was the most experienced plainsman, and was constantly on the alert. They reached the Little Blue River without sign of Indians, but across the stream Will espied a band of them. The redskins were as keen of eye, and straightway exchanged the pleasures of the chase for the more exciting pursuit of human game. But they had the river to cross, and this gave the white men a good start. The pursuit was hot, and grew hotter, but the kindly darkness fell, and under cover of it the trio got safely away. That night they camped in a little ravine that afforded shelter from both Indians and weather.
A look over the ravine disclosed a cave that promised a snug harbor, and therein Will and one of his companions spread their blankets and fell asleep. The third man, whose duty it was to prepare the supper, kindled a fire just inside the cave, and returned outside for a supply of fuel. When he again entered the cave the whole interior was revealed by the bright firelight, and after one look he gave a yell of terror, dropped his firewood, and fled.
Will and the other chap were on their knees instantly, groping for their rifles, in the belief that the Indians were upon them; but the sight that met their eyes was more terror-breeding than a thousand Indians. A dozen bleached and ghastly skeletons were gathered with them around the camp-fire, and seemed to nod and sway, and thrust their long-chilled bones toward the cherry blaze.
Ghastly as it was within the cave, Will found it more unpleasant in the open. The night was cold, and a storm threatened.
"Well," said he to his companions, "we know the worst that's in there now. Those old dead bones won't hurt us. Let's go back."
"Not if I know myself, sonny," returned one of the men decidedly, and the other heartily agreed with him, swearing that as it was, he should not be able to close his eyes for a week. So, after a hurried lunch upon the cold provisions, the party mounted their ponies and pushed on. The promised snowstorm materialized, and shortly became a young blizzard, and obliged to dismount and camp in the open prairie, they made a miserable night of it.
But it had an end, as all things have, and with the morning they resumed the trail, reaching Marysville, on the Big Blue, after many trials and privations.
From here the trail was easier, as the country was pretty well settled, and Will reached home without further adventure or misadventure. Here there was compensation for hardship in the joy of handing over to mother all his money, realizing that it would lighten her burdens -- burdens borne that she might leave her children provided for when she could no longer repel the dread messenger, that in all those years seemed to hover so near that even our childish hearts felt its presence ere it actually crossed the threshold.
It was early in March when Will returned from his trapping expedition. Mother's business was flourishing, though she herself grew frailer with the passing of each day. The summer that came on was a sad one for us all, for it marked Turk's last days on earth. One evening he was lying in the yard, when a strange dog came up the road, bounded in, gave Turk a vicious bite, and went on. We dressed the wound, and thought little of it, until some horsemen rode up, with the inquiry, "Have you seen a dog pass here?"
We answered indignantly that a strange dog had passed, and had bitten our dog.
"Better look out for him, then," warned the men as they rode away. "The dog is mad."
Consternation seized us. It was dreadful to think of Turk going mad -- he who had been our playmate from infancy, and who, through childhood's years, had grown more dear to us than many human beings could; but mother knew the matter was serious, and issued her commands. Turk must be shut up, and we must not even visit him for a certain space. And so we shut him up, hoping for the best; but it speedily became plain that the poison was working in his veins, and that the greatest kindness we could do him was to kill him.
That was a frightful alternative. Will utterly refused to shoot him, and the execution was delegated to the third man, Will stipulating that none of his weapons should be used, and that he be allowed to get out of ear-shot.
Late that afternoon, just before sunset, we assembled in melancholy silence for the funeral. A grave had been dug on the highest point of the eastern extremity of Cody Hill, and decorated in black ribbons, we slowly filed up the steep path, carrying Turk's body on a pine board softened with moss. Will led the procession with his hat in his hand, and every now and then his fist went savagely at his eyes. When we reached the grave, we formed around it in a tearful circle, and Will, who always called me "the little preacher," told me to say the Lord's Prayer. The sun was setting, and the brilliant western clouds were shining round below us, and the sounds in the valley were muffled and indistinct.
"Our Father which art in heaven," I whispered softly, as all the children bent their heads, "Hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven." I paused, and the other children said the rest in chorus. The next day Will procured a large block of red bloodstone, which abounds in that country, squared it off, carved the name of Turk upon it in large letters, and we placed it at the head of the grave.
To us there had been no incongruity in the funeral ceremonials and burial. Turk had given us all that dog could give; we, for our part, gave him Christian sepulture. Our sorrow was sincere. We had lost an honest, loyal friend. For many succeeding days his grave was garlanded with fresh flowers, placed there by loving hands. Vale Turk! Would that our friends of the higher evolution were all as stanch as thou!
An unusually good teacher now presided at the schoolhouse in our neighborhood, and Will was again persuaded into educational paths. He put in a hard winter's work; but with the coming of spring and its unrest, the swelling of buds and the springing of grass, the return of the birds and the twittering from myriad nests, the Spirits of the Plains beckoned to him, and he joined a party of gold-hunters on the long trail to Pike's Peak.
The gold excitement was at its apogee in 1860. By our house had passed the historic wagon bearing on its side the classic motto, "Pike's Peak or Bust !" Afterward, stranded by the wayside, a whole history of failure and disappointment, borne with grim humor, was told by the addition of the eloquent word, "Busted!"
For all his adventures, Will was only fourteen, and although tall for his age, he had not the physical strength that might have been expected from his hardy life. It was not strange that he should take the gold fever; less so that mother should dread to see him again leave home to face unknown perils; and it is not at all remarkable that upon reaching Auraria, now Denver, he should find that fortunes were not lying around much more promiscuously in a gold country than in any other.
Recent events have confirmed a belief that under the excitement of a gold craze men exercise less judgment than at any other time. Except in placer mining, which almost any one can learn, gold mining is a science. Now and again a nugget worth a fortune is picked up, but the average mortal can get a better livelihood, with half the work, in almost any other field of effort. To become rich a knowledge of ores and mining methods is indispensable.
But Will never reached the gold-fields. Almost the first person he met on the streets of Julesberg was George Chrisman, who had been chief wagon-master for Russell, Majors & Waddell. Will had become well acquainted with Chrisman on the various expeditions he had made for the firm.
This man was located at Julesberg as agent for the Pony Express line, which was in process of formation. This line was an enterprise of Russell, Majors & Waddell. Mr. Russell met in Washington the Senator from California. This gentleman knew that the Western firm of contractors was running a daily stagecoach from the Missouri River to Sacramento, and he urged upon Mr. Russell the desirability of operating a pony express line along the same route. There was already a line known as the "Butterfield Route," but this was circuitous, the fastest time ever made on it was twenty-one days.
Mr. Russell laid the matter before his partners. They were opposed to it, as they were sure it would be a losing venture; but the senior member urged the matter so strongly that they consented to try it, for the good of the country, with no expectation of profit. They utilized the stagecoach stations already established, and only about two months were required to put the Pony Express line in running order.
Riders received from a hundred and twenty to a hundred and twenty-five dollars a month, but they earned it. In order to stand the life great physical strength and endurance were necessary; in addition, riders must be cool, brave, and resourceful. Their lives were in constant peril, and they were obliged to do double duty in case the comrade that was to relieve them had been disabled by outlaws or Indians.
Two hundred and fifty miles was the daily distance that must be made; this constituted an average of a little over ten miles an hour. In the exceedingly rough country this average could not be kept up; to balance it, there were a few places in the route where the rider was expected to cover twenty-five miles an hour.
In making such a run, it is hardly necessary to say that no extra weight was carried. Letters were written on the finest tissue paper; the charge was at the rate of five dollars for half an ounce. A hundred of these letters would make a bulk not much larger than an ordinary writing-tablet.
The mail-pouches were never to carry more than twenty pounds. They were leather bags, impervious to moisture; the letters, as a further protection, were wrapped in oiled silk. The pouches were locked, sealed, and strapped to the rider's side. They were not unlocked during the journey from St. Joseph to Sacramento.
The first trip was made in ten days; this was a saving of eleven days over the best time ever made by the "Butterfield Route." Sometimes the time was shortened to eight days; but an average trip was made in nine. The distance covered in this time was nineteen hundred and sixty-six miles.
President Buchanan's last presidential message was carried in December, 1860, in a few hours over eight days. President Lincoln's inaugural, the following March, was transmitted in seven days and seventeen hours. This was the quickest trip ever made.
The Pony Express line made its worth at once felt. It would have become a financial success but that a telegraph line was put into operation over the same stretch of territory, under the direction of Mr. Edward Creighton. The first message was sent over the wires the 24th of October, 1861. The Pony Express line had outlived its usefulness, and was at once discontinued. But it had accomplished its main purpose, which was to determine whether the route by which it went could be made a permanent track for travel the year through. The cars of the Union Pacific road now travel nearly the same old trails as those followed by the daring riders of frontier days.
Mr. Chrisman gave Will a cordial greeting. He explained the business of the express line to his young friend, and stated that the company had had nearly perfected its arrangements. It was now buying ponies and putting them into good condition, preparatory to beginning operations. He added, jokingly:
"It's a pity you're not a few years older, Billy. I would give you a job as Pony Express rider. There's good pay in it."
Will was at once greatly taken with the idea, and begged so hard to be given a trial that Mr. Chris-man consented to give him work for a month. If the life proved too hard for him, he was to be laid off at the end of that time. He had a short run of forty-five miles; there were three relay stations, and he was expected to make fifteen miles an hour.
The 3d of April, 1860, Mr. Russell stood ready to receive the mail from a fast New York train at St. Joseph. He adjusted the letter-pouch on the pony in the presence of an excited crowd. Besides the letters, several large New York papers printed special editions on tissue paper for this inaugural trip. The crowd plucked hairs from the tail of the first animal to start on the novel journey, and preserved these hairs as talismans. The rider mounted, the moment for starting came, the signal was given, and off he dashed.
At the same moment Sacramento witnessed a similar scene; the rider of that region started on the two thousand mile ride eastward as the other started westward. All the way along the road the several riders were ready for their initial gallop.
Will looked forward eagerly to the day when the express line should be set in motion, and when the hour came it found him ready, standing beside his horse, and waiting for the rider whom he was to relieve. There was a clatter of hoofs, and a horseman dashed up and flung him the saddle-bags. Will threw them upon the waiting pony, vaulted into the saddle, and was off like the wind.
The first relay station was reached on time, and Will changed with hardly a second's loss of time, while the panting, reeking animal he had ridden was left to the care of the stock-tender. This was repeated at the end of the second fifteen miles, and the last station was reached a few minutes ahead of time. The return trip was made in good order, and then Will wrote to us of his new position, and told us that he was in love with the life.