AFTER being pounded against a saddle three dashes daily for three months, to the tune of fifteen miles an hour, Will began to feel a little loose in his joints, and weary withal, but he was determined to "stick it out." Besides the daily pounding, the track of the Pony Express rider was strewn with perils. A wayfarer through that wild land was more likely to run across outlaws and Indians than to pass unmolested, and as it was known that packages of value were frequently dispatched by the Pony Express line, the route was punctuated by ambuscades.
Will had an eye out every trip for a hold-up, but three months went by before he added that novelty to his other experiences. One day, as he flew around a bend in a narrow pass, he confronted a huge revolver in the grasp of a man who manifestly meant business, and whose salutation was:
"Halt! Throw up your hands!"
Most people do, and Will's hands were raised reluctantly. The highwayman advanced, saying, not unkindly:
"I don't want to hurt you, boy, but I do want them bags."
Money packages were in the saddlebags, and Will was minded to save them if he could, so, as the outlaw reached for the booty, Will touched the pony with his foot, and the upshot was satisfactory to an unexpected degree. The plunge upset the robber, and as the pony swept over him he got a vicious blow from one hoof. Will wheeled for a revolver duel, but the foe was prostrate, stunned, and bleeding at the head. Will disarmed the fellow, and pinioned his arms behind him, and then tied up his broken head. Will surmised that the prisoner must have a horse hidden hard by, and a bit of a search disclosed it. When he returned with the animal, its owner had opened his eyes. and was beginning to remember a few things. Will helped him to mount, and out of pure kindness tied him on; then he straddled his own pony, and towed the dismal outfit along with him.
It was the first time that he had been behind on his run, but by way of excuse he offered to Mr. Chrisman a broken-headed and dejected gentleman tied to a horse's back; and Chrisman, with a grin, locked the excuse up for future reference.
A few days after this episode Will received a letter from Julia, telling him that mother was ill, and asking him to come home. He at once sought out Mr. Chrisman, and giving his reason, asked to be relieved.
"I'm sorry your mother's sick," was the answer, "but I'm glad something has occurred to make you quit this life. It"s wearing you out, Billy, and you're too gritty to give it up without a good reason."
Will reached home to find mother slightly improved. For three weeks was he content to remain idly at home; then (it was November of 1860) his unquiet spirit bore him away on another trapping expedition, this time with a young friend named David Phillips.
They bought an ox-team and wagon to transport the traps, camp outfit, and provisions, and took along a large supply of ammunition, besides extra rifles. Their destination was the Republican River. It coursed more than a hundred miles from Leavenworth, but the country about it was reputed rich in beaver. Will acted as scout on the journey, going ahead to pick out trails, locate camping grounds, and look out for breakers. The information concerning the beaver proved correct; the game was in-deed so plentiful that they concluded to pitch a permanent camp and see the winter out.
They chose a hollow in a sidehill, and enlarged it to the dimensions of a decent-sized room. A floor of logs was put in, and a chimney fashioned of stones, the open lower part doing double duty as cook-stove and heater; the bed was spread in the rear, and the wagon sheltered the entrance. A corral of poles was built for the oxen, and one corner of it protected by boughs. Altogether, they accounted their winter quarters thoroughly satisfactory and agreeable.
The boys had seen no Indians on their trip out, and were not concerned in that quarter, though they were too good plainsmen to relax their vigilance. There were other foes, as they discovered the first night in their new quarters. They were aroused by a commotion in the corral where the oxen were con-fined, and hurrying out with their rifles, they found a huge bear intent upon a feast of beef. The oxen were bellowing in terror, one of them dashing crazily about the inclosure, and the other so badly hurt that it could not get up.
Phillips, who was in the lead, fired first, but succeeded only in wounding the bear. Pain was now added to the savagery of hunger, and the infuriated monster rushed upon Phillips. Dave leaped back, but his foot slipped on a bit of ice, and he went down with a thud, his rifle flying from his hand as he struck.
But there was a cool young head and a steady hand behind him. A ball from Will's rifle entered the distended mouth of the onrushing bear and pierced the brain, and the huge mass fell lifeless almost across Dave's body.
Phillips nerves loosened with a snap, and he laughed for very relief as he seized Will's hands.
"That's the time you saved my life, old fellow!" said he. "Perhaps I can do as much for you sometime."
"That's the first bear I ever killed," said Will, more interested in that topic than in the one Dave held forth on.
One of the oxen was found to be mortally hurt, and a bullet ended its misery. Will then took his first lesson in the gentle art of skinning a bear.
Dave's chance to square his account with Will came a fortnight later. They were chasing a bunch of elk, when Will fell, and discovered that he could not rise.
"I'm afraid I've broken my leg," said he, as Dave ran to him.
Phillips had once been a medical student, and he had examined the leg with a professional eye. You're right, Billy; the leg's broken," he reported.
Then he went to work to improvise splints and bind up the leg; and this done, he took Will on his back and bore him to the dugout. Here the leg was stripped, and set in carefully prepared splints, and the whole bound up securely.
The outlook was unpleasant, cheerfully as one might regard it. Living in the scoop of a sidehill when one is strong and able to get about and keep the blood coursing is one thing; living there pent up through a tedious winter is quite another. Dave meditated as he worked away at the pair of crutches.
"Tell you what I think I'd better do," said he. "The nearest settlement is some hundred miles miles away, and I can get there and back in twenty days. Suppose I make the trip, get a team for our wagon, and come back for you?"
The idea of being left alone and well-nigh helpless struck dismay to Will's heart, but there was no help for it, and he assented. Dave put matters into shipshape, piled wood in the dugout, cooked a quantity of food and put it where Will could reach it without rising, and fetched several days' supply of water. Mother, ever mindful of Will's education, had put some school-books in the wagon, and Dave placed these beside the food and water. When Phillips finally set out, driving the surviving ox before him, he left behind a very lonely and homesick boy.
During the first day of his confinement Will felt too desolate to eat, much less to read; but as he grew accustomed to solitude he derived real pleasure from the companionship of books. Perhaps in all his life he never extracted so much benefit from study as during that brief period of enforced idleness, when it was his sole means of making the dragging hours endurable. Dave, he knew, could not return in less than twenty days, and one daily task, never neglected, was to cut a notch in the stick that marked the humdrum passage of the days. Within the week he could hobble about on his crutches for a short distance; after that he felt more secure.
A fortnight passed. And one day, weary with his studies, he fell asleep over his books. Some one touched his shoulder, and looking up, he saw an Indian in war paint and feathers.
"How?" asked Will, with a show of friendliness, though he knew the brave was on the war-path.
Half a score of bucks followed at the heels of the first, squeezing into the little dugout until there was barely room for them to sit down.
With a sinking heart Will watched them enter, but he plucked up spirit again when the last, a chief, pushed in, for in this warrior he recognized an Indian that he had once done a good turn.
Whatever Lo's faults, he never forgets a kindness any more than he forgets an injury. The chief, who went by the name of Rain-in-the-Face, at once recognized Will, and asked him what he was doing in that place. Will displayed his bandages, and related the mishap that had made them necessary, and refreshed the chief's memory of a certain occasion when a blanket and provisions had drifted his way. Rain-in-the-Face replied, with proper gravity, that he and his chums were out after scalps, and confessed to designs upon Will's, but in consideration of Auld Lang Syne he would spare the paleface boy.
Auld Lang Syne however did not save the blankets and provisions, and the bedizened crew stripped the dugout almost bare of supplies; but Will was thankful enough to see the back of the last of them.
Two days later a blizzard set in. Will took an inventory, and found that, economy considered, he had food for a week; but as the storm would surely delay Dave, he put himself on half rations.
Three weeks were now gone, and he looked for Dave momentarily; but as night followed day and day grew into night again, he was given over to keen anxiety. Had Phillips lost his way? Had he failed to locate the snow-covered dugout? Had he perished in the storm? Had he fallen victim to Indians? These and like questions haunted the poor lad continually. Study became impossible, and he lost his appetite for what food there was left; but the tally on the stick was kept.
The twenty-ninth day dawned. Starvation stalked into the dugout. The wood, too, was nigh gone. But great as was Will's physical suffering, his mental distress was greater. He sat before a handful of fire, shivering and hungry, wretched and despondent.
Hark! Was that his name? Choking with emotion, unable to articulate, he listened intently. Yes; it was his name, and Dave's familiar voice, and with all his remaining energy he made an answering call.
His voice enabled Phillips to locate the dugout, and a passage was cleared through the snow. And when Will saw the door open, the tensions on his nerves let go, and he wept -- "like a girl," as he afterward told us.
"God bless you, Dave!" he cried, as he clasped his friend around the neck.