THE guns that opened on Fort Sumter set the country all ablaze. In Kansas, where blood had already been shed, the excitement reached an extraordinary pitch. Will desired to enlist, but mother would not listen to the idea.
My brother had never forgotten the vow made in the post-trader's, and now with the coming of war his opportunity seemed ripe and lawful; he could at least take up arms against father's old-time enemies, and at the same time serve his country. This aspect of the case was presented to mother in glowing colors, backed by most eloquent pleading; but she remained obdurate.
"You are too young to enlist, Willie," she said. "They would not accept you, and if they did, I could not endure it. I have only a little time to live; for my sake, then, wait till I am no more before you enter the army."
This request was not to be disregarded, and Will promised that he would not enlist while mother lived.
Kansas had long been the scene of bitter strife between the two parties, and though there was a preponderance of the Free-Soil element when it was admitted to the Union in 1861, we were fated to see some of the horrors of slavery. Suffering makes one wondrous kind; mother had suffered so much herself that the misery of others ever vibrated a chord of sympathy in her breast, and our house became a station on "the underground railway." Many a fugitive slave did we shelter, many here received food and clothing, and, aided by mother, a great number reached safe harbors.
One old man, named Uncle Tom, became so much attached to us that he refused to go on. We kept him as help about the hotel. He was with us several months, and we children grew very fond of him. Every evening when supper was over, he sat before the kitchen fire and told a breathless audience strange stories of the days of slavery. And one evening, never to be forgotten, Uncle Tom was sitting in his accustomed place, surrounded by his juvenile listeners, when he suddenly sprang to his feet with a cry of terror. Some men had entered the hotel sitting-room, and the sound of their voices drove Uncle Tom to his own little room, and under the bed.
"Mrs. Cody," said the unwelcome visitors, "we understand that you are harboring our runaway slaves. We propose to search the premises; and if we find our property, you cannot object to our re-moving it."
Mother was sorely distressed for the unhappy Uncle Tom, but she knew objection would be futile. She could only hope that the old colored man had made good his escape.
But no! Uncle Tom lay quaking under his bed, and there his brutal master found him. It is not impossible that there were slaveholders kind and humane, but the bitter curse of slavery was the open door it left for brutality and inhumanity; and never shall I forget the barbarity displayed by the owner of Uncle Tom before our horrified eyes. The poor slave was so old that his hair was wholly white; yet a rope was tied to it, and, despite our pleadings, he was dragged from the house, every cry he uttered evoking only a savage kick from a heavy riding-boot. When he was out of sight, and his screams out of hearing, we wept bitterly on mother's loving breast.
Uncle Tom again escaped, and made his way to our house, but he reached it only to die. We sorrowed for the poor old slave, but thanked God that he had passed beyond the inhumanity of man.
Debarred from serving his country as a soldier, Will decided to do so in some other capacity, and accordingly took service with a United States freight caravan, transporting supplies to Fort Laramie. On this trip his frontier training and skill as a marksman were the means of saving a life.
In Western travel the perils from outlaws and Indians were so real that emigrants usually sought the protection of a large wagon-train. Several families of emigrants journeyed under the wing of the caravan to which Will was attached.
When in camp one day upon the bank of the Platte River, and the members of the company were busied with preparations for the night's rest and the next day's journey, Mamie Perkins, a little girl from one of the emigrant families, was sent to the river for a pail of water. A moment later a monster buffalo was seen rushing upon the camp. A chorus of yells and a fusillade from rifles and revolvers neither checked nor swerved him. Straight through the camp he swept, like a cyclone, leaping ropes and boxes, overturning wagons, and smashing things generally.
Mamie, the little water-bearer, had filled her pail and was returning in the track selected by the buffalo. Too terrified to move, she watched, with white face and parted lips, the maddened animal sweep toward her, head down and tail up, its hoofs beating a thunderous tattoo on the plain.
Will had been asleep, but the commotion brought him to his feet, and snatching up his rifle, he ran toward the little girl, aimed and fired at the buffalo. The huge animal lurched, staggered a few yards farther, then dropped within a dozen feet of the terrified child.
A shout of relief went up, and while a crowd of praising men gathered about the embryo buffalo-hunter, Mamie was taken to her mother. Will never relished hearing his praises sung, and as the camp was determined to pedestal him as a hero, he ran away and hid in his tent.
Upon reaching Fort Laramie, Will's first business was to look up Alf Slade, agent of the Pony Express line, whose headquarters were at Horseshoe Station, twenty miles from the fort. He carried a letter of recommendation from Mr. Russell, but Slade demurred.
"You're too young for a Pony Express rider," said he.
"I rode three months a year ago, sir, and I'm much stronger now," said Will.
"Oh, are you the boy rider that was on Chrisman's division?"
"All right; I'll try you. If you can't stand it, I'll give you something easier."
Will's run was from Red Buttes, on the North Platte, to Three Crossings, on the Sweetwater -- seventy-six miles.
The wilderness was of the kind that is supposed to howl, and no person fond of excitement had reason to complain of lack of it. One day Will arrived at his last station to find that the rider on the next run had been mortally hurt by Indians. There being no one else to do it, he volunteered to ride the eighty-five miles for the wounded man. He accomplished it, and made his own return trip on time -- a continuous ride of three hundred and twenty-two miles. There was no rest for the rider, but twenty-one horses were used on the run-the longest ever made by a Pony Express rider.
Shortly afterward Will fell in with California Joe, a remarkable frontier character. He was standing beside a group of boulders that edged the trail when Will first clapped eyes on him, and the Pony Express man instantly reached for his revolver. The stranger as quickly dropped his rifle, and held up his hands in token of friendliness. Will drew rein, and ran an interested eye over the man, who was clad in buckskin.
California Joe, who was made famous in General Custer's book, entitled "Life on the Plains," was a man of wonderful physique, straight and stout as a pine. His red-brown hair hung in curls below his shoulders; he wore a full beard, and his keen, sparkling eyes were of the brightest hue. He came from an Eastern family, and possessed a good education, somewhat rusty from disuse.
"Hain't you the boy rider I has heard of -- the youngest rider on the trail?" he queried, in the border dialect. Will made an affirmative answer, and gave his name.
"Waal," said Joe, "I guess you've got some money on this trip. I was strikin' fer the Big Horn, and I found them two stiffs up yonder layin' fer ye. We had a little misunderstandin', and now I has 'em to plant."
Will thanked him warmly, and begged him not to risk the perils of the Big Horn; but California Joe only laughed, and told him to push ahead.
When Will reached his station he related his adventure, and the stock-tender said it was "good-by, California Joe." But Will had conceived a better opinion of his new friend, and he predicted his safe return.
This confidence was justified by the appearance of California Joe, three months later, in the camp of the Pony Riders on the Overland Trail. He received a cordial greeting, and was assured by the men that they had not expected to see him alive again. In return, he told them his story, and a very interesting story it was.
"Some time ago," said he (I shall not attempt to reproduce his dialect), "a big gang of gold-hunters went into the Big Horn country. They never returned, and the general sent me to see if I could get any trace of them. The country is full of Indians, and I kept my eye skinned for them, but I wasn't looking for trouble from white men. I happened to leave my revolver where I ate dinner one day, and soon after discovering the loss I went back after the gun. Just as I picked it up I saw a white man on my trail. I smelled trouble, but turned and jogged along as if I hadn't seen anything. That night I doubled back over my trail until I came to the camp where the stranger belonged. As I expected, he was one of a party of three, but they had five horses. I'll bet odds, Pard Billy" -- this to Will -- "that the two pilgrims laying for you belonged to this outfit.
"They thought I'd found gold, and were going to follow me until I struck the mine, then do me up and take possession.
"The gold is there, too, lots of it. There's silver, iron, copper, and coal, too, but no one will look at them so long as gold is to be had; but those that go for gold will, many of them, leave their scalps behind.
"We kept the trail day after day; the men stuck right to me, the chap ahead keeping me in sight and marking out the trail for his pard. When we got into the heart of the Indian country I had to use every caution; I steered clear of every smoke that showed a village or camp, and didn't use my rifle on game, depending on the rations I had with me.
"At last I came to a spot that showed signs of a battle. Skulls and bones were strewn around, and after a look about I was satisfied beyond doubt that white men had been of the company. The purpose of my trip was accomplished; I could safely report that the party of whites had been exterminated by Indians.
"The question now was, could I return without running into Indians? The first thing was to give my white pursuers the slip.
"That night I crept down the bed of a small stream, passed their camp, and struck the trail a half mile or so below.
"It was the luckiest move I ever made. I had ridden but a short distance when I heard the familiar war-whoop, and knew that the Indians had surprised my unpleasant acquaintances and taken their scalps. I should have shared the same fate if I hadn't moved.
"But, boys, it is a grand and beautiful country, full of towering mountains, lovely valleys, and mighty trees."
About the middle of September the Indians became very troublesome along the Sweetwater. Will was ambushed one day, but fortunately he was mounted on one of the fleetest of the company's horses, and lying flat on the animal's back, he distanced the redskins. At the relay station he found the stock-tender dead, and as the horses had been driven off, he was unable to get a fresh mount; so he rode the same horse to Plontz Station, twelve miles farther.
A few days later the station boss of the line hailed Will with the information:
"There's Injun signs about; so keep your eyes open."
"I'm on the watch, boss," was Will's answer, as he exchanged ponies and dashed away.
The trail ran through a grim wild. It was darkened by mountains, overhung with cliffs, and fringed with monster pines. The young rider's every sense had been sharpened by frontier dangers. Each dusky rock and tree was scanned for signs of lurking foes as he clattered down the twilight track.
One large boulder lay in plain view far down the valley, and for a second he saw a dark object appear above it.
He kept his course until within rifle-shot, and then suddenly swerved away in an oblique line. The ambush had failed, and a puff of smoke issued from behind the boulder. Two braves, in gorgeous war paint, sprang up, and at the same time a score of whooping Indians rode out of timber on the other side of the valley.
Before Will the mountains sloped to a narrow pass; could he reach that he would be comparatively safe. The Indians at the boulder were unmounted, and though they were fleet of foot, he easily left them behind. The mounted reds were those to be feared, and the chief rode a very fleet pony. As they neared the pass Will saw that it was life against life. He drew his revolver, and the chief, for his part, fitted an arrow to his bow.
Will was a shade the quicker. His revolver cracked, and the warrior pitched dead from his saddle. His fall was the signal for a shower of arrows, one of which wounded the pony slightly; but the station was reached on time.
The Indians were now in evidence all the time. Between Split Rock and Three Crossings they robbed a stage, killed the driver and two passengers, and wounded Lieutenant Flowers, the assistant division agent. They drove the stock from the stations, and continually harassed the Pony Express raiders and stage-drivers. So bold did the reds become that the Pony riders were laid off for six weeks, though stages were to make occasional runs if the business were urgent. A force was organized to search for missing stock. There were forty men in the party-stage-drivers, express-riders, stock-tenders, and ranchmen; and they were captained by a plainsman named Wild Bill, who was a good friend of Will for many years.
He had not earned the sobriquet through lawlessness. It merely denoted his dashing and daring. Physically he was well-nigh faultless-tall, straight, and symmetrical, with broad shoulders and splendid chest. He was handsome of face, with a clear blue eye, firm and well-shaped mouth, aquiline nose, and brown, curling hair, worn long upon his shoulders. Born of a refined and cultured family, he, like Will, seemingly inherited from some remote ancestor his passion for the wild, free life of the plains.
At this time Wild Bill was a well-known scout, and in this capacity served the United States to good purpose during the war.