AS Will was one of the laid-off riders, he was allowed to join the expedition against the Indian depredators, though he was the youngest member of the company.
The campaign was short and sharp. The Indian trail was followed to Powder River, and thence along the banks of the stream the party traveled to within forty miles of the spot where old Fort Reno now stands; from here the trail ran westerly, at the foot of the mountains, and was crossed by Crazy Woman's Fork, a tributary of the Powder.
Originally this branch stream went by the name of the Big Beard, because of a peculiar grass that fringed it. On its bank had stood a village of the Crow Indians, and here a half-breed trader had settled. He bought the red man's furs, and gave him in return bright-colored beads and pieces of calico, paints, and blankets. In a short time he had all the furs in the village; he packed them on ponies, and said good-by to his Indian friends. They were sorry to see him go, but he told them he would soon return from the land of the paleface, bringing many gifts. Months passed; one day the Indian sentinels reported the approach of a strange object. The village was alarmed, for the Crows had never seen ox, horse, or wagon; but the excitement was allayed when it was found that the strange outfit was the property of the half-breed trader.
He had brought with him his wife, a white woman; she, too, was an object of much curiosity to the Indians.
The trader built a lodge of wood and stones, and exposed all his goods for sale. He had brought beads, ribbons, and brass rings as gifts for all the tribe.
One day the big chief visited the store; the trader led him into a back room, swore him to secrecy, and gave him a drink of black water. The chief felt strangely happy. Usually he was very dignified and stately; but under the influence of the strange liquid he sang and danced on the streets, and finally fell into a deep sleep, from which he could not be wakened. This performance was repeated day after day, until the Indians called a council of war. They said the trader had bewitched their chief, and it must be stopped, or they would kill the intruder. A warrior was sent to convey this intelligence to the trader; he laughed, took the warrior into the back room, swore him to secrecy, and gave him a drink of the black water. The young Indian, in his turn, went upon the street, and laughed and sang and danced, just as the chief had done. Surprised, his companions gathered around him and asked him what was the matter. "Oh, go to the trader and get some of the black water!" said he.
They asked for the strange beverage. The trader denied having any, and gave them a drink of ordinary water, which had no effect. When the young warrior awoke, they again questioned him. He said he must have been sick, and have spoken loosely.
After this the chief and warrior were both drunk every day, and all the tribe were sorely perplexed. Another council of war was held, and a young chief arose, saying that he had made a hole in the wall of the trader's house, and had watched; and it was true the trader gave their friends black water. The half-breed and the two unhappy Indians were brought before the council, and the young chief repeated his accusation, saying that if it were not true, they might light him. The second victim of the black water yet denied the story, and said the young chief lied; but the trader had maneuvered into the position be desired, and be confessed. They bade him bring the water, that they might taste it; but before he departed the young chief challenged to combat the warrior that had said he lied. This warrior was the best spearsman of the tribe, and all expected the death of the young chief; but the black water had palsied the warrior's aim, his trembling hand could not fling true, and he was pierced to the heart at the first thrust. The tribe then repaired to the trader's lodge, and he gave them all a drink of the black water. They danced and sang, and then lay upon the ground and slept.
After two or three days the half-breed declined to provide black water free; if the warriors wanted it, they must pay for it. At first he gave them a "sleep," as they called it, for one robe or skin, but as the stock of black water diminished, two, then three, then many robes were demanded. At last he said be had none left except what he himself desired. The Indians offered their ponies, until the trader had all the robes and all the ponies of the tribe.
Now, he said, be would go back to the land of the paleface and procure more of the black water. Some of the warriors were willing he should do this; others asserted that he had plenty of black water left, and was going to trade with their enemy, the Sioux. The devil had awakened in the tribe. The trader's stores and packs were searched, but no black water was found. 'Twas hidden, then, said the Indians. The trader must produce it, or they would kill him. Of course he could not do this. He had sowed the wind; he reaped the whirlwind. He was scalped before the eyes of his horrified wife, and his body mutilated and mangled. The poor woman attempted to escape; a warrior struck her with his tomahawk, and she fell as if dead. The Indians fired the lodge. As they did so, a Crow squaw saw that the white woman was not dead. She took the wounded creature to her own lodge, bound up her wounds, and nursed her back to strength. But the unfortunate woman's brain was crazed, and could not bear the sight of a warrior.
As soon as she could get around she ran away. The squaws went out to look for her, and found her crooning on the banks of the Big Beard. She would talk with the squaws, but if a warrior appeared, she hid herself till he was gone. The squaws took her food, and she lived in a covert on the bank of the stream for many months. One day a warrior, out hunting, chanced upon her. Thinking she was lost, he sought to catch her, to take her back to the village, as all Indian tribes have a veneration for the insane; but she fled into the hills, and was never seen afterward. The stream became known as the "Place of the Crazy Woman," or Crazy Woman's Fork, and has retained the name to this day.
At this point, to return to my narrative, the signs indicated that reinforcements had reached the original body of Indians. The plainsmen were now in the heart of the Indian country, the utmost caution was required, and a sharp lookout was maintained. When Clear Creek, another tributary of the Powder, was come up with, an Indian camp, some three miles distant, was discovered on the farther bank.
A council of war was held. Never before had the white man followed the red so far into his domain, and 'twas plain the Indian was off his guard; not a scout was posted.
At Wild Bill's suggestion, the attack waited upon nightfall. Veiled by darkness, the company was to surprise the Indian camp and stampede the horses.
The plan was carried out without a hitch. The Indians outnumbered the white men three to one, but when the latter rushed cyclonically through the camp, no effort was made to repel them, and by the time the Indians had recovered from their surprise the plainsmen had driven off all the horses -- those belonging to the reds as well as those that had been stolen. A few shots were fired, but the whites rode scathless away, and unpursued.
The line of march was now taken up for Sweetwater Bridge, and here, four days later, the plainsmen brought up, with their own horses and about a hundred Indian ponies.
This successful sally repressed the hostilities for a space. The recovered horses were put back on the road, and the stage-drivers and express-riders resumed their interrupted activity.
"Billy," said Mr. Slade, who had taken a great fancy to Will -- "Billy, this is a hard life, and you're too young to stand it. You've done good service, and in consideration of it I'll make you a supernumerary. You'll have to ride only when it's absolutely necessary."
There followed for Will a period of dolce far niente; days when he might lie on his back and watch the clouds drift across the sky; when he might have an eye to the beauty of the woodland and the sweep of the plain, without the nervous strain of studying every tree and knoll that might conceal a lurking redskin. Winter closed in, and with it came the memories of the trapping season of 1860-61, when he had laid low his first and last bear. But there were other bears to be killed -- the mountains were full of them; and one bracing morning he turned his horse's head toward the hills that lay down the Horseshoe Valley. Antelope and deer fed in the valley, the sage-hen and the jack-rabbit started up under his horse's hoofs, but such small game went by unnoticed.
Two o'clock passed without a sign of bear, save some tracks in the snow. The wintry air had put a keen edge on Will's appetite, and hitching his tired horse, he shot one of the lately scorned sage-hens, and broiled it over a fire that invited a longer stay than an industrious bear-hunter could afford. But nightfall found him and his quarry still many miles asunder, and as he did not relish the prospect of a chaffing from the men at the station, he cast about for a camping-place, finding one in an open spot on the bank of a little stream. Two more sage hens were added to the larder, and he was preparing to kindle a fire when the whinnying of a horse caught his ear. He ran to his own horse to check the certain response, resaddled him, and disposed everything for flight, should it be necessary. Then, taking his rifle, he put forth on a reconnoissance.
He shortly came upon a bunch of horses, a dozen or more, around a crook of the stream. Above them, on the farther bank, shone a light. Drawing nearer, he saw that it came from a dugout, and he heard his own language spoken. Reassured, he walked boldly up to the door and rapped.
Silence -- followed by a hurried whispering, and the demand:
"Friend and white man," answered Will.
The door opened reluctantly, and an ugly-looking customer bade him enter. The invitation was not responded to with alacrity, for eight such villainous-looking faces as the dugout held it would have been hard to match. Too late to retreat, there was nothing for it but a determined front, and let wit point the way of escape. Two of the men Will recognized as discharged teamsters from Lew Simpson's train, and from his knowledge of their long-standing weakness he assumed, correctly, that he had thrust his head into a den of horsethieves.
"Who's with you?" was the first query; and this answered, with sundry other information esteemed essential, "Where's your horse?" demanded the most striking portrait in the rogues' gallery.
"Down by the creek," said Will.
"All right, sonny; we'll go down and get him," was the obliging rejoinder.
"Oh, don't trouble yourself," said Will. "I'll fetch him and put up here over night, with your permission. I'll leave my gun here till I get back."
"That's right; leave your gun, you won't need it," said the leader of the gang, with a grin that was as near amiability as his rough, stern calling permitted him. "Jim and I will go down with you after the horse."
This offer compelled an acquiescence, Will consoling himself with the reflection that it is easier to escape from two men than from eight.
When the horse was reached, one of the outlaws obligingly volunteered to lead it.
"All right," said Will, carelessly. "I shot a couple of sage-hens here; I'll take them along. Lead away!"
He followed with the birds, the second horsethief bringing up the rear. As the dugout was neared he let fall one of the hens, and asked the chap following to pick it up, and as the obliging rear guard stopped, Will knocked him senseless with the butt of his revolver. The man ahead heard the blow, and turned, with his hand on his gun, but Will dropped him with a shot, leaped on his horse and dashed off.
The sextet in the dugout spring to arms, and came running down the bank, and likely getting the particulars of the escape from the ruffian by the sage-hen, who was probably only stunned for the moment, they buckled warmly to the chase. The mountain-side was steep and rough, and men on foot were better than on horseback; accordingly Will dismounted, and clapping his pony soundly on the flank, sent him clattering on down the declivity, and himself stepped aside behind a large pine. The pursuing party rushed past him, and when they were safely gone, he climbed back over the mountain, and made his way as best he could to the Horseshoe. It was a twenty-five mile plod, and he reached the station early in the morning, weary and footsore.
He woke the plainsmen, and related his adventure, and Mr. Slade at once organized a party to hunt out the bandits of the dugout. Twenty well-armed stock-tenders, stage-drivers, and ranchmen rode away at sunrise, and, notwithstanding his fatigue, Will accompanied them as guide.
But the ill-favored birds had flown; the dugout was deserted.
Will soon tired of this nondescript service, and gladly accepted a position as assistant wagon-master under Wild Bill, who had taken a contract to fetch a load of government freight from Rolla, Missouri.
He returned with a wagon-train to Springfield, in that state, and thence came home on a visit. It was a brief one, however, for the air was too full of war for him to endure inaction. Contented only when at work, he continued to work on government freight contracts, until he received word that mother was dangerously ill. Then he resigned his position and hastened home.