IT was now autumn of 1863, and Will was a well-grown young man, tall, strong, and athletic, though not yet quite eighteen years old. Our oldest sister, Julia, had been married, the spring preceding, to Mr. J. A. Goodman.
Mother had been growing weaker from day to day; being with her constantly, we had not remarked the change for the worse; but Will was much shocked by the transformation which a few months had wrought. Only an indomitable will power had enabled her to overcome the infirmities of the body, and now it seemed to us as if her flesh had been refined away, leaving only the sweet and beautiful spirit.
Will reached home none too soon, for only three weeks after his return the doctor told mother that only a few hours were left to her, and if she had any last messages, it were best that she communicate them at once. That evening the children were called in, one by one, to receive her blessing and farewell. Mother was an earnest Christian character, but at that time I alone of all the children appeared religiously disposed. Young as I was, the solemnity of the hour when she charged me with the spiritual welfare of the family has remained with me through all the years that have gone. Calling me to her side, she sought to impress upon my childish mind, not the sorrow of death, but the glory of the resurrection. Then, as if she were setting forth upon a pleasant journey, she bade me good by, and I kissed her for the last time in life. When next I saw her face it was cold and quiet. The beautiful soul had forsaken its dwelling-place of clay, and passed on through the Invisible, to wait, a glorified spirit, on the farther shore for the coming of the loved ones whose life-story was as yet unfinished.
Julia and Will remained with her throughout the night. Just before death there came to her a brief season of long-lost animation, the last flicker of the torch before darkness. She talked to them almost continuously until the dawn. Into their hands was given the task of educating the others of the family, and on their hearts and consciences the charge was graven. Charlie, who was born during the early Kansas troubles, had ever been a delicate child, and he lay an especial burden on her mind.
"If," she said, "it be possible for the dead to call the living, I shall call Charlie to me."
Within the space of a year, Charlie, too, was gone; and who shall say that the yearning of a mother's heart for her child was not stronger than the influences of the material world?
Upon Will mother sought to impress the responsibilities of his destiny. She reminded him of the prediction of the fortune-teller, that "his name would be known the world over."
"But," said she, "only the names of them that are upright, brave, temperate, and true can be honorably known. Remember always that 'he that overcometh his own soul is greater than he who taketh a city.' Already you have shown great abilities, but remember that they carry with them grave responsibilities. You have been a good son to me. In the hour of need you have always aided me, so that I can die now feeling that my children are not unprovided for. I have not wished you to enlist in the war, partly because I knew you were too young, partly because my life was drawing near its close. But now you are nearly eighteen, and if when I am gone your country needs you in the strife of which we in Kansas know the bitterness, I bid you go as soldier in behalf of the cause for which your father gave his life."
She talked until sleep followed exhaustion. When she awoke she tried to raise herself in bed. Will sprang to aid her, and with the upward look of one that sees ineffable things, she passed away, resting in his arms.
The morning of the 22d day of November, 1863, began the saddest day of our lives. We rode in a rough lumber wagon to Pilot Knob Cemetery, a long, cold, hard ride; but we wished our parents to be united in death as they had been in life, so buried mother in a grave next to father's.
The road leading from the cemetery forked a short distance outside of Leavenworth, one branch running to the city, the other winding homeward along Government Hill. When we were returning, and reached this fork, Will jumped out of the wagon.
"I can't go home when I know mother is no longer there," said he. "I am going to Leavenworth to see Eugene Hathaway. I shall stay with him to-night."
We pitied Will -- he and mother had been so much to each other -- and raised no objection, as we should have done had we known the real purpose of his visit.
The next morning, therefore, we were much surprised to see him and Eugene ride into the yard, both clothed in the blue uniforms of United States soldiers. Overwhelmed with grief over mother's death, it seemed more than we could bear to see our big brother ride off to war. We threatened to inform the recruiting officers that he was not yet eighteen; but he was too thoroughly in earnest to be moved by our objections. The regiment in which he had enlisted was already ordered to the front, and he had come home to say good-by. He then rode away to the hardships, dangers, and privations of a soldier's life. The joy of action balanced the account for him, while we were obliged to accept the usual lot of girlhood and womanhood -- the weary, anxious waiting, when the heart is torn with uncertainty and suspense over the fate of the loved ones who bear the brunt and burden of the day.
The order sending Will's regiment to the front was countermanded, and he remained for a time in Fort Leavenworth. His Western experiences were well known there, and probably for this reason he was selected as a bearer of military dispatches to Fort Larned. Some of our old pro-slavery enemies, who were upon the point of joining the Confederate army, learned of Will's mission, which they thought afforded them an excellent chance to gratify their ancient grudge against the father by murdering the son. The killing could be justified on the plea of service rendered to their cause. Accordingly, a plan was made to waylay Will and capture his dispatches at a creek he was obliged to ford.
He received warning of this plot. On such a mission the utmost vigilance was demanded at all times, and with an ambuscade ahead of him, he was alertness itself. His knowledge of Indian warfare stood him in good stead now. Not a tree, rock, or hillock escaped his keen glance. When he neared the creek at which the attack was expected, he left the road, and attempted to ford the stream four or five hundred yards above the common crossing, but found it so swollen by recent rains that he was unable to cross; so he cautiously picked his way back to the trail.
The assassins' camp was two or three hundred feet away from the creek. Darkness was coming on, and he took advantage of the shelter afforded by the bank, screening himself behind every clump of bushes. His enemies would look for his approach from the other direction, and he hoped to give them the slip and pass by unseen.
When he reached the point where he could see the little cabin where the men were probably hiding, he ran upon a thicket in which five saddle-horses were concealed.
"Five to one! I don't stand much show if they see me," he decided as he rode quietly and slowly along, his carbine in his hand ready for use.
"There he goes, boys! he's at the ford!" came a sudden shout from the camp, followed by the crack of a rifle. Two or three more shots rang out, and from the bound his horse gave Will knew one bullet had reached a mark. He rode into the water, then turned in his saddle and aimed like a flash at a man within range. The fellow staggered and fell, and Will put spurs to his horse, turning again only when the stream was crossed. The men were running toward the ford, firing as they came, and getting a warm return fire. As Will was already two or three hundred yards in advance, pursuers on foot were not to be feared, and he knew that before they could reach and mount their horses he would be beyond danger. Much depended on his horse. Would the gallant beast, wounded as he was, be able to long maintain the fierce pace he had set? Mile upon mile was put behind before the stricken creature fell. Will shouldered the saddle and bridle and continued on foot. He soon reached a ranch where a fresh mount might be procured, and was shortly at Fort Larned.
After a few hours' breathing-spell, he left for Fort Leavenworth with return dispatches. As he drew near the ford, he resumed his sharp lookout, though scarcely expecting trouble. The planners of the ambuscade had been so certain that five men could easily make away with one boy that there had been no effort at disguise, and Will had recognized several of them. He, for his part, felt certain that they would get out of that part of the country with all dispatch; but he employed none the less caution in crossing the creek, and his carbine was ready for business as he approached the camp.
The fall of his horse's hoofs evoked a faint call from one of the buildings. It was not repeated; instead there issued hollow moans.
It might be a trap; again, a fellow-creature might be at death's door. Will rode a bit nearer the cabin entrance.
"Who's there?" he called.
"Come in, for the love of God! I am dying here alone!" was the reply.
"Who are you?"
Will jumped from his horse. This was the man at whom he had fired. He entered the cabin.
"What is the matter?" he asked.
"I was wounded by a bullet," moaned Norcross, "and my comrades deserted me."
Will was now within range of the poor fellow lying on the floor.
"Will Cody!" he cried.
Will dropped on his knees beside the dying man, choking with the emotion that the memory of long years of friendship had raised. "My poor Ed!" he murmured. "And it was my bullet that struck you."
"It was in defense of your own life, Will," said Norcross. "God knows, I don't blame you. Don't think too hard of me. I did everything I could to save you. It was I who sent you warning. I hoped you might find some other trail."
"I didn't shoot with the others," continued Nor-cross, after a short silence. "They deserted me. They said they would send help back, but they haven't."
Will filled the empty canteen lying on the floor, and rearranged the blanket that served as a pillow; then he offered to dress the neglected wound. But the gray of death was already upon the face of Norcross.
"Never mind, Will," he whispered; "it's not worth while. Just stay with me till I die."
It was not a long vigil. Will sat beside his old friend, moistening his pallid lips with water. In a very short time the end came. Will disposed the stiffening limbs, crossing the hands over the heart, and with a last backward look went out of the cabin.
It was his first experience in the bitterness and savagery of war, and he set a grave and downcast face against the remainder of his journey.
As he neared Leavenworth he met the friend who had conveyed the dead man's warning message, and to him he committed the task of bringing home the body. His heaviness of spirit was scarcely mitigated by the congratulations of the commander of Fort Leavenworth upon his pluck and resources, which had saved both his life and the dispatches.
There followed another period of inaction, always irritating to a lad of Will's restless temperament. Meantime, we at home were having our own experiences.
We were rejoiced in great measure when sister Julia decided that we had learned as much as might be hoped for in the country school, and must thereafter attend the winter and spring terms of the school at Leavenworth. The dresses she cut for us, however, still followed the country fashion, which has regard rather to wear than to appearance, and we had not been a day in the city school before we discovered that our apparel had stamped "provincial" upon us in plain, large characters. In addition to this, our brother-in-law, in his endeavor to administer the estate economically, bought each of us a pair of coarse calfskin shoes. To these we were quite unused, mother having accustomed us to serviceable but pretty ones. The author of our "extreme" mortification, totally ignorant of the shy and sensitive nature of girls, only laughed at our protests, and in justice to him it may be said that he really had no conception of the torture he inflicted upon us.
We turned to Will. In every emergency he was our first thought, and here was an emergency that taxed his powers to an extent we did not dream of. He made answer to our letter that he was no longer an opulent trainman, but drew only the slender income of a soldier, and even that pittance was in arrears. Disappointment was swallowed up in remorse. Had we reflected how keenly he must feel his inability to help us, we would not have sent him the letter, which, at worst, contained only a sly suggestion of a fine opportunity to relieve sisterly distress. All his life he had responded to our every demand; now allegiance was due his country first. But, as was always the way with him, he made the best of a bad matter, and we were much comforted by the receipt of the following letter:
"My DEAR SISTERS:
"I am sorry that I cannot help you and furnish you with such clothes as you wish. At this writing I am so short of funds myself that if an entire Mississippi steamer could be bought for ten cents I couldn't purchase the smokestack. I will soon draw my pay, and I will send it, every cent, to you. So brave it out, girls, a little longer. In the mean time I will write to Al. Lovingly,
We were comforted, yes; but my last hope was gone, and I grew desperate. I had never worn the obnoxious shoes purchased by my guardian, and I proceeded to dispose of them forever. I struck what I regarded as a famous bargain with an accommodating Hebrew, and came into possession of a pair of shiny morocco shoes, worth perhaps a third of what mine had cost. One would say they were designed for shoes, and they certainly looked like shoes, but as certainly they were not wearable. Still they were of service, for the transaction convinced my guardian that the truest economy did not lie in the purchasing of calfskin shoes for at least one of his charges. A little later he received a letter from Will, presenting our grievances and advocating our cause. Will also sent us the whole of his next month's pay as soon as he drew it.
In February, 1864, Sherman began his march through Mississippi. The Seventh Kansas regiment, known as "Jennison's Jayhawkers," was reorganized at Fort Leavenworth as veterans, and sent to Memphis, Tenn., to join General A. J. Smith's command, which was to operate against General Forrest and cover the retreat of General Sturgis, who had been so badly whipped by Forrest at Cross-Roads. Will was exceedingly desirous of engaging in a great battle, and through some officers with whom he was acquainted, preferred a petition to be transferred to this regiment. The request was granted, and his delight knew no bounds. He wrote to us that his great desire was about to be gratified, that he should soon know what a real battle was like.
He was well versed in Indian warfare; now he was ambitious to learn, from experience, the superiority of civilized strife -- rather, I should say, of strife between civilized people.
General Smith had acquainted himself with the record made by the young scout of the plains, and shortly after reaching Memphis he ordered Will to report to headquarters for special service.
"I am anxious, said the general, "to gain reliable information concerning the enemy's movements and position. This can only be done by entering the Confederate camp. You possess the needed qualities -- nerve, coolness, resource -- and I believe you could do it."
"You mean," answered Will quietly, "that you wish me to go as a spy into the rebel camp."
"Exactly. But you must understand the risk you run. If you are captured, you will be hanged."
"I am ready to take the chances, sir," said Will; "ready to go at once, if you wish."
General Smith's stern face softened into a smile at the prompt response.
"I am sure, Cody," said he kindly, "that if any' one can go through safely, you will. Dodging Indians on the plains was good training for the work in hand, which demands quick intelligence and ceaseless vigilance. I never require such service of any one, but since you volunteer to go, take these maps of the country to your quarters and study them carefully. Return this evening for full instructions."
During the few days his regiment had been in camp, Will had been on one or two scouting expeditions, and was somewhat familiar with the immediate environments of the Union forces. The maps were unusually accurate, showing every lake, river, creek, and highway, and even the by-paths from plantation to plantation.
Only the day before, while on a reconnoissance, Will had captured a Confederate soldier, who proved to be an old acquaintance named Nat Golden. Will had served with Nat on one of Russell, Majors & Waddell's freight trains, and at one time had saved the young man's life, and thereby earned his enduring friendship. Nat was born in the East, became infected with Western fever, and ran away from home in order to become a plainsman.
"Well, this is too bad," said Will, when he recognized his old friend. "I would rather have captured a whole regiment than you. I don't like to take you in as a prisoner. What did you enlist on the wrong side for, anyway?"
"The fortunes of war, Billy, my boy," laughed Nat. "Friend shall be turned against friend, and brother against brother, you know. You wouldn't have had me for a prisoner, either, if my rifle hadn't snapped; but I'm glad it did, for I shouldn't want to be the one that shot you."
"Well, I don't want to see you strung up," said Will; "so hand me over those papers you have, and I will turn you in as an ordinary prisoner."
Nat's face paled as he asked, "Do you think I'm a spy, Billy?"
"I know it."
"Well," was the reply, "I've risked my life to obtain these papers, but I suppose they will be taken from me anyway; so I might as well give them up now, and save my neck."
Examination showed them to be accurate maps of the location and position of the Union army; and besides the maps, there were papers containing much valuable information concerning the number of soldiers and officers and their intended movements. Will had not destroyed these papers, and he now saw a way to use them to his own advantage. When he reported for final instructions, therefore, at General Smith's tent, in the evening, Will said to him:
"I gathered from a statement dropped by the prisoner captured yesterday, that a Confederate spy has succeeded in making out and carrying to the enemy a complete map of the position of our regiment, together with some idea of the projected plan of campaign."
"Ah," said the general; "I am glad that you have put me on my guard. I will at once change my position, so that the information will be of no value to them."
Then followed full instructions as to the duty required of the volunteer.
"When will you set out?" asked the general.
"To-night, sir. I have procured my uniform, and have everything prepared for an early start."
"Going to change your colors, eh?"
"Yes, for the time being, but not my principles."
The general looked approvingly at Will. "You will need all the wit, pluck, nerve, and caution of which you are possessed to come through this ordeal safely," said he. "I believe you can accomplish it, and I rely upon you fully. Good by, and success go with you!"
After a warm hand-clasp, Will returned to his tent, and lay down for a few hours' rest. By four o'clock he was in the saddle, riding toward the Confederate lines.