IN common walks of life, to play the spy is an ignoble role; yet the work has to be done, and there must be men to do it. There always are such men -- nervy fellows who swing themselves into the saddle when their commander lifts his hand, and ride a mad race, with Death at the horse's flank every mile of the way. They are the unknown heroes of every war.
It was with a full realization of the dangers confronting him that Will cantered away from the Union lines, his borrowed uniform under his arm. As soon as he had put the outposts behind him, he dismounted and exchanged the blue clothes for the gray. Life on the plains had bronzed his face. For aught his complexion could tell, the ardent Southern sun might have kissed it to its present hue. Then, if ever, his face was his fortune in good part; but there was, too, a stout heart under his jacket, and the light of confidence in his eyes. The dawn had come up when he sighted the Confederate outposts. What lay beyond only time could reveal; but with a last reassuring touch of the papers in his pocket, he spurred his horse up to the first of the outlying sentinels. Promptly the customary challenge greeted him:
"Halt! Who goes there?"
"Dismount, friend! Advance and give the countersign!"
"Haven't the countersign," said Will, dropping from his horse, "but I have important information for General Forrest. Take me to him at once."
"Are you a Confederate soldier?"
"Not exactly. But I have some valuable news about the Yanks, I reckon. Better let me see the general."
"Thus far," he added to himself, "I have played the part. The combination of 'Yank' and 'I reckon' ought to establish me as a promising candidate for Confederate honors."
His story was not only plausible, but plainly and fairly told; but caution is a child of war, and the sentinel knew his business. The pseudo-Confederate was disarmed as a necessary preliminary, and marched between two guards to headquarters, many curious eyes (the camp being now astir) following the trio.
When Forrest heard the report, he ordered the prisoner brought before him. One glance at the general's handsome but harsh face, and the young man steeled his nerves for the encounter. There was no mercy in those cold, piercing eyes. This first duel of wits was the one to be most dreaded. Unless confidence were established, his after work must be done at a disadvantage.
The general's penetrating gaze searched the young face before him for several seconds.
"Well, sir," said he, "what do you want with me?" Yankee-like, the reply was another question:
"You sent a man named Nat Golden into the Union lines, did you not, sir?"
"And if I did, what then?"
"He is an old friend of mine. He tried for the Union camp to verify information that he had received, but before he started he left certain papers with me in case he should be captured."
"Ah!" said Forrest coldly. "And he was captured?"
"Yes, sir; but, as I happen to know, he wasn't hanged, for these weren't on him."
As he spoke, Will took from his pocket the papers he had obtained from Golden, and passed them over with the remark, "Golden asked me to take them to you.
General Forrest was familiar with the hapless Golden's handwriting, and the documents were manifestly genuine. His suspicion was not aroused.
"These are important papers," said he, when he had run his eye over them. "They contain valuable information, but we may not be able to use it, as we are about to change our location. Do you know what these papers contain?"
"Every word," was the truthful reply. "I studied them, so that in case they were destroyed you would still have the information from me.
"A wise thing to do," said Forrest approvingly. "Are you a soldier?"
"I have not as yet joined the army, but I am pretty well acquainted with this section, and perhaps could serve you as a scout."
"Um!" said the general, looking the now easy-minded young man over. "You wear our uniform."
"It's Golden's," was the second truthful answer. "He left it with me when he put on the blue."
"And what is your name?"
Pretty near the truth. Only a final "s" and a rearrangement of his given names.
"Very well," said the general, ending the audience; "you may remain in camp. If I need you, I'll send for you."
He summoned an orderly, and bade him make the volunteer scout comfortable at the courier's camp. Will breathed a sigh of relief as he followed at the orderly's heels. The ordeal was successfully passed. The rest was action.
Two days went by. In them Will picked up valuable information here and there, drew maps, and was prepared to depart at the first favorable opportunity. It was about time, he figured, that General Forrest found some scouting work for him. That was a passport beyond the lines, and he promised himself the outposts should see the cleanest pair of heels that ever left unwelcome society in the rear. But evidently scouting was a drug in the general's market, for the close of another day found Will impatiently awaiting orders in the couriers' quarters. This sort of inactivity was harder on the nerves than more tangible perils, and he about made up his mind that when he left camp it would be without orders, but with a hatful of bullets singing after him. And he was quite sure that his exit lay that way when, strolling past headquarters, he clapped eyes on the very last person that he expected or wished to see -- Nat Golden!
And Nat was talking to an adjutant-general!
There were just two things to do, knock Golden on the head, or cut and run. Nat would not betray him knowingly, but unwittingly was certain to do so the moment General Forrest questioned him. There could be no choice between the two courses open; it was cut and run, and as a preliminary Will cut for his tent. First concealing his papers, he saddled his horse and rode toward the outposts with a serene countenance.
The same sergeant that greeted him when he entered the lines chanced to be on duty, and of him Will asked an unimportant question concerning the outer-flung lines. Yet as he rode along he could not forbear throwing an apprehensive glance behind.
No pursuit was making, and the farthest picket-line was passed by a good fifty yards. Ahead was a stretch of timber.
Suddenly a dull tattoo of horses' hoofs caught his ear, and he turned to see a small cavalcade bearing down upon him at a gallop. He sank the spurs into his horse's side and plunged into the timber.
It was out of the frying-pan into the fire. He ran plump into a half-dozen Confederate cavalrymen, guarding two Union prisoners.
"Men, a Union spy is escaping!" shouted Will. "Scatter at once, and head him off. I'll look after your prisoners."
There was a ring of authority in the command; it came at least from a petty officer; and without thought of challenging it, the cavalrymen hurried right and left in search of the fugitive.
"Come," said Will, in a hurried but smiling whisper to the dejected pair of Union men. "I'm the spy! There!" cutting the ropes that bound their Wrists. "Now ride for your lives!"
Off dashed the trio, and not a minute too soon. Will's halt had been brief, but it had been of advantage to his pursuers, who, with Nat Golden at their head, came on in full cry, not a hundred yards behind.
Here was a race with Death at the horse's flanks. The timber stopped a share of the singing bullets, but there were plenty that got by the trees, one of them finding lodgment in the arm of one of the fleeing Union soldiers. Capture meant certain death for Will; for his companions it meant Andersonville or Libby, at the worst, which was perhaps as bad as death; but Will would not leave them, though his horse was fresh, and he could easily have distanced them. Of course, if it became necessary, he was prepared to cut their acquaintance, but for the present he made one of the triplicate targets on which the galloping marksmen were endeavoring to score a bull's-eye.
The edge of the wood was shortly reached, and beyond -- inspiring sight! -- lay the outposts of the Union army. The pickets, at sight of the fugitives, sounded the alarm, and a body of blue-coats responded.
Will would have gladly tarried for the skirmish that ensued, but he esteemed it his first duty to deliver the papers he had risked his life to obtain; so, leaving friend and foe to settle the dispute as best they might, he put for the clump of trees where he had hidden his uniform, and exchanged it for the gray, that had served its purpose and was no longer endurable. Under his true colors he rode into camp.
General Forrest almost immediately withdrew from that neighborhood, and after the atrocious massacre at Fort Pillow, on the 12th of April, left the state. General Smith was recalled, and Will was transferred, with the commission of guide and scout for the Ninth Kansas Regiment.
The Indians were giving so much trouble along the line of the old Santa Fe' trail that troops were needed to protect the stagecoaches, emigrants, and caravans traveling that great highway. Like nearly all our Indian wars, this trouble was precipitated by the injustice of the white man's government of certain of the native tribes. In 1860 Colonel A. G. Boone, a worthy grandson of the immortal Daniel, made a treaty with the Comanches, Kiowas, Cheyennes, and Arapahoes, and at their request he was made agent. During his wise, just, and humane administration all of these savage nations were quiet, and held the kindliest feelings toward the whites. Any one could cross the plains without fear of molestation. In 1861 a charge of disloyalty was made against Colonel Boone by Judge Wright, of Indiana, and he succeeded in having the right man removed from the right place. Russell, Majors & Waddell, recognizing his influence over the Indians, gave him fourteen hundred acres of land near Pueblo, Colorado. Colonel Boone moved there, and the place was named Booneville. Fifty chieftains from the tribes referred to visited Colonel Boone in the fall of 1862, and implored him to return to them. He told them that the President had sent him away. They offered to raise money, by selling their horses, to send him to Washington, to tell the Great Father what their agent was doing -- that he stole their goods and sold them back again; and they bade the colonel say that there would be trouble unless some one were put in the dishonest man's place. With the innate logic for which the Indian is noted, they declared that they had as much right to steal from passing caravans as the agent had to steal from them.
No notice was taken of so trifling a matter as an injustice to the Indian. The administration had its hands more than full in the attempt to right the wrongs of the negro.
In the fall of 1863 a caravan passed along the trail. It was a small one, but the Indians had been quiet for so long a time that travelers were beginning to lose fear of them. A band of warriors rode up to the wagon-train and asked for something to eat. The teamsters thought they would be doing humanity a service if they killed a redskin, on the ancient principle that "the only good Indian is a dead one." Accordingly, a friendly, inoffensive Indian was shot.
The bullet that reached his heart touched that of every warrior in these nations. Every man but one in the wagon-train was slain, the animals driven off, and the wagons burned.
The fires of discontent that had been smoldering for two years in the red man's breast now burst forth with volcanic fury. Hundreds of atrocious murders followed, with wholesale destruction of property.
The Ninth Kansas Regiment, under the command of Colonel Clark, was detailed to protect the old trail between Fort Lyon and Fort Larned, and as guide and scout Will felt wholly at home. He knew the Indian and his ways, and had no fear of him. His fine horse and glittering trappings were an innocent delight to him; and who will not pardon in him the touch of pride -- say vanity -- that thrilled him as he led his regiment down the Arkansas River?
During the summer there were sundry skirmishes with Indians. The same old vigilance, learned in earlier days on the frontier, was in constant demand, and there was many a rough and rapid ride to drive the hostiles from the trail. Whatever Colonel Clarke's men may have had to complain of, there was no lack of excitement, no dull days, in that summer.
In the autumn the Seventh Kansas was again ordered to the front, and at the request of its officers Will was detailed for duty with his old regiment. General Smith's orders were that he should go to Nashville. Rosecrans was then in command of the Union forces in Missouri. His army was very small, numbering only about 6,500 men, while the Confederate General Price was on the point of entering the state with 20,000. This superiority of numbers was so great that General Smith received an order countermanding the other, and remained in Missouri, joining forces with Rosecrans to oppose Price. Rosecrans' s entire force still numbered only 11,000, and he deemed it prudent to concentrate his army around St. Louis. General Ewing's forces and a portion of General Smith's command occupied Pilot Knob. On Monday, the 24th of September, 1864, Price advanced against this position, but was repulsed with heavy losses. An adjacent fort in the neighborhood of Ironton was assaulted, but the Confederate forces again sustained a severe loss. This fort held a commanding lookout on Shepherd Mountain, which the Confederates occupied, and their well-directed fire obliged General Ewing to fall back to Harrison Station, where he made a stand, and some sharp fighting followed. General Ewing again fell back, and succeeded in reaching General MCNeill, at Rolla, with the main body of his troops.
This was Will's first serious battle, and it so chanced that he found himself opposed at one point by a body of Missouri troops numbering many of the men who had been his father's enemies and persecutors nine years before. In the heat of the conflict he recognized more than one of them, and with the recognition came the memory of his boyhood's vow to avenge his father's death. Three of those men fell in that battle; and whether or not it was he who laid them low, from that day on he accounted himself freed of his melancholy obligation.
After several hard-fought battles, Price withdrew from Missouri with the remnant of his command -- seven thousand where there had been twenty.
During this campaign Will received honorable mention "for most conspicuous bravery and valuable service upon the field," and he was shortly brought into favorable notice in many quarters. The worth of the tried veterans was known, but none of the older men was in more demand that Will. His was seemingly a charmed life. Often was he detailed to bear dispatches across the battlefield, and though horses were shot under him -- riddled by bullets or torn by shells -- he himself went scathless.
During this campaign, too, he ran across his old friend of the plains, Wild Bill. Stopping at a farm-house one day to obtain a meal, he was not a little surprised to hear the salutation:
"Well, Billy, my boy, how are you?"
He looked around to see a hand outstretched from a coat-sleeve of Confederate gray, and as he knew Wild Bill to be a staunch Unionist, he surmised that he was engaged upon an enterprise similar to his own. There was an exchange of chaffing about gray uniforms and blue, but more serious talk followed.
"Take these papers, Billy," said Wild Bill, passing over a package. "Take 'em to General McNeill, and tell him I'm picking up too much good news to keep away from the Confederate camp."
"Don't take too many chances," cautioned Will, well knowing that the only chances the other would take would be the sort that were not visible.
Colonel Hickok, to give him his real name, replied, with a laugh:
"Practice what you preach, my son. Your neck is of more value than mine. You have a future, but mine is mostly past. I'm getting old."
At this point the good woman of the house punctuated the colloquy with a savory meal, which the pair discussed with good appetite and easy conscience, in spite of their hostess's refusal to take pay from Confederate soldiers.
"As long as I have a crust in the house," said she, "you boys are welcome to it."
But the pretended Confederates paid her for her kindness in better currency than she was used to. They withheld information concerning a proposed visit of her husband and son, of which, during one spell of loquacity, she acquainted them. The bread she cast upon the waters returned to her speedily.
The two friends parted company, Will returning to the Union lines, and Colonel Hickok to the opposing camp.
A few days later, when the Confederate forces were closing up around the Union lines, and a battle was at hand, two horsemen were seen to dart out of the hostile camp and ride at full speed for the Northern lines. For a space the audacity of the escape seemed to paralyze the Confederates; but presently the bullets followed thick and fast, and one of the saddles was empty before the rescue party -- of which Will was one -- got fairly under way. As the survivor drew near, Will shouted:
"It's Wild Bill, the Union scout."
A cheer greeted the intrepid Colonel Hickok, and he rode into camp surrounded by a party of admirers. The information he brought proved of great value in the battle of Pilot Knob (already referred to), which almost immediately followed.