VERY glad was the sad-hearted father that the theatrical season was so nearly over. The mummeries of the stage life were more distasteful to him than ever when he returned to his company with his crushing grief fresh upon him. He played nightly to crowded houses, but it was plain that his heart was not in his work. A letter from Colonel Mills, informing him that his services were needed in the army, came as a welcome relief. He canceled his few remaining dates, and disbanded his company with a substantial remuneration.
This was the spring of the Centennial year. It has also been called the "Custer year," for during that summer the gallant general and his heroic Three Hundred fell in their unequal contest with Sitting Bull and his warriors.
Sitting Bull was one of the ablest chiefs and fighters the Sioux nation ever produced. He got his name from the fact that once when he had shot a buffalo he sprang astride of it to skin it, and the wounded bull rose on its haunches with the Indian on its back. He combined native Indian cunning with the strategy and finesse needed to make a great general, and his ability as a leader was conceded alike by red and white man. A dangerous man at best, the wrongs his people had suffered roused all his Indian cruelty, vindictiveness, hatred, and thirst for revenge.
The Sioux war of 1876 had its origin, like most of its predecessors and successors, in an act of injustice on the part of the United States government and a violation of treaty rights.
In 1868 a treaty had been made with the Sioux, by which the Black Hills country was reserved for their exclusive use, no settling by white men to be allowed. In 1874 gold was discovered, and the usual gold fever was followed by a rush of whites into the Indian country. The Sioux naturally resented the intrusion, and instead of attempting to placate them, to the end that the treaty might be revised, the government sent General Custer into the Black Hills with instructions to intimidate the Indians into submission. But Custer was too wise, too familiar with Indian nature, to adhere to his instructions to the letter, Under cover of a flag of truce, a council was arranged. At this gathering coffee, sugar, and bacon were distributed among the Indians, and along with those commodities Custer handed around some advice. This was to the effect that it would be to the advantage of the Sioux if they permitted the miners to occupy the gold country. The coffee, sugar, and bacon were accepted thankfully by Lo, but no nation, tribe, or individual since the world began has ever welcomed advice. It was thrown away on Lo. He received it with such an air of indifference and in such a stoical silence that General Custer had no hope his mission had succeeded.
In 1875 General Crook was sent into the Hills to make a farcical demonstration of the government's desire to maintain good faith, but no one was deceived, the Indians least of all. In August, Custer City was laid out, and in two weeks its population numbered six hundred. General Crook drove out the inhabitants, and as he marched triumphantly out of one end of the village the people marched in again at the other.
The result of this continued bad faith was inevitable; everywhere the Sioux rose in arms. Strange as it might seem to one who has not followed the government's remarkable Indian policy, it had dispensed firearms to the Indians with a generous hand. The government's Indian policy, condensed, was to stock the red man with rifles and cartridges, and then provide him with a first-class reason for using them against the whites. During May, June, and July of that year the Sioux had received 1,120 Remington and Winchester rifles and 13,000 rounds of patent ammunition. During that year they received several thousand stands of arms and more than a million rounds of ammunition, and for three years before that they had been regularly supplied with weapons. The Sioux uprising of 1876 was expensive for the government. One does not have to go far to find the explanation.
Will expected to join General Crook, but on reaching Chicago he found that General Carr was still in command of the Fifth Cavalry, and had sent a request that Will return to his old regiment. Carr was at Cheyenne; thither Will hastened at once. He was met at the station by Captain Charles King, the well-known author, and later serving as brigadier-general at Manila, then adjutant of the regiment. As the pair rode into camp the cry went up: "Here comes Buffalo Bill!" Three ringing cheers expressed the delight of the troopers over his return to his old command, and Will was equally delighted to meet his quondam companions. He was appointed guide and chief of scouts, and the regiment proceeded to Laramie. From there they were ordered into the Black Hills country, and Colonel Merritt replaced General Carr.
The incidents of Custer's fight and fall are so well known that it is not necessary to repeat them here. It was a better fight than the famous charge of the Light Brigade at Balaklava, for not one of the three hundred came forth from the "jaws of death." As at Balaklava, "some one had blundered," not once, but many times, and Custer's command discharged the entire debt with their lifeblood.
When the news of the tragedy reached the main army, preparations were made to move against the Indians in force. The Fifth Cavalry was instructed to cut off, if possible, eight hundred Cheyenne warriors on their way to join the Sioux, and Colonel Wesley Merritt, with five hundred men, hastened to Hat, or War-Bonnet, Creek, purposing to reach the trail before the Indians could do so. The creek was reached on the 17th of July, and at daylight the following morning Will rode forth to ascertain whether the Cheyennes had crossed the trail. They had not, but that very day the scout discerned the warriors coming up from the south.
Colonel Merritt ordered his men to mount their horses, but to remain out of sight, while he, with his adjutant, Charles King, accompanied Will on a tour of observation. The Cheyennes came directly toward the troops, and presently fifteen or twenty of them dashed off to the west along the trail the army had followed the night before. Through his glass Colonel Merritt remarked two soldiers on the trail, doubtless couriers with dispatches, and these the Indians manifestly designed to cut off. Will suggested that it would be well to wait until the warriors were on the point of charging the couriers, when, if the colonel were willing, he would take a party of picked men and cut off the hostile delegation from the main body, which was just coming over the divide.
The colonel acquiesced, and Will, galloping back to camp, returned with fifteen men. The couriers were some four hundred yards away, and their Indian pursuers two hundred behind them. Colonel Merritt gave the word to charge, and Will and his men skurried toward the redskins.
In the skirmish that ensued three Indians were killed. The rest started for the main band of warriors, who had halted to watch the fight, but they were so hotly pursued by the soldiers that they turned at a point half a mile distant from Colonel Merritt, and another skirmish took place.
Here something a little out of the usual occurred -- a challenge to a duel. A warrior, whose decorations and war-bonnet proclaimed him a chief, rode out in front of his men, and called out in his own tongue, which Will could understand:
"I know you, Pa-has-ka! Come and fight me, if you want to fight!"
Will rode forward fifty yards, and the warrior advanced a like distance. The two rifles spoke, and the Indian's horse fell; but at the same moment Will's horse stumbled into a gopher-hole and threw its rider. Both duelists were instantly on their feet, confronting each other across a space of not more than twenty paces. They fired again simultaneously, and though Will was unhurt, the Indian fell dead.
The duel over, some two hundred warriors dashed up to recover the chieftain's body and to avenge his death. It was now Colonel Merritt's turn to move. He dispatched a company of soldiers to Will's aid, and then ordered the whole regiment to the charge. As the soldiers advanced, Will swung the Indian's topknot and war-bonnet which he had secured, and shouted, "The first scalp for Custer!"
The Indians made a stubborn resistance, but as they found this useless, began a retreat toward Red Cloud agency, whence they had come. The retreat continued for thirty-five miles, the troops following into the agency. The fighting blood of the Fifth was at fever heat, and they were ready to encounter the thousands of warriors at the agency should they exhibit a desire for battle. But they manifested no such desire.
Will learned that the name of the chief he had killed that morning was "Yellow Hand." He was the son of "Cut Nose," a leading spirit among the Cheyennes. This old chieftain offered Will four mules if he would return the war-bonnet and accouterments worn by the young warrior and captured in the fight, but Will did not grant the request, much as he pitied Cut Nose in his grief.
The Fifth Calvary on the following morning started on its march to join General Crook's command in the Big Horn Mountains. The two commands united forces on the 3rd of August, and marched to the confluence of the Powder River with the Yellowstone. Here General Miles met them, to report that no Indians had crossed the stream.
No other fight occurred; but Will made himself useful in his capacity of scout. There were many rides, carrying dispatches that no one else would volunteer to bear. When he was assured that the fighting was all over, he took passage, in September, on the steamer "Far West," and sailed down the Missouri.
People in the Eastern States were wonderfully interested in the stirring events on the frontier, and Will conceived the idea of putting the incidents of the Sioux war upon the stage. Upon his return to Rochester he had a play written for his purpose, organized a company, and opened his season. Previously he had paid a flying visit to Red Cloud agency, and induced a number of Sioux Indians to take part in his drama.
The red men had no such painful experience as Wild Bill and Texas Jack. All they were expected to do in the way of acting was what came natural to them. Their part was to introduce a bit of "local color," to give a war-dance, take part in a skirmish, or exhibit themselves in some typical Indian fashion.
At the close of this season Will bought a large tract of land near North Platte, and started a cattle-ranch. He already owned one some distance to the northward, in partnership with Major North, the leader of the Pawnee scouts. Their friendship had strengthened since their first meeting, ten year's before.
In this new ranch Will takes great pride. He has added to its area until it now covers seven thousand acres, and he has developed its resources to the utmost. Twenty-five hundred acres are devoted to alfalfa and twenty-five hundred sown to corn. One of the features of interest to visitors is a wooded park, containing a number of deer and young buffaloes. Near the park is a beautiful lake. In the center of the broad tract of land stands the picturesque building known as "Scout's Rest Ranch," which, seen from the foothills, has the appearance of an old castle.
The ranch is one of the most beautiful spots that one can imagine, and is, besides, an object-lesson in the value of scientific investigation and experiment joined with persistence and perseverance. When Will bought the property he was an enthusiastic believer in the possibilities of Nebraska development. His brother-in-law, Mr. Goodman, was put in charge of the place.
The whole Platte Valley formed part of the district once miscalled the Great American Desert. It was an idea commonly accepted, but, as the sequel proved, erroneous, that lack of moisture was the cause of lack of vegetation. An irrigating ditch was constructed on the ranch, trees were planted, and it was hoped that with such an abundance of moisture they would spring up like weeds. Vain hope! There was "water, water everywhere," but not a tree would grow.
Will visited his old Kansas home, and the sight of tall and stately trees filled him with a desire to transport some of this beauty to his Nebraska ranch.
"I'd give five hundred dollars," said he, "for every tree I had like that in Nebraska!"
Impressed by the proprietor's enthusiasm for arboreal development, Mr. Goodman began investigation and experiment It took him but a short time to acquire a knowledge of the deficiencies of the soil, and this done, the bigger half of the problem was solved.
Indian legend tells us that this part of our country was once an inland sea. There is authority for the statement that to-day it is a vast subterranean reservoir, and the conditions warrant the assertion. The soil in all the region has a depth only of from one to three feet, while underlying the shallow arable deposit is one immense bedrock, varying in thickness, the average being from three to six feet. Everywhere water may be tapped by digging through the thin soil and boring through the rock formation. The country gained its reputation as a desert, not from lack of moisture, but from lack of soil. In the pockets of the foothills, where a greater depth of soil had accumulated from the washings of the slopes above, beautiful little groves of trees might be found, and the islands of the Platte River were heavily wooded. Everywhere else was a treeless waste.
The philosophy of the transformation from sea to plain is not fully understood. The most tenable theory yet advanced is that the bedrock is an alkaline deposit, left by the waters in a gradually widening and deepening margin. On this the prairie wind sifted its accumulation of dust, and the rain washed down its quota from the bank above. In the slow process of countless years the rock formation extended over the whole sea; the alluvial deposit deepened; seeds lodged in it, and the buffalo-grass and sage-brush began to grow, their yearly decay adding to the ever-thickening layer of soil.
Having learned the secret of the earth, Mr. Goodman devoted himself to the study of the trees. He investigated those varieties having lateral roots, to determine which would flourish best in a shallow soil. He experimented, he failed, and he tried again. All things come round to him who will but work. Many experiments succeeded the first, and many failures followed in their turn. But at last, like Archimedes, he could cry "Eureka! I have found it!" In a very short time he had the ranch charmingly laid out with rows of cottonwoods, box-elder, and other members of the tree family. The ranch looked like an oasis in the desert, and neighbors inquired into the secret of the magic that had worked so marvelous a transformation. The streets of North Platte are now beautiful with trees, and adjoining farms grow many more. It is "Scout's Rest Ranch," however, that is pointed out with pride to travelers on the Union Pacific Railroad.
Mindful of his resolve to one day have a residence in North Platte, Will purchased the site on which his first residence was erected. His family had sojourned in Rochester for several years, and when they returned to the West the new home was built according to the wishes and under the supervision of the wife and mother. To the dwelling was given the name "Welcome Wigwam."