IT was during this period of his life that my brother's first literary venture was made. As the reader has seen, his school-days were few in number, and as he told Mr. Majors, in signing his first contract with him, he could use a rifle better than a pen. A life of constant action on the frontier does not leave a man much time for acquiring an education; so it is no great wonder that the first sketch Will wrote for publication was destitute of punctuation and short of capitals in many places. His attention was directed to these shortcomings, but Western life had cultivated a disdain for petty things.
"Life is too short," said he, "to make big letters when small ones will do; and as for punctuation, if my readers don't know enough to take their breath without those little marks, they'll have to lose it, that's all."
But in spite of his jesting, it was characteristic of him that when he undertook anything he wished to do it well. He now had leisure for study, and he used it to such good advantage that he was soon able to send to the publishers a clean manuscript, grammatical, and well spelled, capitalized, and punctuated. The publishers appreciated the improvement, though they had sought after his work in its crude state, and paid good prices for it.
Our author would never consent to write anything except actual scenes from border life, As a sop to the Cerberus of sensationalism, he did occasionally condescend to heighten his effects by exaggeration. In sending one story to the publisher he wrote:
"I am sorry to have to lie so outrageously in this yarn. My hero has killed more Indians on one war-trail than I have killed in all my life. But I understand this is what is expected in border tales. If you think the revolver and bowie-knife are used too freely, you may cut out a fatal shot or stab wherever you deem it wise."
Even this story, which one accustomed to border life confessed to be exaggerated, fell far short of the sensational and blood-curdling tales usually written, and was published exactly as the author wrote it.
During the summer of 1877 I paid a visit to our relatives in Westchester, Pennsylvania. My husband had lost all his wealth before his death, and I was obliged to rely upon my brother for support. To meet a widespread demand, Will this summer wrote his autobiography. It was published at Hartford, Connecticut, and I, anxious to do something for myself, took the general agency of the book for the state of Ohio, spending a part of the summer there in pushing its sale. But I soon tired of a business life, and turning over the agency to other hands, went from Cleveland to visit Will at his new home in North Platte, where there were a number of other guests at the time.
Besides his cattle-ranch in the vicinity of North Platte, Will had another ranch on the Dismal River, sixty-five miles north, touching the Dakota line. One day he remarked to us:
"I'm sorry to leave you to your own resources for a few days, but I must take a run up to my ranch on Dismal River."
Not since our early Kansas trip had I had an experience in camping out, and in those days I was almost too young to appreciate it; but it had left me with a keen desire to try it again.
"Let us all go with you, Will," I exclaimed. "We can camp out on the road."
Our friends added their approval, and Will fell in with the suggestion at once.
"There's no reason why you can't go if you wish to," said he. Will owned numerous conveyances, and was able to provide ways and means to carry us all comfortably. Lou and the two little girls, Arta and Ora, rode in an open phaeton. There were covered carriages, surreys, and a variety of turn-outs to transport the invited guests. Several prominent citizens of North Platte were invited to join the party, and when our arrangements were completed we numbered twenty-five.
Will took a caterer along, and made ample provisions for the inner man and woman. He knew, from long experience, that a camping trip without an abundance of food is rather a dreary affair.
All of us except Will were out for pleasure solely, and we found time to enjoy ourselves even during the first day's ride of twenty-five miles. As we looked around at the new and wild scenes while the tents were pitched for the night, Will led the ladies of the party to a tree, saying:
"You are the first white women whose feet have trod this region. Carve your names here, and celebrate the event."
After a good night's rest and a bounteous breakfast, we set out in high spirits, and were soon far out in the foothills.
One who has never seen these peculiar formations can have but little idea of them. On every side, as far as the eye can see, undulations of earth stretch away like the waves of the ocean, and on them no vegetation flourishes save buffalo-grass, sage-brush, and the cactus, blooming but thorny.
The second day I rode horseback, in company with Will and one or two others of the party, over a constant succession of hill and vale; we mounted an elevation and descended its farther side, only to be confronted by another hill. The horseback party was somewhat in advance of those in carriages.
From the top of one hill Will scanned the country with his field-glass, and remarked that some deer were headed our way, and that we should have fresh venison for dinner. He directed us to ride down into the valley and tarry there, so that we might not startle the timid animals, while he continued part way up the hill and halted in position to get a good shot at the first one that came over the knoll. A fawn presently bounded into view, and Will brought his rifle to his shoulder; but much to our surprise, instead of firing, dropped the weapon to his side. Another fawn passed him before he fired, and as the little creature fell we rode up to Will and began chaffing him unmercifully, one gentleman. remarking:
"It is difficult to believe we are in the presence of the crack shot of America, when we see him allow two deer to pass by before he brings one down."
But to the laughing and chafing Will answered not a word, and recalling the childish story I had heard of his buck fever, I wondered if, at this late date, it were possible for him to have another attack of that kind. The deer was handed over to the commissary department, and we rode on.
"Will, what was the matter with you just now?" I asked him privately. "Why didn't you shoot that first deer; did you have another attack like you had when you were a little boy?"
He rode along in silence for a few moments, and then turned to me with the query:
"Did you ever look into a deer's eyes?" And as I replied that I had not, he continued:
"Every one has his little weakness; mine is a deer's eye. I don't want you to say anything about it to your friends, for they would laugh more than ever, but the fact is I have never yet been able to shoot a deer if it looked me in the eye. With a buffalo, or a bear, or an Indian, it is different. But a deer has the eye of a trusting child, soft, gentle, and confiding. No one but a brute could shoot a deer if he caught that look. The first that came over the knoll looked straight at me; I let it go by, and did not look at the second until I was sure it had passed me."
He seemed somewhat ashamed of his soft-heartedness; yet to me it was but one of many little incidents that revealed a side of his nature the rough life of the frontier had not corrupted.
Will expected to reach the Dismal River on the third day, and at noon of it he remarked that he had better ride ahead and give notice of our coming, for the man who looked after the ranch had his wife with him, and she would likely be dismayed at the thought of preparing supper for so large a crowd on a minute's notice.
Sister Julia's son, Will Goodman, a lad of fifteen, was of our party, and he offered to be the courier.
"Are you sure you know the way?" asked his uncle.
"Oh, yes," was the confident response; "you know I have been over the road with you before, and I know just how to go."
"Well, tell me how you would go."
Young Will described the trail so accurately that his uncle concluded it would be safe for him to undertake the trip, and the lad rode ahead, happy and important.
It was late in the afternoon when we reached the ranch, and the greeting of the overseer was:
"Well, well; what's all this?"
"Didn't you know we were coming?" asked Will quickly. "Hasn't Will Goodman been here?" The ranchman shook his head.
"Haven't seen him, sir," he replied, "since he was here with you before."
"Well, he'll be along," said Will, quietly; but I detected a ring of anxiety in his voice. "Go into the house and make yourselves comfortable," he added. "It will be some time before a meal can be prepared for such a supper party." We entered the house, but he remained outside, and mounting the stile that served as a gate, examined the nearer hills with his glass. There was no sign of Will, Jr.; so the ranchman was directed to dispatch five or six men in as many directions to search for the boy, and as they hastened away on their mission Will remained on the stile, running his fingers every few minutes through the hair over his forehead-a characteristic action with him when worried. Thinking I might reassure him, I came out and chided him gently for what I was pleased to regard as his needless anxiety. It was impossible for Willie to lose his way very long, I explained, without knowing anything about my subject. "See how far you can look over these hills. It is not as if he were in the woods," said I.
Will looked at me steadily and pityingly for a moment. "Go back in the house, Nell," said he, with a touch of impatience; "you don't know what you are talking about."
That was true enough, but when I returned obediently to the house I repeated my opinion that worry over the absent boy was needless, for it would be difficult, I declared, for one to lose himself where the range of vision was so extensive as it was from the top of one of these foothills.
"But suppose," said one of the party, "that you were in the valley behind one of the foothills -- what then?"
This led to an animated discussion as to the danger of getting lost in this long-range locality, and in the midst of it Will walked in, his equanimity quite restored.
"It's all right," said he; "I can see the youngster coming along."
We flocked to the stile, and discovered a moving speck in the distance. Looked at through the fieldglasses, it proved to be the belated courier. Then we appealed to Will to settle the question that had been under discussion.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he answered impressively, "if one of you were lost among these foothills, and a whole regiment started out in search of you, the chances are ten to one that you would starve to death, to say the least, before you could be found."
To find the way with ease and locate the trail unerringly over an endless and monotonous succession of hills identical in appearance is an ability the Indian possesses, but few are the white men that can imitate the aborigine. I learned afterward that it was accounted one of Will's great accomplishments as a scout that he was perfectly at home among the frozen waves of the prairie ocean.
When the laggard arrived, and was pressed for particulars, he declared he had traveled eight or ten miles when he found that he was off the trail. "I thought I was lost," said he; "but after considering the matter I decided that I had one chance -- that was to go back over my own tracks. The marks of my horse's hoofs led me out on the main trail, and your tracks were so fresh that I had no further trouble."
"Pretty good," said Will, patting the boy's shoulder. "Pretty good. You have some of the Cody blood in you, that's plain."
The next day was passed in looking over the ranch, and the day following we visited, at Will's solicitation, a spot that he had named "The Garden of the Gods." Our thoughtful host had sent ranchmen ahead to prepare the place for our reception, and we were as surprised and delighted as he could desire. A patch on the river's brink was filled with tall and stately trees and luxuriant shrubs, laden with fruits and flowers, while birds of every hue nested and sang about us. It was a miniature paradise in the midst of a desert of sage-brush and buffalo-grass. The interspaces of the grove were covered with rich green grass, and in one of these nature-carpeted nooks the workmen, under Will's direction, had put up an arbor, with rustic seats and table. Herein we ate our luncheon, and every sense was pleasured.
As it was not likely that the women of the party would ever see the place again, so remote was it from civilization, belonging to the as yet uninhabited part of the Western plains, we decided to explore it, in the hope of finding something that would serve as a souvenir. We had not gone far when we found ourselves out of Eden and in the desert that surrounded it, but it was the desert that held our great discovery. On an isolated elevation stood a lone, tall tree, in the topmost branches of which reposed what seemed to be a large package. As soon as our imaginations got fairly to work the package became the hidden treasure of some prairie bandit, and while two of the party returned for our masculine forces the rest of us kept guard over the cachet in the treetop. Will came up with the others, and when we pointed out to him the supposed chest of gold he smiled, saying that he was sorry to dissipate the hopes which the ladies had built in the tree, but that they were not gazing upon anything of intrinsic value, but on the open sepulchre of some departed brave. "It is a wonder," he remarked laughingly, "you women didn't catch on to the skeleton in that closet."
As we retraced our steps, somewhat crestfallen, we listened to the tale of another of the red man's superstitions.
When some great chief, who particularly distinguishes himself on the war-path, loses his life on the battle-field without losing his scalp, he is regarded as especially favored by the Great Spirit. A more exalted sepulchre than mother earth is deemed fitting for such a warrior. Accordingly he is wrapped in his blanket-shroud, and, in his war paint and feathers and with his weapons by his side, he is placed in the top of the highest tree in the neighborhood, the spot thenceforth being sacred against intrusion for a certain number of moons. At the end of that period messengers are dispatched to ascertain if the remains have been disturbed. If they have not, the departed is esteemed a spirit chief, who, in the happy hunting-grounds, intercedes for and leads on to sure victory the warriors who trusted to his leadership in the material world.
We bade a reluctant adieu to the idyllic retreat, and threw it many a backward glance as we took our way over the desert that stretched between us and the ranch. Here another night was passed, and then we set out for home. The brief sojourn "near to Nature's heart" had been a delightful experience, holding for many of us the charm of novelty, and for all recreation and pleasant comradeship.
With the opening of the theatrical season Will returned to the stage, and his histrionic career continued for five years longer. As an actor he achieved a certain kind of success. He played in every large city of the United States, always to crowded houses, and was everywhere received with enthusiasm. There was no doubt of his financial success, whatever criticisms might be passed on the artistic side of his performance. It was his personality and reputation that interested his audiences. They did not expect the art of Sir Henry Irving, and you may be sure that they did not receive it.
Will never enjoyed this part of his career; he endured it simply because it was the means to an end. He had not forgotten his boyish dream -- his resolve that he would one day present to the world an exhibition that would give a realistic picture of life in the Far West, depicting its dangers and privations, as well as its picturesque phases. His first theatrical season had shown him how favorably such an exhibition would be received, and his long-cherished ambition began to take shape. He knew that an enormous amount of money would be needed, and to acquire such a sum he lived for many years behind the footlights.
I was present in a Leavenworth theatre during one of his last performances -- one in which he played the part of a loving swain to a would-be charming lassie. When the curtain fell on the last act I went behind the scenes, in company with a party of friends, and congratulated the star upon his excellent acting.
"Oh, Nellie," he groaned, "don't say anything about it. If heaven will forgive me this foolishness, I promise to quit it forever when this season is over."
That was the way he felt about the stage, so far as his part in it was concerned. He was a fish out of water. The feeble pretensions to a stern reality, and the mock dangers exploited, could not but fail to seem trivial to one who had lived the very scenes depicted.