HOW THE SOBRIQUET OF "BUFFALO BILL" WAS WON
IN frontier days a man had but to ask for work to get it. There was enough and to spare for every one. The work that paid best was the kind that suited Will, it mattered not how hard or dangerous it might be.
At the time Rome fell, the work on the Kansas Pacific Railroad was pushing forward at a rapid rate, and the junior member of the once prosperous firm of Rose & Cody saw a new field of activity open for him—that of buffalo-hunting. Twelve hundred men were employed on the railroad construction, and Goddard Brothers, who had under’ taken to board the vast crew, were hard pressed to obtain fresh meat. To supply this indispensable, buffalo-hunters were employed, and as Will was known to be an expert buffalo-slayer, Goddard Brothers were glad to add him to their "commissary staff." His contract with them called for an average of twelve buffaloes daily, for which he was to receive five hundred dollars a month. It was "good pay," the desired feature, but the work was hard and hazardous. He must first scour the country for his game, with a good prospect always of finding Indians instead of buffalo; then, when the game was shot, he must oversee its cutting and dressing, and look after the wagons that transported it to the camp where the workmen messed. It was while working under this contract that he acquired the sobriquet of "Buffalo Bill." It clung to him ever after, and he wore it with more pride than he would have done the title of prince or grand duke. Probably there are thousands of people to-day who know him by that name only.
At the outset he procured a trained buffalo-hunting horse, which went by the unconventional name of "Brigham," and from the government he obtained an improved breech-loading needle-gun, which, in testimony of its murderous qualities, he named "Lucretia Borgia."
Buffaloes were usually plentiful enough, but there were times when the camp supply of meat ran short. During one of these dull spells, when the company was pressed for horses, Brigham was hitched to a scraper. One can imagine his indignation. A racer dragging a street-car would have no more just cause for rebellion than a buffalo-hunter tied to a work implement in the company of stupid horses that never had a thought above a plow, a hay-rake, or a scraper. Brigham expostulated, and in such plain language, that Will, laughing, was on the point of unhitching him, when a cry went up — the equivalent of a whaler’s: "There she blows!" — that a herd of buffaloes was coming over the hill.
Brigham and the scraper parted company instantly, and Will mounted him bareback, the saddle being at the camp, a mile away. Shouting an order to the men to follow him with a wagon to take back the meat, he galloped toward the game.
There were other hunters that day. Five officers rode out from the neighboring fort, and joined Will while waiting for the buffaloes to come up. They were recent arrivals in that part of the country, and their shoulder-straps indicated that one was a captain and the others were lieutenants. They did not know "Buffalo Bill." They saw nothing but a goodlooking young fellow, in the dress of a working man, astride a not handsome horse, which had a blind bridle and no saddle. It was not a formidable-looking hunting outfit, and the captain was disposed to be a trifle patronizing.
"Hello!" he called out. "I see you’re after the same game we are."
"Yes, sir," returned Will. "Our camp’s out of fresh meat."
The officer ran a critical eye over Brigham. "Do you expect to run down a buffalo with a horse like that?" said he.
"Why," said Will innocently, "are buffaloes pretty speedy?"
"Speedy? It takes a fast horse to overhaul those animals on the open prairie."
"Does it?" said Will; and the officer did not see the twinkle in his eye. Nothing amuses a man more than to be instructed on a matter that he knows thoroughly, and concerning which his instructor knows nothing. Probably every one of the officers had yet to shoot his first buffalo.
"Come along with us," offered the captain graciously. "We’re going to kill a few for sport, and all we care for are the tongues and a chuck of the tenderloin; you can have the rest.
"Thank you," said Will. "I’ll follow along."
There were eleven buffaloes in the herd, and the officers started after them as if they had a sure thing on the entire number. Will noticed that the game was pointed toward a creek, and understanding "the nature of the beast," started for the water, to head them off.
As the herd went past him, with the military quintet five hundred yards in the rear, he gave Brigham’s blind bridle a twitch, and in a few jumps the trained hunter was at the side of the rear buffalo; Lucretia Borgia spoke, and the buffalo fell dead. Without even a bridle signal, Brigham was promptly at the side of the next buffalo, not ten feet away, and this, too, fell at the first shot. The maneuver was repeated until the last buffalo went down. Twelve shots had been fired; then Brigham, who never wasted his strength, stopped. The officers had not had even a shot at the game. Astonishment was written on their faces as they rode up.
"Gentlemen," said Will, courteously, as he dismounted, "allow me to present you with eleven tongues and as much of the tenderloin as you wish."
"By Jove!" exclaimed the captain, "I never saw anything like that before. Who are you, anyway?"
"Bill Cody’s my name."
"Well, Bill Cody, you know how to kill buffalo, and that horse of yours has some good running points, after all."
"One or two," smiled Will.
Captain Graham—as his name proved to be — and his companions were a trifle sore over missing even the opportunity of a shot, but they professed to be more than repaid for their disappointment by witnessing a feat they had not supposed possible in a white man—hunting buffalo without a saddle, bridle, or reins. Will explained that Brigham knew more about the business than most two-legged hunters. All the rider was expected to do was to shoot the buffalo. If the first shot failed, Brigham allowed another; if this, too, failed Brigham lost patience, and was as likely as not to drop the matter then and there.
It was this episode that fastened the name of "Buffalo Bill" upon Will, and learning of it, the friends of Billy Comstock, chief of scouts at Fort Wallace, filed a protest. Comstock, they said, was Cody’s superior as a buffalo-hunter. So a match was arranged to determine whether it should be "Buffalo Bill’ Cody or "Buffalo Bill" Comstock.
The hunting-ground was fixed near Sheridan, Kansas, and quite a crowd of spectators was attracted by the news of the contest. Officers, soldiers, plainsmen, and railroadmen took a day off to see the sport, and one excursion party, including many ladies, among them Louise, came up from St. Louis.
Referees were appointed to follow each man and keep a tally of the buffaloes slain. Comstock was mounted on his favorite horse, and carried a Henry rifle of large calibre. Brigham and Lucretia went with Will. The two hunters rode side by side until the first herd was sighted and the word given, when off they dashed to the attack, separating to the right and left. In this first trial Will killed thirty-eight and Comstock twenty-three. They had ridden miles, and the carcasses of the dead buffaloes were strung all over the prairie. Luncheon was served at noon, and scarcely was it over when another herd was sighted, composed mainly of cows with their calves. The damage to this herd was eighteen and fourteen, in favor of Cody.
In those days the prairies were alive with buffaloes, and a third herd put in an appearance before the rifle-barrels were cooled. In order to give Brigham a share of the glory, Will pulled off saddle and bridle, and advanced bareback to the slaughter.
That closed the contest. Score, sixty-nine to forty-eight. Comstock’s friends surrendered, and Cody was dubbed "Champion Buffalo Hunter of the Plains."
The heads of the buffaloes that fell in this hunt were mounted by the Kansas Pacific Railroad Cormpany, and distributed about the country, as advertisements of the region the new road was traversing. Meanwhile, Will continued hunting for the Kansas Pacific contractors, and during the year and a half that he supplied them with fresh meat he killed four thousand two hundred and eighty buffaloes. But when the railroad reached Sheridan it was decided to build no farther at that time, and Will was obliged to look for other work.
The Indians had again become so troublesome that a general war threatened all along the border, and General P. H. Sheridan came West to personally direct operations. He took up his quarters at Fort Leavenworth, but the Indian depredations becoming more widespread, he transferred his quarters to Fort Hayes, then the terminus of the Kansas Pacific Railroad. Will was then in the employ of the quartermaster’s department at Fort Larned, but was sent with an important dispatch to General Sheridan announcing that the Indians near Larned were preparing to decamp. The distance between Larned and Hayes was sixty-five miles, through a section infested with Indians, but Will tackled it, and reached the commanding General without mishap.
Shortly afterward it became necessary to send dispatches from Fort Hayes to Fort Dodge. Ninetyfive miles of country lay between, and every mile of it was dangerous ground. Fort Dodge was surrounded by Indians, and three scouts had lately been killed while trying to get dispatches through, but Will’s confidence in himself or his destiny was unshakable, and he volunteered to take the dispatches, as far, at least, as the Indians would let him.
"It is a dangerous undertaking," said General Sheridan, "but it is most important that the dispatches should go through; so, if you are willing to risk it, take the best horse you can find, and the sooner you start the better."
Within an hour the scout was in the saddle. At the outset Will permitted his horse to set his own pace, for in case of pursuit he should want the animal fresh enough to at least hold his own. But no pursuit materialized, and when the dawn came up he had covered seventy miles, and reached a station on Coon Creek, manned by colored troops. Here he delivered a letter to Major Cox, the officer in command, and after eating breakfast, took a fresh horse, and resumed his journey before the sun was above the plain.
Fort Dodge was reached, the dispatches delivered by nine o’clock, and Will turned in for a needed sleep. When he awoke, he was assured by John Austin, chief of the scouts at Dodge, that his coming through unharmed from Fort Hayes was little short of a miracle. He was also assured that a journey to his own headquarters, Fort Larned, would be even more ticklish than his late ride, as the hostiles were especially thick in that direction. But the officer in command at Dodge desired to send dispatches to Larned, and as none of the other scouts were willing to take them, Will volunteered his services.
"Larned’s my headquarters," said he, "and I must go there anyway; so if you’ll give me a good horse, I’ll take your dispatches."
"We haven’t a decent horse left," said the officer; "but you can take your pick of some fine government mules."
Will made a gesture of despair. Another race on mule-back with Indians was not an inviting prospect. There were very few mules like unto his quondam mouse-colored mount. But he succumbed to the inevitable, picked out the most enterprising looking mule in the bunch, and set forth. And neither he nor the mule guessed what was in store for each of them.
At Coon Creek Will dismounted for a drink of water, and the mule embraced the opportunity to pull away, and start alone on the wagon-trail to Larned. Will did not suspect that he should have any trouble in overtaking the capricious beast, but at the end of a mile he was somewhat concerned. He had threatened and entreated, raged and cajoled. ‘Twas all wasted. The mule was as deaf to prayer as to objurgation. It browsed contentedly along the even tenor of its way, so near and yet so far from the young man, who, like "panting time, toil’d after it in vain." And Larned much more than twenty miles away.
What the poet calls "the golden exhalations of the dawn" began to warm the gray of the plain. The sun was in the roots of the grass. Four miles away the lights of Larned twinkled. The only blot on a fair landscape was the mule—in the middle distance. But there was a wicked gleam in the eye of the footsore young man in the foreground.
Boom! The sunrise gun at the fort. The mule threw back its head, waved its ears, and poured forth a song of triumph, a loud, exultant bray.
Crack! Will’s rifle. Down went the mule. It had made the fatal mistake of gloating over its villainy. Never again would it jeopardize the life of a rider.
It had been a thirty-five mile walk, and every bone in Will’s body ached. His shot alarmed the garrison, but he was soon on the ground with the explanation; and after turning over his dispatches, he sought his bed.
During the day General Hazen returned, under escort, from Fort Harker, with dispatches for Sheridan, and Will offered to be the bearer of them. An army mule was suggested, but he declined to again put his life in the keeping of such an animal. A good horse was selected, and the journey made without incident.
General Sheridan was roused at daylight to receive the scout’s report, and praised Will warmly for having undertaken and safely accomplished three such long and dangerous rides.
"In all," says General Sheridan, in his Memoirs, "Cody rode three hundred and fifty miles in less than sixty hours, and such an exhibition of endurance and courage was more than enough to convince me that his services would be extremely valuable in the campaign; so I retained him at Fort Hayes until the battalion of Fifth Cavalry arrived, and then made him chief of scouts for that regiment."