ARMY LIFE AT FORT M’PHERSON
IN the spring of 1870 Will proceeded to put into effect the determination of the previous year—to establish a home in the lovely country of the westerly Platte. After preparing quarters wherein his family might be comfortable, he obtained a leave of absence and departed for St. Louis to fetch his wife and daughter, Arta, now a beautiful child of three.
The fame of "Buffalo Bill" had extended far beyond the plains, and during his month’s sojourn in St., Louis he was the object of a great deal of attention. When the family prepared to depart for the frontier home, my sister-in-law wrote to me to ask if I did not wish to accompany them. I should have been delighted to accept the invitation, but at that especial time there were strong attractions for me in my childhood’s home; besides, I felt that sister May, who had not enjoyed the pleasure of the St. Louis trip, was entitled to the Western jaunt.
So May made a visit to McPherson, and a delightful time she had, though she was at first inclined to quarrel with the severe discipline of army life. Will ranked with the officers, and as a result May’s social companions were limited to the two daughters of General Augur, who were also on a visit to the fort. To compensate for the shortage of feminine society, however, there were a number of young unmarried officers.
Every day had its curious or enlivening incident, and May’s letters to me were filled with accounts of the gayety of life at an army post. After several months I was invited to join her. She was enthusiastic over a proposed buffalo-hunt, as she desired to take part in one before her return to Leavenworth, and wished me to enjoy the sport with her.
In accepting the invitation I fixed a certain day for my arrival at McPherson, but I was delayed in my journey, and did not reach the fort until three days after the date set. May was much disturbed. She had allowed me three days for recuperation from the journey, and I had arrived on the eve of the buffalo-hunt. Naturally, I was too fatigued to rave over buffaloes, and I objected to joining the hunt; and I was encouraged in my objecting by the discovery that my brother was away on a scouting trip.
"You don’t think of going buffalo-hunting without Will, do you ?" I asked May.
"Why," said she, "we can never tell when he will be in camp and when away; he’s off scouting nearly all the time. And we can’t get up a buffalo-hunt on five minutes’ notice; we must plan ahead. Our party is all ready to start, and there’s a reporter here from an Omaha paper to write it up. We can’t put it off, and you must go."
After that, of course, there was nothing more to be said, and when the hunting-party set forth I made one of it.
A gay party it was. For men, there were a number of officers, and the newspaper man, Dr. Frank Powell, now of La Crosse; for women, the wives of two of the officers, the daughters of General Augur, May, and myself. There was sunshine, laughter, and incessant chatter, and when one is young and fond of horseback-riding, and a handsome young officer rides by one’s side, physical fatigue is apt to vanish for a time.
The fort was soon nothing but a break in the sky-line, and with a sense almost of awe I looked for the first time upon the great American desert. To our left, as we rode eastward, ran the swift and shallow Platte, dotted with green-garbed islands. This river Washington Irving called "the most magnificent and the most useless of streams." "The islands," he wrote, "have the appearance of a labyrinth of groves floating on the waters. Their extraordinary position gives an air of youth and loveliness to the whole scene. If to this be added the undulations of the river, the waving of the verdure, the alternations of light and shade, and the purity of the atmosphere, some idea may be formed of the pleasing sensations which the traveler experiences on beholding a scene that seems to have started fresh from the hands of the Creator."
In sharp contrast was the sandy plain over which we rode. On this grew the short, stubby buffalo-grass, the dust-colored sage-brush, and cactus in rank profusion. Over to the right, perhaps a mile away, a long range of foothills ran down to the horizon, with here and there the great cañons, through which entrance was effected to the upland country, each cañon bearing a historical or legendary name.
To my eyes the picture was as beautiful as it was novel. As far as one could see there was no sign of human habitation. It was one vast, untenanted waste, with the touch of infinity the ocean wears.
As we began to get into the foothills, one of our equestriennes narrowly escaped a fall. Her horse dropped a foot into a prairie-dog’s hole, and came to an abrupt stop. The foot was extricated, and I was instructed in the dangers that beset the prairie voyager in these blind traps of the plain.
The trail had been ascending at a gentle grade, and we had a slight change of scene—desert hill instead of desert plain. The sand-hills rose in tiers before us, and I was informed that they we’re formed ages ago by the action of water. What was hard, dry ground to our horses’ hoofs was once the bottom of the sea.
I was much interested in the geology of my environments; much more so than I should have been had I been told that those strange, weird hills were the haunt of the red man, who was on the war-path, and looking constantly for scalps. But these unpleasant facts were not touched upon by the officers, and in blissful ignorance we pursued the tenor of our way.
We were obliged to ride a great distance before we sighted any game, and after twenty miles had been gone over, my temporarily forgotten weariness began to reassert itself. Dr. Powell proposed that the ladies should do the shooting, but my interest in the hunt had waned. It had been several years since I had ridden a horse, and after the first few miles I was not in a suitable frame of mind or body to enjoy the most exciting hunt.
A herd of buffaloes finally came into view, and the party was instantly alive. One old bull was a little apart from the others of the herd, and was singled out for the first attack. As we drew within range, a rifle was given to May, with explicit directions as to its handling. The buffalo has but one vulnerable spot, and it is next to impossible for a novice to make a fatal shot. May fired, and perhaps her shot might be called a good one, for the animal was struck; but it was only wounded and infuriated, and dropping its shaggy head, it rushed toward us. The officers fusilladed the mountain flesh, succeeding only in rousing it to added fury. Another rifle was handed to May, and Dr. Powell directed its aim; but terrified by the near presence of the charging bull, May discharged it at random.
Although this is strictly a narrative of facts, exercising the privilege of the novelist, we leave our present heroine in her perilous position, and return, for a space, to the fort.
Will returned from his scouting trip shortly after the departure of the hunting party, and his first query was:
"Is Nellie here?"
"Come and gone," replied his wife; and she informed him of the manner in which I had been carried off on the long-talked-of buffalo-hunt. Whereupon Will gave way to one of his rare fits of passion. The scouting trip had been long and arduous, he was tired and hungry, but also keenly anxious for our safety. He knew what we were ignorant of— that should we come clear of the not insignificant dangers attendant upon a buffalo-hunt, there remained the possibility of capture by Indians.
"I must go after them at once," said he; and off he went, without thought of rest or food. He did take time, however, to visit the officers’ quarters and pour a vial of wrath upon the bewildered head of the inferior who occupied the place of the absent commandant.
"Didn’t you know," cried Will, "that my continued absence meant danger in the air? Fine idea, to let a party of ladies go beyond the fort on such a foolhardy expedition before I had assured you it was safe to do so! Understand, if any harm comes to my sisters, I’ll hold the government responsible!"
With which tremendous threat he mounted the swiftest horse in camp and rode away before the astonished officer had recovered from his surprise.
He was able to track us over the sand-hills, and reached us, in accepted hero fashion, in the very nick of time. The maddened bull buffalo was charging on May, unchecked by a peppering fire from the guns of the officers. All hands were so absorbed by the intense excitement of the moment that the sound of approaching hoof-beats was unnoted. But I heard, from behind us, the crack of a rifle, and saw the buffalo fall dead almost at our feet.
The ill-humor of our rescuer dampened the ardor of the welcome we gave him. The long ride on an empty stomach had not smoothed a ripple of his ruffled temper, and we were all properly lectured. We were ordered back to the fort at once, and the command was of such a nature that no one thought of disputing it. The only question was, whether we could make the fort before being cut off by Indians. There was no time to be wasted, even in cutting meat from the tongue of the fallen buffalo. Will showed us the shortest cut for home, and himself zigzagged ahead of us, on the watch for a danger signal.
For my part, I was so worn out that I would as soon be captured by Indians, if they would agree to provide me a wigwam wherein I might lie down and rest; but no Indians appeared. Five miles from the fort was the ranch of a wealthy bachelor, and at May’s request a halt was here called. It was thought that the owner of the ranch might take pity upon my deplorable condition, and provide some sort of vehicle to convey the ladies the remainder of the journey.
We were heartily welcomed, and our bachelor host made us extremely comfortable in his cozy apartments, while he ordered supper for the party. Will considered that we were within the safety zone, so he continued on to the fort to obtain his postponed rest; and after supper the ladies rode to the fort in a carriage.
The next day’s Omaha paper contained an account of the hunt from Dr. Powell’s graphic pen, and in it May Cody received all the glory of the shot that laid the buffalo low. Newspaper men are usually ready to sacrifice exact facts to an innate sense of the picturesque.
At this time the fort was somewhat concerned over numerous petty crimes among the civilians, and General Emory, now chief in authority at the post, requested the county commissioners to appoint Will a justice of the peace. This was done, much to the dismay of the new justice, who, as he phrased it, "knew no more of law than a mule knows of singing." But he was compelled to bear the blushing
honors thrust upon him, and his sign was posted in a conspicuous place:
Almost the first thing he was called upon to do in his new capacity was to perform a wedding ceremony. Cold sweat stood upon his brow as he implored our aid in this desperate emergency. The big law book with which he had been equipped at his installation was ransacked in vain for the needed information. The Bible was examined more diligently, perhaps, than it had ever been by him before, but the Good Book was as unresponsive as the legal tome. "Remember your own wedding ceremony," was our advice. "Follow that as nearly as possible." But he shook his head despondently. The cool-headed scout and Indian fighter was dismayed, and the dignity of the law trembled in the balance.
To put an edge on the crisis, nearly the entire fort attended the wedding. All is well, said we, as we watched the justice take his place before the bridal pair with not a sign of trepidation. At the outset his conducting of the ceremony was irreproachable, and we were secretly congratulating ourselves upon his success, when our ears were startled by the announcement:
"Whom God and Buffalo Bill hath joined together, let no man put asunder."
So far as I am informed, no man has attempted it.
Before May returned home, Will became the very proud father of a son. He had now three children, a second daughter, Orra, having been born two years before. The first boy of the family was the object of the undivided interest of the post for a time, and names by the dozen were suggested. Major North offered Kit Carson as an appropriate name for the son of a great scout and buffalo-hunter, and this was finally settled on.
My first touch of real anxiety came with an order to Will to report at headquarters for assignment to duty. The county was alive with Indians, the officers in command informed him, and this intelligence filled me with dread. My sister-in-law had grown accustomed to her husband’s excursions into dangerland, and accepted such sallies as incidents of his position. Later, I too, learned this stoical philosophy, but at first my anxiety was so keen that Will laughed at me.
"Don’t worry," said he; "the Indians won’t visit the fort to-night. There’s no danger of them scalping you."
"But," said I, "it is for you, not for myself, that I am afraid. It is horrible to think of you going out alone among those foothills, which swarm with Indians."
The fort was on the prairie, but the distant foothills stretched away interminably, and these furnished favorite lurking-places for the redskins. Will drew me to a window and pointed out the third tier of hills, some twelve or fifteen miles away.
"I would advise you," said he, "to go to bed and sleep, but if you insist on keeping awake and worrying, I will kindle a blaze on top of that hill at midnight. Watch closely. I can send up only one flash, for there will be Indian eyes unclosed as well as yours."
One may imagine with what a beating heart I stared into the darkness when the hour of twelve drew on. The night was a veil that hid a thousand terrors, but a gauzy veil, to my excited fancy, behind which passed a host of shadowy horsemen with uptossing lances. How could a man ride alone into such a gloomy-terror-haunted domain? The knights of old, who sallied forth in search of dismal ogres and noxious dragons, were not of stouter heart, and they breasted only fancied perils.
Twelve o’clock! The night had a thousand eyes, but they did not pierce the darkness of the foothills.
Ah! A thin ribbon of light curled upward for an instant, then vanished. Will was safe thus far. But there were many hours—and the darkest—before the dawn, and I carried to my bed the larger share of my forebodings.
Next day the scout came home to report the exact location of the hostile Sioux. The troops, ready for instant action, were hurled against them, and the Indians were thoroughly thrashed. A large number of chiefs were captured, among them "Red Shirt," an interesting redskin, who afterward traveled with the "Wild West."
Captive chiefs were always esteemed of great interest by the ladies of the fort. To me the braves taken in the last raid were remarkable mainly for economy of apparel and sulkiness of demeanor.
This same fall the fort was visited by a gentleman introduced as Colonel Judson, though the public knows him better as "Ned Buntline," the storywriter. He desired to accompany the scouts on a certain proposed trip, and Major Brown informed Will that the ulterior motive of the author was to project Buffalo Bill into a novel as hero.
"Now, I’d look pretty in a novel, wouldn’t I?" said Will sarcastically and blushingly.
"Yes, I think you would," returned the major, eyeing the other’s splendid proportions critically. Whereupon the scout blushed again, and doffed his sombrero in acknowledgment of the compliment, for—
"‘Tis pleasant, sure, to see one’s name in print;A retired naval officer, Ned Buntline wore a black undress military suit. His face was bronzed and rugged, determined yet kindly; he walked with a slight limp, and carried a cane. He shook Will’s hand cordially when they were introduced, and expressed great pleasure in the meeting. This was the genesis of a friendship destined to work great changes in Buffalo Bill’s career.
During the scouting expedition that followed, the party chanced upon an enormous bone, which the surgeon pronounced the femur of a human body. Will understood the Indian tongues well enough to be in part possession of their traditions, and he related the Sioux legend of the flood.
It was taught by the wise men of this tribe that the earth was originally peopled by giants, who were fully three times the size of modern men. They were so swift and powerful that they could run alongside a buffalo, take the animal under one arm, and tear off a leg, and eat it as they ran. So vainglorious were they because of their own size and strength that they denied the existence of a Creator. When it lighted, they proclaimed their superiority to the lightning; when it thundered, they laughed.
This displeased the Great Spirit, and to rebuke their arrogance he sent a great rain upon the earth. The valleys filled with water, and the giants retreated to the hills. The water crept up the hills, and the giants sought safety on the highest mountains. Still the rain continued, the waters rose, and the giants, having no other refuge, were drowned.
The Great Spirit profited by his former mistake. When the waters subsided, he made a new race of men, but he made them smaller and less strong.
This tradition has been handed down from Sioux father to Sioux son since earliest ages. It shows, at least, as the legends of all races do, that the story of the Deluge is history common to all the world.
Another interesting Indian tradition bears evidence of a later origin. The Great Spirit, they say, once formed a man of clay, and he was placed in the furnace to bake, but he was subjected to the heat too long a time, and came out burnt. Of him came the negro race. At another trial the Great Spirit feared the second clay man might also burn, and he was not left in the furnace long enough. Of him came the paleface man. The Great Spirit was now in a position to do perfect work, and the third clay man was left in the furnace neither too long nor too short a time; he emerged a masterpiece, the ne plus ultra of creation—the noble red man.