THE HUNT OF THE GRAND DUKE ALEXIS
A SPECIAL train brought the Grand Duke Alexis and party to North Platte on January 12, 1872. Will was presented to the illustrious visitor by General Sheridan, and was much interested in him. He was also pleased to note that General Custer made one of the party.
Will had made all the arrangements, and had everything complete when the train pulled in. As soon as the Grand Duke and party had breakfasted, they filed out to get their horses or to find seats in the ambulances. All who were mounted were arranged according to rank. Will had sent one of his guides ahead, while he was to remain behind to see that nothing was left undone. Just as they were to start, the conductor of the Grand Dukeís train came up to Will and said that Mr. Thompson had not received a horse. "What Thompson?" asked Will. "Why, Mr. Frank Thompson, who has charge of the Grand Dukeís train." Will looked over the list of names sent him by General Sheridan of those who would require saddle-horses, but failed to find that of Mr. Thompson. However, he did not wish to have Mr. Thompson or any one else left out. He had following him, as he always did, his celebrated war-horse, "Buckskin Joe." This horse was not a very prepossessing "insect." He was buckskin in color, and rather a sorry-looking animal, but he was known all over the frontier as the greatest long-distance and best buffalo-horse living. Will had never allowed any one but himself to ride this horse, but as he had no other there at the time, he got a saddle and bridle, had it put on old Buckskin Joe, and told Mr. Thompson he could ride him until he got where he could get him another. This horse looked so different from the beautiful animals the rest of the party were supplied with that Mr. Thompson thought it rather discourteous to mount him in such fashion. However, he got on, and Will told him to follow up, as he wanted to go ahead to where the general was. As Mr. Thompson rode past the wagons and ambulances he noticed the teamsters pointing at him, and thinking the men were guying him, rode up to one of them, and said, "Am I not riding this horse all right?" Mr. Thompson felt some personal pride in his horsemanship, as he was a Pennsylvania fox-hunter.
The driver replied, "Yes, sir; you ride all right."
"Well, then," said Thompson, "it must be this horse you are guying."
The teamster replied:
"Guying that horse? Not in a thousand years!"
"Well, then, why am I such a conspicuous object?"
"Why, sir, are you not the king?"
"The king? Why did you take me for the king?"
"Because you are riding that horse. I guess you donít know what horse you are riding, do you? Nobody gets to ride that horse but Buffalo Bill. So when we all saw you riding him we supposed that of course you were the king, for that horse, sir, is Buckskin Joe."
Thompson had heard General Sheridan telling about Buckskin Joe on the way out, and how Buffalo Bill had once run him eighty miles when the Indians were after him. Thompson told Will afterward that he grew about four feet when he found out that he was riding that most celebrated horse of the plains. He at once galloped ahead to overtake Will and thank him most heartily for allowing him the honor of such a mount. Will told him that he was going to let the Grand Duke kill his first buffalo on Buckskin Joe. "Well," replied Thompson, "I want to ask one favor of you: Let me also kill a buffalo on this horse." Will replied that nothing would afford him greater pleasure. Buckskin Joe was covered with glory on this memorable hunt, as both the Grand Duke of Russia and Mr. Frank Thompson, later president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, killed their first buffalo mounted on his back, and my brother ascribes to old Joe the acquisition of Mr. Frank Thompsonís name to his list of life friendships. This hunt was an unqualified success, nothing occurring to mar one day of it.
Spotted Tail was true to his promise. He and his hundred braves were on hand, shining in the full glory of war paint and feathers, and the war-dance they performed was of extraordinary interest to the Grand Duke and his friends. The outlandish contortions and grimaces of the Indians, their leaps and crouchings, their fiendish yells and whoops, made up a barbaric jangle of picture and sound not soon to be forgotten. To the European visitors the scene was picturesque rather than ghastly, but it was not a pleasing spectacle to the old Indian fighters looking on. There were too many suggestions of bloodshed and massacre in the past, and of bloodshed and massacre yet to come.
The Indian buffalo-hunt followed the Terpsichorean revelry, and all could enjoy the skill and strength displayed by the red huntsmen. One warrior, Two-Lance by name, performed a feat that no other living Indian could do: he sent an arrow entirely through the body of a bull running at full speed.
General Sheridan desired that the Grand Duke should carry away with him a knowledge of every phase of life on the frontier, and when the visitors were ready to drive to the railroad station, Will was requested to illustrate, for their edification, the manner in which a stagecoach and six were driven over the Rocky Mountains.
Will was delighted at the idea; so was Alexis at the outset, as he had little idea of what was in store for him. The Grand Duke and the general were seated in a closed carriage drawn by six horses, and were cautioned to fasten their hats securely on their heads, and to hang onto the carriage; then Will climbed to the driverís seat.
"Just imagine," said he to his passengers, "that fifty Indians are after us." And off went the horses, with a jump that nearly spilled the occupants of the coach into the road.
The three miles to the station were covered in just ten minutes, and the Grand Duke had the ride of his life. The carriage tossed like a ship in a gale, and no crew ever clung to a life-line with more desperate grip than did Willís passengers to their seats. Had the fifty Indians of the driverís fancy been whooping behind, he would not have plied the whip more industriously, or been deafer to the groans and ejaculations of his fares. When the carriage finally drew up with another teeth-shaking jerk, and Will, sombrero in hand, opened the coach door to inquire of his Highness how he had enjoyed the ride, the Grand Duke replied, with suspicious enthusiasm:
"I would not have missed it for a large sum of money; but rather than repeat it, I would return to Russia via Alaska, swim Bering Strait, and finish my journey on one of your government mules."
This ride completed a trip which the noble party pronounced satisfactory in every detail. The Grand Duke invited Will into his private car, where he received the thanks of the company for his zeal and skill as pilot of a hunting-party. He was also invited by Alexis to visit him at his palace, should he ever make a journey to Russia, and was, moreover, the recipient of a number of valuable souvenirs.
At that time Will had very little thought of crossing the seas, but he did decide to visit the East, whither he had more than once journeyed in fancy. The Indians were comparatively quiet, and he readily obtained a leave of absence.
The first stopping-place was Chicago, where he was entertained by General Sheridan; thence he went to New York, to be kindly received by James Gordon Bennett, Leonard and Lawrence Jerome, J. G. Heckscher, and others, who, it will be recalled, were members of the hunting-party of the preceding year. Ned Buntline also rendered his sojourn in the metropolis pleasant in many ways. The author had carried out his intention of writing a story of Western life with Scout Cody for the hero, and the result, having been dramatized, was doing a flourishing business at one of the great cityís theatres. Will made one of a party that attended a performance of the play one evening, and it was shortly whispered about the house that "Buffalo Bill" himself was in the audience. It is customary to call for the author of a play, and no doubt the author of this play had been summoned before the footlights in due course, but on this night the audience demanded the hero. To respond to the call was an ordeal for which Will was unprepared; but there was no getting out of it, and he faced a storm of applause. The manager of the performance, enterprising like all of his profession, offered Will five hundred dollars a week to remain in New York and play the part of "Buffalo Bill," but the offer was declined with thanks.
During his stay in the city Will was made the guest of honor at sundry luncheons and dinners given by his wealthy entertainers. He found considerable trouble in keeping his appointments at first, but soon caught on to the, to him, unreasonable hours at which New Yorkers dined, supped, and breakfasted. The sense of his social obligations lay so heavily on his mind that he resolved to balance accounts with a dinner at which he should be the host. An inventory of cash on hand discovered the sum of fifty dollars that might be devoted to playing Lucullus. Surely that would more than pay for all that ten or a dozen men could eat at one meal "However," he said to himself, "I donít care if it takes the whole fifty. Itís all in a lifetime, anyway."
In all confidence he hied him to Delmonicoís, at which famous restaurant he had incurred a large share of his social obligations. He ordered the finest dinner that could be prepared for a party of twelve, and set as date the night preceding his departure for the West. The guests were invited with genuine Western hospitality. His friends had been kind to him, and he desired to show them that a man of the West could not only appreciate such things, but return them.
The dinner was a thorough success. Not an invited guest was absent. The conversation sparkled. Quip and repartee shot across the "festive board," and all went merry as a dinner-bell. The host was satisfied, and proud withal. The next morning he approached Delmonicoís cashier with an air of reckless prodigality.
"My bill, please," said he, and when he got it, he looked hard at it for several minutes. It dawned on him gradually that his fifty dollars would about pay for one plate. As he confided to us afterward, that little slip of paper frightened him more than could the prospect of a combat single-handed with a whole tribe of Sioux Indians.
Unsophisticated Will! There was, as he discovered, a wonderful difference between a dinner at Delmonicoís and a dinner on the plains. For the one, the four corners of the earth are drawn upon to provide the bill of fare; for the other, all one needs is an ounce of lead and a charge of powder, a bundle of fagots and a match.
But it would never do to permit the restaurant cashier to suspect that the royal entertainer of the night before was astonished at his bill; so he requested that the account be forwarded to his hotel, and sought the open air, where he might breathe more freely.
There was but one man in New York to whom he felt he could turn in his dilemma, and that was Ned Buntline. One who could invent plots for stories, and extricate his characters from all sorts of embarrassing situations, should be able to invent a method of escape from so comparatively simple a perplexity as a tavern bill. Willís confidence in the wits of his friend was not unfounded. His first great financial panic was safely weathered, but how it was done I do not know to this day.
One of Willís main reasons for visiting the East was to look up our only living relatives on motherís sideóColonel Henry R. Guss and family, of Westchester, Pennsylvania. Motherís sister, who had married this gentleman, was not living, and we had never met him or any of his family. Ned Buntline accompanied Will on his trip to Westchester.
To those who have passed through the experience of waiting in a strange drawing-room for the coming of relatives one has never seen, and of whose personality one has but the vaguest idea, there is the uncertainty of the reception. Will it be frank and hearty, or reserved and doubtful? During the few minutes succeeding the giving of his and Buntlineís cards to the servant, Will rather wished that the elegant reception-room might be metamorphosed into the Western prairie. But presently the entrance to the parlor was brightened by the loveliest girl he had ever looked upon, and following her walked a courtly, elegant gentleman. These were Cousin Lizzie and Uncle Henry. There was no doubt of the quality of the welcome; it was most cordial, and Will enjoyed a delightful visit with his relatives. For his cousin he conceived an instant affection. The love he had held for his motheróthe purest and strongest of his affectionsóbecame the heritage of this beautiful girl.