THE Fifth Cavalry at Fort McPherson had been ordered to Arizona, and was replaced by the Third Cavalry under command of General Reynolds. Upon Will’s return to McPherson he was at once obliged to take the field to look for Indians that had raided the station during his absence and carried off a considerable number of horses. Captain Meinhold and Lieutenant Lawson commanded the company dispatched to recover the stolen property. Will acted as guide, and had as an assistant T. B. Omohundro, better known by his frontier name of "Texas Jack."
Will was not long in finding Indian tracks and accompanied by six men, he went forward to locate the redskin camp. They had proceeded but a short distance when they sighted a small party of Indians, with horses grazing. There were just thirteen Indians—an unlucky number—and Will feared that they might discover the scouting party should it attempt to return to the main command. He had but to question his companions to find them ready to follow wheresoever he might lead, and they moved cautiously toward the Indian camp.
At the proper moment the seven rushed upon the unsuspecting warriors, who sprang for their horses and gave battle. But the rattle of the rifles brought Captain Meinhold to the scene, and when the Indians saw the reinforcements coming up they turned and fled. Six of their number were dead on the plain, and nearly all of the stolen horses were recovered. One soldier was killed, and this was one of the few occasions when Will received a wound.
And now once more was the versatile plainsman called upon to enact a new rôle. Returning from a long scout in the fall of 1872, he found that his friends had made him a candidate for the Nebraska legislature from the twenty-sixth district. He had never thought seriously of politics, and had a well-defined doubt of his fitness as a law-maker. He made no campaign, but was elected by a flattering majority. He was now privileged to prefix the title "Honorable" to his name, and later this was supplanted by "Colonel"—a title won in the Nebraska National Guard, and which he claims is much better suited to his attainments.
Will, unlike his father, had no taste for politics or for political honors. I recall one answer—so characteristic of the man—to some friends who were urging him to enter the political arena. "No," said he, "politics are by far too deep for me. I think I can hold my own in any fair and no foul fight; but politics seems to me all foul and no fair. I thank you, my friends, but I must decline to set out on this trail, which I know has more cactus burs to the square inch than any I ever followed on the plains."
Meantime Ned Buntline had been nurturing an ambitious project. He had been much impressed by the fine appearance made by Will in the New York theater, and was confident that a fortune awaited the scout if he would consent to enter the theatrical profession. He conceived the idea of writing a drama, entitled "The Scout of the Plains," in which Will was to assume the title role and shine as the star of the first magnitude. The bait he dangled was that the play should be made up entirely of frontier scenes, which would not only entertain the public, but instruct it.
The bait was nibbled at, and finally swallowed, but there was a proviso that Wild Bill and Texas Jack must first be won over to act as "pards" in the enterprise. He telegraphed his two friends that he needed their aid in an important business matter, and went to Chicago to meet them. He was well assured that if he had given them an inkling of the nature of the "business matter," neither would put in an appearance; but he relied on Ned Buntline’s persuasive powers, which were well developed.
There had never been a time when Wild Bill and Texas Jack declined to follow Will’s lead, and on a certain morning the trio presented themselves at the Palmer House in Chicago for an interview with Colonel Judson.
The author could scarcely restrain his delight. All three of the scouts were men of fine physique and dashing appearance. It was very possible that they had one or two things to learn about acting, but their inexperience would be more than balanced by their reputation and personal appearance, and the knowledge that they were enacting on the stage mock scenes of what to them had oft been stern reality.
"Don’t shoot, pards!" began Will, when the conference opened. "I guess, Judson," he continued, after vainly trying to find a diplomatic explanation, "you’d better tell them what we want."
Buntline opened with enthusiasm, but he did not kindle Wild Bill and Texas Jack, who looked as if they might at any moment grab their sombreros and stampede for the frontier. Will turned the scale.
"We’re bound to make a fortune at it," said he. "Try it for a while, anyway."
The upshot of a long discussion was that the scouts gave a reluctant consent to a much-dreaded venture. Will made one stipulation.
"If the Indians get on the rampage," said he, "we must be allowed leave of absence to go back and settle them."
"All right, boys," said Buntline; "that shall be put in the contract. And if you’re called back into the army to fight redskins, I’ll go with you."
This reply established the author firmly in the Esteem of the scouts. The play was written in four hours (most playwrights allow themselves at least a week), and the actor-scouts received their "parts." Buntline engaged a company to support the stellar trio, and the play was widely advertised.
When the critical "first night" arrived, none of the scouts knew a line of his part, but each had acquired all the varieties of stage fright known to the profession. Buntline had hinted to them the possibility of something of the sort, but they had not realized to what a condition of abject dismay a man may be reduced by the sight of a few hundred inoffensive people in front of a theater curtain. It would have done them no good to have told them (as is the truth) that many experienced actors haves touches of stage fright, as well as the unfortunate novice. All three declared that they would rather face a band of war-painted Indians, or undertake to check a herd of stampeding buffaloes, than face the peaceful-looking audience that was waiting to criticise their Thespian efforts.
Like almost all amateurs, they insisted on peering through the peep-holes in the curtain, which augmented their nervousness, and if the persuasive Colonel Judson had not been at their elbows, reminding them that he, also, was to take part in the play, it is more than likely they would have slipped quietly out at the stage door and bought railway passage to the West.
Presently the curtain rolled up, and the audience applauded encouragingly as three quaking six-footers, clad in buckskin, made their first bow before the footlights.
I have said that Will did not know a line of his part, nor did he when the time to make his opening speech arrived. It had been faithfully memorized, but oozed from his mind like the courage from Bob Acres’s finger-tips. "Evidently," thought Buntline, who was on the stage with him, "he needs time to recover." So he asked carelessly:
"What have you been about lately, Bill?"
This gave "The Scout of the Plains" an inspiration. In glancing over the audience, he had recognized in one of the boxes a wealthy gentleman named Milligan, whom he had once guided on a big hunt near McPherson. The expedition had been written up by the Chicago papers, and the incidents of it were well known.
"I’ve been out on a hunt with Milligan," replied Will, and the house came down. Milligan was quite popular, but had been the butt of innumerable jokes because of his alleged scare over the Indians. The applause and laughter that greeted the sally stocked the scout with confidence, but confidence is of no use if one has forgotten his part. It became manifest to the playwright-actor that he would have to prepare another play in place of the one he had expected to perform, and that he must prepare it on the spot.
"Tell us about it, Bill," said he, and the prompter groaned.
One of the pleasures of frontier life consists in telling stories around the camp-fire. A man who ranks as a good frontiersman is pretty sure to be a good raconteur. Will was at ease immediately, and proceeded to relate the story of Milligan’s hunt in his own words. That it was amusing was attested by the frequent rounds of applause. The prompter, with a commendable desire to get things running smoothly, tried again and again to give Will his cue, but even cues had been forgotten.
The dialogue of that performance must have been delightfully absurd. Neither Texas Jack nor Wild Bill was able to utter a line of his part during the entire evening. In the Indian scenes, however, they scored a great success; here was work that did not need to be painfully memorized, and the mock red men were slain at an astonishing rate.
Financially the play proved all that its projectors could ask for. Artistically—well, the critics had a great deal of fun with the hapless dramatist. The professionals in the company had played their parts acceptably, and, oddly enough, the scouts were let down gently in the criticisms; but the critics had no means of knowing that the stars of the piece had provided their own dialogue, and poor Ned Buntline was plastered with ridicule. It had got out that the play was written in four hours, and in mentioning this fact, one paper wondered, with delicate sarcasm, what the dramatist had been doing all that time. Buntline had played the part of "Gale Durg," who met death in the second act, and a second paper, commenting on this, suggested that it would have been a happy consummation had the death occurred before the play was written. A third critic pronounced it a drama that might be begun in the middle and played both ways, or played backward, quite as well as the way in which it had been written.
However, nothing succeeds like success. A number of managers offered to take hold of the company, and others asked for entrance to the enterprise as partners. Ned Buntline took his medicine from the critics with a smiling face, for "let him laugh who wins."
The scouts soon got over their stage fright, in the course of time were able to remember their parts, and did fully their share toward making the play as much of a succcss artistically as it was financially. From Chicago the company went to St. Louis, thence to Cincinnati and other large cities, and everywhere drew large and appreciative houses.
When the season closed, in Boston, and Will had made his preparations to return to Nebraska, an English gentleman named Medley, presented himself, with a request that the scout act as guide on a big hunt and camping trip through Western territory. The pay offered was liberal—a thousand dollars a month and expenses—and Will accepted the offer. He spent that summer in his old occupation, and the ensuing winter continued his tour as a star of the drama. Wild Bill and Texas Jack consented again to "support" him, but the second season proved too much for the patience of the former, and he attempted to break through the contract he had signed for the season. The manager, of course, refused to release him, but Wild Bill conceived the notion that under certain circumstances the company would be glad to get rid of him.
That night he put his plan into execution by discharging his blank cartridges so near the legs of the dead Indians on the stage that the startled "supers" came to life with more realistic yells than had accompanied their deaths. This was a bit of "business" not called for in the play-book, and while the audience was vastly entertained, the management withheld its approval.
Will was delegated to expostulate with the reckless Indian-slayer; but Wild Bill remarked calmly that he "hadn’t hurt the fellows any," and he continued to indulge in his innocent pastime.
Severe measures were next resorted to. He was informed that he must stop shooting the Indians after they were dead, or leave the company. This was what Wild Bill had hoped for, and when the curtain went up on the next performance he was to be seen in the audience, enjoying the play for the first time since he had been mixed up with it.
Will sympathized with his former "support," but he had a duty to perform, and faithfully endeavored to persuade the recreant actor to return to the company. Persuasion went for nothing, so the contract was annulled, and Wild Bill returned to his beloved plains.
The next season Will removed his family to Rochester, and organized a theatrical company of his own. There was too much artificiality about stage life to suit one that had been accustomed to stern reality, and he sought to do away with this as much as possible by introducing into his own company a band of real Indians. The season of 1875-76 opened brilliantly; the company played to crowded houses, and Will made a large financial success.
One night in April, when the season was nearing its close, a telegram was handed to him, just as he was about to step upon the stage. It was from his wife, and summoned him to Rochester, to the bedside of his only son, Kit Carson Cody. He consulted with his manager, and it was arranged that after the first act he should be excused that he might catch the train.
The first act was a miserable experience, though the audience did not suspect that the actor’s heart was almost stopped by fear and anxiety. He caught his train, and the manager, John Burke, an actor of much experience, played out the part.
It was, too, a miserable ride to Rochester, filled up with the gloomiest of forebodings, heightened by memories of every incident in the precious little life now in danger.
Kit was a handsome child, with striking features and curly hair. His mother always dressed him in the finest clothes, and tempted by these combined attractions, gypsies had carried him away the previous summer. But Kit was the son of a scout, and his young eyes were sharp. He marked the trail followed by his captors, and at the first opportunity gave them the slip and got safely home, exclaiming as he toddled into the sobbing family circle, "I tumed back adain, mama; don’t cry." Despite his anxiety, Will smiled at the recollection of the season when his little son had been a regular visitor at the theater. The little fellow knew that the most important feature of a dramatic performance, from a management’s point of view, is a large audience. He watched the seats fill in keen anxiety, and the moment the curtain rose and his father appeared on the stage, he would make a trumpet of his little hands, and shout from his box, "Good house, papa !" The audience learned to expect and enjoy this bit of by-play between father and son. His duty performed, Kit settled himself in his seat, and gave himself up to undisturbed enjoyment of the play.
When Will reached Rochester he found his son still alive, though beyond the reach of medical aid. He was burning up with fever, but still conscious, and the little arms were joyfully lifted to clasp around his father’s neck. He lingered during the next day and into the night, but the end came, and Will faced a great sorrow of his life. He had built fond hopes for his son, and in a breath they had been swept away. His boyhood musings over the prophecy of the fortune-teller had taken a turn when his own boy was born. It might be Kit’s destiny to become President of the United States; it was not his own. Now, hope and fear had vanished together, the fabric of the dream had dissolved, and left "not a rack behind."
Little Kit was laid to rest in Mount Hope Cemetery, April 24, 1876. He is not dead, but sleeping; not lost, but gone before. He has joined the innumerable company of the white-souled throng in the regions of the blest. He has gone to aid my mother in her mission unfulfilled—that of turning heavenward the eyes of those that loved them so dearly, here on earth.