INDIAN ENCOUNTER AND SCHOOL-DAY INCIDENTS
WILL was not long at home. The Mormons, who were settled in Utah, rebelled when the government, objecting to the quality of justice meted out by Brigham Young, sent a federal judge to the territory. Troops, under the command of General Albert Sidney Johnson, were dispatched to quell the insurrection, and Russell, Majors & Waddell contracted to transport stores and beef cattle to the army massing against the Mormons in the fall of 1857. The train was a large one, better prepared against such an attack as routed the McCarthy brothers earlier in the summer; yet its fate was the same.
Will was assigned to duty as "extra" under Lew Simpson, an experienced wagon-master, and was subject to his orders only. There was the double danger of Mormons and Indians, so the pay was good. Forty dollars a month in gold looked like a large sum to an eleven-year-old.
Will’s second departure was quite as tragic as the first. We girls, as before, were loud in our wailings, and offered to forgive him the depredations in the doll-house and all his teasings, if only he would not go away and be scalped by the Indians. Mother said little, but her anxious look, as she recalled the perils of the former trip, spoke volumes. He carried with him the memory of the open-mouthed admiration of little Charlie, to whom "Brother Will" was the greatest hero in the world. Turk’s grief at the parting was not a whit less than ours, and the faithful old fellow seemed to realize that in Will’s absence the duty of the family protector devolved on him; so he made no attempt to follow Will beyond the gate.
The train made good progress, and more than half the journey to Fort Bridger was accomplished without a setback. When the Rockies were reached, a noon halt was made near Green River, and here the men were surrounded and overcome by a large force of Danites, the "Avenging Angels" of the Mormon Church, who had "stolen the livery of the court of heaven to serve the devil in." These were responsible for the atrocious Mountain Meadow Massacre, in June of this same year, though the wily "Saints" had planned to place the odium of an unprovoked murder of innocent women and children upon the Indians, who had enough to answer for, and in this instance were but the tools of the Mormon Church. Brigham Young repudiated his accomplice, and allowed John D. Lee to become the scapegoat. The dying statement of this man is as pathetic as Cardinal Wolsey’s arraignment of Henry VIII.
"A victim must be had," said he, "and I am that victim. For thirty years I studied to make Brigham Young’s will my law. See now what I have come to this day. I have been sacrificed in a cowardly, dastardly manner. I do not fear death. I cannot go to a worse place than I am now in."
John D. Lee deserved his fate, but Brigham Young was none the less a coward.
The Danites spared the lives of the trainmen, but they made sad havoc of the supplies. These they knew to be intended for the use of the army opposed to Brigham Young. They carried off all the stores they could handle, drove with them or stampeded the cattle, and burned the wagons. The trainmen were permitted to retain one wagon and team, with just enough supplies to last them to army headquarters.
It was a disheartened, discomfited band that reached Fort Bridger. The information that two other trains had been destroyed added to their discouragement, for that meant that they, in common with the other trainmen and the soldiers at the fort, must subsist on short rations for the winter. There were nearly four hundred of these trainmen, and it was so late in the season that they had no choice but to remain where they were until spring opened.
It was an irksome winter. The men at the fort hauled their firewood two miles; as the provisions dwindled, one by one the oxen were slaughtered, and when this food supply was exhausted, starvation reared its gaunt form. Happily the freighters got word of the situation, and a relief team reached the fort before the spring was fairly opened.
As soon as practicable the return journey was undertaken. At Fort Laramie two large trains were put in charge of Lew Simpson, as brigade wagon-master, and Will was installed as courier between the two caravans, which traveled twenty miles apart—plenty of elbow room for camping and foraging.
One morning, Simpson, George Woods, and Will, who were in the rear train, set out for the forward one, mounted upon mules, and armed, as the train men always were, with rifle, knife, and a brace of revolvers. About half of the twenty miles had been told off when the trio saw a band of Indians emerge from a clump of trees half a mile away and sweep toward them. Flight with the mules was useless; resistance promised hardly more success, as the Indians numbered a full half-hundred; but surrender was death and mutilation.
"Shoot the mules, boys!" ordered Simpson, and five minutes later two men and a boy looked grimly over a still palpitating barricade.
The defense was simple; rifles at range, revolvers for close quarters, knives at the last. The chief, easily distinguished by his feathered head-dress, was assigned to Will. Already his close shooting was the pride of the frontiersmen. Simpson’s coolness steadied the lad, who realized that the situation was desperate.
The Indians came on with the rush and scream, of the March wind. "Fire!" said Simpson, and three ponies galloped riderless as the smoke curled from three rifle barrels.
Dismayed by the fall of their chief, the redskins wheeled and rode out of range. Will gave a sigh of relief.
"Load up again, Billy!" smiled Simpson. "They’ll soon be back."
"They’ve only three or four rifles," said Woods. There had been little lead in the cloud of arrows. "Here they come!" warned Simpson, and the trio ran their rifles out over the dead mules. Three more riderless ponies; but the Indians kept on, supposing they had drawn the total fire of the whites. A revolver fusillade undeceived them, and the charging column wavered and broke for cover. Simpson patted Will on the shoulder as they reloaded. "You’re a game one, Billy!" said he. "You bet he is," echoed Woods, cooly drawing an arrow from his shoulder. "How is that, Lew— poisoned ?"
Will waited breathless for the decision, and his relief was as great as Wood’s when Simpson, after a critical scrutiny, answered "No."
The wound was hastily dressed, and the little company gave an undivided attention to the foe, who were circling around their quarry, hanging to the off sides of their ponies and firing under them. With a touch of the grim humor that plain life breeds, Will declared that the mules were veritable pincushions, so full of arrows were they stuck.
The besieged maintained a return fire dropping pony after pony, and occasionally a rider. This proved expensive sport to the Indians, and the whole party finally withdrew from range.
There was a long breathing spell, which the trio improved by strengthening their defense, digging up the dirt with their knives and piling it upon the mules. It was tedious work, but preferable to inactivity and cramped quarters.
Two hours went by, and the plan of the enemy was disclosed. A light breeze arose, and the Indians fired the prairie. Luckily the grass near the trail was short, and though the heat was intense and the smoke stifling, the barricade held off the flame. Simpson had kept a close watch, and presently gave the order to fire. A volley went through the smoke and blaze, and the yell that followed proved that it was not wasted. This last ruse failing, the Indians settled down to their favorite game—waiting.
A thin line of them circled out of range; ponies were picketed and tents pitched; night fell, and the stars shot out.
As Woods was wounded, he was excused from guard duty, Will and Simpson keeping watch in turn. Will took the first vigil, and, tired though he was, experienced no difficulty in keeping awake, but he went soundly to sleep the moment he was relieved. He was awakened by a dream that Turk was barking to him, and vaguely alarmed, he sat up to find Simpson sleeping across his rifle.
The midnight hush was unbroken, and the darkness lay thick upon the plain, but shapes blacker than night hovered near, and Will laid his hand on Simpson’s shoulder.
The latter was instantly alive, and Woods was awakened. A faint click went away on the night breeze, and a moment later three jets of flame carried warning to the up-creeping foe that the whites were both alive and on the alert.
There was no more sleep within the barricade. The dawn grew into day, and anxious eyes scanned the trail for reinforcements—coming surely, but on what heavy and slow-turning wheels!
Noon came and passed. The anxious eyes questioned one another. Had the rear train been overcome by a larger band of savages? But suddenly half a dozen of the Indians were seen to spring up with gestures of excitement, and spread the alarm around the circle.
"They hear the cracking of the bull-whips," said Simpson.
The Indians who had seen the first team pass, and had assumed that Simpson and his companions were straggling members of it, did not expect another train so soon. There was "mounting in hot haste," and the Indians rode away in one bunch for the distant foothills, just as the first ox-team broke into view.
And never was there fairer picture to more appreciative eyes than those same lumbering, clumsy animals, and never sweeter music than the harsh staccato of the bull-whips.
When hunger was appeased, and Wood’s wound properly dressed, Will, for the second time, found himself a hero among the plainsmen. His nerve and coolness were dwelt upon by Simpson, and to the dream that waked him in season was ascribed the continued life on earth of the little company. Will, however, was disposed to allow Turk the full credit for the service.
The remainder of the trip was devoid of special incident, and as Will neared home he hurried on in advance of the train. His heart beat high as he thought of the dear faces awaiting him, unconscious that he was so near.
But the home toward which he was hastening with beating heart and winged heels was shadowed by a great grief. Sister Martha’s married life, though brief, had amply justified her brother’s estimate of the man into whose hands she had given her life. She was taken suddenly ill, and it was not until several months later that Will learned that the cause of her sickness was the knowledge that had come to her of the faithless nature of her husband. The revelation was made through the visit of one of Mr. C_____‘s creditors, who, angered at a refusal to liquidate a debt, accused Mr. C_______ of being a bigamist, and threatened to set the law upon him. The blow was fatal to one of Martha’s pure and affectionate nature, already crushed by neglect and cruelty. All that night she was delirious, and her one thought was "Willie," and the danger he was in — not alone the physical danger, but the moral and spiritual peril that she feared lay in association with rough and reckless men. She moaned and tossed, and uttered incoherent cries; but as the morning broke the storm went down, and the anxious watchers fancied that she slept. Suddenly she sat up, the light of reason again shining in her eyes, and with a joyous cry, "Tell mother Willie’s saved! Willie’s saved!" she fell back on her pillow, and her spirit passed away. On her face was the peace that the world can neither give nor take away. The veil of the Unknown had been drawn aside for a peace. She had "sent her soul through the Invisible," and it had found the light that lit the last weary steps through the Valley of the Shadow.
Mr. C_______ had moved from Leavenworth to Johnson County, twenty-five miles away, and as there were neither telegraph nor mail facilities, he had the body sent home, himself accompanying it. Thus our first knowledge of Martha’s sickness came when her lifeless clay was borne across our threshold, the threshold that, less than a year before, she had crossed a bright and bonny bride. Dazed by the shock, we longed for Will’s return before we must lay his idolized sister forever in her narrow cell.
All of the family, Mr. C_______ included, were gathered in the sitting-room, sad and silent, when Turk suddenly raised his head, listened a second, and bounded out of doors.
"Will is coming!" cried mother, and we all ran to the door. Turk was racing up the long hill, at the top of which was a moving speck that the dog knew to be his master. His keen ears had caught the familiar whistle half a mile away.
When Turk had manifested his joy at the meeting, he prepared Will for the bereavement that awaited him; he put his head down and emitted a long and repeated wail. Will’s first thought was for mother, and he fairly ran down the hill. The girls met him some distance from the house, and sobbed out the sad news.
And when he had listened, the lad that had passed unflinchingly through two Indian fights, broke down, and sobbed with the rest of us. "Did that rascal, C________ , have anything to do with her death?" he asked, when the first passion of grief was over.
Julia, who knew no better at the time, replied that Mr. C________ was the kindest of husbands, and was crushed with sorrow at his loss; but spite of the assurance, Will, when he reached the house, had neither look nor word for him. He just put his arms about mother’s neck, and mingled his grief with her words of sympathy and love.
Martha was shortly after laid by father’s side, and as we stood - weeping in that awful moment when the last spadeful of earth completes the sepulture, Will, no longer master of himself, stepped up before Mr. C________.
"Murderer," he said, "one day you shall answer to me for the death of her who lies there !"
When Will next presented himself at Mr. Majors’s office, he was told that his services had been wholly satisfactory, and that he could have work at any time he desired. This was gratifying, but a sweeter pleasure was to lay his winter’s wages in mother’s lap. Through his help, and her business ability, our pecuniary affairs were in good condition. We were comfortably situated, and as Salt Creek Valley now boasted of a schoolhouse, mother wished Will to enter school. He was so young when he came West that his school-days had been few; nor was the prospect of adding to their number alluring. After the excitement of life on the plains, going to school was dull work; but Will realized that there was a world beyond the prairie’s horizon, and he entered school, determined to do honest work.
Our first teacher was of the good, old-fashioned sort. He taught because he had to live. He had no love for his work, and knew nothing of children. The one motto he lived up to was, "Spare the rod and spoil the child." As Will was a regular Tartar in the schoolroom, he, more than all the other scholars, made him put his smarting theory into practice. Almost every afternoon was attended with the dramatic attempt to switch Will. The schoolroom was separated into two grand divisions, "the boys on teacher’s side," and those "on the Cody side." The teacher would send his pets out to get switches, and part of our division—we girls, of course—would begin to weep; while those who had spunk would spit on their hands, clench their fists, and "dare ‘em to bring them switches in!" Those were hot times in old Salt Creek Valley!"
One morning Turk, too, was seized with educational ambition, and accompanied Will to school. We tried to drive him home, but he followed at a distance, and as we entered the schoolhouse, he emerged from the shrubbery by the roadside and crept under the building.
Alas for the scholars, and alas for the school! Another ambitious dog reposed beneath the temple of learning.
Will, about that time, was having a bad quarter of an hour. An examination into his knowledge, or lack of it, was under way, and he was hard pressed. Had he been asked how to strike a trail, locate water, or pitch a tent, his replies would have been full and acurate, but the teacher’s queries seemed as foolish as the "Reeling and Writhing, Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision" of the Mock Turtle in "Alice in Wonderland."
Turk effected an unexpected rescue. Snarls were heard beneath the schoolhouse; then savage growls and yelps, while the floor resounded with the whacks of the canine combatants. With a whoop that would not have disgraced an Indian, Will was out of doors, shouting, "Eat him up, Turk! Eat him up!"
The owner of the opposing dog was one Steve Gobel. ‘Twixt him and Will a good-sized feud existed. Steve was also on the scene, with a defiant, "Sic ‘em, Nigger !" and the rest of the school followed in his wake.
Of the twisting, yelping bundle of dog-flesh that rolled from under the schoolhouse it was difficult to say which was Turk and which Nigger. Eliza and I called to Turk, and wept because he would not hear. The teacher ordered the children back to their studies, but they were as deaf as Turk; whereat the enraged pedagogue hopped wildly about, flourishing a stick and whacking every boy that stayed within reach of it.
Nigger soon had enough of the fight, and striking his tail-colors fled yelping from the battleground. His master, Steve Gobel, a large youth of nineteen or twenty years, pulled off his coat to avenge upon Will the dog’s defeat, but the teacher effected a Solomon-like compromise by whipping both boys for bringing their dogs to school, after which the interrupted session was resumed.
But Gobel nursed his wrath, and displayed his enmity in a thousand small ways. Will paid no attention to him, but buckled down to his school work. Will was a born "lady’s man," and when Miss Mary Hyatt complicated the feud ‘twixt him and Steve, it hurried to its climax. Mary was older than Will, but she plainly showed her preference for him over Master Gobel. Steve had never distinguished himself in an Indian fight; he was not a hero, but just a plain boy.
Now, indeed, was Will’s life unendurable; "patience had had its perfect work." He knew that a boy of twelve, however strong and sinewy, was not a match for an almost full-grown man; so, to balance matters, he secreted on his person an old bowie-knife. When next he met Steve, the latter climaxed his bullying tactics by striking the object of his resentment; but he was unprepared for the sudden leap that bore him backward to the earth. Size and strength told swiftly in the struggle that succeeded, but Will, with a dextrous thrust, put the point of the bowie into the fleshy part of Steve’s lower leg, a spot where he knew the cut would not be serious.
The stricken bully shrieked that he was killed; the children gathered round, and screamed loudly at the sight of blood. "Will Cody has killed Steve Gobel!" was the wailing cry, and Will, though he knew Steve was but pinked, began to realize that frontier styles of combat were not esteemed in communities given up to the soberer pursuits of spelling, arithmetic, and history. Steve, he knew, was more frightened than hurt; but the picture of the prostrate, ensanguined youth, and the group of awestricken children, bore in upon his mind the truth that his act was an infraction of the civil code; that even in self-defense, he had no right to use a knife unless his life was threatened.
The irate pedagogue was hastening to the scene, and after one glance at him, Will, incontinently fled. At the road he came upon a wagon train, and with a shout of joy recognized in the "boss" John Willis, a wagon-master employed by Russell, Majors & Waddell, and a great friend of the "boy extra." Will climbed up behind Willis on his horse, and related his escapade to a close and sympathetic listener.
"If you say so, Billy," was his comment, "I’ll go over and lick the whole outfit, and stampede the school."
"No, let the school alone," replied Will; "but I guess I’ll graduate, if you’ll let me go along with you this trip."
Willis readily agreed, but insisted upon returning to the schoolhouse. "I’m not going," said he, "to let you be beaten by a bully of a boy, and a Yankee school-teacher, with a little learning, but not a bit of sand." His idea of equalizing forces was that he and "Little Billy" should fight against the pedagogue and Steve.
Will consented, and they rode back to the schoolhouse, on the door of which Willis pounded with his revolver butt, and when the door was opened he invited Gobel and the "grammar man" to come forth and do battle. But Steve had gone home, and the teacher, on seeing the two gladiators, fled, while the scholars, dismissing themselves, ran home in a fright.
That night mother received a note from the teacher.
He was not hired, he wrote, to teach desperadoes; therefore Will was dismissed. But Will had already dismissed himself, and had rejoined the larger school whose walls are the blue bowl called the sky. And long after was his name used by the pedagogue to conjure up obedience in his pupils; unless they kissed the rod, they, too, might go to the bad, and follow in Will Cody’s erring footsteps.
Willis and Will had gone but a piece on the road when horsemen were seen approaching.
"Mr. Gobel and the officers are after me," said Will.
"Being after you and gittin’ you are two different things," said the wagon-master. "Lie low, and I’ll settle the men."
Mr. Gobel and his party rode up with the information that they had come to arrest Will; but they got no satisfaction from Willis. He would not allow them to search the wagons, and they finally rode away. That night, when the camp was pitched, the wagon-master gave Will a mule, and accompanied him home. We were rejoiced to see him, especially mother, who was much concerned over his escapade.
"Oh, Will, how could you do such a thing?" she said, sorrowfully. "It is a dreadful act to use a knife on any one."
Will disavowed any homicidal intentions; but his explanations made little headway against mother’s disapproval and her disappointment over the interruption of his school career. As it seemed the best thing to do, she consented to his going with the wagon train under the care of John Willis, and the remainder of the night was passed in preparations for the journey.