STORY BY TELLING OF THE LAST DAYS OF
THE LAST OF THE GREAT SCOUTS
And now the last of the Great Scouts has crossed the Great Divide.
There is now only one left of that magnificent group of frontiersmen who opened up the west to civilization. And strange to relate, he shared a fame only second to Cody’s, and a name somewhat similar. Buffalo Jones! I told his story in "The Last of the Plainsmen." Buffalo Bill and Buffalo Jones were life-long friends. Buffalo Bill earned his fame by killing thousands of buffalo. Buffalo Jones earned his by capturing and preserving buffalo calves to prevent the extinction of the species.
Here is what Buffalo Jones writes me about Buffalo Bill:
"About a half century ago I met Cody in Abaline, Kansas. He was city marshal. He said to me:
"Young man, we have organized a law and order league. Are you with us or against us?’
"‘I’m with you,’ was my reply.
"‘From that day to his death we were true friends. On that meeting he asked me to drink with him, and I refused. During the fifty years of our acquaintance I met him hundreds of times, all over the world, I might say, and he respected my temperance habit to the extent that he never asked me to drink again. The last time I met him was some years ago in Kansas City, where we three old-timers —Buffalo Bill, Pawnee Bill and I—had our picture taken together.
"Buffalo Bill was a wonderful character and a great man."
The last performance of Buffalo Bill’s "Wild West" took place in Denver about 1913. The show was attached for debts and was finally taken into the Sells-Floto circus. The Sells people advertised him as "Buffalo Bill Himself," and he appeared in the performances for some time, probably for nearly a year, and then he associated himself with the "101 Ranch." But he soon tired of this lessening tide in his fortunes, and particularly the show business. He went to Cody, Wyoming, to look after his private ranching interests, and there to try to recover his failing health. Nearly seventy years old, ill and broken, and almost penniless, he faced a new and strange trail. All his personal property had gone in the break-up of his "Wild West" show.
Cody went to Denver. He was planning another "Wild West" show. But there he broke down and went to the home of his youngest sister, Mrs. Mary Cody Decker. After a few weeks of slowly failing strength he died on January 10, 1917. It is the opinion of his close friends that his failing health and death were due to a broken heart.
Mr. Chauncey Thomas, the well-known writer of Outdoor Life, knew Cody personally and had the last interview with the great scout. I venture to predict that this interview will become historical; and I am indebted to Mr. Thomas for permission to quote him:
"The greatest thing Buffalo Bill ever did, a thing that few men throughout the ages have ever equalled, was to give a new game to the children of the world. And in that his fame will probably outlive Cæsar’s, for when Cæsar and Napoleon have faded into oblivion Buffalo Bill will have become a legendary hero, known in the literature and the legends and the children’s games of civilizations yet to come. At one time Cinderella, Sinbad, Robinson Crusoe, Friday, and their kind undoubtedly lived in the flesh, but so long ago that the memory of man runneth not to the contrary. What Robin Hood was to England, so Buffalo Bill will probably be to America. .
"Buffalo Bill took the American frontier around the world. London, Paris, Berlin, people by the million the earth around saw with their own eyes, not an imitation, not a mere stage or theatrical effect, but the real thing. Here, before their own eyes, were the actual men, red and white, who rode the Western plains of America. No other man has ever done that, no other man now can do that. Buffalo Bill benefited, the West benefited, the whole world benefited by it, and no one lost. That our outdoor West is known all over the earth as in no other country, we owe to Buffalo Bill, and to no one else.
"But his last days were as quiet, calm and peaceful as his life had been active and brilliant. Mrs. May Cody Decker, in whose home he died, gave her brother every care and attention that love and admiration could bestow. May Cody was his youngest sister, and he often used to take her with him on the plains in the early days. Between the two was a life-long bond that few sisters know, and when his death drew near Buffalo Bill went to her home.
"When the doctors told him that he would never see another sunset, Buffalo Bill dropped his head on his breast for a moment, a long, still moment, then raised it, fearlessly and serene. Those eagle eyes, keen and kindly as ever they were, looked long at the mountains, snowy in the distance, then he quietly gave a few directions about his funeral, and then again became the knightly, genial man he had always been. The man was majestic.
"In the room were his two sisters, Mrs. May Cody Decker and Mrs. Julia Cody Goodman, and another relative, Miss Hazel Olive Bennet—who made this story possible, and to whose kindly influence and intelligent cooperation the world is indebted for this interview—myself, and that white, calm figure, William Frederick Cody.
"It was the End, and we all knew it. We talked at random, as all do, perhaps, at such times. I can make no attempt to put down here what was said, as if this were a stenographic report. The Grand Old American talked of this and of that, now of the early days on the Great Plains, now of the boyhood of the present King of England—and in the room was a personal message from that King, and another from the President of the United States, and from others of equal rank throughout the world. Buffalo Bill, Colonel Cody, Pa-has-ka, they came and went, but the center of that last group was ‘Brother Will.’
"But his mind went back eagerly to the minor details of his earlier life and to the names of those he used to know, who long ago passed beyond the Great White Range. We talked of many of the old friends of my father’s, W. R. Thomas, like Reno, Custer, Benteen, Captain Mix, Grant, Sheridan, Carr, Crook, and Sherman, and the few I had known when a boy—the soldiers, stage-drivers and Scouts of the early days.
"Then I spoke of guns. ‘Which gun was his favorite?’
"‘Lucretia Borgia,’ he smiled. That was the name of his favorite buffalo gun.
"‘The old fifty-caliber Springfield needle-gun?’ I asked.
"‘No, forty-eight caliber. The muzzle loaders of the Civil War were fifty-two caliber, you remember’—I didn’t because I was not born till after the war, and he laughed—’but they made the breech-loading Springfield forty-eight caliber. I liked it better than the Sharps, and with it I killed 4,250 buffalo one year—or 4,862 in eighteen months, besides deer and antelope—for the Union Pacific builders.’
"‘Did you always use the same gun?’
"‘Practically so. The barrel of Lucretia Borgia is now on the elk horns at the ranch, with the knife with which I killed Yellow Hand. I don’t know where the stock is’—and here the white head drooped wearily, and some one took up the talk for a while.
"‘Yes,’ he began again, ‘I have killed over 40,000 buffalo, and most of them with that old gun. But not all of them, of course.’
"‘That was your favorite gun, then?’
"‘It is now, but our term of service on the Plains covered so many years, and so many different kinds of guns came into use that we tried out this one, then that one. The Winchester was well liked, as was the Spencer carbine, especially on horseback, but they could not shoot alongside of the .48-caliber needle-gun. That carried 70 grains of powder and 470 grains of lead. "Shoot to-day!—kill to-morrow!" was what the Indians called it.’
"‘That was my father’s rifle, and I love that gun.’
"I asked him about the old buffalo Sharps rifle, the .45-120-550 gun that weighed from sixteen to eighteen pounds, or the .44-caliber, bottle-neck, eleven-pound Sharps, like the one I own, my first rifle, and that were the usual favorites with the buffalo-killers, but he did not say much about them. To my surprise he did not seem interested in them at all. I presume the reason was that he usually hunted buffalo from horseback, and so did not use these heavy rifles, as did the men who killed from the ground.
"Then I learned how he killed his buffalo and how he got his name. He used to ride on the righthand side of a herd as near to the front as he could get, and always shoot to the left hand, as a rifleman on horseback naturally would do. This method usually caused the herd soon to run in a solid circle, or to ‘mill,’ as the cattlemen call it, and this kept the herd in one place, running round and round and round like a wheel. Thus one could kill as many as were needed for that day, and have them all in the same spot, convenient for the skinners and the meat wagons.
"The other method—one he did not use so much as others did—was to ‘get a stand’ on a small herd and shoot down the animals that were inclined to break away and lead the herd out of range. From this method comes, I have no doubt, our present purely American word, ‘to buffalo,’ meaning to have some one confused, intimidated, bluffed and outgeneraled.
"But he did not consider this so much hunting as it was railroad building, opening the wilderness to civilization, and that the buffalo had to go as the first step in subduing the Indian; also because cattle-raising and farming, as every old-timer knows, was impossible where the buffalo were. The wild cattle (the buffalo), savage and untamable as the wolves that followed them, ruined fences and crops and killed all domestic cattle, for it is death for the domestic cow—due to the hump on the calf—to breed with the buffalo bull, and the buffalo bulls could easily run down and kill any domestic bull.
"The elimination of the buffalo was not wanton; it was necessary. In their place to-day are domestic cattle, less picturesque but far more valuable to mankind. I speak of this somewhat at length out of justice to Buffalo Bill. He never killed for slaughter’s own sake. The more than forty thousand that fell to his rifle were killed for food, just as we kill to-day. He fed with wild meat the men who laid the first iron trail across the plains, who first linked the two oceans with a path of steel.
"‘Who was the best revolver shot you ever knew?’ I asked.
"‘Frank North, white chief of the Pawnees. He was the best revolver shot, standing still, in the air, from horseback, or at running animals or men, that I ever saw,’ and again those dark eagle eyes of the Old Scout lit up like an excited boy’s. Then came his sister’s lifted hand of caution behind his shoulder, and I changed the subject, for that great heart was liable to stop at any instant, and we had to avoid anything tending to excite him. But after a time I came back to the same subject.
"‘Was Wild Bill one of the quickest shots?’ I ventured.
"‘Fair,’ smiled Cody, and I too smiled to hear a man say that Wild Bill was a ‘fair’ shot. But this was Buffalo Bill speaking, and he spoke as one with authority.
"'"Bill" was only a nickname we gave him, you know.’ I didn’t know, but nodded. ‘His real name was James B. Hickox, and we got to calling him "Wild Bill" because when we were all boys together there were four "Bills" in the wagon train, and we had to sort them out somehow. Jim Hickox was always popping away at everything he saw move when on guard at night over the stock, so we sort of got to calling him "Wild" Bill, and that is how the name came to him. They called me "Buffalo" Bill because I had that buffalo contract with the U. P. and got down over 4,250 for meat. I have forgotten what became of the other two "Bills."’
"‘How did Hickox get so many men?’ I asked.
"‘Well, Bill was a pretty good shot, but he could not shoot as quick as half a dozen men we all knew in those days. Nor as straight, either. But Bill was cool, and the men he went up against were rattled, I guess. Bill beat them to it. He made up his mind to kill the other man before the other man had finished thinking, and so Bill would just quietly pull his gun and give it to him. That was all there was to it. It is easy enough to beat the other man if you start first. Bill always shot as he raised his gun. That is, he was never in a hurry about it; he just pulled the gun from his hip and let it go as he was raising it; shoot on the up-raise, you might call it. Most men lifted the gun higher, then threw it down to cock it before firing. Bill cocked it with his thumb, I guess, as it was coming up into line with his man. That’s how he did it. But he was not the quickest man by any means. He was just cool and quiet, and started first. Bill Hickox was not a bad man, as is often pictured. But he was a bad man to tackle. Always cool, kind, and cheerful, almost, about it. And he never killed a man unless that man was trying to kill him. That’s fair.’ It was, and so I agreed.
"‘Was any particular revolver, size, or caliber the favorite in the early days?’
"‘No, not particularly. Like the rifles, new kinds and sizes came in and put other kinds out. So we used all kinds, and sometimes any kind we could get. It was the cap-and-ball Colt, then the metallic cartridge six-guns came on the plains, and they saved us a lot of trouble, especially in wet weather, or on horseback. The only way we could load a cap-and ball on horseback was to have extra cylinders, and change from an empty to a loaded one, and then reload all the empty cylinders when we had a chance. But with wet clothes, wet hands, and everything wet, that was often hard to do, and sometimes we could not reload at all. A muzzle-loading rifle or shotgun was different, because we could keep the muzzle and the loading things covered better. So the metal cartridges were a great thing.’
"‘Was the .45 Colt or the .44-caliber preferred by most men?’
"‘It didn’t make any difference. Just what we happened to have.’
"‘Was any kind of knife a special favorite on the plains?’
"‘No. Any kind that the owner liked, or could get. Such things as guns, revolvers and knives were just like any other kind of fashion or tools. Some kinds were favorites, maybe, in one place or at one time here and there, then other kinds. I used all of them, I guess. But for buffalo I liked best the .48-caliber Springfield. "Shoot to-day!—kill tomorrow!"
"‘What kind of a knife did you kill Yellow Hand with?’
"‘Just a big heavy bowie blade. For skinning and cutting up meat, of course, we used common butcher knives; no particular kind. Whatever we had or could get. Often we had to make such things ourselves. We were not particular, just so such things did their work.’
"‘Could the old-timers shoot better than the men of to-day?’
"‘No,’ and a shadow of injured pride or regret, it seemed like, crossed the Old Scout’s face. ‘No, we could not shoot as good as you do to-day. We did not have as accurate guns, either in rifles or revolvers or loads. And we could not afford the ammunition with which to practice. I never saw such revolver shooting as Captain Hardy did one night over at his house, in that private shooting place he has down cellar.’
"But Hardy, one of the world’s best shots, says that Buffalo Bill was the best shot from horseback that the world has ever seen.
"‘No; none of us, not even Frank North, could do such things. C. M. McCutchen can shoot a revolver far faster than any man I ever knew on the frontier; five hits on a man at ten yards in threefifths of a second is more than twice as fast as we could do. He is probably the fastest man with a revolver who ever lived. All of them to-day—the best shots, I mean—can beat us old-timers every time. But we did the work all the same. We had to.’
"The voice was tired now, and the doctor came.
"‘Brother Will, it is time for him to go,’ said Mrs. Goodman gently, and I arose. The Old Scout was in pajamas and slippers, and over them had been drawn a house coat. Instantly Buffalo Bill was on his feet, straight as an Indian, head up, as in days of old. The man recalled the Spanish cavalier, courtly as the prince he was in his kindly grace, all unaided by gorgeous trappings or picturesque surroundings, just the Man Himself standing there, waxen pale, his silver hair flowing down over his straight, square shoulders, his hand out in the last farewell. He asked for me afterwards, but the doctors said, ‘No.’ But as we all stood up in that little home room a silence fell. It was the last time. I knew it; he knew it; we all knew it. But on the surface not a sign.
The Denver Post of January 14, 1917, said in part:
They buried Buffalo Bill on a promontory of Lookout Mountain, near Denver.
It was not the place he had hoped to go to his last sleep, but, nevertheless, it is indeed a fitting grave for the last of the great scouts. He would have chosen a lonelier grave, far from the crowd. In the years to come his resting place will be visited by thousands; and that will be well. The coming generations ought to have memorable appreciation of the man who so faithfully served the West.
Every hunter and plainsman and scout loved the solitude and loneliness of the wilds. That is what made them great.
The sunset, the descending twilight, the sweet silence of the hills, the brightening star, the lonely darkness of the night—these things Buffalo Bill loved. And these he will have. His life was full to the brim. He will not be forgotten. He represented the onward movement of a race. Surely he will rest in peace there on the rocky height where the wind will moan and the day will break solemn and grand and the night fall to the end of time.