5: The "Boy Extra"
<< 4: Persecution Continues || 6: Family Defender and Household Tease >>
AT this sorrowful period mother was herself almost at death's
door with consumption, but far from sinking under the blow,
she faced the new conditions with a steadfast calm,
realizing that should she, too, be taken, her children would
be left without a protector, and at the mercy of the enemies
whose malignity had brought their father to an untimely end.
Her indomitable will opposed her bodily weakness. "I will not die,"
she told herself, "until the welfare of my children is assured."
She was needed, for our persecution continued.
Hardly was the funeral over when a trumped-up claim for a thousand
dollars, for lumber and supplies, was entered against our estate.
Mother knew the claim was fictitious, as all the bills had been settled,
but the business had been transacted through the agency of Uncle Elijah,
and father had neglected to secure the receipts. In those bitter,
troublous days it too often happened that brother turned against brother,
and Elijah retained his fealty to his party at the expense of his
dead brother's family.
This fresh affliction but added fuel to the flame of mother's energy.
Our home was paid for, but father's business had been made so broken
and irregular that our financial resources were of the slenderest,
and should this unjust claim for a thousand dollars be allowed,
we would be homeless.
The result of mother's study of the situation was, "If I had the ready money,
I should fight the claim."
"You fight the claim, and I'll get the money," Will replied.
Mother smiled, but Will continued:
"Russell, Majors & Waddell will give me work. Jim Willis says I am capable
of filling the position of `extra.' If you'll go with me and ask Mr. Majors
for a job, I'm sure he'll give me one."
Russell, Majors & Waddell were overland freighters and contractors,
with headquarters at Leavenworth. To Will's suggestion mother
entered a demurrer, but finally yielded before his insistence.
Mr. Majors had known father, and was more than willing to aid us,
but Will's youth was an objection not lightly overridden.
"What can a boy of your age do?" he asked, kindly.
"I can ride, shoot, and herd cattle," said Will; "but I'd rather
be an `extra' on one of your trains.'
"But that is a man's work, and is dangerous besides." Mr. Majors hesitated.
"But I'll let you try it one trip, and if you do a man's work, I'll give you
a man's pay."
So Will's name was put on the company roll, and he signed a pledge
that illustrates better than a description the character and disposition
of Mr. Majors.
"I, William F. Cody," it read, "do hereby solemnly swear,
before the great and living God, that during my engagement with,
and while I am in the employ of, Russell, Majors & Waddell, I will,
under no circumstances, use profane language, that I will not quarrel
or fight with any other employee of the firm, and that in every
respect I will conduct myself honestly, be faithful to my duties,
and so direct all my acts as to win the confidence of my employers.
So help me God!"
Mr Majors employed many wild and reckless men, but the language
of the pledge penetrated to the better nature of them all.
They endeavored, with varying success, to live up to its conditions,
although most of them held that driving a bull-team constituted
extenuating circumstances for an occasional expletive.
The pledge lightened mother's heart; she knew that Will would keep his word;
she felt, too, that a man that required such a pledge of his employees was
worthy of their confidence and esteem.
The train was to start in a day, and all of us were busy with the
preparations for Will's two months' trip. The moment of parting came,
and it was a trying ordeal for mother, so recently bereaved of husband.
Will sought to soothe her, but the younger sisters had better success,
for with tears in our eyes we crowded about him, imploring him to "run
if he saw any Indians."
'Tis but a step from tears to smiles; the situation was relieved, and Will
launched his life bark amid adieus of hope and confidence and love.
His fortitude lasted only till he was out of sight of the house;
but youth is elastic, the plains lay before him, and mother and sisters
were to be helped; so he presented a cheerful face to his employers.
That night the bed of the "boy extra" was a blanket under a wagon;
but he slept soundly, and was ready when the train started
with the dawn.
The "bull-train" took its name from the fact that each of the thirty-five
wagons making up a full train was hauled by several yoke of oxen,
driven by one man, known as a bullwhacker. This functionary's whip cracked
like a rifle, and could be heard about as far. The wagons resembled
the ordinary prairie-schooner, but were larger and more strongly built;
they were protected from the weather by a double covering of heavy canvas,
and had a freight capacity of seven thousand pounds.
Besides the bullwhackers there were cavallard drivers (who cared
for the loose cattle), night herders, and sundry extra hands,
all under the charge of a chief wagon-master, termed the wagon-boss,
his lieutenants being the boss of the cattle train and the assistant
wagon-master. The men were disposed in messes, each providing its
own wood and water, doing its own cooking, and washing up its own
tin dinner service, while one man in each division stood guard.
Special duties were assigned to the "extras," and Will's was to ride up
and down the train delivering orders. This suited his fancy to a dot,
for the oxen were snail-gaited, and to plod at their heels was dull work.
Kipling tells us it is quite impossible to "hustle the East";
it were as easy, as Will discovered, to hustle a bull-train.
From the outset the "boy extra" was a favorite with the men.
They liked his pluck in undertaking such work, and when it was
seen that he took pride in executing orders promptly, he became
a favorite with the bosses as well. In part his work was play to him;
he welcomed an order as a break in the monotony of the daily march,
and hailed the opportunity of a gallop on a good horse.
The world of Will's fancy was bounded by the hazy rim where plain
and sky converge, and when the first day's journey was done,
and he had staked out and cared for his horse, he watched with
fascinated eyes the strange and striking picture limned against
the black hills and the sweeping stretch of darkening prairie.
Everything was animation; the bullwhackers unhitching and disposing
of their teams, the herders staking out the cattle, and--
not the least interesting--the mess cooks preparing
the evening meal at the crackling camp-fires, with the huge,
canvas-covered wagons encircling them like ghostly sentinels;
the ponies and oxen blinking stupidly as the flames stampeded
the shadows in which they were enveloped; and more weird than all,
the buckskin-clad bullwhackers, squatted around the fire,
their beards glowing red in its light, their faces drawn
in strange black and yellow lines, while the spiked grasses
shot tall and sword-like over them.
It was wonderful--that first night of the "boy extra."
But Will discovered that life on the plains is not all a supper under
the stars when the sparks fly upward; it has its hardships and privations.
There were days, as the wagons dragged their slow lengths along,
when the clouds obscured the sky and the wind whistled dismally;
days when torrents fell and swelled the streams that must be crossed,
and when the mud lay ankle-deep; days when the cattle stampeded,
and the round-up meant long, extra hours of heavy work; and, hardest but
most needed work of all, the eternal vigil 'gainst an Indian attack.
Will did not share the anxiety of his companions.
To him a brush with Indians would prove that boyhood's dreams
sometimes come true, and in imagination he anticipated the glory
of a first encounter with the "noble red man," after the fashion
of the heroes in the hair-lifting Western tales he had read.
He was soon to learn, as many another has learned, that the Indian
of real Life is vastly different from the Indian of fiction.
He refuses to "bite the dust" at sight of a paleface,
and a dozen of them have been known to hold their own against
as many white men.
Some twenty miles west of Fort Kearny a halt was made for dinner
at the bank of a creek that emptied into the Platte River. No signs
of Indians had been observed, and there was no thought of
special danger. Nevertheless, three men were constantly on guard.
Many of the trainmen were asleep under the wagons while waiting dinner,
and Will was watching the maneuvers of the cook in his mess.
Suddenly a score of shots rang out from the direction of a
neighboring thicket, succeeded by a chorus of savage yells.
Will saw the three men on the lookout drop in their tracks,
and saw the Indians divide, one wing stampeding the cattle,
the other charging down upon the camp.
The trainmen were old frontiersmen, and although taken wholly by surprise,
they lined up swiftly in battle array behind the wagons, with the bosses,
Bill and Frank McCarthy, at their head, and the "boy extra"
under the direction of the wagon-master.
A well-placed volley of rifle-balls checked the Indians,
and they wheeled and rode away, after sending in a scattering
cloud of arrows, which wounded several of the trainmen.
The decision of a hasty council of war was, that a defensive
stand would be useless, as the Indians outnumbered the whites
ten to one, and red reinforcements were constantly coming up,
until it seemed to Will as if the prairie were alive with them.
The only hope of safety lay in the shelter of the creek's
high bank, so a run was made for it. The Indians charged again,
with the usual accompaniment of whoops, yells, and flying arrows;
but the trainmen had reached the creek, and from behind its
natural breastwork maintained a rifle fire that drove the foe
back out of range.
To follow the creek and river to Fort Kearny was not accounted
much of a chance for escape, but it was the only avenue that
lay open; so, with a parting volley to deceive the besiegers
into thinking that the fort was still held, the perilous
and difficult journey was begun.
The Indians quickly penetrated the ruse, and another charge
had to be repulsed. Besides the tiresome work of wading,
there were wounded men to help along, and a ceaseless
watch to keep against another rush of the reds.
It was a trying ordeal for a man, doubly so for a boy like Will;
but he was encouraged to coolness and endurance by a few words
from Frank McCarthy, who remarked, admiringly, "Well, Billy,
you didn't scare worth a cent."
After a few miles of wading the little party issued out upon
the Platte River. By this time the wounded men were so exhausted
that a halt was called to improvise a raft. On this the sufferers
were placed, and three or four men detailed to shove it before them.
In consideration of his youth, Will was urged to get upon
the raft, but he declined, saying that he was not wounded,
and that if the stream got too deep for him to wade, he could swim.
This was more than some of the men could do, and they, too, had to
be assisted over the deep places.
Thus wore the long and weary hours away, and though the men,
who knew how hard a trip it was, often asked, "How goes it, Billy?"
he uttered no word of complaint.
But half a day's wading, without rest or food, gradually weighted
his heels, and little by little he lagged behind his companions.
The moon came out and silvered tree and river, but the silent,
plodding band had no eyes for the glory of the landscape.
Will had fallen behind some twenty rods, but in a moment fatigue
was forgotten, the blood jumped in his veins, for just ahead
of him the moonlight fell upon the feathered head-dress of an
Indian chief, who was peering over the bank. Motionless, he watched
the head, shoulders, and body of the brave come into view.
The Indian supposed the entire party ahead, and Will made no move
until the savage bent his bow.
Then he realized, with a thumping heart, that death must come
to one of his comrades or the Indian.
Even in direst necessity it is a fearful thing to deliberately
take a human life, but Will had no time for hesitation.
There was a shot, and the Indian rolled down the bank
into the river.
His expiring yell was answered by others. The reds were not far away.
Frank McCarthy, missing Will, stationed guards, and ran back to look for him.
He found the lad hauling the dead warrior ashore, and seizing his hand,
cried out: "Well done, my boy; you've killed your first Indian, and done
it like a man!"
Will wanted to stop and bury the body, but being assured that it was not only
an uncustomary courtesy, but in this case quite impossible, he hastened on.
As they came up with the waiting group McCarthy called out:
"Pards, little Billy has killed his first redskin!"
The announcement was greeted with cheers, which grated on Will's ears,
for his heart was sick, and the cheers seemed strangely out of place.
Little time, however, was afforded for sentiment of any sort.
Enraged at the death of their scout, the Indians made a final charge,
which was repulsed, like the others, and after this Bill McCarthy
took the lead, with Frank at the rear, to prevent further straggling
of the forces.
It was a haggard-faced band that came up to Fort Kearny with the dawn.
The wounded men were left at the post, while the others returned
to the wrecked bull-train under escort of a body of troops.
They hoped to make some salvage, but the cattle had either been
driven away or had joined one of the numerous herds of buffalo;
the wagons and their freight had been burned, and there was nothing
to do but bury the three pickets, whose scalped and mutilated bodies
were stretched where they had fallen.
Then the troops and trainmen parted company, the former
to undertake a bootless quest for the red marauders,
the latter to return to Leavenworth, their occupation gone.
The government held itself responsible for the depredations
of its wards, and the loss of the wagons and cattle was
assumed at Washington.
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