6: Family Defender and Household Tease
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THE fame to which Byron woke one historic morning was no more
unexpected to him than that which now greeted Will. The trainmen
had not been over-modest in their accounts of his pluck;
and when a newspaper reporter lent the magic of his imagination
to the plain narrative, it became quite a story, headed in
display type, "The Boy Indian Slayer."
But Will was speedily concerned with other than his own affairs,
for as soon as his position with the freighters was assured,
mother engaged a lawyer to fight the claim against our estate.
This legal light was John C. Douglass, then unknown, unhonored,
and unsung, but talented and enterprising notwithstanding.
He had just settled in Leavenworth, and he could scarcely have found
a better case with which to storm the heights of fame—the dead father,
the sick mother, the helpless children, and relentless persecution,
in one scale; in the other, an eleven-year-old boy doing a man's
work to earn the money needed to combat the family's enemies.
Douglass put his whole strength into the case.
He knew as well as we that our cause was weak; it hung by a single thread—
a missing witness, Mr. Barnhart. This man had acted as bookkeeper
when the bills were paid, but he had been sent away, and the prosecution—
or persecution—had thus far succeeded in keeping his where-abouts a secret.
To every place where he was likely to be Lawyer Douglass had written;
but we were as much in the dark as ever when the morning for the trial
of the suit arrived.
The case had excited much interest, and the court-room was crowded,
many persons having been drawn thither by a curiosity to look
upon "The Boy Indian Slayer." There was a cheerful unanimity of
opinion upon the utter hopelessness of the Cody side of the case.
Not only were prominent and wealthy men arrayed against us,
but our young and inexperienced lawyer faced the heaviest legal
guns of the Leavenworth bar. Our only witnesses were a frail
woman and a girl of eighteen, though by their side, with his head
held high, was the family protector, our brave young brother.
Against us were might and malignity; upon our side, right and the high
courage with which Christianity steels the soul of a believer.
Mother had faith that the invisible forces of the universe were
fighting for our cause.
She and Martha swore to the fact that all the bills had been settled;
and after the opposition had rested its case, Lawyer Douglass
arose for the defense. His was a magnificent plea for the rights
of the widow and the orphan, and was conceded to be one of the finest
speeches ever heard in a Kansas court-room; but though all were moved
by our counsel's eloquence—some unto tears by the pathos of it—
though the justice of our cause was freely admitted throughout
the court-room, our best friends feared the verdict.
But the climax was as stunning to our enemies as it was unexpected.
As Lawyer Douglass finished his last ringing period,
the missing witness, Mr. Barnhart, hurried into the court-room.
He had started for Leavenworth upon the first intimation that his
presence there was needed, and had reached it just in time.
He took the stand, swore to his certain knowledge that the bills
in question had been paid, and the jury, without leaving their seats,
returned a verdict for the defense.
Then rose cheer upon cheer, as our friends crowded about us and offered
their congratulations. Our home was saved, and Lawyer Douglass had won
a reputation for eloquence and sterling worth that stood undimmed through
all his long and prosperous career.
The next ripple on the current of our lives was sister Martha's wedding day.
Possessed of remarkable beauty, she had become a belle, and as young
ladies were scarce in Kansas at that time, she was the toast of all our
country round. But her choice had fallen on a man unworthy of her.
Of his antecedents we knew nothing; of his present life little more,
save that he was fair in appearance and seemingly prosperous.
In the sanction of the union Will stood aloof. Joined to a native intuition
were the sharpened faculties of a lad that lived beyond his years.
Almost unerring in his insight, he disliked the object of our sister's
choice so thoroughly that he refused to be a witness of the nuptials.
This dislike we attributed to jealousy, as brother and sister worshiped
each other, but the sequel proved a sad corroboration of his views.
Nature seemed to join her protest to Will's silent antagonism.
A terrific thunder-storm came up with the noon hour of the wedding.
So deep and sullen were the clouds that we were obliged to light the candles.
When the wedding pair took their places before Hymen's altar, a crash
of thunder rocked the house and set the casements rattling.
The couple had their home awaiting them in Leavenworth,
and departed almost immediately after the ceremony.
The cares and responsibilities laid upon our brother's
shoulders did not quench his boyish spirits and love of fun.
Not Buffalo Bill's! He gave us a jack-o'-lantern scare once
upon a time, which I don't believe any of us will ever forget.
We had never seen that weird species of pumpkin, and Will
embroidered a blood-and-thunder narrative.
"The pumpkins all rise up out of the ground," said he,
"on fire, with the devil's eyes, and their mouths open,
like blood-red lions, and grab you, and go under the earth.
You better look out!"
"That ain't so!" all of us little girls cried; "you know it's a fib.
Ain't it, mother?" and we ran as usual to mother.
"Will, you mustn't tell the children such tales.
Of course they're just fibs," said mother.
"So there!" we cried, in triumph. But Will had a "so there"
answer for us a few nights later. We were coming home late one evening,
and found the gate guarded by mad-looking yellow things, all afire,
and grinning hideously like real live men in the moon dropped down
from the sky.
"Jack-o'-lanterns!" screamed Eliza, grabbing May by the hand,
and starting to run. I began to say my prayers, of course,
and cry for mother. All at once the heads moved!
Even Turk's tail shot between his legs, and he howled in fright.
We saw the devil's eyes, the blood-red lion's mouths, and all the rest,
and set up such a chorus of wild yells that the whole household
rushed to our rescue. While we were panting out our story,
we heard Will snickering behind the door.
"So there, smarties! You'll believe what I tell you next time.
But he liked best to invade our play-room and "work magic" on our dolls.
Mother had set aside one apartment in our large log house for a play-room,
and here each one of our doll families dwelt in peace and harmony,
when Will wasn't around. But there was tragedy whenever he came near.
He would scalp the mother dolls, and tie their babies to the bedposts,
and would storm into their pasteboard-box houses at night, after we had
fixed them all in order, and put the families to standing on their heads.
He was a dreadful tease. It was in this play-room that the germ of
his Wild West took life. He formed us into a regular little company—
Turk and the baby, too—and would start us in marching order for the woods.
He made us stick horses and wooden tomahawks, spears, and horsehair strings,
so that we could be cowboys, Indians, bullwhackers, and cavalrymen.
All the scenes of his first freighting trip were acted out in the woods
of Salt Creek Valley. We had stages, robbers, "hold-ups," and most
ferocious Indian battles.
Will was always the "principal scalper," however, and we
had few of our feathers left after he was on the warpath.
We were so little we couldn't reach his feathers.
He always wore two long shiny ones, which had been the special
pride of our black rooster, and when he threw a piece of an old
blanket gotten from the Leavenworth barracks around his shoulders,
we considered him a very fine general indeed.
All of us were obedient to the letter on "show days,"
and scarcely ever said "Now, stop," or "I'll tell mother on you!"
But during one of these exciting performances Will came
to a short stop.
"I believe I'll run a show when I get to be a man," said he.
"That fortune lady said you'd got to be President of the United States,"
"How could ze presiman won a show?" asked May.
"How could that old fortune-teller know what I'm going to be?"
Will would answer, disdainfully. "I rather guess I can have
a show, in spite of all the fortune-tellers in the country.
I'll tell you right now, girls, I don't propose to be President,
but I do mean to have a show!"
Such temerity in disputing one's destiny was appalling; and though our
ideas of destiny were rather vague, we could grasp one dreadful fact:
Will had refused to be President of the United States! So we ran crying
to mother, and burying our faces in her lap, sobbed out: "Oh, mother!
Will says he ain't going to be President. Don't he have to be?"
Still, in spite of Will's fine scorn of fortune-tellers, the prophecy
concerning his future must have been sometimes in his mind.
This was shown in an episode that the writer is in duty bound,
as a veracious chronicler, to set down.
Our neighbor, Mr. Hathaway, had a son, Eugene, of about Will's age,
and the two were fast friends. One day, when Will was visiting
at Eugene's house, the boys introduced themselves to a barrel
of hard cider. Temperance sentiment had not progressed far
enough to bring hard cider under the ban, and Mr. Hathaway had
lately pressed out a quantity of the old-fashioned beverage.
The boys, supposing it a harmless drink, took all they desired—
much more than they could carry. They were in a deplorable
condition when Mr. Hathaway found them; and much distressed,
the good old man put Eugene to bed and brought Will home.
The family hero returned to us with a flourish of trumpets.
He stood up in the wagon and sang and shouted; and when Mr. Hathaway
reproved him, "Don't talk to me," was his lofty rejoinder.
"You forget that I am to be President of the United States."
There is compensation for everything. Will never touched cider again;
and never again could he lord it over his still admiring but no longer
docile sisters. If he undertook to boss or tease us more than to our fancy,
we would subdue him with an imitation of his grandiloquent, "You forget
that I am to be President of the United States." Indeed, so severe was this
retaliation that we seldom saw him the rest of the day.
But he got even with us when "preacher day" came around.
Like "Little Breeches' " father, Will never did go in much
on religion, and when the ministers assembled for "quarterly meeting"
at our house, we never knew what to expect from him.
Mother was a Methodist, and as our log house was larger than the others
in the valley, it fell to our lot to entertain the preachers often.
We kept our preparations on the quiet when Will was home,
but he always managed to find out what was up, and then trouble began.
His first move was to "sick" Turk on the yellow-legged chickens.
They were our best ones, and the only thing we had for the ministers
to eat. Then Will would come stalking in:
"Say, mother, just saw all the yellow-legged chickens a-scooting up
the road. Methodist preachers must be in the wind, for the old hens
are flying like sixty!"
"Now, Will, you call Turk off, and round up those chickens right away."
"Catch meself!" And Will would dance around and tease so he nearly
drove us all distracted. It was with the greatest difficulty that
mother could finally prevail upon him to round up the chickens.
That done, he would tie up the pump-handle, milk the cows dry,
strew the path to the gate with burrs and thistles, and stick up
a sign, "Thorney is the path and stickery the way that leedith unto
the kingdom of heaven. Amen!"
Then when mother had put a nice clean valance, freshly starched and ruffled,
around the big four-poster bed in the sitting-room, Will would daub it up
with smearcase, and just before the preachers arrived, sneak in under it,
and wait for prayers.
Mother always desired us to file in quietly, but we couldn't
pass the bed without our legs being pinched; so we "hollered,"
but were afraid to tell mother the reason before the ministers.
We had to bear it, but we snickered ourselves when the man Will
called "Elder Green Persimmon," because when he prayed his mouth
went inside out, came mincing into the room, and as he passed
the valance and got a pinch, jerked out a sour-grape sneeze:
"Mercy on us! I thought I was bitten by that fierce dog of yours, Mrs. Cody;
but it must have been a burr."
Then the "experiences" would begin. Will always listened quietly,
until the folks began telling how wicked they had been before they
got religion; then he would burst in with a vigorous "Amen!"
The elders did not know Will's voice; so they would get
warmed up by degree as the amens came thicker and faster.
When he had worked them all up to a red-hot pitch, Will would
start that awful snort of his that always made us double up
with giggles, and with a loud cockle-doodle-doo! would bolt
from the bed like a lightning flash and make for the window.
So "preacher day," as Will always called it, became the torment
of our lives.
To tell the truth, Will always was teasing us, but if he crooked his finger
at us we would bawl. We bawled and squalled from morning till night.
Yet we fairly worshiped him, and cried harder when he went away than
when he was home.
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