Last of the Great Scouts by Helen Cody Wetmore - HTML preview
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AFTER the battle of Pilot Knob Will was assigned, through the influence of General Polk, to special service at military headquarters in St. Louis. Mrs. Polk had been one of mother's school friends, and the two had maintained a correspondence up to the time of mother's death. As soon as Mrs. Polk learned that the son of her old friend was in the Union army, she interested herself in obtaining a good position for him. But desk-work is not a Pony Express rush, and Will found the St. Louis detail about as much to his taste as clerking in a dry-goods store. His new duties naturally became intolerable, lacking the excitement and danger-scent which alone made his life worth while to him. One event, however, relieved the dead-weight monotony of his existence; he met Louise Frederici, the girl who became his wife. The courtship has been written far and wide with bloodand-thunder pen, attended by lariat-throwing and runaway steeds. In reality it was a romantic affair. More than once, while out for a morning canter, Will had remarked a young woman of attractive face and figure, who sat her horse with the grace of Diana Vernon. Now, few things catch Will's eye more quickly than fine horsemanship. He desired to establish an acquaintance with the young lady, but as none of his friends knew her, he found it impossible.
At length a chance came. Her bridle-rein broke onemorning; there was a runaway, a rescue, and then acquaintance was easy. From war to love, or from love to war, is but a step, and Will lost no time in taking it. He was somewhat better than an apprentice to Dan Cupid. If the reader remembers, he went to school with Steve Gobel. True, his opportunities to enjoy feminine society had not been many, which; perhaps, accounts for the promptness with which he embraced them when they did arise. He became the accepted suitor of Miss Louise Frederici before the war closed and his regiment was mustered out. The spring of 1865 found him not yet twenty, and he was sensible of the fact that before he could dance at his own wedding he must place his worldly affairs upon a surer financial basis than falls to the lot of a soldier; so, much as he would have enjoyed remaining in St. Louis, fortune pointed to wider fields, and he set forth in search of remunerative and congenial employment. First, there was the visit home, where the warmest of welcomes awaited him. During his absence the second sister, Eliza, had married a Mr. Myers, but the rest of us were at the old place, and the eagerness with which we awaited Will's home-coming was stimulated by the hope that he would remain and take charge of the estate. Before we broached this subject, however, he informed us of his engagement to Miss Frederici, which, far from awakening jealousy, aroused our delight, Julia voicing the sentiment of the family in the comment: "When you're married, Will, you will have to stay at home." This led to the matter of his remaining with us to manage the estate--and to the upsetting of our plans. The pay of a soldier in the war was next to nothing, and asWill had been unable to put any money by, he took the first chance that offered to better his fortunes. This happened to be a job of driving horses from Leavenworth to Fort Kearny, and almost the first man he met after reaching the fort was an old plains friend, Bill Trotter.
"You're just the chap I've been looking for," said Trotter, when he learned that Will desired regular work. "I'm division station agent here, but stage-driving is dangerous work, as the route is infested with Indians and outlaws. Several drivers have been held up and killed lately, so it's not a very enticing job, but the pay's good, and you know the country. If any one can take the stage through, you can. Do you want the job?" When a man is in love and the wedding-day has been dreamed of, if not set, life takes on an added sweetness, and to stake it against the marksmanship of Indian or outlaw is not, perhaps, the best use to which it may be put. Will had come safely through so many perils that it seemed folly to thrust his head into another batch of them, and thinking of Louise and the coming wedding-day, his first thought was no. But it was the old story, and there was Trotter at his elbow expressing confidence in his ability as a frontiersman-- an opinion Will fully shared, for a man knows what he can do. The pay was good, and the sooner earned the sooner would the wedding be, and Trotter received the answer he expected. The stage line was another of the Western enterprises projected by Russell, Majors & Waddell. When gold was discovered on Pike's Peak there was no method of traversing the great Western plain except by plodding ox-team, mule-pack, or stagecoach. A semimonthly stage line ran from St. Joseph to Salt Lake City, but it was poorlyequipped and very tedious, oftentimes twenty-one days being required to make the trip. The senior member of the firm, in partnership with John S. Jones, of Missouri, established a new line between the Missouri River and Denver, at that time a straggling mining hamlet. One thousand Kentucky mules were bought, with a sufficient number of coaches to insure a daily run each way. The trip was made in six days, which necessitated travel at the rate of a hundred miles a day.
The first stage reached Denver on May 17, 1859. It was accounted a remarkable achievement, and the line was pronounced a great success. In one way it was; but the expense of equipping it had been enormous, and the new line could not meet its obligations. To save the credit of their senior partner, Russell, Majors & Waddell were obliged to come to the rescue. They bought up all the outstanding obligations, and also the rival stage line between St. Joseph and Salt Lake City. They consolidated the two, and thereby hoped to put the Overland stage route on a paying basis. St. Joseph now became the starting-point of the united lines. From there the road went to Fort Kearny, and followed the old Salt Lake trail, already described in these pages. After leaving Salt Lake it passed through Camp Floyd, Ruby Valley, Carson City, Placerville, and Folsom, and ended in Sacramento. The distance from St. Joseph to Sacramento by this old stage route was nearly nineteen hundred miles. The time required by mail contracts and the government schedule was nineteen days. The trip was frequently made in fifteen, but there were so many causes for detention that the limit was more often reached. Each two hundred and fifty miles of road was designated a "division," and was in charge of an agent, who hadgreat authority in his own jurisdiction. He was commonly a man of more than ordinary intelligence, and all matters pertaining to his division were entirely under his control. He hired and discharged employee, purchased horses, mules, harness, and food, and attended to their distribution at the different stations. He superintended the erection of all buildings, had charge of the water supply, and he was the paymaster. There was also a man known as the conductor, whose route was almost coincident with that of the agent. He sat with the driver, and often rode the whole two hundred and fifty miles of his division without any rest or sleep, except what he could catch sitting on the top of the flying coach. The coach itself was a roomy, swaying vehicle, swung on thorough-braces instead of springs. It always had a six-horse or six-mule team to draw it, and the speed was nerve-breaking. Passengers were allowed twenty-five pounds of baggage, and that, with the mail, express, and the passengers themselves, was in charge of the conductor. The Overland stagecoaches were operated at a loss until 1862. In March of that year Russell, Majors & Waddell transferred the whole outfit to Ben Holliday. Here was a typical frontiersman, of great individuality and character. At the time he took charge of the route the United States mail was given to it. This put the line on a sound financial basis, as the government spent $800,000 yearly in transporting the mail to San Francisco. Will reported for duty the morning after his talk with Trotter, and when he mounted the stage-box and gathered the reins over the six spirited horses, the passengers were assured of an expert driver. His run was from Fort Kearny to Plum Creek. The country was sharply familiar. It was the scene of his first encounter with Indians. A long and lonely ride it was, and a dismal one when the weather turned cold; but it meant a hundred and fifty dollars a month; and each pay day brought him nearer to St. Louis.
Indian signs there had been right along, but they were only signs until one bleak day in November. He pulled out of Plum Creek with a sharp warning ringing in his ears. Indians were on the war-path, and trouble was more likely than not ahead. Lieutenant Flowers, assistant division agent, was on the box with him, and within the coach were six wellarmed passengers.
Half the run had been covered, when Will's experienced eye detected the promised red men. Before him lay a stream which must be forded. The creek was densely fringed with underbrush, and along this the Indians were skulking, expecting to cut the stage off at the only possible crossing.
Perhaps this is a good place to say a word concerning the seemingly extraordinary fortune that has stood by Will in his adventures. Not only have his own many escapes been of the hairbreadth sort, but he has arrived on the scene of danger at just the right moment to rescue others from extinction. Of course, an element of luck has entered into these affairs, but for the most part they simply proved the old saying that an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure. Will had studied the plains as an astronomer studies the heavens. The slightest disarrangement of the natural order of things caught his eye. With the astronomer, it is a comet or an asteroid appearing upon a field whose every object has long since been placed and studied; with Will, it was a feathered headdress where there should have been but tree, or rock, or grass; a moving figure where nature should have been inanimate.
When seen, those things were calculated as the astronomer calculates the motion of the objects that he studies. A planet will arrive at a given place at a certain time; an Indian will reach a ford in a stream in about so many minutes. If there be time to cross before him, it is a matter of hard driving; if the odds are with the Indian, that is another matter. A less experienced observer than Will would not have seen the skulking redskins; a less skilled frontiersman would not have apprehended their design; a less expert driver would not have taken the running chance for life; a less accurate marksman would not have picked off an Indian with a rifle while shooting from the top of a swinging, jerking stagecoach.
Will did not hesitate. A warning shout to the passengers, and the whip was laid on, and off went the horses full speed. Seeing that they had been discovered, the Indians came out into the open, and ran their ponies for the ford, but the stage was there full five hundred yards before them. It was characteristic of their driver that the horses were suffered to pause at the creek long enough to get a swallow of water; then, refreshed, they were off at full speed again.
The coach, creaking in every joint, rocked like a captive balloon, the unhappy passengers were hurled from one side of the vehicle to the other, flung into one another's laps, and occasionally, when some uncommon obstacle sought to check the flying coach, their heads collided with its roof. The Indians menaced them without, cracked skulls seemed their fate within.
Will plied the whip relentlessly, and so nobly did the powerful horses respond that the Indians gained but slowly on them. There were some fifty redskins in the band, but Will assumed that if he could reach the relay station, the two stock-tenders there, with himself, Lieutenant Flowers, and the passengers, would be more than a match for the marauders.
When the pursuers drew within fair rifle range, Will handed the reins to the lieutenant, swung round in his seat, and fired at the chief. "There," shouted one of the passengers, "that fellow with the feathers is shot!" and another fusillade from the coach interior drove holes in the air.
The relay station was now hard by, and attracted by the firing, the stock-tenders came forth to take a hand in the engagement. Disheartened by the fall of their chief, the Indians weakened at the sign of reinforcements, and gave up the pursuit.
Lieutenant Flowers and two of the passengers were wounded, but Will could not repress a smile at the excited assurance of one of his fares that they (the passengers) had "killed one Indian and driven the rest back." The stock-tenders smiled also, but said nothing. It would have been too bad to spoil such a good story.
The gravest fears for the safety of the coach had been expressed when it was known that the reds were on the war-path; it was not thought possible that it could get through unharmed, and troops were sent out to scour the country. These, while too late to render service in the adventure just related, did good work during the remainder of the winter. The Indians were thoroughly subdued, and Will saw no more of them.
There was no other adventure of special note until February. Just before Will started on his run, Trotter took him to one side and advised him that a small fortune was going by the coach that day, and extra vigilance was urged, as the existence of the treasure might have become known.
"I'll do the best I can," said Will; and he had scarcely driven away when he suspected the two ill-favored passengers he carried. The sudden calling away of the conductor, whereby he was left alone, was a suspicious circumstance. He properly decided that it would be wiser for him to hold up his passengers than to let them hold up him, and he proceeded to take time by the forelock. He stopped the coach, jumped down, and examined the harness as if something was wrong; then he stepped to the coach door and asked his passengers to hand him a rope that was inside. As they complied, they looked into the barrels of two cocked revolvers.
"Hands up!" said Will. "What's the matter with you?" demanded one of the pair, as their arms were raised. "Thought I'd come in first--that's all," was the answer. The other was not without appreciation of humor. "You're a cute one, youngster," said he, "but you'll find more'n your match down the road, or I miss my guess." "I'll look after that when I get to it," said Will. "Will you oblige me by tying your friend's hands? Thank you. Now throw out your guns. That all? All right. Let me see your hands."
When both outlaws had been securely trussed up and proven to be disarmed, the journey was resumed. The remark dropped by one of the pair was evidence that they were part of the gang. He must reach the relay station before the attack. If he could do that, he had a plan for farther on.
The relay station was not far away, and was safely reached. The prisoners were turned over to the stock-tenders, and then Will disposed of the treasure against future molestation. He cut open one of the cushions of the coach, taking out part of the filling, and in the cavity thus made stored everything of value, including his own watch and pocketbook; then the filling was replaced and the hole smoothed to a natural appearance.
If there were more in the gang, he looked for them at the ford where the Indians had sought to cut him off, and he was not disappointed. As he drew near the growth of willows that bordered the road, half a dozen men with menacing rifles stepped out.
"Halt, or you're a dead man!" was the conventional salutation, in this case graciously received. "Well, what do you want?" asked Will. "The boodle you carry. Fork it over!" "Gentlemen," said Will, smiling, "this is a case where it takes a thief to catch a thief." "What's that?" cried one of the outlaws, his feelings outraged by the frank description. "Not that I'm the thief," continued Will, "but your pals were one too many for you this time." "Did they rob you?" howled the gang in chorus, shocked by such depravity on the part of their comrades. "If there's anything left in the coach worth having, don't hesitate to take it," offered Will, pleasantly. "Where's your strong-box?" demanded the outlaws, loath to believe there was no honor among thieves. Will drew it forth and exposed its melancholy emptiness. The profanity that ensued was positively shocking. "Where did they hold you up?" demanded the leader of the gang. "Eight or nine miles back. You'll find some straw in the road. You can have that, too." "Were there horses to meet them?" "On foot the last I saw them." "Then we can catch 'em, boys," shouted the leader, hope upspringing in his breast. "Come, let's be off!" They started for the willows on the jump, and presently returned, spurring their horses. "Give them my regards!" shouted Will. But only the thud! thud! of horsehoofs answered him. Retribution was sweeping like a hawk upon its prey.
Will pushed along to the end of his run, and handed over his trust undisturbed. Fearing that his ruse might have been discovered, he put the "extra vigilance" urged by Trotter into the return trip, but the trail was deserted. He picked up the prisoners at the relay station and carried them to Fort Kearny. If their companions were to discover the sorry trick played upon them, they would have demanded his life as a sacrifice. At the end of this exciting trip he found a letter from Miss Frederici awaiting him. She urged him to give up the wild life he was leading, return East, and find another calling. This was precisely what Will himself had in mind, and persuasion was not needed. In his reply he asked that the wedding-day be set, and then he handed Trotter his resignation from the lofty perch of a stage-driver.
"I don't like to let you go," objected Trotter. "But," said Will, "I took the job only in order to save enough money to get married on." "In that case," said Trotter, "I have nothing to do but wish you joy."