Adventures of Buffalo Bill - William Cody

The Little Boy of the Prairie

Once when Buffalo Bill was a tiny boy of seven or eight his father's family were camping on their way to Kansas. It happened that both his father and the guide were away from the little camp in search of food. It was at night and young Bill Cody was asleep. He was suddenly awakened by hearing a noise, and saw an Indian in the act of untying and leading away his own pet pony. The boy jumped up, grasped his rifle, and said,

"What are you doing with my horse?"

The Indian did not seem to be much disturbed at the little fellow's appearance, and said he would swap horses. Little Bill said he would not swap. The Indian only laughed at him. Then the boy held his gun ready, and said again that he would not swap; and in the end the big Indian, after watching him keenly for a few minutes, quietly mounted his old pony and rode away. This is a good example of the nerve and courage which have made him as a grown man the best plainsman in our history.

Every boy, perhaps every man, loves to read about the days of Indian fights, the camping along the trails, the crossing of the plains in prairie schooners, and the wild life that belonged to what was once called the Great American Desert—which now contains thousands of farms and hundreds of cities. It was a hard life; but it was so full of real adventure, of actual danger, that it had its own interest to those who lived it. And although it is gone now forever, it will always remain the most interesting part of American history to the boys of our country.

That was the time when a man saved his own life day by day, absolutely and solely because he had greater courage or quicker wit than his opponent, whether that opponent was an Indian, a stage robber, a flood, a prairie fire, or any other form of danger.

To understand those days and the events and episodes as they occurred to the men who lived them, one must first get into one's mind the country they lived in and traveled over. It was a flat land stretching thousands of miles across the middle of the United States from the Missouri River to California, with here and there a huge range of mountains running north and south, guarded on either side by long lines of foothills. Sometimes there were stretches of forest; generally there was nothing but the flat plains covered with a rough wild grass. Between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada there were the alkali plains, unfit for human habitation. All this country was inhabited by Indians who had been gradually driven westward from the Atlantic coast, who had been treated badly by white men, and who had become a fierce race of fighters and hunters. They considered the white man their natural prey. Whenever they saw a "pale face" it was fair and right in their minds to try to get his scalp; for hundreds of stories had been handed down from their fathers and grandfathers of the way in which the white man had killed their people and driven them from the land that had been theirs for centuries.

Over this country—a distance of two thousand miles—the buffaloes and the Indians roamed, and no white man had a home. There were no cities. There were practically no towns. The white man gradually moving west had got as far as the western counties of Arkansas, Missouri, and Iowa in 1850; the white men had settled the Pacific coast in California; there were no railroads; there was no way to communicate between the Missouri River and California, except on horseback or by driving huge wagons across these wild plains.

Any day, any moment, while the travelers were sitting in their great wagons, they might see some little specks coming toward them across the flat plain. Then came a scurrying to put the wagons in a circle with the horses and mules, men and women, in the center. In a moment a band of mounted Indians would rush down upon them; and unless they were ready these wild red men would ride through the train between the wagons, frighten the mules and horses, separate one wagon from another, and after killing all the human beings, carry their goods away. Sometimes it happened in the night. Sometimes it happened in the day. And as those who were not ready were always killed, the result was that those who lived and traveled across those plains were the keenest and shrewdest of their kind—quicker and shrewder than the Indians themselves. Even if the Indians did not appear, it took a good hunter to keep his little caravan supplied with food. For the journey was a long one; there were many breakdowns and delays; and in order to supply food for the company the buffalo and deer of the plains had to be hunted and killed.

That was the country and the people between 1850 and 1860. After the rush to California for gold, it became evident that there must be some regular system of communication between the outskirts of civilization in the East, and the outskirts of civilization in the West in California. It was just at this time that the man who is known all over the world as Buffalo Bill was born.

Buffalo Bill's father was named Isaac Cody. He lived on a farm in Scott County, Iowa, near a town named Le Clair, and there William Frederick Cody was born on the 26th of February, 1846.

When the California gold craze came in 1849, Isaac Cody, with thousands of other people, made up his mind to go across the plains to California and look for gold. But before he had much more than started he changed his mind and moved toward Kansas, where he hoped to find some place to settle on the frontier. Instead of taking his wife and children on such a dangerous expedition he left them with his brother, Elijah Cody, in Platt County, Missouri, and then started out in search of a new home. Finally, when young William was only seven or eight years old, his father settled near Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and here the boy grew up in the midst of Indians and the wild life of the plains, and in the very thick of the early fights that occurred between the Northerners and Southerners over the question of slavery. It was a hard life and only those who were naturally fitted for it lived through it. Even at the age of seven or eight little Bill Cody naturally took to this sort of life. He loved adventure. He loved stories of Indians, scouts, and desperadoes, and he could fire a rifle pretty accurately almost as soon as he could carry one.

Finally the family settled in Salt Creek Valley in Kansas, which was on the line of one of the two trails, or roads—if they could be called roads—that stretched for two thousand miles or more across this waste of plain and mountain to California.

Day after day little Bill Cody would go out with his father, taking his rifle, to hunt, and he always had with him a famous dog named "Turk." The boy, and in fact all the children, loved Turk. He was as much one of the family as any of the children, and again and again gave warning of danger. There are many instances in which the dog practically saved the lives of at least one member of the family group.

One day when Cody's two sisters were walking some distance from their home they heard a snarl, and looking up into a tree they saw a panther getting ready to spring upon them. Old Turk, who was with them, was quite as well aware of the danger as they were; and while they hid in the bushes, he sat in front of them and grappled with the panther as it jumped to reach them. The whole incident took place in a moment, and before they realized what had happened, they saw their favorite dog in the act of being killed by the panther. Suddenly off in the distance they heard their brother Bill's familiar whistle calling his dog. Then on the instant, as they crouched there, expecting every moment to see the fight end with the death of the dog, a rifle shot rang out and the panther rolled over dead. That was a famous shot in itself for a boy of less than eight years, for both animals were rolling over and over in their fight, and it took not only nerve, but accurate aim, to hit the one and avoid the other.

The family had scarcely got settled in their new home when the father, who did not believe in slavery, got into discussions with other people of the county who had been brought up to hold slaves. Those were hard, dangerous men. They got angry quickly; they shot their pistols at one another without much provocation, and they feared neither death nor anything else because they were living in the midst of danger always. In one of these excited discussions as to whether slaves should be held in the new State of Kansas or not, Isaac Cody took a firm stand on his side, and was thereupon notified that if he did not leave the country he would be shot. He had to hide frequently in different parts of his own house at night when a body of men would come to kill him, and for days and days he lived in thickets near the house, his little son bringing him food every day.

Once when a party had come to the house in search of his father and had failed to find him, young Bill discovered that his pony was missing. He went out to look for it, and found that it had been stolen by a member of the lynching party named Sharp. He cried out to the man that that was his pony; whereupon the desperado laughed at him. Bill called him a coward and told him he would get even with him some day; and then suddenly getting an idea, he whistled for Turk, and set the dog on the man. The dog ran up to the pony and bit his hind legs, whereupon the little horse kicked vigorously and bucked until he had thrown Sharp off. Then began a hot discussion between Will and Sharp, the one setting the dog on, the other yelling to have him called off. But in the end Sharp was obliged to temporize. He returned the pony and went away as fast as he could run.

So the days went on until Isaac Cody was obliged to leave the country. One of the famous scout's first real adventures occurred at this time. The boy was scarcely ten years old when one night the family received information that their father was coming home to see them and to stay for one night, returning to Fort Leavenworth in the morning. In some way the men of the community discovered that he was coming. A party was sent out to capture him as he came through a wooded gulch, and the little family sat around the hearth, most of them in tears, with the certainty that their father would be killed that night.

Then the instinct of the young scout came to the surface. Young Bill proposed that he should ride his pony to a place called Grasshopper Falls, where his father was staying, and warn him. The boy had been sick with a fever; but he got out of bed, mounted his pony, and started in the night to ride the thirty miles. He had only gone four or five when he heard a cry of, "Halt!" Instead of stopping, he leaned over Indian fashion behind his pony, so that nothing but one leg showed on the side from which the call came, and there he hung as the good horse rushed at his top speed through the ambuscade. As he did not stop, the men began firing at him, and he could hear the bullets flying over him. He got through safely, however, and succeeded in getting to Grasshopper Falls just as his father was starting.

It is interesting to know that this ride taken in the night by a sick boy not old enough to go to school was ten miles longer than the famous ride of General Philip Sheridan in the Civil War. Then came hard times for the little Cody family. The father died, and the mother had no means of supporting her children and keeping up the farm. Young Bill, then eleven years old, made up his mind that it was his duty to support them. He could not stay at home, as he was not big enough to attend to the work of the farm.

It seemed an almost impossible task, because in addition to all their poverty there was a mortgage of one thousand dollars against their farm, and if they did not pay this shortly their own home would be taken away from them. Mrs. Cody was a brave woman, and she felt that if it were not for that mortgage she could have managed to scrape along and keep the family alive. In the many talks which they had as to what they should do, the boy told his mother that if she could fight this claim he would try to earn the money.

This was his idea. There was a firm—a famous one in the history of that part of the United States—named Russell, Majors & Waddell, frontiersmen who had gradually built up a line of freight wagons that went from St. Joseph, Missouri, to San Francisco, two thousand miles across the plains and mountains, carrying the freight that was shipped from the East to the West and bringing back freight from California to the East. These goods were packed in huge wagons with big canvas tops, drawn by sometimes ten and sometimes twenty teams of oxen.

There was so much danger in these trips from Indians and outlaws that they never started without several wagons in a little caravan, with a guard of frontiersmen ail armed and ready to repel any attack from whatever source. Each night they camped in certain places along the trail where there was water and, if possible, wood. They cooked their own meals. They set up their pickets and guards, and started on again in the morning to the next camp. The journey took about a month; and time and time again the whole outfit would fail to appear at the other end. It had been attacked and all the men killed by Indians or by the robbers of the plains. And sometimes the next caravan would find the remnants of the wagons and the dead bodies of men and oxen.

It was Bill Cody's idea to see if he could not get a chance to travel as what is called an "extra" on one of these caravans, and forthwith he presented himself at the office of the firm in Fort Leavenworth. One of the members of the firm had known his father, and so he treated the boy kindly. But he told him frankly that a boy of his age would be of no use. Bill, however, said that he could ride and shoot, that he could herd cattle and do a lot of other things. He wanted to be an "extra." Finally, he was so earnest in his desire, that Mr. Majors consented; and there is an interesting document which was signed by the two which shows what was expected and what were the dangers of such work. This paper reads as follows:

"I, Wm. F. Cody, 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 not, under any 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 shall direct all my acts so as to win the confidence of my employers. So help me God."

And so the "boy extra" began his work. At night he slept in a blanket under a wagon, and by day he did whatever he was given to do.

Day after day, week after week, they traveled slowly over the huge plains, the "bull whackers"—the men who drove the huge oxen—constantly snapping their enormous whips and urging the beasts on as fast as possible. It was a monotonous life, except when some incident occurred, and then the incident was likely to be one of life and death, depending on the quickness, accuracy of aim, and alertness of the men in the "bull train."

They had gone only about thirty-five miles from Fort Kearny, one of the places where they stopped near the Platte River, when young Bill suddenly saw the three pickets drop flat on the ground, and the next moment he heard shots and saw a band of Indians riding toward them. Instantly the men in the bull train—all frontiersmen—made a circle of the wagons, got into the circle themselves, and began firing at the Indians. The red men wheeled in a big curve, firing as they went, and then rode off a short distance on the plain out of gun shot and stood watching the white men.

Buffalo Bill has already told this story in his own words earlier in the book. But he does not tell what it seems impossible to believe—that this boy of eleven years saved the lives of the entire outfit; and so it is well to mention the fact here. The consultation which the men had while the Indians waited proved that it was useless to stay where they were. Indians began to come from all quarters and outnumbered the whites ten to one. It was therefore decided to leave the train to the mercy of the Indians and make a dash for a creek where they could hide behind the embankment. This was successfully carried out and they then started for Fort Kearny, walking in the water and keeping watch over the top of the bank.

Buffalo Bill


As night came on the little boy began to get tired and weak. He could not keep up with the others, and in the excitement and darkness they did not miss him as he gradually fell behind. So the little fellow was trudging along, his rifle over his shoulder, perhaps a hundred yards behind the party, when to his amazement he saw the feathered head of an Indian poke over the bank before him and behind the others of his party. The Indian did not see him, for he was looking toward the others. With the quickness and instinct which made Buffalo Bill what he was, the lad put up his rifle, and the first warning his friends had of any attack in the rear was the sound of a shot, and the sound, too, of the body of the dead Indian rolling down into the creek. That was Buffalo Bill's first Indian, and the story of the boy who had saved the bull train went all over the frontier country in an incredibly short space of time.