Adventures of Buffalo Bill - William Cody

The Pony Express Rider

At the time when the Civil War broke out Cody was too young to enlist. No regiment would take him, and besides, his mother, who was in feeble health and who had all the family to look out for, begged and prayed him to stay at home, as she said it was more important for him, the man of the family, to watch over them than to put his services at his country's disposal. The boy wanted to go. It was a natural contingency for a young man brought up as he had been brought up. Yet he gave up his ambition for his mother. Bill promised his mother that he would never go to war as long as she was alive, but that as he must do something to earn money, he had to go to work at once. His chance came with an opportunity to join a group of men who will be read about as long as there is any history of the United States. Their work only lasted a few years, but it was so extraordinary, so exciting, so near to the ideal of a life of adventure, that it stands out more important than many an era in this country's history which had greater results and extended over a longer time.

The firm of Russell, Majors & Waddell, who have already been mentioned, increased in importance because they were the only men who carried out on a large scale successfully the business of transporting freight across the desert and the mountains to California. But as California grew—and it grew very fast in a few years—there came a demand for a speedier method of communication between the Western frontier in the East and the Eastern frontier in the West. Those two thousand miles of waste land consumed a month or more when transportation was by means of bull trains. It did not matter very much with freight, But in the transportation of money, of letters, of business arrangements that time grew to be too long for advancing civilization.

The great freight transporters, therefore, conceived the idea of getting up a scheme for carrying a few letters at a much faster rate from St. Joseph to San Francisco by means of a single horseman riding a pony at full speed. Their idea was that a man should mount a swift pony, well tried for his endurance before starting; that this man should ride fifteen miles straight out into the desert, and that at the end of the fifteen miles there should be a station, a house with a couple of men in it, who would have another pony ready. The horseman was to ride up to this shanty, jump to the ground with his bag of letters, immediately jump on the fresh pony, and rush along another fifteen miles to a similar station.

Some of these stations were in settlements, some were in towns, but most of them were on the bleak prairies or in the hills of the Rocky Mountains. The trail was the same as that used by the freight bull trains. The bull-train stations were of course used, but it was necessary to increase the number of stations. Some of the divisions were longer than others. But the average was a distance of forty-five miles; that is, the man who rode one of these divisions of the two thousand miles, rode fifteen miles on one pony, fifteen miles on the second, and fifteen miles on the third. Then he began his return trip of forty-five miles. The longest division was two hundred and fifty miles.

Sometimes the country was open and moderately easy for riding. Sometimes it was up rocky gulches or through forests where the riding was hard. It required in the men the hardest kind of physique and endurance, in the ponies sure-f ootedness as well as swiftness. Sometimes in order to keep up the schedule the men were obliged to cover twenty-five miles in an hour on flat country, in order to make up for slower going in the hills. They received about one hundred and twenty-five dollars a month, which was very high pay. But that gave the promoters of the scheme their choice among the best men of the frontier.

The letters were carried in mail pouches or bags that hung over the saddle, and no rider was allowed to carry more than twenty pounds. In order to get as much mail within the twenty pounds as possible letters were written on tissue paper. Whatever money was carried was in paper, and one Eastern newspaper printed a special edition on tissue paper for use only on this famous Pony Express. So in the twenty pounds there were hundreds of letters. In fact, the paper was so thin that even a hundred letters would not occupy a space larger than that occupied by an ordinary monthly magazine to-day. The mail pouches were waterproof, and once locked at St. Joseph, Missouri, they were not opened until they were delivered in Sacramento, California, two thousand miles away.

It seems almost incredible, but that distance was covered in a time that was extraordinarily short for those days, when one remembers that the whole journey was made by running ponies. It was an exciting time when the first pony was ready and saddled at the offices of Russell, Majors & Waddell, in St. Joseph. A large crowd gathered long before the appointed time for starting, and when the pony was brought forth he was greeted with cheers. At the exact moment a frontiersman came out of the office, threw the pouch over the saddle, leaped on the pony, and started off at the top speed the pony was capable of, followed by the cries and cheers of the crowd. This first trip was started on the 3rd of April, 1860. That journey, where the mail bags were thrown across the ponies and carried by a number of riders, took ten days to do the two thousand miles. It was an average of two hundred miles a day, or between eight and nine miles an hour for every hour of the twenty-four for ten days, including all stops and all delays. But in a short time the average trip was made regularly in nine days, and the fastest trip was made when President Lincoln's inaugural address was carried over the two thousand miles in seven days and seventeen hours.

When Cody was looking for work he conceived the idea of enlisting as one of the Pony Express riders, and he went to the office of the company and asked if he could not be one of the riders. They told him that he was too young, as he was then only a little over fourteen. But he insisted he could do it, and finally they gave him the shortest trip, a ride of thirty-five miles with three changes of ponies. When the time came for him to be ready for the first trip the boy was outside of his station with his pony ready, looking across the prairie for the rider who was to bring the mail pouches from the next station. Close upon time the man appeared. Drawing up to the station he jumped off, threw the bag to Cody, who in turn leaped into his saddle with it and started on his fifteen miles. He reached his first station on time, dismounted, and mounted a fresh pony which was standing ready, and started on the second relay. And so with the third, until he finished his thirty-five miles and threw the bag to the next man, who was waiting. And within an hour he was ready again for the rider coming from the direction of San Francisco. As soon as he had the mail he mounted a fresh pony and rode back over the same thirty-five miles.

Thus the boy did seventy miles every day for three months. But endurance was not the only quality the rider must have. Through most of the whole route there was constant danger of a "hold up" either from Indians or from outlaws, who knew that the bag frequently contained money. He must be as alert and as good a frontiersman in the knowledge of Indian warfare as he was a good horseman. It was some time before the boy had any incident other than the ordinary episodes of the long ride. However, the time came.

He was riding as fast as his pony could go through a ravine one day when there sprang out in front of him in the narrow track a man with his rifle at his shoulder. Young Cody knew enough to know that the man had what was called the "drop" on him. There was nothing to do but pull up and await events. It was a white man—a desperado of the plains. He told the boy that he meant him no harm, but that he wanted the money in the bag. Cody could do nothing but sit quietly on his pony. But always alert, always on the watch for every opportunity, in a situation that, young as he was, he had been in many times before, he kept a keen eye on the man while appearing to submit. The outlaw was careless enough to approach the pony from the front, and as he got within reach the young horseman by a trick that he had used many times before made the pony rear so suddenly that his fore foot struck the man in the head and knocked him senseless.

Bill knew that somewhere in the vicinity the highwayman had a horse. He at once dismounted, bound the man hand and foot while he was insensible, and then began to hunt for the horse in the bushes. He found him a few rods away, and when he got back his opponent had come to. Unbinding his legs, Bill forced him to mount his own horse, and then strapped him on. Although the young Pony Expressman was late at the next station, the fact that he had brought in a robber and had saved his mail pouch was quite sufficient excuse for the delay of the mail that day.

At the end of a few months the work proved too severe for him to continue, and he was laid off as supernumerary—that is, a man who could be called on to ride in any emergency. It was not long, however, before he made application for another job on the Pony Express. He went to Fort Laramie and looked up a man named Slade, who was agent of the line there. Slade told him he was too young, but on hearing his name he slapped him on the shoulder and said that he had heard of him before and that he would give him a job. This run was from Red Buttes to a place called Three Crossings, and the distance was seventy-six miles.

The boy started running this route regularly each day, and for a time had no unusual experience. One day, however, having made the run out of seventy-six miles, he found, when he arrived at his last station, that the man who was supposed to carry the bag to the next station, a distance of eighty-five miles, had been wounded by Indians. Bill offered to go on and carry the bag over that man's section, and as there was no one else to do it he was sent on. This second division covered a distance of one hundred and sixty-one miles. That made one continuous route of three hundred and twenty-two miles out and back without stopping. In that time he rode twenty-one ponies and made the longest trip ever made by a Pony Express rider.

It was while on this route that one day he suddenly came upon a man who appeared from behind a large rock as Cody passed. There was no time for thought, and Bill immediately reached for his revolver, but upon seeing him the man dropped his rifle and came forward. He turned out to be a famous character of the plains named "California Joe," and on seeing the young boy he immediately asked him if he were not Bill Cody. Then the frontiersman told him that a little way back on the road he had what he called "a little misunderstandin' with two men, and now I has to plant 'em."

It was only a little later that, as Bill left one of the stations, the boss called to him to look out, there were reports of Indians in the vicinity. Cody said he would, and started away at breakneck pace. Here again, as many times before and after, the boy's instinctive knowledge and immediate perception of anything, no matter how small, that was unusual or unnatural on the plains saved his life. Always keeping a keen watch, he suddenly saw above the top of a pile of rocks something that he knew was not put there by nature. It was a little speck of color, and long before any average human being would have seen it at all he knew that it was a feather in the headdress of an Indian in war paint. He did not stop or turn. He kept on at his furious pace until he was within rifle shot. Then ducking behind his pony, he turned him instantly off the trail, and at the same moment a puff of smoke from behind the rock showed that his guess had been true. The bullet went where the rider should have been, but it missed by the swerve which he had caused the pony to make. Out sprang two warriors, and a party of Indians appeared from a little distance further away. And now it became a ride for life. As he approached the end of the valley, which narrowed into a point, he saw that some of the Indians on the slopes were riding down to cut off his track. He watched his opportunity, and luckily for him those Indians had no rifles. He saw them fit the arrows to their bows, waited for the right moment, and just before the leading Indian fired his arrow the boy shot him with his revolver. When he reached the next station he found that his pony had two arrows sticking in its flesh.

At this time the Pony Express had to be stopped for some time on account of the number of Indians who were lying in wait all along the trails to capture the riders, and so the boy was once more out of a job.

He became a supernumerary again, and as there were days in which he had nothing to do, he was in the habit of going out hunting, selling the skins of the animals he shot. On one of these trips he came upon a group of horses tied near a stream, and hearing voices in a dugout cave nearby, he went to investigate. It turned out that the men were a group of prairie ruffians. They supposed him to be an advance scout in search of themselves, and for a few moments there was a quick play of wit against wit.

They asked him where he came from. He pointed backward. They asked where his horse was. He said it was down by the stream. They asked him to go and get it and join them. He said he would, volunteering, with the keenness of men whose lives are always at stake, to leave his gun with them. That allayed suspicion for the moment, but they even went so far as to send two of their number with him. The boy, as they reached the horse, carelessly said that he had shot some game and would pick it up, in the meantime asking the men to lead his horse on ahead. Then turning behind the second man, he struck him a blow with his revolver and shot the other. Mounting his pony, Cody then dashed down the ravine. In a moment the whole party were after him. It was certain that he would soon be overtaken, as his own pony was tired and theirs were fresh. Bill turned the corner of some rocks and, dismounting, gave the pony a slap and sent him tearing down the ravine, while he himself hid in the bushes and watched the whole party tear by in the pursuit of the riderless horse. He then calmly walked back to the station at Horseshoe and told of the adventure. Such experiences as this followed one after another, until in 1863, with the Civil War in full progress, Cody, then seventeen years old, received word that his mother was dying. He went immediately to their home, and arrived in time to see his mother before she died.

It was a sad household that gathered together after the burial, and when the children talked over what they should do, they were astonished to hear that Cody had made up his mind to enlist at once in the Northern army. He had kept his word with his mother and had not become a soldier as long as she lived; but now that she was dead and the family homestead out of debt, he was free from all promises.

He at once enlisted, and his regiment was soon ordered to the front, but the young man was so able as a scout that he soon came to be used on special duty. Then, too, his fame as a plainsman was well known, and it reached military headquarters long before he himself arrived. He was at once selected, therefore, as a bearer of military dispatches at Fort Larned, and one of his first escapades took place soon after he was put upon this work.

Some of the Southerners bore a grudge against him that dated back to the time when he had saved his father from them. These men—now on the Southern side—heard of his journey and laid in ambush by a stream in a gulch where it was necessary for him to cross on account of the ford. They hid their horses in a clump of trees and went to a cabin near the ford to wait for his arrival. Darkness came on before he reached the spot, and as by this time the young man had acquired the habit of absolutely observing everything at all times about him, he soon discovered the fresh tracks of horses. Without any other object than the natural instinct to find the reason for everything that presented itself, he quietly dismounted, followed the trail, and found the five horses. It was evident that there were five men nearby watching for him.

The only thing to do was to ride on as quietly as possible and try to make the ford. He was in the act of entering the water when he heard their cries, and, urging his horse into the stream, he turned in his saddle, and before any of the five could pull a trigger he had shot one of them. Still he spurred the horse on, turned again and shot another. But the others were firing now, and so Cody fell forward across his horse and was lucky enough to make the other side of the stream. There he was safe, because the other three were not mounted.

When the scout returned with answers to the dispatches he became very wary as he approached the ford. There were no signs, however, of an attacking party, and, coming up to the shanty, he found one of the men whom he had shot dying there alone. The man had been left by his pals with enough food to last him until he should die, and Bill discovered that he was a man whom he had known from his earliest boyhood, and who had been a supposed friend of his father. As the man was near his end, the boy gave him water and sat by him until he died. He then returned to Fort Larned.