Adventures of Buffalo Bill - William Cody

Little Bill at School and at the Traps

Now began days of trouble for the young frontier boy. The family difficulties were not so serious as they had seemed at first. Mrs. Cody was able to keep the farm, and realizing that her boy, while promising to make a good frontiersman, was not getting any education, she showed him the necessity of having the "man of the family" go to school.

Near their home some of the settlers had contributed money for the building of a little schoolhouse and for the payment of a teacher who was to come from the East and teach their children. Mrs. Cody made up her mind that Bill should go there to school, and after much discussion he began his school days.

Those must have been strange school days as we think of school now. The little one room shanty on the plain had nothing in it but a few boards of the simplest kind that would serve as desks, a stove, and a few, very few, books. The scholars were a wild lot, quite unused to any kind of discipline. There was no idea in their minds of promptness, of getting to school on time, of behaving while they were in school, or of studying very hard over their lessons. In fact, their parents had had very little education, and there was nothing in all that country that made people believe in any discipline. Then, too, the teacher was not a very good one. In fact, it would have been hard to get a man to go out on that wild frontier who could make a living in the East. So the school was a somewhat uproarious affair. The boys had numerous fights. They came when they liked. They went hunting or fishing as they saw fit. They got a good many beatings from the teacher and laughed over them afterward. They teased the girls, and again and again the school teacher, unable to cope with them, settled matters by driving them out of the little house and locking the door.

In the midst of this crowd of youngsters young Bill began his first day. He was known to them all and to all their parents for miles around as the boy who had saved the bull train, as a fine shot, and as a good deal of a hero. Besides this he was a terrible tease, not only to his own sisters, but to everyone else's sisters.

Not many days had passed when a feud grew up between him and another boy of the school. This soon developed into fights, finally ending in the arrival of old Turk at the school. The school, like all other houses, had no cellar. It rested a foot or two above the ground. Bill's rival in the school was a boy named Gobel, and he, too, owned a dog. When Turk arrived in search of his young master the school was in session, and a moderate amount of order had been maintained for some time. Then suddenly the scholars and the teacher heard beneath them a fierce growl, then another, then a series of howls and cries. And everyone knew that within a few inches of them, only separated by the floor, there was a fine dogfight in progress.

That was enough for the scholars. They jumped over their seats, crowded out through the door, and stood around the schoolhouse watching Turk and Gobel's dog fight. Each dog was urged on by one of the two factions. It was not long before Turk had beaten his rival and driven him away with his tail between his legs. Whereupon young Gobel said that although his dog might be beaten, he could lick Will Cody.

That was enough for the young frontier boy, and, in spite of all the teacher could do, a ring was soon formed by the scholars and a thoroughbred prize fight started. Gobel was much larger and older than Will, and the latter knew that he would be beaten shortly. He must resort to some stratagem, and though it seems strange to us now, out on that frontier, and especially to a boy who had actually been obliged to kill men to save his own life, any means of winning the fight was right. So the little fellow thinking all the time while he was in the midst of his struggle, drew his knife and stuck it into the fleshy part of Steve Gobel's leg. The moment Steve saw the blood he screamed with terror and cried out that he was killed.

Thereupon all the children took to their heels and ran to tell their parents that Will Cody had killed Gobel. Then the teacher took a hand, and so did the parents of many of the children, and it looked as if it would go hard with poor Bill. At all events, he did not care to stay at home, and not knowing what else to do, he ran away down the trail, happening to come upon one of the wagon trains of his first employers, Russell, Majors & Waddell, as he ran. The boss of the outfit was a man named Willis, and when the boy told his story Willis promised to look after him and take him again as a boy extra, first offering to go back to the school with him and lick Gobel, and the teacher too, if Bill said so. It was only a few moments when Gobel's father and a couple of men came up to arrest the boy, but they had to deal with men who were used to that sort of thing every day of their lives, and the pursuers soon discovered that it was wise for them to turn around and go home. But there was no more school for young Cody at present, and so he again became a member of a bull train.

During this short term of service with the freighters the boy had another experience which nearly ended his career, and which to any boy who lives in a pleasant home and never sees any such life can scarcely be much more than a fairy tale, it is so terrible and seems so impossible. The boy had a short time with nothing to do between trips in the winter, and he decided, as money was necessary, to go on a hunting trip with a party of trappers. There was a chance of making considerable money by trapping animals and selling their furs. As a matter of fact, the trapping was very successful, and young Bill contributed distinctly his part to the family treasury. It was in the midst of this trip, while he was in an absolutely uninhabited country, making a round of his traps, that he came upon three Indians, each leading a pony loaded with skins. It was a case of three to one, and the moment he discovered them they discovered him. He saw the leading Indian put up his rifle and aim it at him. Here was a case, one of the many that came later, when the young frontier boy unquestionably saved his life by his own quickness and skill. Actually before the Indian, who was no greenhorn at such matters, could aim his rifle and fire, Will Cody had shot him dead. The other two Indians fired arrows, one of which went through the boy's hat; but without stopping, he turned around and cried, as if to his companions:

"Here they are! This way! This way!" And then—all this taking place in an incredibly short space of time—he wounded one Indian with his revolver as the two turned and fled; so that, instead of being killed himself, he killed one Indian, wounded another, overcame the third, and marched into camp with their three ponies and all the skins that they had gathered.

It was on a similar trapping expedition that the following episode occurred. The boy had been so successful and had made so much money that he decided on another trip. Not finding any party of men starting out, he got up an expedition of his own with a friend of his named David Phillips. The two youngsters bought an ox-team wagon and started out. They were after beaver, and when they were somewhere in the vicinity of Fort Leavenworth they struck a country full of beaver dams. Here they camped in a cave in the hillside which they fixed up for a permanent home. They stored the food they had brought and went to work setting their traps. At every hour of the day and night they were likely to run upon Indians, who never waited to parley, but killed whatever white men they saw as soon as they came upon them, scalping them and leaving them dead or dying wherever they might have fallen.

These two boys, therefore, were constantly on the watch. Every bush, every tree, every rock, might conceal an Indian, and by practicing this instinct, just as a sailor on a ship will see a sail that anyone else might think was a cloud or a speck on the horizon, these boys of the plains could discover, in a range of many miles over plain or rolling country, the slightest thing that was unusual or unexplainable. A little spot of color in a tree or bush that was not exactly the color of a winter leaf would mean to them an ambuscade of Indians. The slightest impression in the earth which was different from impressions left there by nature meant the trail of a party of Indians. Every instant while they were moving along in the day or night their eyes were roaming over the country round about to pick out any one of these tiny but unusual signs.

The boys had been attending to their work of trapping for many days without seeing any unusual sign. One night they came to their camp and had eaten supper, when their oxen began to bellow and leap about. The boys grabbed their rifles, ran to the corral, and discovered that a bear was in the vicinity. Phillips fired first and wounded the animal. But that only made him the more savage. The boy just managed to leap out of the bear's way when Bill fired into his mouth and killed him. But it was a close call, as the dead beast fell actually on the body of Phillips. It was a case of having saved the boy's life, and the chance of returning the favor came only too soon.

It was the next day, when Bill Cody slipped and broke his leg. The other boy carried him back to the camp, made splints, bound up his leg, and stopped the bleeding; and then the two sat down to decide what should be done. The nearest settlement was a hundred miles away. It was absolutely impossible for Cody to walk that distance. His friend could not carry him, and in the fright which the bear had given the two oxen one had killed itself, and the other had become so maimed that it had to be shot. What the youngsters were to do they did not know. No one was nearer than a hundred miles, and there was no way of getting a boy with a broken leg that distance. Yet it was a case of starving to death or of doing something at once. Therefore the two trappers, hardly fourteen years old, decided that Phillips should start at once and walk the hundred miles for assistance.

To go and come back would take him twenty days at least. That meant twenty days lying in a cave for Bill, without his having the power even to get up and go outside. Yet there was nothing else to do, and the good nerve of the two boys was sufficient for the occasion.

Phillips made Cody as comfortable as he could and put all the food they had near him. They figured out just how much he was to eat each day in order to hold out until assistance should be brought, and then shaking hands, Phillips left him.

The poor boy felt too lonely and heartbroken to eat much of anything in the first day or two. He counted the days as they passed by cutting a notch in a stick of wood each day. Gradually his leg healed, and in the course of two weeks he could move about a little. That alone relieved the pressure of loneliness, for hobbling to the mouth of the cave and looking outside was a very different thing from lying perfectly still in one position day after day. He tried to use up some of the time by studying the school books which his mother had asked him to take with him, and it was in the midst of one of these attempts to pass away the hours by reading over again what he had already read a dozen times, that he looked up and saw an Indian in war paint standing inside the cave gazing at him.

Buffalo Bill


In a moment a dozen or more warriors had followed the first. The boy thought his last day had come, for the delay that had occurred already was a longer time than the Indians usually gave any white man to live if they were in a position to put him out of existence. The chief in his guttural tones, without changing his expression at all, said:


Bill said: "How?" and then they looked at one another, the boy's mind flying along all the possible schemes which an expert frontiersman could think of to prolong a discussion that might possibly save his life. As he was thinking, gazing thus at the Indians one after another, he suddenly recognized one of them who was a chief named Rain-in-the-Face, an Indian whom he had once befriended in a way that the red man appreciates.

It seems that once, sometime before, Bill had found the man in difficulty and had given him something to eat and a blanket to sleep in. Instantly the boy's mind, well aware of the peculiar kind of gratitude Indians feel, began to work upon this. First he showed his leg and the bandages and told the story of his mishap, gaining as much time as he could in that way. Then suddenly he turned to Rain-in-the-Face and reminded him of how once their positions had been exactly reversed and how he had helped the Indian to get what he most needed. Rain-in-the-Face remembered the episode perfectly, and after a consultation he told Cody that although he and his friends were out in search of scalps, they would not molest him, but that that was the limit of their kindness.

The Indians ransacked the cave, took everything that was of value from it, leaving only a small amount of food. And yet after they were gone the boy was so thankful for the chance that had thrown this one Indian in his way and had saved his life that he could not even complain of the starvation which stared him in the face. He took what little food was left and divided it up, allowing ten days beyond the twenty for the return of Phillips, and kept strictly to the portion each day that would keep him in some sort of food until the thirty days were up.

A day or two after the episode of the Indians a heavy snowstorm set in, and lasted for so long that when it finally ceased the mouth of the cave was entirely covered with snow. That seemed almost the last straw, for little or no light came into the cave, the cold was intense, and the boy was unable to go out. Hour by hour, day in and day out, he sat there, unable to read any more and without any appetite for the little food he could allow himself.

Three weeks passed—one day over the time in which Phillips might have returned. The little fellow's mind almost gave way from the strain that was put on him as he sat there with night following day, and no change—only expectancy.

Twenty-eight days passed. He had but a day or so more of food. If help did not come within the next three days at the most, he would starve to death. To add to his misery, most of the wood that had been left was used up.

So the boy sat on the twenty-ninth day, huddled over the little flame that he could spare himself, hardly realizing now the passage of time, when he suddenly heard his name called. It seemed to him that he must be dreaming. He sat perfectly still listening, unable even to make a reply, and then the name rang out again and was repeated time after time. With all the strength he had left he answered the call, and it was his answering cry that enabled Phillips and the relief party to find the cave and begin digging through the snow.

When the two boys came together Bill Cody's nerves gave way and he was carried out more dead than alive. But he was alive and bound to have many more of these hairbreadth escapes that make perhaps as extraordinary a record as could be told of any man who has ever lived.

These adventures, which read to-day as if they came out of a wild, unreal story of adventure, happening as they did in the life of this boy not yet fifteen years old, prepared the way for a youth and early manhood of such extraordinary usefulness to the plains that Cody by the time the Civil War came was one of the most expert frontiersmen, guides, and scouts that existed in the United States. And yet in 1860 he was but fifteen years old, too young, in other words, to go to college to-day, younger than most boys now when they get their first shotgun or rifle.