T HAT night as Billy ate his supper his mother said, "Billy, you are too young to have so much responsibility. I think it would be better to move back East and live with my family. Your sisters are enjoying their visit in the East and I am sure that you would like to live there, too."
"No, Mother," protested Billy. "Our home is in the West. We belong here. You promised me that I would have this chance to prove that I can take care of you and my sisters."
"I know, Billy." Mrs. Cody smiled gently. "But I shall worry about you."
"Don't worry about me, Mother. I will be with Frank McCarthy. He is one of the best wagon bosses in the West. He has given me a wonderful horse to ride. Besides, Uncle Alec is paying me forty dollars a month and I have asked him to give the money to you each month. He said that if I needed any money, I could get it from Frank McCarthy."
"Oh, Billy, I did promise you that you could have this chance and if ever a mother was proud of her son, I am proud of you."
Early the next morning Billy kissed his mother good-by. He mounted Prince and started to town where he was to join McCarthy's wagon train. When he reached the top of the hill he turned in his saddle and looked back. His mother was still standing in the doorway of the cabin.
"Good-by, Mother," he called.
"Good-by, Billy," came her answer. "Be careful and hurry back home to me."
Billy touched Prince lightly and galloped on to Leavenworth. As soon as he arrived he reported to McCarthy.
"Good morning, Billy," called McCarthy. Then he turned and called to a young man riding by, "Hi there, Bob, here is the boy who signed up to ride with you and your men. His name is Billy Cody. Take him with you and show him what he has to do."
"Thank you, Mr. McCarthy," said Billy as he went to join Bob. But McCarthy did not heed the boy's reply. He was again busy inspecting the wagons and teams of oxen, and giving final orders to his men. He was everywhere at once. Nothing escaped his quick eye. Without question McCarthy was boss of his wagon train. His word was law and his' men obeyed him promptly and willingly.
McCarthy was a man of the plains. He was tall and powerful. He wore buckskin clothes and a large, white felt hat. His face was tanned by the wind and sun. His movements were quick and noiseless. His blue, Irish eyes were keen and clear. There was an easy air of command and leadership in his bold manner. He was rough, but he was generous, kind, and a loyal friend.
McCarthy's wagon train was made up of thirty-five wagons. Each wagon was pulled by three yoke (pairs) of oxen. Oxen were used because they could stand the long, hard trip of two thousand miles far better than horses or mules. Oxen could make the entire trip, but horses or mules had to be changed at relay stations along the trail.
The wagons were strong and especially built for travel over the rough plains and mountain trails. They were turned up at the ends like boats and were watertight. They were built this way to protect the supplies when crossing the rivers and streams which had to be forded. Their shape also kept the heavy loads from sliding back and forth as the wagons were pulled up or down hill.
The wagons were usually called "covered wagons" because they were covered with heavy canvas. The canvas was stretched over rounded hoops to form. a top for the wagon. The canvas protected the supplies from rain and dust. Sometimes the wagons were called "prairie schooners" because of their boat-like shape.
On this trip, McCarthy's train was carrying a valuable load of food and military supplies for the soldiers stationed in Utah. In addition, a thousand head of cattle were to be driven over the plains along with the train. They were to furnish beef for the soldiers.
McCarthy soon finished his inspection and his train was ready to start on its long trip westward. The drivers of the wagons took their places on the high front seats. Mounted men, armed with rifles, moved to their positions beside the wagons.
"Stretch out!" shouted McCarthy.
The driver of the first wagon held up a long bull whip. He snapped the whip out over the heads of his oxen. The whip cracked like a pistol shot. The oxen leaned forward in their yokes and slowly the wagon began to move. Then, one by one, other drivers cracked their whips and, one by one, the wagons rolled over the streets of Leavenworth and headed for the Western trail over the plains.
The cattle, herded by Billy and the other cavayard riders, followed behind the last wagon.
"Billy," said Bob as they rode along, "our job is to herd the cattle and to deliver them in good condition at the end of the trip. But that is not all McCarthy expects us to do. He expects every man with his train to keep his eyes and ears open. 'Be alert!' is McCarthy's motto. That is why he is one of the best wagon bosses in the West."
"I am glad to be with him on my first trip with a wagon train," said Billy.
"I am surprised that McCarthy agreed to take you," laughed Bob. "Several times he has refused to take cavayard riders who have had no experience on the plains. What did you do to him to make him change his mind?"
"I guess it was because I rode Prince for him," answered Billy as he patted his horse. "Mr. McCarthy gave him to me. Prince is a wonderful horse."
"You like horses, don't you?"
"Oh, yes," answered Billy. "My father always had good horses and he taught me to ride when I was four years old."
"Was your father Isaac Cody, the man who owned an Indian trading post near Leavenworth?"
"Yes," answered Billy, "and many of the Indians are my friends. I have often gone to their camps. I know some of them very well. I learned to speak their language."
Bob shook his head. "Too bad you didn't learn the sign language. If you had, then you could talk to any Indian, even if you didn't know how to speak the language of his tribe."
"But I did learn many of the signs that the Indians use," broke in Billy.
"Look out, Billy. Ride to the left!" called Bob. "The cattle are trying to break for the open plain."
The cavayard riders kept the cattle moving. The men had to watch the herd closely to prevent them from straying from the trail. Billy and Bob rode together on one side of the herd.
At the end of the first day, McCarthy ordered a halt. The drivers pulled their wagons into position forming a circle. In case of attack this made a fort for defense. The oxen were turned out to graze.
The chuck wagon, with a cook in charge, was in the center of the circle. Campfires were made and the cook began to prepare the evening meal.
"Bob," ordered McCarthy, "post your men for two-hour guard duty. Send Billy to me. He won't need to stand guard tonight."
When Billy had taken care of Prince he joined the men gathered around a big campfire.
"Well, Billy," asked McCarthy, "how did you get along today?"
"I got along all right, Mr. McCarthy. Bob told me that you said I did not need to stand guard tonight. But I want to do my part. I want to do everything the other men do. If they stand guard, I want to stand guard, too."
"That's the spirit, Billy. After supper report back to Bob and he will give you your orders. We don't expect any trouble, but you never can tell."
As the men waited for supper they laughed and talked. They joked with Billy.
"Did you join us to share our exciting life?" questioned a driver.
"That was one reason," answered Billy, "but perhaps my best reason is that I want to take care of my mother and sisters. You see my father is dead. I am now the man of my family. I am going to try to do a man's work with this wagon train."
For a minute the men were silent. Then they cheered, "Hurrah for Billy Cody!"
Billy's quiet, determined spirit won their hearts. They were his friends and McCarthy was pleased.
A few hours later, Billy was standing guard with Bob.
"Billy," said Bob, "I know that you will make good on this trip. You have already shown that you are willing to do your part. McCarthy is not a hard man to work for, but he demands that each man do his share of the work. McCarthy will be your friend and, Billy, you couldn't have a better friend."
Early in the morning a bugle sounded. The camp came to life. The cook quickly prepared breakfast for the scouts who left before the wagons moved out of camp. Then the men of the first wagon section ate their breakfast and hurried to get their oxen yoked for the day's trip. Other sections followed in turn. A short time after sunrise the wagon train was on its way over the trail.
The wagon train made good time on its trip westward. It covered from twelve to fifteen miles a day.
Each night Billy took his turn on guard duty with Bob. They were always together and soon became good friends.
Billy was a favorite with the men of the wagon train. He was always busy and happy and he never complained. At night when the day's work was over and the men had gathered around the campfire, Billy was usually with them. He joined the men as they sang the old plains song "Mustang Gray."
Almost every day the wagon train met stagecoaches and other wagon trains returning to Leavenworth from the west. The drivers and scouts of the trains reported to McCarthy that they had not met any Indians on the trail.
After several weeks, McCarthy's wagon train was rolling over the dusty trail in western Nebraska. One day at noon, McCarthy ordered a halt for the noonday meal and rest period. As usual, the drivers formed their wagons in a circle and, as usual, the men gathered around the chuck wagon. Two men remained outside the circle, guarding the cattle.
The train had stopped on a high bluff overlooking the Platte River about thirty-five miles west of Fort Kearney. The banks of the river, in some places, were thirty feet high.
It was a hot summer day. The men and animals were tired. Most of the men, after eating their noonday meal, crawled under the wagons and went to sleep.
"Well, Billy," said Bob "it's our turn to stand guard."
Billy jumped to his feet and started for Prince.
Suddenly from outside the circle two rifle shots rang out. A wild, piercing war whoop filled the air. The two guards, whose places Billy and Bob were to have taken, fell dead.
"Indians!" shouted McCarthy.
Instantly the men ran for their rifles.
There was a thunder of pounding hoofs. A yelling band of Indians came racing toward the camp.
McCarthy's men returned their fire and the Indians retreated. But in a short time the Indians swept down upon them again,—and again! Several men fell wounded beside their wagons. The cattle and oxen stampeded.
"Get over the bluff, men!" shouted McCarthy. "We are outnumbered! We can't save the wagon train, but we can try to save our lives. Billy, you stay with me."
McCarthy and his men, carrying their wounded, made for the river bluff. The Indians closed in on the wagons. They broke open boxes and cases. They threw out everything.
"Men," said McCarthy, "this is our chance to escape. The Indians are too busy destroying our supplies to follow us for awhile. We must try to get back to Fort Kearney."
"There goes an Indian with Prince," called Billy.
"Too bad, Son, but there is nothing we can do about it."
"Look at my chuck wagon," shouted the cook. "They are tearing it apart. There goes an Indian with my pots and pans. I'll stop him."
The cook took careful aim and fired. The Indian threw up his arms and fell forward. Pots and pans went in every direction.
"Stop that!" ordered McCarthy. "Do you want them to get our scalps? Now get going! Stay behind the bank of the river! Keep together! When those Indians have finished looting the wagons they will begin looking for us."
McCarthy and his men edged their way along the river bank. At times they were forced to wade in deep water. At other times they crawled along under the steep banks. It was hard work carrying the wounded men, but they struggled on. They were tired, but they did not stop. Darkness fell and the men slowly made their way through the night. The moon rose and the trees along the river bank cast shadows on the water.
It was difficult for Billy to keep up with the men. The water was deep and he had to wade holding his rifle above his head. His rifle and ammunition were heavy. Gradually he fell behind. He stopped for a moment to rest. He looked up at the moon.
An Indian war bonnet appeared over the bluff. Slowly the rising figure of a warrior was outlined against the moonlight. The warrior pulled back his bow ready to shoot an arrow in the direction of McCarthy's men. Billy raised his rifle to his shoulder and squeezed the trigger.
The crack of the rifle stopped McCarthy and his men in their tracks.
"Who fired that shot?" called McCarthy.
"Someone behind us," answered Bob.
"Who's there?" shouted McCarthy.
"Billy Cody," came the reply.
"Stay where you are. I'm coming back," called McCarthy. When he reached Billy he asked, "What happened?"
"I shot at an Indian who was following us."
McCarthy slipped down the bank. "You've killed an Indian all right, Billy. You saved the life of at least one of us. Give me your rifle. I'll carry it."
"Mr. McCarthy, were those Sioux Indians?" asked Billy.
"No, they were Cheyennes. There is one Cheyenne chief I like to avoid."
"What's his name?" asked Billy.
"Chief Yellow Hand," answered McCarthy. "I expect trouble from him every time he crosses my trail."
All night McCarthy and his men pushed on.
As day dawned they reached Fort Kearney. The soldiers gave them food and places to sleep. They rested while a troop of cavalry went back to look for the wagon train.
Later in the day Billy asked McCarthy, "Do you think Yellow Hand had anything to do with the attack on our wagon train?"
"Yes, I believe he did."
"Then he or one of his Indians stole Prince. Some day I intend to get Prince back. Yellow Hand may be a Cheyenne chief, but he can't have my horse."
"The Indians like horses, so they will be good to him. Maybe you'll get him back some day. But don't forget, Billy, you're lucky to be alive."