A Knight of the Reins
B ILL CODY visited his sisters for a few days. Then he left his old home to begin work on his new job. He reported to the agent in charge of the Holladay stagecoach station at Fort Kearney. The agent had already been notified that Bill was to drive for the Holladay line.
The Ben Holladay stagecoach lines were the longest and best-equipped lines, not only in the West, but in the world. Their coaches, loaded with passengers, express, gold, and mail traveled over more than five thousand miles of western trails. One of the most important lines operated by Holladay was over the old Pony Express Trail.
It had cost a large sum of money to equip• the lines. One hundred stagecoaches and nearly three thousand mules and horses had been bought. Holladay had spared no expense. He had bought the finest coaches and the best animals and harness for the teams. He had hired the best drivers and the most fearless men as division agents. To operate the lines cost several million dollars each year.
"Cody," said the agent, "this is your home station and you are to drive from here to the home station at Plum Creek. Do you know this part of the trail?"
"I should," laughed Bill. "Plum Creek is near the place where I killed my first Indian. I have traveled over the trail many times."
"Good! Then there is nothing I need to tell you except that you change horses at two stations on your way. Holladay is running his stagecoach lines like Majors ran the Pony. He is using many of the old Pony stations. The home stations are still called 'home stations' but the relay stations, where the horses are changed, are called 'swing stations' by the drivers."
"I heard that Wild Bill Hockock is driving for Holladay. Do you know where he is?"
"Yes, he is on the Sweetwater division. Slade is still in charge of that division. You rode the Pony for him, didn't you?"
"Yes, and some day I hope to drive a stagecoach for Slade."
The agent laughed. "Well, you better get ready to drive for me. Here comes the stagecoach from the east."
"Yip! Yip! Yipee!" the warning call of the driver of the stagecoach rang out down the trail.
Several men from the stables ran toward the station.
The stagecoach with its six horses at full gallop came rattling past the fort. The driver reined in his horses and stopped the coach in front of the station.
The guard, who rode beside the driver, jumped to the ground. He opened the door of the coach. Ten passengers alighted. They followed the agent and the guard to the eating station for a home-cooked meal before continuing their journey.
"Hello, Bill," called the driver as he tossed the reins of his horses to a helper who stood waiting by the coach. "Are you driving on this division?"
"Yes," answered Bill. "I am on the stretch to Plum Creek."
"I am glad to hear it," said the driver as he sprang to the ground. He pointed with his long whip to the high seat on the stagecoach. "When you have ridden on that box for a while you will never go back to a wagon train."
"I know that you stage drivers think that your life is full of excitement, but I have had my share of adventures with the wagon trains."
"You'll change your mind," grinned the driver. "I tell you, Bill, we aren't called the 'knights of the reins' because we lead a quiet life. I wouldn't give up my job for anything in the world."
While Bill and the driver talked, the men from the stables unhitched the horses and took them to their stalls. They returned with six fresh horses and hitched them to the stagecoach. When the passengers had finished their meal, they took their places in the coach. The guard, carrying his rifle, mounted to his seat on the box.
Bill, whip in hand, took his place on the box. Bill held the butt of his whip in his right hand. At the end of the long, hickory stock was a twelve-foot lash of buckskin.
"Give him the reins," ordered the agent.
A man handed Bill the reins for the six horses. Bill arranged the reins between the fingers of his left hand.
"Ready?" asked the agent.
"Stand back," the agent called to the two men who were holding the lead horses.
Bill lifted his whip and snapped it in the air over the heads of the horses. The horses lunged forward on the run. Bill kept his horses at a steady gallop which took the coach rapidly over the rough trail.
Bill enjoyed driving the stagecoach between Fort Kearney and Plum Creek. On each trip he was as alert and watchful for Indians and outlaws as when he rode the Pony. He took his passengers through safely and on time. Neither rough roads nor bad weather made him break his schedule.
Late one rainy night, Bill brought his stagecoach to a stop in front of the station at Plum Creek. The passengers complained to the agent that they had had a rough, hard trip.
"There is no need for a driver to hit all the bumps and holes on the trail," said one of the passengers in a loud voice. "That driver today is as bad as the others. He isn't a driver. He's a crazy man."
The agent motioned to Bill. "Come here," he called.
As Bill joined the group the agent said, "Your passengers are complaining about the rough trip they had with.you."
"I know," Bill laughed, "I couldn't help overhearing what they said." He turned to the passengers. "I am sorry," he began, "but there are good reasons why I don't try to avoid the bumps and ruts in the trail. I let my horses travel with as little guidance as possible. If I were to guide them constantly I would lose speed. However, the more important reason is that I do not want to endanger the safety of my passengers."
"I do not understand," snapped one of the passengers.
"Well, tonight for instance, the darkness and the rain made it impossible to see the trail. If my horses had learned to depend upon me, I'm afraid that we would still be far from this station. But because I allow my horses to follow the road from habit, we are here safe and sound. I have never known it to fail that when a man depends upon good horses he will get through. Do you remember when I stopped the coach and went ahead on foot?"
The passengers nodded.
"Well, that was because we were near a narrow ravine which, even in daylight, it is difficult to get through. I crawled along on my hands and knees to make sure that the rain had not washed away the trail. The ruts were deep and easy to follow and I knew my horses could make it without any help from me."
"I didn't know that we were in danger," said a passenger as Bill walked away.
"Every trip is dangerous," broke in the agent. "But with good horses and a good driver on the box there is less danger."
"Who was our driver?" asked a passenger.
"Bill Cody!" exclaimed the passengers looking at one another. "No wonder we made it on time in spite of the storm and darkness."
It was several hours later when the stagecoach from the west arrived at Plum Creek. It was still raining. Bill was ready to take the coach on to the station at Fort Kearney. As fresh horses were being hitched to the coach, the driver pointed to the rear of the coach where the express packages and mail were carried. This space was known as the "boot."
"Gold?" asked Bill in a low voice.
The driver nodded.
"How many passengers?"
"Two rough-looking men," the driver answered.
"Thanks for the tip-off," said Bill. He climbed up to the box and took the reins as they were handed to him. The guard was already in his place beside Bill. Bill cracked the long whip and the horses started on a run down the trail.
At dawn the rain stopped. The sun came up over the horizon like a huge red ball of fire. With the coming of daylight, Bill urged his horses to greater speed. He, like the other stagecoach drivers, seldom spoke while on the box. The sounds of galloping horses, the squeaking of the leather harness, and the rattle of the coach were like music to his ears. He kept his eyes on the trail and watched the horses.
Suddenly, but without taking his eyes off the road, Bill asked his guard, "See anything over there to the right?"
"Nothing but the sagebrush on the hill," answered the guard. "Did you see something?"
"An Indian war bonnet."
"That means trouble."
"Plenty of it." Bill cracked his long whip over the heads of the horses.
The horses broke into a swift gallop. The coach bounced up and down and lurched from side to side. One minute it was on two wheels and the next minute all four wheels seemed to leave the ground. The passengers were tossed from side to side.
A war whoop rang out on the morning air. Fifty Indians sprang from their hiding places on the top of the hill. They were in full war paint and were mounted on swift ponies.
Shouting and yelling the Indians raced madly after the stagecoach.
Bill leaned forward in the box as he urged the horses over the trail. "If we make the ravine across the creek I think we can hold the Indians," he said.
"What if they beat us to it?" asked the guard.
The race for the ravine was a matter of life or death to those on the stagecoach. Bill, calm and steady, was slightly in the lead. But the yelling Indians were gaining ground, and arrows were beginning to whiz by. Bill, by expert driving, got to the creek first.
"Hold on!" ordered Bill as the horses plunged into the water, "I'll take care of the Indians. You watch the passengers. I don't trust them."
Bill cracked his whip and the horses dashed through the water and up the bank on the opposite side. The ravine was just ahead. They had won the race; but could Bill hold the Indians?
Bill reined in his horses as his right foot jammed down on the brake. The coach came to a sudden stop. Bill, rifle in hand, jumped to the ground. In a flash the guard was beside him. The two passengers opened the door of the coach.
"Stay where you are," ordered the guard.
"No," said the men, "we are in this fight with you."
The guard hesitated.
"All right," said Bill, "get out and fight."
Bill took careful aim with his rifle and fired. The Indian chief leading his braves threw up his hands, rolled from his pony, and fell into the water with a splash. The guard and the two men fired and three more Indians fell into the water.
The Indians in the lead tried to turn their ponies about, but the braves in the rear kept crowding them forward into the water. Meanwhile the white men in the ravine kept up a deadly fire. The Indians soon saw that they could not continue to face the deadly fire of Bill and his companions. They turned their ponies and retreated to a safe distance.
"Get back into the coach," ordered Bill. "We must get out of here before the Indians have time to reorganize and attack us again."
The stagecoach had gone but a short distance when the guard shouted, "Here they come!"
"Give them all you have," Bill called. "Our only chance is to make the next station before they overtake us."
The wild ride continued. The Indians, slowly gaining, came closer and closer. But soon the outline of the station appeared far ahead on the trail.
"Keep firing," shouted Bill. "If the men at the station hear the shots they will ride out to help us."
Within a few minutes five mounted men from the station came racing toward them. The Indians let fly one final shower of arrows, then turned their ponies and streaked off across the plains.
The stagecoach rattled on to the swing station. The men of the station laughed and talked with Bill while the horses were being changed.
"Want us to ride on with you?" asked the agent.
"No, thank you," answered Bill, "we can make it."
At Fort Kearney the driver was waiting to take the coach on over the eastern division. Bill told the driver about the gold in the boot. He also warned him to watch the two passengers.
"They helped us in the fight with the Indians," interrupted the guard. "Why are you suspicious of them?"
"I don't know exactly," answered Bill, "but I should not like to have them as passengers in my coach without a guard."
1. Why did Bill need to find a home for Prince?
2. How did Bill meet Louisa?
3. Why didn't Bill want a job in St. Louis?
4. Who was Ben Holladay?
5. Why was he glad to hire Bill as a stagecoach driver?
6. Tell how Bill saved the gold from the Indians.
7. On a stagecoach, what and where is the "box"? The "boot"?