Trouble on the Sweetwater
D AY by day the dangers faced by "The Boys of the Pony" increased. Outlaws made many bold attempts to hold up the riders. Indians on the warpath swept down in surprise attacks upon the small relay stations and burned them to the ground. They killed and scalped the agents. They stole supplies and drove off the horses. But the pony express continued to carry the mail through safely and on time.
Late one night Bill returned to Julesburg after his day's run. He cared for Prince before he went to the station to eat his supper. He was tired and he walked slowly up the path from the stables to the open door of the station. He paused outside as the sound of voices came from within.
"I tell you the run from Red Buttes to Three Crossings is too dangerous for the boy," came the station agent's voice through the darkness.
"Slade doesn't seem to think so," said the voice of another man.
"Doesn't Slade have enough riders up there?" asked the agent.
"Yes," answered the man, "but he is having a lot of trouble with the Indians and outlaws and he has decided to put his best riders on that run. That is why he wants Bill Cody transferred to Red Buttes. Bill must be good if Slade wants him to ride one of the roughest, toughest runs on the two-thousandmile trail."
"He is good!" exclaimed the agent. "I'm sorry to lose him."
"Maybe he won't go. Slade said to let Bill decide after I had told him of the dangers of this run."
"You don't know Bill Cody," interrupted the agent. "The more danger on the job the better he likes it."
"You are right," laughed Bill as he entered the station. "When do I report to Slade?"
The men looked at each other and laughed.
Bill lost no time in reporting for duty on his new job. Slade was glad to see him.
"I knew you would come," said Slade as he greeted Bill. "Now here are your orders. You are to carry the mail from Red Buttes to Three Crossings, seventy-six miles west of here, and then make your return trip with the mail from California. You will be paid one hundred and fifty dollars a month on this run."
"Good!" exclaimed Bill. "That's the top pay for a rider!"
"That's true," laughed Slade, "and for a very good reason. This is a tough run, Bill, and you will earn every cent of it. The trail is difficult and it is through the heart of the Indian country. You will also have to be on the lookout for bandits. You must be careful, but I still expect you to get the mail through on time."
"I'll do my best, sir."
"Your word is all I need," replied Slade. "Be ready to ride in the morning."
Bill's new route was, as Slade had said, a difficult one. The trail was rough and uneven. It was over a barren sandy plain broken by towering buttes, or hills. The sagebrush which grew along the trail and dotted the plains made a perfect ambush for Indians and outlaws.
In the morning, Bill, mounted on Prince, was on the trail to Three Crossings. As always, he rode his own horse to the first relay station. Bill had come to depend upon Prince's speed to make a good start on each trip. If Bill was late on a return trip it was Prince who made up the lost time and raced into the "home station" on time.
On this first trip over the new route, Bill's quick eyes and alert mind took in every detail. He must become familiar with every inch of the trail so that he could ride it even on the darkest night.
Near Three Crossings, the trail became even more difficult. It followed along the bank of the twisting, turning Sweetwater River which ran through a canyon. Three times within a few rods the trail disappeared into the rushing waters and appeared again on the opposite bank.
"Three Crossings," Bill laughed to himself. "It is not very hard to understand how this station got its name." After the third crossing, he gave his horse the spurs.
As Bill's horse galloped up to the little station at the end of his route, the rider from the west arrived. The station agent was waiting with two fresh horses.
"Bob!" exclaimed Bill as the rider dismounted. "I am glad to see you."
"Bill Cody! I am glad to see you, too. I was told that the new rider on this run was a friend of mine, but I didn't know that you had been transferred to Red Buttes."
"This is my first ride on this run."
"Did you have any trouble?" asked Bob.
"No," answered Bill, "not this time. How long a run do you make, Bob?"
"Eighty-five miles west of here to Rocky Ridge."
The station agent exchanged the mochilas and the boys mounted their fresh horses.
"Good-by, Bob," called Bill over his shoulder as he swung onto his horse and started away on his return trip toward the east. "See you on the next run."
"Good luck, Bill," called Bob as his horse raced away toward the west.
Twice a week for three weeks Bill and Bob met at Three Crossings with the mail. They looked forward to their short visits. They laughed and talked of the experiences they had shared when they rode cavayard together with the wagon trains.
Whenever Bob arrived at Three Crossings before Bill, he watched for Bill's arrival. If Bill reached the station ahead of Bob, he anxiously watched the western trail for his friend. The kindly station agent was always ready with fresh horses and a cheery greeting for the boys.
But one day, as Bill neared the station, the agent was not waiting with the horses.
"Yip! Yip! Yipee!" Bill shouted a warning call.
There was no answer.
"Yip! Yip!" he called again.
He pulled his horse to a stop in front of the station and dismounted.
Bill ran to the station and threw open the door. He stepped back and his suntanned face paled.
There, lying face down on the floor with an arrow through his body, was the station agent. Beside him lay another man in a pool of blood, with a feathered arrow through his heart.
"Bob!" cried Bill. He dropped to one knee beside his dead friend. In Bob's hands was the mochila which Bill was to take back east to Red Buttes. In death, Bob, a Boy of the Pony, was still faithful to his trust. The mail was safe.
For a minute Bill did not move. Then suddenly he jumped to his feet. He removed the arrows from the two still figures. He examined the arrows closely.
"Cheyenne arrows," he said to himself as he broke them into pieces. "This could be some of Yellow Hand's work."
He leaned over and took the mochila from Bob's dead hands. "Bob," he promised, "I'll get your mail back to your station, and I'll get it there as you always have done—on time."
Bill ran to the corral. The gate was open and all the horses were gone. He did not hesitate. He threw both mochilas over the saddle of his weary horse and mounted. Instead of heading back to Red Buttes he rode westward over the trail of his dead friend.
"I hate to do this to you, old boy," he said to the horse, "but we must go on to the next station."
When Bill reached the first relay station he reported the murders to the station agent in charge.
"We have been expecting trouble," said the agent. "A man came in on the last stagecoach to help me for a few days. I'll send him with some horses to Three Crossings to take charge of the station until Slade can get another agent."
"I'll leave Bob's mochila here with you. It is filled with mail for the East. I'll pick it up later on my way back to Red Buttes."
Without stopping to rest, Bill mounted a fresh horse and dashed on over the westward trail.
Darkness fell. On over the unfamiliar trail Bill raced with the mail. He stopped at each station only long enough to change horses. At last he reached Rocky Ridge, the end of Bob's run.
"Hello, Bob," called the waiting agent as Bill's horse thundered up to the station. "You are on time."
"I am not Bob," said Bill swinging from his saddle. "I am Bill Cody. Bob was killed at Three Crossings this afternoon by some Cheyennes. He was a friend of mine and I brought the mail through for him."
"Glad to meet you, Bill. That's bad news about Bob. Sorry to hear it. Come in, come in. You must spend the night here."
"No, I must leave as soon as I can get a fresh horse. I must get my own mochila back to Red Buttes."
"Red Buttes!" exclaimed the station agent, "that is one hundred and sixty miles from here."
"I know it," said Bill, "but I must make my return trip tonight."
"You must get some rest," protested the agent. "You can't ride over three hundred miles without time out to rest or eat."
"I must leave at once," said Bill. "Please bring me a fresh horse."
"Very well. Come with me into the station and I'll give this mochila to the rider for the west. Then I'll get a horse ready for you."
Bill followed the agent into the station. "Here's Bill Cody," he said to a group of men. "Bob was murdered by the Cheyennes and Bill brought the mail through for his friend. That's the kind of loyalty that keeps the Pony going."
The men crowded around Bill. They asked him many questions. However, one man, a tall powerful man with blond curly hair, remained silent. His clothes were expensive and his black, polished boots were of fine leather. He wore a brace of pearl-handled revolvers around his slim waist.
Everything about this man made him seem out of place among the roughly dressed men of the plains. But there was a look of cold courage in the man's gray-blue eyes that commanded respect. And there was a quiet self-confidence in his manner that marked him as a leader among men.
"I wonder who he is," Bill said to himself.
The station agent handed the man a letter. As the man read it he frowned. He looked up from the letter and motioned to Bill. "Come here, Bill," he said, "I want you to do something for me."
"Yes, sir," said Bill as he stood before him.
"I am Bill Hickock," said the man.
"Yes," smiled Hickock, "and I have a message for your boss, Alf Slade. Tell him that Majors has ordered me to help him clear out the Indians and bandits on the Sweetwater section. I will report to him next Thursday at Red Buttes. Tell him to have a posse of forty men ready for me."
"That is all," said Hickock. "Good luck to you on your ride back to Red Buttes."
"Thank you, sir."
"Bill Cody, your horse is ready," called the station agent.
As Bill joined the agent he asked, "Is Mr. Hickock the same man as 'Wild Bill' Hickock?"
"That's right. You have just met the famous 'Wild Bill' Hickock."
"But he doesn't look like a real plainsman."
"Don't let those blond curls and quiet manners fool you, Son. 'Wild Bill' Hickock is one of the most fearless men in the West. He is an Indian fighter, scout, stagecoach driver, and a terror to outlaws. Wild Bill is a loyal friend but an enemy to be avoided."
Bill mounted the waiting horse and started on his return trip to Red Buttes. He rode swiftly and made his stations in good time. The relief agent had already taken over at Three Crossings and Bill was given a fresh horse when he reached the station.
On over the difficult trail the weary boy rode toward Red Buttes. His body ached and his eyes were heavy with sleep.
But at last he reached the end of the long ride. He had ridden three hundred and twenty-two miles in twenty-one hours and forty minutes.
"Bill, you crazy kid!" said Slade after Bill had reported to him. "You've made a record ride that the Pony will never forget. Now get some sleep and I'll talk to you about Wild Bill Hickock later."
Bill Cody's ride is the longest continuous horseback ride in history. This record still stands unbroken, and it was made by a boy of fourteen who was determined that he would not fail "The Boys of the Pony."