The Express Messenger, and Other Tales of the Rail/A Wild Night at Wood River

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A Wild Night at Wood River

 

A WILD NIGHT AT WOOD RIVER

"KEEP that kid quiet," said Bankers in a hoarse whisper.

"I'm doing the best I can," said his wife, trying to hush the little one who was sobbing and moaning in her lap. In the baby's milk wagon a bitter fight was going on between paregoric and pain, and the latter was dying hard. The wind drove the rain against the side of the car and made it rock to and fro. "Emma," said Mrs. Bankers to her friend, "take that bottle and hold it between you and a crack in the car, and when it lightens drop ten drops into the spoon. I suppose we must not strike a light.

"You bet you don't strike any light here unless you are ready to give up your chignon," said Bankers, without taking his eyes from the crack through which he was peeping. Emma took the bottle, and at each flash of lightning dropped a drop of hush medicine into the spoon, and when she had put in ten drops they gave it to the baby. That made twenty drops; it was dangerous, but it was sure death to all of them if the baby cried aloud.

The rain came in great sheets and with such force that it seemed that the car could hardly hold the rail. It was not a Pullman car; just a common red stock car standing on a siding, with a few armfuls of straw upon the floor. Occasionally Bankers turned to glance at the two women who were crouching in one end of the car, and when the lightning lit up their faces they were fearful to behold. Now the rain, cold as sleet, came through the cracks in the car and stung the faces of those within. Mrs. Bankers had seen three winters at Wood River, but her friend, the young woman who had come out to western Nebraska to teach school, was in every sense a tenderfoot, and the experience of this wild night had almost driven her mad.

"There they are," whispered Bankers. Now the women put their eyes to a crack, and when a flash came they could see a reef of feathered heads that formed a half circle around the house like a feather boa about a woman's neck. Half the band dismounted and made a rush for the cottage. The door was broken, and the red devils swarmed in. One of them took a newspaper and lighted it at the open fireplace to make a torch, and by the light of it the little party in the stock car could see the Sioux running, half crouching, from room to room, in search of the occupants. Finding the place deserted, and smarting under their disappointment, the Indians now set fire to the house, and by the light of it started to loot the railroad station, less than a hundred yards away.

The station agent had been warned, as the others had been, by a Pawnee scout, but had bravely refused to leave his post. He had made no light, but sat in one end of the dark little room which served as ticket office, telegraph office, and sleeping room, and as the Indians approached opened fire. At the very first shot the leader of the murderous band leaped high into the air, came down on his feet, leaped up again and again, and finally fell in a heap to rise no more. With a deafening yell the angry band made a rush for the door, and began to beat against it with tomahawks, clubs, and guns.

Having emptied his rifle, the agent now took up a pair of 45-calibre revolvers, and the lead fairly rattled against the door, and no fewer than a half dozen savages sank to the platform, causing the besiegers to fall back a space. From a distance they began to pour the lead into the building, but the agent, crouching be hind the little iron safe, was still unhurt. An Indian brought a torch from the burning cottage and attempted to fire the station, but the rain and wind put out the fire. Two or three Sioux, noticing a string of cars upon the siding, began to search for stock or eatable freight. From car to car they ran, thrusting their rifles into the straw. "Uh!" said an old buck, as his rifle found something soft in one of the cars, and Bankers felt a hurt in his short ribs. Laying hold of the side of the car, the Indian began to pull and strain. By the merest chance he had taken hold of the car door, and now as it opened he thrust his hideous head inside. Bankers could have blown the top of the Sioux's head off, but he knew that to fire would be to attract a dozen redskins, against whom he could not hope to hold out long. The women scarcely breathed. The baby, full of paregoric, slept as though it had already entered upon its final rest. The other two Indians had given up the search among the empty cars, and gone back to the station, where the agent, having reloaded all his guns, kept the gang hopping and dancing about the station platform. The old Sioux at the car door cocked his head and listened. He must have fancied he heard something breathe, for now he put his hands upon the sill and leaped into the car. He had scarcely straightened up when Bankers's rifle barrel fell across his feathered head, and he dropped like a beef. The schoolma'am uttered a faint scream, and that was the last sound that came from her corner for some time. The Sioux never moved a finger, and Bankers, having removed the warrior's firearms and ammunition, gave the gun over to his wife, and then covered the dead Sioux with straw. Already the little frame cottage had burned to the ground, and the rain had nearly quenched the fire. Every attempt made by the band to fire the station had ended in failure, and the Sioux were now preparing to storm the fort. It was hard for Bankers to keep quiet in the car while the agent sold his life so bravely and so dearly to the Sioux, but there were his wife and baby and the helpless schoolma'am, who had been persuaded by the Bankerses to come to this wild region, and he felt it his duty to protect them as best he could. Presently Bankers felt the stock car vibrate perceptibly, as though it were being rolled slowly along the rail. His first thought was that the Indians were pushing the empty cars down near the station, and that they would set fire to the straw, and then there would be no possible escape. Now there was a roar as of an approaching train, and an instant later a great dark object hove in sight and rolled past the car. It was a locomotive drawing a dozen box cars and running without a headlight. The shouts of the besiegers, the rattle of rifles, and the wild cry of the night prevented the Sioux from feeling the vibration or hearing the sound of the approaching train.

The agent, who had been severely wounded, now crawled to the key and called Ogallala. At the first attack he had wired for help, and now he told the operator there he could hold the place only a little while longer. The agent was still at the key when the engine, rolling up to the station, shook the building, and he knew, the moment he felt the quiver of it, that help was at hand. Instantly the doors of the box cars came open, and a company of Government scouts, all Pawnees, except the officers, leaped to the platform just as the band of Sioux were making their last desperate charge upon the station. Before they could realize that reenforcements were at hand, the Sioux were beset by the scouts, who always fought to kill. The battle was short and decisive, and when the Sioux fled they left more than half their number upon the field.

Probably the most anxious man in the whole party was the conductor of the special train that had brought the scouts from Ogallala. He had ridden all the way on the locomotive, and the moment the train stopped he had leaped to the ground, and gone through a shower of bullets to where the cottage which had been the home of the Bankerses had stood. The sight of the house in ashes made him sick at heart, but there was still hope; they might have taken refuge in the station, and, facing about, the fearless conductor fought his way to the door. By this time the Sioux were giving all their attention to the scouts, and the conductor forced his body through the shot-riddled door. The agent lay upon the floor in a pool of his own blood, but he was still alive. "Where are they?" asked the conductor, glancing about the dark room.

"Among the stock cars, if they are still alive," was the reply which came in a faint whisper. "I saw them leaving the house at dusk—go to them—I'm—I'm all right; "and the conductor, having placed the wounded man upon his bed, made for the stock cars.

"Bankers, where are you?" he called; and Bankers answered, only two cars away. Now the conductor lighted his white light and climbed into the car. The brave Mrs. Bankers greeted him with a smile that soon changed to tears, for in the light of the hand-lamp she had seen her baby's face, and it looked like the face of a dead child. "Emma," she called excitedly, but there was no answer. "Is she dead?" cried the conductor, falling upon his knees and holding the light close to his sweetheart's face.

"No, you chump," said Bankers; "she only fainted when I killed this Sioux;" and he gave the dead Indian a kick and rolled him out of the car.

"But the baby?" pleaded Mrs. Bankers.

"She's all right," said the husband. "Only a little too much paregoric." And so it proved.

"Here, Em," said Bankers, shaking the young woman, who was regaining consciousness, "brace up. You've got company."

"Are we all safe?" asked the schoolma'am, feeling for her back hair. "Oh, my dear, brave friend, you have saved us all!"

"Yes, I played———," said Bankers, "hiding here in the straw while the agent was being murdered."

"But you saved the women," said the conductor, who was overjoyed at finding all alive.

"Yes," said Bankers, "that's something, after all."

And all this is not a dream. It is only a scrap of the history of the early days of the Union Pacific. The brave station agent is an old man now, and one of his legs is shorter than the other,—the one that was shot that night. The baby, having recovered from her severe tussle with colic and paregoric, is now one of the most charming women in a Western city. The conductor of the soldier train is at this writing a general superintendent of a well-known railway. The snows of forty winters have fallen upon his wife's hair. It is almost white, but her face is still young and handsome, and I remember that she blushed when telling this story to me, and recalling the fact that she had fainted in a stock car on that wild night at Wood River.