Their train pulled into a stop-over station in Ogallala, Nebraska, a much needed chance to work their sore legs, get their blood moving. Lucille and Sara stepped onto the train station's platform and looked around. The station was located just one street off of Main Street, the town's central avenue. Lucille checked her coin bag, hoping to afford a glass of lemonade and maybe a piece of chocolate. Disappointed, she resigned herself to a sip of water from the communal fountain.
"Don't worry," Sara said,"I'll get this stop, you can get the next." Once again Lucille silently thanked God that Sara had come along. The two friends walked, arm in arm, to the station's cantina. Sara had expected to see nothing but cowboys out here, but it was driving season and all the cowboys in Nebraska were working a herd. Mostly they saw families and single men, coming and going. The girls each got a glass of lemonade and piece of chocolate and returned to the platform to wait for the train to be ready for reboarding.
"Lucille," whispered Sara into Lucille's ear, "don't look right away, but that man looks just like Buffalo Bill!" Lucille turned, sure enough the man standing behind their bench looked remarkably like William "Buffalo Bill" Cody, the greatest cowboy in America. They had seen posters of the famous scout's Wild West Show the last time it came through Chicago, but had been unable to convince Ms. Garvey that seeing his circus would "bring their history classes to life," as they had told her.
"Yes, but surely many men look like Buffalo Bill out here," said Lucille, not believing the celebrity would be waiting on a train in Ogallala. "He's not even wearing the right clothes, though." The man in question was wearing Cody's trademark mustache and goatee, but not his buckskin shirt and trousers and white hat. Instead he wore a sensible pair of denim pants, green waist-coat, and a black wide brimmed hat. Still, the similarity was remarkable. Their brush with greatness, real or not, was over, and the girls turned back to the tracks to wait on their train.
"Excuse me, miss," a rough voice behind them said. The girls turned to see the man they had been looking at standing behind them, looking down at Lucille. "I wonder, this may be an odd question, but are you Lucille Stoneweller?"
"Why, yes, I am," said Lucille. "Do I know you, sir?" Sara was speechless, her mouth slightly agape as she stared at the tall man.
"No, but I know your father, Stoneweller," said the man. "My name is William Cody," he said. "Do you ladies mind if I sit? I'm a good friend of Stoneweller, and I just can't believe this luck."
Lucille nodded, now it was her turn to lose the power of speech. Sara picked up the conversation. "William Cody? As in Buffalo Bill Cody?" she asked.
Cody chuckled. "Yes, that's me, at your service. I hope I'm not a disappointment, I don't usually travel with the Wild West Show unless we're on tour. I hope you won't hold that against me," he said with a wink.
"You said you knew Stoneweller," said Lucille.
"Yes, ma'am, he showed me your picture every time I blew through Hopewell. That's how I spotted you, by the way. I wasn't sure it was you but I figured I might as well take a chance. You're not travelling with him are you?" He looked around, hoping to see his friend somewhere else on the platform.
"No, Mr. Cody, we're not. Excuse my manners, this is Miss Sara Nightingale, my friend from Chicago, travelling back home with me. No, Stoneweller is not with us, Mr. Cody, he's actually, well, he's . . . " Lucille struggled to form the words. A tear moistened her left eye and left a trail down her cheek.
"Not Stoneweller," said Cody. "Don't tell me Stoneweller has passed on."
Lucille nodded. "Yes, he has."
"Well, how did it happen?" he asked, still unbelieving. "I've known Stoneweller since our scouting days back in the sixties. Never have I known a surer shot or more steady hand than Stoneweller." The train whistle blew. "Here, we better board. You all come with me to my private bunk."
"But our tickets are for the common cars, won't we get in trouble?" asked Sara.
"Little sister, you just stick with me and you'll be fine," Cody said. The girls looked at each other, shrugged, and picked up their luggage. "Oh no, we'll get the porter to handle that," Cody insisted. "Now let's head on back."
Cody's private quarters, or "bunk" as he called it, consisted of a bed, wash stand with water basin and towel, and a cushioned bench. The bed was large enough for two to sleep on but only if they were comfortable with each other. The bench allowed two to sit comfortably, three if necessary. Cody sat on the end of the bed, the girls took the bench. Once their luggage was delivered and the porter had left, Cody poured them each a glass of whiskey and one for himself.
"You'll need it for this, trust me," he said when they held up their hands. They had never tasted alcohol before, other than a toast of champagne on New Year's Eve. "It helps with the grieving process, trust me." They accepted the glasses, took a sip, and immediately began coughing as liquid fire crept down their throats. Cody laughed softly. "I guess it does burn, doesn't it? I must have burned my throat dull by now." He considered his empty tumbler, considered another drink, and thought against it. "Now, tell me about Stoneweller. And call me Bill, since we've broken bread together, in a manner of speaking."
Lucille nodded and lifted the glass to her lips before remembering the burning in her throat. She sat it down next to Sara's empty glass, and to her amazement her friend finished it for her. She looked at Sara with wide eyes, but Sara just shrugged and smiled.
"Well, Mr. Cody, er, Bill, I mean, I don't know much, I'm afraid. I received a telegram at my school in Chicago just yesterday, and all I know is that he passed away. No word of an illness, or an accident, or anything."
"Is he still, ahem, with Miss Ellie?" Cody asked, slipping back into the present tense.
"Yes, in their own way, they are, were, still together. They never did marry, though. I don't think the church would have had Miss Ellie, and Stoneweller wasn't exactly the most religious man, I'm afraid."
"No, Stoneweller went his own way, that's for sure. Did he ever buy that ranch he had always wanted? I sure hope so."
Cody and Stoneweller must have been closer than she had thought, Lucille thought to herself. "Yes, he did buy the ranch, a small plot, really, but big enough for Stoneweller and Miss Ellie. A few hundred acres, nice stream right through it for the fifty head of cattle he was able to scrounge up. Plenty of grass, plenty of water, plenty of quiet for the two of them. Miss Ellie was able to quit the Hopewell Inn and move out there. I was only able to get back during the summers, though, so I'm not terribly acquainted with it."
Cody had lit a pipe and was now puffing on it. "He sure did talk about that ranch though, at least his dream of it." He exhaled smoke out the open window. He followed its path out the window, his eyes leaving the present and looking back on his history with Stoneweller. He told them a story. "I met Stoneweller back in '66, you know. Long time ago. Thirty years, damn near, come to think of it."
* * *
Junction City, Kansas, 1866. Buffalo Bill had been scouting for the US Army for some time for Colonel Custer and the troops out of Fort Elsworth, always moving ahead of the troops, often by himself but occasionally with his friend and fellow scout Wild Bill Hickock. Many of the troops under Custer looked on the scouts with something like awe mixed with confusion. These scouts were impressive and more than handy in a fight, but the regulars could not understand how they could be so comfortable on their own in hostile territory. The troops believed in safety in numbers, but the scouts knew the greenhorn regular soldiers would be next to useless against the Cheyenne braves they would be expected to go against. One war cry from a young warrior, swinging his war club and tomahawk with abandon as their bullets whined around him, and these regular troops were just as likely to turn tail and race back to the fort as to fight. The ones that did fight and managed to survive often grew into useful help, the scouts agreed. The fort's veteran soldiers were useful in a fight, but the scouts viewed the rest of the men with contempt and boredom.
The keenest aspect of scouting for the Army, in Cody's opinion, was the excuse it gave him to go for a ride with no particular place to go. Just go see what he could see, and if he saw anything worth reporting, well, he did. He had run into his share of natives, but only hunting parties that allowed him to ride on by without any trouble. Cody had nothing against these people, considered them superior to most whites that he knew, but did wish they would just read the leaves and see what the future held. His kind would just keep coming, Cody knew, and no treaty or pact would keep them from taking all of this land.
There was plenty of land, he thought as he rode along this fine day, plenty for everyone that wanted some. His buddy Hickock was with him, but he had ridden over a hill to take a look at whatever might be over there. It was late in the afternoon, getting on to suppertime, so Cody decided to call it a day and get camp started, they could get back to the fort in the morning to report on the total lack of excitement they had scared up.
Cody was building their campfire when Hickock rode in. "I like my coffee hot, if possible, Bill," said Hickock. He dismounted his horse, took off her saddle, and gave her a quick brushdown. "Don't worry about the sugar, I can rough it if you can," he said over his shoulder.
"You'll get your coffee just as soon as it's ready," said Cody, "and not a minute sooner." He flipped the bacon on the skillet, it popped and sizzled in the grease. "You see anything worth seeing?"
Hickock squatted by the fire next to Cody. "Not much, no sign, no buffalo neither," he said, his words wrapped around his chewing tobacco. "What've you been up to?"
Cody sat back and let the bacon fry and lit his pipe. He considered Hickock's chew habit disgusting but he had seen worse habits out here. "Nothing worth telling. Looks to be a pretty quiet night, you reckon we play some cards?"
"Well I forgot my fiddle so I guess cards will do," said Hickock. Cody had taken the bacon out of the skillet and divvied up the pieces on their plates. Next he sliced a few pieces of bread and laid them in the bacon grease to fry up. This soaked up the bacon grease so he would not have to clean the skillet and also produced something resembling toast.
"I'd drink that coffee up quick, Bill. Them Cheyenne over there probably won't have any for you," said Cody. Hickock turned over his shoulder to where Cody was looking. Four Cheyenne braves had appeared about fifty yards away, riding up over one of the little hillocks surrounding them.
"What happened, Bill?" Sara had forgotten how odd it was to call Buffalo Bill by his given name, she was so engrossed in his tale. Lucille nodded with her, prodding Cody to continue.
"Well, I'll tell you, Miss Sara and Miss Lucille, only let me get a few sips of my memory potion to make sure I get the facts straight," he said. He winked at them as he pulled from his flask. "Now, as to what happened next."
* * *
Cody and Hickock cursed themselves for their mistakes. Camped without a clear view of the plain, left their weapons too far away to do any good. The only thing to do was bluff their way out, see if these boys riding up on them were looking for blood or just out for a ride, same as they were. There were four braves in the group, their mean looking leader and three youngsters. The leader had a yellow feather tied into his braid. The youngsters looked a little skittish, but their leader looked like he was ready for business. He was holding an old rifle in his right hand, aiming down at the ground. In his left he carried his hatchet. The hatchet was probably the more lethal weapon, at least in the right hands.
"Howdy boys," said Cody as nonchalantly as he could. "We're just putting the coffee on, you're more than welcome to stay and share some bacon with us." He moved to ready a plate but the leader lifted his rifle to his hip. He pointed it in the direction of the camp, not directly at Cody or Hickock, but the message was clear. "Well mayhaps we don't need no bacon right now."
The leader dismounted gracefully, one fluid motion, never letting his rifle leave the two scouts. His band remained mounted. Without taking his eyes off of Cody and Hickock he waved his tomahawk in a circle around his head. His men got the hint and circled the camp. Cody and Hickock were now surrounded on all sides. The Cheyenne leader kept his eyes on them as he squatted down to grab a piece of bacon and shove it into his mouth, grease and all.
"That's right, just help your own self, that's how we do it in this camp," said Hickock. "Ain't that right, Billy?"
"That's right, Billy," said Cody. "We just take it nice and easy."
The Cheyenne wiped his mouth with the back of his tomahawk hand. If he understood English he gave no indication of it, just stared at them with a stone face. The scouts did not like that stone face. The horses crept closer, their circle tightening around the camp. Cody looked at Hickock, they may not have any chance of surviving this mess but if they fought they might avoid a slow death by torture later.
"Well hello there, Yellow Feather," a voice announced from atop the hillock behind the Cheyenne leader. Every head turned to see Stoneweller riding his horse at an easy trot into the camp. "I see you met my friends, Bill and Bill. Or is it Billy and Billy? William and William? Willy and Willy?" The Cheyenne leader, Yellow Feather, as it were, seemed to smile in spite of himself. "Whatever they go by, it looks like you've met their acquaintance." Stoneweller dismounted and approached Yellow Feather like he was an old schoolmate he had the luck to run into on Main Street. Each man clasped the other's right forearm in greeting.
"These friends of yours?" Yellow Feather asked Stoneweller.
"Well friends may be a bit strong, but I would say we know each other, yes." He turned to look at Cody and Hickock. "Ain't that right boys? Or would you say we're friends? Are we friends and I never knowed it?"
"Friends, I'd say we're friends, friends enough," said Cody. Hickock nodded agreement.
"Well there you go, I guess we're friends," Stoneweller said to Yellow Feather. "And what about these boys?" he asked, indicating the rest of Yellow Feather's band. "Are these your friends? Brothers? Tag alongs?"
"These are my best men," said Yellow Feather. "My best hunters. Not much to hunt now, thanks to likes of them," he pointed at Hickock and Cody with his chin, "and like of you, Stoneweller. We out on hunt, but only came across two ugly white men frying bacon and being too loud for their own good."
"Well don't lump me in with these boys, Yellow Feather. Looks like you're fixin' to do a little more than huntin' though."
Yellow Feather shrugged. "We might as well take these men back to village, let Chief decide what to do with them. Not a war party, but still do not like the sight of white faces riding around in our land, free and without worry."
"No, I can see that, I can see that point of view there, yes sir," said Stoneweller. "But look here, these are friends of mine, Yellow Feather. Ain't that count for somethin'?"
Yellow Feather considered this. He stared at Hickock and Cody, then at their horses, then at Stoneweller. "It counts for something, but not everything. Price must be paid, Stoneweller. Price must be paid for intruding so deep into our land."
"Yes, I expect it does," said Stoneweller. He sucked the inside of his cheek, his habit when thinking over a problem. "What does it cost, Yellow Feather?"
Yellow Feather considered the question. What did it cost, short of their lives, for white men to travel freely in his land? The young men with him were watching, waiting to see what price their leader would exact for this intrusion. He must set the example for them, let them see that the pride and honor of their people has not left them.
"Your horses are fresh, and strong. We will take them."
"Well now, that leaves us in a hole, now doesn't it, Yellow Feather," said Stoneweller. He did not relish the thought of being afoot. "Where's that leave us?"
"It leaves you right here, to get home as you please. Look around you, Stoneweller. We make a fair bargain."
"Is this all I get for saving your life?" asked Stoneweller. "A death sentence, walking home?"
"If this were a death sentence you would already be dead," said Yellow Feather. He waved his tomahawk above his head and his men corralled their horses. "Go in peace, Stoneweller." The Cheyenne rode off and were soon out of sight.
"Go in peace," Stoneweller said to an empty prairie.
* * *
"So we walked home," concluded Cody. "We left most of our supplies there. Never did see them horses again, that was a shame." He looked out the window. "That was a good horse."
"Stoneweller saved Yellow Feather's life?" asked Sara. "How did he do that? What's that story?"
"Stoneweller never did say, and don't think we didn't pester him the whole way back to the fort for that story. Stoneweller never was much for talking about himself."
"No," Lucille said, "he never did talk much at all, really." A fresh wave of sadness welled up inside her. She took a sip of water and stared out the window until it passed.
Cody watched her hide her grief. "Well, I expect I better get some shut eye afore we get too far along. Good night, ladies." With that he lay down on his bunk and covered his eyes with his hat. He did not sleep though, not right away. His mind was awake now, awake and alive with memories of years past. His friends, enemies, men and women he had not thought of in years. Stoneweller was always there, if not in flesh then in spirit. Now he was gone, like so many of Cody's friends. A parade of gunfighters, scouts, and sharpshooters galloped through his mind as he finally drifted off to sleep.