Heroes of the Old Santa Fe Trail

While the railroad was pushing out in the early days, Newton, Kansas was a pretty hard town, and its inhabitants were very different from the pious Mennonites who later lived there. Always, there was one or more mysterious individuals in these frontier pandemoniums, who somehow preserved their secrets and still retained the regard, if not the respect, of the community. The mystery of Newton was an old man, dwarfish in stature, and deformed, who kept a saloon and gambling house. He had a wonderfully intelligent face, quick, shrewd eyes, and had only two apparent objects in life. One was to accumulate money, for he was a perfect miser, and a handyman at all games of cards; and the other a watchful and tender solicitude for the welfare of his daughter, the only being for whom he ever showed any respect or affection. She was a beautiful girl, bright, intelligent, and apparently loved the crooked old miser.” He was educated, and taught her from books, in a building half tent and half shanty, that stood behind his gambling house. She did the cooking and was seldom seen except when he was with her. Every luxury that could be secured on the inhospitable frontier was seized for the girl by the old man, and the only money he was ever known to expend from the large quantities he gathered in, was for her benefit.

The story went that she was his only child and that he had come west to make a fortune, in order that when she grew to womanhood she might live like a lady in the States. Nobody knew where he came from, although he had for several years driven a team and handled some goods of his own on the Santa Fe Trail, nor did anyone know his name. He carried a nickname, as every other man of consequence in the community did, and it was derived from his peculiar habitual expression, “Jes-so.” To every remark that was addressed him, to every assertion that was made in his presence, be it a matter of dinner or death, he had only one reply, and that was: “Jes-so.”

The girl was about 17 and was so carefully guarded that she was discontented and used to have sly flirtations with cowboys and other hangers-on at the camp, which would have ended in murder had the old man discovered them. While he was at the card table, she was chatting at the rear of her tent with one of her many lovers. And one night she eloped!

The old man used to gamble all night and sleep all day, and when he awoke one afternoon from his slumbers, he detected her absence. A cowboy named “Bunny” was also missing, and the old man, by making inquiries, discovered that they had been seen together during the previous evening. He remarked “Jes-so,” as usual, but he crawled through the town like a wild-cat, and borrowing a horse, buckled his revolver belt around him, and started across the prairie toward the ranch where “Bunny” was employed.

The next day he returned to Newton, said “Jes-so,” as usual, but sold out his traps, and disappeared forever.

Two days later, travelers along the road reported that they had found, in an abandoned mud-hut near the river, two corpses, those of a beautiful girl and a stalwart young man. They were on their knees, their right hands were clasped, and a catholic prayerbook, covered with blood, lay on the floor beside them. The old man had discovered the betrayal of his daughter by “Bunny,” had married them, according to the catholic formula, himself, and then shot them both through the heart.

General Custer’s chief scout during the Indian war of 1867 was Will Comstock, one of the most remarkable of the many remarkable men who have filled the atmosphere of the frontier with stories of daring. Custer said of him: “No Indian knew the country more thoroughly than he; perfect in horsemanship; fearless in manner; a splendid hunter; and a gentleman by instinct, as modest and unassuming as he was brave, he was an interesting, as well as a valuable, companion.”

From the sole of his slender foot to the locks of his raven hair, he was a perfect scout and a sleuthhound on an Indian trail. His complexion was very dark, and he was said to be the son of a Delaware Indian woman by a white trapper, but no one ever actually knew his ancestry, or where he came from. He was unpretending and seclusive, but his exploits would fill a volume. Always superstitious, by virtue of his mother’s blood, there seemed to be a cloud hanging over his life which made him avoid the haunts of men and seek his own companionship. He never had a “partner,” as most scouts do, and when he undertook his perilous missions, he always went alone.

He died a victim of the treachery of the Indians. He had been dispatched by General Philip Sheridan to an Indian village to invite the chiefs to a council, and some of them started to return with him. After they had ridden a few miles together, and he was thrown off his guard, an Indian behind him leveled his gun and shot Comstock through the back, killing him instantly. Some of the chiefs who were in the party, months afterward told the circumstances of his death and explained that the treacherous deed was done, not with their consent or expectation, but by this Indian of his own motive, to revenge the death of his father, whom Comstock had killed.

Wild Bill Hickok

Wild Bill Hickok

A conspicuous figure upon the plains for many years after the Civil War was the notorious William Hickok, or, as he was more generally known, “Wild Bill.” This individual was at one time not only a famous, but a worthy, character, as worthy as men of his class often are, but dissipation and gambling turned a skillful guide and a brave scout into a worthless desperado. As Ned Buntline, the prolific writer of border romance discovered “Buffalo Bill,” Colonel George Ward Nichols, a gallant soldier, and later the  esthetic manager of the Cincinnati College of Music discovered “Wild Bill.” During the war Colonel Nichols was in Missouri, in the army, attached to the headquarters of the commanding officer, and there he first became acquainted with the hero of so many bloody episodes, who was then a very brave, intelligent and valuable Union scout, more dreaded and feared by the rebels than any 40 men in the Union Army. Indeed, most of the early homicides on Bill’s long catalog were the result of attempts to entrap or betray him by the rebel sympathizers of Missouri. and officially, as the sheriff of the town of Abilene. During General Hancock’s campaign in 1867, he was the chief of scouts, and General Custer, in his description of the events of that summer, said of him:

“Hickok went into the army as a private in an Illinois regiment, and his home was in one of the small towns in the interior of the state. His regiment was sent to Missouri, where his remarkable nerve, his desperate recklessness, and general intelligence, soon attracted the attention of the commanding officer, who made use of him as a scout. He was afterward detailed from his company and attached to the headquarters of General Curtis in that capacity. His services are highly commended by his commander, and he performed such feats of daring and had such wonderful escapes as to make him the text of a great many interesting chapters of both history and romance. Colonel Nichols introduced him to the public in a sketch published in a widely circulated magazine near the close of the war, and it gave the scout great fame.”

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