THE MAIL MUST GET THROUGH

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Historical Fiction  |  House: DOWN-HOME

The slim young rider gallops from Miles Crock relay station unaware he will encounter Paiute Indians on the rampage along his Nevada route.. His actions exemplifies the courage Pony Express riders, mostly teens, demonstrated during the nineteen months the Pony Express existed, a hallmark service in American history.

 

THE MAIL MUST GET THROUGH

Historical Fiction Story and Painting by Virgil Dubé – Copyright 2020

A tin cup of hot coffee in each of his gloved hands, Miles Crock stepped outside. Dressed in an overcoat, vest underneath, loose trousers, and a floppy hat to cover his shaggy shoulder-length hair, he passed through the open door from the dark interior of the cabin. 

Greeted by bright sunlight on this chilly September day 1860, he raised his eyes to gaze skyward and admire the high fleecy cloud left over after the stormy couple hours yesterday, when rain had mercifully graced the dry Nevada countryside, for which his gaze the next instant swept the broad expanse before him. Despite a fair soaking, the ground had dried out since not holding moisture, proved by a distant dust devil he spotted form and sweep away in the distance. 

Reese River Station keeper and caretaker for the horses stabled adjacent the station located in the Great Basin of west central Nevada, was a heavyset man in his late fifties. Tough by any standard of a pioneer man, he was done with a lifetime of heavy labor: coal mining, stagecoach driver, wagon teamster, railroad track construction back east, and blacksmithing, content to have settled on a less demanding job; at least that was what he expected at the beginning.

Miles bent and placed one cup of coffee on the plank porch floor next to an empty straight back chair. He straightened and took a deep breath of the fresh air to fill his lungs, lifted the pocket watch on chain from his vest pocket and checked the time. Shortly, a young man walked up from the stables leading his horse, wearing an overcoat, broad rim hat, pistol holstered on his waist belt. 

Miles pointed at the coffee cup on the floor, “Slim, have yourself a last steaming cup of coffee before you make your run, the rider heading west from Dry Creek Station due any minute.” He pocketed his watch, took his coffee cup and stepped to a second straight back chair on the long narrow porch where he sat. 

Life for Miles had grown more challenging of recent. Not crippled, sometimes arthritic, he also suffered periodic lower back pain, a two or three day hindrance from an old injury he acquired while coal mining in West Virginia. The rider mail express station his home the past six months, he had risked hardship and even death, to take on the job of almost total isolation. March, seven months ago, he happened to meet William Russell, Alexander Majors, and William B. Waddell, three founders of the rider mail service they had begun in St. Joseph, Missouri. Learning Miles was a blacksmith’s helper at that time, Russell offered him a home station keeper job on the spot. Russell’s partners in agreement, he accepted without further thought, or consideration since the pay was appealing and the job sounded laidback, easy. 

But the combination of big and little tasks around the station Miles was responsible had been a surprise, and increasingly taxing on his aging body. And, there was stress from danger of Indian attack. His diet had suffered on occasion when supplies dwindled after the first three months employment. His shotgun always handy, he had scrounged on whatever critter passed near the station, even a wolf or coyote, but mostly plentiful rabbit he made into stews. And sometimes the riders would bring him a bottle or two of whiskey, and tin of chewing tobacco. But neither lasted long. When teamsters brought in a wagonload supply of horse feed, usually transported west from Missouri via the Missouri River, then delivered overland, he did receive replenishment goods that included whiskey and tobacco, items sometimes bountiful, sometimes skimpy. 

All in all, Miles enjoyed the company of a number of Pony Express riders when at first they housed with him in bunks in his spacious home station. And the riders warmed to him, some observing his health as of late becoming a detrimental factor, superiors soon learning of his condition and growing concerned for him. Consequently, and with no reduction in his pay, his home station status was transferred to Cold Springs Station, his changed to a relay station. 

The modest changes he grew accustomed. The young men, mostly teenage boys, now more than before, only appeared fleetingly, dashing in and speeding off, occasionally one hanging over an extra rider to keep him welcomed company. He was satisfied to stable less horses to care for, feed to haul, lighter stall cleanup, and the cabin easy to keep clean. Less human activity around him, the loneliness hadn’t totally dejected him. His workload lightened, he was beginning to heal, content the way things stood.

The lad accompanying Miles presently was an extra rider that accompanied the latest supply haul days earlier, he a fillin and the only other person he had associated in days in the wilderness. He had come to admire the lad helping him much to keep the horses fed and groomed and ready for incoming riders, recognized him as special, hardy. Yet, Miles worried the lad’s safety riding west to Cold Springs Station this day since news relayed him that Paiute Indians had up-risen and were a threat for pony riders and relay stations like his.

The lad, ‘Slim’ Marcus Jordan, had just turned sixteen years of age a month ago, August 23. The short gangly Montana youth a skilled cowpuncher turned Pony Express rider, replied, “Thanks, Miles, hot coffee will get me started mighty proper. It’s been a pleasure gettin’ to know you.”

“Me, too, Slim.”

At 5-foot, 6-inches, Slim Jordan weighed the maximum requirement for a mail express rider at 125 pounds. Nevertheless, he was physically and mentally tough, just what Russell, Majors, and Waddell necessitated in their riders, reliable to carry messages, newspapers, and mail in a service started by the three entrepreneurs April 3, just six months prior.

Slim was the lone rider at the way station awaiting his forthcoming ride from the Miles Crock relay station, within the fourth operating division, there being five total. He had hitched his horse to the hitch rail 6 feet away. Buster prime and ready, was a bay just over 14-hands and 9-hundred pounds, the maximum requirement for a mail service pony. 

Slim would take control of the incoming mochila immediately from the rider. He would drape the mochila over his saddle and guard it containing up to twenty pounds of mail with his life. Spanish for backpack, the mochila was a broad strip of leather with four padlocked corner pockets, that Israel Landis, operator of a leather shop in St. Joseph, was contracted by the service founders to assemble for the mail service. The mochila secured over his saddle, he would mount and sit atop it, gross weight not to exceed 165 pounds. Then he would gallop away to cover anywhere from 75 to 100 miles, riding day and night. In the event of an emergency occurred at a station he approached, he would divert and ride on to the next station on his route that might cover up to 20 hours in the saddle. Many riders would succeed him until the mail he carried ultimately reached Sacramento, California, the duration of its uninterrupted travel at 10 days, fast considering current modes of travel. 

Time to depart drew near. Slim stood. He checked the loads in his 1858 Army revolver, holstered it. 

Satisfied he was ready, he settled in his chair next to Miles, the keeper quiet and reading a recently published St. Joseph Gazette newspaper delivered him by a rider. The young rider sipped the remainder of his coffee while watching over the eastern horizon the emergence of a distant prairie dust cloud, realizing that Johnson W. Richardson, normally called ‘Billy’, one of the original pony riders, was fast approaching and running on time. Obviously, John had not encountered Indian or highwaymen during his 100-mile station-to-station run. He hoped for the same luck.

Several minutes elapsed until Billy Richardson drew to a halt in a cloud of dust, and dismounted. Tired, dusty head to boot, he took the mochila from his saddle and handed it to Slim, shook his hand. 

Slim the relay rider secured the mochila over his own saddle. Then he loaded a fresh water sack tying it with a thong to the pommel, not knowing but prepared should he face trouble in route caused by marauding Indians, even desperados, or an emergency at his first relay, Red Rock Station. Then he mounted, said goodbye, and galloped away.

No extended formalities transpired. Except for minor cordialities, not a minute was wasted. 

Miles yelled in Slim’s dusty wake, “The mail must get through, lad … ride like the wind blows.”

Johnson W. Richardson informed Miles after he had a bite and rested, he would need a fresh horse to ride back to Timber Creek Station in eastern Nevada. He would fill in for an injured lad there who had fallen from his horse tripping in a prairie dog hole and unable to ride for a spell. He took his fatigued mount to the stable, fed and groomed him, ate some rabbit stew, rested a couple hours, and then galloped away on a fresh horse.

***

The Northern Paiute Indian tribe joined forces with Shoshone and Bannock tribes against intruding settlers and conducted raids in their Nevada territory. Attacks were intense May through June 1960, and violence erupted sporadically thereafter. 

Slim Jordan had ridden twenty-five fast miles aboard Buster. The horses’ breath was becoming forced and loud. Heavily laden he needed to be refreshed, changed out at the upcoming Red Rock Station just over the next rise. 

As Slim approached the station ten miles from Cold Springs Station, he observed black smoke rising skyward over the incline that Buster labored to climb. At the summit, and separated by a deep gulch just beyond, he spotted a dozen Paiute Indians on ponies circling the station engulfed in flame. Noticing a man laying on the ground, obviously George Hendricks the keeper pierced by many arrows and some riders still shooting him, he spurred his mount, “We’re headed for Red Rock then Cold Springs Station, Buster … get up, the mail must get through.” 

The Indians spotted him atop the rise and silhouetted against the cloudless blue sky. Unable to cross the ravine since they had destroyed the timbered bridge crossing it designated for stagecoaches, heavy beams capsized and lying in the ditch, nevertheless, they took hot pursuit. 

Riding on the northern side of the ravine filled with craggy brush and boulder, Slim paralleled the marauding band, arrows flying ever close to him as the Indians made some progress. Seeing they had merely muskets as firearms, a good thing, he assumed they had expended loads when attacking the station. 

Sensing the urgency his rider demanded of him, spurs punching his ribs, Buster surged with renewed energy, power strides and hooves pounding. Fright and adrenalin drove him ever faster. 

Slim’s only hope lay in the fact the deep ravine separated him from his attackers. A crack shot, Slim fisted his revolver and fired. Slugs found their target, two half-naked Indians spraying blood and falling from their ponies. 

The ravine, a long trench in the earth, lasted miles before it tapered to an end, was the only thing to save Slim over the long stretch from Miles Crock relay station. The Indians finally recognized their futility, knowing the mail service rider was atop a fleet-footed horse and too far ahead nearing Cold Springs Station, where a sizable number of riders and support personnel would be on the ready and more than they could match man to man. Smaller stations easier targets and more to their liking, the Indian war party withdrew and vanished into the wilderness.

Slim covered another few miles, Buster holding on and refreshed at a stop from Slim’s water bag, he also. Arriving at Cold Springs Station, a young rider wearing buckskins met him, “Have a good ride?” The greeter asked.

“No, partner, had Injin trouble. They kilt keeper George Hendricks and burned Red Rock Station to tha ground.” 

Slim dismounted. As he dusted himself off, he explained his harrowing experience to assembling riders, and again to Norman Crawford the station keeper after he arrived late to the crowd, forewarning him of danger to Miles Crock. 

Crawford replied, “I know Major William Ormsby at Fort Churchill.I’ll send a rider immediately with a hand-written message to him, suggesting urgency he summon his militia of about a hundred men formed from Virginia City, Silver City, and Genoa and confront these tribal outbreaks, and also check on Miles Crock … if it ain’t too late.” 

Billy Tate, merely a boy and one of the greeters, introduced himself, then volunteered, “Slim, I’ll take good care of Buster lookin’ purty dang tired, will groom and feed him fer you in tha stable.”

Another lad stepped forward, “I’m Robert "Pony Bob" Haslam, Slim. I’ll give Billy a hand. Get your hide inside and snatch some grub, then crash in tha bunk.”

In the meantime, the young rider dressed in buckskins, had mounted his fresh horse after receiving the mochila in route. Before he departed, he reached down to shake Slim’s hand, “Slim, I’m glad you made it safely here, real proud you fought off those Injins. Like Pony Bob said, get yourself refreshed.”

“I will, you can be assured,” Slim replied. Then he asked, “Partner, I never caught your name.” 

“Bill Cody, see you around,” the fifteen-year-old rider bid Slim, his pony pawing the ground and restless to run. Young Cody removed his feathered hat and held it high, waved a farewell to everyone standing around and galloped away in a cloud of dust heading westward and into American history.

***

14 years old in 1860, Billy Tate was riding the Nevada Pony Express trail near Ruby Valley when a band of Paiute and Shoshone Indians chased him on horseback much as they had another courageous rider. Forced to retreat into the hills behind huge boulders, Billy killed seven Indians in a shoot-out before they riddled his body with arrows. Lifeless, not scalped, the Paiutes honored Billy, recalling another gallant rider escaping their pursuit, ‘Slim’ Marcus Jordan.

AUTHOR’S NOTE

‘Slim’ Marcus Jordan is a fictional character that I used to represent the character of brave young riders of the Pony Express. Support characters are also fictional, Miles Crock in particular demonstrating the responsibility of a station keeper. However, Johnson W. Richardson reputed to be the first Pony Express rider out of St. Joseph, Missouri, William ‘Bill’ Cody to become a world renowned Wild West showman, Robert "Pony Bob" Haslam a stalwart Pony Express rider, and Billy Tate of incredible bravery making the supreme sacrifice, were real and courageous Pony Express riders.

***

Following the gold rush of 1848 and influx thereafter of prospectors, investors, and businessmen into the new state of California, there existed an increased need for viable communication between the Golden State and the eastern United States. Consequently, entrepreneurs William Russell, Alexander Majors, and William B. Waddell founded The Pony Express jointly. The service operated by Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company, originated at the stables in St. Joseph, Missouri and the Missouri River to the B. F. Hastings building in Sacramento, California, the western terminus. Riders departed both locations on April 3, 1860, one heading west, with his pony fording the Missouri River by boat before riding onward, the other east. The first westbound delivery from Missouri arrived in Sacramento at 1:00 am on April 14, 1860. The service used fast horses and lean rawboned riders sworn to obedience and cleanliness rather than deliver mail by slower stagecoach. The riders’ route over established stagecoach lines covered approximately 1,900 miles in roughly ten days, following the Oregon, California Trails to Fort Bridger in Wyoming, then the Mormon Trail to Salt Lake City, Utah, the Central Nevada Route to Carson City, Nevada Territory, and then over the Sierra Nevada to Sacramento, California. 

The Pony Express never incorporated into the United States Mail Service, was nonetheless of financial importance to the nation during its nineteen-month existence, April 3, 1860, through October 24, 1861, when it went bankrupt. From previous modes of communication, tough young riders on fleet smaller horses making $100 a month – good pay at the time, in succession cut time carrying messages between the established east and pioneer west to become a major communication link for people and California before the advent of the transcontinental telegraph in late 1861. Though heavily funded, the Pony Express wasn’t financially successful and succumbed to the more efficient telegraph service newly installed nationwide.

In its short existence, the Pony Express was composed of roughly 184 to 190 stations (relay stations and home stations housing riders) ranging in mixed distances apart, 120 young riders, 400 horses, numerous oxen and wagons, abundant storage warehouses, and several hundred personnel, to establish itself a part of the folklore of the American west. It was a competent system of communication backed by reliable young riders, dedicated station keepers, and hardy fast horses well groomed and fed, to make its mark on American individualism of pioneer days. 

Today the United States Postal Service faces challenges and threats to its existence, political assault of late. Hence, Americans should reflect — look back to a prideful mail delivery service that also went its way long ago, a viable contribution to society during its short period of existence to hold as example for our present U. S. Postal Service installed at the nation’s infancy for all the good it affords the nation despite the rise of extenuating modes of communication, funding challenges, and random mishandling … history telltale and hopefully not to be repeated.

The Pony Express existed a mere 19 months. Short-lived yet impactful, and legendary, it made an indelible mark on American history and the nation’s growth, a symbol to cherish in our present time as much as ever.

‘The mail must get through!’

THE END


Submitted: October 15, 2020

© Copyright 2020 Virgil Dube. All rights reserved.

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