Gateway to the Classics: Buffalo Bill by Frank Lee Beals
Buffalo Bill by  Frank Lee Beals

The Pony Express

O NE night the Cody family were gathered around the fireplace of their little cabin. The girls were reading and Bill was lying on the floor staring into the flames of the fire. Now and then, Mrs. Cody looked up from her sewing and watched her son.

"Billy," she asked at last, "why are you so quiet tonight? Is it because you miss Dave?"

Bill nodded.

"We all miss him," said his mother gently. "Dave was a fine boy."

"I can't understand how he could live through that hard trip this winter, and then get sick here and die. I just can't believe it, Mother."

They were silent for a while. Then Bill said, "I am riding to Leavenworth tomorrow. I am going to sign up as a scout with Mr. Simpson's wagon train."

"But your leg, Billy," protested his mother, "you still limp when you walk. I wish you wouldn't go to work this spring."

"The spring rush won't begin for a month and by that time I will be all right, Mother," said Bill.

The following morning, Bill mounted Prince and rode to Leavenworth. The little river town was alive with the excitement of getting ready for the spring rush. River steamers and barges lined the levees. Laborers hurried up and down the gangplanks unloading the supplies that were soon to be shipped overland by wagon trains. The levee was covered with great piles of freight. Some of the piles of freight were covered with great sheets of canvas, and some of the supplies were being hauled to the warehouses and stores. Yokes of oxen, pulling heavily loaded wagons, made their way slowly through the muddy streets. Mules, horses, and cattle were being herded into huge corrals.

The streets were filled with people. Fur trappers and blanketed Indians, with their packs of furs, crowded the trading posts. Soldiers from the nearby fort laughed and talked with the scouts of the wagon trains. Wagon bosses carefully looked over the newly repaired wagons and signed up the men who were to go with their trains. Boys, eager to join a wagon train, listened to the talk of the scouts and old plainsmen. Settlers, going west to make new homes, were buying teams, wagons, and supplies of food and clothing. Many newcomers had discarded their Eastern clothes for frontier outfits, but it was easy to tell them from the men of the plains.

Bill rode directly to the office of Russell, Majors, & Waddell. He dismounted and tied Prince to a post.

"Hello, Bill," called Lew Simpson who was standing with a group of men nearby. "Did you come to sign up as scout with my train?"

Before Bill could answer, Frank McCarthy stepped forward and said, "The lad is going with my train."

"Bill is going with me," protested Simpson.

"I gave him his first job," broke in McCarthy. "He is going with me."

They were interrupted by Alec Majors. "I'll settle this argument," he laughed. "Bill Cody is not going with either of you. I have a special job for him. Come, Bill," he added, "I want to talk to you."

As Majors and Bill entered the building, Simpson said, "Majors wants Bill for that secret plan he has been working on this winter."

McCarthy nodded. "Yes, and it must be a job that calls for an expert rider and a crack shot, or Majors wouldn't have Bill Cody in mind for it."

Bill followed Majors into his office. When they were seated, Majors asked, "Bill, how would you like to be a pony express rider?"

"All right, I guess, Uncle Alec, but what is a pony express rider?"

"I'll explain it to you, Bill," began Majors. "Ever since the discovery of gold in California in 1849, people from the East and from everywhere have flocked to California. They believed that they would become rich in a few months and then would return to their old homes. Some of them did get rich quickly and some of them did return to their homes in the East. But most of the people did not get rich, and many of them decided to remain in the West and make new homes for their families.

"For several years, our firm has had a contract with the United States government to carry mail to and from California. Each year our stagecoaches have hauled millions of dollars worth of gold and other valuable express. Our men have done a splendid job. But now the people of California need and demand a faster mail service. We are going to give it to them.

"We have just made a new contract with the government to carry the mail between Sacramento, California and St. Joseph, Missouri where the railroad from the East has been completed. We have agreed that each trip will take only ten days."

"Ten days!" exclaimed Bill.

"Ten days!" repeated Majors.

"The stagecoaches can't make two thousand miles in ten days."

"You are right, Bill, but the pony express can do it."

Bill whistled. "I understand, Uncle Alec."

"Do you want to ride with the pony express?"

"Do I!" exclaimed Bill. "I certainly do."

"I knew you would," laughed Alec Majors.

"When do we start?"

"We expect to start the Overland Pony Express about the first of April."

"What about the stagecoaches?" asked Bill. "Will they still carry mail when the pony express begins?"

"Oh, yes," answered Majors. "You see, Bill, the pony express will carry only the most important mail. It will be too expensive for ordinary mail. The postage on even a single letter written on thin paper, if carried by the pony express, will cost five dollars."

"Why should it be so expensive?"

"A lot of people will ask that question," replied Majors. "The answer is that we must limit the amount of mail to be carried by each rider in order that his horse can keep up the necessary speed. To get the mail through in ten days will depend upon three things. It will depend upon the speed of the horses, the endurance of the riders, and the weight to be carried by the horses."

"That means we will have good horses."

"The very best!" exclaimed Majors, "and the fastest that money can buy. Some of them are full-blooded race horses from the East but most of them are sturdy, swift mustangs of the western plains. The speed of the horse is necessary to get the mail through on time. But it is also important because the life of the rider may often depend upon how fast he can get away from Indians or outlaws. I don't expect the riders of the pony express to shoot their way out of trouble. I expect them to outrun trouble and bring the mail through."

"We will do that, Uncle Alec."

"I am sure you will," agreed Majors. "We have hired the best horsemen in the West to become pony express riders. They are all young, light in weight, and fearless. You will be the youngest rider, but I believe that you can ride with the best of them."

"Thank you, Uncle Alec," smiled Bill. "This is a big undertaking, isn't it?"

"Yes," Majors answered slowly. "It is the biggest job I ever hope to do. And it will all be over in about two years."

"Why?" questioned Bill.

"When the telegraph lines are completed, there will be no further need for the pony express," answered Majors. "The line from the East has already been completed to St. Joseph and the line from the West is now being built. When the line is completed between the East and the West, the days of the pony express will be over. But in the meantime, the pony express will operate over a two-thousand-mile trail. The trail will cross the rolling plains, the deserts, and two high mountain ranges."

"Will the pony express have relay stations and 'home stations' and be divided into sections like the stagecoach lines?"

"Yes, we have a hundred and ninety stations about fifteen miles apart all along the trail for the pony express riders. Each relay station will have a station agent who will take care of the horses. At the home stations the pony express riders will eat and sleep. Each section will be in charge of a section boss. He will be responsible for the stations and the riders of his section.

"You will be stationed at Julesburg on the trail to Fort Laramie. Your section is called the 'Sweetwater' section. A rider will bring the mail from the east to Julesburg and you will take it on west for fifty miles. There are three relay stations on your route where you will stop to get fresh horses. At the last station you will meet the rider bringing the mail from the west. You will exchange mail with him and then ride back to Julesburg."

"How will we carry the mail?"

"We have had a special saddlebag made for the pony express mail called a 'mochila,' " answered Majors. "It is a wide strip of leather which fits over a very light saddle. The mochila has a pocket in each of the four corners. Three pockets will carry the through mail for California and the fourth will carry the local mail for the stations along the trail."

"When shall I report for duty?"

"Simpson is leaving for Fort Laramie with a wagon train next week. You are to ride with him. You will report to Alf Slade at Julesburg. He is the section boss of the Sweetwater section, and he will give you your orders."

"I will carry out his orders." Bill drew himself up to his full height. "You can count on me, Uncle Alec. Riding for the pony express sounds to me as though it will be mighty exciting."

"Yes, but it will be hard work. Two years ago you came to me and asked for a man's job with a wagon train," smiled Majors, "and you proved that you could do a man's job. That's why I am giving you this new job as pony express rider." Majors held out his hand. "Remember, Bill, here is a real chance to match yourself with the bravest men of the West. Good-by and good luck. If you see Simpson and McCarthy tell them that I want to see them."

"I'll tell them, Uncle Alec. Thanks again for the job. I'll be in Julesburg by April first and I'll try to be one of the best riders on the pony express."

1. Why was Leavenworth a busy city in the spring?

2. Tell about Alec Majors' secret plan.

3. Why did he want Bill on this new job?

4. How long did Majors say this new job would last? Why?

5. What was a mochila?

6. Where was Bill to report for duty?

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