This indignity hits me like a rattler between the eyes — I am going to be towed across the prairie. The two horses nuzzle one another in consolation over the greenhorn who has now graced both of their backs.
“They’re best friends,” says Achacoso, 42, a four-year veteran of the ride. “At least, I hope they are.”
Tethered to Blue, I begin to relax and Whisper falls into a steady trot. As my heart finally slows, I realize I am so thirsty that it feels like I swallowed a fistful of flour.
“I wonder if the riders carried water,” I say. “No, they didn’t,” Achacoso answers. “They got water and supplies at the way station. But if Indians burned it down and killed everyone, they’d have to keep going another 10 to 15 miles and hope someone was alive at the next station.”
When we reach the hanging tree in Willow Springs, I dismount, more than happy to pass the mochila to the next rider. James Fairbourn, a Utah book conservationist who witnessed my humiliation while driving his horse trailer, offers some comfort.
“At least you didn’t scream,” he says. “That’s the No. 1 rule of horsemanship: Don’t scream. It scares the horse.”
It’s near 9 p.m., and we’ve been on the road since 5:30 this morning. Only a devoted core of riders remains, all weary from the journey. As ride captain, Jensen has the honor of making the last trip of the day. A new group will carry the mochila in the morning.
Jensen waits for the approaching rider in the parking lot of Casper’s National Historic Trail Center, where a large group of townsfolk have gathered. The orange sun has begun to fade, draping the hills in a soft veil of light. The thunder of hooves signals an approaching rider, who arrives to cheers. Once the mail pouch is transferred to Jensen’s horse, he kicks its flanks and yells, “Yah!” He gallops down the hill, past a ball field, a hotel and a gas station before merging onto a thread of the old trail. I watch him disappear into the night — a man, a horse and the mail.
KATHLEEN PARRISH is a freelance writer in Bethlehem, Pa. Though she’s decided to hang up her cowboy boots for good, her awe of the riders’ courage and commitment to duty remains.
Facts and figures about the Pony Express. — K.P.
- Riders traveled at an average speed of 10 miles per hour.
- It took about 25 riders and 150 horses 10 days to travel from Missouri to California.
- The fastest delivery was Lincoln’s Inaugural Address, which took 7.5 days.
- The Pony Express was founded by William H. Russell, Alexander Majors and William B. Waddell, owners of a stage and freight company.
- In the 19 months of its existence, the Pony Express carried 34,753 pieces of mail over enough miles to circle the globe 24 times.
- Letters started at $5 per half-ounce, the equivalent of $75 today — too expensive for personal notes. Most correspondences were business documents and news updates.
- At its peak, the Pony Express had 400 to 500 horses and 80 riders.