Pony Express: Bigger than life by Bob Sanders

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There are some historical and military groups that just have something special about them. They’re no more heroic than the grunts in foxholes or the waist gunners in a B-24 at 25,000 feet; but there’s a certain aura about them, a panache …

Here’s an example: The Pony Express. It didn’t last very long, about 18 months, before the telegraph from coast to coast came into being.

The facts are on Google. You can look them up. To me, the Pony Express was more than just statistics, but here they are, anyway: 80 riders (at any one time), 400 horses, 184 stations, and about four hundred additional people … all ready to go, that April 3 of 1860.

The biggest statistic, of course, was: 2,000 miles from St. Joseph, Mo., to Sacramento, Calif., over plains and deserts and mountains and streams …

Think of the hiring of riders – they had to be small, jockey-type, men and boys. You wouldn’t want Hoss Cartright as a Pony Express rider. The horses had to be the very fastest and tireless mounts available.

And even with expert riders and fine horses, there was always the possibility of a broken leg, out there in the desert, with no AAA to call. There may have still been a few angry Indians around, too.

What an adventure!

I couldn’t have been a rider. I never learned to ride a horse or mule – I mean, in a saddle. I rode hundreds of miles, bareback, to and from whatever field we might be plowing in that day.

Sometimes I’d throw a tow sack on her and ride around the community with some other boys on a Sunday afternoon. Ol’ Hat had one glaring weakness: she wouldn’t jump even the smallest ditch. You’d think, this time I believe she will … and she’d come to a screeching stop just when she should have been jumping … and I would continue on the way we were headed.

Now, Grandpa Sanders did have some tales to tell. He was a horseback mail carrier over a pretty good area. Here’s the story he told me many times, at my insistence: “One more time, Grandpa. One more time,” as I sat by his rocker. I’d catch the slightest deviation and correct him.

He was headed home after a long mail route, about dark, coming through Yellow Creek valley, up around Blowhorn. He’d heard this panther (also known as painter, cougar, mountain lion, pima, cat-o-mount – all the same animal) scream. Sounded like a woman screaming, he said.

He mocked it, imitated it. Next time, the screamer was a little nearer.  Grandpa answered it again.

The next time, the panther was very near.

Grandpa pulled off his hat, hit his mare with it, and said those immortal words: “Take me away from here, Nance.”

Oh, boy! Tell it again, Grandpa.

And I had a little mail-carrying adventure one time. When things were looser – I don’t guess I could now – I rode Route One with Uncle Kelley, who was a substitute carrier.

The little creek just past the McNeese place was flooded, not deep, but spread out pretty wide. We got about halfway across and the flat head engine in the little Plymouth flooded out. The fan was slinging water back onto the spark plugs, and they weren’t sparking the way they should have been.

Hmmm. One of my rare moments of genius: I carefully wiped off the spark plugs. Then I found an empty cardboard box and placed it over the spark plugs … and we motored happily along or way.

I think Uncle Kelley respected me more after that. A Pony Express rider couldn’t have handled  the situation any better.

Bob Sanders is a veteran local radio personality, columnist, author and raconteur of note. He can be reached at bobbypsanders@netscape.com 

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