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Timeless Stories of the Not-So-Modern World
By CHARLES E. JONES
iUniverse LLCCopyright © 2014 Charles E. Jones
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The Pony Express Rider
The wind swept across the open plain and the clouds hung low in the east. Wiley Barnett was worried. The east bound rider's horn had sounded, and he was only minutes away, but where was Donny, the west bound rider? Generally they met at this swing station within minutes of each other, and there was no sign of him. The sign over the doorway to the line riders shack read "Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company" and the time was July 1860, four months after the forming of the Pony Express and nine months prior to the start of the Civil War in April 1861. The business had been founded by three men: William Russell, Alexander Majors and William Waddell, who had been in the freighting business since the late 1850s. With California's newfound prominence, it's rapidly growing population prompted by the gold rush in 1848, and it's statehood in 1850, had created a demand for faster communications to this western most of the states.
The proposal was to establish fast mail service between St. Joseph, Missouri and Sacramento, California with a letter delivered within ten days at a price of five dollars a half ounce.
The undertaking involved 120 riders, 184 stations, 400 horses, and several hundred other personnel.
The east bound rider swept in through the corral, swiftly dismounted, and along with his mail pouch, called a "mochila", quickly leapt onto the awaiting horse. The mochila was draped over the saddle and held in place by the rider sitting on it. Each corner of the of the device had a "cantina" or pocket where the bundles of mail were stored in the padlocked pockets. The weight of this apparatus with the added equipment of a revolver, water sack, and horn for alerting the relay station master was limited to twenty pounds.
Wiley was worried. The west bound rider should have been here by now. It was unusual for a rider to be late unless something unexpected happened as it sometimes did out on the plains. He could not send a man to check on his missing rider. He had no one to send. The personnel at the station were there to care for the horses and prepare them to be ready to ride. Donny Wells would just have to take care of himself.
* * *
Well! There I was galloping west at full speed on the open plane heading to the next swing station. It would be many hours before I reached a home station where I could expect a decent meal, or at least something better than what I was accustomed to at the orphanage. I hated that place, no one wanted a young boy approaching eighteen unless it was to do manual labor. I had slipped out unseen one afternoon and headed into town and where I saw the sign:
Young skinny wiry fellows, not over eighteen.
Must be expert riders and willing risk death daily.
Young skinny wiry fellows, not over eighteen. Must be expert riders and willing risk death daily. Orphans Preferred
It seemed a perfect opportunity to escape from the drudgery I had endured since early childhood. I might have left earlier but the opportunity to be adopted arose occasionally, except something always seemed to spoil my chances to leave. Mostly because I was short and small and not too useful for heavy work. Three weeks ago I was out that door and I immediately signed up for the amazing wages of five dollars a week, when most other boys were lucky to get a dollar. No one asked any questions. They weighed all one hundred pounds of me and said come back in the morning ready to ride. I waited out the night and here I am.
The horse is small compared to the average, only fourteen and half hands high, a little under five feet, making them easy to mount and ride on the run. No one even asked if I knew how to ride, maybe no one even cared. The horse was fast and we went full out for the entire ten miles between each swing station. The home stations, some of which were military forts, were seventy-five miles apart and that was where the food was. My riding experience had come earlier in my life when for a brief period I had been part of a circus. That had been a wild time and the first time I had experienced a real woman. I was a boy and she was a real woman. You never forget your first time. It was there I also learned how to mount and dismount at a full gallop without hurting myself. At the swing stations you had to leap off one horse and catapult into the saddle of the waiting one, and if you did not do it right it could be very painful. Loading the mail pouch, or mochila, as it was called over the saddle horn also took skill. The first time I tried I threw it over the saddle onto the ground. The station master threw it back at me with a growl
At the last swing station the wrangler had yelled, "Watch out for those Paiute's, they are on the war path. They have killed some settlers and burned a station." I hardly had time to think let alone time to acknowledge the warning.
On the plains there was little place to hide. The terrain was open, sometimes grassy, sometimes sloping, sometimes full of prairie dog holes, and sometimes covered with loose sand, gravel and rocks. The horizon was clear except for a few clouds and something similar to smoke in the far reaches of my vision. I wondered what was causing the haze but dismissed it. The horse speed on. There was no time to speculate on phantoms beyond my immediate surroundings. You had to keep your mind on the horse and how he was responding to the land. One miss step and calamity was your fate. And then it happened!
I found myself going over the horses head, head first. It happened so fast I could hardly think. In an instant the ground rushed at me and I tried to roll and keep the mail pouch from trapping my legs in the saddle. I had to get my legs free and somehow roll away from the animal. Small as he was, if I fell under him I could expect something to break. I hit the ground with a thump, then a bump, then a crunch, and then a sloshing sound I could not identify. I lay there stunned. My head had hit a soft spot in the grassy soil and I saw stars instantly. I rolled on my back and laid there. How long a time I did not count. "What the hell had happened?"
Finally my head cleared and I assured myself nothing was broken I raised up, looked about, and there was the horse laying on the ground about a hundred feet from me. He was withering, shaking, whining and panting.
I gathered myself up and moved over to him. It was easy to see he had broken a front leg. Probably stepped into soft spot or a hole in the soil. The horse unfortunately was done for. I gathered up the mochila, took out the colt 44 dragoon revolver and regrettably placed the barrel against his head and did what had to be done. The worse thing that could happen on the prairie was loose your horse, and I had just lost mine. What a great way to start my day.
Still aching from being thrown, I sat down and took a close look around. The landscape soared off into the distance towards infinity. There was little cover and the sun was near it's zenith, but fortunately I had a hat, a water sack and the revolver. There was nothing I could do for the horse, he would just have to lay there for the birds or other creatures to dispose of. I thought of the saddle but decided since I had a long way to walk, the mail pouch, the water and revolver were the only things worth taking. In the distance I could still see the gray smoky haze and that worried me. What could be causing that mirage? It had to be something real, not a phantom. Then I remembered the warning about the Indians. Just what I needed. Things were really going great. What next?
There was the chance the east bound rider would see me as he rode my route in reverse. However, he would not stop and could only pass the word at the swing station I had just left. Those were the rules. I had traveled about three miles when the horse went down so I still had seven miles to walk and carrying a twenty pound load was not going to make it any easier. I gathered up the gear and started out. The heat was becoming intolerable, the burrs in the grassy field clung to my trousers and I was glad I wasn't wearing chaps like I did sometimes in the circus. After about half an hour I started looking about for a sheltered place to hole up, but there wasn't any. So I just sat down and piled the gear at my feet. In this heat I wasn't going very far, very fast. What to do?
The gray cloud in the distance started to take shape. Indians! They were riding towards me with a big fellow in front. It was probably the gun shot sound that had alerted them. Where to hide? Forget it! There were at least six of them. From this angle they were hard to count nor was I about to challenge them. They probably had already killed some people and I wanted none of that. Personally I did not have anything against them and I hoped they would feel the same way. Hopefully they were on the range looking for food. The past winter had been a bad one for the Paiute's and had left them starving. They also wanted horses. That brought to mind my dead one now on the trail only about a mile behind me. In this short a time the carcass probably had not been badly, if at all, mutilated and the Indians being used to quartering live stock on the open plains were not likely to pass up the a fresh corpse once they had seen it.
I lay there as close to the ground as I could and, as expected, they headed my way. The leader rose up on his horses back, pointed to a space behind me and they all followed him in that direction. I could now count eight of them. I thought maybe they would go around me but no such luck. One of the trailing members gave a shout and the others stopped. The leader came back and realized what they had seen was me. I hugged the ground but it did no good. In seconds they surrounded me. I decided to sit on the revolver, no sense in alarming them. The leader pointed to four of them and motioned toward the dead horse and they rode off. The others gathered in a circle around me. I sat there waiting. The leader again addressed the group and they began discussing something. Their voices sounded like a combination between a growling and moaning emphasized with sign language. Shortly two more of the Indians speed off to join the other four now retrieving the dead horse. The leader and his companion moved a short distance away, their eyes never leaving me.
I thought of saying something to them, but first I did not know what to say, and second, I did not know the language so I just kept my mouth shut. At barely eighteen I did not want my life to end here. I sat there with the pistol now cutting into my behind but I dared not move. Both of my captors were armed with bows, arrows and rifles. Not a very good odds at two to one. Best to keep quiet and just wait it out.
In truth, it had been too hot to travel anyway so waiting was not costing me anything. I wondered where the east bound rider was. Maybe he saw the hunting party and skirted around them. The foragers seemed so busy carving up the carcass they were not interested in who else was on the range with them. Especially since their obvious threat had been apprehended.
Over an hour passed and the other six riders rode back to meet my two guards. They had what appeared to be a small travois like carrier on which quartered horses body lay. There followed more talk and gestures between them and the leader. It was apparent the discussion was on what to do with me. There were several gestures and motions in my direction and some very disgusted looks. The leader was being doubted and in the end he asserted himself.
Dismissing the others with a wave of his hand, he pointed at me he then pointed westward. He repeated the gesture a second time. I shrugged my shoulders and he again repeated the gesture. Then he swung his horse sideways, gave a shout, the party gathered about him and they all rode off to the north.
I sat there in disbelief. I could only assume since they had acquired the horses meat and hide they had traded my life for the prize. Either way I wasn't going to argue. The sun was now lower in the western sky and the temperatures were beginning to fall. I still had seven miles to go to reach the swing station. It would probably be after dark before I got there. Gathering up my gear I started walking.
Later that evening, Wiley Barnett, was relieved to see young Donny Wells stagger into the station. He looked questioningly at Donny who only shook his head and headed for the waiting horse.
He mounted up and headed out. Barnett could only guess what had happened. Something certainly had happened to the horse, but what?
It wasn't until a day later when a passing Army patrol told him of running off a Paiute raiding party with a half butchered horses carcass, that he surmised was what had happened to Donny's horse. The land was rough and a speeding horse could easily step into, or onto, something causing a broken limb. It happened more often than anticipated.
* * *
Years later Donald Wells often wondered why he was so lucky that fateful day on the high plains in 1860. Why the Indians did not scalp him as they had with so many others he would never really know. Perhaps they traded his life for the horse's meat. He felt nothing against them then, and nothing against them now. He did feel they were greatly misunderstood and abused, especially by his own government. However, he did not think about it often, and really, inside, he really did not care. He had survived. In a little over a year the job was over on October 26, 1861. That was two days after the completion of the transcontinental telegraph line connecting Nebraska with California. The Indians had also been temporarily subdued and the Civil War had commenced in on April 13, 1861.
During it's existence the Pony Express had grossed $90,000 and lost $200,000. In 1866 about a year after the Civil War was over and three years before the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 the Pony Express was sold by Holladay to Wells Fargo for 1.5 million along with the assets of the Butterfield Stage. Holladay had taken over the Russell, Majors and Waddell stations for his stagecoaches after the contract had been awarded to Jeffery Dehut and the favored Butterfield Overland Mail Stage Line.
As for Donald Wells, the boy on horseback who had cheated death, once his days with the "Express" were over he wandered west to California. Later, through some highly speculative, but legitimate, railroad business deals he became one of San Francisco's wealthiest men.CHAPTER 2
Waiting for the Sunrise
Africa in the thirties had been a strange, wild, beautiful untamed land and I often wondered what had brought Beth and I to this place. It certainly was not the money, the job as a researcher paid little, and we both certainly did not think of ourselves as adventurers. We had come out from England shortly after acquiring degrees at state run colleges, not the famous Oxford or Cambridge, just public schools provided for those intelligent enough to master the curriculum. Jobs were scarce in 1937, and we both found ourselves accepting entry level positions with the London Historical Society who posted us to Salisbury in what was then Rhodesia in central Africa. Unexpectedly, I found myself in charge of a small expedition to observe and record the breeding and migration habits of the animals who inhabited the countries high central plateau.
The country had been formed in 1895 when the British South Africa company had coined the title "Rhodesia" in the days when Cecil Rhodes had been the companies Managing Director. Salisbury (present day Harare) was founded earlier in 1890, and named for the Third Marquis of Salisbury, who was then the British Prime Minister.
I shook my head as I addressed Wallace Benson, the Society's administrator in Rhodesia. "Are you sure you want to do this, put me in charge? Surely there is someone else with more experience. I just arrived, I do not know the country, the terrain, the animals or the people. I would like to gain some experience first before actually leading an expedition into the interior."
Excerpted from Timeless Stories of the Not-So-Modern World by CHARLES E. JONES. Copyright © 2014 Charles E. Jones. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse LLC.
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