Alden the Pony Express Rider/Chapter 14
AN ALARMING SITUATION
MEANWHILE Alden Payne had entered upon the most stirring experience of his life.
In a twinkling, as may be said, he was transformed from an emigrant plodding his way across the continent to a Pony Express Rider, whose sole effort was to skim over the dangerous ground at the topmost speed to which his swift pony could be forced. “Get ahead in spite of everything,” was the motto of those daring fellows.
It was a sudden impulse that led the youth to make this perilous venture, but it is almost certain that, had he been given hours in which to consider the plan, he would have done precisely what he did do.
It is in the momentous crises of a person’s career that he often becomes sensible to trifles which would pass unnoticed at other times. The moment Alden set off with the small rifle of the stricken rider grasped in his left hand and the reins held loosely in his right, he noticed several things. He knew he was twenty or thirty pounds heavier than Dick Lightfoot. The saddle, although of the same kind as his own, still felt a little different. The stirrup straps were an inch or two shorter than those to which he was accustomed, but he decided to waste no time in shifting the buckles. The rifle was lighter than his weapon, for we know those men sacrificed everything possible to gain lightness. If an anxious correspondent offered a big price to the carrier to accept a thin missive after the pouch had been made up, he was refused and obliged to wait for the next messenger.
The riders of course used spurs though they were not often necessary. The animal knew what was expected of him and gave it willingly. Covered with foam and dust, with his sides heaving, he thundered up to the station where rest was awaiting him, after which he was ready to bound away on the wings of the wind again. Often his master passed through the most frightful perils without shouting a a command to his pony. A pressure of the knee, the gentlest pull on the rein, or perhaps a soft exclamation was enough: he obeyed with unerring instinct. As Dick Lightfoot declared, the animals came to know the routes better than their riders. When Theodore Rand covered the 110 miles between Box Elder and Julesburg, he always did it by night.
It made no difference whether the sun was shining overhead or the stars twinkled faintly or not at all. The rain might descend in torrents, hail, snow and sleet might batter horse and rider like fine birdshot, and the temperature might drop below zero, or throb with heat, still rider and horse who were like one creature must plunge on and ever on, so long as muscle and nerve could stand the terrific strain. 
Now Alden Payne would not have had a tithe of the sense with which we have credited him all along, if he had forgotten for one moment the peril which he faced from the moment he came up with the inanimate form of Dick Lightfoot. The turning back of Jethro Alix, and the shift from one saddle to the other had taken only two or three minutes. In the mean time, if there was any danger of thoughtlessness, it was removed by the sight of that feathered shaft protruding from the back of the poor fellow who lay on the flinty earth.
The reasonable supposition was that the redskin who had discharged the missile was in a position to drive others with equal deadliness and that he would do so. In all probability there were more than one of them. Why the African youth was permitted to ride away unmolested, and Alden Payne to climb into the saddle without harm would be hard to explain, but such was the fact.
Alden kept looking across the gorge and at all the points from which a missile might come. He saw nothing which was not strange, but before he could give the word to Dick an arrow whizzed in front of his face so close that he blinked. Rather curiously the emotion roused by this occurrence was that of flaming rage. We know Alden had a quick temper. Had it been otherwise, he would not have dared to do what he did the next minute.When he glanced across the ravine, he saw his man, or rather two men. The warriors had risen from behind an immense rock, the head and shoulders of one showing while the other stood fully revealed in the open. It looked as if he despised the youth and was challenging him to do his worst.
That one quick glance showed Alden that the redskin thus exposed was fitting another arrow to the string of his bow. His companion seemed to be acting the part of spectator.
“Two can play at that game!” muttered Alden, bringing the rifle of Dick Light foot to his shoulder and sighting at the miscreant. He had noticed the straggling black hair of his foe, which dangled about his shoulders, his naked chest and deerskin shirt. He was of squat form, sturdy and enduring of frame, and a foe not to be despised by anyone.
Thus it came about that he and Alden Payne were aiming at each other at the same moment. That which followed was unprecedented in its way. The youth pulled trigger an instant before the other let fly. Had Alden possessed his own gun, he would have brought down the redskin, for the distance was not great, and we remember he was a fine marksman, but the new weapon did not feel precisely like the one to which he was accustomed. The two had not become fitted to each other.
As it was, the bullet struck the forearm of the Indian and inflicted a sharp wound. It was the arm which was grasping the middle of the bow, and the hurt caused an involuntary twitch that spoiled the aim of the archer. The arrow, instead of speeding straight for the heart of the youth, whizzed high in air, circled grotesquely over and struck a rock fifty feet away from him. It was a lucky escape, and Alden lost not a second in taking advantage of it.
Throwing his head forward on the neck of his pony, he yanked the reins and called:
“Go it, old fellow!”
The creature understood. He leaped twenty feet, as if he had been hurled from a springboard and away he sped.
It is more than probable that the second Indian launched an arrow after the skurrying horseman, though Alden Payne had no means of knowing. A grim fancy came to the youth that if his enemy had done so, the pony outran the missile.
A brief dash carried Alden beyond sight of his enemies, though he was likely to encounter others. He partly straightened up in his saddle and looked to the right and left. With relief unspeakable, he suddenly debouched from the broad gorge he had been following, into a wide plateau. On the right, it wound to the foothills a long distance away and stretched as far as the vision could reach to the left. Some three or four miles straight ahead, the comparatively level plain swept until it entered the hills again, beyond which could be seen the snowy peaks of a lofty mountain range.
The plateau must not be looked upon as a smooth plain, for here and there it took a rolling form with arroyas and occasionally boulders that had to be skirted, but, compared with most of the country to the rear, it was an ideal course for a horse and his rider.
And how the pony did go! With a snort he flirted his head, as if he would shake off everything that held him back as easily as he blew aside the fleck of foam that alighted like a snowflake on the knee of his rider. With nose outstretched, mane and tail flying, and the play of each muscle like the working of a splendid machine, he flung the miles to the rear with a rapidity that was almost incredible. Almost in the same instant that the pony’s hoofs hit the plateau, the graceful limbs struck an astounding speed. Alden had no means of knowing the rate attained, but it must have been twenty-five miles an hour. It seemed more than bone and muscle could hold, and yet such was the animal’s perfection of form that he showed no apparent increase of effort. The still air was fanned into a gale which cut the face of the rider and made him contract his eyelashes and catch his breath. He did not try to restrain the peerless steed, for the animal, not Alden, was now the master.
“I can understand what poor Dick Lightfoot meant when he said he enjoyed this life more than anything else in the world,” thought Alden as his blood danced. “What delight this would be if the pony could keep it up for hours.”
And he would have done it had the ground continued favorable. It was through such seizure of chances that the wonderful system of the Pony Express Riders amazed the country throughout the months the service lasted, until the telegraph and afterward the railway put it out of business.
Alden kept up the policy of leaving everything to the pony. The reins dangled loose upon the moist satin neck, and the rider did not speak. Looking down at the stony ground he now and then caught glimpses of hoof prints, showing that others had traveled the way before him. Generally the path as it might be called was so wide that only now and then did the ponies travel in one another’s footsteps.
Alden reflected that the distance from his starting point to the next station westward was eight miles or so. He calculated that it would be covered in the course of the next half hour, always provided no “obstacle” was encountered.
“No matter how fast we go, this mail must be late; there is no making up the time already lost.”
Obeying that instinct which often touches reason in the horse, Dick slackened his speed of his own accord, as he approached the boundary of the plateau where the ground not only became rougher but inclined upward at a rather stiff grade. Still his gait was a run, and swifter than is often seen. So long as he could maintain it he would do so.
The long summer afternoon was drawing to a close, but Alden ought to reach the station well before sunset. As he figured it he would change horses there, cover another run of about a dozen miles, change again and complete his task at a point something over thirty miles from where Dick Lightfoot had begun it.
This was on the supposition that the men connected with the service would permit the youth to finish the task he had voluntarily taken upon himself. It would seem that they would forbid the innovation, when all the circumstances are remembered, but that remained to be seen. Sufficient unto the hour was the work before him.
With the slackening of pace, Alden scanned the ground in front. The course did not lead between cliffs and high precipices, as was the case where he began his journey, but it was as if the same plateau had taken an upward slope and gained many more boulders and masses of rock in doing so. A horse might keep straight on or swerve to the right or left. There seemed to be any number of routes.
For the first time the youth interfered with the pace of his animal. Certain that he would exhaust himself by running up the slope, Alden pulled gently on the rein. The pony flirted his head impatiently and refused to put on the brakes.
“Your nerve will kill you,” said the rider, resigning the attempt for the moment.
The incline grew steeper. Alden pulled harder and the pony dropped to a walk, but plainly he did not like it.
“No use, Dick; I shan’t let you kill yourself; you forget that I’m heavier than your late master and it is cruelty to allow you to gallop up hill.”
The rocks became so plentiful that the rider could not see far ahead or on either hand. He reflected that the neighborhood must be a tempting one to redskins or road agents, for the latter class of criminals was one of the pests of overland travel in the early days.
Less than half a mile to the left and in advance, rose a range or spur to the height of several hundred feet. It swept round to the northward, so that if the rider kept straight on, he must cross it, or make a long detour to the northeast.
With Dick on a walk, Alden scanned each point of the compass, not forgetting the instruction of Shagbark always to look to the rear, for in that part of the world, danger comes from one direction as often as from the other.
While scrutinizing the ridge which showed a considerable growth of dwarfed pine, Alden was startled to observe a thin column of smoke issuing from a point on the crest. The bluish vapor climbed straight up into the clear sky, where it slowly dissolved. Its course showed that not the slightest breeze was blowing.
“It looks like an Indian signal,” he thought; “I wonder if it has anything to do with me.”
He brought his binocular to the front and raised it to his eyes. Little resulted from the action. The fire which caused the vapor was burning behind a rock, beyond reach of the glass. He could not catch the faintest sight of it.
The natural supposition was that if this finger of smoke was a signal from one party of red men to another, something would show in the nature of a reply. He swept every point of the horizon with the instrument, but that which he dreaded to see he did not discover. Still this fact might signify nothing.
Alden could not rid himself of the fear that the signal referred to him. Its precise meaning was beyond guessing. Shagbark might have solved the puzzle, but his young friend could not.
“There may be a party of Indians camping on my trail and this is to let them know where they will find me. Perhaps it tells them they needn’t bother, for those in front have fixed things so as to gather me in; or possibly—but what’s the use?” he demanded impatiently, realizing that it was worse than useless to launch out upon such a sea of speculation.
The pony showed a wish to resume his gallop, even though the incline continued, but his rider would not permit.
“I may be wrong,” he reflected, “but I’m too merciful—”
To his amazement, Dick at that moment suddenly came to a full stop. Not only that, but he threw up his head, thrust his ears forward and snorted. He had made some alarming discovery. What could it be?
The startled Alden glanced ahead. The rocks and boulders still cut off his view, and he could not see clearly for a hundred yards in any direction.
The signs of alarm on the part of the pony increased. He snorted louder and began backing, showing an inclination to whirl about and dash off. Alden patted his neck and spoke soothingly, but could not quiet him.
“He knows a good deal more than I do,” said the youth to himself.
Then, yielding to an impulse natural in the circumstances, Alden deftly slipped from the saddle and ran a few paces to the nearest rock behind which he crouched. The pony thus relieved of his burden, swung around as if on a pivot and dashed toward the plateau.
“He scented a party of Indians; they will be here in a minute or two. Heavens! how came I to overlook it?”
The exclamation was caused by the discovery that after firing at the dusky archer in the ravine, he had neglected to reload his rifle, a piece of forgetfulness for which Shagbark never would have forgiven him.
Alden drew a bullet from his pouch with which to repair the blunder, and then when he tried to force it down the muzzle, he made a terrifying discovery. He had failed to take the pouch from the body of Dick Lightfoot. His own bullets were too large for the bore of the smaller weapon, which was of no more use to him than a stick of wood!
- One of the Express Riders made the run from St. Joe to Denver, 625 miles, in two days and twenty-one hours. Within five miles of Guittard’s Station, Will Bolton’s horse was disabled. He abandoned the animal and with the mail pouches slung over his shoulder, trotted to the next station, remounted and completed his run with only a small loss of time. J. H. Keetley, now a prosperous merchant of Salt Lake City, was an Express Rider from the opening to the close of the service. He once rode 300 miles in twenty-four hours, stopping only to change horses. Robert Haslam, remembered through the West as “Pony Bob,” is a genial, prosperous citizen of Chicago, associated in the management of the Congress Hall organization. In his younger days he performed many astonishing feats as an Express Rider. He was twice wounded by Indians, made the speediest 190 miles on record, and for six months covered daily the run between Reno, Nevada, and Virginia City, a distance of twenty-three miles, well within an hour. He used fifteen horses on each run. How those old timers could ride and if necessary fight! I add the following extract from an interesting letter received by me from Mr. Haslam;
“Chicago, Dec. 28, 1908.
“Very few of the old Pony Express Riders ever carried a rifle of any description from start to finish. I once purchased a Spencer from a deserter from Fort Bridger, paying him $20. This was in 1861. The weapon was a breech-loader with seven shots. I always carried a Colt’s revolver with two cylinders, and often had to use both of them. I made sure that the pistol was fully loaded when I started. Caps were employed, and the revolver was loaded by means of a ramrod attached to it. After the Spencer came the Sharp, seven-shooter, repeating breech-loader with cartridges. My Spencer weighed about seven and a half pounds, but I never used it on the Express. When I was messenger from Salt Lake to Denver in the service of Wells Fargo & Co. I carried a short double-barreled shotgun with buckshot and later a Winchester 16-shooter. When in the government service in Porto Rico and the Philippines, all the weapon I carried was a Colt’s improved double action revolver.”