BEANERY ONLINE LITERARY MAGAZINE
HISTORY RERIDDEN: THE PONY EXPRESS
Ronald J. Shafer
The morning sun still hung low in the sky as the Chevy pickup pulled into the parking area, where a small sign read “Pony Express Stop.” Rider 278 looked at one of the spaces near the front, then remembered the trailer he towed. He eased the truck and trailer onto the grass at the edge of the lot, walked to the back of the trailer, and lowered the ramp, before glancing toward the intersection of routes 30 and 981. Not many cars on the road today, he thought, running a hand through his blond hair. Maybe folks are celebrating the Fourth of July a day early.
He walked inside, talked to his horse and patted the pinto before backing the animal down the ramp. As usual, the gelding didn’t fuss while being tied to the side of the trailer. His owner checked his watch before brushing the horse. Seven thirty. More than three hours to go before his turn to ride.
At the airport across Rt. 30 propellers roared as a commuter flight headed down the runway. Rider 278 watched the plane climb into the cloudless sky and bank toward Pittsburgh, then looked back at the crowd of police, politicians, and bystanders who had already gathered in the parking lot. He didn’t recognize anyone, so he turned his attention back to his horse.
The pinto didn’t flinch as Rider 278 tossed the brush into the bucket he had set on the trailer’s fender and reached for his hand pick. He cleaned the horse’s hooves, checking each one for cracks as he worked. Nothing. He had decided not to have the horse shod for today’s ride, fearing that the steel shoes might cause the pinto to lose his footing as he galloped on the concrete highway.
After finishing each hoof, he ran his free hand up and down the animal’s legs. Thin, yet strong and muscular. They would carry both of them the ten miles to Ligonier with no problem.
Satisfied that he had done everything necessary to prepare his horse, he set the bucket inside the truck, grabbed the breakfast sandwich lying on the front seat, and sat down. As he ate, he thought about the letter the secretary had read at his last horse club meeting:
Pony Express ’76, the letter said. The longest non-stop relay ride in the history of America. Three thousand miles, from Washington state to Valley Forge, and just over three hundred riders. The perfect way to celebrate our country’s bicentennial.
“Part of the route is through our area,” the secretary said when she had finished reading. “Anyone wishing to take part in the ride can see me after the meeting.” Rider 278 was the first in line to register.
His section of the ride ran from the Mission Inn crossroads (routes 30 and 981) to Fort Ligonier (routes 30 and 711), a fairly level ride for western Pennsylvania. He smiled, glad he had been chosen for this section of highway. Though homes and businesses lined the road from the inn to the Kingston crossing, only a handful of buildings, mainly summer camps, sat in the gorge between Kingston Dam and Longbridge Station. Trees covered the slopes on both sides of the highway. They would provide a sense of solitude and give shade while he rode through the valley. He was glad he wasn’t one of the riders climbing up the mountain toward the finish. Those riders would feel the heat from the afternoon sun as it rose from the highway, making the long ride feel even longer.
A stranger’s voice interrupted his thoughts. “Tim? Rider 278?” A man in a blue short-sleeve shirt and necktie walked over to the truck. “We need to make some changes,” the man said, looking up from the notes on his clipboard. “You’ll be riding past the fort to Laughlintown now. Is that okay?”
Laughlintown. Though still level, the ride would be three miles longer.
Rider 278 was nearly six feet tall and a hundred sixty pounds, taller and heavier than most of the riders on the original Pony Express route. Though he and his horse had trained for this trip since the day after he signed up, he wondered if they had worked hard enough. He hoped so.
He nodded to the man, who scribbled on his notepad and walked away.
A horn sounded, and a six-car caravan pulled up alongside the truck. Friends and family members got out and rushed over, hugging Rider 278 and patting him on the back. Two cousins, a boy and a girl, each grabbed a carrot from a brown bag the girl carried and took turns feeding the horse. His parents taped a banner to the side of the trailer. “Congratulations, Tim. Love, Mom and Dad.” Friends carried signs wishing him good luck.
He and the horse posed for pictures with everyone. Afterward, newspaper photographers snapped more pictures. Reporters interviewed him for their next editions. More well-wishers stopped by to talk and pet the horse.
The man in the blue shirt walked over again. “277 will be here in about twenty minutes,” he said. “Are you ready?” Again Rider 278 nodded.
He saddled the horse, grabbed the reins, and led the pinto to the checkpoint, where two sheriff’s cars sat idling. “One car will ride in front of you, the other behind you,” a stocky deputy said. “Just to let traffic know you’re on the road. We don’t want any accidents.”
Cheers erupted as the crowd looked toward the west. Rider 277 trotted his horse into the lot. The rider dismounted and removed a pair of leather saddlebags, then handed them over to his replacement.
Rider 278 slung the bags over the pinto’s back, stuck his left foot into the stirrup, and lifted himself into the saddle.
“The mail must go through,” he yelled, waving to the crowd. He smiled, followed the lead car onto the highway, kicked the horse’s sides, and, with one last wave, galloped off to meet Rider 279 in Laughlintown.