In a little while all interest was taken up in stretching our necks and
watching for the “pony-rider”–the fleet messenger who sped across the
continent from St. Joe to Sacramento, carrying letters nineteen hundred
miles in eight days! Think of that for perishable horse and human flesh
and blood to do! The pony-rider was usually a little bit of a man,
brimful of spirit and endurance. No matter what time of the day or night
his watch came on, and no matter whether it was winter or summer,
raining, snowing, hailing, or sleeting, or whether his “beat” was a level
straight road or a crazy trail over mountain crags and precipices, or
whether it led through peaceful regions or regions that swarmed with
hostile Indians, he must be always ready to leap into the saddle and be
off like the wind! There was no idling-time for a pony-rider on duty.
He rode fifty miles without stopping, by daylight, moonlight, starlight,
or through the blackness of darkness–just as it happened. He rode a
splendid horse that was born for a racer and fed and lodged like a
gentleman; kept him at his utmost speed for ten miles, and then, as he
came crashing up to the station where stood two men holding fast a fresh,
impatient steed, the transfer of rider and mail-bag was made in the
twinkling of an eye, and away flew the eager pair and were out of sight
before the spectator could get hardly the ghost of a look. Both rider
and horse went “flying light.” The rider’s dress was thin, and fitted
close; he wore a “round-about,” and a skull-cap, and tucked his
pantaloons into his boot-tops like a race-rider. He carried no arms–he
carried nothing that was not absolutely necessary, for even the postage
on his literary freight was worth five dollars a letter.
He got but little frivolous correspondence to carry–his bag had business
letters in it, mostly. His horse was stripped of all unnecessary weight,
too. He wore a little wafer of a racing-saddle, and no visible blanket.
He wore light shoes, or none at all. The little flat mail-pockets
strapped under the rider’s thighs would each hold about the bulk of a
child’s primer. They held many and many an important business chapter
and newspaper letter, but these were written on paper as airy and thin as
gold-leaf, nearly, and thus bulk and weight were economized. The
stage-coach traveled about a hundred to a hundred and twenty-five miles
a day (twenty-four hours), the pony-rider about two hundred and fifty.
There were about eighty pony-riders in the saddle all the time, night and
day, stretching in a long, scattering procession from Missouri to
California, forty flying eastward, and forty toward the west, and among
them making four hundred gallant horses earn a stirring livelihood and
see a deal of scenery every single day in the year.
We had had a consuming desire, from the beginning, to see a pony-rider,
but somehow or other all that passed us and all that met us managed to
streak by in the night, and so we heard only a whiz and a hail, and the
swift phantom of the desert was gone before we could get our heads out of
the windows. But now we were expecting one along every moment, and would
see him in broad daylight. Presently the driver exclaims:
“HERE HE COMES!”
Every neck is stretched further, and every eye strained wider. Away
across the endless dead level of the prairie a black speck appears
against the sky, and it is plain that it moves. Well, I should think so!
In a second or two it becomes a horse and rider, rising and falling,
rising and falling–sweeping toward us nearer and nearer–growing more
and more distinct, more and more sharply defined–nearer and still
nearer, and the flutter of the hoofs comes faintly to the ear–another
instant a whoop and a hurrah from our upper deck, a wave of the rider’s
hand, but no reply, and man and horse burst past our excited faces, and
go winging away like a belated fragment of a storm!
So sudden is it all, and so like a flash of unreal fancy, that but for
the flake of white foam left quivering and perishing on a mail-sack after
the vision had flashed by and disappeared, we might have doubted whether
we had seen any actual horse and man at all, maybe.
We rattled through Scott’s Bluffs Pass, by and by. It was along here
somewhere that we first came across genuine and unmistakable alkali water
in the road, and we cordially hailed it as a first-class curiosity, and a
thing to be mentioned with eclat in letters to the ignorant at home.
This water gave the road a soapy appearance, and in many places the
ground looked as if it had been whitewashed. I think the strange alkali
water excited us as much as any wonder we had come upon yet, and I know
we felt very complacent and conceited, and better satisfied with life
after we had added it to our list of things which we had seen and some
other people had not. In a small way we were the same sort of simpletons
as those who climb unnecessarily the perilous peaks of Mont Blanc and the
Matterhorn, and derive no pleasure from it except the reflection that it
isn’t a common experience. But once in a while one of those parties
trips and comes darting down the long mountain-crags in a sitting
posture, making the crusted snow smoke behind him, flitting from bench to
bench, and from terrace to terrace, jarring the earth where he strikes,
and still glancing and flitting on again, sticking an iceberg into
himself every now and then, and tearing his clothes, snatching at things
to save himself, taking hold of trees and fetching them along with him,
roots and all, starting little rocks now and then, then big boulders,
then acres of ice and snow and patches of forest, gathering and still
gathering as he goes, adding and still adding to his massed and sweeping
grandeur as he nears a three thousand-foot precipice, till at last he
waves his hat magnificently and rides into eternity on the back of a
raging and tossing avalanche!
This is all very fine, but let us not be carried away by excitement, but
ask calmly, how does this person feel about it in his cooler moments next
day, with six or seven thousand feet of snow and stuff on top of him?
We crossed the sand hills near the scene of the Indian mail robbery and
massacre of 1856, wherein the driver and conductor perished, and also all
the passengers but one, it was supposed; but this must have been a
mistake, for at different times afterward on the Pacific coast I was
personally acquainted with a hundred and thirty-three or four people who
were wounded during that massacre, and barely escaped with their lives.
There was no doubt of the truth of it–I had it from their own lips. One
of these parties told me that he kept coming across arrow-heads in his
system for nearly seven years after the massacre; and another of them
told me that he was struck so literally full of arrows that after the
Indians were gone and he could raise up and examine himself, he could not
restrain his tears, for his clothes were completely ruined.
The most trustworthy tradition avers, however, that only one man, a
person named Babbitt, survived the massacre, and he was desperately
wounded. He dragged himself on his hands and knee (for one leg was
broken) to a station several miles away. He did it during portions of
two nights, lying concealed one day and part of another, and for more
than forty hours suffering unimaginable anguish from hunger, thirst and
bodily pain. The Indians robbed the coach of everything it contained,
including quite an amount of treasure.