“I’m scared Pa! It sure is a long way down!” Jimmy locked his hands onto the stiff leather of the old kid saddle making sure that he wouldn’t fall. Looking down at the ground, he decided it wouldn’t be pleasant to hit the ground from this height. He had gone out to the barn with his dad after school hoping to bring out his sister’s old saddle and get his dad to tack up one of the old mares. Now he was having second thoughts. As the old mare started to walk around the dusty dirt corral, Jimmy clamped his legs to the horse’s sides trying not to lose his balance. Any other horse might have bolted when someone put such a sudden pressure on her sides, but not this one. Nate watched all this from outside the corral with some amusement, being reminded of himself when he first started to ride.
“It’s alright Jimmy,” said Nate, “She’s doin’ everythin’, y tell her.” Just then, the old mare shook her head back and forth spattering white froth from the sides of her mouth on Nate’s boot.
“I didn’t tell her to do that!” answered Jimmy nervously.
Nate chuckled. “Jus trust her.”
“Trust her? Iffen I let go, she’ll run off or somethin’.” Said Jimmy still holding on tightly to the saddle horn.
“She’ll only run off iffen she don’t trust you, and she ain’t gonna trust you iffen you don’t trust her.”
“Huh? I don’t get it Pa.”
“Well, it’s like this. Horses is herd animals an’ they got to trust each other in order to survive. The other horses got to trust the lead mare and the lead stud to protect ‘m and provide for ‘m. When you’re on a horse, you two are the boss together. Yer number one an’ the horse is number two, but y work together as one.”
Jimmy didn’t quite understand as he sat there gripping the saddle horn, eyes locked on his pa. Nate looked at his son whose scruffy red hair was blowing in the wind. He saw that Jimmy wanted to understand; wanted to learn, but his eight-year-old mind couldn’t quite grasp the concept. Suddenly Nate had an idea.
“You know what Jimmy boy? Lemme tell y a story about somethin’ that happened to me a long time ago.”
Now Jimmy was interested. What eight year old didn’t like to listen to his pa tell a story?
“How long Pa?” asked Jimmy.
“Oh, before I met your ma. Even before I owned this ranch.” Nat sat back and surrounded himself in the memory of that night. The night he would never forget.
“It started out late one evenin’; around seven o’clock.” Nate began, “The mail was late and I was takin’ advantage of it. You see, I was a rider fer the “Pony Express”, and with that kinda job, every minute of rest counted. You learned to eat fast, sleep fast, and most importantly, ride fast. Sleep just happened to be the one I was workin’ on at the moment. I had been snoozin’ round the back side of a pile a hay for ‘bout ten minutes when all of a sudden…”
“WILKINS!!!!!!” it was my manager Col. Ted Brogan and the retired army instructor seemed to be in even a grouchier mood that usual. I jumped to my feet and brushed the hay out of my hair.
“Wilkins! What’d you think this is? A slumber party? NO! I don’t like to see none of my men sleepin’ on the job! Now you go saddle up an’ get ready. The mail should be here any minute and it needs to be in Caspar by one AM. Got it? Now git!”
“Yes sir!” I said, and, grabbin’ my hat that had fallen on the floor, walked out.
“Lazy kids from Chicago, think they know everythin’ don’t they? Nothin’ but city-slickers playin’ cowboy. Hmph!” Col. Brogan mumbled as I walked off.
“Well that weren’t nice!” interrupted Jimmy before Nate could continue,
“No, I recon it weren’t son, but listen. It gets better.”
“I was used to “city-slicker” comments because I didn’t use an accent then. And I wasn’t too surprised about the Colonel’s crabby attitude for he was always like that. However, that didn’t stop me from feelin’ a little grouchy about bein’ woken up in such a rude manner.
I walked into the tack room to find a saddle that would fit Nix: the mare I was to ride that night. The tack room had one small window that let in just enough light so that you could make sure that you were grabbin’ a saddle and didn’t accidently lay a hand on one of the cats that roamed the place. I turned and saw one of them new-fangled fly ketchin’ things hung up in the corner all forgotten and lonely sittin’ there covered in dust. As I reached for a saddle, I kicked underneath the saddle rack to make sure I didn’t spook a rattler that we would find in there every so often. Pickin’ up the saddle -all smellin’ of saddle soap and horse sweat- I turned with the cumbersome thing in my arms, and walked out of the tack room.
I saw the Colonel watchin’ me, so I tried to…err…make a good impression. Nix didn’t care. I walked to her stall and laid the saddle over the side. The sorrel mare strained on her halter rope and promptly nudged the saddle with her nose. Of course, it fell in a heap and attracted the attention of other riders and stablehands. I mumbled somethin’ under my breath at that crazy horse, and, grabbin’ her halter rope, led her out of the stall.
“Now hold still dummy.” I told her.
I walked around in front of her so I could get to her left side (the side where you stand when tackin’ up). As I walked past, she grabbed my hat in her teeth and, after shakin’ it, stood there with it hangin’ from her mouth. I snatched it, and, glarin’ at her, pulled it down on my head. I managed to get the saddle on her and, lookin’ at my watch, saw that it was already seven-fifteen. I’d better git afore Colonel caught me standin’ and tanned my hide. Leadin’ Nix outside the stable, I mounted up. Five seconds later, I was sittin’ down in the middle of the street with Nix crow-hoppin’ like a dern jackrabbit. The saddle was danglin’ around the underside of her belly. One of the crowd yelled out,
“Hey Wilkins! Someone forget to tell ya that horse holds her breath?”
“Gee. Is it that obvious?” I grumbled again and grabbed Nix’s reins. She had stopped careenin’ around and stood still lookin’ happy with the fact that she had un-seated me. I tightened the cinch (tighter this time) and remounted. Nix sighed and tried to loosen the saddle, but I wasn’t goin’ to make the same mistake twice. It was then that I heard a yell from the end of the street and people hurryin’ to get out of the way. The rider! When he handed me those mail bags, it would be my responsibility to get them to Caspar…alone.
“Hee-yah!” Shouted the rider, and tossed me the saddle bags containin’ the mail. I “chirruped” to Nix and she lit out like her hooves were on fire. I was glad I had stampede strings on my hat to keep it from flyin’ off, otherwise it would have been lost in town and I would’ve been hatless for the whole ride. It felt like I was ridin’ a dern buffalo the way she runned. I could have sworn that’s what made the prairies flat, all those horses runnin’ over it time and time again.
Nix ran like Hell bent for leather. At this pace, we’d make it to Caspar in about ten seconds! But of course, no horse can run that fast forever. She slowed down to an even canter as we headed out over the plains.”
Nate paused here.
“Now Jimmy, I’m gonna skip forward a couple hours. Kay?”
“A couple hours later, the moon started to dim. “A storm’s comin’.” I thought, “And by the look of that sky it’ll be a real gullywasher.”
Now it didn’t rain often up in that part of Wyomin’, but when it did, it poured. And finally, where the ground got to where it couldn’t drink up no more, the water would form li’l streams. They got bigger and bigger and bigger until it turned into a ragin’ river a’ dirty water that swept up everythin’ in its path. ‘Specially ‘long the sides of mountains, buttes or riverbanks. Even a horse as fast as Nix couldn’t outrun a flash flood and iffen we got caught in one, well...that certainly wouldn’t be good. And even iffen we didn’t, the ground ‘d be so wet and slippery that Nix could probly slip and lose her footin’ and could quite poss-bly hurt herself.
Just as I was thinkin’ this, I saw a lightnin’ strike off in the distance. I pulled Nix to a stop for a second, and listened. Nothin’. Storm was still far away and hopefully I could make it fifteen miles out of Caspar before it hit. What made me even more nervous was the fact that I had seen smoke from campfires off in the distance for around an hour. The smoke had stopped a little while ago fer somebody put the fire out, but that “somebody” was the problem.
Now I might have been what Colonel Brogan would have called a city slicker, but I knew enough to know that the smoke I saw wasn’t smoke from a little hunter’s campfire. Too much smoke for that. And it didn’t help that I’d heard rumors about the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho, all of which probably wouldn’t flinch at the thought of jumpin’ a lone rider, robbin’ him, takin’ his horse, and leavin’ him half-dead in the middle of the prairie.
The clouds had started coverin’ the moon and that’s when it got dark. When I say dark, I don’t just mean it was hard to see, I mean that the dark was so thick you could reach out and touch it. I did have a Colt .45 at my side just in case the Injuns tried somethin’, but that wouldn’t help when I couldn’t even see to get a hold of it. Chills ran up my spine as I thought of horror stories I’d heard about the wild Injuns of the plains. Nix could tell for she sidestepped and pranced nervously eager to get goin’. I clicked to her and she set off at a fast trot Northwest towards Caspar.
One way an Express rider keeps track of his direction is by landmarks. Two of the most famous ones between Bullseye and Caspar were two loomin’ buttes -probably four hundred yards apart from each other- one on the west side and another on the east side. On one side near the westerly butte was a pretty well-known prairie dog town. Holes all over the place. A horse steppin’ in a prairie dog hole like that could easily break their leg. “Navigating that in the dark would be fun.” I thought. Unfortunately, on the other side near the easterly butte was a cactus patch that had the ground covered in a carpet of prickly pears mixed with other little cacti. “This is just not my day.” I decided steerin’ Nix towards the two old buttes. They were sittin’ out there in the middle of the plain lookin’ like giants of the past starin’ out over the grasslands.
Back in Bullseye, Ted Brogan was asleep in his bunk. Everythin’ was peaceful and quiet...fer now.
“Colonel Brogan! Colonel Brogan!!!” Came a distressed voice from outside the door,
Brogan was on his feet in an instant and at the door in his nightshirt.
“What in Blazes are you disturbin’ me in the middle of the night fer?” that was how the Colonel acted when he got worried.
“Sir, we just had a rider come in from a town up north. Him and his group were attacked by Injuns and he’s the only one that got out alive.”
Brogan stroked the salt and pepper fuzz on his chin with a concerned air about him.
“How many did he say?”
“He didn’t say. He’s at the doc’s right now with an arrow in his leg. Barely made it here as it is.”
“Send telegram to Caspar before the lines get cut.”
“What’s it to say sir?”
“Tell them to be on the lookout for Wilkins. He should be there around one unless somethin’ happens. Iffen he ain’t there by two, then they might want to send a posse out.”
“Will do Sir.” Said the man, who turned to go. “And Sir,” he began, stoppin’ in the middle of the street, “pray fer Wilkins. With what the rider said about those Injuns, it’ll be a miracle iffen he gets to Caspar with his scalp still on.”
“I skidded Nix to a stop again. It had started rainin’ around ten minutes ago and now it was pourin’. Dark, wet, cold, and windy. Lovely. Nix shook her head and sprayed water all over the place. I just hoped my gun wouldn’t get wet, because iffen it did, I wouldn’t be able to protect myself. “The two buttes should be in view soon.” I thought to myself, in fact I should have seen ‘em already. I wasn’t frightened though, cuz Nix knew the way and it wasn’t surprisin’ that I couldn’t see. I couldn’t even see Nix’s head through this weather.
What did give me scare was when Nix stopped, perked her ears, turned her head back and whinnied. Another horse answered. The chances that it was some stray from a wild herd were pretty slim. In this weather, all the wild ones bunch up together, turn tail to the wind, and sit there till it blows over. There was a much better chance that this horse had a rider.
“Come on Nix.” I said, thoroughly scared now, “Let’s make tracks.”
She took one step forward and then there was a sharp report of a rifle. I felt the wind of the bullet as it whizzed by my head. Nix reared up and there was another flash of lightnin’. I saw riders behind me. “Hee-ah Nix!” I shouted, “GO!” Nix shot forward as if sprung from a spring. Her hooves pounded the ground like rollin’ thunder. Another lightnin’ bolt lit up the night and I saw through the rain the two men of the plains: the buttes. A shot was again heard behind me. I laid low on Nix’s neck as the mare surged on through the rain. I couldn’t see a hand in front of my face let alone tell Nix where to go. I shuddered at the thought of fallin’ at this speed...into the hard, wet ground. Nix knew the way and I’d have to trust her to get us out of there...alive.”
Jimmy stared wide-eyed at his pa.
“Were they Injuns? Were they g...ghosts?”
Nate laughed at his son’s thoughts. “No, they weren’t ghosts’ son. Just listen and you’ll find out what happens.”
“Nix’s hooves pounded over the prairie towards the buttes. Between flashes of lightnin’, I could see the two giant shadows loomin’ over me. I closed my eyes and said a silent prayer in hope that Nix wouldn’t step in a prairie dog hole, or trip and throw me into the cactus field. A flash of lightnin’ struck a scrubby tree off to the right. I instinctively ducked, but Nix didn’t flinch. The reins were wrapped loosely around my hands as I clung to the horse’s mane. I wasn’t tellin’ her where t’ go, I wasn’t tellin’ her anythin’ ‘cept run. CRACK! Another flash split the air followed by a crash of thunder.
The buttes were on either side of us now, starin’ down at us as we thundered between them. Nix veered to the left suddenly and then swerved back onto the path. Wonderin’ why, I soon found out as I heard one of the Injuns yell as he was thrown from his horse. Then I knew. Nix had swerved to avoid a prairie dog mound that the Injun’s unfortunate horse hadn’t seen.
I closed my eyes waitin’ for Nix to slip or trip. Nix was almost as scared as I was but she somehow knew we had to get to Caspar. She had been over the trail a hundred times and she somehow knew I was trustin’ her to get us there alive. I was trustin’ her not to slip and fall or let us get caught by the Injuns. I felt Nix gather herself and I knew what was comin’. I gripped on to her with my legs and clenched her mane in my hands as she lifted herself up off the ground and cleared somethin’ that was in the path. I heard the other Injun yell as his horse didn’t jump and skidded to a stop, throwin’ him into the obstacle. We kept runnin’. Nix with her head low to the ground strugglin’ forward through the rain and wind, and me with my head down trustin’ Nix with my life. I couldn’t see, I couldn’t tell her what to do; all I could do was trust her.
A man stood in in front of the Caspar livery stable: out in the rain. The lantern hangin’ from the post next to him cast a dim light out over the muddy street. It was one-thirty and dark, and the livery manager -who, by the way, was also servin’ as the Express office manager- was gettin’ worried. He had gotten the telegram from Bullseye and had been on alert since ten o’clock. He paced back and forth, his boots sloppin’ in the mud. Iffen Wilkins…well, me, didn’t get there soon, he’d have to ‘sume the worst and send someone out lookin’ fer me. It was then that he heard a splish-splosh sound of a horse’s walk through the muddy water. The manager started, then stared into the blackness waitin’ for someone appear. Someone did. An exhausted, bedraggled horse and rider soaked to the bone plodded up.
“Mr. Wilkins! That you?” the livery man said over the drizzling noise the rain made as it hit the rooftops,
“Thank God yes.” I answered,
“Well,” chuckled the manager slippin’ back into his naturally kind nature, “You and your horse is soaked to the bone! C’mon in. We’ll get you warm and dry.”
I dismounted and led Nix into the stable squintin’ as my eyes adjusted to the light. The stable was a welcomin’ change from the drippin’ cold outside. And that pile of hay over in the corner looked like it was beggin’ fer someone to go flop down right in the middle of it. I pulled the drippin’ saddle off of Nix’s back and hung it over the side of the stall. She promptly nudged it with her nose and it toppled over in a heap on the other side. “Crazy horse.” I mumbled in kind of a croonin’ tone. I rubbed her nose, and turned to the mail pouches to check on the mail. “Still dry.” I thought, thankful for the deer that the leather came from.
“Hey Wilkins!” the livery man spoke suddenly from Nix’s right side, “Did you know yer horse has a gash on her hindquarter?”
“She what?” I walked over. Sure nuff, Nix had a long gash on her right quarter. “You mean she ran with that all the way here?”
“Leastways from the place she was injured. Never you mind sir, I’ll clean it up and she’ll be good to go in a few days.” Was the manager’s reply,
I stroked Nix’s side and observed the cut, probably from an Injun bullet. It rather looked like a strike of lightnin’ runnin’ ‘long her side. I petted her again and turned to go back to the mail pouches. As I walked past Nix’s head, she seized my hat in her teeth and pulled it off my head. “Aww…gimme that silly,” I said, and Nix nickered in reply.
Nate sighed as he finished the story and stared off into the distance. He would never forget that night. A voice rang out from Nate’s front porch as clear as a bell.
“Nate! Jimmy! Time for supper!” It was Nate’s wife.
“You go on Jimmy,” said Nate quietly, “I’ll untack the horse.”
“Yessir!” Answered Jimmy, who then yelled, “Comin’ Ma!!!” and took off towards the house as fast as his legs could carry him.
Nate turned and unhooked the cinch strap letting the saddle loose. He grunted as he lifted it up and set it on the side of the corral. The horse shook herself, turned her head towards Nate, and shoved the saddle off the fence with her nose. She grunted contentedly, deciding that the saddle looked better where it was. Cocking back one hind leg, she was content to stand there outside the pen next to Nate. If you were standing on her right side, you could see a white scar shaped like a strike of lightning on her hindquarter. Nate turned and faced west, towards the sunset and gazed at the red, yellow and pink colors. The old horse turned her head, which used to be a dark sorrel color, but now had faded with age and turned roan: flecked with white. She looked at Nate, and reaching over, grabbed his hat in her teeth. Nate turned to the old mare and playfully grabbed the hat saying, “Gimme that Nix, you silly old girl.”