The notice stated:
Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over eighteen. Must be expert riders willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred. Wages $25 per week. Apply: Pony Express Stables, St. Joseph, Missouri
These were the midnight words that kept me from getting a blink of some shut eye. I was 16 years old, new to the task and it was sometimes not easy to gather my wits to realize that I said 'Yes' . But the challenge was ahead of me as I signed the loyalty oath and pledged to do my part as a mail delivery rider for the Pony Express. I only had my sister to stand by me as we were now on our own. It was a tragic time that befell our family. We all stepped up to help in a time of uncertainty when droves of people began to migrate through the area. Word was, that the gold discovered in 1848 at Sutter's Mill California, was the reason so many began to head west. They were looking for more in the land of plenty. The westward expansion was enticing more people to follow their version of the American dream. For some, such as our family, it became a nightmare. Our mother and father had been lost due to a catastrophe and unsuspected disease of cholera.
I was in the barn one day adjusting a horseshoe that was worn and had bent. Rusty needed to get his balance restored before heading out to the field with his buddies. He snorted a comment to let me know it was time. What a useful skill I was fortunate to get to understand and practice when I was just eight years old. We had an older neighbor that took me under his wing one day. It happened by chance that he had come by the house for some of my mother's famous corn bread that was the talk of the town. It was mid-afternoon and nearly time for chores when I looked out the window and saw Mr. Torpey coming to the house. He always came by foot to visit and trod up the stairs to reach the door knob when at that instant he slipped and tumbled over. "Oh no!" Jumping up, I ran outside to help. He attempted to lift himself up and calmly said, "It is just a bump, no more." He reached for my arm and thanked me for the assistance as we went into the house. My father was the one to meet us and the two men bantered about the way nature has a way of telling you to look where you are going. Father and mother welcomed him to take a chair and the laughter continued as a piece of the cornbread was served to him with a precious cup of tea. "Send your boy tomorrow. I need a little help now and then with shoes!" He lifted his foot and winked. Both he and my father grinned and chuckled, "Will do!" And the rest is how I learned a useful skill with shoes.
Our father and mother worked hard day and night to cure meat and prepare pounds of dried goods for the many migrants making their way along the Oregon Trail through our town of Lancaster. Their fateful end was due to the last group who came during the darkest hour demanding all of our supply. "We gots to eat to live the dream." One guy yelled this to my father's face and shoved him aside as he and another brawny and notable sot started grabbing their goods. My father picked up a shovel, raised it, threatening them, "Leave now. Take what you got and be gone!" They both laughed and one jumped over, quickly grabbed the shovel and whacked my father who fell to the ground, holding his head and crying out to us. "Get out of their way! Let them go!" The others in their wagon scrambled back up. One boy bent to pick up the last bag of goods when I tackled him. We got up and faced each other eye to eye. He was regretful and said, "I am so sorry!" "Go!" I said and shoved the bag at him. Another moment was due to happen and one that would soon define my choice. Soon I would see that face again in the most ironic of moments.
My sister became lost in sadness leading to fear of the unknown. I opted to keep myself occupied hoping to rise from the hardship of a life missing the ones our hearts held dearest. I remember strong words from my mother when I offered to help haul loads of the provisions to the barn loft. "Johnny, you are a dear! Make no mistake I am able beyond most." She smiled and waved me off. "But please help your sister organize our inventory. The riders are coming for meals provided by us for the stations. We can not make them wait."
And then our life turned into ashes when our mother and father succumbed to an evil death. The latest incursion with an ungrateful group were the ones who had harbored the cholera virus and passed it on to our family. My sister and I were left not knowing how to continue with our lives. Mr. Torpey was the one who gathered the community to help us get through the darkest part of our lives. It took a long year but soon, my sister came to a new chapter in her life when she began making mochila knapsacks by sewing and stitching together these needed bags. Others would add the padlocked pouches to finalize the leather mail carriers. East was meeting West due to the demand for information, letters, newspapers and business documents. These were needed to help bring the country together. The Pony Express business had already begun.
Soon the sun would be up and the crack of dawn would see me at the ready to meet the rider who'd be handing me the package of mail. This was my calling in the light of our family trauma. My sister stepped up in the same regards as I to work for the same goal; bring the country together. It is time. Our father and mother showed us how to work hard. The reason is clear. We will do them proud to follow their example.
In the distance, as dark as it was, there was the distinct sound of hoof beats. I was nervous and somewhat anxious knowing my time was here but chose to keep grounded in purpose with a prayer. My horse, Rusty was one of the chosen as a perfect pony amongst the many sought out for this ride of a lifetime. I had a pistol in my shoulder holster, a water bag and some chew to get me to the next station. As the rider approached, I gave a friendly wave, he dismounted and quickly grabbed the mochila and tossed it to me. Then our eyes met. It was a moment in time as we stood and stared in awe. He was the one who I gave the bag of goods to when his group took too much and left our family distraught.
It was a defining moment where we felt the same passion in our quest as Pony Express riders. We became brothers, now through the hard times for the common good we both shared. I tossed the mochila on my pony, with unity and a happy look, our hands reached out for a shake. "My name is Nate. I am very thankful to see you again." I quickly responded with, "Johnny's my name, Pony Express is our fame!" We laughed and knew time was up. I quickly jumped on Rusty and before we parted our separate ways, we each held our hand to heart. "Life is good. Enjoy the ride!"