How Bacon Saved the Pony Express
(c) 2012 Kristy Buzbee
William should have seen it coming, really. Everyone at Dry Creek Station had said he was crazy for going on, with the Paiutes so restless and attacks happening all the time. But the mail had to get through, didn’t it? He and Jim had been the only ones willing to saddle up and head out across the most dangerous stretch of the Utah Territory. They’d gone together to lessen the danger – fat lot of good that had done, now that they were encircled by Paiutes.
William heard a voice. “I told you this would happen.”
If he’d been willing to risk it, he would’ve told Silver to just shut the hell up unless he had something useful to say. But no one had heard Silver but him, as usual, and the Indians didn’t look like they wanted any discussion.
William kept his mouth shut, kept his hands in the air, and tried to take stock of the situation. He and Jim were both off their horses and unarmed – they each had a revolver in their mochilas, the mail pouches, which were still thrown across the saddles and out of reach. They’d been caught off-guard. Should’ve known better than to take a piss at the same time. The Indians had come out of nowhere and circled them before they’d even gotten their pants down, and now William had to worry about pissing his pants with all these arrows pointed at his throat.
The only other creatures inside the circle didn’t have any arrows pointing at them – Silver and Cyclone, the horses. They stood there looking unperturbed, though William could hear them muttering to each other. Usually he was pleased to be able to understand what the horses were saying, but right now they were just making him nervous.
“We gotta run,” Jim whispered.
“Don’t run,” said Silver, flicking his ears nervously.
“We shouldn’t run,” said William. “They haven’t shot us yet, but they sure as hell will if we start running.”
“How long are we going to stand here?” one of the Indian’s horses complained loudly, a tall, intimidating stallion that dwarfed their swift little Pony Express horses. “Why don’t they ever just shoot them? We always have to stand around like this.”
William swallowed hard and tried to think. He definitely couldn’t fight. He’d been hired for his riding skill – and because he was a lightweight. He had a sudden flashback of the posted ad he had responded to: “Wanted: young, skinny, wiry fellows. Not over 18. Orphans preferred.” He’d met all the criteria. They hadn’t said anything about being able to fight angry Indians.
“They just want those little horses,” another Indian steed said.
Aha, William thought. Maybe there was a way to get out of this alive. He wished it had been a different horse, though. He’d been through a lot with Silver and would be sad to give him up. If only they’d attacked after the next switch point, maybe they would’ve been on ponies he didn’t like so much…
He was about to suggest to Jim that they give up the ponies when Jim broke to his right and tried to run for a gap between two Indians. “No, Jim!” William cried, as the first arrows were already hammering him to the ground. By the time William looked up again, new arrows were out of quivers and already fixed on him.
“I said not to run,” Silver said in dismay, and stamped his hoof.
William tried to keep his knees from shaking, tried to keep his eyes from wandering back to Jim’s body, and tried to calm down enough to speak.
“Silver,” he whispered. “They…they want…”
“We know,” Cyclone interrupted, tossing his mane irritably. “We heard them.” He looked off over the heads of the Indians, avoiding William’s eyes.
Silver came up behind his rider’s shoulder, nudging him. “Offer us to them,” he said quietly. “They won’t hurt horses, but they’ll definitely kill you. They don’t have any use for you.”
William held his breath for a moment. “Are you…sure?” he asked quietly.
Silver nodded slightly. “See if you can get the mochila off my back first. Maybe you can get to Simpson Park Station on foot.”
William thought briefly of the fact that ponies tended to think men were a lot more durable in the desert heat than they actually were, then decided, what the hell. Might as well try. “I’m…sorry,” he said loudly, well aware that odds were, none of the Indians knew what he was saying. “I didn’t mean to, uh, trespass,” he went on, keeping his arms spread wide. He gestured enormously to the ponies. “Please, will you take my horses? And let me go?” He pointed to the horses, then to the Indians, and then to himself.
The Indians didn’t move. One of them said something quietly to another, and William thought he saw the warrior’s drawn bow slacken a little. Now was the tricky part.
“Let me…let me get the mail,” he said, backing towards Silver. His hands starting reaching for the bulging mochilas, then froze when the Indians starting shouting and drew their bows taut again. Did they know that the messengers kept revolvers in the mail pouches? Not that a gun would help him against six arrows flying into him at once. “The mail,” he said weakly, trying not to sound terrified, “I just want to take the mail.” He pointed to the silver badge on his chest that said “Pony Express Messenger” and repeated, “I want to take the mail,” and pointed to the mochila pouch again. “Try to deliver it, I mean.”
The Paiutes glanced at each other and started to converse. William prayed that they knew what his badge meant. The Pony Express had been coming through the area for almost two months now; surely they’d seen messengers before. They had to know the mochila was full of mail.
“Looking good,” Cyclone said.
“Why?” William asked.
“The horses aren’t as tense,” Silver answered. “They aren’t expecting a fight anymore.”
The Indian who seemed to be in charge said something William didn’t understand, then nodded towards Silver. William cautiously put his hands on the mochila, then looked back to the Indian, who nodded again. Hands shaking, William pulled the pouch off Silver’s back, then slowly walked over to Cyclone and removed Jim’s mochila also.
When both mail pouches were lying at his feet, the Indians came forward and took the reigns of both the ponies. “Sorry,” William said hoarsely as they were led away.
“Cook some chow,” Silver said as he walked past his rider.
“What?” William said in surprise. He didn’t need food right now. He needed to figure out how to lay Jim’s body to rest, to get started towards Simpson Park Station, to try to stay alive out here. He had two cowboys’ rations, but Simpson Park was still quite a walk in the baking sun.
“Cook some chow,” Silver called again, tossing his head as he was led away. “Trust me.”
It wasn’t long before William was alone, eighty pounds of mochila heaped at his feet, trying not to notice the searing desert sun of the Utah Territory on his back. “Trust me,” he muttered. “Trust the pony. Sure thing.”
First things first, though. He went over to Jim’s body and crouched down. He hadn’t known Jim very well, but he was a brave man. Everyone was talking about the Paiute attacks happening in this division of the Express, and Jim had been ready to go on alone. The mail had to get through. William had agreed to go with him because the stationmaster insisted he not go alone.
“If I hadn’t agreed to come with you,” William said to Jim, “you’d still be at Dry Creek, alive.”
After a moment of silence, he reached out and removed Jim’s Pony Express badge and stuck it in his pocket. He’d have to leave the body out here, but if he made it to Simpson Park Station, at least he’d have something of Jim to return. He took Jim by the shoulders and dragged him into the shade of a scrubby little bush, and decided that was all he could do for now.
The next thing, he knew, would be to figure out how he could carry two mochilas at forty pounds each all the way to Simpson Park Station. Each mochila carried twenty pounds of mail and twenty pounds of supplies, split into four pouches. The first thing to do was to open up the back corner pouch and remove the Bible from each one. He said a little prayer of apology as he dumped them on the ground. After a moment of thought, he picked them both up and took them over to set them carefully by Jim.
He pulled the revolver out of his own mochila and tightened the holster around his waist. He wasn’t going to get caught off-guard again. He considered leaving Jim’s revolver, but decided it wasn’t too heavy and more guns seemed like a good idea. If he really started wearing out, he could always dump it later. He took out the horn from Jim’s pack, but kept his own. He used the horn when he was approaching a station, to let them know to get the next pony ready – but if he got close to Simpson Park and ended up in trouble, he could use it to get help, too.
There were the two water sacks, but he couldn’t leave those behind of course. And then there was the mail. He couldn’t drop any of that – a total of forty pounds. The Pony Express had only been around for two months; if a messenger came through without the mail, it would be the ruination of the whole enterprise. He tried to heft the two mochilas and winced at how heavy they were. Forty pounds of mail. How was he going to do this?
Taking a second tour of the mochilas to try again to lighten his load, he took a look at his rations and remembered Silver’s advice: “Cook some chow.”
He sighed. Why not? He rather liked the idea of doing something other than setting off across the desert immediately, heavy-laden with other people’s urgent news. And anything he ate was that much less to carry. He pulled out a pack of cured bacon and a small fry pan.
He found a large sagebrush bush and started a cookfire while hunched over in the brief little shade it offered. Soon he found his mouth watering at the sound of the sizzling bacon, and after a brief internal debate, he pulled more from the pack and added it to the pan. He figured he could probably use the extra food to get him through the hell on earth he knew was coming up.
William had just decided the pan of bacon was done when he heard the rustling sagebrush behind him. Slowly putting the fry pan down next to the fire, trying not to tense up, he calmly reached for the revolver in his belt. Those damn Indians weren’t going to get him this time. This time he was ready. He shoved the bacon in his mouth and spun around in a crouch, nearly hitting the young Paiute boy behind him in the face with the barrel of his gun.
The boy let out a cry and fell over backwards, and William did the same, barely stopping himself from sitting right in his cook fire. The boy fumbled with his bow for a moment, until William brought the barrel of the gun back on target.
“Don’t move,” William said, trying to catch his breath. Even though he surely didn’t speak any English, the boy figured it out well enough and crouched, frozen, staring at William with wide eyes. He couldn’t be more than twelve, William realized. What was he doing here? Alone? William’s eyes darted back and forth, searching for the rest of the hunting party, but he didn’t see any Indians nearby. Had this boy gotten separated from them?
And then he saw it. The boy’s nostrils flared slightly, and his eyes wandered down to the fry pan full of salt bacon. William looked down too, then looked back up to meet the boy’s eyes. “You’re hungry,” he said, almost in disbelief. They both looked down at the bacon again.
For a moment, they sat and stared at one another. The boy was crouched, his hands on his knees, and not looking quite as afraid as William had hoped, considering he had a gun pointed at him. William sighed. He reached out and plucked a piece of cooling bacon from the pan without lowering his revolver, and tossed it to the boy. The young Indian dropped his bow with an unprofessional clatter and caught the bacon with both hands.
William watched the boy inspect it, then tentatively put it in his mouth. His eyes brightened a little, and he looked to be savoring it, staring at William the whole time. After a minute, William picked up some bacon for himself and they sat in the desert heat, slowly chewing and staring at each other with mild curiosity.
After finishing his first piece, William cleared his throat and said, “I didn’t know Indians got lost. Even little ones.” He glanced around nervously again, feeling like an unsuspecting traveler who had just stumbled up a bear cub. There could be a mother bear closing in on him right now.
The boy said something loudly that William couldn’t understand, and pointed to the fry pan. He wanted more, apparently. William tossed him another piece and the boy appeared to savor it even more than the first.
Once the boy had eaten the rest of the bacon in the pan, William waited to see what the next step would be. The boy had gone from crouching to sitting, and was licking grease from his thin, dirty fingers. Suddenly he perked up, and appeared to be listening. It was a good thirty seconds before William heard it too – hoof beats, approaching fast.
William and the boy leapt to their feet in unison, looking frantically about. William could see a party of Indians, and he tensed as the boy relaxed. Would they wait to hear an explanation? He’d fed their little lost hunter; he would get some sort of protection for that, right?
When they got close enough to begin to slow, William realized they were the same Indians that had taken his ponies – Silver and Cyclone were still there, tied to a horse in the back. He noticed another empty horse, one that looked more like the others. He glanced at the boy. Was it his? Had he been with the Indians when they’d ambushed them, and killed Jim? He hadn’t remembered seeing a child with them…but then, he’d been busy trying not to piss his pants.
The boy leapt forward as soon as they were close and began chattering to his comrades, who of course had arrows nocked and carefully aimed at William’s heart. William held his hands out to show he was unarmed, painfully aware that his revolver was lying on the ground where he had set it to eat. Why the hell couldn’t he manage to keep a weapon someplace it would be useful?
“Hello William,” a voice from the back said. Silver. William smiled a little. It was good to see his friend again, at least.
“They’ve been looking for the boy all day,” Silver continued. “They got separated this morning, and they found his horse but not him.”
“We were just a lucky find,” Cyclone snorted.
So. The boy had been lost. He must have smelled the cooking bacon and found William that way. And now, he was – hopefully – keeping his fellows from killing the hand that fed him. The warriors with the arrows were, at least, starting to lower them as the boy spoke, though he was interrupted frequently by the leader of the party. Probably his father, William guessed. He certainly looked to be the right mixture of angry and relieved.
After some dramatic gestures to his mouth, his stomach, and William, the boy seemed to get his point across. The Indian that appeared to be the boy’s father gestured to the others to put down their arrows, which they did. Then he looked William straight in the eye, frowning and serious. William tried to keep his knees from knocking together.
“You…help,” the man said slowly, catching William entirely by surprise. He hadn’t thought they would know a word of English. “You help,” he repeated, when he saw that William understood. “You take horse.” He said something in his own language, and gestured back to the Indian who held Silver and Cyclone. The rope leads were passed up to the leader of the party, and he held the ends of the ropes to his son. “You take horse.”
The boy took the ropes and handed them to William, though it took him few seconds before he realized he could put his hands down.
“No need to look so petrified anymore,” Silver remarked.
“Shut up, you damn pony,” William muttered, nodding in what he hoped was a dignified fashion to the Indian boy. “Thanks,” he said out loud. He nodded to the boy’s father as well, who nodded back, then snapped something to his son. The boy scrambled to his horse and clambered on bareback.
The Indians turned and began to ride away. William saw the boy turn around on his horse and wave, and he surprised himself by waving back. He couldn’t bring his feet to move or pull his eyes from the departing Indians until they were far off on the horizon.
“We going to Simpson Park or not?” Cyclone said finally, stomping his hoof. “We could still make it before dark.”
William ignored him and looked at Silver. “Why did you tell me to cook some chow?” he asked. “Did you already know that boy was missing? And how could you know that he’d smell what I was cooking? Or that he was hungry in the first place?”
Silver met his gaze evenly. “I thought you could use some chow. That’s all.”
“Are we leaving any time soon?” Cyclone complained. “Some of us are hungry and don’t want any damn bacon.”
William picked up Jim’s mochila and threw it across Cyclone’s back, adjusting it carefully across the saddle. Then he picked up his own and tossed it over Silver’s saddle. “You knew something,” he said, not ready to let this go. Something unnatural had happened; he was sure of it. “How’d you know what to do?”
Silver sighed and shook his mane. “It’s the Pony Express, William, not the Cowboy Express. There’s a reason they named it after us, and not you.”
They looked at each other for a long time. Then Silver said quietly, “We should leave soon. There’s something coming. And it’s not going to be as easy to get out of as a simple Indian ambush.”
William looked around and saw nothing. Nothing but sun-dried brush and desert dust. But there was a shimmer in the air that almost looked metallic, and he thought he could taste something burning.
He looked back at Silver and knew he had to let it go. For now. The mail had to get through.
He swung himself up in the saddle and they started off to Simpson Park.
Kristy Buzbee is an accountant by day and a swashbuckling adventurer by night. She enjoys running, reading, trying out new cookie recipes, and writing by candlelight. You can track her down on Twitter, or at KristyBuzbee.com.