Organizing a service like the Pony Express took a lot of maneuvering and preparation. For a couple of months, blizzards of bulletins and wagonloads of supplies had been going out to every station along the route. The best liniments available had been bought up in quantity; barns had been stocked with oats, corn, sweet hay, and bedding. The horses were carefully selected, costing $150 to $200 in a day when a good range animal could be had for fifty. Company policy dictated that none was ever to be turned out to rustle for itself, either night or day, because animals of such quality were sure to present an irresistible temptation to horse thieves both red and white. Riders were to change horses at relay stations seven to twenty miles apart, taking no more than two minutes to transfer themselves and their mail pouches to the waiting, ready-saddled fresh mount.
On the same bull train with JD had been delivered the saddles and a sample pouch, so the riders could begin getting a feel for the change process. The small, light saddles were specially constructed for the Express, each built on a shortened, lightened stock-saddle type of California rig with extra strength built into it, open-seated, skirtless, rawhide- covered, with a low sloping cantle, broad short-necked flat-topped horn, outside rigging for a single center-fire cinch, and lightweight stirrups that would be shielded by tapadero covers if the weather warranted. With bridle and empty mochila, as the pouch was called, it weighed thirteen pounds. The mochila, which doubled as a saddle cover, was a square of light, smartly- dressed russet leather, with four cantinas, or hard-leather bags, attached to it, one at each corner--two in front of the rider's legs, two behind. Three of these were fitted with small brass padlocks and could be opened only at the two termini and the military posts at which the Pony called, and the fourth, the one at the rider's right knee, was closed by a spring snap and intended for letters to be dropped or picked up on the way--which meant the rider needed to know whether he had any such. They could carry a total of twenty pounds of mail, making for an optimum load, counting the rider and his weapons and clothes, of about 185 pounds.
Miz Nettie had shown JD a map of the route, with particular attention to the section of it that he was expected to cover. "You'll be going through Jamesburg and out the other side to another station like this one, just about a hundred miles away," she had explained. "You'll stay at each end anywhere from a day and a half to seven, depending on whether the incoming rider is on time or not, so you might want to send some clean clothes and underwear on to there. Your schedule's supposed to give you forty-eight hours' rest between runs, but if there's one thing I've learned dealing with Company's stages, it's that schedules, like dishes, get broken."
JD listened attentively, resolved to do the very best job that was in him. "I think I better take a slow ride along my route and get an idea of what's on it," he proposed, "before I gotta do it at full speed."
"That's a good idea," Nettie agreed at once. "Casey or Josiah can go with you if they get the time. They've both ridden it for one reason or another; if you have any questions about anything you see, they'll be the ones to ask."
"When are the rides s'posed to start?" JD asked.
"Last bulletin had it that they're scheduling to pull out of St. Joe and Sacramento at noon on the third of April. I figure the westbound rider will get here around a quarter to four in the morning on the fifth, and the eastbound--which should be you on your return leg-- around nine-thirty three days later."
JD had settled into the life of Wells Ranch easily enough, finding the food good, the beds comfortable, and the people reasonably congenial. Where Leavenworth was less than eight hundred feet above sea level, here the elevation had increased to well over fifteen hundred, and he had found himself experiencing a steady increase in energy and sensing a sharp, stimulating champagne dryness in the air. The west wing of the house was a small general store, stocked with groceries, bolt goods, tobacco, guns and powder and lead, knives, saddlery, playing cards, blue and green goggles, Indian trade merchandise, and even ready-made clothing, plus various eases and sundries: physics, cough lozenges, painkillers and arnica, quinine for the "aguer" that reached as far north as Fort Hall, salves and bandages for chafings and sunburn, and always that universal cure for all the diseases of man, especially all those covered by the term "colic"--whiskey. The bar stocked no beer, which was bulky, hard to ship, and harder to keep, but it did boast a good assortment of whiskey, rum, gin, brandy, and even soda pop for teetotallers and children. Besides Miz Nettie and Josiah, the staff consisted of a blacksmith's helper, two hostlers, and two or three extra men who helped out wherever they were needed. Company schedules also permitted a cook (often the agent's wife) and a hunter to keep the place in fresh meat. Wells Ranch had had one of the latter until last summer, when he'd decided he could make more money panning gold, and since then Casey had taken over much of the job. She'd ride out on her horse Partner, a red pinto of the kind the Indians called a "medicine hat" for the spot that covered its ears and crest, armed with a Long Fowler fourteen-gauge muzzle-loading shotgun almost as long as she was tall, a three-foot-long, seven-pound Sharps Model 1853 carbine that took a single .52 paper cartridge, and a Colt Model 1849 pocket revolver stuffed into her waistband, and more often than not she'd come back with something. The truck patch yielded beans, peas, squash, pumpkins, turnips, cabbage, white and sweet potatoes, beets, carrots, radishes, parsnips, onions, lettuce, asparagus, tomatoes, rhubarb, strawberries. and of course corn, both sweet and bread. A clutch of well-established fruit trees provided apples, pears, apricots, cherries, and plums. There were chickens for eggs and meat, cows for milk and butter, pigs, a few sheep, and the beef stock, most of which descended from emigrant animals bought, as Jared Burkey had explained to JD, too lame or sick to go on, and which mostly rustled for itself. Besides gamebirds and animals in broad variety, the prairie supplied greens, berries, small fruits, tubers, and fish from the sloughs and streams. All in all, the staff and its visitors ate well.
JD's developing relationship with Casey continued prickly, and Miz Nettie seemed more like a spinster schoolteacher than anyone he could ever really hope to get close to. Josiah he found fascinating. The big smith ate with them at each meal and usually spent the evening in the family sitting room--the private room behind the kitchen--with JD and the Wellses, but slept in a tiny cubicle next to the grain locker in the barn, rather than in the bunkhouse as the other workers did. He seemed to be very familiar with history, literature, and philosophy, and Casey admitted to JD that ever since he'd first drifted in, about a year ago, he'd taken over the responsibility for her schooling. Sometimes he read aloud, often from the Bible or a volume of poetry, with the beauty rolling out of him in that deep thunderous voice. When he could be persuaded to forget himself, he told fascinating stories of distant lands, of the strange peoples who lived there and the sometimes peculiar beliefs they held. But Casey also said that on occasion he would break open a jug of whiskey and drink himself into a stupor. Why he did it no one except perhaps Miz Nettie knew.
JD had exchanged his city shoes for the boots he'd been issued, hoping to get them well broken in before he had his first ride, and kept his knife and two Navy Colts buckled around his waist part of every day so he could accustom himself to their weight. Casey had scoffed at the picture he presented until he cut a slit in a fencepost, wedged a dime edge-on in it, measured off twenty paces, and split his lead on the coin with first one hand and then the other, until his Colts were shot dry. "How'd a greenhorn from New York learn to shoot like that?" she asked.
"Shootin' galleries," JD explained. "All the gunsmiths in the city run 'em on the side. You pay a nickel a shot and win twenty dollars if you can hit the bull's eye three times. After Mamma got so sick and I couldn't work regular hours any more, that was how I made most of the money we needed. I'd been watching the men shoot all along, every time I passed one, thinkin' someday I'd go West, and I guess I just sort of figured out what they were doin' right and wrong, because I won the top prize the third time I tried."
"Well, you're not bad shootin' at a still target," Casey admitted, "and I guess those galleries have moving ones too, but what if it was shooting back, like an Indian or a road agent?"
"I guess I'll find out when I have to deal with one," JD replied, determined not to let her ruffle him, and walked away.
He had been at the Wells place for five days when the stranger arrived. Casey had gone off on one of her hunting expeditions, Miz Nettie was doing something in the kitchen, the rest of the staff was getting ready for the expected arrival later that day of the westbound stage, and JD had decided to put in some time practising his change of horses. He'd tie one, fully saddled, to a post, so it could prance and dance around freely the way an excited horse would do even if someone was holding its head, and get on another with a mochila, weighted with twenty pounds of grain, in place, and ride around and around the outside of the stockade at full tilt before racing in through the gate and trying to get down, flip the unsecured mochila off the saddle, hurl it onto the waiting one, and get up again, all before he could count a hundred and twenty in his head. He still only did it about one time in two, and he was beginning to worry. His first run was scheduled to occur in a week. He couldn't make a poor showing his first time out.
The day had turned off unexpectedly warm, and he was sitting on the bench outside the pump house with a dipper of water, studying the two horses and rehearsing his moves mentally as he'd done outside the shooting galleries, trying to decide where he was going wrong, when someone shouted, "Rider comin' in!" and went to open the gate. JD stood and walked slowly toward the new arrival, very conscious of the two Colts at his waist. The kitchen door opened and Miz Nettie stepped out; JD could tell by the way she kept her hand on the frame that her new Spencer rifle--the same model that had been issued to him--was leaned up against the wall just inside.
The rider was a slight, wiry man a couple of inches taller than JD, with wavy light- brown hair that hung to his shoulders, several days' beard, and bright, alert, wary blue eyes. His soft, bright-red flannel shirt, thick woollen trousers, close-wrapped yellow silk bandanna richly spotted with blue, and clay-colored slouch hat with the wide loose brim falling down over his brow and half hiding his eyes, were conventional enough, but soft buckskin leggings that reached only to his hips were drawn over the trousers, decorated with shells and bits of silver, and both were stuffed into, not boots, but knee-high moccasins of some kind of yellowish hide, beaded all around with shells and finished off with a fringe that would drag on the ground when he walked. Big iron spurs with tinklers on the rowels were secured over the insteps with beadworked straps four inches wide. A plain slim holster at his side held a Dragoon .44, balanced on the other side by a beaded pouch of some loose openwork technique. A long Sharps like Casey's was balanced across his saddlebows, protected by an Indian-style cover of fringed buckskin, and in a boot under the stirrup leather was a second long gun of a type JD didn't immediately recognize, though its projecting stock had an elegant look. The bone handle of a Bowie knife thrust up out of the top of his right moccasin. His horse was a big black gelding with a blaze that looked like a reversed question mark, wearing a double-rig saddle with a stitched-on housing, much heavier than the Pony models, and a simple curb bit. Strapped on behind the cantle was a pair of saddlebags that looked a little saggy, a rolled cylinder of bedding, and tied on top of it a poncho and what appeared to be a buckskin jacket.
He checked the horse's easy forward movement about ten feet from the kitchen door, and balanced around in the saddle for a slow scan of the yard, taking particular note of Josiah in his slit brown-leather apron casually stepping away from his forge with his six-pound sledge still in his hand, Nettie's keen piercing eyes and weathered face, and JD with his two Navy Colts. "Ma'am," he said in a soft raspy drawl, lifting his right hand to the brim of his hat. "Lookin' to git to Denver. On the right road, am I?"
"Yes, you are, but you got a good ways to ride," Nettie told him. "A bit better than two hundred miles. You keep on west till you hit Jamesburg-- that'll be about a day's ride--and then take the left fork up the South Platte, past Fort Sedgwick and on along the riverbank. Never been there myself, but they tell me you can't miss it."
The stranger nodded thoughtfully, as if this confirmed an opinion he held. "Y'all mind if I water my horse?"
"Go right ahead." Nettie tilted her head. "How long you been on the trail, boy? You look like you ain't had a decent meal in a week."
A hint of a crooked smile twisted the young man's somber lips. "Closer twelve days, ma'am."
"In that case, you step down and get washed up. I'll be settin' out noon dinner in half an hour. Won't make you much difference to stay long enough to eat it." She spoke to one of the hostlers. "Ned, take his horse and get the saddle off it."
The stranger lifted a hand to stop Ned as he moved forward. "Best you let me do it. Peso here, he don't always take to folk he don't know. He bites, somethin' fierce." He seemed to hesitate a moment, then added, "Name is Tanner, ma'am--Vin Tanner."
"Nettie Wells. This is my ranch, and it's also a home station for Russell, Majors & Waddell."
Tanner nodded. "'Splains that big barn, I reckon." He swung down with a slow, easy, loose-jointed grace, though JD somehow got the impression that if he really wanted to move he'd go like chain lightning, and tilted his head disarmingly as he eyed the two ponies in their distinctive tack. "Ain't seen no saddles like them there," he mused, "'least not on no white man's horse. What they for?"
"Pony Express," JD replied, stepping forward. "I'm to be ridin' for it, in about another week. Just practisin' how to change mounts fast."
The other blinked. "How come you want to?"
"'Cause it's a relay. Mail delivery, Missouri River all the way to California." JD's brows rose. "Ain't you heard of the Pony?"
"Nope. Come up from Texas. Got things a little like down there, but not with no need for fast, lessen you're runnin' from road agents or Injuns."
"Might be we'll have to," JD allowed, "but the company's promised to get the mail through in ten days, one end of the route to the other." His chin lifted proudly.
The blue eyes widened skeptically, but Tanner said nothing, only gathered up his reins and led his horse toward the trough. "JD," Nettie said, "get the saddles off them ponies and let 'em rest. You been at this all morning, high time you do something else before you get so tired you miss a stirrup and crack your head open."
"Done that a time or two already," JD muttered unhappily as he moved toward the tethered animals. "Missed the stirrup, I mean." He noticed the movement of Tanner's hat as he tipped his head to listen, eyes speculative.
"Casey comin' in!" yelled Ned, and the girl trotted through the gate on Partner, her face stormy with self-rebuke.
"Didn't you get any meat?" JD asked innocently.
"Rifle misfired," the girl grumped as she dismounted. "Made such a dang noisy click the whole bunch of antelope took off. Then I stopped by Spaulding's Slough hoping I'd get a goose, only there was a coyote on the other side who had the same idea, and when they saw him they all flew and I couldn't get my shotgun around in time to nail one. Guess the stage passengers'll have to eat salt pork."
Tanner tipped his head down and lifted a hand to his face as if to hide a grin. "Who's that?" Casey asked.
"Says his name is Vin Tanner and he's up from Texas for Denver," JD replied. "Your aunt's just invited him to stay to dinner."
Tanner watered his horse, stripped the saddle off and slung it over the rails of the corral, and turned the animal out to roll and feed, then walked over to the washing trough beside the kitchen door, unbuttoned his shirt and shrugged it off, and began sluicing soapy water over his arms, chest, and face. A small embroidered pouch of soft deerskin hung around his neck by a thong, and lower down a little round gold locket suspended by a thin golden chain. On one shoulder was a scar, a puckered indentation that even to JD's admittedly unpractised eye looked the wrong size and shape to have been made by a bullet, and a long curved slash, bluish from old infection, ran around his right ribs just above the waist. Nettie came out again and paused briefly to look him over. "Land, boy, you look like you been through the mill," she said, and stared narrowly at the mark on his shoulder. "Get yourself run through with a lance, did you?"
The Texan hesitated, then nodded. "Yes ma'am."
"Tonkawa, Caddo, or somebody else?" Nettie asked, and JD frowned, wondering who these groups might be.
Tanner ducked his head. "Mexican. How come you didn't ask was it Comanche?"
"'Cause you mostly don't see folks wearing Comanche moccasins that's been on the receiving end of Comanche weapons," the woman told him, and he looked up at her with wide astonished eyes. "Had a stock tender working here a couple of years ago who mentioned them fringes," she explained.
Tanner seemed to struggle with himself a moment, then faced her with the wash rag still in his hand. "Wasn't no captive," he said. "Peneteka took me in when I's a sprout and didn't have no place left to go. Be with 'em yet if Rangers hadn't took me from 'em, most like." There was a defiant and faintly desperate note to his voice.
"Don't make no never mind to me who raised you," Nettie said. "You're here now and hungry, that's all I care about. Finish your washin'."
Tanner exhaled slowly, a look of bewilderment in his vivid eyes, and turned back to his ablutions.
JD was a growing boy and liked good food, and he could put away a reasonably full meal with enjoyment, but even he was astonished at the size of the slight stranger's appetite. Tanner ate neatly but had three helpings of everything and four of a couple. At the end he sat back with a contented sigh but seemed slightly surprised himself by his feat. "Sorry, Miz Nettie," he said. "Wasn't meanin' to eat you out of house and home. Reckon I didn't know how long it's been since I had me a good home-cooked meal."
Nettie smiled sparely. "Does a cook good to know her food's appreciated," was all she said.
"Still," the Texan rejoined, "seems like I sh'd be doin' somethin' to balance accounts. Heard your gal say stage passengers'd have to eat salt pork 'cause she couldn't get no game. When's it due?"
Nettie peered at the clock. "Just about six-thirty. Five hours and some."
Tanner nodded. "Reckon I can fetch somethin' in."
"Needn't feel you have to. Casey exaggerates some. We've got plenty of good smoked meat on hand--ham and buffalo ham, wild turkeys and venison--and part of a beef carcass in the cool cellar."
The young man smiled shyly. "I et at a stage station or two, ma'am, and most ain't got nowhere near's the cook you are. Them folks on the stage is likely sick to death of smoked and pickled and ready to kill for somethin' fresh. You let me fetch you somethin'."
"Well...reckon I can't stop you if you're bound to it."
"No ma'am," Tanner agreed, and went out to get his horse.
Three hours later he was back with a long string of quail, half a dozen cottontail rabbits, and a young bull elk. "My land of love, son," Nettie exclaimed as she looked them over, "every one of these birds is head- shot! I thought you had a scattergun. I've never seen the like of it."
"Weren't nothin'," said Tanner with a shrug. "Always been able to do it, ever since I's a young'un. It's a gift, I reckon."
"It is that," Nettie agreed. "You happen to be looking for a job, son? Lost my hunter to the gold fields last summer, and good as Casey is I don't always favor the notion of her ridin' all over the prairie by herself, with the Sioux making a fuss like they've been, and that medicine-hat pony to tempt 'em. Pays two dollars a day and cartridges, plus your keep."
The Texan hesitated. "Ain't I don't 'preciate the offer, but I's kinda hopin' not to waste no time gittin' to Denver."
"Well, it's your choice," Nettie admitted. "Might as well stay the night now and move on after you get a good breakfast under your belt. I'll fry up these quail for supper and have 'em hot for the passengers."
At six-thirty the stage came thundering out of the dusk that already shrouded the eastern horizon, and the hostlers ran for the team's heads. The driver threw his reins to one of them, coiled his whip and got down to open the door. "All out for supper, folks. Half an hour."
First to swing down was a wiry, graceful man not unlike Tanner in height and build, though not so lean; he offered his hand to the lady disembarking after him, then paused to straighten a dark-maroon coat and fuss with the ruffled cuffs of his frill-chested Irish-linen shirt, secured by ruby cuff buttons. He doffed his low soft black hat, banged it against his leg to shake the dust off, then wrinkled his nose and began brushing at the tight mouse-colored pants strapped under his polished Wellington half-boots. "Best come if you're coming, brother," the driver yelled from the washbench, "schedule don't wait."
Ezra Standish sighed resignedly and made his way toward the light of the open door, not expecting much more than the barest sustenance--at least by his exacting standards. The room surprised him: warm, clean, well-lit. A big man with curly gray hair was conferring quietly with the driver in the corner by the bar while the oncoming driver and guard studied the latter's passenger manifest, a slender boy in a bowler sat skewed sideways on a bench watching the passengers with interest, and a long-haired young man wearing what appeared to be moccasins and Indian leggings over conventional trousers, with a scruffy look but an undeniable presence, leaned against the wall by the china cupboard scanning the scene, thumbs hooked behind his suspenders but never far from the Dragoon Colt at his waist.
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