Abby heard a long, distant call, somewhere out there in the night. A trumpeting call, like a bugle or maybe it was only the wind. Snow whirled past the cabin window in an endless parade of white, and the wind moaned as it blew around the corner of their house. There had been blizzards like this last March, but this year was different. Abby didn’t feel content inside, as Mama sewed and Papa whittled in the flickering light of the fire, as their old draft horse James slept peacefully in the barn. This year something inside her felt unsettled as she looked out at the wild blur of snowflakes. There was something bigger and better she could be doing. Something more important than knitting stockings, more interesting than sitting inside on these long, long winter evenings.
It was because of the Pony Express, of course. Ever since that exciting day last April, when the first delivery boy in that amazing new mail system had come galloping into the station, Abby had known that she wanted to be one of those fearless Pony Express riders.
That sunny day Papa and Abby had ridden James to one of the stations, where the station keeper and the stock tender kept food and fresh horses for the boys who rode the Pony Express. James plodded along so slowly that the trip took them nearly an hour.
There were only two small log cabins there, alone in the middle of the prairie. One was a stable for the horses; the other served as a storeroom and a place for the men to stay. Abby noticed that the windows were small squares of grease paper instead of glass.
Two wagons were parked in the shadow of the stable; they had been used to bring supplies from the city of St. Joseph.
“This whole thing was one man’s invention,” Papa told Abby. “Mr. William Russell decided that the western territories needed a system that would get the mail to them faster than stagecoach, and so he organized the Pony Express and invested just about all the money he had in it. The man’s probably hoping for a government grant eventually, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they gave it to him. Supposedly these ponies can get the latest news from St. Joseph to Sacramento in ten days.”
Abby shaded her eyes with her hand and gazed at the sky, the long, waving grass, the emptiness in every direction. But it didn’t really feel empty or deserted. It felt as if the land had flattened itself down to make way, and the two little station buildings were the only things brave enough to stay where they were, waiting for whoever was coming.
“I bet the Pony Express will get the mail through faster than that someday,” she said. “All the riders have to do is travel a little bit faster!”
Suddenly a rider’s bugle had echoed across the prairie, warning of his approach. The station keeper, a big, important-looking man with a big, important-looking mustache, hustled Abby and Papa out of the way as he brought out a restless mustang pony, already saddled and prepared for the rider. Soon Abby saw the Pony Express boy, charging across the prairie on his horse, stirring up a tiny cloud of dust.
Papa bent down close to Abby’s ear, his beard tickling her neck. “That rider’s name is Johnny Fry,” he whispered. “He’s the first boy to ever travel for the Pony Express. Today he has ridden all the way from St. Joseph.”
When Johnny Fry got to the station he leaped off his horse, threw the saddlebag full of mail onto the new mustang, jumped up to the mustang’s back, and rode away again, toward far-off Sacramento. It all happened so fast that for a moment Abby was stunned.
“That’s all you get to see,” the station keeper had grunted, as he removed the tired horse’s saddle and led the horse into the stable. “You people just think the Pony Express is a whole heap of cowboys and Indians, don’t you? Well, you’re not going to see any Indians here.”
But Abby had seen enough to decide that she loved it.
Now she shivered in excitement as she pressed her nose against the frosty glass of the cabin window. She could be a rider for the Pony Express! She had ridden lots of horses before. What a wild, adventurous, wonderful life to lead! She would ride through the prairies and mountains and deserts of the West, just her and her faithful pony. She would have a hero’s welcome wherever she went! And if the war over slavery really broke out, she would carry secret messages for their new president, Abraham Lincoln, to help him make the United States into one country again.
Abby examined her reflection in the window. Curling red hair, a little bit bushy; long, but she could gather it into a bun and tuck it under a cowboy hat if she wanted to, out of the way. Hers was a tall, skinny figure; she would certainly be light enough for the horses to carry her long distances. She was only fourteen, but lots of boys that age were working for the Pony Express, and earning over one hundred dollars a month, too! She wasn’t afraid of a snowstorm, she thought defiantly. If only she had been born a boy.
“You neglect your knitting, Abby,” Mama reminded quietly.
Abby jumped and quickly picked up the long needles in her lap.
“Ah, let her daydream,” Papa said, winking at her. “She has enough days of snow ahead to finish my socks.”
Abby smiled into her lap and then looked up again. “Papa,” she asked carefully, “do you think California will secede along with the southern states? And will the Pony Express become a mail carrier for the South, then?”
Papa kept whittling. “Ah, President Lincoln will set things to rights. I have trust in him, Abby. I think we can all put our trust in that great man.”
Abby gazed out the window and wondered if the sound she had heard was a Pony Express rider’s horn. She thought she heard it again, but the sound was part of the blend of wind and snow, and her ears couldn’t be sure. It was like trying to catch a movement far away in the prairie grass.
Then the knock came.
Abby jerked her head up from her knitting. “Papa! Papa, someone’s here! Here at the door!”
Mama’s eyes stayed on her sewing. “Goodness! Can’t you even hear the wind without getting excitable, Abby? Who would come to our house at this time of night?”
The knock came again. Abby was sure it was a knock.
This time Papa jumped up. “If that’s the wind, Clara, then I’m a Confederate!” He unbolted the door and pulled it open. Abby shivered at the cold that swept in.
A young man stood there. He might have been sixteen, or maybe he was eighteen, and just small for his age. He wore a brimmed hat, whitened with snow, and a buckskin shirt under his long cloak. Abby noticed with surprise that there were Indian moccasins on his feet.
He held his right arm against his chest, as if protecting it.
“Sorry,” he said, his voice hoarse, “but I’m a rider for the Pony Express. My name’s Tom. I kept blowing on my horn, but I guess I wasn’t quite as near to the station as I thought. Do . . . do you think I might have a bite to eat before I go on?”
“Of course! Come inside, man!” Papa clapped him on the back and pulled him into the cabin, pushing the door shut against the swirling blizzard.
Tom was tall and thin, with light, unkempt hair that brushed over his eyes. He kept his arm against his chest as he talked. “I carry the words of our good president Abraham Lincoln, which he spoke as his inaugural speech. I take them to California for the people there to read. Actually,” he added sheepishly, “I only take them to the next Pony Express station, where a different rider will relay them on.”
“But that’s just two miles away!” Abby exclaimed. “What made you stop?” She couldn’t believe it. A real, live Pony Express rider, here, in her own cabin!
The boy smiled ruefully. “Actually, I only signed up a week ago. This is my first run. And my mustang. . . well, he’s a frisky one. The truth of it is, he bucked me right off and my arm seems to have sprained itself a little—I don’t know whether it’s broke or not. But I’ll be just fine in a minute or two! I can still ride . . . I think.” He grinned shakily.
“Good heavens! Your horse is out in that storm? Does he have a blanket?” Papa asked.
“Yeah, two or three at least, and an apple I gave him. He’ll be fine for a few minutes, I’d say.” Tom pulled his leather saddlebag, his mochila, out from under his cloak and slung it onto the table. He brought all the letters inside with him, Abby thought. They were even a higher priority than his horse!
“How long have you known how to ride?” Papa asked, glancing at Tom’s arm.
Tom shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “Well, nearly . . . nearly three weeks, now.”
Only three weeks! Abby herself had been able to ride for years! Papa had taught her to ride their old horse James almost as soon as she could walk. How could a person not know how to ride a horse by the time they were Tom’s age? she thought scornfully.
“Goodness, how did you ever manage to get the position?” Mama inquired.
“Well, my uncle’s a friend of the man who runs one of the stations. He said he’d recommend me. I know I don’t deserve the chance,” Tom added hastily, “but I’ll learn. Before long I’ll be able to ride any old pony. And stay on, too.”
Mama had heated up some beans on the cookstove and now she gave Tom a bowl full, along with two leftover biscuits from supper. He ate hungrily, leaning over his dish. He held his spoon with his left hand.
“I’m sorry you folks have to take me in and feed me like this,” he said, between mouthfuls. “I mean, it’s awfully nice of you to do it.”
“Stay the night, Tom,” Papa invited. “This is no weather to be riding in, and even if it was, you’re in no condition to ride!”
Tom looked up from his food. “Oh, no, sir! The mail has got to go through, and especially today. President Lincoln’s words will keep every Californian a loyal member of the Union. I’m sure of it!”
His right arm brushed against the table, and Abby saw him wince. She was so filled with excitement that she could barely keep still. Poor Tom didn’t even look like he could hold the reins, but she had two strong arms and was ever so much lighter than her mother or father! Lighter than Tom, even! And the station was only two miles away.
“Papa,” she said, trying to keep her voice from wavering, trying to keep herself from shouting out the words. “Papa, I could take the mail! It’s only two miles. Tom can’t go with his arm like that. Not if he’s been riding for only three weeks! Not if his horse is so wild!”
Tom looked up again. “Oh, no! I couldn’t ask you to do a thing like that! It’s my job, and I’ve got to take care of it myself. You’re . . . you’re just a girl.”
Abby grew more determined. “I could!” she said. “You know I could, Papa. I’ve ridden horses before; I’ve even driven the wagon!”
For a rare moment Papa was serious. “Abby! You couldn’t find your way! You’d get lost and you would probably freeze to death!”
“It’s . . . it’s actually very easy, sir,” Tom said hesitantly. “You just head west. They have lamps in all the windows, and the pony knows what to do.”
“Papa,” Abby begged, “the South might get word to California first. They could turn President Lincoln’s speech inside out! And California might secede.”
This was the only chance she would ever, ever have, and she couldn’t possibly let it get past her.
“I am well aware of that, Abby. I agree that Tom shouldn’t continue at the moment, but you are too young.”
“I’m really well enough to get there myself,” Tom protested.
Mama crossed her arms in front of her. “Richard,” she said, “Abby is right. Everyone in California needs to read Tom’s mail. As soon as possible.”
“Tomorrow is as soon as it can be, Clara.”
“Tomorrow is tomorrow. We can do something about it tonight.”
Papa stared at her for a moment. The fire flicked shadows onto the walls, and the snow howled past outside the window. Finally, he sighed. “Well, if we agree that the mail needs to get through, then so be it. But I’m the one who should go.”
“Sir, the pony should be carrying someone . . . a little bit lighter. The station keeper said that we all have to be under one hundred and twenty-five pounds, and you’re, well, not to offend you or anything, but . . .”
Abby smiled to herself. Papa was a big man, not round about the middle, but big. Much heavier than one hundred and twenty-five pounds.
“Richard!” Mama said again. “Abby is going to go. Can’t you see that? If we told her ‘no’ once more, I think she would get on that mustang and ride off anyways.” She smiled at Abby, and Abby smiled back, amazed. Mama was letting her go! Mama was actually agreeing!
“Honestly, Richard. For the Kansas we live in and the California where others live, and for the two of them united together, don’t you think we should risk something? I think you are much too heavy for that pony.”
Papa’s face slowly broke into a smile. “Well . . . I guess I am much too heavy for that pony out there. I reckon he’d be tired out by the time he got me to the station.” He turned to Abby. “Well, get going,” he said.
Abby hugged him and he hugged her back, his big arms surrounding her and his beard tickling her neck. Then she hugged Mama, too, and began to pull on her long winter coat over her dress.
“Oh, all right,” Tom said. “I guess I’ll let you go. Just one thing; don’t let him buck you.”
Abby smiled at him as she wrapped a scarf around her neck, grabbed the mochila full of mail, and stepped outside. Tom wasn’t really very brave, she thought.
The wind blasted into her, nearly slamming her body backwards into the cabin wall. Tom’s brown mustang stood in front of her, snorting and pawing at the snow. Abby saw the golden shine of the bugle, tied to the back of the saddle.
She threw the leather mochila over the pony’s back, took a deep breath, and pulled herself up, too. It was reassuring to feel the horse’s warm body against her legs.
“Giddyup!” she cried, but the wind caught her voice and pulled it away into the snow. She nudged the mustang lightly with her heels, and he began to trot forward, prancing as if he had traveled the same route before and knew exactly where to go, but wasn’t in a hurry just yet.
The wind blew needles into Abby’s cheeks, but she didn’t care. “I’m a rider for the Pony Express!” she shouted, knowing that there was no one to hear her except the horse.
The pony began to run and Abby gripped his sides with her knees and leaned forward, clutching the saddle horn. The horse took a little leap sideways, but she managed to keep her balance and jerk the reins to the opposite side before he could do it again. He was frisky, but she could handle him! She began to feel exceedingly brave.
Nothing but dark snow passed on either side.
And more snow.
And more snow.
Abby began to curl and uncurl her toes inside her shoes, trying to warm them up. Her cheeks felt numb and dull, and she could barely feel it when she slapped them with her mittened hand. Her knees gripped the horse’s sides automatically.
Surely the pony would know the way, wouldn’t he? The station couldn’t be much farther. It was only two miles from their cabin! The horse kept galloping forward, the flakes kept sweeping past on either side. Abby kept curling and uncurling her toes.
She began to feel as if she would never be anywhere but on this mustang, riding through this same dark world of snow.
The horse kept galloping forward, the flakes kept sweeping past on either side. Abby kept curling and uncurling her toes.
Suddenly, she was afraid. The pony could just stop and lie down and they would freeze, the two of them. There would be nothing in the world that she could do about it! No one would see her, no matter how long she waved. No one would hear her, no matter how long she called.
But the horse kept galloping forward, the flakes kept sweeping past on either side. And Abby kept curling and uncurling her toes.
She jolted her head up. There was a light! Through the layers and layers of snow shone the light of a lamp! Tom’s mustang must have seen it, too, for he whinnied and began charging forward even faster than before. Warmth flooded into Abby’s hands and feet and cheeks. It was the station! She was going to get the mail through after all! She wouldn’t be stuck in this world of snow forever and ever and ever. The pony bounded forward and Abby threw back her head and laughed.
As they came closer, she saw another young man waiting on the back of his pony, ready to take the mail and carry it away through the whiteness. She had forgotten to blow the horn, she realized, but still he was ready and waiting.
The station keeper with the big mustache was standing outside one of the little log buildings, holding a lantern.
“Throw me your mochila!” he shouted. Abby stood in her stirrups and tossed it to him. In one motion he slung it on the next rider’s horse, slapped the horse’s flank and yelled, “Get going!”
The pony and its rider disappeared into the snow.
It was over. No one was cheering, no one was waiting to congratulate her. And only two people knew what she had accomplished. For a moment Abby didn’t know what to think.
But in the next moment she discovered that she didn’t care! She had assured that the mail was safe, and who knew how important that might turn out to be for her country? Just think, those two miles that had seemed so long could have changed the course of history! They could have changed history even more than some of those famous men who were thought of as heroes. It was a glorious feeling to be able to play a part, even a little part, in something so huge and important!
It took more courage to do when you knew you weren’t going to be made a hero for it, more courage than she had imagined. But all the Pony Express riders had that courage! Abby decided that Tom was brave for wanting to be one of those riders, although people probably wouldn’t even remember his name a hundred years into the future.
“Are you planning on getting off that horse?” the station keeper barked. He squinted up at her through the snow and in the light of the lantern his round face lit up with surprise. “Why, you’re not the rider that was supposed to come galloping in here, missy! You’re just a girl!”
Abby slipped off the mustang, but the man still stared at her.
“The other rider hurt his arm,” she explained hastily. “He stopped at our cabin. He didn’t look like he could ride very well, so I figured, since I’m so light, that I could bring the mail the last two miles. And I did.” She brushed the snow out of her eyes. The blizzard whirled all around her, but somewhere inside herself Abby felt a place that was perfectly still. Almost content.
The station keeper looked her up and down. “Well, I guess you are a Pony Express rider after all. But you’re not going to ride back in this blow, especially considering you don’t have a horse no more.” He took the pony’s reins from Abby’s hands. Abby stared at him.
“Well, get hustling inside, missy! You can head back as soon as this storm is over. If you’re one of those Pony Express riders, well . . . I’d guess they deserve anything I can give ’em.” Abby smiled in relief and followed the station keeper inside. Secretly, she agreed with him.
Note: The Pony Express ran from April 3, 1860, to October 24, 1861, when the telegraph put it out of business. When the Pony Express delivered President Lincoln’s inaugural speech in 1861, it was their fastest time on record. They carried the mail from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California, in seven days and seventeen hours, despite the harsh March weather.