Riders on the Storm

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Feb 2, 2013 | By Meredith Jaeger

In the lore of the American West, one figure stands starkly as silhouette on the horizon--a lone rider on his horse. With nothing but a revolver, a bible and a sack of water, he waits in the darkness, listening for hoof beats. 
The year was 1860, and the horseman, slight in build and still in adolescence, was a member of The Pony Express. There were 120 others like him: young, dauntless, and willing to risk it all.
With the threat of civil war looming over the nation, California’s newly booming population demanded news from the east. The telegraph hadn’t yet been established, and horseback was the only means of mail transportation. Already involved in the freight industry, businessmen William Russell, Alexander Majors and William Waddle pooled their resources to found the Pony Express: a service that delivered messages from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California.
Using a series of relay stations along a 1,900- mile route, Pony Express riders galloped 80 miles a day, frequently switching their exhausted horses for fresh ones. After crossing the treacherous terrain of the Great Plains, The Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada, the mail reached California in ten days; an unrivaled feat at the time. 
Of the many men who signed up for the well-paid jobs as Pony Express riders, only the hardy and lightweight were taken on. Purportedly, orphans were preferred—and fourteen-year-old Billy Tate was one of them. 
Assigned to the route through Nevada near Ruby Valley, Billy guarded the mail envelope, known as a mochilla, with his life. Rain or snow, riders took on every hardship, and the Pony Express service had never been interrupted. 
But that changed in May of 1860, when after a bitter winter, the Paiute Indian tribe declared war. Despite calls for peace from their chief, Paiute Indians ransacked Pony Express stations, killing employees, stealing horses and destroying property. 
In the midst of the Paiute uprising, Billy took cover and killed seven of his attackers before a hailstorm of arrows took his life. When his body was found, Billy hadn’t been scalped-- a sign that the Paiute honored their enemy. 
By 1861, electric signals were transmitting messages and the Pony Express was no longer needed. Horse and rider faded into the sunset, emblems of a romanticized past.