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Rearview Mirror

1860

A Whoop, a Flutter of Hoofs and a Speck on the Horizon

April 02, 2006

This week in 1860, the first Pony Express run to California left St. Joseph, Mo. Changing mounts every 10 to 15 miles, a relay team of riders carried the mail to Sacramento in just 10 days. The Pony Express went out of business with the launching of the transcontinental telegraph system 18 months later, but it never left the national imagination. Credit for that goes to the pluck of the riders as well as to Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West shows, and to Mark Twain. Twain's account of catching sight of a rider while on a stagecoach trip appeared in "Roughing It" in 1872.

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The pony-rider was usually a little bit of a man, brimful of spirit and endurance. . . . He rode a splendid horse that was born for a racer and fed and lodged like a gentleman; kept him at his utmost speed for ten miles, and then, as he came crashing up to the station where stood two men holding fast a fresh, impatient steed, the transfer of rider and mailbag was made in the twinkling of an eye, and away flew the eager pair and were out of sight before the spectator could get hardly the ghost of a look. . . .

We had had a consuming desire, from the beginning, to see a pony-rider, but somehow or other all that passed us and all that met us managed to streak by in the night, and so we heard only a whiz and a hail, and the swift phantom of the desert was gone . . .

But now we were expecting one along every moment, and would see him in broad daylight. . . . Away across the endless dead level of the prairie a black speck appears against the sky, and it is plain that it moves. Well, I should think so! In a second or two it becomes a horse and rider, rising and falling, rising and falling--sweeping toward us nearer and nearer . . . and the flutter of the hoofs comes faintly to the ear--another instant a whoop and a hurrah from our upper deck, a wave of the rider's hand, but no reply, and man and horse burst past our excited faces . . . So sudden is it all, and so like a flash of unreal fancy, that but for the flake of white foam left quivering and perishing on a mail-sack after the vision had flashed by and disappeared, we might have doubted whether we had seen any actual horse and man at all.

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Source: "Roughing It," by Mark Twain, A Signet Classic From New American Library, 1980

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