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Views and opinions: Long before the internet, ‘the Pony’ herded letters

 

West Like Lightning: The Brief, Legendary Ride of the Pony Express by Jim DeFelice

c.2018, William Morrow

$27.99/$34.99 Canada

357 pages

Click. No stamps. And, email sent.

You didn’t have to hunt an envelope down, and no trip to the mailbox – within a minute or so, the recipient of your missive read it and he can reply as quickly, even if he lives on the other side of the world. You’ve got to love technology; even more so after you’ve read West Like Lightning by Jim DeFelice.

Everyone was tense on that evening in November 1860, but nobody more so than the young man who was pacing on a porch in Ft. Kearny, Neb. As soon as word came from St. Louis – word that held the fate of the United States – he’d jump aboard a pony and head west because he was an employee of the Central Overland California & Pikes Peak Express Co. – the Pony Express, or just “the Pony.”

The Pony had begun just a few months before, a creation floated by three partners, one of whom was a bit of a criminal. William Hepburn Russell, William B. Waddell and Alexander Majors knew that success for their endeavor relied on quick missives between Missouri and California at a time “when weeks, if not months, were the norm for coast-to-coast communication.”

Ultimately, once riders learned their routes well and knew where the dangers lay (and, incidentally, once most of them became celebrities), the Pony reduced that communication time to a mere 10 days.

But first, funds had to be prepared and contracts signed to the tune of “over $68 million” in today’s money. The company purchased more than 7,500 oxen and thousands of ponies, most of which were “half or mostly wild when bought.”

Riders weren’t required to wear uniforms, but firearms were necessities, although shooting a weapon was dicey from the back of a horse. Stationmasters and supervisors were hired to hold the whole operation together; they were, says DeFelice, “unsung heroes.”

And yet, despite speedy delivery of the news, despite that the population of the West was growing, despite the romance it would gain over the decades, the Pony was only meant to be temporary. Eighteen months after it began, it was done.

Imagine, if you will, that your book is embedded with hundreds of tiny firecrackers and each time you read something enlightening or surprising, one crackles. That’s what it’s like to open West Like Lightning.

And it isn’t just that author Jim DeFelice writes about a small page in American history; he also entertains. We learn, with a few wry asides, about the shadiness of one of the Pony’s founders. A little bit of sarcasm floats around tales of the riders themselves.

Even the unknown facets of the Pony Express are treated with a what-can-you-do lightness that makes readers want to learn even more. It also helps that DeFelice doesn’t ignore the rest of America’s colorful characters of those pre-Civil War days.

This is a no-brainer for Western enthusiasts. It’s a must-have for historians and fact-fiends. Start this book and enjoy the ride. West Like Lightning will get your stamp of approval.

 

Terri Schlichenmeyer has been reading since she was three years old and never goes anywhere without a book. She lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 14,000 books.

6/7/2018