Authors: Holly Hughes
Hoofbeats of Danger
Lying on her back in the willow thicket, eleven-year-old Annie Dawson stared up at the clouds scudding eastward across the vast blue sky. Those same clouds came over the Continental Divide only a few hours ago, Annie thought to herself. They'll coast over the Great Plains nextâmaybe make it all the way east to the Mississippi River before they drop their rain.
Annie absentmindedly brushed her cheek with the tip of one of her long, silver-blond braids. She'd crossed the Mississippi River once herself, but she'd only been an infant then. She was born in the back of her parents' covered wagon, somewhere in Indiana on their way west from Vermont. That was in 1849, the year thousands of other fortune seekers had gone to California dreaming of gold.
“Someday I'll see what's east of the Mississippi,” Annie murmured to herself. “Someday I'll ride a steam locomotive, or even a paddle wheel boat. I'll see the world, or my name ain't Annie Dawson.”
Her thoughts were interrupted by a noisy woodpecker, drilling for bugs in the trunk of an alder tree.
Annie tipped her head back, hoping to catch a glimpse of his bright red crown. Nearby, autumn sunlight glinted on the bright leaves of a cottonwood, already shining gold for fall.
Just then, the trailing branches above her quivered and swayed. Annie held her breath. Was that the breeze, or had the ground trembled slightly? Listening, she thought she heard a low rumble, far away. “Davy, you hear that?”
Her six-year-old brother sat nearby, dreamily leafing through the worn McGuffey's Reader Annie had been using for his reading lessons. Dappled sunlight shone on his bowl-cut hair, straw-colored just like Annie's. “Hear what?” he asked.
“Hoofbeats,” Annie declared, sitting up. She cocked her head to hear the faint sound echo off the mountain face. “It's the Pony Express rider, coming from the west.” She scrambled to her feet. “That means it's Billy!”
Annie hiked up the skirt of her faded calico dress so she could run better. She dashed through the curtain of trailing willow branches and eyed the steep slope up from the river. Grabbing onto roots and tufts of hardy grass, she hauled herself rapidly up to the Red Buttes Station buildings on the rocky bluff above.
Annie hurried around the corner of the log station house, set on the highest vantage point of the bluff. A wide dirt yard sloped down from the station house to a low-slung log barn. A split-rail corral, empty at this time of day, stood to one side of the barn. A mass of pine scrub and sagebrush crowded up the eastern side of the bluff, as if the wilderness were hungry to reclaim this spot from civilization. But to the north and west, the bluff towered over a stark landscape of flat, rock-strewn plains. In the distance, three flat-topped buttes of rust-colored earth loomed above the land. It was these clay formations that had given Red Buttes Station its name.
The next Express rider, Tom Ward, came striding out of the station house. He had been waiting for several hours, knowing that the rider from the west was due any time. He shrugged his shoulders into a fringed buckskin jacket, holding a piece of fried cornbread between his teeth.
Annie's mother stood in the doorway behind him. “Won't do to leave without finishing your vittles, Tom,” she said. “Not with a hard seventy-five-mile ride ahead of you.”
Tom waved as he sprinted across the dirt yard to the barn. A moment later, he led out a tough little Appaloosa. Like many western horses, it had begun life in a herd of wild mustangs, then was caught by Indians and traded to white settlers, who'd broken it to the saddle.
The horse had been saddled up an hour ago, ready to set off whenever the relay rider arrived. The pony tossed his head, eager for a fast and furious run.
The hoofbeats were drumming closer now. Annie hurried to the spot where the hard-packed trail crested the bluff. Plucking a berry from a juniper bush, she gazed down the trail. The incoming horse and rider were hidden behind a cloud of dust.
Then Annie's heart leaped. There was Billy Cody all right, his wiry figure standing high in the stirrups. And underneath him was Annie's favorite pony, Magpie.
Annie danced impatiently from foot to foot. The black-and-white mustang lifted her head, spotting the girl, and surged up the bluff with one last burst of speed. Magpie galloped into the station yard, her hooves raising a cloud of dust.
Clinging to Magpie's neck, Billy Cody rolled out of the saddle. Before his boots had hit ground, he'd unhitched the mochila, a flat leather saddle cover with a mail pouch at each corner. Inside each of those four locked pockets were the precious letters to be delivered coast to coast in ten days by the new Pony Express mail service. To get this top-speed service, people paid top priceâone dollar per half ounce of mail.
“Hey there, Tom!” Billy sent the mochila sailing through the air.
Tom grabbed it with one hand and swiftly slung it in place over his own saddle. In a flash, he swung up on the Appaloosa. “See you next week, Billy!” He tugged quickly on the reins and tapped the pony with his spurs. The Appaloosa wheeled and took off toward the east, where the trail dipped into the pine scrub.
Billy grinned, his teeth shining white in the middle of his dust-grimed face. “A right quick handoff that time,” he declared, sounding pleased. “And one of my fastest relays ever. Magpie done herself proud.”
Annie skipped over to take Magpie's reins from Billy. Her sides still heaving, the mare whickered and nudged Annie with her soft pink muzzle. Annie laid her cheek against the pony's shoulder, feeling the mare's hot sweat sting her own skin. She could hear Magpie's heart hammering away inside her rib cage.
“It sure is good to see you again, girl,” Annie said softly. It had been a week and a half since Magpie had galloped westward with another relay rider. A half dozen horses came in and out of Red Buttes regularly on Pony Express runs, but Annie yearned for the times when Magpie would be here, resting up for her next relay.
Magpie seemed to know it, too. She lifted her head expectantly Annie, smiling, reached up to tug on the single white streak in Magpie's black mane, just behind her ears. Magpie closed her eyes as Annie scratched her black neck right at the base of the streak. Her long lashesâwhite on the left eye, black on the rightâfluttered happily as she felt Annie's fingers rub her in that special place.
Billy Cody threw his lanky figure on the wooden bench outside the station house. He shoved his dusty hat back on his head, revealing a surprising band of clean forehead up near his sandy-colored hair. “I brought her home to you, Annie,” he said with a playful smile. “Now don't you go spoiling her again. Magpie's a working girlâain't you, Maggie?”
The mustang gave a little snort, for all the world as if she understood Billy's words. Annie and Billy laughed together.
Annie began to walk Magpie slowly around the station yard to cool her off after her hard run. “I'll groom her and feed her, Billy,” she offered.
“That'd be right kind of you, Annie,” Billy said. He stretched his arms wide and arched his back. Rising to his feet, he sauntered over to the water barrel near the stationhouse door. He took the tin scoop hanging beside it and filled it with cold well water. He drank thirstily, then took off his hat and poured a second scoop over his head.
With a satisfied sigh, Billy dropped back onto the bench. Davy, who'd wandered up from the river, came edging around the corner of the house. Billy winked at Davy, then set his hands on his knees.
“It weren't an easy ride, I can tell you,” he began.
Annie and Davy traded delighted glances. They loved it when Billy launched into one of his tales. “I had to drag myself out of bed at Three Crossings before sunup. Ate my breakfast in the saddleâjust hardtack and a hunk of cold salt pork. Didn't even get coffee. Then I ran into a flash floodâclean washed out a gully back in the Granite Range.”
“How'd you get across, Billy?” Davy wondered.
“Talked the horse into jumping over,” Billy replied. “He's a real whirlwind, a shaggy black gelding. You can't beat these mountain ponies for nerve. 'Course, I got stuck with an awful poky horse when I changed at Devil's Gateâlost some time there. Made up for it after Willow Springs when I got on Magpie. Lucky for me, 'cause when we hit the Rattlesnake Hills, we got set on by a pack of Indians.”
Crooking an eyebrow, Annie turned to Billy. “Indians? Were they friendly?”
“I just said they set on me, didn't I?” Billy looked annoyed at her for spoiling the drama of his story. “It was a buffalo hunting party, braves armed to the teeth. Could've been Blackfeet.”
Annie twisted her mouth skeptically. Magpie pawed at a few jagged rocks scattered at the edge of the yard, as if she too doubted Billy's word. “Those ain't Blackfoot lands, that far west,” Annie said. “How were they dressed?” She knew as well as Billy did that there were several tribes in this vast Nebraska Territory, many of them peaceful. Why, just up the mountain lived a half-Shoshone girl named Redbird Wilson. There were few young people around these deserted badlands, and the two girls had quickly become friends. Annie knew that Redbird's mother's people, the Shoshones, had always been friendly to white settlers.