A Brief But Legendary Ride

JulyBook1Click. 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 note read it and can reply as quickly, even if they live on the other side of the world. You gotta 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, Nebraska. 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 Company, 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, the Pony reduced that communication time to a mere ten days. But first, funds had to be prepared and contracts JulyBook2signed to the tune of over $68 million in today’s money. The company bought 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 guns were a necessity. 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 about the shadiness of one of the Pony’s founders, and also hear tales of the riders themselves, too. Even the unknown facets of the Pony Express are treated with a lightness that makes readers want to learn 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.

About Terri Schlichenmeyer