“The Swift Phantom
of the Desert”
Of all the many chapters in the history of the Old West, few hold the romantic afterglow of the Pony Express. Books have been written about it; movies have been made about it; it was immortalized by artists of the period, most notably Frederic Remington in his Changing Horses.
William F. Cody was a part of the short, brilliant life of the Pony Express—shorter than one might think. Although its memory has re/ mained fresh for nearly 140 years, the Pony Express itself only lasted for a matter of 19 months, 2 weeks, and 3 days.
This is how Mark Twain, who rode a stagecoach to California in 1860, described a Pony Express rider in his book Roughing It:
In a little while all interest was taken up in stretching our necks and watching for the “pony rider”—the fleet messenger who sped across the continent from St. Joe to Sacramento, carrying letters nineteen hundred miles in eight days! Think of that for perishable horse and human flesh and blood to do! The pony rider was usually a little bit of a man, brim/ ful of spirit and endurance. No matter what time of the day or night his watch came on, and no matter whether it was winter or summer, raining, snowing, hailing, or sleeting, or whether his “beat” was a level straight road or a crazy trail over mountain crags or precipices, or whether it led through peaceful regions or regions that swarmed with hostile Indians he must be always ready to leap into the saddle and be off like the wind!
We 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 us in the night, and so we heard only the whiz and a hail, and the swift phantom of the desert was gone before we could get our heads out of the windows.…