Ride, Cowboy, Ride

Even for a boy born in the saddle, the uneven rhythm of Sparky's stride stretched out in a full gallop had turned to torture. It made it that much harder for Tim Ballard to wind the rough twine around the saddle horn and the reins to secure the mail bag to the horse's back.

The Texas sun was at its full, merciless blast, beating down on Tim and turning the quiet desert into a scorched wasteland. Tim knew dehydration was supposed to set in when a man was waylaid in these conditions, but his hands were still slick with sweat and blood. And they shook even without the pounding gait of Tim's horse as he tried to tie the knots in the mail bag's drawstring.

Sparky stumbled, and Tim was pitched forward, slamming his face into the back of the gelding's head. Wiping the blood from his split lip and choking on the dust from Sparky's main, he patted the horse's neck. "Hang in there, boy. Not that much farther."

It couldn't be, could it? Tim squinted against that damn sun, trying to get his bearings. The glare over the yellow wilderness made it hard to judge where they were. But Tim had stayed mostly on course when he'd spotted the masked riders bearing down on him. After all, getting lost himself would be the same as getting killed.

Tim spat again, but couldn't find the moisture to get the dust out of his mouth. *Idiot,* he thought to himself, *idiot for losing your water and your gun.* Lucky for him he'd managed to hit the highway robbers' horses before they'd managed to hit him.

The bullet wound burned something fierce, and the heat seemed to be melting him into the horse's back. The dry dust and the jolting, up-and- down-up-and-down of the galloping horse stole his breath.

*Jesus, man, you aint even got paid yet! You're only seventeen, you're not gonna die on your first damn run!* he told himself.

Out of the yellow glare ahead, he spotted the vague silhouette of the way station. Another hour's ride at most. If he'd had the breath or energy to spare, he'd have crowed. He'd have to miss a few runs to get that bullet out and treated, but Ma and Dad would be glad to get the pay he'd bring back.

*Almost there. Almost there.*

When the horse came limping into the way station with his rider way off-kilter in the saddle, the boys knew something had happened. One of them ran for the boss while the other cut the rider down.

"Need me to fetch a doctor?" asked the boy who came with the boss.

The second boy shook his head. "Nah. He's dead. Shot." He held up the mail bag. "Tied himself and the mail to the saddle, though, boss."

"Glad to see that," said the boss. "How's the horse?"

"Needs water, but fine."

"Good. Good head on his shoulders. Shame." Boss shook his head.

That was life on the Pony Express. Take care of the mail first, your horse next, your skin last. That was the rule.

"Gonna send his pay to his folks, Boss?" asked one of the boys as he led the horse into the shade.

Boss shook his head. "Nah. Didn't finish his run."

The End