The crude map was drawn on poorly tanned deer skin. Uncle Billy Herman, Blue Smoke Billy most folks called him, had given it to my dad. That was in 1920. Billy died shortly afterward at the age of 78 and the map, placed in a trunk, had been forgotten.
Last week Dad was looking for his prepaid burial contract and found Billy’s map. It was under the last quilt Grandma made. And Billy’s last words began to percolate in Dad’s thoughts.
“Do you know anything about the Pony Express days,” Dad asked. I had dropped by to see if his diabetes was under control and resupply his Columbian roast coffee stock.
“Just the little I’ve read in western novels and seen in the movies.”
“It changed the history of our country but it didn’t last long – only eighteen months.” He paused. “I’ve been reading up on it.”
“That’s good, Dad.”
“Sit” he said, pointing to a dining room chair. “I want to show you something.”
In a few minutes, he hobbled back and spread out an old leather map on the table.
“Uncle Billy said when he was sixteen years old he was a Pony Express Rider. When I expressed a little doubt, which was required for about anything he said, he offered to prove it. He claimed he still had a scar on his butt from a Paiute arrow.”
Dad chuckled. “He was dropping his pants but I stopped that right quick. I never saw the scar.
“Billy said he quit one night when a blizzard in Nevada nearly froze him to the saddle. After a majority vote of one, he took a left instead of a right and headed to Texas. He had cause enough he thought for breaking the employment oath he’d sworn to uphold. But he knew it wasn’t right to abscond with the Landis saddle and mochila.”
The heater-blower came on, stirring some dust bunnies from under the table that distracted me. “Did you say mochila?”
“It’s a mail bag, a leather blanket with holes placed to fit over the saddle horn and cantle. Cantinas, or square leather boxes, are on the lower corners. Two cantinas carried up to 20 pounds of mail and were padlocked. The other two held the rider’s water bag, pistol, Bible and a bugle. The bugle was used to alert the next station to get a horse ready. When the rider arrived, he had two minutes to swap the mochila onto another horse and be off.”
“Uncle Billy was spinning a windy? If he skedaddled with the government’s mail they’d a hung him if they caught him.”
“Maybe, maybe not. He said his name was wrong on their records but it didn’t matter. He got paid. He wasn’t any bigger than a banty rooster and his age fits the historical period. They didn’t hire anyone over age 18 or 125 pounds. But, look at this map.”
“Sabinal Canyon? Were’s that?” I stabbed with a finger, “And what does this ‘X’ mean?”
“The ‘X’ marks the location of a small cave below a high, flint-faced bluff. The canyon is out west of San Antonio. He ditched the saddle and hid the mochila in his blanket-roll until he could stash it in the cave. He intended to return for it someday but …”
Dad removed his eyeglasses and squinted hard at me. “I want you to find that cave. If the mochila is there, according to what I’ve read, it will be the only one in existence. It will be worth a fortune.”
“Didn’t you say Uncle Billy would rather climb a tree to tell a lie when it would have been easier to stand on the ground and tell the truth?” Dust bunnies quivered on the floor.
“I did, Son. But he was about to die. Confession is good for the soul and maybe he had that in mind. I believe he was telling the truth for once. I want you to check it out.”
“I’d go, but I can’t crawl around those rocky hills on one leg. You’ll look, won’t you? It’s part of our country’s history. If it’s there and the rats haven’t eaten it, it needs to be in the Pony Express museum.”
One thing I know for sure as I drive south toward Sabinal canyon and a little town on the map called Utopia: if Uncle Billy carried a Bible in his mochila, he should have read it.
Uncle Billy rides again.
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