Christopher Corbett was chasing down the truth about the Pony Express one day near Mud Springs, Neb., when a local shared some words of wisdom:
"We don't lie out here. We just remember big."
In "Orphans Preferred: The Twisted Truth and Lasting Legend of the Pony Express," Corbett examines fact and fiction about the short-lived mail relay that captured the expanding nation's imagination.
While carrying mail along the 1,950-mile route between St. Joseph, Mo., and Sacramento in 1860 and 1861, wiry horsemen fought Indians and the elements, barren deserts and desperadoes.
Their grit is not in dispute.
"What I was trying to do was celebrate the genius of an American legend and, if possible, separate fact from fiction, which in the case of the Pony [Express] isn't always easy to do," Corbett said in a telephone interview from his home in Baltimore.
"This is a little like Paul Revere's ride. It's rooted in fact, but it's layered with 150 years of embellishment, fabrication and outright lies," he said.
Corbett's book, published this fall, is the first major examination of the Pony Express in 50 years.
Douglas Brinkley, director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies and history professor at the University of New Orleans, brands it "a first-rate narrative history."
Dale Ryan of Carson City, former president of the National Pony Express Assn., calls it "one of the most authoritative books ever written" on the subject.
Not bad for a Maine native who knew nothing about the Pony Express until stumbling across an old station in 1996 at Fort Churchill, 50 miles southeast of Reno.
In more than five years of research, Corbett visited research facilities in eight states along the route of "the Pony," as it was known in its time.
"The more I researched the Pony, the more I loved it," said Corbett, 51, a University of Maryland-Baltimore County journalism lecturer and former Associated Press reporter and news editor.
But Corbett also found the story was embellished over the years by Mark Twain, Buffalo Bill Cody, Frederic Remington and others. Dime novels and Hollywood added to the lore.
Cody immortalized the fast-mail service by making it a fixture in his popular Wild West shows from 1883 to 1916, Corbett said, though he doubts stories that Cody was a Pony rider at a tender age.
"It's apparent that other people didn't let the facts get in the way of a good story," Corbett said. "It was the golden age of prevaricators and these guys were masters. I believe Buffalo Bill was just a messenger for the Pony."
Corbett also is skeptical that the much-repeated phrase "orphans preferred" appeared in Pony Express rider recruitment ads. No evidence of the original has ever surfaced, he said.
"I picked the phrase for the book title because it perfectly evoked the twisted truth and lasting legend of the Pony," Corbett said. "There's not a gift shop between St. Joe and Sacramento where you can't buy that ad."
Corbett challenges the wholesome image that stems from the oath that all Pony employees signed stating they would not drink, gamble or swear.
He cites accounts to the contrary by travelers of the time, and archeological digs that uncovered hundreds of fragments of liquor bottles at two Nevada Pony stations.
"The myth is that they were choir boys, but they weren't. These were tough guys," Corbett said.
Despite the legends, the fact remains that the Pony's unprecedented mail service of 10 days or less was an amazing feat that helped link the young country from sea to shining sea, he said.
Corbett praises the grit of riders such as Robert "Pony Bob" Haslam, who is widely credited with making the Pony's longest ride.
Haslam's 380-mile round-trip gallop from his Lake Tahoe home station to central Nevada took place at the height of the Paiute Indian War. He encountered burned stations, slain station keepers and a relief rider who refused to go -- all in a ride that took less than 40 hours.
"Pony Bob wasn't a tall tale; he was the real deal," Corbett said. "His ride was the high-water mark of Pony rides."
Although Twain embellishes some aspects of the Pony, he offers in his "Roughing It" one of the most vivid accounts ever of a rider, Corbett said. Twain was thrilled to see what he called "the swift phantom of the desert" while on a stagecoach journey to Nevada in 1861.
"Twain really admired and romanticized the riders of the Pony Express," Corbett said. "This is one of the most significant events in the creation of the Pony Express story -- the fact that Mark Twain saw the fast mail."
Although the mail service lasted only 18 months and never made a dime, the lone rider on the plains remains one of the most enduring images of the Old West. The Pony folded after the transcontinental telegraph was completed.
"No memory of the vanished 19th century West is more revered, and few are more beloved and cherished, than that of the long-ago riders," Corbett wrote. "And some of those memories are even true."