By Linda Kor
As members of the Hashknife Posse head out on the 56th Pony Express Ride they take with them U.S. mail stamped with their special cache, as well as something else of great value, a long tradition of devotion to a Western way of life.
To the men who make up the Hashknife Posse the ride is not just a nod to the posse men of long ago who risked life and limb to ensure that the mail reached its destination, it’s about preserving a way of life that is fast fading away.
Rusty Despain, the son of posse member J.R. DeSpain and great-grandson of founding member Harve Randall, serves as a first lieutenant for the Hashknife Posse and recalls what it was like as a young boy having family be a part of this great tradition.
“Me and my friend would go out to the fairgrounds and practice making the pass over and over. We couldn’t wait to be a part of the posse,” he said. That work continues with his son Kordale, who can also be spotted at the fairgrounds on occasion, practicing just like his dad did as a child and looking forward to the day he can take his place in the Hashknife Posse.
Although the posse has been a part of Holbrook since its inception in 1959, just how big an event the Pony Express Ride has become may not be apparent to the residents here.
“Like most people around here I just took the posse for granted and didn’t think much of it. Then about four years ago I went on the ride and it was really something. Payson, Phoenix, Scottsdale, people just line the streets waiting to see the riders come through town. Foreigners from as far away as England want our autographs. They’re watching history,” said DeSpain. “We have a Western way of life that’s disappearing. If we don’t support, educate and pay attention, it’ll be gone before we know it,” he added.
For J.R. DeSpain, the Hashknife Posse is an important part of Holbrook’s history, both for the Pony Express Ride and for its search and rescue efforts, and provides a record of the men who served in that capacity.
He related the incident in which Harve Randall and Cephas Perkins were called out as part of the Navajo County Sheriff’s Hashknife Posse on a cold winter night in January 1957. A Navy bomber had gone down northwest of Joseph City as a heavy snow was falling and the Navy had lost contact with the crew. The two men headed out in a pickup truck, but thick mud stopped them at the old Marshall Ranch on Cottonwood Wash where they could see the burning plane off in the distance. Randall stayed with the radio as Perkins went out in the night to see if he could find the men who had been in the plane.
Spotting a small light in the distance, he followed it to discover one of the flight crew. From there he went on to locate all 11 members of the crew, including one man who had suffered a broken leg.
All the men were brought back to the pickup truck and were driving back as the rest of the posse was on their way to aid them. Both men received letters from the Defense Department thanking them for their efforts.
Bill Perkins, the son of Cephas Perkins, also takes great pride in the role his family has played as part of the posse.
“I was raised in the posse and grew up thinking of all those guys as my heroes,” recalled Perkins, who rode with the posse in the 1970s and ‘80s, and began again about four years ago.
He took his first ride with the posse as a teenager, riding alongside his father. When Bill returned from serving in the military, Cephas stepped down and Bill took his place.
According to Rusty DeSpain, who is also the head of a local 4H group, the posse members are still very active in the community, although it may not put them in the spotlight. “Each weekend posse members go to the fairgrounds from March through September and help out the 4H kids. We couldn’t do the program without them,” he said.
There are many other families that take part in the tradition of the Hashknife Posse, either as riders or as support. Although each of the founding members has since passed, those who ride today not only carry on this great Holbrook tradition, they renew it with each generation that climbs up on the saddle and each child who looks to them as heroes of the Old West.
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By Linda Kor