Driving Mules To Denver

Ezekiel Thompson sat on the near wheeler of the sixteen mule team and watched the landscape pass by.  After six of the month long trips from the rail station in Cheyenne, Wyoming to Denver and back, there wasn’t much to see that he hadn’t already seen, but it was still a peaceful way to pass the days.  There would be work to do tomorrow when the train of freight wagons started down the steep slope into Maverick Valley.  Today, he could just sit on the heavy mule, listen to the bells on the collars of the two lead mules, and let the countryside keep him from remembering.

Ezekiel pulled twice on the jerk line that ran from the near lead mule to start old Herman around the bend to the right in the trail.  The mule began to turn and by pushing the jockey stick snapped between them, pushed the far lead mule in the same direction.  The other mules did what they’d been trained to do.

The four swing teams behind the lead team began following around the curve.  Ezekiel then spoke to the pointers to tell them it was time to do what they’d been trained to do, but they’d already jumped the long, heavy chain that connected all the mules to the wagon.   The wheelers, the rearmost team and the only team hitched to the wagon tongue, began pulling the wagon tongue in the same direction.  

The wheelers and pointers, the two teams in front of the wheelers, had been trained to do this, pull the wagon tongue in the opposite direction of the turn, to keep the wagon following the curve instead of following the lead team.  They would sidestep around the curve until the trail straightened out.  When it did, the wheelers would bring the wagon tongue back straight and the pointers would jump the chain again and resume pulling forward.

There was a slight slope downward at the turn, and Ezekiel pulled the rope tied to the long brake lever that in turn, pulled the heavy bar connected to the brake bar of the wagon.  When the massive wood brake blocks met the metal tires, there was a screeching sound, and Ezekiel felt the drag and saw the chain slack a little.  The mules were still pulling, but the drag would keep the heavy wagon from running over the wheelers.  

When the wagons made the descent into Maverick Valley, all the wheels would be chained to the wagons so they wouldn’t turn and steel shoes would be chained to those wheels so the rough ground wouldn’t wear a flat spot on the iron  tires.  On this slope though, the rear wheel brakes were enough.

When the trail leveled out, Ezekiel let the brake rope go slack and then looked out over the land in front of him.  In the distance, he saw the shining slash of the river where the wagons would spend the night.  It was the same river where he’d unrolled his bedroll on this stage of the trip over the past six months after seeing to the mules and then having a meal cooked by Isaac Jones, the man who drove the only normal wagon in the train, the cook’s wagon.

The wagon that clumbered, creaked, and rocked behind the eight teams of mules was a freight wagon, a behemoth of wood held together by strong joinery and steel that weighed almost four tons empty.  Depending upon the load, it could carry up to six more tons of freight.  That day, Ezekiel’s wagon was loaded with picks, shovels, flour, molasses, and corn meal, and all that was headed for Denver where it would eventually end up in the silver mines.

Once in Denver and unloaded, Ezekiel’s wagon would be loaded with silver bars smelted from silver ore in Denver and destined for the East.   About half a month later, depending upon the weather, those bars would be in a rail car and Ezekiel would be again making his way back to Denver.

On his hip, Ezekiel carried a Remington revolver.  Every man in the train of heavy wagons carried a pistol of some sort. That was in case the wagon train was attacked.  He had heard the stories of that happening.  At one time, it was Indians who attacked the wagon trains, but now, it was usually a band of outlaws bent on taking the silver.

Ezekiel had not had to use the Remington so far, and fervently hoped he would never have to.  He’d been taught to save life, not take life.  He wouldn’t have to worry much on this half of the trip.  All the wagons carried supplies for the Denver stores and mines, and probably wouldn’t be attacked.

The other five wagons in the wagon train were the same - huge wagons with seven foot tall wheels with eight inch wide and one inch thick iron tires and hubs as big as a man’s chest.  Those wheels rolled on cast iron spindles connected to hickory axles almost a foot square in section.  It took timbers like that to withstand the torturous twisting and racking the heavily loaded wagons experienced on the rough trail.  

On top of those axles, more thick timbers supported the massive bed, a bed three feet wide, sixteen feet long and six feet high, and over the bed, hickory bows supported the canvas top that protected the load from rain.

There was no actual seat on the wagon for the driver.  It wasn’t really practical to use reins to guide the mules because the reins would have been so long.  Just holding the weight of eight pairs of reins, the longest of which would be a little over a hundred feet long, was more than a man could manage for very long.  The differing lengths would have also made it difficult for the driver to give all the mules the right pull on the reins at the same time.  The mules nearest the driver would have received the command sooner than the lead mules because of the taking up of the slack and the stretch of the reins.

The teamster, known by most as a mule skinner, sat on the left wheel mule and directed the lead mules with a single rein called a “jerk line”.  A steady pull meant turn left and one quick jerk meant to turn right.  Lead mules were smarter and better trained than the other mules, because they were the only mules the mule skinner could directly control.  On a sharp bend, the mule skinner couldn’t even see the lead mules, so they also had to be smart enough to follow the trail.

Mule skinners knew every mule by name and also spoke commands to them.  They also carried a long whip to remind the wheelers and pointers of their job.  It was that whip that gave them the name “skinners”, though most never hurt a mule with the whip.  Besides being valuable for the work they did, mule skinners did their job because they just liked mules.

As the wagon made its way through the valley between two high hills, the beginnings of the mountains in the distance, Ezekiel mused that he was sitting on a plodding mule in the middle of nowhere.  He should have been riding in a carriage pulled by a light and nimble horse down the streets of Philadelphia or some other eastern city.

That had been his plan, but that plan had been rudely interrupted.  Ezekiel was in within weeks of graduating from the Perelman School of Medicine when the southern states began seceding from the Union.  He saw no reason for alarm, even when the Confederacy shelled Fort Sumpter and forced the Union Army garrison to surrender.  If there was to be a war, it would be in the South and it would be quickly won by the Union Army.  

That dream ended when the Confederacy attacked the Union Army on northern soil at Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg, Maryland.  The Union Army stopped the attack and forced the Confederacy to retreat back to Virginia, but the toll on both sides had been heavy.  Word quickly reached Philadelphia of thousands dead and many more thousands wounded.  Doctors were needed and they were needed badly.  Like many doctors in the northern states, Ezekiel traveled to Sharpsburg as quickly as possible and began treating the wounded.

By the time all the casualties of Antietam had either been treated or died, Ezekiel was numb to the sight of mangled bodies and the dead, and saddened by the cause of so much death and suffering.  He’d seen young men nearly cut in half by shrapnel from a cannon shell, and other young men who had lost a leg or arm because of the destruction caused by the minié balls used by both sides.  Ezekiel knew he couldn’t stop the war, but he thought he should do what he could to ease the pain and suffering of the men who would continue to be injured.  He enlisted in the Union Army and was given the title of Surgeon with the rank of Captain.

Over the months and then years, what Ezekiel had thought would be the satisfaction of knowing he’d helped men heal and get on with their lives became the despair of knowing no matter what he did, many were going to die. It wasn’t just the battle wounds.  Disease was rampant on both sides.  It was not unusual for dysentery to strike an entire company and render them unfit for battle.  Many of those men would die and those who lived faced months of weakness until they recovered.  Other diseases like cholera and the grippe caused more sickness and deaths.

Ezekiel could somewhat rationalize the deaths from disease.  There were no real cures for most serious diseases, and with so many men living so close together, it only took one or two to infect the others.  He’d been taught that in a civilian population, the proper course was to quarantine the sick, but that was impossible with the troops.  By the time the disease was identified, it had already spread and there was little that could be done besides make the sick as comfortable as possible.  The strong survived and the weak died, just as had always been the case.

What broke him was the battle wounds and specifically, the number of amputations.

Ezekiel had been taught how to properly do amputations.  The method was to cut the skin at the amputation site and then peel it back up the damaged limb to form two flaps.  The underlying tissue was then cut through to the bone and the bone sawed in two with a small saw.  The skin flaps were then used to cover the stump and sewn together.

The method produced a clean, sealed wound that would heal well, but when the doctors on the battlefield attempted to use that method, it took so much time other men were dying because they weren’t being treated quickly enough.  After a time, the accepted method of battlefield amputation was to put the wounded man to sleep with chloroform and once he was quiet, to make one cut to the bone around the limb above the injury and then saw the bone in two.  

The stump was then covered with a bandage and left to heal on its own.  The entire operation could be accomplished in less than two minutes.  Many men did heal, but many still died, not from the surgery, but from the infection that spread quickly from the stump to their whole body.

When the war finally ended and Ezekiel was mustered out, he thought about going back to Philadelphia and picking up where he’d left off, but realized he wasn’t the same man he’d been then.  Before, he’d been excited to take his place among doctors who made people’s lives better.  Now, he was a man who’d seen too much of what men can do to each other.  He couldn’t be a doctor again.  Every time he looked at a wound or treated some disease, he’d remember the field hospitals behind the lines, remember he’d failed as often as he’d succeeded, and would lack the confidence he’d had before the war.

Ezekiel did go back to Philadelphia to show his mother and father he’d made it through the war, but then packed what few belongings he had into a canvas bag he could carry over his shoulder.  He included the small case with the instruments he’d bought for medical school only because they were the only part  of what he’d planned for his life he had left.    On the first of June, he boarded a train for St. Louis, Missouri and the West.  In St. Louis, he found work on a steamboat heading up the Missouri River, but soon tired of being on the water.  When the steamboat docked in Omaha, Nebraska, Ezekiel stepped onto the dock and began looking for work.  He’d heard there were towns springing up along the new transcontinental railroad and there were many jobs to be had.

The office of the H. Markeson Freight Company was right beside the dock so Ezekiel went in and asked if there was any work available.  The balding man with glasses on his nose and garters on his sleeves looked him up and down, and then asked if he’d ever driven a horse or mule.  

Like every storekeeper, Ezekiel’s father had owned a wagon and a team to bring goods from the railroad to his store, and it had been Ezekiel’s responsibility to feed and water Joe and Jack and clean their stalls.  When he was old enough, he made the trips to the railroad and back.

“Yes, Sir, I have.”

The man smiled.  “Think you could drive a mule team?”

“I don’t know, but I’ll try as hard as I know how.”

The man sighed.

“Well, I suppose you can learn.  You take the next train to Cheyenne.  If you can’t afford a ticket, you can help Jasper load freight and then ride in the freight car.  When you get there, go to the Markeson office and ask for Harrison.  I’ll send him a telegram and tell him you’re one of his new drivers.”

When Ezekiel got off the train in Cheyenne, he asked where the Markeson office was, and the conductor pointed to a storefront across the street.  Ezekiel walked across the street, and when he went inside, saw another man, just a boy of maybe eighteen really, standing in front of the counter.  The man behind the counter was smiling.

“So, you think you can drive mules?”

The boy grinned.

“Yep.  My daddy had a team of mules for our farm in Virginia.  I know how to talk to mules so they’ll do what I say.”

The man looked at the boy.

“Then why ain’t you there helpin’ your daddy farm?”

The boy looked at the floor.

“Our farm isn’t there any more.  Daddy went off to the war and got himself killed at Gettysburg.  Daddy was just a sharecropper and Mr. O’Grady, the man who owned the farm, was the mayor of Little Fork.  When the war ended, the Union said Mr. O’Grady had helped the Confederates and they took our farm along with everything else Mr. O’Grady owned.  They sold our farm to a man from New York.  I came out here to find work.  I couldn’t stay back there any longer.”

The man behind the counter frowned.

“Heard that afore.  Damned shame what the war did to people.  You go down to the mule barns by the blacksmith shop and you tell Willard that Jason sent you.  That’s me.  Drivin’ a freight team ain’t like driving a plow or a farm wagon, but he’ll show you how.  You got a gun?”

The boy frowned.

“No.  Will I need one?”

The man nodded.

“Yep.  There’s rattlesnakes out there.  You don’t need to fret much about the ones that slither on the ground.  It’s the ones that ride horses you gotta worry about. Go down to the general store.  They’ll sell you a revolver.  Don’t let them sell you a rifle.  No place to carry a rifle on a mule.”

The boy thanked the man and then left.  Ezekiel stepped up to the counter.

“The man down at the dock in Omaha said you might have a job for me.  After hearing what you asked that boy, I’ll tell you I’ve never worked a mule, but I have driven a team of horses and wagon some.  I don’t have a gun either, but I can get one.”

The man smiled.

“Had two drivers quit when they got to Denver.  You an’ the boy’ll take their place.  Wanted to go find their own silver, they said.”

He shook his head then.

“Don’t you make the same mistake.  The money’s to be made haulin’ freight, not diggin’ in the dirt and rock.  Ain’t none of them prospectors never made no money.  They always give up and start workin’ in the mines.  Bad job, that, cold as a witches tit and black as the ace of spades in them mines.

“You go down to the mule barn like I told that boy.  Willard’ll show you what you need to do.”

Ezekiel had gone to the general store first, and found the boy standing at the counter looking at the revolvers.  He walked up beside the boy and asked if he’d found one he liked.  The boy looked up and shook his head, and he was frowning.

“I don’t know what I should get.  I’ve shot a rifle, but I never shot a revolver before.”

As Ezekiel looked over the array of revolvers, he knew what he wanted.  As a doctor, he’d never had occasion to carry a gun and hadn’t wanted to.  He did learn to load and shoot the Colt Army model, but hadn’t been issued one because the field hospitals were always some distance from the fighting.  He’d seen many men come in with revolvers though, and had talked with them when he checked on the progress of their treatment.

Many men carried Colt revolvers and seemed to like them, but the men who carried the Remington Army model swore by them.  In a battle, the ability to quickly fire as many rounds as possible was crucial to survival.  The Colt could fire five rounds before the user would have to reload, and reloading could take several minutes.  The Colt had one other deficiency compared to the Remington as well.

The Colt had six chambers, but had to have one uncapped chamber under the hammer so the revolver wouldn’t accidentally fire if it was dropped.  The Remington also had six chambers but the Remington had safety slots in the cylinder where the hammer rested until cocked, so all six chambers could be loaded.

The Remington had one other feature that made it better.  The cylinder could be quickly taken out and replaced with another that was already loaded.  The pistol could be ready to fire again in less than a minute.

He asked the storekeeper to see the .44 caliber Remington in the middle of the second shelf.  When the storekeeper handed him the revolver, he said he’d traded a prospector a side of bacon and fifty pounds of dry beans for it, so he’d sell it for ten dollars.  A pouch of balls, a tin of caps, and a pound of powder would be another dollar.

As Ezekiel looked over the pistol, the boy asked if a Remington was a good pistol.  Ezekiel replied it was one of the best, to which the boy replied he’d get one too, but he didn’t have ten dollars.

The storekeeper smiled and asked the boy how much money he did have, and the boy replied he had four dollars.  The storekeeper grinned and reached for a pistol on the bottom shelf.

“Just got this in trade for a new Colt.  It’s a Starr - thirty-six caliber.  It’s not the gun the Remington is.  I wouldn’t lie to you about that, but it shoots and you don’t have to cock the hammer like with the Remington.  All you have to do is pull the trigger.  I’ll sell it for that four dollars you have.”

The boy shook his head.

“I’ll pay you three if you throw in fifty balls, a box of caps, and a pound of powder…and a powder flask.”

The storekeeper scratched his head.”

“Can’t do it, boy.  I got a single shot pistol I can sell for three, though.  What are you gonna need a revolver for?”

The boy shook his head.

“The man down at the freight office said I needed a revolver because of men trying to steal the freight on the wagons.”

The storekeeper raised his eyebrows.

“So, you’re going to be a mule skinner?  You look pretty young to work mules, but I guess they think you can.  Can’t sell the Starr for three and throw in balls and powder too.  How about three and seventy five cents.”

The boy shook his head.  

“That won’t leave me enough money to get anything to eat.  How about three and two bits, and you give me a canvas sack for the balls?”

The storekeeper shook his head.

“You drive a hard bargain for a boy, but I’d hate to send a man out in that country without a pistol.  Three and a half.  That’s as low as I can go and I’m not making a cent on the deal.”

The boy dug into his trousers and pulled out some coins, counted out three dollars and fifty cents and laid them on the counter.  The storekeeper put fifty balls in a canvass pouch, put the pouch, a tin of caps and a powder flask on the counter and picked up the coins.  He turned to Ezekiel.

“Well, now that this boy has talked me out of my profit on that pistol, do you want the Remington?”

When Ezekiel walked out of the store with the Remington stuck in his pants and carrying a cotton sack, the boy was waiting outside the door.  He grinned at Ezekiel.

“Did you talk him down any more.”

Ezekiel smiled.

“No, but ten for the Remington was a fair price.  He did sell me two spare cylinders for another four dollars though.  You headed to the mule barn now?”

The boy nodded.

“Well, I’ll walk along with you then.  What’s your name?”

The boy smiled.

“I’m Joseph Wheelwright.  Who might you be?”

“Ezekiel Thompson.”

“Where you from, Ezekiel Thompson?”

“From Pennsylvania.  If I heard right back at the freight office, you’re from Virginia.  That where you learned to bargain like you did back there?”

Joseph smiled.

“Yeah, I learned that from my daddy.  He always told me the first price wasn’t the real price and I should try half that much and then bargain up from there.  I had nine dollars left from what Mama gave me, but if I’d said five, he might have said yes, so I said three.  I didn’t figure he’d take three so I said I needed balls, caps, and a power flask with powder so he could raise his price a little and think he’d talked me out of more money.”

Ezekiel smiled back.  He liked this boy even though they were at least six years different in age.  The boy seemed mature beyond his years, but Ezekiel could understand that.  The war had aged everyone who had been touched by it, even if they hadn’t done any fighting themselves.

His thoughts were interrupted by the boy’s voice.

“What did you do in Philadelphia.”

Ezekiel hesitated.  He hadn’t anticipated anyone asking him that question.  He’d have to lie, but he thought the boy was young enough he’d believe him.

“I enlisted as soon as the war started, so I didn’t do anything except be a soldier.”

Joseph frowned.

“Union I suppose.”

“Yes, I was in the Union Army.”

“What’d you do in the army?  Ever shoot anybody?”

“No, I never shot anybody.  I drove the wagons that took food and ammunition to the battlefields.”

Joseph looked up at Ezekiel.

“It didn’t take you long to pick that Remington out of all those other pistols.  How’d you know it was the best of the lot, like the storekeeper said?”

“Well, I talked to a lot of men who carried revolvers and they said the Remington was better.  They said with the extra cylinders, you can load it faster.  I just thought if somebody attacks the wagons, it would be good to be able to shoot fast.”

“Think you can shoot a man if you have to?”

Ezekiel thought about that for a few moments.  He’d been trained to save life.  Could he do the opposite, end a man’s life, even if that man was trying to kill him?

“I don’t know.  I suppose it would depend upon the circumstances.  Could you?”

Joseph frowned.

“I don’t know either.  I guess I’d have to if it was him or me.”

When they arrived at the mule barn, Ezekiel asked a man forking straw and manure into a wheelbarrow if Willard was there.  The man leaned his fork against the cart.

“I’m Willard.  Whatcha want?”

Ezekiel explained he and Joseph had been sent by the freight agent to become drivers.  Willard looked them up and down and then frowned.

“Damn Jason’s hide anyway.  Never sends a man or two to clean the mule shit out of the barn, but he can send me teamsters who don’t know nothing ‘bout drivin’ mules.  Ain’t neither of you look like you ever even seen a mule.  You don’t look mean enough, and the boy here, well he looks like he’d sooner play at rollin’ hoops than ride a mule from here to Denver and back .

I suppose Jason told you I’d show you how.  Well come on then.  I got a train waitin’ to start soon’s as they’re loaded.  You ride with that train on the first trip so’s you learn how.  You do good, I’ll put you in a train by yourselves.

That first trip had been interesting for Ezekiel.  From Cheyenne to Denver, he’d ridden the right hand wheeler and watched what Elmer did.  From Denver back to Cheyenne, they’d reversed places and when he’d successfully backed the freight wagon into the railroad dock, Elmer shook his hand and wished him well.   Joseph had also learned quickly, and would be assigned as a driver too.

Tonight, they’d stop at the river like they always did.  It was one of several stopping places the freight company had built and supplied for the wagon trains.  There would be water and feed for the mules and a fence to keep them at the stopover during the night.  That was the end of the comforts though.  It would be almost dark by the time he got the harness off the mules, brushed the dirt from their coats and then fed and watered them.  He’d eat, maybe spend a little time around the fire, and then spread his bedroll under the wagon.

Dawn would find him harnessing the mules after he’d already had some bacon and corn cakes and a cup of coffee.  By the time the sun peeked over the mountains, he’d be on Cyrus’ back again and moving down the trail.

Joseph always met him for meals and liked to sit around the fire for a while at night.  Ezekiel found that comforting.  He couldn’t seem to get close to any of the other men.  He found it odd that he could enjoy being with a boy so young and that Joseph seemed to like being with him.  He could understand why the boy would because he remembered being eighteen and leaving home for the first time.  He’d felt lost until he’d made a few friends.

When Ezekiel thought about that, he decided that was why he liked Joseph as well.  He hadn’t had any real friends during the war.  Most of the other doctors were older than he, so they didn’t have anything in common except medicine.  The other thing was that, just like Ezekiel, they didn’t want to talk to anyone lest they show their despair at watching the wounded and sick die.  It was easier and better for the mind to just become hardened to the blood and gore and death and keep those feelings inside.  The men just became legs and arms and bodies with no faces then.  If they’d talked to anyone about them, the faces would have come back.

Joseph was also the only other man on the train he felt comfortable with because of the language the teamsters used.  Ezekiel wasn’t a very religious person, but he didn’t like all the swearing and the talk about which whore in Denver was the best like the other mule skinners did.  He’d never heard Joseph swear at a mule that was acting up when he harnessed him, and Joseph had never talked about a woman at all.  They’d just talked about what they were going to do when they got to Denver or when they got back to Cheyenne.  

After the second trip they made together, it was obvious to Ezekiel that it was difficult for Joseph to harness his mules.  The boy was short and the heavy mules were tall.  When Joseph held up the start one morning, Ezekiel started helping him.  Ezekiel would get his mules harnessed and ready, tie them to the corral fence, and then go help Joseph so he wouldn’t hold up the wagon train.  By the time they’d made five trips together, Ezekiel looked on Joseph as more brother than friend.  

The wagon train could only travel about fifteen miles a day because mules were not like horses.  A horse could be forced to pull until it dies, but mules are smarter.  When they get too tired to pull, they just stop, so it was important to let them rest before they got to that point.  There were places along the way where the wagon train would stop to let the mules rest, and the mule skinners would check their mules for chafing harness or anything else that might stop a mule from pulling.  

Two days away from Cheyenne and loaded down with silver, Ezekiel had checked all his mules and found nothing of concern, and was walking back to Joseph’ team when he heard shots ring out from the front of the train.  A few seconds later there was more gunfire and the shots were getting closer.

He ran behind the mules until he reached his wagon, and then crouched behind the front wheel and drew the Remington from his belt.  

Several men rode down the length of the wagon train while firing their pistols at the men crouched behind the wagon wheels or standing behind a mule.  All the teamsters were firing back, and with some effect.  Three riderless horses went past Ezekiel followed by five more men on horseback.  He cocked the hammer on the Remington, aimed it at the closest rider, and pulled the trigger.  He missed, but the rider stopped and turned in the direction of the shot.  A bullet nicked the wagon spoke above Ezekiel’s head as he cocked the hammer, aimed at the now stationary man, and pulled the trigger.  

The man dropped the pistol as he fell from the horse.  Another outlaw rode up and stopped to look down at the fallen man.  He was still looking when Ezekiel’s bullet hit him in the chest.

Ezekiel had cocked the hammer on the Remington again when he heard another man on horseback yell, “Thisuns just a boy.  He won’t be no trouble.  Ezekiel looked in that direction and saw three men dismount and start for Joseph’ wagon.  They took a few steps and then there were three quick shots.  Two of the men fell.   The third ran back to his horse, holding his shoulder, and once again mounted, fired two shots at Joseph’ wagon.  Ezekiel heard a cry, and then the man turned his horse and rode off in the direction of the mountains.  Ezekiel counted four more men riding behind him.  The man in the rear didn’t make it.  A volley of shots from somewhere up the train of wagons cut him down.

Ezekiel crawled out from the wheel and ran to Joseph’ wagon.  He found the boy laying on the ground behind the rear wheel, and what he saw made his blood run cold.  Joseph was holding his thigh and his trousers were dark with blood.  The boy’s face was a mask of pain, the same face Ezekiel had seen so often during the war.

“They shot me, Ezekiel. It burns like fire.”

Another one of the mule skinners, an older man named Joshua who was in charge of the wagon train, ran up to Joseph’ wagon.

“Boy, you all right? Can’t find your friend Ezekiel.  Is he with ya?”

Ezekiel shouted back, “I’m with him and Joseph is hurt.  I don’t know how bad yet.”

Joshua stopped and looked under the wagon.

“You take care of him as best you can.  We’ve lost two men and six mules.  This ain’t the best place to stop, but we’ll have to stop here and get everything sorted out before we keep goin’.”

Joshua went on down the line of wagons then, and Ezekiel straightened out Joesph’s injured leg.  The boy cried out in agony.  Ezekiel quickly unbuttoned the boy’s fly and pulled his trousers down to his knees, then sat there in disbelief for a few beats of his heart.

“Joseph, what is this?  You’re not a boy.  You’re a woman.”

Joseph grimaced in pain, but nodded.

“Yes.  My name is Josephine.”

Ezekiel sat back in shock.  

“A woman?  But how…why…”

Josephine groaned and then answered.

“I’ll tell you after you take care of my leg, but you have to promise not to tell anybody else.  If you can’t do anything for me, just let me die and bury me without telling any of the men.”

Ezekiel frowned at what he was going to say, but he couldn’t let Joseph, or Josephine, suffer any longer.

“Joseph, I mean, Josephine, I was a doctor during the war.  I know what to do.  We’ll stay under the wagon, but the rest of the men will be trying to figure out how to get started again so I don’t think they’ll bother us.”

Josephine caught her breath when Ezekiel touched the bloody place on her thigh.  Why did this have to happen?  It was like life was conspiring against her, putting her in situations that caused her pain and suffering.  She’d left Virginia hoping to leave the pain and suffering there behind, but it seemed to have found her again.

Ezekiel forced himself to look away from the dark brown hair between Josephine’s thighs and back to her injury.  The skills of the doctor he’d trained to be came back to him as began examining the wound.

It looked worse than it was.  The bullet was a lot smaller than the minié balls used by both armies during the wall, and had only cut a shallow furrow in the flesh of her inner thigh.  The wound was still bleeding a little, but not bad enough she was going to bleed to death.  

He thought of the bag of medical instruments he had in his sack in the wagon, but remembered he had no catgut to stitch the wound closed.  He’d have to make do without them.  What he really needed was a way to clean the wound and something to tie over it.  During the war, he’d used alcohol and cotton cloth bandages to do that.

Ezekiel remembered Isaac, the cook, carried two bottles of whiskey “in case somebody gets hisself bit by a rattler”, he said, but he’d seen Samuel pull the cork and take a swig or two before before he went to bed.  His spare shirt would have to work for a bandage.  He looked at Josephine.

“I’m gonna pull your trousers back up so nobody will see you, and then I have to go get a couple things.  If anybody comes by, you tell them I said you’re not hurt bad and that I’ll be right back.”

Ezekiel pulled Josephine’ trousers back up to her waist and pulled her shirt down over the open fly, then crawled out from under the wagon and ran to the front of the wagon train where he knew the cook’s wagon would be.  When he got there, two men were carrying the cook away, and another man followed them with a shovel over his shoulder.

Ezekiel didn’t waste time looking for somebody to tell him it was all right to take the whiskey.  He unlatched the back of the cook’s wagon and then searched through the compartments until he found the bottles and took one.  He also saw several towels the cook used to clean and dry his pots and other utensils after using them, and grabbed two from the top of the stack.

Half an hour later, Ezekiel had flushed and wiped Josephine’ wound with the whiskey until it looked clean, and had torn one of the towels into strips.  One of the strips he folded to make a pad that he soaked a little with more whiskey.  He used two more to tie the pad to Josephine’ thigh.  After he pulled her trousers back up and fastened the buttons, he smiled.

“I got it as clean as I can and it’s about stopped bleeding.  I’ll have to check it a couple times a day, but I think you’ll be all right.  Let me get you out from under this wagon.  After that, I need find Joshua to see what we’re going to do now.”

Ezekiel left Josephine sitting against the front wheel in the shade of her wagon, and then went to find out what they were going to do to get back to Cheyenne.  He found Joshua standing with the remaining two mule skinners.  When Ezekiel joined them, he started explaining.

“We’ve got two teamsters, six mules, and the cook dead and one teamster, the boy, is hurt too bad to drive.  It’ll take us a little longer, but we can still get to Cheyenne.  What we have to do is hitch two wagons together and put the mules from the second wagon into the hitch of the first.  The wagons are set up to do that.  Jeremy, Michael, and I know how to hitch ‘em that way and we can handle the mules it’s going to take to pull them so we three will take the wagons.  Ezekiel, you don’t have much experience, so you’ll drive the cook’s wagon and take Joseph with you.  That way, he can lay down in the back if he needs to.

“It’ll take us the rest of the day to get the wagons moved into position, so we’ll have to spend the night here.  Go un-harness your teams and tie them to the first, third, and fifth wagons.  We’ll use my team to pull the other wagons up to the rear hitch.  Tomorrow morning we’ll get started again.  

When we come to a downhill stretch, we’ll stop everything and take the wagons down one at a time so one of the drivers can work the brakes on the second wagon.  Just keep your eyes peeled for those outlaw bastards.  They might decide to come back.  We’ll leave the the ones we shot where they fell to let the rest know if they try again, the same thing will happen to them.”

After the two teamsters and the cook were buried next to the trail and their graves marked with stakes, all the men pitched in to rearrange the train. The sun was going down behind the mountains by the time they got the heavy wagons hitched together and it had taken every man to do it.   The mules could pull the wagon most of the way, but the last foot had to be done slowly to guide the tongue to the rear hitch on the lead wagon.  That meant using prybars on the wheels to roll the heavy wagon forward an inch at a time.  Once that was done, Ezekiel helped Josephine limp to the cook’s wagon, then went back and brought both their bags and bedrolls.  He asked her if she wanted to sleep in the wagon and she laughed.

“Why would you ask that after I’ve slept on the ground all these nights?  My leg hurts, but I’m not some cripple.  Just spread my bedroll out under the cook’s wagon right beside yours.  I’ll be fine.  I’m hungry though.  Who’s going to make supper since the cook got killed?”

The problem of supper was solved when Joshua walked up and told Ezekiel since he was driving the cook’s wagon, he’d have to serve as the cook.

“We gotta get the harness off the mules now and give ‘em a drink and feed ‘em.  All them mules is gonna take about three hours since there’s just the three of us, and it’ll be dark by then.  You throw some beans and bacon in the pot and heat ‘em up so’s we’ll have something to eat.”

When he walked off, Ezekiel turned to Josephine.

“You know how to cook beans?  I don’t.”

She smiled, and Ezekiel thought her smile was different.  Then he realized it wasn’t her smile that was different.  It was the way he saw the smile.

“Just put the beans in the pot and cover them with water while you build the fire.  They’ll soak up the water and get soft.  Then put in the bacon and put the pot over the fire and let them cook.  That’s all you have to do except stir them once in a while so they don’t stick and burn.”

The wagon train started for Cheyenne the next morning, and in spite of his urging, Josephine wouldn’t lay down in the wagon.  She did get inside so Ezekiel could check her wound again.  It was oozing a little, so he cleaned it with more whiskey and changed the bandage, then helped her climb back into the wagon seat.  

Since the cook’s wagon was lighter than the freight wagons and could travel faster, the cook’s wagon was always in the front of the wagon train.  The nearest wagon would normally be a little over a hundred feet back, but with two hitches of mules pulling the doubled wagons, that distance stretched to over a hundred and fifty feet.

As a result, for most of the trip back to Cheyenne, Ezekiel and Josephine were essentially alone.  The first day, she told him why she’d come west and why she’d dressed like a boy instead of a woman.

“When I told the man at the freight office my daddy was killed in the war, I lied a little.  It wasn’t my daddy who got killed at Gettysburg.  It was my husband, William.  The rest was true.  William was a sharecropper, like I said, and the Union did take our farm.

“I would have gotten married again if there’d been any men around, but there weren’t.  A lot of them had been killed in the war, and most of the men who did come back were already married.  Mama and Daddy wanted me to keep living with them until I found a husband, but I couldn’t do that.  They barely had enough for two people to get by.

“I decided if I was going to find a man, I’d have to go where the men were and that meant out here.  Now, I don’t know about Pennsylvania, but in Virginia, a woman traveling by herself is usually a …well, she’s not a proper lady.  I didn’t want people to think that about me.  People wouldn’t think much about a young boy traveling by himself because there were a lot of boys and young men going west after the war.  

“Mama cut my hair like a boy and Daddy gave me two sets of his clothes.  All the Union money Daddy had was twenty six gold dollars, and he said I’d need some money.  He said he could get more once things settled down, and he gave twenty to me, so I bought a train ticket to Omaha.  I’d read that there was work there because towns were springing up along the new railroad to the west coast.  

I thought I’d get a job a boy could do and let my hair grow out, and then go to one of the new towns as a woman and get a job in a store.  If I did, I could find a husband too, because there aren’t very many women out here yet.  I used to read the notices men from Colorado put in the newspaper to get a woman to come out here and be their wife.

“When I got here, there weren’t many jobs for a boy, and I’m not strong enough to do what a man can do.  I saw the wagon train come into town that day, and I knew you didn’t have to be really strong to work mules, so I went to the freight office and asked if they needed any drivers.  The part about me knowing mules was true.  I used to help William in the field, so I knew how to work mules.  

“I didn’t intend to get close to anybody, and I tried not to, but you were nice to me and I thought I could trust you.  Turns out, I was right.  I didn’t think I’d have to trust you to do what you did, but I was right.”

Ezekiel asked what she was going to do now because she’d have to stay off that leg for almost a month to give it time to heal.  Josephine frowned.

“I don’t know.  Get me a room at the hotel I suppose, but I don’t have enough money to stay there for a whole month.  You sure it’ll take a month for this to heal up?”

Ezekiel shrugged.

“That’s what it took in the war.  You’ll be able to walk around before a month, but if you did anything hard, it might bust open.  So you came all the way out here to find a husband?”

Josephine smiled at him.

“Yes, that why.  Why did you come out here?  If you’re a doctor, like you said, why aren’t you doctoring someplace instead of driving mules?”

“You wouldn’t understand.”

Josephine frowned.

“If you don’t tell me I won’t, that’s for sure.  I told you about me.  Now you tell me about you.”

Ezekiel looked over at Josephine and she smiled.

“Come on, tell me.  It can’t be that bad.”

Ezekiel shook his head.

“It can be that bad and it was.  I spent most of my time in the Army watching men die because I couldn’t stop them from dying.  I knew if I went back to Philadelphia and started being a real doctor again, some people would die and I couldn’t take failing again.  I came out here so I could forget.”

Josephine tried to make a joke to cheer Ezekiel up.

“I’m glad you didn’t forget so much you didn’t know how to fix my leg.”

“No, I didn’t forget that part.”

“So, what you really came out here to do is hide from yourself?  That doesn’t make sense to me.  Seems to me if you really wanted to be a doctor, being a doctor is all you’d ever want to be.  You didn’t fail those men, Ezekiel.  If you hadn’t tried to save them, what would have happened to them?  They’d all have died instead of just some of them.  If you saved some of them, that isn’t failing.  It’s trying to do the best you can, just like you did with me.

“If you ask me, not being a doctor because you’re afraid you can’t save everybody is just plain selfish.  You’re saying you won’t take care of anybody else because you don’t want to feel bad.  That is failing.  What if a woman said she wasn’t going to ever get married because then she’d have children and if none of them were boys, she’d feel like she’d failed her husband because she didn’t give him any sons?”

Ezekiel frowned.

“That isn’t the same thing and you know it.”

“Yes it is the same thing.  She’d be keeping herself from getting married because of something she couldn’t control.  Don’t you see?  That’s what you’re doing.  There will always be people hurt too bad or too sick to get well.  You can’t control that so you’re not even going to try.  I thought you were a man, but now, I feel sorry for you.  When you get old, you’re gonna think back and see what you could have done with your life and you’ll be sorry too, but you’ll be too old to do anything about it.”

It took another day and a half before the wagon train rolled into the outskirts of Cheyenne, and during that day and a half, Ezekiel and Josephine hadn’t talked much, but Ezekiel had done a lot of thinking.

She was right about how he’d probably feel when he got too old to drive mules.  As soon as Josephine had said that, he realized he already felt like he’d lost something he didn’t think he’d ever get back.  He’d felt that something, a little anyway, when Josephine’s wound didn’t get infected and she didn’t get sick.  He’d been able to keep that from happening by checking the wound and taking care of it three times a day.  Maybe if he’d been able to do that during the war, more of the men he treated would have lived.

Another thing was causing him to think as well.  When he’d pulled down Josephine’s trousers that first time, he was stunned to find she wasn’t a boy like he’d thought.  He’d begun to think of her as a friend and someone he liked even though she was younger.  After he knew she was a woman, he couldn’t think of her as just a friend anymore.  She was still younger than he, twenty two she’d said, but she was a woman and the feeling had changed from friendship to something a lot stronger.  

It was a different feeling, one he’d never had before, and it bothered him.  If he felt that way about Josephine, he couldn’t just leave her in Cheyenne to fend for herself while he went off on the back of a mule going to Denver.  He’d worry about her the whole time, yet, what else could he do?  It finally came down to either staying in Cheyenne with Josephine until she was healed enough to do for herself, or forgetting about her, and Ezekiel didn’t think he could ever forget about her.  

If he stayed with her, what would he do to make a living?  He only knew how to drive mules and be a doctor.  If he couldn’t continue to drive mules, could he be a doctor again?  Ezekiel thought he could treat most things like broken bones or cuts and even gunshots if they weren’t too bad, and he could probably prevent the spread of some diseases by quarantining the sick person even if he couldn’t cure them.  He had the right instruments, so he could do all of the other things a doctor was called upon to do. Could he treat a person he knew wasn’t going to get well, just treat them so they didn’t hurt as bad, and then watch them die?

He was unhitching the horses from the cook’s wagon when Josephine hobbled up to his side.

“Ezekiel, you haven’t talked to me for a day and a half.  You’ve been thinking about what I said, haven’t you?”

Ezekiel remembered how his mother always knew when something was bothering him.  Josephine seemed to be the same way.

“Yes, I’ve thought about it?”

“Decide anything yet?”

“No.  Have you figured out what you’re going to do?  You won’t be able to work mules again for another few weeks at least or you’ll tear that open again.”

Josephine smiled.

“That depends on you mostly.”

Ezekiel frowned.

“What does that mean?”

“Well, if you decide to be a doctor again, I thought you might need a woman to cook for you and wash your clothes and things like that.  A doctor wouldn’t have time to do that for himself.  If you decide to keep driving mules, I don’t really know what I’ll do.

Ezekiel smiled.

“So, you’d want to be a housekeeper for me if I was a doctor?”

“If you’d have me and you should.  You really need a woman to do those things.  You couldn’t even cook beans by yourself and I’ll bet you haven’t washed those clothes in months.  I can smell you six feet away and you don’t smell all that good.  You smell like a sweaty man and a sweaty mule put together.  A doctor would have to smell a whole lot better.”

“That’s all it would be?  You’d just be my housekeeper?”

Josephine smiled and touched Ezekiel’s arm.

“Unless you wanted me to be something else.  The way you look at me when you change my bandage makes me think you might.  It’s the same way my husband looked at me when I took a bath.”

Ezekiel shook his head.

“That means we’d have to get married.”

Josephine grinned.

“That’s the first sensible thing I’ve heard you say in three days.”

Ezekiel felt like he was being trapped and tried to defend himself.

“What makes you think I’d want to marry you?”

“Well, after I got shot, you constantly wanted to know if I felt all right and you fussed about everything I did until I asked you why you weren’t doctoring instead of driving mules.  That’s the same way my husband was until I asked him why he thought he had to go off to the war.  Besides, who else would you marry?  One of those women down at the saloon?  They might be able to do one thing better than I can, but I'll bet they can’t cook very good.”

He knew Josephine was pushing him to be a doctor again, and she was pushing him hard.  If she thought he could be a doctor, maybe he should try.  If it didn’t work out, he could always go back to being a mule skinner.  He looked at Josephine’s smiling face.

“Do you think they need a doctor in Cheyenne?”

Josephine grinned.

“Well, I haven’t seen any signs that say they have one now.”

“And if I opened a doctor’s office, you’d want to be my housekeeper?”

Josephine frowned.

“Being your housekeeper would probably have all the women in town talking about us.  I don’t think I’d like that part.”

Ezekiel stared at Josephine with his mouth open for a few seconds.

“But you’re the one who suggested being my housekeeper.”

Josephine smiled.

“Yes, but that was just a way to get you to talk about what I really want to be.  It worked, too.”

Ezekiel shook his head.

“I thought it was the man who proposed to the woman, not the other way around.”

Josephine smiled an innocent little smile.

“I never asked you to marry me, did I?  I just said I’d be your housekeeper unless you wanted me to be something else and then I said you looked at me and treated me like my dead husband always did.  You’re the one who brought up getting married, so you did ask me…sort of.”

Ezekiel gave in, and it surprised him how good it felt.

“I suppose you’re going to sort of say yes, too.”

Ezekiel got two rooms at the hotel, one for himself and another for Josephine.  He had to help her up the stairs and then bring her their bags to their rooms.  After that, he paid to take a bath and then put on his other set of clothes.

He found an empty building next to the general store.  It had been the original general store before the current, larger store was constructed and was still owned by Mr. Anders, the storekeeper who’d sold Ezekiel the Remington revolver.  Mr Anders listened to Ezekiels story, and then said he’d rent the building for ten dollars a month even though he’d be losing money because Cheyenne needed a doctor.  

Mr. Anders had asked him if he’d kept his medical tools, and Ezekiel said yes, but he’d need some medicines, catgut and plaster for casts.

“We can’t have a doctor in Cheyenne no medicine.  You pick out what you need from my supply catalogue and I’ll order it for you.  You pay me a little every month until you’ve paid me back…with a little interest of course, say a nickle on the dollar.”

Ezekiel thought about what Josephine had told him about bargaining.

“How about two cents on the dollar and I don’t have to pay you anything until I get some patients?”

Mr. Anders shook his head.

“The things I do for this town.  I can do three cents, but not a penny less.”

Ezekiel shook Mr. Anders’ hand and smiled.

“You or yours get sick, you come see me and I won’t charge my regular fee.”

When he got back to the hotel, he knocked on Josephine’s door to tell her the news.  He forgot what he was going to say when she opened the door, because she was wearing a dress.  Her hair was shorter than most women wore theirs, but it had been brushed until it shined.

Josephine looked at him and grinned.

“Cat got your tongue?”

“No…I…I didn’t…Josephine, you look like a woman.”

Josephine smiled.

“Well, I should.  I am a woman, or have you forgotten that.”

“No, I hadn’t forgotten.  I just got used to seeing you in trousers and a shirt with a hat on your head, that’s all.  You’re really pretty.”

Josephine blushed.

“Pretty enough to be your housekeeper?”

“No”, said Ezekiel.  “But you’re pretty enough to be my wife if you still want that.”

For the next week, Ezekiel and Josephine worked to make the old store into both a doctor’s office and a place to live.  They turned the storekeepers office into an examining room, and the front part was the waiting and dispensing area.  By Saturday, they had fixed up the back room as their living quarters.  There was only the potbelly stove that had been used to heat the store, two chairs, a table, and a bed in the back room, but Josephine was happy.

“I know we’ll have more once you start doctoring people, but for now this is just fine.  I can cook on that stove, and we can sit at a table to eat and sleep on a straw mattress instead of on the ground.  That’s good enough until we can afford better.”

They had to wait another week before the circuit rider, Reverend Mitchell could marry them, and that was at the city hall because there was no church in Cheyenne yet.  After the ceremony, Ezekiel and Josephine came back to their new home.  Mr. Akers and his wife had given them half a ham as a wedding present, and Josephine had used some of the money she’d earned from the last trip to Denver and back to buy some sweet potatoes at the general store.

“I was going to fix us ham and sweet potatoes for supper.  Is that all right, Ezekiel.”

He smiled and put his arms around her.

“Unless you’d rather do something else.”

Josephine grinned.

“We’ll eat first and then see what that something else is.”

That night, Josephine told Ezekiel to go into the front while she changed.  A few minutes later, she opened the door a crack and told him he could come back.

When Ezekiel walked into the room he stopped and stared at Josephine.  The light from the single kerosene lamp wasn’t very bright, but it still showed him Josephine standing there in a long, white nightgown.

She smiled.

“This was Mama’s wedding night gown.  Well, am I good enough to be your wife?”

Ezekiel walked to her and put his arms around her.

“Josephine, you’re a lot better than I deserve.”

When they lay there together afterwards, Josephine snuggled up into his chest, she chuckled.

“If it’s always like that, you better be a good doctor with a lot of patients because we’re going to have a lot of children to feed.”

Ezekiel cupped her hip and pulled her a little closer.

“How many do you want?”

“I don’t know.  I’m twenty two.  It could be as many as twenty or so.”

“Twenty?  I was thinking more like four or five.  We’d have to have a really big house for twenty.”

Josephine kissed Ezekiel on the cheek.

“Four or five would be fine as long as I have one daughter.  A woman needs a daughter to help her and give her grandbabies.”

“Sons would give us grandbabies too.”

Josephine stroked his chest.

“I know, but it’s not the same.”

Ezekiel stroked Josephine’s hip.

“Well, we’ll see what happens, I guess.”

Josephine hooked her thigh over Ezekiel’s leg, then yelped and put it back down.

“I guess I shouldn’t do that for a while yet.”

“No, it’ll be another couple of weeks before that doesn’t hurt anymore.”

Josephine put her hand on his back and pulled.

“We’ll just have to keep doing it this way until then.  I’d like to do it again right now.  Think you could manage?”

Ezekiel hung his sign, “E. Thompson, Doctor” over the front door that Monday and on Monday afternoon had his first patient.  That patient was Willard Zachs, the man who ran the mule barn for the wagon trains.  He had his hand wrapped in a dirty handkerchief when he walked in the door.

“Damned mule pushed me against the stall when I was cleaning it and mashed my hand.  I thought it’d get better, but it hasn’t so I figured I ought have a doctor look at it.”

Ezekiel lanced and drained the swelling, and then told Willard to come back in two days so he could look at it again.

Willard’s hand healed and that helped to heal Ezekiel and establish his reputation.  Within six months, he had the trust of the people of Cheyenne and they’d come to him anytime they got hurt or felt ill.  Old Mr. Walsh had died of the grippe, and that set him back until Mr. Walsh’s son shook his hand and said, “Dr. Thompson, it was Daddy’s time to go and I know what you did made him feel better there at the last.  If you hadn’t done what you did, he’d have died hurting.  Thank you.”

And so it was over the years.  As Cheyenne grew, other doctors came to town and started a practice, but Dr. Thompson was still the one people went to unless he couldn’t see them for some reason.  He went by the name of “Doc Zeke” after one five year old little girl with a cut finger tried to call him “Dr. Ezekiel” but “Ezekiel” came out as “Zeke”, and he smiled every time a patient called him by that name.  He’d found what he’d lost and that made him happy.

He’d also found something else that was missing, though he never even had it before.  Josephine was a major part of that something, and the four daughters and one son she bore him were the rest.

When Ezekiel thought about it, being a doctor was important to him, but he could probably have lived his life driving mules.  He was sure he couldn’t have lived any kind of life without Josephine.  She’d given him the push to become a doctor again, and she’d made a home out of the house they’d built once their second daughter was born.  

More than that, though, was the way she snuggled up beside him in bed every night and whispered, “the babies are asleep, and that means you have me all to yourself for a while.  Think you can figure out something to do with me?”

It wasn’t the sex, though Ezekiel love the feel of her body against his.  It was the fact that she was giving herself to him.  He didn’t know how he’d been lucky enough to find Josephine, but he knew he could never find another woman like her.  Josephine had been his friend as Joseph, and had become his most trusted friend, wife, and lover as Josephine.  There could never be another woman like her.


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