Muleskinner Blues
Chapter 5

Copyright© 2022 by Joe J

Our trip west following the Oregon Trail was more tedious and boring than it was dangerous or exciting. The route we followed was well established from over twenty years of westward migration. It was dotted with army posts and we were careful and experienced travelers, so our hardships were few. The only events of significance that interfered with our march were mostly weather related. It snowed on us a couple of times and we were forced to stop twice because heavy rains had made fording a creek inadvisable for a day or two.

The Oregon Trail did not lead straight towards the northwest. Instead, it followed the easiest to travel route that generally headed in that direction. The route we actually followed was mostly through river valleys and flat stretches of featureless prairie between rivers. We cut across the northeast corner of Kansas following the Little Blue River on up to the southeastern corner of Nebraska. When we reached the south side of the Platte River we turned west and followed it until it reached the North Platte River. Three weeks travel found us deep in the Nebraska territory. From that point forward we stopped at the small towns that had sprung up along the trail looking for a place for us to settle. We were sorely disappointed at every stop. The vast, featureless prairie was bereft of trees and uninviting to us, as were the sod huts of the homesteaders, so we kept moving further westward.

One of our few pleasant diversions along the way were the two occasions we encountered a huge herd of bison grazing directly in our line of march. The first time we ran up on a herd we were all in awe at the sight as buffalo stretched out before us in every direction as far as we could see. JC estimated that there were at least twenty thousand animals in the herd. The large shaggy creatures were magnificent to behold. More importantly, they represented an excellent source of fresh meat. I felled one of the beasts both times we encountered them with medium range shots from my Enfield.

We stopped for a day at the site of each kill to skin and butcher the buffalo. Butchering a bison was a large task even with many hands doing the work. Ma was appalled at the amount of meat we had to bury beside the trail. I regretted it too, but we did not have the time or resources to properly cure or render the meat. Instead, we sliced off the best cuts and hung them from a rope we stretched between two wagons to bleed them out. Each of our kills provided us with a week’s worth of nourishment. We turned the night of each encounter into a feast and celebration of our good fortune. We saw evidence along the trail that others did not feel the same respect for the buffalo that we did. At one point we had to actually turn and skirt around the site of a mass buffalo hunt. We were forced to turn from the horrible stench of scores of bloated dead and skinned buffalo right in our path. My mother actually cried at the senseless waste of food.

Our only other excitement came when we were chanced upon by a party of twenty or so Red Indians four weeks after we departed Missouri. The Indians blocked our path and I was nervously preparing for a fight. JC calmed me somewhat by telling me they were probably not interested in a fight or they would have already attacked us. We halted our small convoy and JC nonchalantly rode out to powwow with the braves. JC could communicate with the savages in the sign language the Indians employed because of his service with the 2d Cavalry.

I shooed the women and children into the wagons. I stood by with my Enfield at the ready and watched as JC and one of the Indians gesticulated back and forth. After a few minutes the red man handed JC something and JC in turn passed the brave the Spencer rifle from his scabbard and a double handful of cartridges from his saddlebag. The two men exchanged some sort of ritualistic grasping of the forearms then the braves wheeled their horses and thundered off with a great deal of whooping and yipping. JC sat motionless astride his mount until the Indians were well away from us before he turned around and cantered back to the wagons.

“Those were Comanche, Jeb my boy. They’re the fiercest of the redmen. If they can not find anyone else to fight they will wage war on each other. Because of their nature the tribe is relatively small and they roam from Canada to Mexico making it exceedingly rare to encounter them. They are on their way to count coup on a band of Kiowa about a days ride south of here. The War Chief saw my Spencer and wanted to trade. I did not have much choice about taking his deal, but it was a good one.”

The deal JC was forced to take, was a fancy gold cased Elgin pocket watch on a beautifully wrought gold chain. It was about the nicest timepiece I had ever seen, even discounting the blood still staining the gold tasseled fob. The watch was easily worth four times the money the Spencer would bring, but the watch was a luxury we did not need, while — as our experience with Pollard Cummins’ hired killers proved — we probably needed every weapon and round of ammunition we had.

Little Alice Coleen McDougal was also a cure for some of the tedium we experienced. Alice was not Joshua’s eight years of age as I had thought. She was in fact, ten-years-old. She was smart as a whip and a tomboy of the first order. She had no interest in anything that Ruth, Rose or Carol fancied, even though they were all close to her in age. Alice was also a bundle of mischievous energy. We soon learned that it was best to keep her occupied lest she find some way to amuse herself. Alice and I became boon companions somehow and spent many an hour walking together or sitting together in the driver’s seat of the wagon when it was my turn at driving. It was exceedingly strange to me that she singled me out, because next to Curtis, I was the quietest person in the family and she was hands down the most talkative. Yet there we were, plodding along with her talking a mile a minute and peppering me with questions.

Ma organized classes for the children that she taught in the back of the wagon that Curtis drove. She held classes for the girls in the morning for two hours and for the boys two hours in the afternoon. Curtis was included in the boy’s class and enthusiastically participated. Ma had purchased a half dozen small wood framed slates and a few boxes of chalk before we left Saint Joseph on which the children and Curtis did their ciphering and scribing. The classes made the time go faster for the children and the trip a little less boring. It also kept them out of our hair for a few hours a day.

We spent most of our evenings around a buffalo dung fire. We were all full of plans and ideas. Sean played his accordion and I sawed on my fiddle some as everyone else sang along. I spent my nights with sweet Rachael cocooned in blankets under our wagon as Carol slept inside it. We made a curtain of canvass for the sides that gave us our privacy. Rachael and I did not have a relationship of burning passion. We had love between us, but the love I felt for her was not intensity that I felt with Mille Silvestry. Fool that I was, I thought Rachael felt the same about me. I found out later that her feeling were much different despite what she told me on the Captain Greene’s boat.

We continued moving west trying to find an alternative to the broad flat prairie. We finally found such a place when we passed out of Nebraska and into the Utah Territory; in the area called, Wyoming. We stopped at a trading post where the high plains butted into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in June of 1866 to lay in provisions, and to rest our stock and ourselves. We had been traveling steadily for six weeks and had covered at least six hundred miles.

On our first visit to the trading post, JC, Sean and I met General Grenville Dodge. Dodge was a gregarious fellow and as full of himself as an overstuffed goose. Dodge was in the area surveying the route of the much ballyhooed Transcontinental Railroad. JC and Dodge were kindred spirits and in minutes were yakking away as if they were long lost brothers.

I left JC, Sean and Dodge in the trading post, with them having a drink and deeply absorbed in conversation. I did not want much to do with the former Union General once I found he had served under Sherman during the siege of Atlanta. JC was as excited as I’d ever seen him once he returned to our camp. He pulled me aside for a talk straight away.

“Jeb, from what the General was telling me, this might be the place we have been seeking. He told me of a low mountain valley north of here with forests, creeks, meadows and even a few lakes. The valley is unsettled because most of the territory is open ranch land and most of the settlers here run cattle for a living. The valley is too heavily forested for cattle ranching but it would be perfect for raising horses and mules. We can each file a claim to a section (six hundred and forty acres) for a hundred dollar fee. I figure that if we like the place, Sean, you and I can file for adjoining sections. Even Curtis might be able to file a claim. Dodge told me that the railroad was coming right through here in a year or so and that he had already commenced surveying a town on this very spot. He figures that soon people will be flocking here because of the railroad.”

As I said, I did not share JC’s enthusiasm for Dodge, so it was harder for me to believe even a small part of his pronouncements. However, I was not about to dismiss what JC told me out of hand. For one thing, JC had an uncanny knack in finding good deals. For another, if this area did boom with the arrival of the railroad, my dream of a freight business could become reality.

“I have my doubts about the General’s veracity, JC, but I’m willing to look at the land he mentioned. If it is suitable for us, we can show it to the family and see what they think,” I said noncommittally.

Dodge magnanimously escorted us to the valley the next morning. It was located about ten miles from the trading post and I was exceedingly surprised when it turned out to be everything he described. As we rode through the valley beside the snow melt swollen, burbling creek; I could envision the family living here, quite easily. As I explored on my own, JC, Sean and Dodge were in a serious discussion about the money to be made if Dodge’s prediction of a boom in the area occurred. Discussions about money and becoming rich did not interest me. Sure, I wanted to be comfortable, but, more than that, I wanted my family and me to be happy and at peace for a change.

JC and I loaded the family up in a couple of wagons the next day and took them to the tranquil little valley. It was love at first sight for the women so we started making plans right there by the creek. Ma, Anne, Rachael and Florence were ecstatic about the spot and were happily planning on where our houses would be as we ate the picnic lunch they had prepared earlier. I was perfectly content to sit and watch as everyone else made plans. It was not that I did not care, I simply had nothing to contribute. I could not think of a single thing I could add at this point. I was alive, healthy and surrounded by those I loved. I had even managed to drag a nice collection of books out here with me. That was plenty enough for me.

We moved our camp up hill about fifty feet from the creek’s high watermark the next day and set about building a house. The plan called for there to be three houses eventually, but for now we needed to concentrate on one, so we would have a place to survive the winter. We also needed a barn and fenced enclosure for the livestock and ma wanted a garden tilled for her to plant, yesterday. Ma had brought vegetable seeds, seed corn and even some nuts to plant. She had the idea of transforming our place into a small slice of Georgia, complete with Hickory and Black Walnut trees.

One thing we weren’t lacking was building materials. We had a thriving evergreen forest for lumber and all the stone we could ever use. The local stone was perfect for building because pieces that were flat on the top and bottom were commonplace, and the stone was easy to shape with only a peening hammer and a cold chisel. We dug a foundation about a foot wide and a foot deep and started carefully dry stacking the stones we had been gathering and shaping. Curtis and I fetched and squared the ends of the stones while JC and Sean fitted them together in the foundation trench. We had an ambitious plan to build a house twenty feet wide and forty feet long so we needed plenty of stone just for the foundation. Also, because we did not have mortar to bond the stones together, we had to spend considerable time fitting and leveling as we went.

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