Muleskinner Blues
Chapter 9

Copyright© 2022 by Joe J

I worked almost continuously, hauling freight during the summer of 1867 as the railroad came ever closer to Cheyenne. I would bring in a load, spend the night at home, then depart with a fresh team the following morning. I worked day in, day out without a break. The constant work was not at all unpleasant. I was finally doing what I had dreamed of for years. Alice McDougal went with me on trips that did not require more mules than could be controlled from the driver’s box. She loved driving the team and she was becoming very good at it. I was amazed that fiery little Alice never lost her temper with the mules. She had an easy explanation for that when I asked her about it.

“The mules make mistakes because they don’t know any better, Jeb, but they seldom make the same mistake twice. How many people can you say that about?”

She had a point.

Alice was twelve now and proud as punch that she had grown a few inches. She was still a little slip of a thing, although it was not a good idea to point that out to her. She was the smallest person in the family, as even her younger step-brother Morgan shot by her in his latest growth spurt, yet she was the most daring and feisty of the bunch. She was a natural leader and a master at flimflamming the other children into whatever she schemed. Alice was also very intelligent. She was smart enough to stay out of trouble with the adults. She stayed out of everyone’s way but mine. She became the little sister I never had.

I did not have an opportunity to talk with JC about Grenville Dodge until the middle of August. I had to wait a couple of months for JC to be home and Dodge to be elsewhere. As I waited for a good time to approach my old friend, I could not help but to notice how he seemed to be emulating Dodge in how he spoke and dressed. He wore suits mostly now and he worked hard at losing his Texas drawl. I finally walked over to his house one evening and asked if he could spare me a few minutes of his time. JC looked at me for a second then ushered me into his house.

“You know I always have time for you, Jeb. You are the one that is never around,” he said as if he were exasperated with me.

I shrugged my shoulders in reply and walked into his front room. Anne gave me a hug and kissed my cheek. Anne was very obviously pregnant and she looked radiantly happy. My nieces, Ruth and Rose, both gave me hugs as well. I will admit that I enjoyed Ruth’s hug very much as she pressed her tall and well developed body against me.

JC had made a number of improvements to their house. The floors were wood planks instead of packed dirt and the walls were plastered and whitewashed. JC walked me to the kitchen table as Anne bustled around fixing us a cup of coffee. She plunked our coffee down on the table and excused herself so we could talk. As soon as Anne was out of earshot, I said my piece.

“JC, I do not trust Grenville Dodge even a little bit. I also do not like the idea of our family becoming so cozy with him. It bothers me that you and Sean are partnered up with him and it worries me that Rachael is romantically involved with him.”

JC regarded me over the top of his coffee cup for almost half a minute before saying anything, then he sighed and set his cup on the table.

“Dodge has been fair and honest in his dealing with us, Jeb. As far as I know, he is a respected and upright man. What is it about him that you do not trust?”

I was slightly embarrassed that I could not give him a definitive answer.

“I cannot put my finger on any one thing, JC. I just have a bad feeling about him.”

JC gave me another one of those searching looks because, during the war when I had those feelings, they were right more often than wrong. His answer acknowledged that.

“I think you are wrong this time Jeb.” After giving me a thoughtful look he continued, “Are you sure your feelings are not jealousy because Grenville is sparking Rachael?”

I sat back in my chair stunned that JC could think such a thing. Of course, I just finished all but accusing him of being in partnership with a crook, so I did not have a case for righteous indignation.

“Look, JC,” I said, “I care a lot about Rachael just as I do all of my family, you included. I worry about her being hurt by Dodge.”

JC snorted derisively and said, “I doubt Dodge could hurt her any more than you already have, no matter what he did.”

I winced and nodded ruefully to acknowledge the validity of his statement.

“That may be so, but I did it through stupidity. Dodge, on the other hand, is not stupid. Everything he does is calculated.”

JC and I both stuck to our views of Dodge, yet we parted still best friends. The issue wasn’t important enough for either of us to sacrifice our friendship. JC did agree that he would caution Dodge on the consequences of hurting Rachael. I felt better just by him doing that.

I had plenty of time to think about Dodge, Rachael and my family on my trips back and forth to the railhead. Not that it did me much good, especially in the case of Rachael. Despite being twenty-one and all I had lived through, and regardless of my being sexually experienced, I found that women were unimaginably complex and unfathomable. That Rachael harbored such strong feelings for me was a complete shock to me. I knew we had a strong sexual attraction for each other and thought we had a shared love as family. Anything beyond that was a surprise. Knowing that I stupidly flaunted my relationship with Babbette and hurt Rachael made me feel lower than a snake’s belly in an “Oregon Trail” wagon rut.

In September of 1867, I traveled to Sydney, Nebraska to buy a couple of large Percheron mares and the biggest jackass I had ever seen. No, let me amend that. It was the biggest four legged jackass I’ve ever seen. The jack and mares were the first step toward our dream of breeding our own mules. JC put up half the money for the new stock and I put up the other. Our homestead was perfect for raising a few horses and mules, but it was too hilly and heavily forested to ranch. That is why the small valley was still unclaimed when we arrived in Wyoming. JC still planned on owning a cattle ranch and was negotiating thru Grenville Dodge to purchase three thousand acres of open range owned by the Union Pacific.

The railroad finally arrived in Cheyenne early in November of 1867. The town that had only existed on paper six months previous now had a population of four thousand people. Cheyenne quickly became as rough a place as Boulder, Colorado had been. While the railroad was under construction nearby, railroad men called Railroad Regulation Enforcement Officers, or Regulators for short, kept the peace. Our problems arose when the Regulators moved west with the construction gangs, leaving Cheyenne virtually lawless. Cheyenne’s leading citizens formed a town council to address the problem in December of 1867. Their first official act was to appoint JC Colbert as Mayor Pro Tem.

JC, in turn, convinced me to accept a temporary appointment as Town Marshall until someone permanent was found. I did not want any part of the job but was guilted into it when JC asked me why I would not do for my family and home what I did for strangers down in Boulder. I took the job before the marshal’s office and four cell jail were built. I followed Bob Randolph’s example, and hired my own peace keepers and posted the same list of rules. The jail was completed on January the fifteenth. It was full of prisoners by the sixteenth. The jail stayed mostly filled for the next ten days as the peace keepers and I enforced the Cheyenne Town Code posted in each bawdy house, saloon and dance hall. Once the miners, railroad men and cowboys understood that misbehaving was not tolerated, things settled down.

I worked day and night for the first two weeks backing up the peace keepers with my shotgun and brawn. Everyone knew me after a week or so, and I had a fair grasp on the temperament of many of our citizens. One group with whom I established an excellent rapport was the fallen doves working at the entertainment establishments. I think that the women helped keep the peace almost as much as my deputies once I convinced them that they should insist men act properly. I got on well with the town folk. I did not with the miners, drovers and railroad men. I do not know if it was because I looked young or if it was general animus towards my badge but for whatever reason, it seemed that every night someone tested me.

I was involved in my first duel during those weeks. The event was a first I would rather have avoided because of the sheer barbarism of it. The duel was thrust upon me by a drunken cowhand from one of the big spreads up state. He and his friends were in town after driving five hundred head of cattle to our new railhead for shipment to Chicago. Ironically, the herd he drove into our new cattle yard was the first to arrive in town. The cattle pens on the west end of town were owned by JC and Dodge. JC purchased the cattle while Dodge arranged for their shipment and sale in Chicago, and the two men split the profits. The young cowboy who challenged me had collected his pay after the cattle drive and headed for the first saloon he saw. Four hours later I walked into the same saloon just as he pulled his pistol and shot another man over a hand of cards.

The young cowboy’s gun play was the first time I saw a man draw his pistol from its holster and fire it in one motion. I was amazed at the speed with which he completed the maneuver. As his victim fell to the ground the young cowboy looked around wildly, his pistol swinging in erratic arcs. I was in a quandary over how to handle the gun waving cowboy because the crowd in the saloon made using my shotgun too dangerous. I carried a pistol but it was in an old Union holster with a flap that prevented the pistol from falling out whilst riding. As the young drover assimilated the shock of taking another man’s life, I eased open the holster flap and started to pull my pistol.

The cowboy caught my movement and swung his pistol barrel in my direction. In a move born of self preservation, I dropped to the floor and completed extracting my pistol as the bullet he fired whistled over my head. I yelled at him to drop his piece but he chose instead to start pulling back the hammer on his big Colt Army. I fired before he could complete the maneuver. Thankfully for the cowhand, the round I fired was off aimed and hit him in the right shoulder instead of the chest as I intended. My errant shot caused the cowboy to drop his weapon and sag back against the table where two other men quickly pinned him down. I gave his wound a cursory inspection, sent for the town’s new doctor and undertaker, then hauled the cowboy off to jail.

The cowboy was my introduction to the new breed of western desperados making their way north from Texas and the New Mexico Territory. The men called themselves gunslingers and took great pride in their fast draw techniques. I was to have a number of run-ins with the breed in the coming years, both those hired to enforce the law and those who were outlaws. I never trusted any of them because they switched sides with alarming regularity. I met men who were rustlers one day and U.S. Marshals the next. I commandeered the fancy gunbelt, holster and shooting iron of my prisoner and secretly practiced drawing and firing for hours on end. I never became as good as the best of them but my war experience made me careful and alert. I never put myself in a position where my only option was to draw down on someone.

Shooting the cowboy solidified my reputation as a man who would not shy away from a fight while carrying out my duties. The shooting and stories that drifted up from Boulder also earned me the unwanted and undeserved reputation as a steely-eyed killer. Although I hated to be thought of that way, my reputation made men think twice about challenging me.

It is not hard to imagine the growing pains Cheyenne suffered during its first year as a town when you consider that it went from a population of zero to five thousand in only eight months. The influx of people far exceeded construction of places for them to live. The lack of housing led to a shantytown popping up to the north of the town along the creek that led up to our homestead. People in the shantytown passed the harsh winter in tents and hastily cobbled together huts. Residents of the shantytown were mostly families in which the husband worked in some construction trade, building the money making businesses on Cheyenne’s main street. I made it a part of my job to look out for those people’s welfare. My Ma was a great help in that, as were Rachael, Anna, Florence and the wives of the Mormonites.

 
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