Muleskinner Blues
Chapter 10

Copyright© 2022 by Joe J

I was not overstating facts when I said that the four people who stopped me on the road from South Pass were unusual. Everything about them was slightly off, from their clothes to their manner of speech. I also wondered how the three women and one man had ended up on foot twenty miles from the nearest town carrying nothing but small packs on their backs. Politeness stopped me from asking the strangers about it though. Instead, I slid out of Zeke’s saddle and introduced myself.

“Howdy folks, my name is Jeremiah Brock but you can call me Jeb. What can I do to help you?”

I was surprised when one of the women stepped forward and stuck out her hand. I was even more surprised that she was danged near as tall as I. She flashed me a dazzling smile, her teeth as white as newly fallen snow and as straight as the pickets on a fence. I took her proffered hand lightly in mine as she introduced herself.

“Pleased to meet you, Mister Brock. My name is Sonja Scanda Ferren. My companions and I wonder if your conveyance is for hire.”

Miss Ferren had long slender fingers and her hand was soft and uncallused. I could not help but notice that all four of them were clean and well groomed. Their appearance spoke of money. Miss Ferren did not have an accent I could place, although she spoke in an oddly clipped manner. I allowed that yes I was for hire and asked what they wanted me to haul for them. Sonja waved the man forward.

“We thought we’d have to walk to the nearest town so it was fortuitous you came along today. Show Jeb the map, Jonathan,” she said crisply.

The man hastened to comply. He pulled a strange looking piece of paper from his pocket and unfolded it. The paper was slick, shiny and printed in four or five colors. The map was in great geographic detail but did not have roads or trails marked on it. Jonathan pointed out where we were on the map and then pointed out a point on the map to our northwest. “We need transportation to this location. On our return trip we will be heavily laden,” he said.

I looked at the odd map then pointed off to the north-northwest at a jagged looking mountain peak.

“You are talking about Evil Spirit Mountain and you do not want to go there. The Shoshone claim the mountain is cursed. I know for a fact that everyone who has ever been up there catches some sickness and dies a slow and painful death,” I said.

The strangers were not deterred by my grim proclamation, if anything, they became even more excited.

One of the other women yipped, “Radiation sickness! This has to be the right place.”

I asked what radiation sickness was, alarmed that they would knowingly come in contact with it. Sonja gave me another of those blinding smiles.

“My excitable friend is Helena Medi Kosta. Do not worry about the sickness, because we have protection against it and you will not be exposed to it in any way. We will pay you well for taking us there and back. You can stay with your animals the entire time.”

I agreed to take them up to Evil Spirit Mountain. Sonja reached into her little pack and pulled out a gold ingot that had to weigh at least ten ounces. I would normally have to work all summer to make that much money. Sonja introduced me to the final member of her group once we struck our deal. The last woman had red hair and freckles much like little Alice. Her name was Coleen Celt O’Neil. Even their names were unusual, I thought to myself as I shook Coleen’s hand. The group was as different from one another as was possible for for four people to be.

Sonja was blonde with big blue eyes and attractive regular features. Helena had thick wavy black hair, an olive complexion and wide brown eyes. Coleen had green eyes to go with her flaming tresses, while Jonathan (I learned later that his full name was Jonathan Chin Lo) had a decided oriental cast to his appearance. As I said before, they were all tall and somewhat slender. They were also attractive in their own way but they did not look to me to be made of stern enough material to be out here on the frontier. I was dying of curiosity about how they came to be here, unarmed and on foot.

I was surprised when my customers enthusiastically helped me disassemble the twenty mule team and unhook the three wagons I had been hauling. Tending twenty mules was just as big a job as it sounds, especially for one man. I had a routine that made the job marginally easier but it was still an effort. By rights I should have had at least two more teamsters working with me but I was too cussed stubborn to hire someone. They were my mules and my wagons so I took care of things by my lonesome. I was unhooking my big pulling rig and breaking the team down between the three wagons for the trip up to Evil Spirit. I planned on having my customers take turns driving two of the wagons. I would lead the way and they would trail me. My mules were smart and well trained enough to follow me regardless how badly my fancy city folks drove them.

Sonja was obviously in charge of this curious little band so I directed most of my comments and instructions toward her. All four of them seemed fascinated with everything I showed them. Jonathan added to the strangeness by pulling a small silver colored object out of his pack and pointing it all around. His female companions would strike some sort of pose and smile anytime he pointed the little box at them.

I knew the man was touched in the head when he pointed it at me and said, “Say Cheese!”

It took an inordinate amount of time to unhitch and unhook my freight train working with my new acquaintances. I swear they knew nothing about anything that needed doing. Oh, they learned quickly enough, but I still had to show and explain every step of the procedure. Telling them to do something as simple as unhooking the reins from the bridles was met with blank stares and shrugged shoulders. We were finally situated, though. After a quick lesson on use of the reins and foot brake, we were in business. I led the way with my biggest wagon and a team of six. Sonja was seated beside me giving me directions to where their possessions were. Jonathan followed driving a four mule hitch while Helena and Coleen brought up the rear driving a four hitch as well. A pair of mules ambled along on a lead behind each wagon.

We traveled south across the flat portion of the pass until we reached the southern ridgeline. Half way up the first ridge we stopped and Sonja hopped off the wagon seat. Jonathan set the brake on his wagon and joined her in moving a pile of brush. The brush pile hid the door-sized entrance to a small cave. I offered to help them with their baggage but Sonja waved me off and they loaded everything into Jonathan’s wagon. As with everything else about these people, I had never laid eyes on baggage such as they carried. There were a number of large sea chests made of that silvery metal, a few smaller metal valises and four large packs made of a shiny cloth like satin or silk. When we were back on the road I could not contain my curiosity any longer.

“How did you end up in that cave and what is in those strange chests?” I asked.

Sonja’s answers were vague. “Someone dropped us off at the cave. It was as close as they could bring us towards where we need to go. The chests contain equipment we will need to recover what is on the mountain you call Evil Spirit. I can’t tell you more than that.”

I pulled back on the reins and halted my wagon. “I will not be a party to anything illegal, Miss Ferrens, no matter how much you pay me.”

Sonja hastened to assure me that they had no nefarious plans.

“What we are doing is legal, Mister Brock and it is vital to us in a way you couldn’t imagine. You said no one goes up on that mountain so we aren’t taking anything that belongs to, or is of any use to anyone else.”

I took her at her word, although I planned on keeping a close eye on what they brought back from up there. If she was telling the truth I would make a nice profit from the trip, if she was lying, I could leave whenever I wanted. I was also staying because I was fascinated by these unusual folks and I wanted to learn more about them. With that in mind I casually questioned Sonja as we made our way back across the pass and up into the foot hills.

Sonja did not refuse outright to answer any of my questions but, again, her answers were vague and evasive. When I asked where she was from she told me they hailed from a place called Paradise Valley over in California. Her reply to my question about her and her companion’s names was a little more forthcoming.

“Our middle names reflect our enhanced genome heritage, I am of Scandinavian descent so my middle name is Scanda, Jonathan’s ancestors were Chinese, so he’s a Chin. Helena’s Greek so she’s part of the Mediterranean subset or Medi for short. Coleen is Scot-Irish so she’s a Celt.”

I had never heard of anything like that, including some of the words she used, but then again, it was a big world and I had not seen much of it. I had a bushel more questions but I kept them to myself for the time being.

When I had been quiet for a few minutes, Sonja started asking me questions. She wanted to know all about my life. I gave her an unvarnished version of my life story starting with my youth in Georgia. I omitted anything that seemed boastful but she hung on my every word nonetheless. When I finished my tale she looked at me in wonder.

“You’ve done all that and you are only twenty-two?” she asked incredulously.

I explained to her that I had trouble staying in one place for long. Wanderlust was how my Ma described it. She asked me about the war and I truthfully told her that it had been brutality on an unimaginable scale. Her next statement was a new form of bizarre!

“Where we are from taking another person’s life is a concept we can’t even contemplate,” she said with a shudder.

My eyebrows climbed to the top of my head at that statement.

“Ah, you must be Quakers. I was wondering why you were not carrying weapons. This is a very dangerous place even if you have the Lord on your side.” I said.

Sonja looked perplexed for a few seconds then she pulled a small black thing out of her pack and started tapping on it with a small whittled black stick. She frowned at the small black thing for a few seconds before she said, “We aren’t Mennonites, Jeb but we do share their views on nonviolence.”

She put the black thing away and fished a funny looking gun from the pack. “We can defend ourselves if necessary, though. These stunners aren’t lethal but will incapacitate a man for up to three hours.”

I gave her a dubious look but did not dispute what she said. It was beginning to occur to me that the whole bunch of these folks were as crazy as loons.

I stopped for the day in a dell beside a small spring fed pond. We were about twenty-five miles from our destination. I figured we would be there by noon two days hence. Once again everyone pitched in to help me with the mules. With all that help it was short work before they were hobbled and contentedly grazing on the sweet summer grass. Once the animals were situated, my new acquaintances broke out their packs and pulled out some of the most fanciful tents and bedrolls I have ever seen. They put up a tent big enough to hold all of them in fewer than ten minutes and then each laid out a rolled up pad that seemed to swell as it sat on the ground. Over the pads went one piece, folded in half bedrolls that they carried into the tent.

I observed all their amazing activity while I was building a fire and hauling out my own more modest bedding. I did not comment on their tent and sleeping gear figuring I had acted the hick enough for one day. I had the fire banked down to some nice coals for cooking in about thirty minutes. I set my coffee pot on a rock amidst the coals and stuck my frying pan next to it. I threw a few pieces of ‘streak of lean’ salt pork into the frying pan, sat my bean pot off to the edge of the coals to heat up and unwrapped the last of the biscuits Ma packed for me. I figured if we ate lightly I had enough for a meal for all of us. Tomorrow I would need to hunt us up some meat but I had plenty of cornmeal and beans in my wagon. I make a mean ‘sweet johnnycake,’ if I have to say so myself. My guests were looking at me in awe as I set about making us supper, it was as if they had never seen anyone trail cook before.

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