The train chugged slowly into the station at Independence, Missouri. The wheels screeched on the rails as the engineer applied the brakes and brought the train to a stop. Josephine stood up with the rest of the passengers and then made her way to the aisle between the seats with her bag in hand. When she reached the door of the train car, the conductor held out his hand for her. She took his hand and stepped down to the station platform.
She was glad to be out of the cramped coach. For the entire ride, she had sat shoulder to shoulder between a fat salesman from Kansas City and a woman with red hair and wide hips. The salesman smelled of stale cigar smoke and had constantly let his hand stray to her thigh when he scratched his. The woman smelled of lavender so strong it caused Josephine to cough a few times. She was certain the woman must be “public woman” who sold her charms because the top of her dress was cut low enough the separation between her heavy breasts was exposed. No proper woman would ever be seen like that.
Josephine was in Independence and she hoped, safe. Only one person knew her destination and she was certain Delia would never tell anyone, much less the man with a scar from his forehead to his left jaw and missing the eye on that side. She shuddered at that vision, a vision that had haunted her since that day at Centralia, Missouri when the bushwackers had come into town.
Josephine was walking down the street when the force of over a hundred bushwhackers galloped down the main street. The men of the Militia attempted to group and stop the raid, but it happened so quickly they were cut down in a hail of gunfire. The lucky ones turned and ran.
Once the bushwhackers had silenced all resistance, they dismounted and went about robbing every store in the town. After taking all the whiskey from the saloon, they began drinking and soon were half drunk. Josephine had fled to her room in the boarding house, but when six of the bushwhackers began going from room to room and robbing the guests, she climbed out her window and then jumped the four feet to the ground.
She was unhurt by the jump, but one of the bushwackers had come into her room just as she left and was climbing down from the window to follow her. She ran down the alley and into the livery stable to hide in one of the stalls. Josephine was horrified when the man burst through the stable door, and she looked around for some way to defend herself. She picked up the first thing she saw, a horse hoof pick sitting beside a currycomb and a brush on a shelf beside the door to the stall.
As the rest of the bushwhackers ransacked the businesses in Centralia, that man had grabbed her around the waist and forced her back on the straw in the stall. She had pummelled his arm with both fists as he held her down with one hand on her throat and pulled up her skirts with the other. In vain, she had continued to struggle as he unfastened his trousers and then forced her knees apart.
As the man moved closer to his goal, Josephine slashed out with the hooked end of the hoof pick and raked it down the man’s face. He’d screamed in pain and let go of her throat, then backed away, clutching his hands to his face long enough for her to get up and run. The last thing she saw as she fled the livery stable was the gash down the man’s face and his eyeball hanging from the socket.
Josephine had run to the railroad yard then and hid in one of the storage shacks. She heard the whistle of the oncoming train, and through a crack in the siding boards, she could see the bushwhackers had blocked the track with railroad ties. Some of the bushwhackers were wearing Union uniforms and took positions as if standing guard over the station. The rest were in hiding.
The train approached and then slowed to a stop. The engineer had seen the blockage and thought the Union Army was guarding the track until the blockage could be cleared. When the train stopped, the bushwhackers emerged from their hiding places and forced everyone out of the train cars. The twenty three actual Union soldiers on the train were lined up in front of a group of the bushwhackers and instructed to take off their uniforms. They had to comply as they had no weapons.
Josephine couldn’t hear what was said, but presently, one of the Union soldiers stepped forward to speak to the bushwhackers. A minute later, the bushwhackers opened fire on the remaining soldiers.
The scene that followed was horrific. Most of the Union soldiers were killed outright. Those that were only wounded were shot again or their throats were cut. Once all were dead, the bushwhackers seemed to lose all humanity. They began mutilating the corpses. Josephine saw one of the bushwhackers jumping from body to body and laughing as he did so.
Some of the bushwhackers then set fire to the train and started it toward Sturgeon while the others systematically robbed the civilian passengers of any money or jewelry they had. The few who resisted were shot dead. After setting fire to the train station, the bushwhackers mounted their horses and left Centralia with the remaining Union soldier tied to a saddle.
As the dust from their horses settled to the ground, the people of Centralia came to the train station to help. Josephine went back to her room at the boarding house. She’d seen the atrocities happen from a distance. She didn’t want to see the result.
She did see many men and more than one woman lying dead in the street in front of the boarding house. Most of the he men were part of the town militia that had been cut down at the start of the raid, but she saw the man who worked in the general store lying there. The women were women who had tried to resist giving up their money.
As the magnitude of the massacre began to sink in, there was a wailing from the wives of the men killed and then sobbing. From the remaining men came shouts for vengeance. The telegraph operator sent a message to his home office telling of the attack, and received a message that the Union Army had been dispatched to find the bushwhackers.
Josephine was numb as she cooked the boarding house meals that day. She had no one to grieve for because she had no one. Her father had fled Virginia because he feared for the safety of his family. He was a farmer who did not own slaves and had been vocal about the Bible saying one man should not own another.
He had received threats from those who believed otherwise. Centralia, Missouri had good farm land and was sympathetic to the Union cause. He had sold most of their possessions before war broke out and began the wagon trip to Centralia along with three other families of like mind.
Josephine had lost her mother and father to cholera along the way and her only brother had drowned while attempting to cross the Kaskaskia river in Illinois. She saved her mother’s traveling case and her father’s pocket knife as remembrances, and finished the trip with a Methodist preacher and his wife. She had found employment as a cook for the boarding house in Centralia.
After that day, Josephine felt the sorrow of the widows and mothers of Centralia. It was as if a dark cloud had hovered over Centralia and would not go away. After a month, things began to seem better, but the cloud was still there. The streets were filled with women in black and their stern faces looked through veils. They went about their business as usual, but seldom was heard a laugh or even a chuckle.
During the nights, Josephine would dream about the man with one eye and usually wake terrified and wet with sweat. The dream would not go away, no matter what she tried. Staying awake later did not help. Neither did the whiskey she began drinking before bed each night.
Over the next few months, those dreams did become less frequent, but at least one night a week, she would dream of his hand on her throat and the other forcing her legs apart. She would watch as the hoof pick cut a bloody gash into the man’s face and would wake just as the sharp tip gouged out his eye.
The dreams were almost gone when a group of jayhawkers coming back from raiding the southern Missouri towns sympathetic to the Confederacy arrived in Centralia. With them, they brought four men who had been identified as belonging to the group of bushwhackers who had committed the massacre at Centralia. The four were to be tried in Centralia and if convicted, hanged for the atrocity committed there. They were placed in the jail to await their trial the next day.
The boarding house where Josephine was a cook was paid to serve meals to the deputies and inmates of the jail. Josephine hadn’t gone to see the four men as had most of the town. She didn’t want to remember anything about that horrible day. Such was not to be though. She carried five meals to the jail that evening, one for the deputy on duty and four for the inmates, and was chilled to the bone by the leering grin of one of the men. He wore a patch over his left eye, and the pink, almost healed scar Josephine saw was the same gash she’d made with the hoof pick.
The man looked at her, then said, “Well, if it ain’t my little girlfriend. We never got introduced proper like, now did we? I’m Randall Meeks. Who might you be? Well, don’t matter none. We got some unfinished business, don’t we, girl? I owe you something for this scar and for my eye. Soon’s I get outa here, I’ll be giving it to you.”
Josephine hadn’t said anything. She just gave the basket of food to the deputy on duty and walked out of the building. Josephine was worried. The man had recognized her. If he somehow managed to get away, he’d know where she was and would find her. Josephine had no doubts he’d rape her, and he’d probably kill her after he was done so she couldn’t tell.
When the deputy came out of the jail, Josephine was still standing there shaking in fright. The deputy touched her shoulder.
“Ma’am, I heard what he said, but don’t you worry none. He’ll hang along with the other three soon’s we get the trial over. You just bring their food to the door of the jail from now on. That way, you won’t have to see him again. He ain’t gonna be able to do or say anything more to you.”
Josephine chastised herself for being afraid. The jail was strong and guarded by a deputy all day and all night. There was no way the men could escape and what the deputy had said about them hanging was certain to happen. Everybody knew the trial was just a formality. Talk of deserved vengeance was already circulating among the very men who would serve on the jury.
That night, an hour before daylight, someone went into the jail, stabbed the deputy on duty to death and released all four captives. Since the streets were deserted at that hour, no one saw the captives escape.
Josephine heard that news as she cooked breakfast at the boarding house. The escape had been discovered when the sheriff came to relieve the night deputy just after daylight. He was arranging for a posse to find them when the owner of the livery stable came to report someone had stolen four horses, saddles, and bridles sometime during the night.
The Sheriff said the jayhawkers had reported seeing two men in the distance on their way back to Centralia, but had dismissed them as just men riding in the same direction . Now he thought the two were probably other bushwhackers who had followed the jayhawkers and the four captives to Centralia. Once they knew where their fellow murderers were being held, they planned and executed the escape.
They would naturally ride back to southern Missouri where most people supported the Confederacy, so the search began at the south end of town. They did find the fresh tracks of horses in the dust, and followed them until they entered rocky ground. After an hour, they had not found the track again and returned to Centralia.
It took Josephine only a few minutes to decide what she should do. She packed her mother’s traveling case with as much of her clothing as would fit and then walked out the door. On her way to the train station, she met Delia, the women who washed the linen for the boarding house. Delia asked where she was going, and Josephine said to Independence to see her aunt but would be back in a week. They talked for a few moments before Delia wished her a safe trip and walked on toward the boarding house. Josephine used most of her small savings to purchase a train fare to Independence, and an hour later was sitting in her seat and watching Missouri go by.
Josephine knew traveling to Independence was a little risky. While Independence was staunchly Union and there were Union troops nearby, the Confederacy was rumored to be attempting to re-take Missouri. She hoped the battles would stay in the east part of the state. That hope became relief when she arrived in Independence on the first of October.
Things in Independence seemed normal enough given the times and the political struggle for Missouri. There were many people from the rural areas outside of the town living with relatives because of the evacuation order a year earlier, but for the most part, people went about their business as usual. Josephine found a job as a cook in the hotel and settled down to a new life.
That lasted until the 21st of October. The Union Army had been defeated at Lexington, Missouri and had retreated to set up camp five miles east of the city. People in the city were worried the Union line would not hold, and on the 21st , that fear proved to be reality. The Union lines were forced to retreat through Independence, and throughout the afternoon there was fighting in the city. Josephine and the other hotel employees hid in the cellar of the hotel to await the outcome of the battle. As night fell, they could hear occasional shots being fired, but the rest of the night was calm.
The next day, there was more fighting in the streets during the morning and into the afternoon. In late afternoon, the fighting subsided and Josephine and the others ventured out of the cellar. The Confederates had been forced to retreat and there were Union soldiers in Independence again.
That night, Josephine sat on her bed thinking. Was there no place safe from the war? She’d been through so much for her twenty two years. She’d lost her family because of the war. She’d watched unarmed men executed for the crime of just wearing a Union uniform. She’d escaped being raped only by luck and her will to fight back. She’d watched women cry over dead husbands and sons who’d had nothing at all to do with the war. Now, she’d hidden in a cellar while the two armies exchanged places twice in Independence. It was only luck or divine providence or something else that kept a cannon ball from landing in the cellar and killing them all.
Josephine tried to think of a way to escape to someplace where the war wouldn’t go. That place obviously wasn’t Missouri. South was the Confederate area and was constantly raided by both the Union Army and the groups of jayhawkers who were out for vengeance. To the north, the area that sided with the Union, the situation was the same except in reverse. It was also likely Randall Meeks would still be in Missouri.
There had been several travelers going through Independence on their way to Oregon and California. Most did not stay at the hotel. They needed all the money they had to buy wagons, oxen, and supplies for the trip. They did talk to the people of Independence though. Most said they were fleeing the war and hoping to make a better life for themselves. Oregon had free land and California was where gold had been discovered.
Josephine considered both, but didn’t see how she could go to either place. She was a small woman and would never be able to do it by herself. She’d grown up on a farm but her father had used horses and mules, not oxen. She wouldn’t know how to drive them or see to their care. She also did not have enough money to buy the wagon, oxen and supplies needed.
Over the next few weeks, Josephine listened to the talk of the men and women who stayed at the hotel. Most were on their way to Council Bluffs, Iowa and were waiting for passage on a steamboat up river. They were men of means who were going to build a railroad across the plains and mountains to the Pacific Ocean.
Those men talked of many things as they ate, and Josephine listened as best she could from the hotel kitchen. One evening, she overheard a man telling about a woman who had fought in the Union Army as a man. According to his story, the woman had cut her hair and posed as an eighteen year old boy when she enlisted. She was not found out until wounded in the chest during a battle. The surgeon had removed her shirt to dress the wound and discovered her true gender.
Josephine had mused that if she were to do the same, traveling to Oregon or California would be a simple matter. There were men who made the trip on horseback rather than in a wagon. She’d seen two crossing the Missouri on the ferry one Sunday after she’d finished cooking breakfast. They each rode a horse and led a packhorse laden with the supplies they’d need.
She’d asked old Amos, the man who tended the bar in the hotel, where the men were going. He said they were most likely prospectors heading to California or young men going to Oregon to start farming, and they probably would stay with a group of wagons for safety and companionship even though their horses could travel faster than the oxen pulling the wagons of the settlers.
That night, Josephine counted the money she kept hidden in her mother’s old traveling case. Her wage was a dollar a day plus her room and board, but she’d worked at the hotel only a month. She had twenty five dollars and ten cents to her name. That wouldn’t begin to buy a horse and saddle, let alone a pack horse and supplies too. She sighed as she put the money back into the traveling case and put it under the bed. She’d have to wait, probably at least until spring. She only hoped the war would stay far, far away until then. She didn’t want to think about Randall Meeks and where he might be.
Thomas climbed into his saddle, picked up the reins, and then spoke to the black gelding.
“Giddup, Ringo. I see Independence in the distance and you’re rested enough. I think we’ll spend the night there. You wouldn’t mind a good feed of oats, wouldja? Me, I’m getting’ mighty tired of bacon and corn cakes. I’m gonna have me a steak and some potatoes, and then stretch out of a bed instead of hard ground.”
Thomas Brighton thought about his situation as the black gelding walked slowly toward the town in the distance. He should have been back with the Union Army and helping his artillery unit shell the Confederate lines at the last battle of the war. He’d sworn to do that when he enlisted in the Army of the Potomac, and had done his best until Antietam. During that battle, he’d been struck in the right leg by a minié ball that shattered his knee. He’d lived to make it to the surgeon who took one look and then instructed his assistant to put Thomas to sleep with chloroform. When Thomas woke up, his lower right leg was gone.
He was transferred to Stanton Hospital where he healed. Three months later he had been fitted with a Jewitt wooden lower leg. It took some practice to learn to walk again, but by March, he could walk without assistance even though he had a very visible limp.
The Union Army discharged him and paid him all his back pay. As an orphan from Washington, D.C., Thomas had no home to go back to and he didn’t want to stay in the East. The war was still raging in the east and he’d be reminded of it every day. Thomas bought a train a ticket to St. Louis. St. Louis was the gateway to the west, and it seemed like a good place to start. Jobs were available there, and he needed one to earn enough money to buy a horse and supplies.
His only problem was most jobs in St. Louis required the use of two good legs. He finally found work as a stable hand in a livery stable. Forking manure and feeding the horses wasn’t something he enjoyed doing, but after paying for the train ticket and the ferry across the Mississippi, he’d used nearly all his Army pay. It didn’t pay much, only fifteen dollars a month, but he didn’t have many expenses. He lived in a room in the stable and cooked his meals on the small wood stove in that room.
By September, 1864 Thomas had saved a little over a hundred and fifty dollars. He bought a horse, a black gelding named Ringo, and a saddle and bridle for eighty dollars. He then bought a side of bacon, twenty pounds of corn meal, and a little salt. After quitting his job, he started riding towards Independence, Missouri.
Thomas had chosen Independence for two reasons. He wasn’t yet sure where he was going except that he was going west. There were still wagon trains traveling the Oregon Trail and thought he might be able to ride along with them. The trail west was better than before the war, but there were still the hazards of rivers to cross and in some places, hostile Indians. A man by himself would have trouble with either.
The other reason for riding to Independence was the war. Independence was in the north, free-state part of Missouri. His Union uniform trousers would be accepted there. If he’d gone south to Texas, he’d have passed through the part of Missouri that still wanted slavery, and his Union uniform trousers would probably have gotten him killed. There was no logical reason to throw away perfectly good trousers when he didn’t have to.
As an additional safeguard, Thomas had not traveled on the established roads. He’d heard tales of bushwhackers in Missouri who raided the towns suspected of having sympathies toward the Union. They were rumored to be ruthless and without any sense of decency in their quest to keep Missouri a slave state. The jayhawkers who rode down from Kansas were nearly as bad. Thomas didn’t want to meet either group, so he rode at a distance from the roads, close enough to keep him going in the right direction, but far enough away he could either ride away or hide if he saw a group of riders coming.
He didn’t see any groups of men along the way, and when he got to Centralia, he found out why. Centralia was still reeling from an attack by Quantril’s Raiders a month earlier. His Union uniform trousers had caused some questioning looks when he rode into town. He’d heard a muttered comment that he must be a deserter since he wasn’t with a Union Army unit. He’d answered that comment by raising his right pant leg to reveal the Jewett leg. That sight had resulted in apologies and expressions of thanks from most of the people and two offers to feed him and give him a bed for the night.
Thomas didn’t accept the offer from the widow of a man killed during the raid. He thought it wouldn’t be proper to spend the night alone with a widow. Instead he went to the boarding house, but still tried to pay for a meal and a room for the night. The owner of the boarding house said Thomas had paid enough to the Union already. He could stay the night and eat at no cost.
As Thomas lay in a bed for the first time in weeks, he was thinking about staying in Centralia for the winter. Traveling across the countryside would be difficult until spring. The townspeople seemed friendly and there was work because so many of the men had been killed a month before. The next morning, Thomas went in search of employment. Most of the store owners wanted to help him, but were unsure about his leg. The owner of the livery stable wasn’t. The pay was a dollar and a half a day and he could live in the stable and cook his own meals like he had in St. Louis.
On April 10th, 1865, the telegraph operator burst from his office with the news that Lee had surrendered and the war was over. Over that month, other Confederate forces likewise surrendered and the war was officially declared over on the 9th of May. The people of Centralia breathed a collective sigh of relief. They could now put the war behind them and get on with their lives.
The 20th of May, Thomas decided to get on with his life as well. He’d saved two hundred and ninety dollars while working in Centralia and was ready to start for Independence and the west again.
Beulah was a short, stocky white mare he had cared for in the livery stable. Nobody ever used her because she was so short and heavy, but she was the type of horse Thomas had seen carrying panniers during the war. The livery stable owner was happy to sell her for fifty dollars and the owner of the general store gave him a discount of ten dollars on a forty dollar pack saddle with two panniers. Thomas stocked the panniers with twenty pounds of corn meal, another side of bacon, and ten pounds each of salt and sugar. Ten pounds of coffee and a new coffee pot completed his purchases. On the 21st of May, he saddled Ringo, tied Beulah’s halter rope to Ringo’s saddle, and started for Independence.
Josephine sat on her bed and counted out the stack of coins for the umpteenth time. It was the 27th of May and if she was going to leave Independence she would have to do so soon. According to Amos, the wagon trains that started later than the first of June would run the risk of arriving in the mountains at the same time as the winter snows. Such had been the fate of another party some eighteen years earlier he said. That party had been caught in the Sierras by an early snowstorm and had to spend the winter there. Their rescuers wondered how they’d managed to survive until one of the party admitted to eating parts of those who had died.
Josephine counted the last of her one dollar gold coins. She said, “one hundred and ninety eight” as she put the last one on the table. Would that be enough? She wasn’t sure, but she thought it might be if she bought carefully. She’d been with her father when he bought the horses, wagon, and supplies to come to Centralia and had watched him carefully. Between the noon and evening meals, she walked to the livery stable and asked about the cost of a horse.
The livery stable owner looked her up and down and then grinned. His reason for grinning was the bay mare he’d bought along with three other horses the spring before. She was more of a boy’s horse, too small for a grown man, and was also past her prime. Because of both, he’d had trouble renting her out and hadn’t been able to sell her. If he could get the right price, he might still come out ahead. He smiled at Josephine.
“Whatcha want a horse for?”
Josephine smiled back.
“I just thought I’d do some riding when I have time, now that it’s safe. I want a tame horse though, not one that’s going to throw me off and then run back here.”
“I got just the horse for you”, said the man. “Jenny here is the right size for you and she’s as gentle as a lamb.”
Josephine liked the white blaze on Jenny’s face and her four white feet. She held out her hand and the horse nuzzled her palm.
“How much would you be asking for her”, asked Josephine.
The man scratched his beard.
“Well, let’s see. She’s not shod but she’s in real good shape. I’ll take seventy five.”
Josephine stroked Jenny’s nose, then used her thumbs to open the horse’s mouth. Her father had taught her how to judge a horse’s age by the wear and angle of the teeth. She looked at the horse’s teeth, then turned back to the man.
“She’s about twenty years old. I think seventy five is a lot for a twenty year old horse.”
The man smiled.
“You do know your horses, Ma’am, I’ll grant you that. Tell you what I’ll do. I’ll take fifty for her.”
“I assume that means with a saddle and bridle?”
“Well, I don’t know I can go that far. A good saddle and bridle…that’s at least fifty. That’d make it a hundred total.”
Josephine was still smiling.
“I think you probably have a used saddle and bridle that will fit her. I don’t see any saddles that look new anywhere around here. I think sixty for Jenny and a used saddle and bridle would seem about right…as long as the saddle has saddle bags.”
The man shook his head.
“Ma’am, you drive a hard bargain, but I just can’t go that low. What would you say to sixty five?”
“With two saddle bags…and she can stay here and you’ll feed her for a week?”
“A week? “Ma’am, I’m losing money on the deal, but I’ll throw in two saddle bags. It’ll be another dollar if I have to feed her for a week. It’ll have to be gold though, not script.”
“I’d say you just sold a horse.”
Josephine stayed with Jenny for a few minutes while she looked at the other horses. The men who she’d seen crossing the Missouri for Oregon all had a pack horse. Josephine thought she should probably wait until she crossed the river to buy one. Doing so now would give away her plan to leave Independence.
Josephine paid him and then went to the general store where she bought a frying pan, half a side of bacon, ten pounds of corn meal, and a pound of salt. While she was picking out her items, she overheard two men who were preparing for the trip as well. They were discussing the need for firearms on the trail. Josephine hadn’t thought about that, but the way the men talked, a firearm would be valuable.
The storekeeper explained that most of the travelers bought a rifle. A rifle was better for hunting and for any Indians they might meet on the way. He said revolvers were used by most lawmen because a revolver had multiple shots and was easier to carry than a rifle, but a revolver wasn’t accurate much beyond twenty feet. He said he did sell a few revolvers, but the men who bought them said they were in case the Indians got too close for a rifle and for snakes.
Both men bought Henry rifles and two hundred rounds of ammunition. Josephine brought her purchases to the counter and then asked about the cost of a rifle. The storekeeper smiled and asked what a little lady like her wanted with a rifle.
Josephine looked at the storekeeper.
“Don’t you think I know how to shoot one?”
The storekeeper smiled again.
“Well, it’s just that I don’t usually have ladies asking me about a rifle.”
“This lady is. It’s a present for my father in Centralia. How much is a rifle like those men just bought and two hundred cartridges?”
“Forty five dollars for the rifle and four boxes of cartridges at fifty cents a box would be forty seven dollars total. Would your father be walking or riding when he’s using a rifle?”
“Probably riding. Why?”
“Well, a Henry is pretty awkward to carry when you’re on a horse. I usually sell a saddle scabbard to men who are riding a horse.”
“How much is one of those?”
“That would be three dollars.”
“So, fifty dollars all together?”
The storekeeper smiled.
Josephine didn’t know if she’d need both a rifle and a revolver, but she wanted to be as safe as possible. Having both would also help convince anyone looking too closely at her.
“Do you have a revolver that uses the same bullets? My father said a revolver is a good gun for snakes and he’d like to have one.”
“Well, as a matter of fact, I do. I have a Remington revolver that James, our local gunsmith, converted to .44 rimfire. It’s used, but he made it like new.”
“How much would that cost?”
“Ten dollars for the revolver and a holster?”
The storekeeper chuckled.
“No. A belt and holster would be a dollar and a half more.”
The storekeeper gave Josephine a funny look when she said she’d take the Henry rifle, the scabbard, the Remington, belt and holster, and two hundred cartridges. He’d smiled when she counted out the money for those things and her other purchases. He frowned when she asked if he could deliver it all to her room at the hotel.
“That’ll cost another two dollars.”
“Oh, I didn’t think there would be a charge. Please give me back the money for everything except my bacon, cornmeal, salt and sugar. I’m sure the gunsmith – Jimmy you said was his name – I’m sure he’ll be happy to sell me a revolver and a rifle and deliver them.”
The storekeeper sputtered at the thought of losing such a large sale.
“Ma’am. I’d like to help you, but I’m sure you realize I have to make a profit on my time as well as my sales.”
“I do, but I know you and your clerk come to the hotel every day for the noon meal. You can deliver everything for me then. You won’t be going out of your way, so you can deliver it at no cost. I don’t charge extra for bringing your food from the kitchen to your table, now do I?”
The next day, the storekeeper and his clerk delivered all Josephine’s purchases to her room before they ate. Josephine was careful to make sure the storekeeper got a thick slice of ham and an extra potato with his meal, and thanked him when she brought it from the kitchen.
Josephine had a few more items she needed for her plan, and that night she asked Amos if he knew where she could get some men’s shirts and trousers. He’d looked at her in an odd way.
“Josephine, what in the world would you want with men’s clothes? You ain’t got no man.”
Josephine hung her head.
“I made a mistake and burned up the dish rags in the kitchen. Please don’t say anything to the owner or I’ll be discharged. I’ll pay to replace them. The heavy cotton and wool of men’s shirts and trousers make the best ones. They work pretty good for taking hot pans out of the oven too if they’re doubled up. I can’t pay much since they’re just going to be ripped up into rags, but I do need them.”
Amos had scratched his head for a moment, and then smiled.
“Well, if all you want is rags, you might ask the undertaker. When he buries somebody with no money, he keeps their clothes as payment. I know there’s been more than one who went to their maker in their union suit. Usually he sells the clothes to the people going to Oregon, but as late in the year as it is, he might have some left.”
The next afternoon Josephine went to the undertaker’s business.
It was a little scary because of the smell of formaldehyde and the coffin sitting in the front room of the building, but Mr. Rues was nice. She’d never had a reason to talk to him before, but he welcomed her as if he’d known her all his life.
“Come in, Miss…uh”
“Stout…my name is Josephine Stout.”
“Well, how are you today, Miss Stout, and what brings you to my mortuary? Not a death in the family, I hope.”
“I’m quite well, and no, nothing quite so bad as a death. I was told you might have some men’s clothing you would sell.”
“Well, yes, I do, but you’re a woman. I don’t believe women are starting to wear men’s clothes, are they? It would be a shame for a pretty woman like you to dress in trousers and a shirt.”
“Oh, I don’t want to wear them. I want them for rags for the kitchen in the hotel.”
“Ah, I see now. Let me see what I have.”
Mr. Rues rummaged through a closet and came back out with several shirts and three pairs of trousers.
“I can’t really sell these because they’re stained and have holes. They came from three men who were killed when they tried to rob one of the farmers south of town. They would probably make good rags for you.”
“How much would you charge for them?”
Mr. Rues stroked his beard, then looked at Josephine and grinned.
“I’ve had these over a year. Would fifty cents be too much? I’ll throw in a hat one of them was wearing. Maybe you could use the felt for cleaning pots.”
That night, Josephine cut down two pairs of trousers and shirts to a size that was very loose fitting on her smaller body, but didn’t look huge. After stitching a shirt and pair of trousers back together, she tried them on and looked at herself in the mirror of the wash stand.
Unless she pulled her shoulders back, the loose shirt hid her breasts. She’d have to do something about that, but the trousers were just fine. They were large enough to hide her hips since the suspenders didn’t let them fit tight around her narrow waist. Josephine took off the shirt and looked at how her union suit formed around her breasts. They didn’t stick out a lot because they weren’t large, but they still were noticeable. After thinking for a while, Josephine took a length of another trouser leg and stuffed it with the remnants she’d cut away from the others. She sewed the ends shut and added a strap to go around her neck and added another to go around her back and hold the trouser leg over and below her breasts. After putting it on, she put the shirt back on and stood in front of the mirror.
The padded trouser leg made it look as if the shirt was only covering a robust chest rather than two soft breasts. She pulled her shoulders back and smiled when the effect stayed the same. She did see another problem after she put on the belt and holster for the revolver. The weight pulled the trousers in around her narrow waist, a waist too small for any boy.
After cutting another trouser leg off at the crotch, Josephine stuffed it with more scraps, then tied it around her waist and pulled the shirt down over it. When she looked in the mirror and pulled the shirt tight around her middle, she saw the fuller waist of a boy instead of the narrow waist of a woman.
Over the next two nights, Josephine sewed the remaining men’s clothing into two more sets of trousers and shirts. When she finished the last set, she put it on and then the boy’s boots she’d bought when winter came to Independence. Her good shoes were a lot like men’s boots except they were made of cloth and soaked her feet if they got wet. She’d bought boy’s boots at the general store just as did many women of the time who had to walk on the dirt roads and streets. The leather boots would not be seen under a long skirt, and the oiled leather didn’t wet so easily as cloth.
When she looked in the mirror again, she saw a boy of seventeen or eighteen, well, except for her long, dark brown hair. Josephine piled her the long tresses into a bun, put on the floppy felt hat and looked again. The hat was a little too big, but that helped the illusion by putting her eyes in shadow. If she cut her hair she could pass if no one looked too closely. She intended to stay by herself as much as possible, so that wouldn’t be likely.
The next afternoon, she went to the livery stable and watched as the man saddled Jenny. Josephine already knew how to saddle a horse, but she wanted to keep the man thinking she was just going for an afternoon ride. She rode the mare back to the hotel and tied her to a rail in back, then went to tell the hotel owner she’d just received word her sister in Centralia was ill and she had to leave the next morning. He was upset, but wished her a safe trip and a speedy return.
After cooking the evening meal, Josephine went to her room. Using her sewing scissors, she cut her hair until it barely reached her shoulders in back and was short in the front. She put on one set of trousers, a shirt and her hat, and was satisfied when she looked in the mirror. She put the other sets and the rest of her clothes in a flour sack she’d taken from the kitchen.
Into another flour sack went her food, frying pan and other cooking things. She tied both sacks closed with a length of twine sewn through the material to form a drawstring and then tied the drawstrings together. It was saddening to leave her mothers travelling case behind, but no man would ever carry such a feminine thing. She rolled up three blankets from her bed to serve as a bedroll and tied them with more twine.
Just before daylight, Josephine carried the two flour sacks out through the back door of the hotel and slung them over the horn of the saddle. She went back inside, put on the belt and holster, put the Remington in the holster and picked up the rifle, scabbard, and boxes of cartridges. Once back outside, she attached the scabbard to Jenny’s saddle under the right stirrup, put the rifle inside and the cartridges in one saddle bag. In the other saddle bag went her sewing things and some other items she’d need. After tying her bedroll on top of the saddle bags, Josephine swung up into the saddle. With a soft click to Jenny, she rode toward the river ferry that would take her across the Missouri.
The morning of the 1st of June, Thomas rode up to the ferry across the Missouri. He’d decided to spend the night outside the town instead of in the hotel. He had enough money to do so, but had started having second thoughts as the town grew closer. He might need that money for supplies or another river ferry. That night, he’d hobbled Ringo so he could graze and settled down to another supper of bacon and corn cakes. The next morning, he rode the short distance into town and asked the way to the ferry.
It seemed odd that only one other person was waiting there. He asked the ferry operator when the ferry would make the crossing and was told it would be another hour. He asked why there weren’t as many people waiting as he’d expected. The ferry operator said it was too late in the spring for a wagon train to start out. The last one had left two weeks earlier. The only people crossing now were people who had business in Kansas City or were fools heading for the gold mines in Colorado.
Thomas rode Ringo up beside the other person and was surprised to see that person wasn’t a man like he thought. He was a boy of about seventeen or eighteen. Thomas tried to strike up a conversation.
The boy looked at him and made a sort of half smile.
“You waiting on the ferry?”
“Where you headed?”
The boy looked at him for a moment as if sizing him up. It seemed odd to Thomas that a boy so young was by himself, but then, the war had changed many boys. He’d seen it in his own company. A boy would enlist at seventeen, sometimes fifteen or sixteen if he was big for his age and could lie well enough. Once he went through a battle or two, he’d grow up really fast. Sometimes that growing up meant he became suspicious of anyone and everything.
Thomas could understand. Being suspicious of anyone and everything helped one stay alive in combat. This boy might not have fought in the war, but the war had changed them all in one way or another. Even if they hadn’t fought, almost everybody had lost a relative or had their farm plundered by one or both armies.
“I think you might have trouble getting there. The ferry man said there aren’t any wagon trains leaving now. It’s too late.”
Thomas thought he saw a flicker of despair in the boy’s eyes. He’d seen that look before when he’d captured a Confederate boy about the same age. It had bothered him then that the boy seemed to have given up, and it bothered him now that this boy seemed to be thinking the same way.
“He said the last wagon train left a week ago. You could probably catch up to them since you’re on a horse.”
The boy frowned.
“I don’t know if I could find the trail.”
“Sure you could. It’ll have deep ruts from all the wagons that have passed. That’s what I’m going to do, follow the ruts. Maybe you wouldn’t mind us riding together.”
The boy frowned.
“I guess I’d rather go by myself.”
Thomas smiled and held out his hand.
“Suit yourself, but we might as well get acquainted while we’re waiting. I’m Thomas Brighton. What’s your name, boy?”
The boy hesitated a bit, then shook Thomas’ hand.
“Joseph Stroud, sir.”
“Well, Joseph, why are you going to Oregon?”
The boy looked at him suspiciously again, but finally answered.
“I don’t have anything left here. I used to live on a farm outside Centralia. When the bushwhackers came they killed my father. Mother never got over the loss. She just wasted away and died six months later. I tried working the farm, but I couldn’t stay there anymore. When I heard there are farms given away in Oregon, I decided I’d go there and start up for myself.”
“I stayed in Centralia over the winter and I heard about the massacre. I’m sorry about what happened to your family. The war was bad enough without that sort of thing going on. They catch the bushwhackers that did it?”
“Well, they’re probably dead and buried by now. From what I heard, between the Union troops and the jayhawkers from Kansas, they killed Quantril and Anderson and most of the men who rode with them.”
About that time, the ferry operator waved them to the ferry.
“It’s just you two on this trip. That’ll be a dollar for each and fifty cents each for the horses.”
Thomas was relaxed as the ferry made its way across the water. The boy seemed to be thinking because he just stared out over the water. Thomas knew what it felt like to be alone in the world. He didn’t remember a mother and father. All he remembered was an orphanage run by a savage old woman who fed the orphans as little as possible and pinched them on the ear any time they made noise or ran through the house. He’d been glad to leave as soon as he was old enough, but as soon as he did, that feeling of being alone crept into his mind.
He’d enlisted as soon as the war broke out, and the men around him took away that lonely feeling. It came back when his best friend was killed, but he found a new friend. It was the same until he’d been injured. He’d find a friend, then that friend would get killed or wounded, and he’d begin searching for another.
In the hospital, he’d found new friends, but those friends always left once they healed. When he’d left the hospital, he’d been alone again until he found the job at the livery stable. The horses took away some of that lonely feeling, just like Ringo was now, but that lonely feeling had been bothering him since he’d left Centralia. He hoped he could somehow convince the boy to go with him. He needed a friend again. Thomas thought the boy probably did too.
Josephine stared out at the slowly flowing water that swept past the ferry. She hadn’t expected to find anyone at the ferry as early as she’d gotten there. When the man who called himself Thomas Brighton rode up beside her, she’d been afraid he’d see through her disguise.
Evidently he hadn’t, because he’d started talking to her like she was a boy. Josephine had made sure to keep the tone of her voice as low as she could, and that probably helped. She had to remember to keep doing that.
She’d had to think fast when he asked her name. Joseph was close enough to Josephine she’d probably react when she heard the name. Stroud was her grandmother’s maiden name. She’d said the two names in her head and they sounded good together, so she used them.
Her story about why she was going to Oregon was easier to tell. It was the story she’d been told by Mrs. Richland in Centralia. The woman had indeed lost her husband and son in the massacre, and had decided to leave Centralia for Oregon. She told Josephine she would find another husband along the way or when she got there and be able to start over. She said Centralia held too many memories for her to stay.
Thomas had asked if she’d want to go with him. Maybe he did see through her disguise and once they were out in the countryside and alone, he’d try something. That thought brought the leering face of the one-eyed man back and she knew she couldn’t go with Thomas unless there were other people around. There weren’t any, and if no more wagon trains would be starting for Oregon until the next spring, she’d have to do it by herself.
The prospect of riding across the plains by herself was more than a little chilling. Josephine knew how to do a lot of things men usually did, but her father had always been there to help her. Could she manage to hunt game for food by herself? She’d have to because she didn’t have enough to last for the five or six month trip.
What if Jenny went lame? Would she know what to do? Her father always used Erickson’s Liniment and rested the horse for a day or two. She could rest Jenny, but she had no liniment.
What if there were Indians? She knew if she could catch up to a wagon train, she’d be relatively safe, but what if they found her before that? Her father had taught her how to aim a rifle, and she’d practiced loading and working the actions of the Henry and the Remington revolver in her room, but she’d never fired either. Would one woman with one rifle and one revolver be able to fight them off?
At the hotel, a trapper had talked about what the Indian’s did to one white woman they’d caught. He said the Indians had made the woman walk around naked. One of the men listening had asked how he knew that. The trapper said he was in the Indian village trading some furs for pemmican and had to just sit there and watch. He said he wanted to do something, but he’d have been killed if he had.
Josephine didn’t think he was telling the truth because he also said there were bears in the mountains as big as a draft horse and strange men nine feet tall covered with black hair who howled at night. He seemed like a braggart, and especially so when he told the men gathered around his table that he’d tell them more stories if they bought him a glass of whiskey.
Other men, the men who led the wagon trains, told a different story about the Indians. There had been a few attacks, but for the most part, the Indians were friendly. They would steal a cow or a horse while they grazed at night, but they almost never attacked a wagon train. The men in the wagon train usually had Henry rifles and could shoot a lot farther and faster than the Indians could with their bow and arrows or muzzle loading muskets.
Even if Indians didn’t attack when they found her, they were men with the desires of men and might try to take advantage of her. If there were more than a couple, she couldn’t hope to protect herself. The vision of the one-eyed man prying her legs apart caused her to shiver.
All these thoughts were still rushing around in her mind when the ferry docked on the other side of the Missouri. When they both were on the dock and walking their horses toward the road, Thomas spoke to her again.
“Say, Joseph. You sure you want to go it alone? It’d be a whole lot easier if we rode together, and I’d like the company. It don’t look like you got much food with you either. I got more’n enough for just me if we shoot us a rabbits along the way.”
Josephine looked at Thomas. He was smiling, a friendly smile, but there was something in his eyes…it was almost like he was pleading for her to join him. He didn’t seem like a man who would take advantage of a woman, but she couldn’t be sure. What she was sure of is that what he said was true. Together they’d have a better chance of catching up to a wagon train, and she didn’t have enough food. It would look suspicious if she said she had waited to buy both once they crossed the river. The prices were higher there than in Independence.
It was a risk, but a risk Josephine decided she might have to take. She’d keep her Remington loaded and by her side at all times so if he did try something she’d have a way to defend her self. She looked at Thomas.
“Are you headed to Oregon too?”
“No. I’m headed for Colorado or maybe California. There’s gold in both places.”
“I heard in Independence that most gold miners never find anything that amounts to much. If they do, some other man kills them and takes it. Doesn’t sound like a very good way to make a living to me.”
“I’m not gonna look for gold for just those reasons. Couldn’t anyway with this leg of mine. I’m gonna be a storekeeper or maybe work for somebody who sells horses. I’m pretty good with horses.”
Josephine frowned. Was he trying to gain her sympathy so she’d go along with him? Maybe he was and was just lying about having something wrong with his leg.
“What’s wrong with your leg, if you don’t mind me asking.”
Thomas pulled up his right trouser leg. Josephine caught her breath when she saw the wooden leg and the steel hinge that served as a knee.
“What happened to you?”
“The war…Antietam. Confederate minié ball went through my knee so the surgeon took off my leg. They gave me this wood one to replace it. I didn’t think it was much of a fair trade at the time, but I do all right now except I can’t walk very far or run. Can’t carry much of a load either, so I wouldn’t do real good shoveling rock to look for gold.”
Josephine breathed a quiet sigh of relief. He wasn’t lying and he probably couldn’t run. If he tried anything, she could just run away.
She also found herself feeling sorry for him. It must be terrible to lose a leg.
“It must have been awful.”
“Which, Antietam or losing my leg?”
“Well, both were I imagine.”
“Antietam was like any other battle. I was scared to death until the shooting started. After that it was just load the cannon and fire, load the cannon and fire until I got shot. Losing my leg…well, I didn’t really know that was happening. The surgeon used chloroform to put me to sleep. When I woke up, it was gone. It was a shock, but I figured I was luckier than a lot of men. A lot of men lost more. A lot of men got killed.”
“I know. A lot of men from Missouri got killed too.”
“Yes, they did, on both sides. Well, we probably should be going. ”
Thomas mounted his horse then and Josephine mounted Jenny. They rode side by side for half an hour until Thomas pointed out the deep ruts in the dusty track.
“See them ruts? This is the start. If we just follow the wagon ruts, we’ll catch up to a wagon train. You know, you never did say if you wanted to ride together or not.”
Josephine thought for a moment.
“Well, if this is the only trail and we’re both going to follow it, I guess we’re going to be together anyway, like it or not.”
“I take it you’re not gonna like it.”
Josephine didn’t know how to answer. She was starting to like Thomas. She just said, “I don’t know yet.”
Thomas chuckled again.
“Well, when you figure it out, you be sure and tell me. I don’t want to wake up staring down the barrel of that revolver some morning.”
Randall Meeks rode slowly into Centralia, Missouri. He didn’t think anybody in Cenralia had seen him well enough to remember his face except one young girl. It was that girl he sought. She was the last remaining link between him and the bushwhackers under Quantril and Anderson. Quantril was dead. Anderson was dead too, killed after the Union Army ambushed him. Randall would be dead too if he hadn't been in the back of the column riding into that ambush. He’d stopped to relieve his bladder, and when he heard the shooting start had gotten on his horse and rode toward it.
He slowed his horse to a walk when the shooting stopped, and then dismounted, tied his horse, and walked up the road. From the cover of a grove of trees, he saw Anderson lying on the ground with four other bushwhackers. The rest of the column of over a hundred men had turned and run. Randall had crept back to where his horse was tied, mounted, and then galloped in the opposite direction until his horse was lathered with sweat and breathing hard.
He’d seen the ambush reported in the newspapers. Those newspapers said when Anderson was killed, it was the end of the bushwhackers. Randall knew that wasn’t true. Archie Clement had rallied Anderson’s group a week later.
Randall hadn’t joined them. He was sick of living like a savage and the coming winter promised to be cold. He headed into the Ozark mountains and lived in a small cabin that had been abandoned at some time in the past.
Over the winter, he decided he was done with the war. It was obvious by then that the Confederacy was going to eventually lose. Union troops were combing Missouri for any bushwhackers that were left. The news of the war that filtered into the ranks of the bushwhackers late in 1864 was that the Union was winning about seven out of eight battles. The Confederate railroads had either been destroyed or taken by the Union, so the Confederacy couldn’t get supplies to the troops. The war couldn’t go on much longer.
Randall wasn’t ashamed of what he’d done in the name of the Confederacy even though the Confederacy didn’t recognize the bushwhackers as part of the Confederate Army. He firmly believed whites had a right to own slaves and anything he did for that cause was right and just even if most people thought it was unimaginably cruel. That the jayhawkers from Kansas had done the same just made his actions seem more just and right.
Randall came down out of his cabin in April, and was in a small town on the St. Louis to Independence Railroad when he heard the war was over. It wasn’t a big surprise, but it was a relief of sorts. He could get on with his life without worrying about the Union Army killing him in another ambush. There was only one person who could positively identify him as a bushwhacker and cause him to be arrested. He aimed to find her and shut her mouth permanently. He figured she’d stayed in Centralia, so he shaved his beard and cut his hair and rode toward the town.
When he got to Centralia, his first stop was the Sheriff’s office. He went there first for two reasons. Outside the Sheriff’s office and tacked to the wall were the posters of men wanted for crimes. He wanted to make sure he wasn’t among those men. The other reason was a story he’d concocted in order to find the girl. He would say he was her cousin and she’d written him to say she was in Centralia.
He wore a pair of Union Army trousers left over from the raid on Centralia. Most men being discharged still wore their Army trousers, and wearing Union trousers would remove a lot of suspicion. Randall couldn’t do anything about his missing eye and the scar, but he’d just say it was from a Confederate bayonet that had almost killed him.
Randall’s name wasn’t on any of the posters outside the Sheriff’s office, so he went inside and told his story. The Sheriff smiled and said he remembered Josephine Stout because she’d served meals at the jail. He told Randall he hadn’t seen her for a while, but the boarding house where she worked might know where she’d gone.
At the boarding house, Randall asked all the employees about the girl. Most didn’t know where she’d gone, but a woman named Delia said Josephine had gone to Independence to visit her aunt. Delia said she was worried because of the battle that had taken place in Independence. Josephine hadn’t come back, and Delia was worried that Josephine might have been hurt or worse.
Randall thanked her for the information, got on his horse, and started riding to Independence. When he arrived, he went through the same routine.
There was no poster with his name on it on the Sheriff’s wall, and the Sheriff didn’t know anyone named Josephine Stout. He said the old Sheriff might, but that he’d moved to St. Louis. Randall remembered the Sheriff in Centralia saying Josephine was a cook, so he went to the hotel and asked about her.
The man behind the bar, Amos, said he knew Josephine, but she’d been gone for two weeks. He said she’d told the owner of the hotel she had to go back to Centralia for a few days, but when she didn’t return, they figured she’d decided not to come back and cleaned out her room so the new cook would have a place to stay. In her room they found a woman's traveling bag containing locks of long, brown hair. The blankets off the bed were missing as well.
Randall pretended to be very upset and explained he was looking for the cousin he’d left behind when he went to war and didn’t know what he was going to do if he couldn’t find her.
Amos felt sorry for the man. It wasn’t enough the man had been disfigured for life by a rebel bayonet. He couldn’t find the one relative he had left. Amos had a daughter. Thankfully, she lived in Independence so he saw her nearly every day. He couldn’t imagine what the man must be going through not knowing where his cousin was or even if she was still alive. He patted Randall on the arm.
“Mr., I don’t know if this helps or not, but Josephine seemed really interested in the folks going to Oregon. She asked me a lot of questions about what it took to get there and what she might find if she went. I don’t know if that’s where she went or not, but if she did, she’d have to have some things for travel like food and some way to get there. You might try down at the general store to see if she bought anything like that. I liked Josephine because she was a nice girl. She even used her own money to by old clothes from the undertaker for rags to use in the kitchen.”
By nightfall, Randall had learned enough to figure out where the girl was going and probably when she had gone. His story had served him well. At the general store, he learned she bought not only food, but also a rifle and a revolver. The man at the livery stable told him about the girl who misled him out of a bay mare complete with an almost new saddle and bridle and saddle bags. The undertaker remembered the girl asking about men’s clothes for rags. He stopped at the ferry and asked the ferry operator if a girl on a black mare had crossed the river recently. The ferry operator scratched his head for a moment and then shook his head.
“No sir, and I’d remember if a woman crossed. This time o’ year, not many people cross and ain’t no women cross by themselves. Don’t remember any woman with anybody either. There was one boy crossed ‘bout two weeks ago, but other than him, the only fares I’ve had in the last month have been men going to the gold fields in Colorado.”
Randall paid the fare and was soon on the Kansas side of the river. He rode long enough to leave the city behind and then camped for the night.
This girl Josephine was smart, but not smarter than he was. Randall had put all the information together and had developed a probable scenario for what she just have done.
For whatever reason, Josephine had decided to go West, probably to Oregon or maybe to Colorado or California. There was only one way to get there and that was the Oregon Trail. Most women would have joined a wagon train, but the ferry operator said it was too late in the year for any to start the trip. That meant she’d be traveling alone, and a woman traveling alone would be really unusual. People would think she was odd or maybe even crazy. She’d either have to stay away from people or do something else.
It was the locks of hair found in her room at the hotel and her asking about men’s clothes that gave him the answer. He’d heard about a few women who had fought for the Confederacy as men. They’d cut their hair and had gone undiscovered for quite some time, one for over two years. Josephine must have cut her hair and dressed in the clothes she’d bought from the undertaker. She could pass for a boy unless someone saw her without her clothes. The next morning, Randall rode to the start of the trail and began following the wagon ruts west. It might take him a while to find her, but he would, and when he did, he’d teach her what happens to girls who mark a man for life.
Josephine and Thomas rode at a walk as they followed the ruts in the ground. Neither talked much. Thomas was just happy to have someone for company. The feeling of being alone was gone.
Josephine was trying not to speak for fear she’d forget and use her normal voice. That voice wasn’t high pitched like the voice of some women, but it was higher than most men’s. She still wasn’t sure she trusted Thomas, and now that they were away from any other people, she didn't want him to begin suspecting she wasn’t as she looked.
She did ask him a question that afternoon.
“How long will it take to catch up to the wagon train?”
Thomas took off his hat, scratched his head, then put the hat back on.
“Well, the ferry man said they left two weeks ago. If I remember right from the army wagons, oxen can walk about two miles in an hour. I figure they’re moving from sunrise to sunset. They’ll have to stop for a noon meal, and there’s a couple rivers to cross that’ll take them a day or two, so I’d guess they’re maybe two hundred miles ahead of us. We’ll be making about thirty miles a day while they make around twenty, so we’ll gain ten miles a day on them. Should take us about twenty days unless the weather gets bad.”
Josephine frowned. She’d hoped it would only take a week to get to the wagon train. Two weeks was going to cause her a problem that would be difficult to hide from Thomas. By her counting of the days, she had eight more days before what her mother had called “the curse” came to her. In one of the saddlebags, Josephine had everything she needed, but somehow, she’d have to get away from Thomas at least two times a day. That night when they camped beside a small stream, she thought she’d found the way.
“You build a fire, Thomas. I’ll go get us some water if you have a pot to carry it in.”
Thomas had smiled and handed her the stew pot from the pannier on Beulah’s back. Josephine pulled Jenny’s saddle off and then walked down to the stream. After waiting for what she imagined would be enough time, she dipped the pot in the stream and then walked back.
Thomas had both his horses unsaddled and grazing beside Jenny. He’d started a fire and had six thick slices of bacon in his frying pan waiting for the fire to burn down to coals. When Josephine brought the water, he reached for the bag of cornmeal sitting beside him. Josephine said she’d make corn cakes and Thomas agreed. About an hour later, they ate and then sat beside the fire until the coals died down.
Thomas was full of questions about the boy, Joseph. He seemed a little immature in some ways. Most boys he’d known had tried hard to act like men, but Joseph wasn’t like that at all. He was quiet and had spent most of the day looking down at his horse’s neck.
Thomas figured that was because Joseph was away from home for the first time in his life. Thomas had felt that feeling when he left the orphanage, and he’d seen it in several of the boys who’d enlisted. He’d even seen one boy crying when he thought no one was watching. He’d comforted the boy as best he could, for all the good it did. The boy was killed by the blast of a Confederate cannon shell the next day.
Joseph wasn’t in any danger like that, but he still must be feeling homesick. Thomas tried to draw him out like he had with the other boy. Talking seemed to help that boy. Maybe it would help Joseph.
“Say, Joseph. I grew up in the city. What’s it like, living on a farm?”
Joseph answered, but there was something strange about what he said.
“I don’t know. It’s just work. You get up before daylight, milk the cow and feed the livestock, then cook breakfast and eat. After that you work all day, then cook supper, eat, and go to bed.”
“You cooked the meals? I thought women always did that.”
Joseph looked a little startled, but then frowned.
“When my mother was alive, she did. After that, I did.”
“Well, you make good corn cakes. I never put sugar in mine like you did. They were better’n what I make.”
Joseph didn’t make any reply, so Thomas tried another topic.
“You been carrying that revolver on your hip all day. I’d figure a farm boy would have a rifle or a shotgun, but not a revolver. How come you have one?”
“When I got to Independence, the man in the general store said a revolver would be good for shooting Indians. I had the money, so I bought one.”
“Can you use it?”
The boy shrugged.
“I can hit what I aim at as long as it’s not too far away.”
“I used to think revolvers were for criminals until the war. I started out with a Springfield muzzle loader. It took too long to load after you shot it. The rebs’d be on top of you before you could shoot again.”
Thomas patted the revolver in the holster at his side.
“I sorta borrowed my Remington from a Major. He was dead, so I didn’t figure he’d miss it. Came in handy more than a couple of times. Yours is a Remington too, isn’t it?”
“Yes. It uses the same bullets as my Henry.”
“Well, you can have your cartridges in your pistol if you want. I’ll still take a cap and ball. They’re safer. I’ve heard sometime those cartridges blow up and spit copper out the side. You ever had that happen?”
“No, not so far. I’m too tired to talk any more. I think I’ll go to bed.”
Thomas was a little put out by the way Joseph ended their conversation, but then reasoned the boy might still be getting used to traveling with him. He’d come around in a day or so. Thomas piled the remaining coals into a heap and covered them with ashes so they’d still be hot in the morning, then laid down on his bedroll and covered up. He was looking at the stars when he fell asleep.
The next seven days were about the same. They’d wake up with the sun, have some bacon and corn cakes to eat, and then start riding. Every morning, noon, and evening, Josephine would take the stew pot and walk down to a stream or river for water. On the last day, she waited until Thomas was starting the fire and then pulled a thick cotton flannel pad from her saddle bag and stuffed it inside her shirt.
Fifteen minutes later, longer than she’d thought it would take, she was walking back to there camp and heard a familiar voice, a voice she’d hope never to hear again. Josephine crouched behind a large bush to watch and listen.
It was the one-eyed man and he had his revolver pointed at Thomas. The man was shouting at Thomas
“I damn near had to kill my horse to catch you, but I did. Where’s that little bitch you been ridin’ with?”
Thomas was standing there with his hands up in the air.
“Mr., I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m riding with a boy, not a woman.”
“No, she’s a woman. They said her name was Josephine in Centralia and in Independence. That’s the horse she bought in Independence, little bay mare with a blaze and four white feet. I seen you both yesterday afternoon from a distance and knowed it was her. Now, where the hell is she?”
Thomas tried to reason with the man.
“Mr., if that boy was a woman, don’t you think I’d know?”
“Don’t matter none. I know who she is. She’s the bitch that give me this scar and gouged out my eye. She’s around here someplace. Just hand me that revolver real easy like so's I know you can’t do nothin’ and we’ll jest wait for her to come back.”
Thomas lifted his Remington by his thumb and forefinger and eased it from he holster. The man stepped forward enough to take the revolver and then stepped back.
Thomas wasn’t sure he believed the man, but if he was telling the truth, it would answer some questions he’d wanted to ask Joseph. In any event, he knew the man wasn’t there to be sociable, and he couldn’t let anything happen to Joseph or Josephine, which ever it really was.
He hoped the boy wouldn’t just walk back into camp. The way the man talked, he wanted revenge for his disfigurement and he might not wait to confirm the boy’s identity. Thomas had seen enough boys shot dead to last several lifetimes. He had no desire to see another.
The man was carrying a Kerr’s Patent Revolver. Thomas had seen several during the war. Usually they were clutched in the dead hands of a Confederate soldier. They were easy to pick out because the hammer was on the right side rather than in the center. Only Confederates had them, although he’d heard that Anderson and some of his men carried them as well.
All Confederate arms were confiscated during the surrender, so if this man had a Kerr’s, it was likely he was a former bushwhacker rather than a former soldier. After hearing about the atrocities committed by Anderson’s group at Centralia, Thomas knew the man wouldn’t have any reservations about killing him, and probably would end up doing so anyway. He had to find some way to keep the man from killing both him and Joseph.
Thomas was still deciding on the best course of actions to take, jumping at the man and trying to take away his revolver, or waiting until the man was distracted by something and then doing it, when he heard the clank of his stew pot against a branch. The man heard it as well, and turned in that direction. That was the opening Lucas needed. He was gathering himself for the leap at the man when one shot rang out across the prairie. The man clutched his chest, then sank to his knees. Thomas heard the click, click of a revolver being cocked and then another shot. The man fell forward on his face. Joseph came running from the bushes next to their camp.
“Is he dead? Did I kill him?”
Thomas walked to where the man fell, took the revolver from his hand, and then turned the man over. There were two holes in his shirt, one in the center of his chest and the other a little higher and off to the left. He felt for a pulse on the man’s neck and felt nothing.
“He’s deader’n a hammer. That was mighty good shooting Joseph. You probably saved us both.”
Josephine was shaking when she walked up to Thomas.
“I knew he’d kill us both. He’s one of the bushwhackers who attacked Centralia. I recognized him by the patch and the scar.”
“That’s what I thought too. One thing he said is a little confusing, though. He said you're a woman and your name’s Josephine. Any reason why he’d think that?”
Josephine looked at the ground.
“No, not that I know of.”
Thomas stepped in front of her and lifted her chin.
“He said this Josephine gave him that scar and gouged out his eye. He seemed pretty convinced that was you. He said your horse is the same horse this Josephine bought in Independence.”
Thomas stroked a fingertip down Josephine’s cheek, then smiled.
“You know, I’ve been wondering why you never have to shave. Some boys don’t until they’re almost twenty, but you don’t even have any peach fuzz.”
Josephine knew she couldn’t hide her true sex any longer, but she didn’t need to. She trusted Thomas and Randall was dead.
“He was right. My name is Josephine Stout.”
Thomas smiled again.
“Well, Josephine Stout, now that I know part of the truth, I’d like to hear the rest. What happened with this man and why were you so quick to kill him.”
Josephine walked over to the fire and sat down, then beckoned to Thomas.
“His name was Randall Meeks, at least that’s what he said. He was with the bushwhackers at Centralia. I was running away and he followed me into the livery stable. When he caught me, he pushed me down in a stall and tried to…to…”
Thomas touched her on the arm.
“You don’t need to say it. I understand what he tried to do to you. Is that when you gouged out his eye?”
“I had picked up a hoof pick before he caught me, and when he tried to force my legs open, I raked it down his face. He stopped long enough for me to run away and hide.
“Some jayhawkers caught him and three others and brought them to the jail in Centralia. I was the cook for the boarding house and we served meals to the deputy and anybody in the jail. I took them their meals, and he recognized me. He said he’d find me when he got out.
“The deputy said they’d all hang and I didn’t have to worry, but that night, somebody killed the deputy and let them out of the jail. I was afraid he would find me, so I took the train to Independence. I didn’t think he could find me there.
“I was working as a cook at the hotel in Independence when the Confederates attacked. For two days, I hid in the hotel cellar with the other workers. When the battle was over, I just wanted to get away from the war. I couldn’t stay in Missouri because he might find me there. I thought he’d never get to Oregon, so I saved my money all winter.
“I was almost as afraid of traveling by myself as I was that he’d find me. The only safe way was to travel in a wagon train, but the only women who travel alone are, you know, what they call public women. I heard a man in the hotel telling about women who disguised themselves as boys to fight in the war. I thought nobody would think badly about a boy going to Oregon by himself, so I got some men’s clothes and cut my hair. I thought that would also be a good way to keep Randall from finding me too. He’d be looking for a woman, not a boy. I thought I’d just ride along with the wagon train and when we got to Oregon, I could be a woman again.”
“You could have told me all that back at the ferry and I’d have been ready for him. I’d also have made it a lot easier on you than riding for twelve hours a day.”
Josephine shook her head.
“No, I couldn’t. For all I knew, you might have tried the same thing if you knew I was a woman. I felt safer being a boy.”
Thomas touched Josephine’s hand.
“I wouldn’t have done anything to you except help you get to that wagon train.”
“Well, I couldn’t know that, now could I?”
“No, I guess not. What about now? Are you Joseph or Josephine?”
Josephine looked up and smiled.
“I’d rather be Josephine, but if we meet any people they won’t think it’s right, will they? A proper man and a proper woman don’t travel together unless they’re man and wife.”
“Are you saying we should act like we’re man and wife?”
“No, I’m just saying it might be better if I’m Joseph until we get to where we’re going.”
Thomas shook his head.
“I already told you I’m not going to Oregon.”
“I know. I don’t have to go to Oregon now either, not since the war is over and Randall is dead. I don’t need to find that wagon train either. I’ll just stop when you stop and start over there. They probably have hotels and boarding houses where they find gold. I’ll be a cook again.”
“I don’t know. I’ve heard the gold towns can be pretty rough places.”
He laughed then.
“I guess you shoot well enough to take care of yourself though. Where did you learn to shoot a revolver like that?”
“I didn’t. That was the first time I’d ever shot it. I was just lucky I guess.”
“If that was your first time, I want to see how you shoot after you practice some.”
“Well, I don’t intend to shoot it again unless I just have to. Twice was enough especially since I killed a man.”
Josephine looked at Thomas and felt her eyes filling with tears.
“Does that make me a murderer…like he was?”
“Not from where I’m standing. I think I probably killed a lot of men in the war, but that was war. This was war too, a war he started with you that day in Centralia. If you hadn’t shot him, I’m sure it would be you and me laying here dead.”
“What are we going to do with him?”
“If he was a man, I’d bury him, but he was an animal. We’ll let the other animals take care of him. Let’s leave them to the task now.”
Traveling was easier after that. Although she still dressed as a man, Josephine didn’t have to pretend since there were just the two of them. Over the days, the countryside of Kansas moved past under the hooves of their horses. Over the days, each learned about their past lives and a little about their future hopes.
When Thomas told Josephine he was an orphan, her heart went out to him. She told him she was sort of an orphan too, and then told him about her family. Thomas said he was sorry for her loss, and then said the war had affected most people in some way.
He said he’d been changed when he lost his leg. He’s planned to serve in the Union Army until the war was over, and laughed when he said at the time, that was supposed to be only a year. After that, he was going to become a brick layer and help rebuild the buildings destroyed by the war. When he lost his leg, those hopes changed. Nobody would hire a bricklayer with only one good leg.
Josephine asked him what he was going to do now. Thomas stared at the horizon for a while.
“I don’t rightly know, except it needs to be something where I don’t have to walk a lot or carry a lot. So far, that’s been working in a stable, but I don’t want to do that for the rest of my life.”
“I can understand that, but there must be other jobs. Maybe you could have a store, or your own livery stable. Neither man who owned the general store or the livery stable in Centralia or Independence did much walking. They hired someone else to do all the work.”
“Well, I’d have to clean horse stalls for a hundred years to get enough money to start a store or a livery stable. I don’t know. I’ll see what I can find when we get to Denver City. That’s where the miner’s buy their supplies before they head out to prospect. Maybe they won’t be so shy of hiring a man with a wooden leg since most of the men are working in the gold mines. What about you? Are you going to be a cook for the rest of your life?”
“It’s not as bad as I imagine working in a stable is, but no, I don’t want to do that forever. I’m not sure what I want to do. Women are supposed to want a husband and a family, but I’m not sure I’m ready for that.”
Thomas smiled at Josephine.
“Well, when you are, you won’t have much trouble finding that husband, I’d imagine.”
“Oh, and why would that be?”
“Well, I figure once you put on a dress, you’ll be a pretty good looking woman. Your hair is too short, but it’ll grow. Besides, a man could do a lot worse than a woman who makes good corn cakes.”
“I can cook a lot of things besides corn cakes. As soon as I get a proper kitchen, I’ll show you.”
As the miles passed by, Josephine became more and more relaxed. She found Thomas to be a man determined to make something out of himself in spite of his wooden leg, and also a man who was kind and caring.
He was always asking if she needed to rest or if she was getting too hot and they should spend some time in the shade. Josephine thought he was silly. He’d never asked her anything like that when he thought she was Joseph and she’d done just fine. Nothing had changed except he now knew she was a woman. She told him as much on several occasions, but Thomas always just shrugged.
“That was when you were a boy. Now you’re a woman.”
Thomas did those things because Josephine was so much different than the other women he’d known. There were girls in the orphanage where he grew up and they all had fantasies of marrying a rich man and living a life of ease. Once he’d enlisted, there weren’t many proper women around. Some would come to the camp where he trained, but they were there to see the spectacle of so many men in one place and to watch the drills. They all went back to the houses where they lived with family or a husband who was selling goods to the Union Army. They had no interest in a mere private.
The women who were interested in him were interested only in separating him from his monthly pay. Most were pretty in some respects. Some even seemed like good women until they whispered their price. Unlike many of the new soldiers, Thomas had passed them by. More than one of the girls and boys in the orphanage were the children of such women, and after experiencing life in one, he had no desire to increase the population of any orphanage.
Josephine was different in a lot of ways. She didn’t complain about sleeping on the ground or eating bacon and corn cakes. She told him he was being silly for asking if she needed to rest and said she was fine but she’d stop if he needed to rest. She’d been brave enough to shoot Randall even though she’d never fired her revolver before. She talked about becoming a cook again, and about other things she’d like to do in the future, but didn’t seem too concerned about finding a husband.
Most important to him was that she hadn’t said anything about his wooden leg after that first time. Thomas knew she’d seen him take the leg off every night before going to bed. She’d watched, but had never said anything. Most women he’d known would have been horrified at the sight of his stump and would have turned away, yet, Josephine just watched as he unbuckled the straps and slid the leg off.
Since the day he’d awakened in the field hospital and discovered he was missing half his right leg, the thought had plagued him that he’d never find a wife. Women wanted a whole man who was strong and could take care of them. Before, he’d looked forward to a wife and children. After, he’d given up that hope and resigned himself to living alone. Now, the thoughts about a family came back.
They’d been riding for twenty one days when they found the wagon train crossing a river. Josephine held their horses while Thomas went to talk to the wagon master. When he came back, he was smiling.
“This is the South Platte. The wagon train is crossing it and will keep going on to Oregon. The wagon master said if we follow the river upstream, we’ll get to Denver City. You still think that’s what you want to do?”
“How far is it?”
“He said two, maybe three days.”
“I’ve ridden Jenny for about as long as I want for a while. If you’re going to Denver City, so am I.”
Around noon the day after they left the wagon train behind, Jenny stumbled on a loose rock and sent Josephine tumbling over the horse’s head. Thomas stopped and ran to where she’d fallen.
“Lay still, Josephine, until I figure out how bad you’re hurt.”
“I just fell off my horse, Thomas. I’m fine. Now, help me up.”
“You don’t hurt anywhere?”
“Just where I sit, and I’m not going to let you look there. Help me up so we can keep going.”
Thomas put a hand under each of Josephine’s arms and lifted her. Josephine put both hands on his chest until she regained her footing and then let them drop to her sides. When he didn’t let her go, Josephine looked up at him and spoke softly.
“Thomas, I’m fine. You can let go now.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure.”
Thomas gently pulled his hands back, but that action was difficult for him to do. He’d not touched any woman since he enlisted, and he’d forgotten how soft and delicate a woman felt. He’d felt a thrill when she put her hands on his chest as well, a thrill he’d never felt before. He was also confused by some other feelings he had. As soon as Josephine was standing, he’d had the urge to wrap her in his arms and hold her tight.
Josephine was also a little confused. When Thomas had run to her side, she’d felt like he was being silly again. When he’d lifted her up from the ground, she’d felt something else. She couldn’t really describe the feeling. It was a little like when she’d seen a new-born baby for the first time. Then, she’d had the urge to hold the tiny little girl to her breast and cuddle her.
That same urge was there when she stood and looked at Thomas, but it was different. She felt like snuggling against his chest and pressing her breasts against the muscles she’d felt beneath his shirt. It had been so strong a feeling it took her breath away for a moment or two. She’d only managed little more than a whisper when she told him she was fine and he could let her go. The look on his face when he had was also confusing. He was smiling, but also looked a little sad. Josephine couldn’t figure out what that look meant.
For a while, they rode in silence because each was thinking about what had happened.
At first, Thomas thought the feelings were just the feelings any man had toward a pretty woman, and he chastised himself for feeling that way. A man shouldn’t want a woman just because she was a woman. He should want a woman for more than that. He should want a partner in life, someone he could count on to be there when he needed her and someone who wanted him there when she needed him.
He’d overheard the older girls at the orphanage talk about that feeling. They’d called it love. Thomas wasn’t sure what love really was. Was it just liking a woman a lot, or was it more than that? When he thought some more, he had to admit he did like Josephine and he liked her a lot. When he thought about what would happen when they got to Denver City, he realized they’d probably go their separate ways, and that was a little upsetting. They’d only been together less than a month, but he knew he was going to miss her.
Josephine was very confused. Her mother had taught her that a woman should look for a man who could work and care for her. In return, a woman should keep the house clean, fix meals, and bear his children. He should be a man she liked, but of most importance was that he be willing and able to give her a home and provide for her. That’s how her mother and father had seemed to her, but when she thought harder, she saw more than that.
Her mother always baked a cherry cobbler on her father’s birthday because it was his favorite desert. She’d even done that while they traveled by wagon on the way to Centralia. She didn’t have to do that and her father wouldn’t have complained if she hadn’t, but her mother still did.
Josephine remembered her father helping her mother with curing hams and bacon every season even though he was working hard at harvesting his crops. He helped her all winter long as well by making sure there was enough firewood for the cook stove and by keeping the water reservoir on the stove filled. Those tasks were considered women’s work by most of the men in the community, but her father did them in addition to the normal men’s work of caring for the livestock and threshing out and selecting the seed for the next year’s crop.
There was also the night she couldn’t sleep and crept from her bedroom to the kitchen for a drink. She didn’t make it to the kitchen because she saw her father embracing her mother and kissing her. She’d never seen them do that before. While she watched, her mother had taken her father by the hand and led him into their bedroom. Josephine had heard whispers she couldn’t understand and then a few quiet moans from her mother. She knew what they were doing because her mother had explained to her how babies were made. She was more than a little surprised that her mother seemed to want to do it. Surely that meant there was more between them than just sharing work and the results of their labors.
Upon remembering that night, Josephine found herself wondering how it would feel to be wrapped up in a man’s arms and kissing him. She wondered if she’d want to take him by the hand and lead him to their bed. She wondered if she’d make the same little moans and why she would do such a thing if what a man and a woman did in bed was only to make babies.
As they rode along the river the next day, Josephine found herself wishing Jenny would stumble again, but that didn’t happen. When they stopped for the night, Thomas started building a fire as usual, and as usual, Josephine went to the river for water.
The bank was steeper than it had been in other places, and she figured the river must have gone down a little because that bank was muddy. She was crouching on the bank and filling the pot when her feet slipped out from under her. She shrieked as she went into the cold water.
Thomas heard her scream and limped to the river as fast as he could. When he got to the edge, the slow current was taking Josephine around a narrow bend. Thomas cut across the bend in hopes of catching up to her.
Josephine fought the weight of her heavy clothes and tried to keep her head above water. She was nearly worn out when she felt someone grab her shirt collar and pull her to the bank. She turned to see Thomas with a worried look on his face.
“Josephine, are you all right? You didn’t breathe in any water did you?”
Josephine’s teeth were chattering from the cold water when she answered.
“Just a little, but I’m fine. If you hadn’t pulled me out, I’d have drowned for sure.”
“Come back and get out of those wet clothes or you’ll catch your death.”
Josephine was so tired and cold she stumbled after a few steps. Thomas didn’t say anything. He just put one arm around her back and the other under her knees, picked her up, and started to carry her back. Josephine tried to stop him.
“Thomas, your leg. Put me down before you hurt yourself.”
“Not until I get you back to the fire. Hold on to my neck so you’re not so heavy in my arms. I’ll be all right.”
Josephine put her arms around Thomas’ neck enough she was supporting part of her weight on his shoulders. In the process, her right breast pressed into Thomas’ chest. Josephine felt a tingle race through her body and stir something in her core. Unconsciously, she held Thomas tighter and nestled her face against his shoulder.
When Thomas had left the fire, it was just tinder and small twigs for kindling. When he sat Josephine back on her feet, it was nearly out. He pulled a blanket from his bedroll, wrapped it around Josephine and then began the process of adding small twigs again and when those caught flame, larger sticks. Fifteen minutes later he added branches the size of his wrist and then turned back to Josephine.
“The fire is going good. You should get out of those wet clothes. Don’t worry. I won’t look. You wrap that blanket around you until you get dry and warmed up again. I’ll go get more water and make coffee to warm you up on the inside.”
Josephine smiled when Thomas left with the coffeepot. He was being silly again. She wasn’t that cold once he’d pulled her out of the water. Still, she didn’t like wearing wet clothes. After looking around to see if Thomas could see her, she took off her shoes, socks, shirt and trousers along with the waist and bust pad, and then moved closer to the fire. She sat down and opened the blanket to let in the heat until Thomas yelled that he was coming back.
Thomas approached the fire slowly until he saw Josephine sitting there wrapped in his blanket. He stopped and asked if she was covered up. Josephine replied she was, so he walked up to the fire and sat the coffeepot at the edge of the coals, then sat down beside her.
“You like to scared me to death, Josephine. Are you sure you’re all right?”
“I was scared too until you pulled me out. I feel fine now.”
“You getting warm enough? I can build a bigger fire if you’re not.”
“Yes, I’m fine now, or will be as soon as I get myself dry.”
“Well you just sit there and do just that. I’ll fix us something to eat.”
While Thomas fried bacon and made corn cakes, Josephine was thinking. If Thomas had just let her put on dry clothes, she could have made their supper. It wasn’t like she was sick or anything. She’d just gotten wet and cold for a while. It reminded her of the time her mother had caught the grippe. Her father had done all his work as well as fixed their meals and cleaned up afterwards so her mother could rest and get well.
Josephine paused her thoughts then. Yes, Thomas was doing exactly what her father had done. Could that mean he felt something for her?
When he’d picked her up and carried her from the river, she’d felt safe instead of afraid, and when she held him tight, she felt happy. Did that mean she felt something for him?
How was a woman supposed to know? That was the one thing about men and women her mother had never explained to her. Her mother had just said when the right man came along, Josephine would know. Her mother had explained everything about being married and having babies except for how to make the one decision that was most important.
Thomas turned the slices of bacon over to fry the other side, but he was doing that without thinking. His thoughts were about Josephine.
When he’d heard her scream, he’d limped to the river as fast as he could. When he’d watched her go around the bend in the river, his heart began to ache. He couldn’t lose her now like he’d lost everyone else, not after all this way. He’d felt relieved when he reached the river before she came by, and had to restrain the urge to hold her tight once he’d pulled her out. He hadn’t understood that urge and instead started leading her back to the fire.
She’d stumbled then, and without thinking he’d picked her up and carried her the rest of the way. He didn’t remember any pain in his stump and there should have been. There was a little pain now, but all he remembered was the feel of her back against one arm and the feel of her slender legs against the other. When she’d put her arms around his neck and held on tight, that same thrill from before swept through him. He’d wanted to take her back to the fire, sit her down, and just hold her until she stopped shivering.
He hadn’t done that, of course. It wouldn’t have been proper since they were just traveling together. He wondered though. After he’d picked her up, she held on tighter and put her cheek against his shoulder. She wouldn’t have done that unless she felt comfortable with him and maybe if she…
Thomas tried to put that thought out of his mind. He liked Josephine a lot, but she’d never be more than someone he could call a friend. His leg was the reason. A woman as pretty as Josephine could have her choice of any man. She’d never settle for a man with only one good leg who could only clean out stables for a living.
Thomas put the fried bacon on a pot lid and poured the corn cake batter into the frying pan. The corn cakes fried quickly, and a few minutes later he put two on the pot lid and handed it to Josephine. He sat down beside her with the frying pan.
Josephine had to eat with one hand and hold the blanket closed with the other, but she managed. When she finished her last corn cake, she asked Thomas if his leg hurt. He just grinned.
“No…well a little, but it’s not bad. I don’t know why, but it doesn’t doesn’t hurt much. Wouldn’t matter anyway. Getting you out of that river and back here to dry out was what mattered.”
“I’m glad you did what you did. I’m sure some men would have just let me drift on down the river.”
“I couldn’t ever do that.”
“Well because, that all. It wouldn’t be right.”
“Is that the only reason?”
Thomas had to think about that before he answered. He couldn’t say yes, but she might think he was being too forward if he said he liked having her with him. He finally decided he had nothing to lose by telling the truth, and maybe a lot to lose if he lied.
“No. I…I sorta like you.”
“Well, no, more than sorta.”
“I like you too, Thomas.”
Thomas had been looking at the horses, but turned to look at Josephine. She was smiling.
“Yes, I do. I like you a lot.”
“Even though I only have one good leg?”
Josephine touched his hand.
“Thomas, there’s more to a man than just two legs. You told me I did right when I shot Randall. You were all worried when I fell off Jenny. I know it took most of your strength to get to me when I fell in the river, but you got to me and pulled me out, and then you carried me all the way back here. You’re strong and you’re smart and you care what happens to me. You’re kinda silly about it sometimes, but you do care. I think that’s how my father thought about my mother. That means more to me than if you have two good legs.”
“That sounds like your saying again that we should get married.”
“No, I’m not. I’m just saying I like you more than I’ve ever liked any other man.”
Josephine smiled then.
“If you were to feel the same way about me and ask me, though, I probably wouldn’t say no.”
Thomas wasn’t sure it was the right thing to do, but he gathered her in his arms and bent down and kissed Josephine. He pulled away gently, then pushed her back a little so he could look her in the face.
“I don’t want to lose you. I can’t ask you until I can provide for you, but as soon as I can, I’ll be asking.”
They arrived in Denver City at a little after noon the next day, and there were a few stares from the women on the street. Josephine had decided if she was a woman, she’d look like a woman when they went into town and had put on a dress. Josephine held her head high in spite of the stares. She knew she wasn’t what they were thinking.
Their first stop was the hotel where they rented two rooms and board for a week. Thomas had enough money to pay for his and to make up what Josephine lacked for hers. The hotel clerk seemed pleased that they’d rented two rooms.
“Sir, I have to admit that when you walked in, I took you two for a miner and a…well, you know. We have enough of that in Denver City. It’s good to have proper guests for a change.”
After carrying their belongings to their rooms, Thomas took the horses to the livery stable and paid for a week’s care. He was a little disheartened to see two men already working there. Judging by the number of horses in the stalls, they wouldn’t need another hand.
They ate the noon meal at the hotel, and then Tomas went in search of a job while Josephine inquired at the hotel about a job as a cook. The owner of the hotel asked if she’d ever cooked in a hotel before, and smiled when she said she had.
“Well…Josephine was it…yes, it was. Well, Josephine, as it so happens, my cook has gone and got herself with child. She’s marrying the man tomorrow and they’re off to a cabin where the man has a mine. I do need a cook, but why should I hire you? There are several women in town who are very good cooks.”
“You try me for a week. If you like what I cook, you pay me for the week. If you don’t, you won’t have lost anything. How much would you be paying me, assuming I get the job.”
“Well, let’s see. I’m paying Fannie three dollars a day. What say we start you out at a dollar and a half a day until we see how well you do?”
Josephine was still smiling.
“What say we start me out at three dollars a day, and make it three and a half when you see how good I am.”
“Oh, I can’t pay that much. I can pay three, but no more.”
“Does that include my room and board?”
“Yes, it does.”
“Three will be just fine to start. If you’ll show me around the kitchen, I’ll start this afternoon.”
Thomas started down the street and stopped in at the general store first. When he asked if there was a job available, the owner looked him up and down, then frowned.
“You’re wearing Union Army trousers, so I’m guessing you fought in the war.”
Thomas replied that he had. The store owner frowned again.
“We don’t judge people by their politics around here. I know of some former Confederates who work in the mines. You wouldn’t still be holding a grudge, would you?”
“No, Sir. I’m not. That war was bad for everybody, and now that it’s over, everybody needs to put it behind them.”
The store owner wasn’t frowning quite as much now, but he still wasn’t smiling.
“I see a lot of men your age coming to Denver City. Usually they get a job and work long enough for a grubstake and then head out to the mountains to look for gold. I expect you’d be doing the same thing, wouldn’t you?”
Thomas shook his head.
“No, Sir, because I can’t go traipsing up and down the mountains.”
Thomas took a deep breath, sure that his next words would cause the store owner to say he didn’t need anybody.
“Because half my right leg is wood.”
“I guess that explains why you limp a little. I was wondering about that.”
“Lost it at Antietam. I suppose that means you don’t have a job for me.”
The store owner stroked his beard, then smiled a little.
“I figured the way you limped in here, you must have something wrong with you. If you’d lied to me, I’d have sent you on your way. I can’t have a liar working in my store. A liar’ll steal you blind every time. You didn’t lie though, and I respect that.
“My other clerk headed out for the mountains last week. Damned fool thinks he’s going to find gold and be rich. The only people getting rich in Denver City are the store and saloon owners and the women who work in the saloons. I can start you out at three and a half dollars a day. If you pan out, I’ll make it four. I see you’re wearing a sidearm. I’d expect you’ve used it before.”
“Yes Sir, in the war.”
“Well, you can’t wear it in my store. Makes the customers nervous. You put it under the counter though. I got robbed three times last year, miners who didn’t find anything before they ran themselves out of food and money. Stopped two of the bastards with the shotgun I keep under the counter. My clerk at the time was too scared to do anything when they robbed me the third time. I’d expect you to be able to do better.”
“Well, Sir, I’ve had my fill of shooting at people, but robbers are a different story. You wouldn’t have to worry about me.”
The store owner smiled.
“I didn’t think I’d have to. You come by tomorrow about seven and I’ll show you what you need to do.”
When Thomas knocked on the door to Josephine’s room, she opened it and then smiled.
“I got my job as a cook here, well, as long as I do a good job. Did you find work at the livery stable?”
Thomas tried hard to frown instead of grin.
“No. They didn’t need anybody.”
Josephine touched him on the arm.
“Well, don’t worry. You’ll find something. Until you do, I’ll be making enough to let us live in the boarding house down the street. It’s not as nice as the hotel, but it doesn’t cost as much as the hotel either.”
Thomas smiled then.
“I didn’t say I didn’t find a job, just that the livery stable didn’t need anybody. I’m going to be a clerk at the general store.”
Josephine put her arms around Thomas’ neck and grinned.
“Does that mean what I hope it means?”
Thomas pulled her close, kissed her, and then stroked her back.
“Unless you’ve changed your mind it does.”
At the end of the week, the hotel owner called Josephine to his office. She was nervous when he closed the door and asked her to sit down. He sat down in the chair on the opposite side of the desk and put his hands on the table.
“I’ll be honest with you Josephine. I didn’t hold much hope that you’d work out. I knew you rode into Denver City with a man. Women who would do something like that…well…they’re usually not the best of women. You proved me wrong.”
Josephine leaned toward the man.
“Mr. Jackson, I only did that because I had to. I’m not the kind of woman you were thinking, and Thomas isn’t that kind of man either. He was a gentleman the whole way.”
“So I’ve heard from William at the general store. He says the people who come to his store like Thomas, and that his sales have gone up a little.”
“Then why did you want to talk to me?”
“Just to tell you that your beef roast and cherry pie are better than any I had in Chicago. I think I’ll be keeping you for as long as you’ll stay. I’m sorry to say I can’t pay you more than three dollars a day though, at least not right away. What I can do is this. If you can convince Thomas to make an honest woman out of you, you can both live here until you find another place. Judging by how he looks at you, that won’t be very hard to do.”
They were married the next Sunday by the only preacher in Denver City. Not many people turned out for the wedding, but those who knew Thomas from the general store did. So did some of the people who lived at the hotel. Thomas thought Josephine was beautiful in her dress even though it wasn’t white. Josephine thought Thomas was handsome even though he just wore his Union Army trousers and a gray cotton shirt.
That night, in the hotel room the owner had given them, Thomas embraced Josephine, kissed her, and then hugged her tight.
“Josephine, I know you’re probably afraid of tonight after what happened and because of my leg. If you’d rather wait, I understand. I didn’t marry you for that. I married you because of the woman you are.”
Josephine pushed him gently away and smiled.
“I’m not afraid of you or tonight. I’ve wanted tonight ever since you pulled me out of that river.”
Thomas blew out the lamp before they undressed. He didn’t want Josephine to see his stump, not on that first night. He needn’t have worried that she’d be shocked. Josephine undressed and then layed down on the bed. He heard her pull the blankets over her and then whisper, “Thomas, come get in bed.”
His hands were shaking when he touched Josephine’s naked body for the first time. She put her hand on his and guided it to her breasts.
“Just touch lightly at first, Thomas.”
He was amazed by the softness of her skin and by the ripe contours of her body. In the man’s clothes she’d worn, those contours had been hidden. Once he had learned her true sex, he’d imagined what those curves must look and feel like, but he’d been all wrong.
Her breasts were firm, but moved away from his gentle touch. Her belly was flat except for the two bumps of her hip bones. The hair on her mound was coarser than the hair on her head, but still soft to his touch. Her inner thighs were silk and more soft hair. When Josephine opened her thighs, Thomas marveled at the satiny skin of her sex.
Josephine lay there quietly while Thomas explored her body, until he brushed a fingertip over her nipple. She moaned, then realized that sound was the same she’d heard her mother make that night. Thomas gently stroked her other nipple, and she couldn’t stop a second moan. When he touched the soft lips between her thighs, Josephine didn’t try. She just lost herself in the tingles that raced to her core and caused her belly to tighten.
From the men in his Army company, Thomas had learned everything he knew about coupling with a woman. He knew the act was done by penetrating the woman’s body, and he knew virgins were mostly closed to that penetration. Some men in his company had said it should be done quickly to spare the woman some pain. Others said it should be done slowly to allow the woman to open herself.
Thomas knelt between Josephine’s raised thighs and pushed into her gently. Josephine caught her breath, then put her arms around Thomas’ back and whispered, “Mother said it would hurt the first time. Just do it, Thomas.”
He pulled back a little, then pushed in again. He hadn’t intended to push hard, but Josephine gasped again and then rocked her hips up. He felt tightness, and then the way suddenly opened and he slipped inside her until his belly flattened against her mound. Josephine hugged him tight.
“It wasn’t that bad. Make me your wife now.”
After Thomas gasped out his release and eased down on top of her, Josephine stroked his back and then held him tight to her breasts. She knew now how her mother had felt that night. It was a feeling she couldn’t describe in just one word. She felt happy, she felt needed, and she felt as if she’d changed from a girl to a woman somehow in just a few minutes. There were other thoughts and feelings too, thoughts and feelings about taking care of Thomas, of keeping house for him and about having his children. She stroked his back again.
“You know, I thought about this that day you pulled me out of the river. I knew what would happen. I just didn’t know it would make me feel this way.”
Thomas raised up, kissed Josephine, then rolled to her side and put his arm over her.
“What way is that?”
“I feel like I was missing something, and now I’ve found it.”
“Do you like what you found?”
“I think so. We’ll have to do this some more before I know for sure.”
Thomas stroked Josephine’s breast.
“How long do you think it will take?”
“Not long. I’m pretty sure already. I think maybe two or three days.”
“Only two or three days?”
“Well, a day or two to get over the first time, and then a day to feel how it feels the second time.”
“And after that?”
“As many times as it takes to give you at least one son and me at least one daughter.”
“That might take a lot of trying.”
“I know. I think I’m going to like trying.”
As the Trans-Continental Railroad opened the west, and then the Denver Pacific connected Denver City to it in Cheyenne, the wagon ruts of the Oregon Trail slowly disappeared from the prairie. Rail travel was faster and more efficient than wagons drawn by oxen. Rail travel also meant the end of the stage lines, but ushered in a new era of growth in Denver City.
Thomas and Josephine grew right along with it, Thomas by saving his money until he had enough to buy half an interest in the general store, and Josephine by giving him two sons and two daughters. She often told them the story about how she and Thomas had met by following wagon ruts into the west.
When the girls were old enough, she told them about babies and how they were conceived. She spent a lot of time explaining what would happen and how they’d feel the first time and the times after that. One thing she did leave out though. Josephine never told them how they’d know when they found the right man. She just said they’d know. She figured they’d have their own wagon ruts to follow some day and would discover the answer for themselves, just like she had.