In the spring of 1890, Dr. Samuel Walker and his young Irish bride travel from Boston to Monahans, Texas via the train. In Monahans they catch a stagecoach for Fort Stockton, Texas.
|A Stage Stand replica near Fort Stockton, Texas (Google Photos)|
|A friendly mule posing for a snapshot. That or waiting for a treat.|
They'd just finished breakfast in the cafe next to the depot and returned from the outhouse when the stage roared in and stopped in front of the stand, sending dust flying. Aileen watched in fascination as a gate swung open, and the six mules and stagecoach entered. In ten minutes, the coach came out the same door with fresh stock and a different driver. She'd like to glimpse the inside, but the tender called out, "If you're traveling to Fort Stockton, pay up. First come, first served."
Sam took her arm and hustled her over to the man. "I want two seats facing the front." He counted out a number of bills.
"Claim your seats, mister."
Sam helped her inside. She sat in the middle of the front facing seat and he took the one to her right by the door. A man in a military uniform took the seat on her left. An older couple and a cowboy sat down across from them. Seven men still stood around the tender.
"Any of you men interested in the center seat?" Several stepped forward and paid their money. "The rest of you'll ride on top. You can switch out with the center seat 'bout half way there."
Thank goodness they didn't have to bump knees with those three men. Plus the middle bench had a makeshift backrest—a wide piece of cut leather stretched and attached from one side to the other. Pieces of leather dangled from the ceiling. Aileen shot Sam a questioning glance. "Those in the center hold on to steady themselves when the road is rough." He pulled her arm under his and laid her hand on his bicep. "We'll get more dust on this row, but traveling backwards makes some folks sick." He leaned down and whispered in her ear. "Plus, I didn't want you interlocking your knees with the center row."
Aileen felt sorry for the elderly lady, but not enough to offer to trade places.
The station tender stood at the open door. "All right, folks. Remember no shooting out the windows unless it's in defense. If you don't follow the rules, the driver will put you off in the desert. He's done it before. Men, be respectful of the ladies." He slammed the door.
Sam squeezed her hand. "Hang on."
She heard the crack of a whip and the driver's bellow, "Go boys!" The coach leapt forward and Aileen's head bounced against the back wall. Thank goodness it was padded.
Sam caught Aileen to steady her and prevent further jostling until the coach settled into a steady gait. He chuckled as she repositioned her hat. "You all right?"
"I'm fine. You said he'd take off like a shot, but I assumed you were exaggerating."
The lady across the way eyed Aileen with distaste. Sam noticed she listened in on his and Aileen's conversation, and then said something to her husband. He frowned and muttered, "Mind your own business, Ethel."
Ethel studied Aileen from head to toe, well, as much of her toes as she could observe. Aileen wore one of her new dresses—blue cotton, but it was thick enough for winter wear. He'd cautioned her to wear something comfortable. Over the dress, she wore her new jacket, which she could take off if it grew too hot. Ethel wore a suit dress of heavy gray wool and appeared to be fully corseted. She'd already removed the matching cape and placed it on her knees. Sam hadn't purchased a blanket, as he didn't believe the weather would warrant the need for one. With any luck, he'd not made a mistake.
Ethel made up her mind. She lifted her chin, sniffed, and asked, "Where you from, young woman? Sounds like you have one of them Irish, accents."
"It is Irish. I've only been in the states for three months." She smiled up at Sam. "We've been wed just a little over a week."
The matron snorted. "Come over to get you a rich husband, huh?"
Her husband bit out, "Ethel, for God's sake, woman. Shut your mouth."
Aileen's face reddened and she sat up straighter. "Ethel, not that it's any of your concern, but I didn't have to marry for money. I admire Dr. Walker."
Sam had difficulty keeping his anger in check. The old biddy had no right to insult Aileen. He leaned down and kissed her hair, and then glanced back at Ethel. "As a matter of fact, madam, my wife is an heiress." He winked at Aileen. "I'm the one who married for money."
The three cowboys in the center roared with laughter. One slapped his knees as he hooted, "Har, har, har." He turned back and tipped his hat. "Good for you, old man. Looks like you got a beauty in the bargain."
Aileen blushed scarlet. Sam slipped his arm around her shoulders and worked it down to her waist. He snuggled her closer. "I did indeed, sir."
"I'm Johnson." The one who'd spoken swiveled around and offered his hand. He pointed to his companions. "This here's Dickens and Smith." He pointed to the wrangler by Ethel. "That be Oats." Sam shook Johnson's hand, thumped the brim of his hat, and nodded to the others. "Pleased to meet you. I'm Samuel Walker and this is my wife." They all four tipped their hats and mumbled, "ma'am." The two with their back to her, had to twist their necks.
Sam leaned forward and turned to the soldier. "How about you, Lieutenant?"
"Jeremy Hawkins, sir." He offered his hand. "You are Captain Walker, are you not?"
He didn't recognize the young man, but time on the prairie changed a person. "I am, or was, but I'm sorry I don't remember you."
"No reason to. I was fortunate enough to stay away from your domain, but saw you around from time to time."
"Frank Hardy, gentlemen, ma'am. As you've surmised this is my wife, Ethel. She can be quite nice when you get used to her ways."
Ethel snorted and shot daggers at her husband. He merely patted her knee. His belly bobbed up and down with his silent chuckles. Sam glanced at Aileen. Her eyes were round as saucers and she'd caught her bottom lip with her teeth. He supposed it was to keep from giggling.
Sam pointed out the window, "Look at those plants with the long green stalks and red flowers on the top?"
She peered around him. There were a number of them growing amid the prickly pear cactus, creosote bushes, and buffalo grass, names she'd learned when they'd neared Abilene and Monahans. "Yes, I see them." She tilted her head. "I guess they could be pretty with the right backdrop."
"Wait until you see a field full of them in bloom at sunset. It resembles a sea of red." She leaned back in the seat.
"I'd like that. Do they bloom all the time?"
"No, usually around this time of year—March through April—depending on the amount of rain we get. You can break one of the long stalks off and plant it in the ground. Eventually, with time and care, you can have a living, blooming fence." He lifted one of her hands and examined the soft pads of her fingers. "You must be careful though, as behind each little green leaf is a thorn. Always wear thick gloves."
She looked around and scrunched up her nose. "What is that smell?"
All three men on the middle seat chimed. "Oats!"
The young man blushed scarlet and blurted, "It weren't me." He kicked the shin of the wrangler across from him.
"Yeow! Darn it, that hurt."
Johnson added, "Ma'am, please excuse Oats. He didn't have a mama to teach him manners."
Wide-eyed and red-faced, Aileen turned to Sam. "I'm talking about that stinky medicine smell."
Silence reigned. Sam struggled to keep a straight face. Hardy didn't even try. He slapped his leg and howled, "Har-d-har-har-har." Everyone else in the coach joined him, even Ethel. Aileen gazed around in confusion, but finally chuckled with them.
She sobered. "I don't appreciate being the butt of jokes," she threw her hands up, "especially when I don't have a clue what you're talking about."
"Aw, ma'am, we weren't laughing at you. We thought Oats had...well, uh-hum...you know."
When she didn't respond, Sam leaned close to her and whispered, "They thought someone had passed gas and that was the odor you were smelling."
She stiffened and murmured. "Gosh, why would I draw attention to such?"
"Well, anyways, I think what you're smelling is the old ugly creosote bush." Johnson pointed out his side of the coach. "See the small bush with the little yellow flowers and green leaves?"
"They stink so bad the cattle won't eat them less they're starving, but I'm told the Indians make medicine from the shrub." He looked to Sam for confirmation.
"That's right, they do. They dry the leaves and stems, crush, and then boil them to make a tea used for a variety of ailments. The mixture can also be made into a paste to treat conditions of the skin."
"And, Dr. Walker, do you make use of these concoctions in treating your patients?" Asked Mrs. Hardy.
"No, ma'am, I do not, but only because I don't know enough about them. I hope one day to be able to visit one of the Indian medicine men in the area and learn."
"Harrumph. You'd trust anything those heathens told you about healing?"
"Yes, ma'am, I would—especially if out in the middle of nowhere without medical supplies. I'd say their teachings would be invaluable."
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