The Hitchhiker: A Family Story

Deep ruts of red clay mud mired the dirt road as Thomas drove the hitch wagon from Queen City to the saw mill in Garden City, Missouri on an early April morning in 1872. While the trip would be easier if he waited another day for the latest rains to dry up, he would also lose another day in the fields if he didn't drop the load of wheat off and get the seed picked up. The brisk breeze that dried the fields this morning carried the scent of the moist earth and new green life creeping form the warming hills. Sunrise was all the warm colors of an artist's pallete, lavender streaked with peach, coral and hot pink. In a few minutes it would be the startling turquoise blue of Emma's eyes, a whole horizon of it, the aquamarine color that seemed to soak up sunshine. A damned stupid reason to love a woman, he reckoned, the color of her eyes, but then a streak of insanity ran in his family. He guessed he was entitled to his share of it, and Emma Fuson's eyes were blue enough to drive any man to the brink.

Clicking his tongue at the team of bay horses and giving a brisk shake to the reins, he urged them to pick up the pace a little in a particularly bad stretch of mud. They gave it a valiant effort, but the wheels of the wagon fishtailed in the muck and swerved towards the ditch where the mud was six inches deeper. "Damn," Thomas cursed, as he urged the team to dig its heals into the new and more difficult task of pulling the wagon out of the ditch.

The team strained against the leather harness, wind blowing out their flared nostrils with the effort, but the wagon didn't budge. "Whoa, girls, whoa," he soothed the struggling team. Wrapping the reins around the break handle, he climbed out of the wagon to inspect the damage.

The ditch still had last night's rain standing in it, probably twelve inches deep, so it was practically bottomless. Fortunately, the left back wheel had only slid in a short distance so far. However, the job would be a lot easier with a second pair of hands right about now, Thomas thought to himself.

It had no more than crossed his mind when he hearda a soft whistle in the distance. A man was walking over the crest of the hill in Eliza's pa's pasture, a heavy cotton jacket slung over on shoulder as he ambled through the damp field.

"Mornin' stranger," Thomas called out to the man, who whipped around, startled by the unexpected greeting, his hand poised over the holster lashed to his leg. Thomas reached his empty hands up into the air to show the man he was unarmed.

"Meanin' no offense, man, but what are you doin' in Mr. Fuson's field, and it's barely dawn?" he asked, taking the offensive, mostly because it was his right too, and not because it was the smart thing to do with a man ready to pull a gun on him.

The man's posture relaxed a bit, and he continued to angle towards where Thomas was bogged down in the muck of the mud road. "Needed a place to hold up last night in the rain storm. Appreciated the loan of Mr. Garnder's chicken cook greatly, I did," the stranger told him, a grin warming his handsome mug.

"I'm sure my pa will be happy to know he was able to offer a wayfarin' strnager shelter from the storm last night," Thomas quipped back, sharing the infectious grin with the stranger. After all, the deed was done, and the wman wasn't beating around the bush about it. "Then again, he might not appreciate knowing some gun totin' scoundrel snuck onto his property in the dead of night without him knowing it. Maybe this had better be our little secret," Thomas suggested wryly.

"Whatever you say, Mister," the stranger grinned. Reaching the barbed wire fence, he climbed over it, and leapt over the muddy rivulet running through the ditch. He landed about three feet from where the wagon wheel was stuck. "Looks like you've had a run of bad luck," he whistled, shaking his head in sympathy, the felt hat he wore shading his face and eyes from Thoma's view.

"Maybe my luck just improved if you'll lend a hand," Thomas suggested, crossing his arms across his chest while he waited for the stranger's response.

"Sure, if I can hitch a ride into town with you," the stranger bargained, already leaning over the mired wheel to see what it was going to take to get it out. He was slightly shorter than Thomas, who stood 5 feet 10 inches tall, and he was slight of build, but wiry looking.

"I reckon I don't see why not if we can get it out," Thomas agreed, taking his jacket off and dropping it in the back of the wagon. Then he reached in and pulled out a block and a pry bar. "maybe this'll help," he added positioning it under the muddy wheel. "By the way, do you have a handle I can call you by, mister? I mean since we're going to be travelin' companions, after all?" Thomas's eyes were on the task at hand, but he saw the strnager's body jerk out of the corner of his eye, just the same.

For a minute, he thought the man wasn't going to reply. He stood with hands on hips, his boots spread in the mud, undecided, and then he finally relented. "The name's James, Jesse James," he muttered, unwinding the reins from around the brake handle on the wagon and turning to Thomas. "You ready?" he asked.

No waiting for Thomas's reply he walked beside the hitch wagon, talking to the team, urging them to press into the task, coaxing, cajoling, cursing, as they bucked against the harness, shying occasionally, but moving inch by agonizing inch out of the muddy red clay of the ditch as Thomas used the pry bar under the wheel to help them do their job. At last, with a giant thrusting effort they broke free, and Jesse and Thomas gave a shout of citory, raising their exultant fists in the air like two young pups who've just won the high school relay.

Throwing the block and pry bar into the back of the wagon, Thomas climbed up into the wagon seat, and Jesse handed him the reins. "I won't hold you to that offer of a ride if you're having second thoughts," Jesse said, not meeting Thomas's eyes, "since you didn't know who you were offering it to."

Throwing the block and pry bar into the back of the wagon, Thomas climbed up into the wagon seat, and Jesse handed him the reins. "I won't hold you to that offer of a ride if you're having second thoughts," Jesse said, not meeting Thomas's eyes, "since you didn't know who you were offering it to."

"The offer is still good," Thomas replied, scanning the horizon, which was now the turquoise blue of a Missouri sky soaked with sunshine. Emma was going to kill him when she found out he gave Jesse James a ride. He could see those turquoise eyes blazing now. "You helped me get the wagon out of the ditch. Besides, I had a pretty good idea who you were when you started to reach for your gun. We don't have much call to use them in these part," he said. "If you're still going my way, get in."

Jesse leaped into the wagon. "You ever seen anything in the world the color of the sky this morning'?" Jesse asked.

"Maybe once or twice," Thomas told him, "but it sure is pretty, just the same."

*Author's Note.

Thomas Miller was born in 1853 to Washington (1822-1855) and Grace Broyles Miller (1823-1912). Laura Emily (Emma) Fuson, who became his wife, was born in 1870 to Albert Reed Fuson (1844-1922) and Eliza Jane McVey (1843-1931). I received a letter from a family member in Missouri about this incident. I will record that letter here later when I locate it.

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