Nina Foch was a beautiful woman, the kind of woman any man would drool after. So, why wasn’t she married? The answer was that, at the age of 23, Nina just had not met the man who fit her specifications. That was damned unusual in the West of 1876, because Nina traveled enough to meet scores of men, but none ever struck her fancy.
Nina was unusual for other reasons, too. Possibly, the most notable was that she was a muleskinner (teamster). Why Nina was a muleskinner may not have been the first question on a man’s mind the first time he met Nina, but it was very near the top of the list. Actually, the answer was simple: Nina’s father had started Foch Freight Forwarders (FFF) back in 1846 operating out of St. Louis. Nina had no siblings, so it was logical for her to take over the company when her father died in 1873.
First as a lark, but later on as a sensible business move, Henri Foch taught Nina everything he knew about the business of hauling freight with wagons pulled by mules or oxen. One of the first things that Nina learned was that oxen could pull a much greater load than the same number of mules, but mules could move it faster by a factor of two or three.
Over the years, Nina worked her way up from driving a single mule to driving a team of 12 mules. She never worked any more than 12 mules simply because the kind of business that FFF did never needed more than 12 mules per wagon, even though some of those wagons were monsters.
It was 1853 when Nina was born, and the gold rush in California had made its own gold mine out of the freight business. Of course, the most economical way to send freight to California was by ship, but, for many reasons, there were never enough ships to fill the need. Thus, Henri Foch was able to build FFF into an enterprise that spanned the continent.
The primary business of FFF before 1861 was in moving freight West from St. Louis to Santa Fe or to Yuma. Santa Fe was a general distributing point from which smaller companies hauled freight wherever there was a job. Yuma was different in that FFF still hauled the freight to San Diego, which was also a distributing point, but the shift was made from mules to oxen as the draft animal. Oxen as draft animals made a significant difference in the way the animals were handled, and Nina was really not interested in walking from Yuma to San Diego. That was a job for a man with stronger legs and a less capable mind.
One of the many things that Nina learned was how to shoot. Besides the run of the mill thief, the Indians all treasured mule meat as the epitome of the stuff for the dinner table. Therefore, in almost every trip, there was at least one effort to steal as many mules as possible so that a young brave could gain status and wives.
At first, Nina was reluctant to shoot to kill, but she had to change her attitude when the theft of mules became the greatest hazard of a hauling job. Even though Nina was a large woman, she still had some trouble at first with a .44 caliber pistol. The recoil was just too much for her when she held the pistol in only one hand. However, that problem was conquered by Nina when she learned to use two hands to steady her aim and general shooting style.
Nina could get off the first shot very quickly with only one hand, but she needed both hands for any followup shots. No man was stupid enough to challenge Nina to a duel, so her fast draw was very rarely called upon, but she had it if and when she needed it.
Nina started out with a Remington .44 pistol when she seriously needed to defend herself, but she got very lucky when she acquired a Starr DA (double-action) in the same .44 caliber. Not having to cock the gun with her thumb made all of the difference in the world with shooting with one hand. The double-action of the Starr let Nina use only one hand for shooting, and she was wearing two of the pistols on the job by the end of 1862. She copied the Army style of crossdraw holsters worn at the waist so that she could draw either pistol while sitting in the driver’s box of her wagon.
Initially, Nina carried spare powder and balls as well as four loaded cylinders, but she switched to metallic cartridges as soon as they became available. Henri Foch never worried about Nina’s safety as long as she had her pistols. No White man ever bothered her more than once, and very few Indians survived an effort to steal her mules.
Of course, Nina also became expert with the rifle. She used a Henry as soon as she could get one, but switched to the Winchester in 1873. In both cases, she had her pistols reworked to use the rifle cartridges. This was a lot more convenient than carrying that loose powder, caps, and balls.
The Civil War was already in full swing by 1859 in western Missouri and in all of Kansas (see “Bleeding Kansas” for details). Whenever she had a large team of mules to drive, Nina had her 16-foot bullwhip handy. She rarely had to use it with the mules, but it was an excellent defensive weapon because the use of the whip protected the mules from a stray bullet. The story, only slightly apocryphal, was that Nina could write her name on a troublesome man’s back with the tip of her whip.
More than once, Nina was approached by thieves pretending to be guerrillas and demanding money “to support the fight” against the opposite side. Of course, Nina always refused to pay. One especially obnoxious individual was demanding a $20 “toll” in gold from Nina while she was holding the reins in one hand and her bullwhip in the other. A quick snap of Nina’s wrist wrapped the end of the whip around the idiot’s neck and broke it before he could get off a shot at her. She dropped the whip and drew a pistol that she was able to use to shoot the other two bandits who were threatening her. This had her considering a sawed-off shotgun for added protection, but she put that decision off for a while.
Who am I? Sorry, I didn’t mean to be impolite. I was just so taken by Nina’s story that I forgot to introduce myself. My name is Al, short for Alphonse, but you better never call me that, Terhune. Along with practically every other man in Texas, I was unemployed and looking for a job. That was why I happened to be in St. Louis one spring day when FFF was trying to find experienced drivers for a trek to Santa Fe.
For a short while, I had been a substitute driver for a stagecoach company until I started to bleed every time I pissed. That told me that I was not cut out to spend so much time on a stagecoach. At least, I did learn to drive six-mule teams, and that was enough experience to get me a job as a muleskinner with FFF.
I met Nina, Miss Foch, while I was demonstrating my skill with a six-mule team. I was in the process of making a sharp left turn with the team and a heavily loaded wagon when I heard a woman’s voice, “THAT’S ENOUGH! HIRE HIM!”
I drove the team back to the loading dock and climbed down from the driver’s box. A woman stepped up and said, “Hello, I’m Nina Foch, and I will be ramrodding this freight run. What’s your name?”
“I’m Al Terhune. Thanks for the job. What’s the pay?”
“Hello, Al. You may call me Miss Foch. The pay is $1.25 per day and found (food). We work seven days a week, and that’s the reason for the extra two-bits per day. I guess you know that this run is to Santa Fe, and we will be gone for about 3 months, counting the round trip. Are you up to working for a woman for that long?”
“Yes, Ma’am, Miss Foch. The pay is good and the work cannot be that hard, so I am good for it. Count me in.”
“Very well, Al. Glad to have you with us. You know that you need to be well armed. What do you carry?”
“I carry a .45 Henry and two Smith & Wessons chambered for the Henry cartridge. I also have a 10-gauge breech loading double-barrel shotgun usually loaded with #00 buckshot.”
“Okay, that sounds good. Show up tomorrow at daylight, and we will get you squared away on your wagon and other such stuff. Your pay starts today, and take the rest of the day to gather up your possibles (belongings) to bring in tomorrow morning. You’ll be too busy to bother with that tomorrow. You will eat breakfast here.”
“Thank you, Ma’am. That sounds right fair of you. I am down to four-bits (50¢), and I wondered how I was going to manage supper tonight and breakfast tomorrow. My stomach sure appreciates your generosity.”
“I swan (swear), you are cutting it close. Come with me to the office and we will advance you a week’s pay.”
“I sure do appreciate that, Miss Foch. Now I can eat dinner, too.” I could not of found a better boss, at least for starting on a job. That was enough money even at St. Louis prices for me to get the last few things I needed for such a long trip, so I could not ask for a better entry into my first job as a freight hauler.
The next day was pretty hectic, what with getting my saddle and tack put in the crew’s wagon and getting lined up with my wagon and mule team. I met the other drivers and general workers. I did not see Mr. Foch because he was not feeling well that day.
Finally, it was time to leave. We pulled out with 14 freight wagons and four service wagons. Nina drove the lead wagon, and I was about the middle of the pack. The first two days we barely made our planned 20 miles per day because of minor problems that had to be settled. Were it not for that, it looked to me like we could make 30 miles per day once these minor problems were settled.
On the third day, we were about 50 miles from St. Louis when the first trouble started with bandits. We were carrying mostly clothing and tools of the sort sold in general stores, but the thieves would not know that. As part of the services offered by FFF, all of the wagons were covered with tarpaulins to protect the loads, so it was not possible to see into a wagon bed.
The trouble started with two men riding up to Nina in the lead wagon. Behind them were four men whom I assumed were bodyguards meant to intimidate the wagonmaster. Obviously, we were carrying some gold coins to meet miscellaneous expenses, but not enough to entice bandits. What they really wanted were our Missouri mules. Missouri mules were renowned all over the continent, so could be sold for a good price anywhere. Actually, I could not understand why the gang did not just ride in shooting and skip the tomfoolery.
Oh, well, I picked up my rifle and got ready to drop to the floor of the driver’s box if the fight I expected did start. Suddenly two shots rang out from the lead wagon, and I was afraid that Nina had been shot. Not so! The two bandits who had been talking to her were now lying on the ground. So much for the bodyguards because they turned to flee as soon as the bosses were laid out.
I was more than a little surprised. There were no shots from the nearby woods and we could see the dust cloud from the vanishing bodyguards. Apparently, this whole thing had been one big bluff, and Nina had read it correctly. I relaxed and waited for orders.
Two of our men rode up and cleared the road. One stayed to loot the bodies and take care of the two horses while the other man rode down the line to tell us to resume our trip. The two corpses had been stripped of valuables and removed from the road. The scavengers would take care of them overnight. The horses were being delivered to the remuda, and that was the end of that, as far as we were concerned. We would hear the whole story when we stopped to eat.
There was a normal stopping point about two miles farther on, and that was where we stopped to let the mules rest and for our dinner. The cook had already driven ahead, and the food was ready for us by the time we were ready to eat it. The food was a beef and beans stew, but there were vegetables in there, too, and the stew was quite tasty.
Nina gave us a quick description of the morning’s events. “I know that y’all saw what happened this morning. Two bandits pretending to be county law officials stopped us to collect a toll for using this here road and camp grounds. I was surprised, but I waited to hear what all they had to say. They demanded a toll of $25 per wagon and $1 per horse. Of course, I was not going to pay such a ridiculous toll, even if it had been legal.
“They threatened to confiscate the wagon train if I did not pay up. When I refused, one of the idiots reached for his gun. I shot him and his pal. You saw the other four men ride off. I did not shoot since we had already won the argument. Okay, that is the end of the story. Let us clean up and be on our way.”
Nothing happened for the rest of the day, and we easily made 25 miles that day. We would not do so well once we came to the hills. Right now, the road meandered around the steeper hills, and the mules did not have to work very hard.
Things were not always this easy. We were about 15 miles east of Jefferson City and stopped for lunch. I had just gone back for a second dish of the stew when we were surprised by a bunch of horsemen riding through camp shooting at anybody in sight. We were all wearing our pistols, but I sure could have used my shotgun. Anyway, like everybody else, I drew a revolver and started shooting.
Some of the men were using Colt Navy revolvers in .36 caliber and still using cap and ball. They were ineffective in a couple of ways. The .36 caliber ball was not going to stop a horse like the .44 would, though the horse would probably die eventually. Furthermore, it took too long to reload a cap and ball pistol if you had to do it chamber by chamber. The two men who had extra cylinders were a little better off, but that small ball was really only a nuisance to the attackers.
On the other hand, the few of us with .44 or .45 ammunition were able to stop a charging horse, and that usually killed the rider when he fell from a running horse. Whoever was leading this bunch of bandits must of had some Army training because the bandits rode right through our camp without stopping. That saved some of them, but it gave us time to run to our wagons for our rifles and for me to pick up my shotgun.
This time, when the bandits came back, they were met by a withering fire of rifles in .44 or .45 caliber. My shotgun with its 12 #00 buckshot also did a good job. The men with the rifles were shooting at the horses because a man was too small a target to be sure of a hit at the speed that everybody was moving. However, the spread of my shotgun pellets made it almost certain that I would score at least one hit on a man.
I had plenty of shells, and I was pumping them out as fast as I could reload, aim, and fire. A later count gave me credit for eight kills, and I do not know how many more I wounded. I was not trying to be a hero, so I did not make a point of the number of kills I made.
We finally drove off the bandits, but we were badly hurt. Four of our muleskinners were killed and six more were wounded too badly to continue driving. That left only four of us to drive 14 wagons. Fortunately, Nina was one of those who came through the fight without a scratch. Three of the substitute drivers were unhurt, so we had a total of seven drivers of varying skill levels.
Nina was able to come up with a solution to our problem that kept us from having to abandon a wagon, but we only were going as far as the next town before we had to admit defeat.