In January of 1843, an infant weighing a mere 6 lbs was abandoned on the stoop of a St. Joseph, Missouri orphanage. The boy infant with a head of raven hair was swaddled in a young girl’s petticoat and placed inside a laundry basket.
While growing up Cole was considered a runt and teased ruthlessly by the other kids. It didn’t help that he stuttered. Caregivers attributed his staggered speech to his frozen and fragile beginning.
As years passed boys were routinely adopted as budding farmhands but never ‘Cole the Pole.’
Although skinny and awkward he grew to be quite the horseman; he could break a wild horse without speaking a single word.
In 1857 a beautiful girl by the name of Emma McCullough was delivered to the orphanage by the local sheriff. Her folks and little brother died of yellow fever and she was alone; the orphanage was her only refuge.
As an adolescent her chances of being adopted were scarce. Most folks seeking daughters wanted girls under the age of five, and there were plenty of those to go around.
Orphans over thirteen years of age were employed by the neighboring Dodson ranch. Mr. and Mrs. Dodson were very charitable and provided a variety of jobs with good pay.
One afternoon Emma was mucking out the stables and noticed Cole riding a bay off in the distance. She had never seen anyone ride bareback before. The horse galloped through whispers of snow as Cole gripped the mane with one hand.
He dismounted seamlessly and led the pony into the stable before catching a glimpse of Emma. She smiled and outreached her hand to introduce herself, but Cole merely tipped his hat while whisking past her, too afraid to utter a word.
The air was thick with anticipation that afternoon. Each November the Dodson family hosted a harvest dance and barbeque; by far the biggest event in the county. Multiple pots of chili simmered over stoked fires, pigs were roasted on spits, and baskets of cornbread overflowed. After supper guest merrily congregated in the barn for dancing. Inside the lantern lit barn a smorgasbord fresh pies, coffee and cider awaited.
Across the dance floor Cole noticed Emma in her periwinkle calico dress sipping cider. Her long auburn hair was adorned with white hawthorn blossoms from the Dodson’s greenhouse.
Cole crossed the dance floor, removed his hat, and swallowed hard before attempting a smooth introduction – a futile attempt. Embarrassed his cheeks flushed as he looked away. With empathy Emma smiled warmly, at which time Cole reached for her hand and led her to the dance floor.
They danced until rays of sunlight cascaded through the barn doors.
As months passed Cole and Emma fell deeply in love. Emma dreamed of returning to her family homestead once she turned 18. Cole was so captivated by her he would do anything to make that dream come true.
At age 17 the lanky lad with no last name enlisted with The Pony Express. He was an ideal candidate for the express. Due to the high risk orphans were preferred; especially orphans who were lightweight and wiry.
Emma was terrified and pleaded with Cole not to go. He hugged her tight, kissed her good-bye and promised he would return before the next harvest dance.
After stammering through The Pony Express oath he was issued a revolver, water canteen, and a Bible. With a sobering dose of fear he threw the mail pouch over the saddle, mounted his horse and rode west.
The seventy-five mile relays were brutal. At each post he had two minutes to dismount, transfer the mail pouch to a fresh horse, and ride out. It paid well - but not without risk.
Beneath a lead grey October sky Cole was ambushed by Indians. With an arrow lodged in his in his back he still managed to outrun them and complete his relay. Muddied and bloodied he arrived to the station and fell to the ground. He lost so much blood even his bible was scarlet.
Back home Emma stood alone on the frozen bank of Dodson Creek. The harvest dance had come and gone leaving her in a wake of loss. As she reached for her handkerchief she heard someone whisper her name. She turned to see Cole approaching - bandaged and bruised. With tears of relief she smiled before running to him.
They married in the spring of 1861 – when the hawthorns were in bloom.
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