Note: I have placed this story in historical fiction because it is not a western. I am keeping the historical content as true as possible for the story.
It was the summer of 1859 and she stepped off the train in Sacramento, California after a two week trip from her home town of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. After two weeks going across the wide open country on a train, the young woman looked forward to her new life on the west coast.
She wore full length blue dress and white coat. Her striking red hair neatly placed up atop her head under the elegant white hat accented with blue satin. In one hand she held a case, not just any case but a doctor's case and in the other she held a small purse that matched the ensemble. She came a life leisure and luxury. Her father was a physician and she could have taken her inheritance and married any young professional she wished.
Instead, she wanted to follow in her dear departed father's footsteps and used her inheritance to attend the Women's Medical School in her home state. Armed with her degree and her naïve grandeur she set off for her first adventure…To take a job as a doctor in the Sacramento Hospital.
Perhaps it was her name? She wasn't named Francine but rather Frankie. Frankie Peterman, MD. She stood before the hospital administrator whom had offered her the job via correspondence.
He sat behind his desk with most surprised look upon his chubby face. His forehead wrinkled along with his oversize nose. He didn't have much hair, it was kept short, receding and turning gray. Eyeglasses were perched upon his clean shaven face. He wore the dress of the day, a white shirt and a black vest. His sleeves rolled up in an attempt to keep cool in the California heat.
"You're a woman!" he gasped.
"Yes," she replied. "Is there a problem with that?"
He confessed, "I thought you were a man."
"Sorry to disappoint you," she retorted. "I assumed you knew otherwise. Does this affect my employment?"
"Of course it does," he snorted. "I can't hire a woman."
"Why not?" she asked perturbed.
He sounded a bit meek as he replied, "Women are more feeble minded. I need a male doctor in these parts. It's rough out here."
She crossed her arms at the insult, "Feeble minded? I graduated first of my class. I can assure you a woman doctor is just as good as a man."
He disagreed, "You make good nurses and midwives but not doctors."
Her mouth dropped at the reply, "I was trained under one of the greatest male doctors on the east cost and he never said such an ignorant thing."
He laughed, "Who was that, miss?"
"My father, Dr. Charles Peterman."
He shrugged, "You can come to work as a nurse in the hospital."
Perturbed her bright green eyes narrowed, all lady like manners had left her consciousness as she shouted the words, "Take your job and shove it." She picked up her medical bag, turned swiftly and walked out the door.
He grumbled, "Damn woman…What was she thinking?"
Sacramento was not turning out to be the kind, welcome and warm place that Frankie had imagined. Instead it was dirty, loud and a gang of thieves resided within the city limits. Her belongings were stolen, trunks and all, leaving her with nothing but the clothes on her back, a hundred dollars in her purse and a doctors' bag. What else could possibly go wrong? That question was soon answered when a gang of drunk men attempted to harass her outside of saloon. One gruff looking intoxicated man grabbed her by the arm and attempted to forcibly kiss and grope her.
She managed to get away but not without enduring some bruises and a strained wrist. Unarmed and unescorted she was essentially a sitting duck to gawked at, harassed, groped and the very real possibility of physical harm was evident.
She walked into the general store the next morning to find some clothing. All they had available was men's clothing, for the seamstress was not in town and would not be for another week. Running low on funds, no job and no possessions, she purchased the clothing and stood before the mirror in her hotel room and looked upon herself.
The clothing hung from her frame, she was wirily looking in the oversize trousers and shirt. She put on the vest and cocked her head to the side as she pondered what to do. She could try to go back to her home state and try for a position in a hospital or she could try to make it out west.
"I should open my own practice," she told herself. "Where would I get the money for that?" she huffed and threw her arms up. Sitting on the bed her eyes landed on the weekly issue of the local paper. On the front page on the bottom left hand corner was a advertisement.
She read it aloud, "Wanted, young boys who are expert riders and not afraid of danger. Good pay, Orphans preferred. Apply at the local Pony Express office."
He glanced at herself in the mirror, "Young boys?" She pulled her hair back, "I could pass as a young boy. I'm an orphan. I'm not afraid of danger. Wonder how well it pays?"
The next morning, after cutting her long locks short, Dr. Peterman walked into the local Pony Express office. Her eyes settled on the youthful faces surrounding her. Many of the boys were no more than 14 years old. They were thin, some lanky and many petit is size. She approached the man sitting behind the desk. He was an older man, wore wire rim glasses, balding head and dressed more like a bank teller.
He looked up at her, "Help ya, son?"
She lowered her voice slightly, "I'm here for the job that was in the paper?"
"Messenger?" the man asked.
She nodded, "Yes sir."
"You know how to read and write?" asked he.
"I went to school. I know how to read and write. Know math too."
"Have any kin?" he asked.
She shook her head, "My father died last year. My mother died a few years before."
"You know how to ride?"
She proclaimed, "I went to school for horsemanship. I can cantor, jump, gallop like the best."
He placed the contract before her, "Just sign."
She started to read the contract for anything suspicious.
He sat back and looked upon her reading for most of the boys merely signed an X or could barely write their name. He scratched his head in wonderment.
"You're actually gonna read it?" asked he.
"Well, of course," she replied. She applied her signature and handed him the paper back.
"Frankie Peterman," he read off the name, noted it in a book and then counted one hundred dollars in advanced pay before her. "Pay is in advanced, one hundred dollars a month. You will stationed out of Castle Rock. Any questions?"
She placed the money in her pocket, "Just when do I start?"
"You head out to Castle Rock today," he instructed.
Somewhere between Sacramento and Salt Lake City lay the small town of Castle Rock. The first thing she noted was the town lacked any doctor. The Pony Express relay station and of the Sherriff's office were not far apart and the town in general was rather small. Local cattle ranchers surrounded the area and to the east were dangerous tribal Indian grounds. The town had a single school house and a farrier. The farrier served as the town veterinarian, the black smith as well as the closet thing to a doctor they had. The local barber doubled as a dentist and general store carried cloth but only men's clothing.
The town had a saloon and a hotel which also served as a brothel. The merchant section was selective and seemed to cater more towards gambling, drinking and tobacco use.
The first thing she was instructed to do was get a gun. She was issued a Navy Colt model 1851. A black powder weapon with a forty caliber ball. Her father taught her to fire a weapon prior to his death and for the first time she wished she had not sold his gun. For her father's gun was much easier to handle and had ivory grips.
There she was, dressed as a teenage boy, wearing a over size floppy hate, wearing a six shooter and she was trained to be a doctor. Whenever someone queried about her doctor's bag she made the excuse that it belonged to her late father and she kept it in memory. She couldn't say she was a doctor for the first thing any thinking person would ask is why would a doctor being riding as a messenger for the Pony Express. She simply had to keep up the ruse.
She was given a bunk in the bunkhouse and a small locker to keep her belongings. Most of the messengers were mere children, around fourteen years old. There were a few that were seventeen and eighteen but most were fifteen or younger. As young as twelve years old. Mere boys who were hired for being light in weight, good on a horse and expendable.
One of the boys that was on the bunk above her was named Jessie Kidd. He was fourteen years old, rounded face, couldn't even shave. Dirty blond hair that flopped over his eyes for he was need of a hair cut.
Most called him by last name, Kidd but Frankie was on first name relations with him. He was just so young and doing such a hard job just to survive. He pulled a her heart.
"Frankie, how do you spell surgery?" asked the boy.
"Surgery?" asked Frankie. "Who's having surgery?"
"I'm sending money for my mother's surgery. She needs to have a cyst removed. I writing hoping her surgery goes well. How you spell it?"
"S-U-R-G-E-R-Y," replied Frankie. "Where's she having it done?"
"Salt Lake City," the boy replied.
Frankie muttered, "I could that here."
"What?" asked the boy.
"Jessie, I have removed cyst before. I could do it."
"Oh," he shrugged. "But my mother has an actual doctor."
She bit her tongue, "I see," she miffed.
Jessie stated, "You're really good at spelling, Frankie. I bet you're smart enough to go to college someday."
She muttered, "Yeah…Someday."
"That what you saving your money for?" asked the boy.
She agreed, "Yeah. That's it." She was still rather perturbed that after years of schooling she could only get high paying job if she disguised herself as a teenage boy.
The other boys started the file into the bunkhouse for it was close to dinner time. They were a noisy lot, many orphans and many illiterate which was ironic since they delivered the mail. The oldest boy was eighteen, Jimmy Hicks. He seemed to be the leader of the group. He favored a tan coat that wore just about everywhere. A black wide rimmed hat and brown trousers. He well groomed compared to many of the boys with short brown hair and would shave daily.
The oldest next to Jimmy was Henry, a bright young man about seventeen years old. His hair was pitch black and his eyes dark brown. His skin was a bit browner than most and he seemed to have some ethnic blood in him. Henry dressed like many of the boys, brown trousers, suspenders and tan work shirt. He would always remove his big brown floppy hat upon entering the bunkhouse for dinner.
Two fifteen year old identical twin boys filed in next, Barney and Bart Wilson. Local boys who recently lost their mother. No father to speak off and finding themselves very much alone but still holding onto one another.
The youngest of the troop was only thirteen, Teddy Warner. Blond haired boy with bright blue eyes and a hunger for adventure. He seemed to want to grow up much faster than other boys his age.
The cook for the house was a widow named Hannah Tobin. Her husband recently died of infection after stepping on a rusty nail. Lockjaw was nothing to laugh at upon seeing it's deadly toll. Hannah was lovely widow with long dirty blonde hair, hazel eyes and to Frankie's estimate should be able to have any man she found desirable.
The master of the Pony Express station was a small framed old man whose job was to keep things organized and flowing smoothly. Relaying on Jimmy Hicks to act as an assistant for the hard manual work. He was strictly a numbers man, Alfred Howard.
The boys all gathered around the table in the center of the house as Hannah began to serve each of them their share of food. Everything was provided by the Pony Express. Food, a bunk and a side arm. The basic needs for many orphans.
Frankie picked at her food as she ate with the boys. She had been thinking about finding a place to set up some of her equipment that she had left and maybe run some experiments for she had an idea on how to deal with snake bites.
"Mr. Howard?" asked Frankie.
He pushed his glasses up his nose and looked upon her, "Yes?"
"I was wondering…Um, I have an idea on how to cure a snake bite but I need a horse and a place to set some equipment."
He pondered the idea, "How do you cure a snake bite?"
She explained her theory, "Well, if I can get some actual venom from a rattler and dilute it down to a non lethal does, I could inject that into a horse and let the horse's immune response create anti-bodies which I would then harvest from the blood and purify."
"How would you do all that?" he asked a bit stumped.
"I just said how I would do it," she told him. "I'm an amateur biologist in my spare time."
Hannah stood in judgment, "If you could come up with a cure for snake bite you would be one of them fancy, big city, chemist."
"Chemistry does play a role in what I want to do," she agreed. "I know we have that one lame horse that you guys are gonna put down. Why not let me have her for the experiment? If this works it could save hundred of lives."
He grimaced as he pondered if he should let this young boy start doing experiments on a lame horse that needed to be destroyed, "If you're willing to pay for her feed then you can have her."
"Thank you," agreed Frankie. "Um, one other thing."
He let out a sigh, "What would that be?"
"A spare room to run my experiment in," suggested Frankie.
Hannah knew the only spare room was in the keeper's house next to the bunk house. She gave a look upon the young rider trying to figure her out. For Frankie was very different from the other boys. Frankie was well educated and well mannered to a point where it was obvious Frankie had a privileged upbringing.
"I'll let you use the spare room," she conceded. "If you find a cure you better remember to thank us for helping you."
"I will," agreed Frankie.
Frankie's first week in town had been slow. She had completed her training and was awaiting her turn for her ride. In the mean time she decided to roam the town upon setting up her small lab.
As she browsed about the general store she rounded a table corner and accidentally bumped into the town sheriff, Raymond Cain. Sheriff Ray Cain was the talk of the town. Ruggedly handsome dark haired man with a square jaw, two days growth of beard and sported a red button down shirt with brown trouser. His badge shined brightly over the left breast.
"Excuse me, sir," he stated to Frankie as he too was browsing the table.
She held her breath, fearing he would see right through her disguise. But he didn't seem to notice anything different about her. She simply gave a nod back.
"My fault, sir," she replied in a deep voice.
Jessie came bursting into the door of the shop holding his hand. The boy screamed in pain calling for Frankie to help.
"Frankie, my finger," he hovered over the hand, holding it close to him.
She tried to calm her bunkmate, "Easy, Jessie. What happened to your finger?"
"I was putting the saddle on the mare and she reeled back with finger stuck under the strap. Look!"
She looked down at an obvious dislocation of the index finger. She gently held him by his wrist and winced to herself for the finger was pushed back in the most unnatural position.
"It's okay, Jessie…I know how to fix it," she assured him. "I need to give you some medicine to relax you enough to pop it back in. I have some in my bag back at the house."
The boy nodded feeling safer in Frankie's hands than the farrier's. The boy feared what the farrier would have done to him. Images of his hand being amputated ran through his head.
"You can fix it without hurting me?" asked he.
"You won't feel a thing," she assured him. She led him out the door and found Hannah was looking for where Jessie had run off too.
"Jessie," she scolded, "don't run away like that."
"I needed to get Frankie," he replied.
Frankie assured them both, "It's okay…I've fixed many dislocations before. I need my bag." She led them to the small lab she set up in the backroom of the keeper's house next to the bunkhouse.
She sat Jessie on a chair and had Hannah hold a small amount of ether over the boys mouth. He was soon fast asleep and Frankie took his finger and pulled it back into place with much grace and ease.
"Okay, let him come around," she instructed as she started to tie his two fingers together for a brace.
Jessie's eyes fluttered open, "Is it over?" he muttered.
"Over," stated Frankie as she finished up. "I got the joint back in place and tied your fingers to together to brace it so it won't pop out again. Let it heal a few weeks."
He looked down at his hand, neatly tied and finger back in place. He grinned looking back at her.
"I never felt a thing," he told her amazed.
Hannah explained, "Of course you didn't, Jessie. You were asleep. Frankie put that finger back in two second." She asked her, "Done this before, have you?"
Frankie agreed, "I studied under my father in his practice."
"You're father was a doctor?" asked Jessie.
She nodded, "Yes, he was."
Jessie asked, "Why didn't you become one? You're good at it."
Frankie didn't know whether to laugh or cry, "I did attend some medical school," was all she would reveal.
"Not enough money?" asked the boy.
She simply gave a nod, "Could say that."
"Why don't you go rest on your bunk for a while and let the medication wear off?" instructed Frankie.
"I suppose," replied Jessie. He got up and wondered, slightly off balance towards the bunkhouse.
Hannah took the time to query Frankie more as she helped her clean up her equipment.
"Somehow, I don't think money was the issue in medical school, Frankie," stated Hannah.
Frankie shrugged, "It's always an issue."
"You went through medical school, didn't you?" asked Hannah.
She nodded, "Yeah."
"So, why are you not working as a doctor, Dr. Peterman?"
Frankie replied, "No one would hire me as a doctor."
Hannah knew she was getting to the truth, "Why? You're a terrific doctor."
"Um…" she thought for a reason. "Looks…I don't look the part."
"Is that why you dressed up like a boy and snuck in here?" asked Hannah.
Frankie knew she was busted, "You know?"
"Those boys may not know, but I can tell," she admitted. "No one would hire you?"
Frankie admitted, "I graduated from a women's medical school, trained under my father and was offered a job in Sacramento. When I got there the hospital administrator said women were to feeble minded to be doctors and I could work as a nurse. I told him to shove it and left. Then, all my belongings were stolen and I was nearly attacked by a gang of men. Ended up dressing like this because I had no other clothing to wear but found it was safer for me and I got hired. You gonna tell Mr. Howard?"
Hannah shook her head, "No, I won't say anything. Too feeble minded? Feeble minded? That pig! Feeble minded?" She then realized Frankie's plight could just as well be her own. "Feeble minded? Seriously? This town needs a doctor and you are it. Feeble minded? Unbelievable!"
"You can't tell anyone I'm a doctor," stated Frankie.
"Why?" asked Hannah.
"Then they will know and no one will let me touch them," explained Frankie. "No one can know."
Hannah challenged her, "You prove to this town that you're a doctor and they won't care. They will trust you."
"They won't speak to me," she feared.
Hannah argued, "You're a doctor. Act like one and they will trust you. Look at how Jessie went running to you. You're doctor and deep down inside he knew the person to go to for help. Trust me, they will trust you."