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Memoir Nonfiction Prose

A Team of Mules

“a mule can only do what a mule can do. And that’s enough.”

By Gregory Stephens

My grandad’s father John Speed Stephens Jr. was the son of an Irish immigrant, and as a fourteen-year-old, he became the pioneer who planted the Stephens in Indian territory, pre-Oklahoma. This is his story, passed on by my father, born in Palmer, Oklahoma. Many of the details were told to him by his Uncle Dennis, who lived to 101 years in Sulphur, Oklahoma.

Back in Pineville Missouri, the Irish wife of that Irish immigrant, John Speed Stephens Sr., up and died. When John Speed Sr. married an American woman, his son could not abide her. His old man told the boy that he either had to accept his new mother-in-law, or he could set off for the territory. In the latter case, he would be allowed to hitch up the mules to the wagon and leave. It was a gentleman’s agreement. So John Speed Jr., at age fourteen, drove two mules and a wagon down through De Queen Arkansas and down into Indian Territory.

John Speed Jr. worked the railroad between Texas and Indian territory. His wife Marietta Leemaster was a maid for the engineer’s wife. John Speed came to be in charge of more than thirty men, their mules and equipment. He was a successful businessman, but there is a tragedy at the heart of his story: he lost his oldest son Lawrence during a typhoid epidemic in Alvin, Texas. He had taken the family there to bale coastal hay and ship it back to farmers and ranchers in Oklahoma. When Lawrence suddenly passed, he gave up his business, moving the family back to Oklahoma, where they settled on Cochran Creek in Murray County.

There John Speed ran a grocery store. My dad “Bo” used to sit in there and watch the runnings. His father Floyd sat Bo and his sister Dorothy on a box in this country store and forbade them to speak. The store smelt of sorghum, the sweet sticky livestock feed in burlap sacks, on which the kids rested their feet below their wooden box.

Forbidden to ask questions, the brother and sister, ages three and four, sat and watched, there in the semi-darkness, all day long. Dorothy was eleven months older than Bo, and they were like twins. They could hear the clanging of their father Floyd’s blacksmith shop just down the street. Floyd’s wife must have been sick that day, so he brought the kids into town. At lunch, he passed by in his leather apron to bring them part of his sandwich.

John Speed never spoke to the children nor gave them a bite to eat, not even a nibble of his candy, all day. Brother Bo and sister Dorothy were both fascinated and terrified. John Speed kept a six-shooter in the store, just in case. That was his “insurance,” the country folk said. Everyone knew he had it, and no one dared cross him.

When he was not dealing with customers, John Speed talked to his right-hand man, “Uncle” Tom Barker, a former schoolteacher who had volunteered to serve as a witness when John Speed Stephens came down from Indian territory into Texas to marry his fiancée, Marietta Leemaster. Tom followed the younger man back north across the Red River, and the two men were never separated until death. Tom would read the newspapers to John Speed, who kept a chaw in his cheek and spat into a dented tin cup.

There had to have been a sense of diminished expectations of returning to life in a tiny town in Oklahoma, after the death of Lawrence. The loss of his son, and a bigger business, must have haunted him. But if John Speed carried a certain sense of tragedy and regret to his grave, he was well-liked and respected. A man who could supervise 30 men and their mules, then run a community grocery store, had to have people skills. Dad describes him as uneducated, but intelligent. John Speed was a straight-talker: a man who got to the point, whose word was law. He ruled his stretch of Cochran Creek.

One of John Speed’s sayings from railroad days was “a mule can only do what a mule can do. And that’s enough.” He would not abide his men mistreating their mules. He understood that people and creatures operate within natural limits, and we should not expect them to jump their traces. John Speed seems to have had some incipient conception of animal rights—gleaned from experience, not books, for this pioneer was illiterate.

Reflecting on the generations of Stephens men leads me to understand how some familial scripts repeat themselves. Stephens men have a history of setting off on their own. My son Samuel reacted to my second marriage like John Speed Jr. reacted to his father’s remarriage. Both young men went away: John Speed at age 14, Samuel at 12. In this cycle, I am a version of John Speed Sr., leaving behind the ancestral homeland, and losing my son in the process.

Dad says he is more like his mother’s family, the Robbs. So Samuel, whose personality is more like his mom than his dad, followed a script that is similar to my father’s. As a youth, Samuel was coached to see his father’s house as a prison. Following a family script, he turned his back on the father and walked away. But then he found a new faith (Islam). This may seem off-script in his father’s family. However, now this faith has led him homeward, towards his father’s house in Missouri, near where the family saga began.

In the present, father and son, rooted in a family of meat-eaters who slaughtered their own beef, and killed chickens with their bare hands, are committed vegetarians. We compare notes about proscriptions against mistreating animals in the Bible and in the Qu’ran and understand that we are walking in the footsteps of John Speed Stephens.      


Gregory Stephens is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez. He was born in Ada, Oklahoma, went to high school in Abilene, Texas, and was an award-winning journalist in Laredo and an award-winning songwriter in Austin during the 1980s. His book, Three Birds Sing a New Song: A Puerto Rican Trilogy about Dystopia, Precarity, and Resistance, was published by Intermezzo in 2019.

Image: By the author.