A Clear Title

IT was a ripe autumn day in southern Kansas. Signs of expiring life were on all the land. The gently rolling prairie was a mass of browns, encircled by a hazy horizon. The pervading spirit was one of dreamy quietude. The afternoon sun shone coppery through dust and smoke, its brightness dimmed, but its heat insistent. Insects droned and hummed in the hedges, out of time and tune. At intervals, a meadow lark broke the drowsy monotone with his clear call, or a partridge whistled from a corner of the fence. Sometimes a grasshopper fluttered above the dry grass, only to fold his wings for aimless descent. The air was still, but vagrant winds, at times, eddied across the fields and shook the dry pennants of the corn.

In his own dooryard, under the shade of a cottonwood, tilted back against the bole of the tree, his feet hooked in the rounds of his chair, sat a man of about forty years of age. His hair was unkempt, and stood about on his head like a loosely bound bundle of spikes. His coarse blue shirt was open at the throat, but a thick beard concealed his breast. His overalls hid their brevity in a pair of heavy boots. The union of trousers and shirt was preserved by two strips of ticking, which ran over his shoulders and crossed in the middle of his back. The four points of attachment were significant. There was one brass button in front, — the store button, — which shared its responsibility with a bone button, a domestic find; behind, the suspenders were secured by well-seasoned twigs, that told of a wife’s accumulating duties in which something must be left undone, and of man’s ingenuity in the extremity of necessity.

Jim Gooch was thinking intently. The fact was manifest in the motions of his mandibles, which were as much an index to his mood as a dog’s tail is to the canine mind. He was chewing vigorously, this afternoon, — now slowly, now fast, — as he weighed propositions carefully, or finally disposed of some halfformed plan. His eyes were directed toward a leg of his chair which he was pecking with a large penknife, the action being an additional accompaniment and measure of his thoughts.

His reveries were broken by a feminine voice from the house : “Jim, I wish ye ’d go and put up the bars where ye druv in the field this mornin’ ! I’m afraid old Rose ’ll git in the corn.’’

“ Wall,” said Jim.

A full quarter of an hour passed, when the request was repeated, but with more emphasis: “ Jim, ye’d better go and fix up them bars. If old Rose gits in the corn, she ’ll founder ! ”

Jim arose, a little nettled by the interruption of his absorbing reflections, and started to comply with the wifely mandate. He was none too soon. A meek-eyed cow, one of the mainstays of the family, had been browsing about the yard all day without discovering her opportunity until now. She first gazed at the gap with incredulity, but as soon as she comprehended the evidence of her eyes she proceeded to act. She was headed off by Jim, who replaced a couple of bars carelessly, and finished his work by throwing the top bar into place. The cow stood by, regarding the work with interest. She withdrew a step or two when he threw a stone at her, then faced about and watched his receding form disappear around the house. As soon as he was out of sight, “ old Rose ” walked straight to the fence with confidence, inserted her head and shoulders between the upper bars, and was preparing to carry both her point and the fence, when she was again thwarted, and this time effectively. Jim’s wife came running out, and threw a well-aimed club that rebounded from the cow’s broad side and caused her to retreat, shaking her head furiously with disappointment. Then the woman went to work, and carefully put the bars in place.

When Jim’s wife got back to the house, she dropped into a chair to rest. She took the corner of her apron and wiped the sweat from her brow, and brushed back her hair with long, sweeping motions. She sighed deeply, recalling the many things yet to do.

She was a pitiful picture as she sat there, that afternoon. Her figure was warped and bent with toil. Her hands were calloused and knotted, and the angles of her joints were displayed sharply through her loosely fitting dress. Her feet were bare and broad as a man’s, and the flapping of her dress, as a breeze stole in at the door, revealed swollen ankles and distended veins. Her face was tanned and leathery, and upon it time and toil had graven lines. Her cheeks were pinched, and a look of hopelessness had long resided in her eyes. The corners of her mouth had a weary droop, as if they had never been relaxed in a smile. Her hair had become thin, and was drawn into a small, tight knot on the back of her head.

There was rebellion in her heart, and bitterness welled up from its very depths. She was weary of everything and everybody. She was weary of life and all it contained. Fatigue of body had brought fatigue of mind and soul. Where was it all to end ? Must she go on and on forever, and for what ? She felt a vague, wild desire to escape from all that environed her ; to go back to youth and hope and joy, and begin anew the journey of life upon another road.

As she sat and thought, her head heavy upon her hand, her memory went back to the time, fifteen years ago, when, as a bride and proud of Jim, she had left the little Missouri town for a home in Kansas. There was youth in their veins then, and roseate hope ran on ahead. They had rented, the first year. Grasshoppers came and swept their fields. And then appeared in Jim the first symptoms of the malady of unrest that was to become chronic. They began a series of wanderings that seemed to have no end. She wanted to stay in Kansas, with the hope of better luck next year. Jim saw brighter prospects in Arkansas. But there miasma was prevalent, and Jim’s liability to swamp fevers drove them north again. He thought he would give Kansas another trial. They prospered here a year or two, but hot winds came and shriveled up the corn. Then Jim met with some glowing circulars devoted to the praise of western Nebraska, and once more they took the road. It was too dry in Nebraska, and the wheat fields of Dakota became bright with possibilities ; but in Dakota the blizzards were too fierce and the changes too sudden.

In one sense Jim was not lazy or lacking in ambition, but he was always seeing better things just ahead. He was a victim of an era of land speculation of which the government was chief promoter. With lands for the asking, there was an embarrassment of riches. Always looking for the best, Jim lost the good that lay at hand. “ Free lands and free homes ” was an enticing cry that concealed all the hard conditions of success, and held only golden promise. The spirit of the times was against the cultivation of economy and thrift. Did the settler meet with obstacles ? He moved, and tried to pass around them. Did grasshoppers come ? There were places where grasshoppers did not come, and he moved. Was there drought one year ? There were places where it rained, and he moved. Did hot winds stifle his fields ? There were places which hot winds did not visit, and he moved. The “ boomer ” spent more time and energy in looking for a place of ideal conditions than he would have needed to build a house and barn and tend a year’s crop. This roving disposition grew from day to day, until finally it rebelled at any anchorage.

Jim’s return trip from the north was broken by a season or two in Nebraska and a trial of northern Kansas, and now, after several years, they had drifted into their present location. What they managed to accumulate in their stay at any one place was dissipated in the next move. Jim called it hard luck. “Seems like ye can’t depend on nothin’! ” he would say sometimes ; but he continued to see visions and to dream dreams.

Their location in southern Kansas at this time had been partly accidental. Just a year before, their wanderings had brought them into this particular locality and to this particular place. Jim had come up to the well for water, when he chanced upon the owner, who had just locked the door and was putting the key in his pocket. On being greeted by Jim, he looked at him for a moment, glanced at the wagon in the road, and asked laconically, “ Comin’ or goin’ ? ”

“ I’ve been doin’ a leetle of both, lately,” replied Jim. “ I ain’t goin’ no place in pertic’ler.”

“ Want to run this place ? I’m goin’ back to the states. You can stay here and hold it down, if you ’ll pay taxes. Drier than hell! ”

After consulting his wife Jim accepted the offer, and they moved in.

The year had been favorable, and they had raised corn and wheat, and had pigs to their credit in the pen. But it was beginning over again, and it had been a hard year, especially for Jim’s wife. Her thoughts now ran back over that time. She had been compelled to pause and rest more than she used to do, and she had reached that stage in her domestic economy where many of each day’s tasks went over to the morrow. The children were neglected, and were allowed to run their free course like young bandits. Fortunately for Jim, the oldest was a boy, and had reached an age where he could be of some assistance to him. Unfortunately for her, the others had come into their lives much later, along with other misfortunes. The youngest of the five children were twins, and were just old enough now to crawl about the house, crying out their wants with exasperating persistency, or getting under their mother’s feet to clog her steps.

In her present retrospection, Jim’s wife included these innocents in the burdens that exhausted her strength, and as new fetters to bind her to her hard conditions. The laughter of the other children outside at this moment brought no music to her ears. She was tired of them all!

The last straw to her burden had been added lately, when Jim gave indications of having another attack of his old disease. Stories of a new Eldorado to the south were floating about, and he was growing restless. He had said nothing as yet, but from long experience she had learned to tell the symptoms. The first manifestation was a growing carelessness about the farm’s management. Panels of fence lost a rail ; gates made a show of trying, like a drunken man, to stand erect ; barn doors tugged at a single hinge, like a rebellious child trying to break away from its father ; pigs tunneled their way under the fence, and bigger pigs “got fast” in trying to follow them ; even the crops waited to be gathered, and the weeds went to seed everywhere.

Jim’s wife lifted up her head with a sigh as her duties appealed to her again. Her husband’s footsteps had just sounded on the threshold, and as she turned to look at him he spoke : “ I’m jest goin’ to take a little run down into the Territory fer a day or two, — me and some others,” and he named several acquaintances of two or three miles around.

She replied immediately, with a note of protest : “Jim, what are ye goin’ fer?”

His hand was stayed on the coat he was taking down from the wall, and he looked at her in mute surprise. “ What’s the use of yer goin’, Jim ? ”

“ What’s the use ? ”

“ Yes.”

He was puzzled. There was every reason for his going, it had seemed to him ; but his thoughts were slow, and he could not put them into words. He was relieved by a voice from the road admonishing him to hasten. He lifted the coat from its nail, and said half apologetically, “ We ’re jest goin’ down to look at some land.”

“ Jim,” she said appealingly, “ why can’t we stay here ? We’ve raised good crops and — I don’t want to move any more. It’s so wearin’ ! ” She buried her face in her hands and sobbed.

Jim could only look at her in amazement. It was the first time in all their married life that she had shown such emotion. He remained dumb, trying to get a clear idea of the situation.

She dried her eyes, and went on in a disconnected way: “ Jim, let’s stay here. We’ve moved around so much, and I want a home, — some place to stay. I ’m tired of pickin’ up and makin’ off agin, every time we git settled. I can’t do nothin’, or plan nothin’, or have nothin’. I git so tired at times, and have hard feelin’s ’ginst you and ever’body. I ain’t never had any friends nor nobody I could talk to, — never through the whole long day ! I don’t want much, and it ain’t much I’m askin’. I jest want a home where I can git used to things and they can git used to me, so’s I ’ll like ’em and be content ! ” Her voice choked, but, recovering herself, she exclaimed : “If ever we do move agin, I want to go back to Mizzoura ! I want to see the folks once more ! ” She spoke the last words hurriedly.

Jim put on his coat with hesitation, adjusting it with more care than usual, as he tried, in the pause that ensued, to find words to answer her.

“ Yes, but ye don’t understand ! ” he exclaimed at last, and walked sullenly out of the door. Jim and his comrades constituted but one of many small bands that were making their way to Indian Territory from all parts of Kansas and the West. Oklahoma had not yet been opened to settlement, — Congress had not even passed upon the proposition, — but the professional boomers anticipated it, and were giving the government no end of trouble. The federal authorities were compelled to employ the military to prevent the country from being overrun. But opposition only served to whet desire and make the forbidden land more enchanted. Every fresh incursion, every brush with the troops, was heralded in the press, and touched responsive chords in adventurous breasts throughout the land. Oklahoma became glorified. Rumors of places rich in minerals and precious ores ran abroad, and the most exaggerated accounts received prompt and willing credence.

During the fall and winter the lawless expeditions multiplied, and some of them did not end without bloody encounters with the government’s armed forces. Jim Gooch and his companions were caught by the soldiers, bound to their horses, led out of the Territory, and thrown into jail ; but they were soon released through a technicality, and the impunity gave them fresh encouragement. A main purpose of these incursions was to get acquainted with the country and to pick out claims in anticipation of the settlement.

Jim did his full share of exploration, and finally selected a quarter section about ten miles from the northern boundary, and set up his stakes. He was lavish in his praise of it to his wife.

“ The purtiest rollin’ ground, a patch of woods and a spring ! By them woods is jest the place fer a house ! ”

At another time, when Jim fairly glowed in speaking of its advantages, she ventured to ask: “ But ain’t this as good here ? What’s the difference ? ”

“ Why — why, it rains down there, fer one thing, — it does, jest natchelly ! ” The implied advantage over Kansas might have had weight, had Jim been sure of his facts.

Not long after this Jim came home in silent mood. He was restless, and wandered about the house in spells of abstraction. His wife asked no questions ; little by little, however, Jim gave out his secret. On his last visit to his claim he had made a startling discovery. His stakes had been pulled up, and in their place were others of a different mark. In a rage, he destroyed the new ones, and planted his own again.

The excitement over Oklahoma increased through the fall and winter. Occasional reports in the newspapers grew into daily ones with “ scare heads.” Boomers began to arrive on the border by tens and hundreds. Finally, in the early spring, the efforts of the Western statesmen at Washington found expression in a rider to an appropriation bill that sanctioned an early opening of the lands to settlement through a proclamation by the President. To be specific, the time was fixed by the President at noon of April 22, 1889.

The receipt of the news electrified the whole border. The camps of the boomers were given over to rejoicing, and men danced and behaved with the glad abandon of children. The fever spread through adjoining states, and men lost their reason. Many, in a condition esteemed “ well to do,” disposed of their possessions at a sacrifice, to seek something, they knew not what, in a country they knew not of. Each man’s example decided his neighbor, and the fever became a contagion. All calm consideration was lost. Few in that motley crowd on the way to Oklahoma pursued the probabilities of their action to the end. Their reflections stopped, as they were commanded to do, — on the border. Farther they did not look. After the settlement, what ? Was not the soil common earth ? Were not the skies and the air like those they had known ? And did not earth and air and sky exact the same sweat of the brow, the same toiling through the heat of the day ? Were there not to be the same accidents of fortune, the same play with chance, the same possibilities for good or ill ? Nobody seemed to ask these questions ; and if any one had asked them, this would have been the answer: “Well, what is everybody going for, then? ”

The news of the proclamation had reached Jim one morning, after a hard night’s ride from the Territory to escape from the troops. He immediately set out for home, and began to collect all his portable possessions. What could not be carried away he sold, and he did not haggle over the price. There was no stopping Jim now ; the fever was in the blood. His wife said no more, — the automaton was at work again. She obeyed Jim’s instructions like a child, but with perfect stolidity. The old covered wagon that had seen so much service was run out once more and converted into a traveling habitation. Jim went to the nearest town and bought new canvas for the top. Within and along the sides of the wagon bed he arranged boxes to hold provisions and household utensils. These boxes were placed end to end, so that when the lids were closed and blankets thrown over them they served as a bed. The stove would have taken up too much room in the wagon, so Jim built an extension to the bottom of the bed in the rear to support it. The pipe was run out of a hole in the canvas ; with fire up, it belched out smoke in a very formidable way, and marked the landscape with a dark trail out of all proportion to its importance.

Jim and his family were on the road once more, and he was happy. He was like a sailor who had long been ashore, and was once more beyond the sight of land. He gloried in the freedom and freshness of the morning. The children were in full sympathy. The three older ones refused to ride, but played along behind, now and then running races to “catch up.” The dog celebrated by jumping at the horses’ heads and barking, or making side excursions into the fields in wide, sweeping circles.

Before us stretches a grass-covered land, where absence of hills and trees gives an impression of boundless expanse. It runs away to meet the horizon in long undulation. The winds sweep upon it, and cap its billows with the white of bending grasses. Here and there shadows of clouds glide along like swift birds on motionless pinions. As we look, a distant white speck appears on the green surface, pauses a moment and dips into a trough of prairie, like a gull riding a wave. A few moments pass, and again it appears, rising to the crest of a nearer elevation. It remains in sight longer this time, and we make out its character. It is a “ schooner ” of the prairies, traversing the land as a bark sails the sea. Let us be patient and await its approach. It does not cover distances with sevenleague boots ; it measures off every inch of every mile. What the camel is to the desert, or the sailing vessel is to the watery leagues, the white-covered prairie schooner was to the Western lands. Mean and trivial it may appear now, when the shriek of the whistle echoes across the fields and the rushing train roars by, but its place in history is secure. It threads the story of our country’s life, and fills many a page with romance and tragedy. About it cling the memories of the pioneer who freighted it with his fortunes and his hopes. It tells of patient journeys full of hardships, of swollen streams that gave no warning, of maddening thirst, of parched plains, of bleaching bones on burning sands, of fierce encounters with savage men, of murdered father beside the embers of his fire, of captive child about whose fate no word has ever come. But how crude and primitive, after all, it seems, as it surmounts that knoll, looking for all the world like a Quaker bonnet on wheels ! Now watch it as it begins to descend. Slowly it dips, like the nodding head of a drowsy man, — lower and lower ; then down it plunges, following clanking chains and thumping singletrees. It lumbers at the foot ; the traces pull taut ; it rights itself, and continues on its slow and toilsome way.

There was little need for so much haste on Jim’s part. There was to be a whole month of waiting, and within three days he was on the border. All the boomers were halted at the line, and went into camp. The principal rendezvous was at Arkansas City, but other towns in southern Kansas had their full quota. The number of white - covered wagons increased with each day, until they seemed to be moving toward the towns in unbroken processions.

As the crowd grew, the trouble of the government officials increased. Incursions became more frequent and bolder. Jim stole in with the rest, from time to time, nursing his hopes and guarding his rights. His fears of the unknown rival had almost abated, until one day he discovered that his stakes had been removed again. Traces of the interloper were fresh, and Jim started to make a round of the place. Coming out of the clump of trees down by the spring was a roan horse with a peculiarly marked face, — a surface of white that looked like a mask. The rider and Jim discovered each other at the same moment, and they both rode forward to demand explanations. Their weapons were ready, and a fight seemed certain. Just then the clear notes of a bugle rang out, and they dashed away to escape from an approaching squad of cavalry.

The two men did not meet again before the opening, but the contest for the claim had begun in earnest. Both made other visits, and each time removed the marks left by the other. And now Jim was observed to do a peculiar thing. Every evening, shortly before dark, he mounted his horse, and rode out of camp and away from the town. When he had got beyond the reach of probable observation, he put spurs to his horse and galloped away. After covering a threemile stretch of level road, he turned the horse’s head and galloped back again. Often he varied the programme by whipping his mount across country, making it jump ditches and other obstructions. To the initiated, Jim’s action was not only reasonable, but wise. He was preparing for the race.

Jim showed his wisdom, too, in the choice of a horse. The run to the claim was to be a long one, in which endurance was to count for more than speed. There was but one four-footed animal in all the Western country that could answer the requirements, — the hardy little mustang. Take a look at him as he stands before you. He is not a thing of beauty, and at present he does not appear to be a thing of life. There is no proud arching of neck or spirited prancing. His head, neck, and back make almost a straight line, and he has thrown his weight on one of his hind feet, while he rests the other on the edge of its hoof. His manner suggests indifference, if not disdain. There is no grace of figure or curve of line. His joints are obtrusive and angular. There is not an ounce of superfluous flesh, but he is muscled like a cat. He is long of head; he is fullnostriled, deep-lunged, and his heart has fibres of steel. His limbs are slender and supple, and never tire. He takes the gallop as the bird takes to wing. And mind his eye. Do not infer from the droop of the lids that he is asleep ; the ball is full, and receives impressions from all points of the compass. When eye and limb and lungs are called into full action, the display is magnificent if well directed, and pyrotechnic if not controlled.

The crowds grew and the excitement increased. There were many times more people than quarter sections, and the consequences that would result were apparent. The honest settler or homeseeker was in the minority. The realestate man and the professional boomer were there in abundance, scheming and planning. There were adventurers, men that prey on other men, and a large array of camp followers of every kind.

It was the evening before the eventful day. There was suppressed excitement all along the border. The long weeks of waiting by the boomers were at an end. To-morrow held their fortunes, whether for good or ill. There was little sleep among the camps, though men sought their blankets to gain strength for the morrow’s struggle. The long line of boomers was marked by twinkling camp fires, before which shadows moved restlessly to and fro.

If anything additional were needed to increase Jim’s anxiety, it was a discovery made early in the evening. He had set out along the line of camps to make a general inspection, and had not proceeded far when he halted suddenly and stood rigid in his tracks. Just in front of the regular road that led into the Territory, and so stationed as to command it, was the roan horse with the mask face. It was not to be an indiscriminate race, then, with a purposeless crowd ; he was to start neck and neck with an opponent for the same goal!

But Jim had no reason to change his plans on this account. He had foreseen the congested condition of the road, and had not cared to take his chances there. He had moved farther west, explored the ground in front of him to make sure there were no pitfalls, and had planned, by riding straight ahead, to strike the road that ran diagonally a half mile distant.

The morning of April 22, 1889, dawned clear and full of the breath of spring. Not a cloud in the sky. A sea of blue above, a sea of green below. A breeze sprang up from the south, bringing hints of flowers and verdure. Before the boomers lay the promised land, baptized in the glories of a perfect day. They looked upon it with feelings akin to reverence. At noon they were to enter in and possess it. The wilderness was behind them, the land of milk and honey before!

But it was a time for action, and not for contemplation. The morning meal was hurriedly prepared and eaten. There was a clattering of utensils as the camps were struck. There were the neighings of horses and the commands of their masters. Excitement found voice, and long-repressed feelings were given vent in calls and yells and banter. Jim had given full instructions to his wife as to how to follow with the wagon, but now, in the hysterical excitement of the hour, he repeated them a dozen times.

The hours passed quickly in the final preparations. It was eleven o’clock. The racers advanced to the front and were ready, — some on horseback, some in wagons, and some afoot.

Fifteen minutes passed.

“ There they come ! ” shouted an excited man. Looking forward, the boomers caught sight of a long line of cavalrymen advancing toward them from out of the Territory. It was the last beating of the bush. Before them sped some fugitives who had stolen in during the night. The latter were greeted with yells of derision, as they approached. The boomers opened ranks, and sent them to the rear with some physical tokens of their condemnation. A hundred yards in front the soldiers halted, and slid from their horses for a brief rest.

It was 11.45. The excitement increased. Drivers and riders shook out their whips and gathered up their reins. Their hearts thumped in their breasts, and their temples throbbed.

“ Say, git out of the way, colonel, or we ’ll run over you ! ” shouted an irrepressible boomer, breaking the silence. His witticism was allowed to pass unnoticed.

It was 11.55. At word of command the troopers sprang into their saddles and dressed their line. A bugler advanced to the front, and took his place beside the commanding officer. The latter glanced calmly at the sun, drew out his watch and held it in his open palm. Upon him were fixed the eyes of the boomers, who were holding their lines in one hand and uplifted lash in the other. Those afoot stood with bodies leaning forward, with muscles tense, waiting for the word.

It was 11.59.

“ Ready! ” said the colonel to the bugler. The latter raised the instrument from his side. The second hand of the officer’s watch was speeding around its last circle. More tense grew form and spirit along the expectant line. The bugler raised the instrument to his lips, up went the hand of the officer, and out upon the air rang the clear note that signaled the settlement of an empire !

The bugle’s invitation was answered by a babel of sounds. There were shouts and the cracking of whips, the rattle of wagons and cursings. The racers spread out like a fan over the prairie, and were soon lost to sight in its billows ; but here a wagon lay on its side, and there a horse galloped about, riderless.

Jim had seen the action of the bugler rather than heard the clear note he produced. With a single motion he brought down the whip on the horse’s flank and pressed the spurs to its sides. It sprang into a gallop. Jim vaguely heard the din and clatter behind him, as the ground swept by. He headed straight for the road. As he neared it, he became conscious of hoofbeats other than those made by his own animal. Glancing back, he saw the roan horse coming at full speed. The race was on.

Jim’s horse struck the road a little in the lead, but this position it was not long to hold. The roan came up, was abreast, forged ahead. The distance between them increased, and as Jim’s rival reached a rise of ground ahead, and disappeared on the other side, he sent back a triumphant yell and shook his fist in challenge.

Jim’s horse had not varied in its motions from the start. It struck its gait and kept it. With the regularity of a clock and an endurance that was sure it measured off the ground. Jim gave it rein, and, save for a word of encouragement occasionally, he did not urge it. Up and down the swells of prairie and across the stretches between, it was gallop, gallop, gallop! When half the distance of the ten miles had been covered, Jim’s rival led by a mile. But Jim had based his confidence on his knowledge of the horses, and was not discouraged. His calculations were now to be put to the test. Before him for the next three miles the land lay level as a floor. Far down the road he caught sight of his competitor, and his heart sank, for he appeared a mere speck. But the speck grew larger, and assumed the shape of horse and man. Jim’s heart gave a great leap, — his rival had dismounted from his horse to rest it! His own hardy pony maintained its gait. Gallop, gallop, gallop !

The rider of the roan horse remounted, and started swiftly forward again. Two miles now lay before them, and the test of endurance was yet to come. Jim’s rival was half standing in his stirrups, lashing his horse remorselessly. The beast was being urged to its utmost ; its head hung low, its limbs seemed unresponsive, and its feet like lead. The man turned in his saddle to note Jim’s position, and plied his whip more desperately. The space between them was closing up. But a mile remained, and familiar landmarks began to appear. A scrub oak that Jim had blazed on one of his visits to his claim swept by.

It was the last stretch now. Jim too seized his lash and plied it with vigor. His horse answered with longer lunge and swifter gait. Only a half mile remained, but the roan horse had done its best. Its motions were jaded and spasmodic. Its rider whipped, and spurred, and shouted. Jim was alongside. In fury and desperation his opponent reached for his pistol, when his horse stumbled, and pitched headlong at the side of the road. It lay where it had fallen. It had given its life for its master. Jim looked back, and saw his rival sitting beside his dead animal, the picture of despair.

Jim gave a shout of exultation as he reached the goal, but the cry died on his lips. The race was ended, but his troubles had only begun. There was a tent on his claim !

At first Jim was dazed. The situation was one on which he had not calculated. The rival he had feared he had beaten, only to find his victory barren. There was but one explanation : the new claimant had not made the race with the rest. He had gone into the Territory in advance, and had concealed himself somewhere until the opening day. In the vocabulary of the Territory, the man was a “ sooner.”

Jim rode straight for the man’s tent, called him out, covered him with maledictions, and knocked him down. There was no incentive to continue the punishment, as the man made no defense. He did not, however, turn the other cheek, but threatened vengeance at a future date.

Jim now awaited the coming of his wife with impatience. He must take the proper steps to “ file on ” his claim as soon as possible. The long afternoon dragged on, and darkness began to fall before the wagon appeared. In his anxiety and haste Jim strode out to meet it. He climbed upon the seat, took the lines from his wife’s hands, and whipped the horses out of their sluggish gait. He did not speak, but drove upon the claim, unhitched the horses, gave certain instructions to his boy, told his wife he should be gone a day or two, and prepared to mount his horse.

“ Jim ! ” called his wife.

He turned at the sound of her voice.

“ What ” — she began, indicating the tent.

He did not reply. He jumped into the saddle, and rode swiftly away.

The place selected by the government for the land office was a point named Guthrie, on the south bank of the Cimarron River, and about nine miles from the northern boundary of the new country. Here utter confusion prevailed, a few hours after the settlement. The town site was a mass of white tents, with no streets. The only point “ from which to reason and to which refer ” was the government acre. About this reservation the city of tents had set itself, waiting for time to put things right.

Shortly after dark, a man was seen hurriedly to approach the land office and stop at the front window. He heaved a sigh of satisfaction when he found himself alone. He stood a few moments fanning himself with his hat ; then he gathered up some loose boards, and improvised a seat beside the window. He tilted himself back against the building, and prepared to make himself comfortable. The man was Jim. He had come to file on his claim.

Another boomer, half breathless, appeared.

“ Are we first?” was the stranger’s salutation.

Jim nodded.

“ Well, that’s luck ! ”

He too was from Kansas. These men formed an instant friendship, and fell to discussing the past, present, and future.

“ Where’s yer claim ? ” the stranger finally asked.

“ Down on Cottonwood Crick, ’bout a mile and a half from here,” replied Jim.

“ You’ve struck it rich, so near town,” said the new acquaintance, borrowing a phrase from the mines; “but ain’t ye afeard ? ”

“ ’Feard o’ what ? ” asked Jim.

“ Oh, nothin’, maybe, and then agin, maybe. You know there’s a clique of these real-estaters that have tried to gobble up ever’thing anywheres near this town. You see they come in here aforetime. They got jobs as deputy marshals, or pretended like they was workin’ fer the railroad, and when noon come they jest natchelly threw up their jobs and made a break fer quarter sections. Wa’n’t right, — of course it wa’n’t! ”

Jim began to see matters more clearly. He had chosen his claim too well.

Other boomers had appeared. The line was growing fast. By midnight it had run back, and lay along the government acre in folds. The men crowded close together, each being jealous of the space that separated him from the man next in front. The impression had got abroad that a “filing ” was a thing next best to a deed, and all were eager to get their names on the records.

Jim’s anxiety grew with the hours. Frequently he felt for his papers, which were in his inside pocket, to assure himself that they were secure. The morning came at last. The long line of men yawned, stretched, and showed its restlessness. The government officials took their time, but at last they appeared. Jim had been on his feet an hour, with the papers in his hand. He could see the clerks inside moving about, and throwing out heavy books on the tables. The hour for government business had arrived. A clerk came forward to open the window. Jim felt a hand on his shoulder ; turning, he saw the new claimant and a deputy marshal. The marshal said : “ I shall have to arrest you for assault and battery. Come with me.”

When Jim had got through with the magistrate, somebody had filed on his claim. There remained but one thing to do, — enter a contest in the courts.

Until the case could be settled both

claimants occupied the land. Jim was almost subdued by his encounter with the authorities, and he deemed it more prudent, in the future, to depend less on physical force, and more on the power of the law. It required great self-control at first to see the stranger cultivate his land, but there was no alternative. One morning Jim awoke to find that, during the night, a long furrow had been ploughed through the centre of the tract, from one end to the other. It was a flag of truce calling for a cessation of hostilities, and leaving to higher tribunals the final adjudication of the case. Jim accepted the protocol, when he had concluded, after an examination, that he had not received the worst of the division. The furrow was thereafter considered the neutral strip.

Jim’s opponent felt that he could afford to be generous, for he was not alone, and was pretty sure of the outcome. He was even charitable enough to forgive the blow, especially as Jim had been fined roundly, and promised a double amount in case the offense were repeated. He cared nothing for farming; his profits were not to come out of the soil, but from the enhanced value of the land that would result from its close proximity to the town. As far as actual cultivation of the ground was concerned, he could have given Jim all but a small potato patch, only that such generosity might yield the latter an advantage in evidence when the case came to trial. However, there must be signs of “ improvement ” as proof of his sincerity of purpose as a true settler ; so he built a box house with one window and one door, nailed canvas over the top for a roof, and called the result an “ improvement.” He ploughed an acre of ground, planted it with corn and potatoes, and called that “ cultivation.”

Jim also built a temporary shelter and went to work. When he struck his plough into his new claim, he unearthed no pot of gold. The soil was not unlike that of Kansas, and he felt just as tired when his day’s work was done as ever before. As for his wife, her duties were doubled. She tired quickly now, and she acknowledged to herself that she was “ wearin’ out.” Work as hard as she might, she seemed to accomplish little. What was worse, she worked without hope. Her interest was gone. She did what came to her hand to do, and beyond that she did not think. The contest over the claim had crushed her. Although she had not shared her husband’s dreams in this venture, she had cherished a little hope that he might succeed this time. When nearly all their money had gone in the employment of legal agencies to sustain their rights, she bowed beneath the cruel conditions. Past experience had made her look on the dark side of things, and now she did not expect the shadows ever to lift. Her mind had lost all its buoyancy, and she received everything that came to her with the same impassiveness. Sometimes the children called her to herself, but these faint stirrings of the spirit only served to make her dejection deeper. Jim had not observed any difference in her. He was too much occupied with his own troubles to notice hers. She did not complain, and that was enough.

One day the truth was half borne home to him. He had come in at dusk and found her prostrate on the floor where she had fallen. He lifted her and bore her to the bed. The action aroused her. She “ guessed it was nothin’ much,” — with her hand at her heart, — and allayed his fears. Within a few minutes she was up again, preparing the evening meal.

The case came to trial. Jim had justice and right on his side, but he did not have the evidence. It seemed man against man, claimant against claimant, until his defeated competitor, the owner of the roan horse, came into court.

“ I and this man,” he said, indicating Jim, “ and this other man,” with a wave of his hand toward the defendant, “ was on the border when the land was opened. Us three had our eye on the same piece of dirt. We had a fair, square race fer it. I and this plaintiff was beat out. I give up like a man, and he don’t, and that’s all there is to it.”

That was his story. He left the court room and received his reward, and certain “ influential citizens ” were the richer by another quarter section.

Jim was stunned. He turned appealingly to his lawyer. “ What is there to do ? ” he asked.

“ Nothing but to get off the land,” was the response.

“ Well ? ” asked Jim’s wife, when he got home.

He shook his head despairingly, and dropped into a chair, limp and hopeless.

“ Don’t take it so hard, Jim,” said his wife simply. It was all the consolation she had to offer.

But for her the disappointment was too great. The next day she fell at her work. Jim bent over her and caressed her toil-worn hands, endeavoring to stroke them back into life. The officers coming to dispossess him found him thus engaged, and withdrew.

The death of a woman — the first in the Territory — attracted widespread attention. There was a feeling that the new land had been consecrated. Many a man, heretofore, had passed away, oftentimes with his boots on, and been buried where he fell ; but this was different. The council of Guthrie met in extra session, and directed its attention to what it had been too busy to consider before, — the establishment of a cemetery.

The funeral was made a public event. The whole town turned out, and accorded to Jim’s wife honors that might have been bestowed upon the founder of a state. She was laid to rest in the very centre of the new graveyard, and to the small bit of ground that inclosed her form there was no one to dispute her title. A week after the burial, in the early morning, a prairie schooner was seen crossing from Indian Territory into Kansas. Soon the road led away to the east. As the horses’ heads were turned to take it, the driver looked back. The west was dark with shadows, pressed down by the light of a new day rushing up the sky. Back there lay the past with its sufferings and disappointments ; before, all the good in life that remained. Jim was “ goin’ back to his wife’s folks.”

Joseph W. Piercy.