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Western Short Story
A Prior Claim
by Elisabeth Grace Foley
It all came about in the first place because Burke’s aunt was getting old. She’d been keeping house for him several years, but wasn’t as spry as she used to be, so he was going to hire a girl to help her out around the place. There were two or three Norwegian families with a raft of kids apiece homesteading nearby, so I’d expected something about fifteen years old with yellow pigtails who’d help the old lady wipe the dishes and make the beds. But Burke got Maria Covington instead.
Maria Covington had been postmistress at Schilling for the last couple of months, filling in for her brother who was away fulfilling his residency on a claim ten miles north. She was about twenty, slim and neat and smart as a whip, and within a few days she’d taken over running the house so all Miss Caroline had to do was the mending and helping with supper. Her hair was a color I’d never seen before, dark-brown with a shine of red to it, and she did it to look exactly like the illustrations in the New York magazines.
She and I hit it off wrong from the first. I guess it was because she was all full of enthusiasm for homesteading, having come out here with her brother for that purpose, while I—I was a little out of sorts at the beginning of that summer, as it was my first year of finding a claim shanty in every draw I rode down, where there’d been only tall grass and cattle before. I’d have got used to it in time, of course, but I wasn’t feeling that way then. And Maria’d had some run-ins with other cowboys who were less mannerly, along of running the post-office; and she’d got the idea that we all hated all homesteaders like poison and would never pass up a chance to do one of them a bad turn.
So the first time we met around the house, and Maria asked me in her brisk way if I’d chop some wood for the kitchen stove, I didn’t just cotton to it and unthoughtfully remarked something about not having hired on as a farm hand. Maria came back pat with a retort about cowboys not being good for much besides pushing unintelligent animals around the landscape—and that sort of set the tone for our future acquaintance. Whenever we’d meet, one of us was sure to pass a caustic remark, and it usually devolved into something about the nature of cowboys. It was a private feud and didn’t interfere with any of our other affairs—Maria did her work and I did mine, and so long as that happened nobody else paid much attention to our sniping.
Maria was still postmistress of Schilling too. The post-office at that time was a kind of cabinet with pigeonholes and drawers that somebody’d knocked together out of old dry-goods boxes, and it lodged with whoever was running it at the time. While her brother was away Maria had been boarding with the local land-agent’s wife and running it out of the Land Office, and when she came out to help Burke’s aunt she brought the P.O. along and set it up on a table in the lean-to back of the kitchen. Once a week the stage dropped a few bundles of mail and freight at the general store in Schilling, and one of us hauled it out to Burke’s with the team and wagon, and the ranchers and homesteaders for five miles round came in to Burke’s to pick up their mail.
I’d have been driving in for ordinary supplies almost as often, but drawing the job of hauling the mail never improved my sentiments toward Maria Covington any.
One afternoon when it was my turn for hauling, I pushed open the screen door to the kitchen with a couple of sacks of sugar in my arms to find Maria sitting with what looked like a map spread out on the kitchen table, frowning over it. “I’m beginning to be anxious for some of these people,” she said. Her back was to the door and she was speaking to Miss Caroline, and she didn’t know it was me that had come in. “Two or three have been absent from their claims for a few months now. I hope they don’t cut it too close to the deadline, because there’s plenty of claim-jumpers just waiting their chance.”
“Gone back to fetch their families out, I suppose?” said Miss Caroline.
“Yes, they built their shanties and broke some ground and then went back East for them—but they’re only allowed six months off their claim at a time, you know, and some have been gone nearly that long. That one down the creek, for instance. Somebody’ll file a contest if they don’t look sharp.”
“That’s their lookout, isn’t it?” I said, setting down the sacks of sugar.
Maria gave me a quick frown over her shoulder, flicking a pencil impatiently between her fingers. Miss Caroline just said comfortably, “Takes time, selling off property and winding up affairs back home. I’m sure they’ll be here when it’s needful.”
“Yes, but I’ve spent enough time around the Land Office to know all the claim-jumpers’ tricks. If they can find the slightest pretext or loophole for filing a contest they’ll be on it like a flash—and who has the money to fight them in court? There’s been some men hanging around who’ve got that land-speculator look, and I know they’re watching those untenanted claims just as sharp as I am.” She rapped the end of her pencil on the table with each word for emphasis.
It was more habit than anything else for me to spar with Maria by now, so I said, “You get pretty fired up over the troubles of folks you don’t even know.”
“Oh, and I know you would be happy to see them all cheated out of their land merely on principle,” said Maria, turning a shoulder in a trim linen shirtwaist and the back of her glossy pompadour on me, and bending over the land plat again. I let the screen door slam behind me and went out to the buckboard for the mail.
It was two or three days after this, as I was heading home late in the afternoon, that I saw two men in a buggy driving down a faintly-beaten track toward the creek bottom. They were too far off for me to see their faces, but they had the look of strangers. I couldn’t help remembering what Maria had said about claim-jumpers—but it was none of my business. They hadn’t seen me, being headed in the opposite direction, and I kept on my way home.
I had to go to the house when I got there with a message from Burke for Miss Caroline, to tell her he was going over to a neighbor’s and wouldn’t be home to supper.
“Well, that’s all right,” said Miss Caroline when I told her; “I don’t expect to eat till late, with Maria gone off too. I never saw the beat of that child—but it’s as likely to work as not, seeing as they’re strangers; and as she said, there’s nothing they can do to her even if it doesn’t.”
I’d been on my way out, but stopped halfway through the door. “If what doesn’t work?”
“Why, those men—they passed here twice today, and Red told us at noon he’d seen them nosing around that homestead claim down the creek. Maria looked through some papers again and she got all excited, and said the six months must be up today on that homestead—a claim belonging to a girl called Marion Winner. She said those men must be going to jump that claim at the deadline. So she harnessed Tug and Murk to that big old wagon that was under the shed, and put her satchel and a couple of those old trunks from the spare room into it, and—”
“How long ago?” I interrupted, because my head was going around in some real fast circles right then.
“About half an hour. She said she could keep them off there till the legal time was up, anyway—”
I let the screen door slam again—I was always hard on that door—and ran down the steps to my horse and jumped for the saddle. She’d be halfway there by now, but if I rode hard I could catch up with her in time.
I did. I sighted the wagon just a little further down the track from where I’d seen the men in the buggy earlier. Maria was sitting up straight on the seat with her second-best hat on, driving the two big heavy horses at a smart trot. I saw her give one glance over her shoulder when she heard my horse coming, but she didn’t slow the team or look back again. I swung in alongside the wagon and pulled my horse down to their pace. “Hold up a minute!” I said.
“I will not. I know exactly what I’m doing, and you are not going to stop me!”
“If you don’t stop and listen to me for a minute, you’re letting yourself in for a mess of trouble,” I said, crowding in as close to the wheel as I could.
Maria hit the team an energetic clip with the lines, and they surged forward. I glanced ahead—I knew the claim shanty was just around the next bend, and I didn’t have time to spare. I looped my reins around the saddle horn, crowded close to the wagon again and kicked my right foot out of the stirrup, and in two seconds I’d swung across and clambered up on the seat next to Maria, and confiscated the lines out of her hands. She tried to hang onto them, and blazed furiously at me, “What are you doing—oh, you’re going to be sorry—”
“Don’t ask questions, just sit tight and for Pete’s sake put your hat on straight. Get up!” I shouted at the team and snapped the lines; and mad as she was, all Maria could do was hang onto the rail of the seat with one hand and her hat with the other as we boiled down the last slope to the empty claim shanty.
The buggy was in front of it, and the two men were hanging around by the shanty looking things over, as if they were just waiting for the deadline to get a little closer before they set up shop. They stopped and stared as I pulled the team and wagon to a halt. I’ll give her this, Maria didn’t let my interference throw her off for more than a beat. She jumped down from the wagon the second it stopped and marched straight up to the men. “I beg your pardon, were you looking for someone?” said said—just as if I wasn’t right behind her ready to contradict every word she said, for all she knew!
The men looked a little shifty, and exchanged glances as if they weren’t sure which one ought to answer. One said, “No, we’re holding down this claim.”
“This claim,” said Maria very calmly and politely, “is registered under the name of Marion Winner. I’m sure neither of you gentleman would claim to be Marion Winner, would you?”
“If you did, I’d be real interested in that,” I broke in, coming up beside Maria just then, “because happens I’ve got a much longer and closer acquaintance with that name than either of you.”
Maria turned half around to look up at me, and it’s a good thing they couldn’t see her face, because her brown eyes were wide-open with as much astonishment as I’d ever seen from anybody. But she didn’t say anything. “You don’t mean to insinuate that this is your claim,” said one of the men in a blustering kind of way.
“It sure looks that way, don’t it?” I said, sarcastic in a way that I’m afraid neither of them could appreciate.
The other one seemed to have a little stiffer backbone. “Well, I’m filing a contest on it. The deadline for your six months of absence expired at noon today.”
“Whatever date the deadline is—and I’d be strongly disinclined to take your word for it—it’s twelve A.M., or midnight,” I said. “I’m here well before that and I intend to stay here, so you might as well go back where you came from—wherever that is.”
I felt a hand slip through my arm, and Maria was standing there at my elbow, just like a feisty, ladylike little wife backing up her husband. “The burden of proof clearly rests with you gentlemen, but I believe possession is nine points in favor of the legal owner just now,” she said. “I think it would be the proper thing for you to leave.”
They grumbled, and looked daggers at each other, and at us, but the deadline wasn’t up yet and they knew it. They got into the buggy, after saying a few formalities about seeing what the Land Office had to say about this, and drove away; and we stood there and watched them go.
When they were out of sight, Maria gave me a demure glance up from under the brim of her hat. “I didn’t know you had that much sense of humor,” she said, letting her hand fall from my arm.
“I didn’t know there were so many ways to avoid telling a lie without telling the truth,” I said.
“Why on earth did you feel called upon to barge into things like that? I could have handled it exactly the same way without your help.”
“Because,” I said, “you may know a lot about the Land Office, but you haven’t lived out here as long as I have. You weren’t here seven months ago when the claim was filed on. But I was…and I met Marion Winner once or twice before he went back to Illinois to fetch his wife and kids.” I allowed myself a pungent pause. “If there was the slightest chance of those fellows being more acquainted with the matter than you were, you’d have found yourself in a mighty awkward spot if you claimed to be Marion Winner.”
Maria didn’t say anything for a second. I had an idea she’d whirl around and put her chin up and go off to the wagon, miffed and humiliated at having made a mistake and my having known about it. But instead she just pressed her lips together a bit, and after a minute they twitched and a dimple appeared in her cheek. “I guess I would have, wouldn’t I,” she said.
“Why, I didn’t know you had that much sense of humor,” I said wickedly.
“You never bothered to ask,” retorted Maria. “Do you suppose there’s any chance of Mr. Winner arriving before the deadline? We had best stay here at least till after dark in case those men are still nosing around. Where’s your horse?”
“Halfway home by now. I’ll have to go back with you anyway.”
So Maria and I sat side by side on the flat stone step in front of the shanty door while the light faded from evening into sunset, and waited, and talked. We didn’t talk about anything very important, but it was the first time we’d talked about anything without quarreling; and we had time to get as acquainted as we would have been if we’d been politely introduced all those weeks before. I watched the waving grass on the hills, and the orange sunset light winking through the trees by the creek, and I thought about the young fellow who had filed on the claim and built the shanty, and wondered if he’d ever sit on the step with his wife by his side and watch the sunset, and what they’d think about it and about each other.
I’m sure Maria Covington would have been game to sit there till midnight in a November frost to thwart a claim-jumper, but fortunately for us, just as the sun was going down for good we heard a wagon coming. When it got close we saw there was a young man driving, and his wife sitting beside him holding a baby, with another kid wedged in between them on the seat. They naturally looked a little surprised at seeing us there, and we got up and went out to meet them.
“Evening,” I said. “Winner, isn’t it? We’ve been holding down your claim for you.”
Well, we told them the whole story—Maria and I both; she didn’t hold back a bit of her part in it, even the mistake; and we all had a good laugh over it. “I’m much obliged to you,” said Winner. “I’m mighty glad we did make it in time—especially after all the trouble you went to.”
“Oh, it wasn’t the least trouble!” said Maria. “In fact it was good fun. I’d do it all again in an instant.”
“About that,” I said to her later when we were driving home through the dusk, “I wouldn’t make a habit out of this, you know. I helped you over a sticky spot this time, but if you go around impersonating people too freely you’re going to land in trouble sooner or later.”
“About that,” said Maria. “I meant to ask you—did you come racing down here just to help me out of a spot, or because you genuinely cared about helping an honest, hard-working person keep hold of their claim?”
“Which would you rather I said?” I asked.
“I’ll think about that,” said Maria, but the dimple showed in her cheek again.