2018 Colorado Book Awards finalist for General Fiction
Mary Louisa Roberts won the race of a lifetime — or so she thought. In competition with desperate homesteaders, ruthless land seekers, and a sheriff determined to see her fail, Mary rides out on a horse to strike her claim in the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1893. When she finally thrusts her flag into the dirt, 160 acres becomes her own. But with that claim, she risks more than she could ever imagine. A naïve school teacher and young mother abandoned by her hard-drinking, gold-seeking husband — whom she believes to be dead — Mary is faced with letting go of a past riddled with loss, hardship, and reminders that a woman isn’t capable of surviving on her own.
Mary ~ Claim, September 16, 1893
The noise was as though hell itself had let loose. Yells and hollers raged with snorts and screeching as the reverberating boom launched the line forward—an uncontrollable, unstoppable wave of humanity.
My legs hugged the saddle tightly, giving Sadie full rein. She needed no direction as our course was narrow between the other horses. For now, our only destination was straight ahead.
A cloud of dust lifted like an angry beast behind the front-runners, pouring itself into my eyes and nose. I tried to cover my mouth, refusing to drink its poison. At one point, the veil was so thick, I shut my eyes and simply trusted Sadie’s instinct to follow the others.
She must have despised being caught behind the other horses as much as me. Without my prodding, she surged forward and broke into stride with the foremost riders. To my left was a dapple-grey thoroughbred, its rider crouched over its neck and straddling an English saddle—not a common sight on the plains of the frontier. The horseman’s mouth and nose were covered with what once must have been a white handkerchief. When he looked in my direction, his eyebrows lifted atop his dirt-splattered spectacles. I had to grin in spite of myself. Apparently, I was not the only one surprised at my position in the race. Or perhaps the sophisticated rider was awed at my ability to ride astride and quite unladylike.
As if the wind intended to humble me, a gust caught the brim of my hat and pulled it from atop my head. I tried to right it and secure the loose ribbon under my chin with one hand, but the satin slipped through my fingers. My hat whirled in the air before landing on the ground for a brief moment before pursuing hooves beat it into the ground. My hair that had been bundled and held prisoner beneath the straw hat now tumbled and waved around my face in fiery streams.
Maybe it was the repetitive stride of Sadie’s gallop or the droning of the hooves and wheels cutting down the once virgin prairie grasses. For a moment, it was as though I were dreaming—set free from the memories of the past and the confusion of the present. Running away from or running toward something. Neither seemed to matter.
The English rider veered, pushing his stirrup into Sadie’s rump and jolting me from my solitude. The horse stumbled, and my hand found the saddle horn in time to save me from tumbling to the ground— surely to be trampled by the oncoming crowd. Like a peal of thunder, a wagon pulled by a team of six black horses and moving like a steam engine veered ahead of us. Like an ax laid to wood, I split to the right and the rider to the left.
Sadie was breathing hard, and her withers damp with sweat. “Come on, girl, it can’t be much farther. If I remember right from the map, the spot we want is over that bluff.” We took a sharp right and headed into a tall, grassy section speckled with goldenrod and wax goldenweed. There was so much yellow it looked like the bounty of a king. And as much as my body wanted to rest, there would be no treasure of my own until the two-foot wooden stake, carved with my initials and tied to my saddle, was driven into my claim.
Other riders and wagons zigzagged across the plain now, heading for a specific claim site or wherever they stumbled and could grab a plot. The rock markers placed by the surveying teams in the northeast corner of each site would be almost impossible to find in the mayhem.
It would be easy for several rushers to stake the same piece of land and then have to decide—or fight—to determine who would be the owner. Horrible stories had surfaced from earlier land rushers—especially from the Guthrie and Oklahoma City area—of cheaters, bullies, and even murderers who stole claims from honest people. Tuck and I had read articles, some truthful and others most likely stretched like a rubber band. We also listened to defeated rushers who had returned emptyhanded, forlorn that they didn’t get land but happy they were breathing.
Once we were on the rise and the other side was visible, I pulled on the reins, stood in the stirrups, and surveyed the area. The remnants of a trickling creek tiptoed its way through a steep, sandy bank directly below me. On its other side was a pebbled bank dotted with a few sparse trees and bushes. Beyond it was an open area, parched and brown.
At least it has water close by. That’s surely worth it.
Carefully, I navigated Sadie down the hillside, the sand and dirt giving way beneath her weight. I was leaning back in the saddle, trying to keep my balance, when a rumbling of wood and the clanging of metal came from above.
“Can’t take her down this hill, Pa,” a raspy woman’s voice called out. “Too steep and soft. I’ll tumble for sure.”
“Where’s your courage, woman?” a gruff voice answered. “This is the spot.”
I was nearly to the bottom when a wrinkled face, framed in a bonnet, stared down at me.
“A claim jumper!” She pointed at me and cursed. “Get on it, Pa!”
Just as Sadie reached the flattened ground, a horse and rider jumped over the edge of the bluff, swooping from the sky like a hawk.
Instinctively, I gave Sadie a kick, and she leapt across the creek bed. I headed toward the open field, intent on being the first to drive in my stake. But the other horse was swift and gained on me within seconds.
Soon, the rider was alongside me. The man raised his wooden stake and swiped it at my head. Throwing myself to the side to avoid being struck, my footing came loose in the stirrups. In an instant, I slid off the saddle and fell to the ground with a thud. Like a fly caught in a spider’s web, the bottom of my petticoat tangled around my legs and held me to the ground. Rolling onto my knees and pushing myself to a stand, my eyes were met with a terrifying sight—the man spun his horse around and charged straight at me.
Lord, he wants to kill me. The thought jolted through my mind as he galloped toward me, the stake raised in his right hand.
“Don’t kill ’er, you fool!” the raspy voice yelled.
The man pulled his horse to a stop, still holding the stake in the air. He scowled down at me with cloudy eyes, and then let out a laugh that quickly turned into a hacking cough. “No one …” he wiped a brown tobacco dribble from the corner of his mouth with his shirtsleeve, “is gonna jump my claim.” He squinted at me, peering through a matted mass of gray hair. “Especially a woman … if you call yourself one.”
I pushed my hair to the side and brushed the dirt from my blouse.
The bonneted woman shuffled towards me. Her face reminded me of a walnut—dark brown with deep creases running its length. “That’s right. This is our land, and you’d better get on your way before I take that stick to you myself.”
“Who says this is yours?” The man had momentarily dangled the stake at his side. “I got down here before you.” With Sadie’s reins gathered in my hand, I started limping into the open field.
“You’ll get hanged for sure, Pa,” the woman hissed. A shiver ran down my back to match the pain reverberating in my hip. I stopped and turned around to see the end of a rifle pointed at me.
“Git on your horse, little lady, before my wife changes her mind.” He made a sideways nod. “She don’t stay kind for long.”
I walked around Sadie and ran my hand along her neck and side. Dark sweat stains darkened her chest and along the girth under her belly.
Not sure of what possessed me to be so bold—maybe the wretched couple’s injustice and dishonesty—but the moment my words were spoken, I knew they could be my last. “Your horses look awfully refreshed for running such a grueling race.” I pointed to the workhorse laden with bags and supplies. “For carrying all that and not even having a lather.”
The couple sent sideways glances at each other.
“It would be a shame if you were found out to be Sooners. The government isn’t too fond of folks who’ve been dishonest.”
“We’d better git rid of ’er.” The man’s upper lip twitched as he glanced at his wife.
“Then you’d be in even deeper.” Keeping my eye on him, I lifted my foot into the stirrup.
A loud whoop sounded from the rise. The three of us looked up to see two dark-coated riders ascend over the top.
“That’s a prime piece of land we got,” the first one to reach the bottom called out to the other who was close behind.
“Dang it, Pa.” The wife swatted at her husband. “Now we’ve lost it for sure.” The woman, like a stiffened broom, swept across the dusty ground toward the men who didn’t appear the type to be intimidated by an old man and woman.
Quickly pulling myself onto the saddle, I headed Sadie in the direction of the drizzle of water. I would follow the creek and hope it would lead to a more welcoming piece of land.
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