Claim Number One - George W. Ogden - ebook
Kategoria: Obyczajowe i romanse Język: angielski Rok wydania: 1922

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George W. Ogden

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About
Chapter 1 - COMANCHE
Chapter 2 - GUESTS FOR THE METROPOLE

Also available on Feedbooks Ogden:
Copyright: This work was published before 1923 and is in the public domain in the USA only.
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Chapter 1 COMANCHE

Coming to Comanche, you stopped, for Comanche was the end of the world. Unless, of course, you were one of those who wished to push the boundary-line of the world farther, to make homes in the wilderness where there had been no homes, to plant green fields in the desert where none had been before.

In that case you merely paused at Comanche, like the railroad, to wait the turn of events.

Beyond Comanche was the river, and beyond the river, dim-lined in the west, the mountains. Between the river and the mountains lay the reservation from which the government had pushed the Indians, and which it had cut into parcels to be drawn by lot.

And so Comanche was there on the white plain to serve the present, and temporary, purpose of housing and feeding the thousands who had collected there at the lure of chance with practical, impractical, speculative, romantic, honest, and dishonest ideas and intentions. Whether it should survive to become a colorless post-office and shipping-station for wool, hides, and sheep remained for the future to decide. As the town appeared under the burning sun of that August afternoon one might have believed, within bounds, that its importance was established for good and all.

It was laid out with the regular severity of the surveyor’s art. Behind the fresh, new railroad depot the tented streets swept away pretentiously. In the old settlements–as much as two months before that day some of them had been built–several business houses of wood and corrugated sheet-iron reared above the canvas roofs of their neighbors, displaying in their windows all the wares which might be classified among the needs of those who had come to break the desert, from anvils to zitherns; from beads, beds, and bridles to winches, wagons, water bottles, and collapsible cups.

At the head of the main street stood a hydrant, which the railroad company supplied with water, offering its refreshment to all comers–to man, beast, and Indian, as well as to dusty tourists with red handkerchiefs about their necks. Around it, where teams had been fed and the overflow of water had run, little green forests of oats were springing, testifying to the fecundity of the soil, lighting unbelieving eyes with hope.

“Just look what a little water will do!” said the locaters and town-site men, pointing with eloquent gesture. “All this land needs, gentlemen, is a little water to make it a paradise!”

On the right hand of the hydrant there was a bank, presenting a front of bricked stability, its boarded sides painted in imitation of that same resisting material, for the comfort of its depositors perhaps, and the benefit of its credit before the eyes of the passing world. Well out in the desert, among the hummocks of earth heaped around anchoring sage clumps, stood the Elkhorn Hotel. It was built of logs, with a design toward the picturesque and an eye to the tourist class of adventurers who were expected to throng to the opening. The logs had been cut along the river–they were that gnarled cottonwood which grows, leaning always toward the northeast, in that land of bitter extremes–the bark stripped from them until they gleamed yellowly, and fitted together with studied crudity. Upon the projecting end of the ridge-pole rode a spreading elk-prong, weathered, white, old.

And there was the Hotel Metropole. There always is a Hotel Metropole and a newspaper, no matter where you go. When you travel beyond them you have penetrated the Ultima Thule of modern times. The Hotel Metropole was near the station. It was picturesque without straining for it. Mainly it was a large, sandy lot with a rope around it; but part of it was tents of various colors, sizes, and shapes, arranged around the parent shelter of them all–a circus “top,” weathered and stained from the storms of many years. Their huddling attitude seemed to express a lack of confidence in their own stability. They seemed a brood of dusty chicks, pressing in for shelter of the mothering wing.

All was under the direction of a small man with a cream-colored waistcoat and a most incendiary-looking nose. It seemed tempting the laws of physics governing dry materials and live coals to bring that nose into the shelter of a desert-bleached tent. But it was there, and it flared its welcome with impartial ardor upon all arrivals.

The scheme of the Hotel Metropole was this: If you wanted a cot in a tent where each bed was partitioned from the other by a drop-curtain of calico print, you could enjoy that luxury at the rate of two dollars a night in advance, no baggage accepted as security, no matter what its heft or outward appearance of value. If you didn’t want to go that high, or maybe were not so particular about the privacy of your sleeping arrangements, you might have a cot anywhere in the circus-tentful of cots, spread out like pews. There the charge was one dollar. That rate chancing to be too steep for you, you might go into the open and rest in one of the outdoor canvas pockets, which bellied down under your weight like a hammock. There the schedule was fifty cents.

No matter what part of the house you might occupy on retiring, you were warned by the wall-eyed young man who piloted you to the cot with your number pinned on it that the hotel was not responsible for the personal belongings of the guests. You were also cautioned to watch out for thieves. The display of firearms while disrobing seemed to be encouraged by the management for its moral effect, and to be a part of the ceremony of retiring. It seemed to be the belief in the Hotel Metropole that when a man stored a pistol beneath his pillow, or wedged it in between his ribs and the side of the bunk, he had secured the safety of the night.

At the distant end of the main street, standing squarely across its center, stood the little house which sheltered the branch of the United States land-office, the headquarters being at Meander, a town a day’s journey beyond the railroad’s end. A tight little board house it was, like a toy, flying the emblem of the brave and the free as gallantly as a schoolhouse or a forest-ranger station. Around it the crowd looked black and dense from the railroad station. It gave an impression of great activity and earnest business attention, while the flag was reassuring to a man when he stepped off the train sort of dubiously and saw it waving there at the end of the world.

Indeed, Comanche might be the end of the world–didn’t the maps show that it was the end of the world, didn’t the railroad stop there, and doesn’t the world always come to an abrupt end, all white and uncharted beyond, at the last station on every railroad map you ever saw? It might be the end of the world, indeed, but there was the flag! Commerce could flourish there as well as in Washington, D. C., or New York, N. Y., or Kansas City, U. S. A.; even trusts might swell and distend there under its benign protectorate as in the centers of civilization and patriotism pointed above.

So there was assurance and comfort to the timid in the flag at Comanche, as there has been in the flag in other places at other times. For the flag is a great institution when a man is far away from home and expecting to bump into trouble at the next step.

Opposite the bank on the main street of Comanche were the tents of the gods of chance. They were a hungry-mouthed looking lot that presided within them, taken at their best, for the picking had been growing slimmer and slimmer in Wyoming year by year. They had gathered there from the Chugwater to the Big Horn Basin in the expectation of getting their skins filled out once more.

One could find in those tents all the known games of cowboy literature, and a good many which needed explanation to the travelers from afar. There was only one way to understand them thoroughly, and that was by playing them, and there seemed to be a pretty good percentage of curious persons in the throng that sweated in Comanche that day.

That was all of Comanche–tents, hydrant, hotels, bank, business houses, and tents again–unless one considered the small tent-restaurants and lodging-places, of which there were hundreds; or the saloons, of which there were scores. But when they were counted in, that was all.

Everybody in Comanche who owned a tent was on the make, and the making was good. Many of the home-seekers and adventure-expectant young men and women had been on the ground two weeks. They had been paying out good money for dusty stage-rides over the promising lands which had been allotted to the Indians already by the government. The stage people didn’t tell them anything about that, which was just as well. It looked like land where stuff might be grown with irrigation, inspiration, intensity of application, and undying hope. And the locaters and town-site boomers led their customers around to the hydrant and pointed to the sprouting oats.

“Spill a little water on this land and it’s got Egypt skinned,” they said.

So the mild adventurers stayed on for the drawing of claims, their ideals and notions taking on fresh color, their canned tomatoes (see the proper literature for the uses of canned tomatoes in desert countries frequented by cowboys) safely packed away in their trunks against a day of emergency.

Every one of them expected to draw Claim Number One, and every one of them was under the spell of dreams. For the long summer days of Wyoming were as white as diamonds, and the soft blue mountains stood along the distant west beyond the bright river as if to fend the land from hardships and inclemencies, and nurture in its breast the hopes of men.

Every train brought several hundred more to add to the throng already in Comanche–most of them from beyond the Mississippi, many of them schemers, most of them dreamers ready to sacrifice all the endearments of civilization for the romance of pioneering in the West, beyond the limits of the world as defined by the map of the railroad-line over which they had come.


Chapter 2 GUESTS FOR THE METROPOLE

To Comanche there came that August afternoon, when it was wearing down to long shadows, a mixed company, drawn from the far places and the middle distances east of Wyoming. This company had assembled in the course of the day’s acquaintance on the last long, dusty run into the land of expectations.

At dawn these people had left their comfortable sleeping-cars at Chadron, in the Nebraska desert, to change to the train of archaic coaches which transported the land-seekers across the last stretch of their journey. Before that morning the company had been pursuing its way as individual parts–all, that is, with the exception of the miller’s wife, from near Boston; the sister of the miller’s wife, who was a widow and the mother of June; and June, who was pasty and off-color, due to much fudge and polishing in a young ladies’ school.

These three traveled together, as three of such close relationship naturally should travel. The widow was taking June to Wyoming to see if she could put some marketable color in her cheeks, and the miller’s wife was going along for a belated realization, at least partially, of youthful yearnings.

Since seventeen the miller’s wife had longed to see the sun set behind a mountain with snow upon it, and to see a cowboy with dust on his shoulders, like the cowboys of the western drama, come riding out of the glow, a speck at first, and on, and on, until he arrived where she waited and flung himself from his panting horse, neckerchief awry, spurs tinkling, and swept off his broad hat in salute. Beyond that point she had not dared to go since marrying the miller, who had dust enough on his shoulders–unromantic dust, unromantic shoulders, goodness knows! But that was her picture, all framed in the gold of her heart. She wanted to see the mountain with the sun behind it, and the cowboy, and all, and then she could sigh, and go back to the miller and near Boston to await the prosaic end.

For all of her thirty-eight years Mrs. Dorothy Mann was shy in proportion as her miller husband, the widely known J. Milton Mann was bold. That he was a hard-mailed knight in the lists of business, and that he was universally known, Mrs. Mann was ready to contend and uphold in any company. She carried with her in the black bag which always hung upon her arm certain poems bearing her husband’s confession of authorship, which had been printed in the Millers’ Journal, all of them calling public attention to the noble office of his ancient trade. Of course the miller was not of the party, so we really have nothing more to do with him than we have with the rest of the throng that arrived on the train with these singled-out adventurers. But his influence traveled far, like a shadow reaching out after the heart of his spare, pert, large-eyed wife. She was not yet so far away from him that she dared move even her eyes as her heart longed.

In the manner of the miller’s wife, there was a restraint upon the most commonplace and necessary intercourse with strangers which seemed almost childish. She even turned in questioning indecision toward June’s mother before taking a seat offered her by a strange man, feeling at the same time of the black bag upon her arm, where the poems reposed, as if to beg indulgence from their author for any liberties which she might assume.

June’s mother, Mrs. Malvina Reed, widow of that great statesman, the Hon. Alonzo Confucius Reed, who will be remembered as the author of the notable bill to prohibit barbers breathing on the backs of their customers’ necks, was duenna of the party. She was a dumpy, small woman, gray, with lines in her steamed face, in which all attempts at rejuvenation had failed.

Mrs. Reed was a severe lady when it came to respecting the conventions of polite life, and June was her heart’s deep worry. She believed that young woman to be in the first stage of a dangerous and mysterious malady, which belief and which malady were alike nothing in the world but fudge. When she turned her eyes upon June’s overfed face a moisture came into them; a sigh disturbed her breast.

By one of those strange chances, such as seem to us when we meet them nothing short of preconceived arrangement, enough seats had been left unoccupied in the rear coach, all in one place, to accommodate a second party, which came straggling through with hand-baggage hooked upon all its dependent accessories. It proved very pleasant for all involved. There the June party scraped acquaintance with the others, after the first restraint had been dissolved in a discussion of the virtues of canned tomatoes applied to the tongue of one famishing in the desert.

First among the others was the bright-haired young woman from Canton, Ohio, whose gray eyes seemed older than herself, lighting as if with new hope every time they turned to acknowledge a good wish for her luck in the new land. It seemed at such moments as if she quickened with the belief that she was coming upon the track of something which she had lost, and was in a way of getting trace of it again.

She sat up straight-backed as a saint in a cathedral window, but she unbent toward June. June was not long in finding out that she, also, was a product of grand old Molly Bawn, that mighty institution of learning so justly famed throughout the world for its fudge; that her name was Agnes Horton, and that she was going to register for a piece of land.

Some five years before June had matriculated, Agnes Horton had stepped out, finished, from the halls of Molly Bawn.

“She’s old,” confided June to her mother’s ear. “She must be at least twenty-five!”

Old or young, she was handsomer than any other woman on the train, and seemingly unaware of it as she leaned her elbow upon the dusty window-sill and gazed out in pensive introspection upon the bleak land where glaciers had trampled and volcanoes raged, each of them leaving its waste of worn stone and blackened ledge.

And there was the school-teacher from Iowa; a long, thin string of a man, who combed his hair straight back from his narrow, dished forehead and said “idear.” He was thinking seriously of sheep.

And there was the commissary sergeant from Fort Sheridan, which is within the shadow of Chicago, German-faced, towering, broad. He blushed as if scandalized every time a woman spoke to him, and he took Limburger cheese and onions from his cloth telescope grip for his noonday lunch.

And there was the well-mannered manufacturer of tools, who came from Buffalo, and his bald brother with him, who followed the law. There was the insurance man from Kansas, who grinned when he wasn’t talking and talked when he didn’t grin; and the doctor from Missouri, a large-framed man with a worn face and anxious look, traveling westward in hope; and the lumberman from Minnesota, who wore a round hat and looked meek, like a secretary of a Y. M. C. A., and spat tobacco-juice out of the window.

All of these men, save the school-teacher and manufacturer, were more or less failures, one way or another. Take the sergeant–Sergeant Schaefer, and Jake was the name in front of that–for example. He had failed in his examination for advancement to a commission, and blamed the aristocracy of the army for it. He was disgusted with military life; and to him a claim, especially Claim Number One, in the Indian Reservation of Wyoming, looked like a haven of independence and peace.

There was the bald lawyer, too; a young man old from his honest cares, a failure in the law because he could not square his conscience with its practices. He was ready to quit it for an alfalfa-plot and a little bunch of fat cattle–especially if he drew Number One.

Horace Bentley sighed when he looked back upon his struggles with the world and the law. The law had been a saddle that galled his back through many a heavy year. And his brother William, in need of a holiday from his busy factory, had taken a month to himself to see “the boy,” as he called Horace, established in a new calling in the high-minded, open-faced West.

As for the insurance solicitor and lumberman, it must be owned that they were gamblers on the drawing. They meant to register and hang around for the lottery. Then if they should draw Number One, or even anything up to a hundred, they would sell out for what there was to be gained.

With Dr. Warren Slavens it was quite different from the case of these purely adventurous speculators. Dr. Slavens had been late in getting a start. It was not a difficulty peculiar to him alone that the start always seemed a considerable distance ahead of him. Up to that time he had been engaged with merely the preliminaries, and they had hobbled him and cumbered him, and heaped up continually such a mass of matter to be smoothed out of the way of his going, that he never had struck a canter on the highway of life.

Of all the disheartened, blue, and beaten men on that dusty train that dusty day, Dr. Warren Slavens, late of Missouri, was without question the deepest down in the quagmire of failure. He hated himself for the fizzle that he had made of it, and he hated the world that would not open the gates and give him one straight dash for the goal among men of his size.

He went frequently to the platform of the car and took a long pull at a big, black pipe which he carried in a formidable leather case, like a surgical instrument, in his inner pocket. After each pull at it he returned with a redder face and a cloudier brow, ready to snap and snarl like an under dog that believes every foot in the world is raised to come down on his own ribs.

But there was nobody on that train who cared an empty sardine-can for the doctor’s failures or feelings. Nobody wanted to jab him in the ribs; nobody wanted to hear his complaint. He was wise enough to know it, in a way. So he kept to himself, pulling his shoulders up in soldierly fashion when he passed Agnes Horton’s place, or when he felt that she was looking at him from her station directly behind his seat.

At any rate, up to the neck as he was in the bog of failure, the doctor was going to Wyoming with a good many practical advantages ahead of thousands of his fellows. Before turning doctor he had been a farmer’s boy; and he told himself that, failing in his solid determination to get up to the starting-line in his profession, he believed he could do pretty well at his older trade. But if he drew Claim Number One he meant to sell it for ten thousand dollars–that being the current valuation placed on first choice–and go back home to establish himself in dignity and build up a practice.

The school-teacher hadn’t much to say, but his cast was serious. He expected to draw Number One, not to sell, but to improve, to put sheep on, and alfalfa, and build a long barn with his name on the roof so that it could be read from the railroad as the trains went by.

June’s mother, being a widow, was eligible for the drawing. She also meant to register. If she drew Number One–and she hadn’t yet made up her mind about the certainty of that–she intended to sell her relinquishment and take June to Vienna for examination by an eminent physician.

When anybody asked Agnes Horton what she intended to do with her winnings out of the land lottery, she only smiled with that little jumping of hope in her eyes. It was a marvel to the whole party what a well set-up girl like her, with her refinement and looks and clothes, wanted to fool her time away in Wyoming for, when the world was full of men who would wear their hands raw to smooth a way for her feet to pass in pleasanter places. But all of them could see that in her heart the hope of Number One was as big as a can of tomatoes–in cowboy literature–to the eyes of a man dying of thirst in Death Valley.

Only the toolmaker, William Bentley–and he was gray at the curling hair which turned up at his broad temples–smiled as if he held it to be a pleasant fantasy, too nebulous and far-away to be realized upon, when any asked him of his intentions concerning Number One. He put off his questioners with a pleasantry when they pressed him, but there was such a tenderness in his eyes as he looked at his pale, bald brother, old in honest ways before his time, that it was the same as spoken words.

So it will be seen that a great deal depended on Claim Number One, not alone among the pleasant little company of ours, but in the calculations of every man and woman out of the forty-seven thousand who would register, ultimately, for the chance and the hope of drawing it.

At Casper a runner for the Hotel Metropole had boarded the train. He was a voluble young man with a thousand reasons why travelers to the end of the world and the railroad should patronize the Hotel Metropole and no other. He sat on the arms of passengers’ seats and made his argument, having along with him a great quantity of yellow cards, each card bearing a number, each good for an apartment or a cot in the open. By payment of the rate, a person could secure his bed ahead of any need for it which, said the young man, was the precaution of a wise ginny who was on to his job. The train conductor vouched for the genuineness of the young man’s credentials, and conditions of things at Comanche as he pictured them.

It was due to Sergeant Jake Schaefer that the company organized to mess together. The hotel representative fell in with the idea with great warmth. There was a large tent on the corner, just off Main Street, which the company could rent, said he. A partition would be put in it for the privacy of the ladies, and the hotel would supply the guests with a stove and utensils. June’s mother liked the notion. It relieved her of a great worry, for with a stove of her own she could still contrive those dainties so necessary to the continued existence of the delicate child.

So the bargain was struck, the sergeant was placed in charge of the conduct and supply of the camp, and everybody breathed easier. They had anticipated difficulty over the matter of lodging and food in Comanche, for wild tales of extortion and crowding, and undesirable conditions generally, had been traveling through the train all day.

Comanche was quiet when the train arrived, for that was the part of the day when the lull between the afternoon’s activities and the night’s frantic reaping fell. Everyone who had arrived the day previous accounted himself an old-timer, and all such, together with all the arrivals of all the days since the registration began, came down to see the tenderfeet swallow their first impressions of the coming Eden.

The Hotel Metropole was the only public house in Comanche that maintained a conveyance to meet travelers at the station, and that was for the transportation of their baggage only. For a man will follow his belongings and stick to them in one place as well as another, and the proprietor of the Metropole was philosopher enough to know that. So his men with the wagon grabbed all the baggage they could wrench from, lift from under, or pry out of the grasp of travelers when they stepped off the train.

The June party saw their possessions loaded into the wagon, under the loud supervision of Sergeant Schaefer, who had been in that country before and could be neither intimidated, out-sounded, nor bluffed. Then, following their traveling agent-guide, they pushed through the crowds to their quarters.

Fortunate, indeed, they considered themselves when they saw how matters stood in Comanche. There seemed to be two men for every cot in the place. Of women there were few, and June’s mother shuddered when she thought of what they would have been obliged to face if they hadn’t been so lucky as to get a tent to themselves.

“I never would have got off that train!” she declared. “No, I never would have brought my daughter into any such unprotected place as this!”

Mrs. Reed looked around her severely, for life was starting to lift its head again in Comanche after the oppression of the afternoon’s heat.

Mrs. Mann smiled. She was beginning to take a comprehensive account of the distance between Wyoming and the town near Boston where the miller toiled in the gloom of his mill.

“I think it’s perfectly lovely and romantic!” said she.

Mrs. Reed received the outburst with disfavor.

“Remember your husband, Dorothy Ann!” warned she.

Dorothy Ann sighed, gently caressing the black bag which dangled upon her slender arm.

“I do, Malvina,” said she.