"The sun sets fair in that Western land,
Romance rides over the plains;
There hearts are gay at the close of day, —
Man's duty's done, God reigns."
"The sun lay dying in the west,
The fresh breeze fanned my brow,
I rode the steed I loved the best —
Would I were riding now."
Most written stories end with a wedding, actual or prospective; but this story, like most stories in real life, begins with one. The little old stone church in Manhattan, Kansas, was crowded to the doors one June afternoon. The gray-haired President, the younger men and women of the faculty, and a small sprinkling of the towns-people were there; but the great mass of the congregation was made up of the students of the State Agricultural College, which was situated on a gentle hill just outside the town. It was Graduation Day, and the day on which Sue Belle Seville and Samuel Maxwell had elected to get married.
Samuel was a Kansas boy, Sue Belle a Kentucky girl. They were both orphans and both graduates from the college that day in the same class: Samuel from the agricultural and mechanical department, Sue Belle from the housekeeping, culinary, domestic sciences, and other of the many departments feminine. Maxwell was a manly, energetic, capable fellow, a good student, and a young man who, given an equal chance, should make a fine farmer. On that day he was the envy of all the young men of marriageable age in the college.
His bride to be, while she seemed made for better things than the ineffably monotonous drudgery of an ordinary farmer's wife, was nevertheless skilled enough, capable enough, resolute enough, to master her lot and be happy in it whatever it might be. She was a handsome girl, tall, straight, strong, black-haired, blue-eyed, with the healthiest whiteness in her face that one could imagine.
The brief wedding ceremony was soon over. Old Dr. Fairman, the President, gave the bride away in his usual courtly and distinguished manner, and as the village organist played the wedding-march on the sweet-toned old organ, Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Maxwell passed out of the church, followed by all of the congregation. At the end of the long cinder foot-path extending from the church-door under the double row of trees to the street stood a brand-new Studebaker wagon filled with household goods. Two stout, well-conditioned horses were harnessed to it, while two others, a good mare and a handsome young horse, a three-year-old colt, were fastened to the tail-board by long hitching-straps. The wagon had been transformed by a canvas canopy over the bed into what was popularly known as a "prairie schooner." The new canvas was white as snow in the sunlight.
Maxwell handed his wife to the seat on the front, pitched quarters to the negro boys who had been holding the horses' heads, gathered up the reins, and, amid a storm of cheers and a shower of rice – especially appropriate to an agricultural college, by the way – and other manifestations of joy and delight, drove away on the wedding journey. The watchers followed with their eyes the wagon lumbering slowly down the main street until it crossed the bridge over the Kansas River and disappeared among the hills to the southward.
After settling the expenses of their college course and paying for their outfit, the two young people found themselves in possession of some two thousand dollars between them; more than enough, they fancied, backed as it was – or should I say led? – by two stout hearts and by four strong young arms, to wrest a livelihood – nay, a fortune, perhaps – from the prairies of the West.
An old, old story, this. A pair of home-builders going out into a new land to conquer or die; to establish another outpost of civilization on the distant frontier, or to fail. A man and a woman who had taken their all in their hands to consecrate it by their toil to the service of humanity, and to stake their happiness on the success of their endeavor. True builders of the nation, they! Pickets they were, going ahead of the advance guard of the army of civilization's marchers, which, untold ages ago, started in some secluded nook in the far Orient, and, impelled by an irresistible desire for conquest, in successive waves of emigration, has at last compassed the globe, rolled around the world. Leaders, these two, of that mighty deluge of men and women for whom the sun of hope is ever rising, – but rising in the West.
Never was such a wedding journey. It was springtime in the most bountiful and fertile year that had come to the great State for a generation. The way of the lovers, as they plodded ever southward and westward, led them now past vast fields of yellowing wheat already beginning to ripen for the thresher. Sometimes they drove for miles through towering walls of broad-bladed, cool, green corn; sometimes the trail led them over the untilled, treeless prairies covered with tall, nodding sunflowers in all their gorgeous golden bloom, – blossoms which gave the State a name; and not infrequently their way would take them alongside a limpid river, in that happy season bank full from the frequent rains, where the winding road would be overhung by great trees.
They stopped at night at the different little towns through which their way passed, and once in a while they enjoyed the hearty welcome of a lone farm-house. Sometimes they hired a negro boy to drive the wagon from one stopping-place to another, while they mounted the two led horses and galloped over the prairie. Samuel rode well, but to see Sue Belle on that spirited young steed of hers was to see the perfection of dashing horsemanship. An instinctive judge of horse-flesh, she had bought that three-year-old herself. He was a chestnut sorrel with a white blaze on his face, and white forefeet, as handsome and spirited as his mistress. In honor of her native State, she called him Kentucky.
As they progressed farther and farther southwestward the land became more open, the farm-houses were greater distances apart, cultivated fields less frequent, the towns were fewer in number and diminishing in size, the rivers grew smaller and smaller, and trees almost vanished from the landscape. Finally, away out in Cimarron County, where the railroad stopped and civilization ended, they reached their journey's end. Such a wedding-trip they had enjoyed, such a honeymoon they had spent!
They bought a bit of flower-decked prairie, a quarter section crossed in one corner by a little creek flowing southward until it joined a larger steam flowing into the Arkansas River. The chosen land mostly lay on the south side of a slight elevation from which they could survey the grass-mantled plains melting into the unbroken horizon miles and miles away. The country about was entirely uncultivated and had been mainly given over to cattle-raising; it was a dozen miles to the nearest house and fifteen to the town of Apache, the county-seat.
How still was that vast expanse of gently undulating land of which they were the centre! An ocean caught in a quiet moment, and every smoothly rolling wave petrified, motionless. How vast was the firmament above them! To lie in the grass at night and stare up into its blue unclouded distance filled with stars – shone they ever so gloriously anywhere else on the globe? – was to reduce one's self to a vanishing point in the infinite universe of God. Lonely? Yes, to ordinary people, perhaps, but not to these two home-builders. They were young, they were together, they were lovers, and they had to do prosaic, God-given labor.
So they pitched their stakes upon the verdant hill, and, toiling early and late, built there for themselves and those to come a home. With iron share they tore the virgin sod; with generous hands they sowed the seed; with all the hope of youth and love bourgeoning and blossoming in their breasts, they began the earth-old process of wresting a living from the tillage of the soil. "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread." So ran the primal truth. Ah, yes, but this time counted not a curse but a privilege, and enjoyed not without but within an Eden.
Spring-time again upon the farm, and they were bidding it good-by. Five years have dragged away, years filled with little but misfortune – years of freezing winters, burning summers, drought, or storm. Five lean years of failure, unprecedented but true. A long, deadly, paralyzing struggle with that terrible minatory face of nature which, thank God! is usually turned away from humanity, else we could not bear the sight. The sun had beaten upon the farm and burnt it up, the parasites had swarmed over the field and eaten it down, the winter cold had frozen the life out of it, the fierce storms had swept over it and torn it away, – winter and summer had been alike against them.
Last fall the deadly mortgage had grown from the little hand-breadth cloud until it had covered the land, blanketed it, blighted it, filled earth and sky to them. It was over. They had toiled for naught, and no profit had they taken of all their labor under the sun. They were beaten at last.
Once more the old Studebaker wagon. Within it a haggard, dogged, disappointed man, – yet indomitable; a woman still young, robbed forever of the brightness of youth, yet striving to nourish a spark of the old hope, – a mother, too. Two little children clung to her, healthy, lusty, strong, happy; they had neither known nor suffered. There was the same old team between the "tugs," sobered, quieted, saddened like their master, perhaps, and Kentucky. Kentucky was leaner than he should be, not so well nourished as they would like to have him, but his spirit was unabated. He, at least, had not been beaten down.
So they set forth again. "Once more into the breach," brave pair. Life insistently craves bread. Men must work; ay, and women too, though they may weep as well. There were the little children, oh, father and mother! treasure of health and teaching must be laid up for them. The old cause must be tried out yet again. Farewell to defeat, farewell to failure, farewell to the old. Let us stir up hope again, look forward into the future, deserve a triumph. All had been lost but love; that had not failed, and while God is it cannot. It is a mighty talisman with which to attempt the morrow. So armed, they started out again.
With one hundred dollars in his pocket, a small lot of household necessaries, a stove, some blankets, etc., and Kentucky, Samuel Maxwell and Sue Belle and the two children started out in the wagon again to have another wrestle with fortune. They determined to go to the Kansas-Indian Territory border and try to secure free land in Oklahoma Territory, which was to be opened for settlement that summer.
They hated the prairie where they had lived now. It was associated with their ruin, eloquent of their future. That season bade fair to be as bountiful a time as had been the year of their arrival, but they could not stay. They had pulled up the stakes, and nothing was left for them but to go on. Indeed, they were wishful to do so, and had they known that, as it happened, the five years of starvation, drought, and failure were to be succeeded by twice as many years of abounding plenty, they would not have stayed. They loathed the spot. They could not have remained anyway. Another man held the farm and succeeded where they had failed, reaping where they had sown.
It was late summer when they reached Solomon City, from which they had elected to make the run into the hitherto forbidden land. The place was filled with all sorts and conditions of men and women attracted by the possibility of getting a quarter section or a town lot practically free in the Cherokee strip; there were half a million of them on the border-line! And there, too, were congregated the human vultures that live to prey upon the crowd.
The distribution of the lots and sections was to be made on the principle of first come first served. All seekers for locations were to line up on the edge of the strip on a given date at a certain hour, and when a signal was given they were to rush into the Nation, drive a stake in a quarter section, or in a town lot at the places where the towns had previously been surveyed and lots plotted and staked out by the government, throughout the vast body of land in the Indian Territory thrown open for settlement. Then they were to hold their places, living in tents and shanties, until they could erect houses and prove their claims.
Samuel intended to ride Kentucky into the strip and take his chance at a town lot. He had had enough of farms. Not many miles below Solomon City, on the railroad running through the "strip," – as the land was called, – the future town of Newlands had been laid out by the surveyors. It was a paper town as yet, but the day after the run would see it suddenly become a city, and good lots would probably be of value. If he could get a good one it might be worth several thousand dollars, and he could start again. It was a desperate chance, but he had to take it; there was nothing else.
Ill fortune was not yet done with them, however, for in scrambling down the bank of the river to get water for his team, the unfortunate man fell and broke his arm. He climbed up to the wagon, sank down on the dry grass beside it, and gave way. Sue Belle stood by with white face as the local doctor bound up his arm, but she did not cry. She felt that she had other things to do, that she must play the man, and that she could not indulge in the womanly luxury of weeping.
"I'm not crying, doctor, because it hurts," said Samuel, brushing away his tears with his uninjured arm; "but because this seems to be just the last straw in our bad luck. We were married five years ago, and we bought a farm in Cimarron. I'm a good farmer, I was born on a farm and raised on it, and I was trained in the Agricultural College in Kansas. I know the thing theoretically and practically, too, but everything failed us. We've lost everything, and we came here in the hope of getting something out of the strip. God's forgot us, I guess."
The doctor had seen many cases like that in the Southwest, and, though his heart was profoundly touched, he could do nothing.
That night Samuel lay awake in the wagon almost forgetting the pain in his arm wondering what would become of them. He had lugged out his old leather purse and counted the money that was left, – ten dollars! That was all that stood between them and starvation! The strip was to be opened to-morrow, the run would take place then. What, in God's name, could he do?
"Sam," said Sue Belle, lying awake by his side, "don't give way so!"
"Give way, dear!" he groaned. "How can I help it? Ten dollars between you and the children and starvation! This town here can't help any one. These people around us can't Look at them! They're as poor as we are. Five years of crop failure has hit them as hard as it has hit us. The run takes place to-morrow, and I can't ride. I did hope that I could get a town lot in Newlands. I don't believe that anything here can outrun Kentucky; but now – oh, my God! my God!"
"Sam dear, I'll ride Kentucky."
She spoke resolutely, having thought quickly, and her mind was made up.
"We've got no side-saddle," answered the man; "you know we sold it."
"I can ride astride," said the woman, having covered this point also in her mind. "I used to ride that way when I was a girl. I've done it hundreds of times, and I can make better time that way now."
"But, dear, you're a woman, and – "
"I can wear your clothes, dear. I'm almost as tall as you are. They'll be rather large, but – "
"Oh, Sue Belle, I can't allow you to go in there alone, in all that crowd, with – "
"I've got to do it, Sam! It's our last chance. It's for the children, not ourselves. We could die. We've done our best. But think of them!"
She rose from her bed and crept over to the back of the wagon where the little boy and girl lay sprawling side by side in the dreamless sleep of childhood. She pushed from the baby brows the curly hair matted with perspiration, and stooped and kissed them. She felt so strong, so brave, so resolute, as if the burden which she had hitherto shared with Samuel, or from which he had tried to spare her, had suddenly fallen upon her own shoulders, and in some strange way that she had been given strength to bear it.
Long time that night husband and wife talked over the situation. In the face of her determination the man could not do otherwise than give consent. In the morning, making him as comfortable as she could, she plodded up through the dust to the city and bought from the wondering shopkeeper a pair of high boots that fitted her, since it would be impossible for her to use her husband's huge ones. At Sam's insistent demand, she also hired for five dollars a poor stranded negro, who looked honest and faithful, to drive the wagon after her into the strip. That exhausted their ready money.
It was half after eleven o'clock when she returned to the wagon. The doctor had been there, and had done what he could for her fevered husband, but his arm still pained fearfully. He was up, however, – he had to be, – and seated on the dusty grass in the shadow of the canvas top. The children were playing about him. Bidding the negro boy hitch up the team, Sue Belle slipped under the wagon-cover and dropped the curtain. When she came out her tall form was encased in her husband's only remaining suit of clothes. She wore a soft felt hat with her hair tightly twisted under it. A loose shirt, trousers, and the new boots completed her costume. Womanlike, she had tied a blue silk handkerchief – last treasure-trove from her trousseau – around her neck. There was a painful flush upon her thin face and her eyes were filled with tears.
Samuel groaned and shook his head, the negro boy gazed with mouth wide open, his eyes rolling, and little Sue Belle shrank away from her mother garbed in this strange manner. Kentucky, who had been given the last measure of oats they possessed, did not recognize her until she spoke, and then he stared at her in a wondering way as she saddled and bridled him. A hatchet and a tent-peg tied securely to the saddle completed her preparations. By her husband's insistence she strapped a spur on her boot, although, as she said, she had never put a spur to Kentucky in her life.
"You may have to do it now, dear," said Maxwell, and to please him she complied.
Nobody paid any attention whatever to her, although the boundary was lined, as far as eye could see and for miles beyond, with crowds of people intending to make the run. On the very edge of the strip the runners had assembled on horseback or muleback, on bicycles, in buggies, sulkies, or in road wagons, and there were many dressed in jerseys and running shoes who intended to make the run on foot. Back of them in long lines were grouped wagons of all descriptions, mostly filled with women and children. All sorts and conditions of men were represented in the huge and motley throng.
It was a blazing hot day. The shifting horde raised clouds of dust above the line, from which the bare, treeless prairie stretched away southward for miles. There was not a soul on it except United States cavalrymen, who were spread out in a long line, each man being placed at a regular interval from his neighbor. To the front of the troopers, the captain in command sat his horse, holding his watch in his left hand to determine the correct time, while in his right he carried a cocked revolver.
Twelve o'clock was the appointed hour. The soldiers on either side held their loaded carbines poised carefully and looked toward the captain, or, if too far away to see him, toward the next in line who could. The signal for the start was to be given simultaneously over the whole extended strip, stretching for many miles along the Kansas border, by means of these troopers. No one was to move until the signal was given. The soldiers had scoured the country for days to evict the "sooners," – those who had gone in before the appointed time and attempted to conceal themselves that they might secure the best lots.
Sue Belle turned and kissed the babies. Then she bent toward Samuel, but he rose painfully to his feet and stood flushed and feverish while he pressed her to his side with his sound arm.
"May God protect you, dear," he said, trembling with pain and agitation.
"He will! He will!" exclaimed the woman, fervently, strong in her endeavor. "Now be sure and have the wagon follow right after me. And you know the doctor said he'd get you taken in some place in town as soon as the run began; there'll be lots of room there then. I'm going to ride straight down to Newlands and try for a town lot. They'll find me there. They ought to be there by evening, and I'll manage somehow till then."
"But how'll you live till I get there?"
"I can cook or wash for hire; there'll be lots to do there, and I'll write to you at once. Don't worry about me, dear. I'm half crazy to think of leaving you ill and alone – "
"I wish you had a revolver, Sue Belle," groaned Samuel.
"I wish I had, too," answered the woman; "but never mind, we are in God's hands."
"Oh, Sue Belle, I can't let you go!"
"You must! I must go now! See! They're getting ready!"
She tore herself away from him and spoke to the colored boy.
"Joe," she said, "for God's sake, don't fail us! I leave you my two little children; if you guard them safely and bring them to me faithfully, whatever good fortune comes to us you shall share."
"'Deed I will, suh, ma'am, miss, – yes, suh," stammered the colored boy. "I'll tek good caah on 'em, mista – lady," he added, in his confusion.
Without another word the woman sprang on the horse and forced herself as near the line as she could. She had lost an opportunity of getting in the very front rank, but she knew her horse and did not care for that. It wanted perhaps a minute to twelve o'clock, and a silence settled down over the rude assemblage, although the excitement was at fever heat. Pushing and jostling would gain no advantage now. The gray old captain of cavalry sat his horse, intently gazing at his watch. The seconds dragged and the multitude waited breathlessly. Suddenly he closed it with a snap, lifted his pistol in the air, and before the smoke of the discharge blew away a quick volley rang along the line.
With a sort of a roar that echoed up into the heavens for miles the runners sprang forward. There was one mighty simultaneous surge of men and animals, and then the line began to break. In the cloud of dust that arose instantly, Maxwell, forgetful of his broken arm, strove vainly to follow with his gaze Sue Belle's flying figure. The next moment he noticed that the ground directly in front of him was deserted. An idea flashed into his mind. Regardless of his pain, he sprang to his feet, with his uninjured arm tore a loose bed-slat from the wagon, and, stepping across the line, thrust it into the finest quarter section of the strip. Nobody had thought of doing this. The land adjoined the town of Solomon City, and could probably be sold without delay for a good sum of money. It was his. They were saved!
Oh, why hadn't he thought of it before and prevented his wife from making the run? But it was too late; she was gone. Calling the negro, he had him take from the wagon a few of the boards which had been brought along for the purpose, and nail them together in a tent shape to make him a shelter. Laying a blanket and a quilt on the ground, and setting a bucket of water therein, he crawled under it, knowing that some one sent by the doctor would certainly come to him during the day, and determined to hold his claim if he died for it. Then he bade Joe load the children in the wagon, take them into the strip, tell his wife of his good fortune, and bid her come back to him, if she could.
What of the woman riding on with a broken heart, yet with a grim determination somehow to achieve fortune for her sick husband and her children? She kept Kentucky well in hand, and yet easily passed buggies, sulkies, runners, men on bicycles, and began to overtake the horsemen galloping southward over the prairie. At first the dust almost choked her. The man's saddle annoyed her, too; but as she got into clear air, and began to get accustomed to the strangeness of her position, she regained her self-control. She shook the reins lightly over the horse, and he lengthened his stride and quickened his speed, making swift progress for a long time.
Finally there was no one in front of her. To the right and left, as far as she could see, horsemen were galloping on; back of her they trailed in an ever-thinning mass. Most of them she was leaving rapidly. Kentucky was of racing stock. He was three-quarter-bred and game to the core. The sight of the other horses running by his side inspired him. He had been ridden in a wild dash across the prairie many a time, but never before in competition with other horses. He took to the race instinctively, and galloped on as if he had been trained to it from the beginning.
She had hard work to hold him, yet she knew she had a long ride before her, and if she did not keep him well in hand he would be blown before he went half the distance; so she held him down to it, riding warily, watching carefully for prairie-dog holes, for if the horse should thrust his leg into one he would break it, and that would be the end of him and her ride as well.
So she galloped on and on, still in the front line, and with every surging leap leaving some beaten runner behind. Now she drew ahead, now she led the whole vast throng, and now the horse was out of hand. He was running magnificently, but he had gotten away from her, not viciously, but in pure joy at being free in this mad race over the prairie. Presently she looked back. The nearest rider seemed to be half a mile behind her. It was not necessary for her to get so far ahead, and she tried again and again to check the horse, but without success.
Kentucky was running his own race now. How he swept through the air! It was magnificent! The exhilaration of the motion got into her blood. It was long since she had had such a ride. She, too, came of racing stock, and the habit of her sires reasserted itself in her being. For a moment she forgot Samuel, forgot the children. She forgot everything but that wide open prairie, the wind blowing across her face, the rapid rise and fall of the horse as he raced madly on. Youth came back to her and the joy of life; failure lay behind, success before. Her heart beat faster in her breast. Kentucky gallantly carried her forward. How long had she been riding? She could not tell. They were not at Newlands yet, she was certain, so she raced away. After a long time she looked back and was astonished to see two riders nearer to her than any had been when she had looked before; all the rest were miles behind.
The men were mounted on broncos, – the horse par excellence of the West, – wild, vagrant descendants of old Spanish breeds; animals without blood, without birth, without beauty, without style, without training, mean and vicious in disposition; utterly useless for a short dash, and in an ordinary race unable to approach a thoroughbred; but with a brutal, indomitable spirit, a capacity for unlimited endurance and tireless ability to run long distances and live on nothing, and do it day after day, which made them formidable and dangerous competitors for all other horses of whatsoever quality. They were loping along after her with an ugly yet very rapid gait, which they could keep up all day if necessary.
Sue Belle thought Kentucky's stride was not quite so sweeping as it had been; he seemed to be a little tired; still, he was doing his best manfully. Although he yet held the lead, he was not built for this kind of a run. She realized it, but there was nothing she could do to husband his strength, nothing left her but to gallop on. And yet there was lots of go in him yet. He was by no means done.
The prairie rolled away back of them as it was compassed by the flying feet, and still the mighty ride went on. The first bronco was nearer now. He was not quite a mile away, but the second was a longer distance behind the first and falling back. The rest were nowhere. Of all the throng only these three were in sight. Kentucky was very tired. Surely they must be near Newlands now! The other horse was coming up fast. She shook out the reins and called to her own. The pursuer was nearer! He was so near that at last Kentucky realized that he was being pursued. They were almost there! In front of them on the horizon she saw the land-office, the station, and the hundreds of white stakes marking the lots of the town.
The other horse was almost beside her now. Well, suppose he did win the race? There were hundreds of lots there, and the second choice would probably be as good as the first. Should she let him pass? No! That was not the Kentucky way. Should the horse do it? No, again. She leaned forward over the saddle and spoke to him; she drove the spur into him at last. The surprised horse bounded into the air with a sudden access of vigor, and he fairly leaped away from the bronco. It was his final effort; when this spurt was ended he would be done for. Would it be enough?
In her excitement she turned and shouted back to the man, she knew not what, waving her hat in disdain. Presently she turned into what appeared to be the main street. Instinctively as they ran along she chose what seemed to be the best lot in the prospective city, and then reined in her panting, exhausted horse; she sprang to the ground, tore the peg and hatchet from the saddle-bow, and drove the stake in the lot. Not a moment too soon, with not a second to spare, she had won the race! The wild bronco came thundering upon her heels. The man jerked his horse to his haunches by the side of the triumphant thoroughbred, dropped a rein to the ground to keep him, sprang from the saddle, and stepped toward her.