Authors: Glendon Swarthout
It was custom in the Territory to ride up and wait some rods before a sod house until someone came out and you were recognized before you rode near and dismounted. On this faultless March day Vester Belknap burst out of his house to meet the minister, trying simultaneously to run and haul on his coat.
“Oh, Reveren', Reveren', you ain't come a minute too soon!”
Dowd couldn't tell whether the man's eyes watered with sun or with tears.
“It's Line! She's gone crazy on me!”
“Day before yestiddy! I come home from Loup an' she'd had the baby an' killed it!”
Dowd was dismounting. “You can't mean it.”
“She did so! Crazier'n a bedbug!”
“Calm yourself, Vester,” said Dowd, boots on the snow. “Tell me.”
The homesteader was built like a barrel, and it was as though the bung had been pulled. A horrified Alfred Dowd listened, untying and unwinding his muffler to bare his face, feeling the palms of his hands perspire. Belknap finished. “Her own babe, her own babe. Kin you b'lieve it?”
The minister shook his head, then asked, irrelevantly, “What have you done with the child?”
“Put 'er in the stable, high up. Wolves. She'll keep till I kin get in the ground.”
“We must have a service.”
“If you say so.”
“In the meantime our concern must be for your poor wife.” Dowd glanced at the house and saw in the wavery window what seemed to be the faces of three young girls peering at him. “I'll go in and see her.”
“Oh, no.” Belknap set his belly between them. “Nope, I don't want no one t'see 'er. Not like she is.”
“Are you ashamed of her?”
The man colored. He knew what he wanted to say, and on the other hand, what he should say. “Course I'm not! She's my wife!” he cried. Line wasn't herself, though, not by a long shot, he insisted. When she talked you couldn't make sense of it, just noises. He had to feed her by hand, like a baby, or she'd starve. He had to carry her to the outhouse and pull up her clothes and set her down or she'd bust her bladder. “Does that sound like a wife?” he demanded, convinced he had made his case. “Is that like a human bein' atall? You tell me, Reveren'!”
Dowd nodded. “I understand. Still, someone had better see her. Let me pass, Vester.” He smiled. “Remember, when I go in, the Lord goes with me.”
Belknap stared at him a moment, then subsided and moved, and the minister stepped lively for the door, removing his hat.
He was inside the house only a short while, and when he came out he walked slowly, almost unsteadily to his nag, hat in hand, and laid his forehead against the animal's neck and closed his eyes. He thought of his own wife. When he raised his head, squinting into the sun, Belknap was nowhere to be seen. Just as he was about to call, Vester emerged from the outhouse, buckling his trousers, and came to him.
“Let us pray,” Dowd said.
They bowed heads.
“Dear Lord, restore this woman to Thy grace. And comfort her husband in his time of trial. We ask Thee in the name of all those afflicted in mind and spirit, and those who love them. Amen.”
The minister put on his hat. “Vester, I am truly sorry,” he said.
Vester was vindicated. “Told you so, Reveren'. But sorry don't help. What in hellâI mean, what'll I do? I cain't live like this. She cain't cook or clean or nothin'. She's no use to anyone, leastwise herself.”
Dowd was rewinding his muffler. “I've been thinking. It may not be good for the girls to be with her long. Why can't you send them over to Mary Bee's? She'll take them in.”
“Oh, no.” Belknap was stubborn as before. “I won't be alone with 'er. Gives me the shakes. Think some more.”
The minister sighed. “Well, what did you intend to do?”
“Me? What kin I do? I figgered you'd come by or I'd get word to you someways.”
Dowd sighed again. He tied the muffler on top. He asked where Theoline hailed from originally, and Belknap replied from Kentucky, little town in a hollow called Slade's Dell, same place he did, and she still had folks there, sister and a brother.
“That's where she must go, then,” said Dowd.
Dowd said they'd have to have a homesman. He'd heard of two other wives in the same pitiful state, one up northeast of Loup named Petzke, and one over east, a Mrs. Svendsen, which, with Theoline, made three, the same number as last year. “We can manage it soon, I predict.” He squinted at the sky. “This day is a sign. We'll have spring before we know it.” He took up his reins. If he had hoped for dinner at the Belknap place, he had hoped in vain. “I will pray for her, Vester.”
“Pray for me, Reveren'. She's past it.”
Dowd frowned. “You'll hear from me in a week or so.”
Belknap frowned. “I better. I cain't put up with this for long.”
The minister hopped on his nag and looked off over a world glazed a pure, almost a divine, white. “This winter,” he said through his muffler, as though to himself. “Oh, this damnable winter.”
Belknap shoved hands into coat pockets and snuffled. “Why'd she do it, Dowd?” he pleaded, pulling a long and sorrowful face. “You're a parson. Why in hell'd she do this t'me?”
Alfred Dowd rode away from him.
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Charley Linens picked up John Cox at his place and the two men rode south and west. In the scabbard by his saddle each carried a rifle, loaded.
In the late fall, just before the first snow of that winter, a young bachelor named Andy Giffen had left his claim and gone home to Pennsylvania. On the door of his dugout he posted a sign:
GONE BACK EAST TO GET A WIFE.
This was not unusual. If they were able, homesteaders often took advantage of a winter to cross the Missouri and return to their roots for sundry reasons: to visit family, to enjoy civilization, to scratch and claw in court over inheritances, to borrow money from prosperous in-laws, or, in Andy's instance, to find a girl, paint her a rosy picture of life on the frontier, wed her and bed her and knock her up, and escort his darling and her belly back with him come spring. Brides-to-be were scarcer than oysters in the Territory, where men outnumbered women eight to one. Andy had staked a claim to a hundred sixty choice acres near the Kettle River and lived on it two years and taken two crops from it. He had built a snug home by digging into the side of a ravine, fronting the hole with sod blocks, installing a door and a window of wood that swung open and shut, and running his stovepipe upward through the earth to clear prairie level by several feet to allow for snow. Andy Giffen was twenty-nine and ripe. He had a house and a fine team of horses and a good milch cow and plenty of tools and implements and seed for spring. All he lacked to be sitting pretty were a wife and children.
So he thought. He also lacked registration papers for his claim. He had complied with two provisions of the Preemption Act by living on his land and improving it, but he had not yet got around to appearing at the nearest land office, in Wamego, seventy miles away, to file and to pay the $1.25 an acre appraised value. Andy calculated to kill two birds with one stoneâto bring his brand-new bride home by way of Wamego, to sign papers and pay up and show her off at the same time. It was a small matter. Several of his neighbors were in the same fix and seemed unconcerned. Technically they, too, were “squatters,” with appurtenant “squatter's rights,” and possession was nine points of the law. But what he did not reckon with was the fact that where there were squatters, there were bound to be claim-jumpers, and sure enough, soon after he left on his matrimonial mission, one such individual tore down his gone-east-wife sign and moved into his house.
Charley Linens and John Cox added Martin Polhemus and his rifle and the three rode on together toward Andy Giffen's place, straight of face, speaking little. The day was dark. The thaw continued. The snow was crusted. Under the snow they could hear water running now and then, and the pull of a hoof from the snow made a sucking sound.
No one knew a particle about the jumper. Some had heard his name was “Briggs,” others “Moore.” He could be a loner, working his game on his own. He could be in cahoots with a lawyer in Wamego, which, it was said, had more lawyers than human residents. In either case, claim-jumpers were as hard to get rid of as fleas, and Mr. and Mrs. Giffen would soon have one hell of a homecoming. If the jumper offered to sell, it would be at a price Andy could never afford. If he took the matter to court in Wamego, the lawyers would bleed him white. If he got fighting mad, he might face a gun. No two ways about it, his friends agreed, come spring, before Andy returned, the varmint would have to hightail it or have his hide nailed to a wall. It was spring now, or looked to be, and time to get down to business. Andy would have done as much for them.
So they rode on through the snow and darkening day, Linens, Cox, and Polhemus, until they spotted smoke rising out of Andy's stovepipe. Then they rode to the north of it a few rods and down into the ravine. They passed Andy's stable, and there was nothing in it but the rear end of an ugly horse. They reined up about thirty feet in front of the dugout door. Charley Linens slipped his rifle from its scabbard and balanced it across the pommel of his saddle, in plain sight, and the other two did likewise.
“Hullo in there!” called Charley.
Taking his sweet time, a man opened the door and stepped out and stood facing them. They noticed two things. He wore no coat, just trousers and the top of his long johns, which meant he was keeping himself mighty comfortable burning Andy's wood. And sticking out of his belt was the handle of a big repeater.
“Your name Briggs?” Charley inquired.
“Moore?” asked John Cox.
He was a cool customer. In his jaw he had a chew, and he let it rest.
“Now you know,” said Charley, “this here is Andy Giffen's place. He's a friend of ours. He's gone back east to get him a wife, but he'll be back any day now. What d'you propose to do about that?”
“I propose to stay.”
This riled Martin Polhemus. He was a poor man. To keep his feet from freezing through the holes in his boots, he wound them with strips of meal sack. “Shit,” snapped Martin Polhemus. “You're a damn jumper.”
“Where's his papers?” Briggs asked.
“Where's yours?” countered John Cox.
“Possession nine points of the law,” said Briggs.
This shut them up for a minute. The jumper looked them over and spat some juice.
“Where's his team?” inquired Charley Linens.
“Where's his cow?” Cox asked. John Cox was the most peaceable of the three. “Andy had a right good cow.”
“You sonvabitch,” said Martin Polhemus, and laid a hand on the stock of his rifle.
Briggs did a sudden, peculiar thing. He had a snake for a right arm, and he snaked that pistol out of his belt and raised arm and fired straight up in the air. The report ricocheted between the banks of the ravine like whipcracks. Briggs put away the repeater. The three visitors sat their horses like stone men. They figured the gun was a Navy Colt's.
After a time Charley Linens said, “All right you listen, Mister. We aim to have your thievin' ass off this place before Andy shows up. We'll do it however we have to. So our advice is, hop to it.”
Briggs or Moore or whoever he was took a long steady look at Charley, then the others. Then he unbuttoned his trousers, took out his pecker, and pissed in the snow. It steamed. Then he buttoned up, turned his back on them, and stepped into the dugout and shut the door as though it was time for supper.
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He saw Mary Bee Cuddy from a mile away, a dot of black on white near her house. Riding, he reflected. He had heard from neighbors that she often stood so when the weather was clement, staring out over the spaces in hopes of seeingâwhat? A buffalo? A rider? A wagon train? Or a miracle, a tree growing, just one tree to remind her of home? He wondered if there was a way to measure loneliness.
When he came within half a mile he waved and she waved back, and both were reassured. They had neither seen nor heard of each other for two months, since the January thaw. The minister knew Mary Bee Cuddy almost as well, perhaps, as did the Lord. Three years ago she had journeyed alone by train and steamboat and stagecoach from upper York State to take a school south of Wamego. She taught a year, then resigned abruptly and bought this claim from a new widow who was going back east because her husband had been caught unarmed in a field and killed and mutilated by Pawnees. Mary Bee had evidently come into some money. She paid six hundred dollars cash for the claim and hired men to build her a new sod house and stable and even an outhouse of sod, the marvel of the neighborhood because no wind could blow it down. Several other old maids in his congregations were trying to prove claims up by themselves, but none made a go of it as successfully as Mary Bee. She taught herself how to hang on to a horse and use a rifle like a dragoon. She could cook and sew and keep house and track of her neighbors from the start, but she soon learned how to plow, plant, cut, bind, shock, and get her grain to a grist mill, and to know when her stock needed doctoring. She set a fine table and her door and heart were always open. It was she who raised enough cain to help him get a church-school constructed, and gave a hundred dollars to the cause. It was her gifts of food, Dowd knew for a fact, which had seen the Belknaps, her nearest neighbors, through a good part of the winter. She rode her own generous circuit, cheering the dejected, nursing the sick, and playing auntie to the little ones. Oh, she was a pillar. She was educated, she appreciated the finer things, she was gritty as all get-out. In his opinion, Mary Bee Cuddy was an altogether admirable human being. He wondered if there was a way to measure character.