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April 21, 1889. Purcell, Oklahoma.
Rose Skinner slipped her rucksack off her shoulders and let it hit to the ground with an explosion of loose earth. She rubbed her neck where the strap had been riding for god-knows miles and felt the muscles finally begin to relax. The pack at her feet contained her every worldly belonging, clothing and tools and one single pair of nice shoes crammed into an infinitely tiny space. Her back and legs ached from the trek to cross the Red River, but now she was here; the starting point.
Ezekiel nickered, apparently joining her in rejoicing the end of their trip. She patted the horse's thick neck and smiled. "You did good, boy. You did good." She pulled an apple from her coat pocket and held it up to him. The horse greedily worked his lips over it and sucked the treat between his teeth.
As Ezekiel reveled in his reward, Rose stared into the night and tried to find where the sky met the horizon. The land stretched out in front of her, dark and mysterious and so untouched it looked like no man had ever set foot there. It was Oklahoma Territory, her future home, the place she would finally break away from everything in her past life.
When she'd started out, her mind had been awash with poetic thoughts of what the Land Run would be; mighty steeds lined up at the starting line, proud cowboys sitting high in the saddle waiting for the starter pistol, proud men and women with stars in their eyes. But as soon as she entered into Purcell, she knew that she'd been foolish. She was immediately confronted by two fights and had seen a US Marshal returning from the Territory with a sooner in tow.
The men and women waiting to begin the run were all but straight-spines and dreamy eyes. They sagged in their saddles or, more often, in piles on the ground. They reeked of alcohol and seemed ready to use their guns on a mosquito if it struck their fancy. It was madness, insanity given validation. But she would only have to deal with it for fifteen or sixteen more hours. At noon, the starter pistol would sound and they would all be off.
As twilight became night, several people in the makeshift camp began strumming instruments. A few of the hopefuls making the run in the morning were bunched along the embankment of the Canadian River. Behind them, the ramshackle town of Purcell continued with business as usual. The town was newborn, established and populated before the Territory had opened up. And, as with any small town, troublemakers were quick to make themselves known. Fights occasionally broke out in one barroom or another, and a couple of hucksters set up card games in the street to lure runners out of what little cash they actually still had.
The vast majority of Purcell residents, though, were camped out themselves; they were on the hill, already picking out the best spots from which to watch the Land Run in the morning. Rose looked up at the campfires and lantern lights that dotted the hillside felt her lips pull into a smile. She was going to be a part of history in the morning.
Discontent with standing still, Rose picked up her rucksack and slung it over one shoulder. Ezekiel was tied to a hitching post with a half dozen other horses, all of which were being watched over by a pair of US Marshals. She ran her hand along her horse's back before stepping away into the crowd. She moved toward the river in the hopes she'd find someone willing to share their fire. The din of small talk was almost a small roar, everyone telling a story about how they'd come to be in this tiny town on the edge of a vast unclaimed prairie.
One of the first groups Rose passed had a lean, dark-haired woman dealing cards. She wore no shirt under her vest and every time she leaned forward to deal to the man across from her, the material strained to earn its keep. Her dark hair was piled on top of her head and she was chomping on a cigar, barking out the rules of the game to the men gathered. Most of them were focused on the low neck of her vest, eyes on her prize rather than their money. Judging by the stack of chips in front of her, distraction had been the dealer's plan all along.
"Ante up, gentlemen," the dealer said around her cigar. Her voice was tinged with some sort of accent; Rose couldn't tell if it was Australian or British. The dealer breathed out a white plume of smoke and squinted up at Rose. "You want to play?"
"I don't know how," Rose lied. She really didn't want to admit she'd fall prey to the dealer's trick just as easily as the men.
The dealer saluted with her cigar and turned back to her victims. Rose walked on through the crowds, seeing people chattering as if they couldn't control their mouths seated next to sullen, silent people who were apparently afraid of giving anything away. These probably had inside information about what lay inside the territory and didn't want to risk losing their future homestead due to loose lips. Oklahoma Territory was big, but it was not infinite.
Near the banks, the crowd seemed to disperse some. Families were crowded into small dugouts on the sandy shore, still others already turned in for the night in makeshift sleep palettes. Rose offered a smile to everyone she passed, but few deigned to return it. Everyone here was a potential enemy, someone you may have to fight in order to keep land you'd chosen for yourself.
Following a rutted path through the sand, she paused beside a tree and looked up at the stars. The night was clear, hardly a star in the sky, and for a moment she forgot about the push of humanity that enveloped her on all sides. She was about to walk on when the quiet strumming of a banjo drifted across the noise and confusion. She followed the music like a Hamelin child and found herself at the back of a small green tent.
At first, Rose thought the musician was a man. She wore britches with suspenders, a starched blue shirt under a black vest and had her short hair hidden under a bowler cap. Rose only realized her mistake when the woman began singing. Her voice was soft, melodic, hypnotizing. She was sitting cross-legged on the ground, bent over the instrument and picking a slow song out of the strings.
The song didn't seem to have any structure, the words didn't rhyme and sometimes faded into a quiet hum, but Rose was entranced all the same. When the strumming stopped, the player stood and turned around to return the instrument to its case. She jumped when she saw her audience, putting a hand to her chest. Sky-blue eyes blinked behind round glasses, the rims seemingly aflame with reflected campfire light.
"I didn't mean to startle you," Rose said.
"Hi," the musician said.
Rose could see the woman was embarrassed about being overheard and didn't want to compound the problem. She tucked one auburn curl behind her ear and stepped away from the tree and moved toward the main drag. "I'll see you around," she said quickly. She raised her hand in farewell, kicking herself for being such a coward, wishing she hadn't even stopped. She was so busy chiding herself and trying to make a graceful exit that she didn't bother to look over her shoulder and see the woman was watching her go.
April 22, 1889. 11:22 am.
"Do you have the time?"
"Twenty-two past eleven," Rose replied. She had her grandfather's gold pocket watch cradled in her palm rather than her pocket because she knew, before long, someone else would be asking. The latest man to ask pulled back and checked his own watch with a nod. All across the encampment, the same question was being repeated over and over again. From the Marshal's positions to the very edge of the town, no one was willing to trust their own watches.
"Astrological noon is when the sun is straight overhead, right?"
"Will the race start straight up at noon or just whenever the sun was straight up over us?"
"What if the marshal's watch stops?"
Rose saddled Ezekiel and smoothed her hand over his flank. She whispered quietly to him as she guided him away from camp and moving to a position to start the race. "Ready to run, baby? Gonna get us a nice, prime piece of land. Yes." She smiled as the horse nickered and stomped his foot on the hard ground.
She released the reins with one hand and reached up to adjust the shoulder strap of her burden. It was threatening to pull her backward, but a quick tug settled the weight more evenly across her shoulders. The pack contained her secret weapon, rescued from a dust bin behind a clothing store in Houston. It wouldn't actually help her in the run, but with any luck it would help her keep any land that she happened to claim.
She joined the line-up, settled next to a wagon. The man seated behind his team nodded to her and she lifted her hand in a shy wave. Couldn't afford to be too friendly. She hunched her shoulders forward and scanned her surroundings. Dozens of Purcell residents had set up camp on rooftops to watch the spectacle. The ones who had been camping on the hillside the previous evening were now awake and cheering.
They were the people who had already found a home in Purcell, those who were merely witnesses to the whole debacle. The Purcell spectators were joined by the families, loved ones and friends of people in the race. Rose pondered waving to them, but figured she'd never be spotted amid the sea of the hopeful.
Those on foot pushed past covered wagons and mounted horses to lay their feet directly on the line. The US Marshals kept a watchful eye, spaced so they could be seen from any point along the starting line. She'd heard of other, less guarded, entry points where sooners and moonlighters were getting in ahead of time, but she wanted nothing to do with that thievery. She'd have her land legally or not at all.
She joined the throng at the line and looked again at the watch cradled in her hand. The minute hand ticked every slowly towards noon, the sun glinting off the glass face. Her heart froze when the minute hand appeared to freeze for a handful of seconds before ticking over.
Biting her bottom lip, she looked at the man next to her and asked, "Pardon me. Do you have the time?"
The next half hour passed excruciatingly slow. Rose held the reins of her horse tightly, tightening and loosening her fists, keeping an eye on the other racers. Once or twice, a US Marshall left his post to move deeper into the territory and returned with a sooner. The erstwhile cheaters were taken back across the line and, against a few protests from those who were observing the rules, were allowed to race with everyone else.
After an eternity, excited whispers of "Two minutes to noon" began to circulate. The Marshals were seen to constantly check their watches. Finally, a man named Adair lifted an arm over his head. Rose bent down and smoothed her hand over Ezekiel's neck. She ticked in his ear and tightly gripped his mane with one hand. Ezekiel bobbed his head up and down and she smiled.
The starter pistol went off with a loud "SNAP!" and a roar went up. The racers surged forward like a mighty breeze, the thunderous beating of their horse's hooves echoing across the land. They stormed and splashed across the South Canadian River, most likely tossing every single drop of water in the river up into the air and letting it fall over them in a cooling rainstorm.
Rose immediately realized that not everyone had been eyeing the far horizon. Several people dropped from their horses as soon as they were over the line and began hammering their claims into the hard ground as the rest of the racers surged around them. Rose laughed, giddy at the thought; so many people racing forward when it was just as easy to stop right here! She bellowed a congratulations to one of the men as she rode past him, glancing back to see how many others were stopping just over the line.
Her eyes were instead drawn to a horrific sight. A man's horse had apparently stumbled in a quicksand along the opposite bank of the river. It had stumbled and tossed its rider into the water. The panicky horse was reared back, kicking with its front legs and screaming loud enough for her to hear above all the chaos. Rose slowed her own horse, torn between helping the man and sacrificing her own claim.
As she was debating whether to help the injured man or follow her own selfish goals, the solution appeared in the form of the blonde musician. She dropped from her own horse on the bank and headed fearlessly into the water. She bent down to help the man up, grabbing the horse's reins with her free hand. Rose was awe-struck by the display of courage and selflessness. The horse was quickly calmed and the musician led it and the rider back to the shore. Even at this distance, Rose could see the man was bleeding and dragging his left leg behind him.
The blonde woman put him down on the bank and immediately began tending to his wounds. Rose couldn't fathom what she was seeing. They hadn't been riding together, so it stood to reason they didn't know one another. So why in the world would the banjo-strumming woman be willing to sacrifice everything - her dreams, her land, her future - just to help a stranger?
Although intrigued, Rose knew her own chance at land was slipping further away with each second she watched and questioned. She tugged on the reins and spurred Ezekiel forward with renewed energy. Whatever the musician's motivations, her morals would likely cost her a homestead. Rose would not give up something like a home so easily.
Forty-five minutes later, Rose dismounted and dropped to one knee. She'd spotted this section from nearly a mile away; a bell-shaped area of open land, dotted with white and purple flowers. The trees that rose up like a wall on the west and south borders, a culvert that ran along the northern edge and the open sky forming a ceiling over it all... everything seemed to be just waiting to enclose a home.
So many people in the run were looking for farmland, still others for enough land to separate into plots and start a town. All Rose wanted was a home with a pretty backyard. This was going to be more than enough for her.
She felt like she hadn't breathed since spotting the land, positive someone would explode from the trees and take it from her. She knelt down and pounded a stake rhythm with the beating of her heart. The claim read "This tract of land claimed by Rose Skinner at 12:44, April 22, 1889." She stood and brushed the dirt off her britches. She took a moment to admire the sign, finally looking down at a claim of her own, and then got to moving. She slipped the pack from her shoulders and dropped it in front of the wooden stake. A pale white hand flopped out of the top and landed in the dusty ground.
She worked the mouth of the pack wider and took the hand as if to shake it. Instead, she tugged the mannequin free and unfolded him as he birthed from the canvas pack. As soon as she'd seen him sticking out of the trash dumpster, her plan had appeared fully formed in her mind.
Her heart pounded as she set up the mannequin. She made sure he wasn't bent or broken or oddly contorted in any way before placing him upright on a stump. She paused and turned in a slow circle to make sure there were no witnesses to her ruse. The hill directly in front of her - which, she realized, would be the view from her front porch - was clear. The trees flanking her new land provided a bit of cover as well as potential hiding places for claim-jumpers.
She finished her work quickly, her back to the culvert so she could spot anyone approaching. She'd already examined the trench and found no one hiding there.
She padded the wooden man's chest with extra shirts and buttoned a black shirt on top. She covered his head with a cowboy hat and laid a Winchester rifle across his lap. She started a fire in front of him before pitching a tent behind. With her "husband" in place, she took a wagon wheel and began marking off the boundaries of her claim. Her little slice of the Territory wasn't large by any means; she'd have enough for a house and the yard she'd been dreaming of, but no crops, no acres to work... which was just fine with her.
As she rounded the southwest corner of her property, two men rode up on horses. One had a gun on his hip and the other was carrying a length of rope. Rose had been warned of people literally being dragged from their claims, but prayed her ruse would work. She looked over her shoulder at the mannequin. The plot was small, but he was far enough way to fool the eye. "Stay down, Michael," Rose said over her shoulder. To the men, Rose said, "Can we help you gentlemen?"
The gunman looked at the mannequin and chewed the inside of his cheek. "Just lookin' for a claim, miss," the man with the rope said. He glanced at the gunman.
The gunman nodded. "Yes, ma'am. Mighty fine plot of land you got for yourself."
"Thank you," Rose said softly. She bowed a bit to them and gestured over her shoulder. "My husband near ran himself ragged getting here... so you'll understand if he's a bit tetchy about claim-jumpers."
"Understandable," the gunman said. "You folks have yourself a nice afternoon. Congratulations." They turned their horses away from the claim and trotted off into the distance.
Rose didn't breathe until they were gone. When the sound of their hooves had faded and the valley was silent again, she finally released the breath she'd been holding. "Looks like you were right," she said quietly to the sky. "People see what they want." The guys would probably swear up and down in the morning that the man had looked at them, maybe even that he'd lifted his rifle. The mind was a funny thing, but she wasn't going to question its power.
She finished marking off her land and left the wagon wheel at the eastern border and returned to her supply pack. She was mighty hungry and was ready for her first meal in her new home. She'd spend the night here, protecting her claim from those too mean or stupid to get their own claim and then head to the land office in the morning.
Two months of selling everything that wasn't nailed down, everything in the house she had called a home for so long. Two weeks waiting for the starter's pistol... and it was all over in less than an hour.
To be continued in Chapter One
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