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A Claim of Her Own
by Stephanie Grace Whitson
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A Claim of Her Own by Stephanie Grace Whitson

Chapter 1
And in Your book were all written
The days that were ordained for me,
Psalm 139:16 (nasb)

Walking down the main street in Deadwood is like stepping onto hell's front porch. It's frenzied and filthy, and it's the last place on earth a man would want to bring any woman he cared about. Be patient. I know it's hard, but you have to trust me about the timing.

Mattie had thought Dillon was just trying to scare her when he wrote that. She thought he was just making sure she didn't take a notion to follow him up here before he was ready for her. But ready or not, she was here now, slogging into town alongside a freighter's wagon piled high with goods. It didn't take long to realize Dillon wasn't exaggerating one bit when he wrote about Deadwood. "Main Street" was little more than a churning river of slops and garbage and manure. The common language seemed to be cursing, and the population 100 percent vile men who spat tobacco and smelled as if they hadn't bathed in weeks. There wasn't a real storefront for as far as she could see. At least not by her standards. Hand-painted signs improvised from old lumber or dirty sheets touted the location of laundries and stores, saloons and hotels, but most businesses were little more than large canvas tents.

Frenzied and filthy. Mattie glanced down at the mud-caked hem of her skirt. Even before arriving in Deadwood she'd encountered plenty of filth--just as predicted by the reluctant freighter she'd convinced to let her travel with the supply train. As for frenzy ... two men across the way were screaming at each other over a promised order and a failure to supply. Saws and hammers, jangling harnesses, and rattling wagons added to the cacophony, and if that weren't enough noise, the bullwhackers were having their share of trouble getting their teams to haul through the mire.

The freighter called Swede cracked a fearsome bullwhip and called out, "Get along dere, you good-for-nuttin' flea-bitten mired-down cayoose! Almost to home now! Gee-haw!"

All up and down the long line of wagons, freighters screamed and hollered and swore and cracked their whips. Finally, with bellowed protest and lowing complaint, the teams surged ahead.

Mattie continued to take the measure of Deadwood. The business calling itself Grand Central Hotel looked like someone newly acquainted with saw and hammer had knocked it together in a few hours. She stifled a laugh. Grand, indeed. Giving a place--or a person for that matter--a fancy name was little more than whitewashing a rotted board as far as she was concerned, and there was obviously plenty of rot beneath the scrawled signs and piles of fresh-cut lumber lining the muddy trail called Main.

Glancing back at the towering loads of freight in Swede's three wagons, Mattie wondered who would ever want floral printed calico in a place like this. And what was the point of jet buttons and ivory combs? She stifled a cough and wished for a scented hanky. The stench of the place was getting to her. In fact--she glanced down--the stench of the place was getting on her in the form of more than mud clinging to the hem of her skirt and the soles of her boots.

At the sound of shrill laughter, Mattie glanced up the street just in time to see a woman clad in a rainbow of satin ruffles stumble and land on her knees in the mire. While the men around her roared with laughter, the painted creature looked up to the sky and began to bawl like a weanling calf separated from its momma. Mattie clutched at her paisley shawl and pulled it tighter around her shoulders. As the woman wailed and the men jeered, a bearded stranger exited the hotel and crossed the street to help the drunken woman get up. When she wobbled uncertainly, he put his arm around her and together they began to head up the street toward the part of town Swede had already warned Mattie to avoid.

"Dey named it after de real Badlands beyond Deadvood," Swede had explained. "It's a rough land of gulches and gorges and danger. And just like ven he is in dose Badlands, a man can get lost in dat part of town and ve never hear from him again." Swede paused. "Be sure you stay avay from dere."

The sporting girl stumbled. Finally, the stranger realized she was too drunk to navigate the mess in the street, and picking her up in his arms, he hauled her off. Mattie remembered something else Swede had said about Deadwood. "Vimmen? Yah, sure. Dere's plenty of vimmen. Yoost no ladies."

No wonder Dillon had told her to wait in Kansas until he sent for her. She glanced behind her toward the spot where Deadwood Creek flowed into the Whitewood. If she understood his letters correctly, Dillon's claim was off up that narrow gulch somewhere. At least she wouldn't have to venture in the direction of the Badlands to find him. Again, she shivered. If she never came near a dance hall again it would be too soon. How far would she have to climb before she found the claim? Swede had never heard the name Dillon O'Keefe. But then Swede said there were some ten thousand men swarming these hills in search of mother lodes. Mattie didn't quite believe that number. People were always exaggerating things: their wins at the faro table, the richness of their gold discoveries, the number of people rushing into a boomtown. She hoped Dillon hadn't exaggerated the richness of his placer claim.

Dillon. He wasn't going to be happy to see her. She could imagine the line between his eyebrows deepening and his dark eyes glowering with an unspoken scolding. Ah well. He'd never been able to stay mad at her for long. Today would be no exception. She'd do his laundry and polish his boots until they gleamed, and in time he'd decide he was glad she'd come. She might not even have to tell him what Jonas had done and why she'd had to run away.

An odd silence interrupted her imaginings. Mattie glanced across the backs of the oxen toward the two men who'd been arguing only a moment ago. They'd stopped now and were staring openmouthed at her. She looked away and began to walk faster. But it wasn't only those two men reacting to her presence. Pauses in hammering and sawing continued to mark her progress up the street.

Swede had warned her about this, too. "Ven dey see you, it vill cause such a stir."

Seeing Swede's prediction come true made Mattie think back to the day she'd convinced the freighter to let her come north on the Sidney-Deadwood trail. It hadn't been easy. In fact, Swede had almost refused.

"A little ting like you?" Swede laughed aloud. "You cannot mean it. No lady such as you has any business going to Deadvood." And with that, Swede turned to walk away.

"My brother's there," Mattie called out, "and if you won't take me I'll find someone who will. There's at least a dozen more bullwhackers I can ask."

Swede turned back then and with a sweep of one arm indicated the line of freight wagons waiting to pull out. "You see any seats on any of dose vagons? Ve haul freight. Tons and tons of freight. Ve don't haul people."

Mattie refused to be discouraged. "I don't expect to be hauled. I'll walk alongside, just like you." Digging into her bag she held out a roll of bills. "I can pay."

Swede pushed the money away. "And vat about if dere is trouble from de Indians? You might not have heard, but dey don't like us settling in dose Black Hills."

Mattie would rather face Indians than Jonas Flynn. Men like Jonas didn't just let girls like her go. He'd be searching trains and stagecoaches, and she'd avoided both so far, stowing away in a farm wagon headed north out of Abilene at first and finally making her way to Sidney, Nebraska, where dozens of freighters left daily headed north to supply the mining boomtowns in Dakota.

Mattie glared at Swede, doing her best to look determined instead of desperate. "And there might be plague and blizzards and any one of a thousand other things." She lifted her chin. "And as I said, if you won't let me come with you, I'll find someone who will--but I'd feel safer with you."

Swede took a long draw from the ever-present pipe, then released the smoke in a string of staccato puffs. Finally, the rough hands took the proffered roll of bills, counted out a few, and handed the rest back. "You vill need de rest for keeping body and soul until you find your brother. I von't vait for you. You must keep up."

That had been over a month and almost three hundred miles ago. Mattie walked without complaint, learning as she traveled that Swede's blustering was just that--bluster.

The sheer physical strength required to keep oxen moving along the trail was the first thing Mattie learned to admire about Swede. The tool of every freighter's trade was called a bullwhip, and Swede's sported a two-foot-long hickory handle and a fifteen-foot lash of braided rawhide. At the end of the lash, what Swede called a "popper" of thonged rawhide made a sharp cracking sound every time it was wielded by Swede's calloused hands. Even on a good day, when the freighters made eight or ten miles, the whip must be kept snapping above the oxen's heads, for as soon as it stopped, the great beasts slowed almost to a stop.

How Swede kept cracking that whip hour after hour was amazing. Mattie had tried it once. Mastering the maneuver that produced the "crack" took longer than she expected, and after only a short stint as a bullwhackeress, her back and shoulders, arms and wrists ached for hours. Swede kept it up, hour after hour, seemingly unfazed.

But there was more than physical strength to admire about Swede.

While the other bullwhackers rained down a constant barrage of foul language, Swede never swore. And though it wasn't unusual to see teams streaming with blood from whip lashes across their shoulders and flanks, Swede's whip never touched flesh.

"I paid too much for dese beasts to misuse dem in such a vay," Swede said when Mattie asked about it. "Dey are stupid and stubborn, but dey are all I have, and I vill take care of dem. I vant my own store vorse dan anyting, and if I am good to Lars and Leif and de rest, I vill have it."

Swede rested the great beasts frequently and applied a vile-smelling black ointment to even the slightest knick on leg or back. Today, as they pulled into Deadwood, Mattie could see that Swede's way of handling oxen was indeed the best. While other teams appeared to be on their last legs, Swede's twenty were in good condition. After a few days' rest they would be ready to head out again. Mattie knew that Swede hoped for three more runs between Deadwood and Sidney, Nebraska, before the next winter set in.

A cold gust of wind rattled through the gulch. Mattie glanced up at the sky, dismayed to see a bank of dark clouds moving in. Rain would make it harder to find Dillon. Swede had said Deadwood Gulch was narrow, with steep canyon walls. Every foot of it for nearly a mile had already been divided rimrock to rimrock into hundred-foot gold claims. "Dat's vere you should look first. Yah sure, dey are finding much placer gold up dere."

"Placer gold?"

Swede nodded. "Flakes and tiny bits and sometimes a nugget, all of it yoost vaiting for someone to come and scoop it up."

Mattie imagined Dillon crouched beside the fast-flowing creek as he panned in the frigid water. She was supposed to be back in Kansas, working hard and saving her money until he sent for her. It won't be long now, he'd written just last month. Where do you want to go? Dream big, Mattie. We'll have a home of our own before too much longer.

Thinking about Dillon wrapping his arms around her and holding her tight filled her with such peace. He'd point to the Colt revolver tucked into her waist--the very gun he'd taught her how to use--and tell her she could put it away. "I'll protect you now," he'd say. And he would.

"Ho!" Swede hollered, and with a bellow, the oxen halted.

Mattie's hand went to her midsection, where a little knot of anticipation and joy was collecting. A string of curses drew her attention back up the street toward the Big Horn Store, where two men seemed about to come to blows over the price of a pair of boots. Mattie ducked closer to one of the freight wagons. We'll have a home of our own before too much longer. That's what Dillon had written, and now that she'd stepped onto hell's front porch herself, Mattie decided it couldn't happen soon enough.

"Vell, don't yoost be standing dere vit your mout' hanging open!" Swede hollered at the fair-haired giant who emerged from a large canvas tent labeled Garth Merchandise. Leaning the bullwhip against the front wagon wheel, she continued scolding, "Have you never seen a lady before?"

Mattie had never heard so much affection disguised so effectively, for even as Swede tucked her pipe into her apron pocket, she pulled the blond giant into her arms and kissed him soundly on both cheeks. Then, reaching over the lower front of the first freight wagon, she lifted out her sleeping child, cradling the nine-month-old with a tenderness that belied her tough veneer.

Catching sight of his baby sister, the blond giant shrugged off Swede's withering diatribe and smiled. He shuffled near and, gazing down into Eva's face with wonder, said, "I think she likes freighting, Mor."

"Likes it?" Swede seemed offended by the idea. "She does not like it. She puts up vit it is all, screaming her opinion loud and long for part of every day before giving up and settling in for de ride." Swede nodded at Mattie. "Ask her if Eva likes freighting. She vill tell you true."

Mattie grinned. "She's feisty. Tends to declare her opinion of things."

Swede laughed. "Now dat's vat I like about you, Mattie O'Keefe. You say it true but you dress it up, so de bitter is not so strong." She took her son's arm. "Freddie, dis here is Miss Mattie O'Keefe. She talked me into bringing her from Sidney. She looks for her brother Dillon. I told her ve vould help her find his claim as soon as ve are set up to do business."

Freddie leaned down and muttered something in his mother's ear. She blinked a few times, then pointed at the first wagon. "Take Eva's cradle into the tent, please."

"Do you know my brother?" Mattie asked as Freddie hauled the quilt-lined cradle that had begun life as an Arbuckles' Coffee box out of the wagon.

"There's a lot of people in town," he said. "It's hard to remember all the names."

Eva woke up. Frowning, she thrust out her lower lip and, squirming in her mother's arms, prepared to yowl. But then she saw her brother emerging from the tent, screeched with joy, and reached for him. Freddie took Eva in his arms and covered her with kisses. Planting her on his shoulders, he waited for her to gather two handfuls of blond hair before taking off in a subdued gallop around the wagon train. Swede allowed one ring around the wagons before saying, "Enough," and pointing toward the coffee-box cradle now positioned just inside the tent.

Freddie deposited Eva back in the box. When Mattie went to pick up the protesting child, Swede intervened. "She cannot always have her vay. Dis she must learn." And with that, Swede went back to work as if Eva's tears were of no consequence to her.

Mattie cringed at the sound of Eva's screeching, but when both Swede and Freddie continued to turn a deaf ear to the child's cries, she relented and began to help them unload. It wasn't long before Eva was peering over the top of her "cradle," her blue eyes bright with curiosity. Every once in a while Freddie would pretend to lunge at her as he passed by with an armful of goods. Eva would giggle with delight, and before long she'd snuggled down and fallen asleep.

Meet the author:
Stephanie Grace Whitson

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