HAWKINS, TEX. -- Esther Ruth Langford says she struggles daily to pay her bills, and she counts on the $161 royalty check she gets each month from Exxon Co. USA to help stretch her Social Security income.

But Exxon officials are contending that Langford, a widow, owes the Houston-based company $37,000, because oil pumped from her property and sold in the late 1970s and early '80s was overpriced.

"There's no way in the world I could pay that," Langford said. "I'd have to sell everything I've got. And I don't know if that would do it or not."

Langford is one of 2,300 defendants named in an Exxon federal class-action lawsuit. The list of defendants includes a millionaire or two and other oil companies. It also includes the Salvation Army and school districts.

Exxon is suing because a federal court decided in 1983 that the company had overcharged customers for oil pumped from the defendants' land. The court ordered Exxon to refund $895.5 million, and now Exxon wants the royalty owners to help with the restitution.

The defendants argue that they should not have to pay for Exxon's errors.

"They got their fingers caught in the till and now they want the people in Hawkins to pay it back," said Gerald Langford, Esther Langford's stepson. He is being asked for $49,000.

Many of the defendants live in this pine-forested community of about 1,300. They are original landowners, their heirs or beneficiaries who receive royalties -- a portion of the proceeds from the sale of oil and gas pumped from their property.

The Hawkins Field lies about 4,400 feet below ground. It was discovered in 1940; in 1975, landowners and heirs agreed to let Exxon pump the field as a unit, believing they could increase its production and extend its life.

Oil from the Hawkins Field Unit should have been priced according to federal regulations implemented during the Carter administration, but the federal government charged that Exxon did not follow the regulations.

Exxon contended that the overpricing was the result of interpretations of complicated federal pricing guidelines.

As Exxon appealed the restitution order, and lost, the sum swelled to $2.1 billion because of interest charges. Exxon, in a statement distributed by spokesman Les Rogers, said that since owners' payments were based on the disallowed higher prices, they should expect to help pay the refund.

Exxon said it warned royalty owners that its prices were being challenged and they might have to pay back some money they received, and said the court permitted it to seek repayment. The company settled with about 1,500 defendants, but time was running out so the suit was filed, Rogers said.

"None of the interest owners told us not to pay them at that higher rate. No one told us to pay them the lower rate," Rogers said.

"I had nothing to do with it," said Esther Langford, 62. "They didn't consult me when they priced the oil. They did that themselves." She said Exxon sent her a letter asking her to settle, but "I didn't get that kind of income."

Royalty owners receive about one-eighth of the proceeds from the sale of oil and gas pumped from their property.

Exxon is seeking $104,000 from the Hawkins School District, said Superintendent Wendell McGuire.

"Any time you take $100,000 from a program, it's going to affect it," McGuire said. He's not sure where the district's $4.2 million budget would be cut if the system were forced to pay, but expects the elementary school would lose a planned computer lab.

Some defendants who are heirs are being asked to pay back money spent by their parents.

Gerald Langford inherited his interest from his father. "They sent me a notice that I owed them $49,000. I only had it {the royalty ownership} for three years," he said.

Hubert Smith, 82, settled. The settlement includes an agreement not to discuss figures. "I don't think I should have owed it but it seemed as if I was going to have to pay, so I got it off my mind," Smith said. "I got them down to an agreeable sum."

Smith said he paid with royalty money he had saved and invested.

George Bramblett Jr., a Dallas attorney, represents Jarvis Christian College, a predominantly black school in Hawkins; the Meredith Foundation, a philanthropic organization, and several individuals.

Exxon wants the foundation to repay $4 million, he said.

"Our first line of defense is that Exxon has no right under the government regulations to seek this restitution," Bramblett said. "They set the price on the oil and gas and if they made the mistake, it's their problem."

Hundreds of royalty owners have chosen to wait for the outcome of the suit, which does not have a trial date.

"I can't afford an attorney," Esther Langford said.