There is something about those large ranches of southern Texas that reminds one of the old feudal system. The pathetic attachment to the soil of those born to certain Spanish land grants can only be compared to the European immigrant when for the last time he looks on the land of his birth before sailing. Of all this Las Palomas was typical. In the course of time several such grants had been absorbed into its baronial acres. But it had always been the policy of Uncle Lance never to disturb the Mexican population; rather he encouraged them to remain in his service. Thus had sprung up around Las Palomas ranch a little Mexican community numbering about a dozen families, who lived in jacals close to the main ranch buildings. They were simple people, and rendered their new master a feudal loyalty. There were also several small ranchites located on the land, where, under the Mexican regime, there had been pretentious adobe buildings. A number of families still resided at these deserted ranches, content in cultivating small fields or looking after flocks of goats and a few head of cattle, paying no rental save a service tenure to the new owner.
The customs of these Mexican people were simple and primitive. They blindly accepted the religious teachings imposed with fire and sword by the Spanish conquerors upon their ancestors. A padre visited them yearly, christening the babes, marrying the youth, shriving the penitent, and saying masses for the repose of the souls of the departed. Their social customs were in many respects unique. For instance, in courtship a young man was never allowed in the presence of his inamorata, unless in company of others, or under the eye of a chaperon. Proposals, even among the nearest of neighbors or most intimate of friends, were always made in writing, usually by the father of the young man to the parents of the girl, but in the absence of such, by a godfather or padrino. Fifteen days was the term allowed for a reply, and no matter how desirable the match might be, it was not accounted good taste to answer before the last day. The owner of Las Palomas was frequently called upon to act as padrino for his people, and so successful had he always been that the vaqueros on his ranch preferred his services to those of their own fathers. There was scarcely a vaquero at the home ranch but, in time past, had invoked his good offices in this matter, and he had come to be looked on as their patron saint.
The month of September was usually the beginning of the branding season at Las Palomas. In conducting this work, Uncle Lance was the leader, and with the white element already enumerated, there were twelve to fifteen vaqueros included in the branding outfit. The dance at Shepherd's had delayed the beginning of active operations, and a large calf crop, to say nothing of horse and mule colts, now demanded our attention and promised several months' work. The year before, Las Palomas had branded over four thousand calves, and the range was now dotted with the crop, awaiting the iron stamp of ownership.
The range was an open one at the time, compelling us to work far beyond the limits of our employer's land. Fortified with our own commissary, and with six to eight horses apiece in our mount, we scoured the country for a radius of fifty miles. When approaching another range, it was our custom to send a courier in advance to inquire of the ranchero when it would be convenient for him to give us a rodeo. A day would be set, when our outfit and the vaqueros of that range rounded up all the cattle watering at given points. Then we cut out the Las Palomas brand, and held them under herd or started them for the home ranch, where the calves were to be branded. In this manner we visited all the adjoining ranches, taking over a month to make the circuit of the ranges.
In making the tour, the first range we worked was that of rancho Santa Maria, south of our range and on the head of Tarancalous Creek. On approaching the ranch, as was customary, we prepared to encamp and ask for a rodeo. But in the choice of a vaquero to be dispatched on this mission, a spirited rivalry sprang up. When Uncle Lance learned that the rivalry amongst the vaqueros was meant to embarrass Enrique Lopez, who was oso to Anita, the pretty daughter of the corporal of Santa Maria, his matchmaking instincts came to the fore. Calling Enrique to one side, he made the vaquero confess that he had been playing for the favor of the senorita at Santa Maria. Then he dispatched Enrique on the mission, bidding him carry the choicest compliments of Las Palomas to every Don and Dona of Santa Maria. And Enrique was quite capable of adding a few embellishments to the old matchmaker's extravagant flatteries.
Enrique was in camp next morning, but at what hour of the night he had returned is unknown. The rodeo had been granted for the following day; there was a pressing invitation to Don Lance--unless he was willing to offend--to spend the idle day as the guest of Don Mateo. Enrique elaborated the invitation with a thousand adornments. But the owner of Las Palomas had lived nearly forty years among the Spanish-American people on the Nueces, and knew how to make allowances for the exuberance of the Latin tongue. There was no telling to what extent Enrique could have kept on delivering messages, but to his employer he was avoiding the issue.
"But did you get to see Anita?" interrupted Uncle Lance. Yes, he had seen her, but that was about all. Did not Don Lance know the customs among the Castilians? There was her mother ever present, or if she must absent herself, there was a bevy of tias comadres surrounding her, until the Dona Anita dare not even raise her eyes to meet his. "To perdition with such customs, no?" The freedom of a cow camp is a splendid opportunity to relieve one's mind upon prevailing injustices.
"Don't fret your cattle so early in the morning, son," admonished the wary matchmaker. "I've handled worse cases than this before. You Mexicans are sticklers on customs, and we must deal with our neighbors carefully. Before I show my hand in this, there's just one thing I want to know--is the girl willing? Whenever you can satisfy me on that point, Enrique, just call on the old man. But before that I won't stir a step. You remember what a time I had over Tiburcio's Juan--that's so, you were too young then. Well, June here remembers it. Why, the girl just cut up shamefully. Called Juan an Indian peon, and bragged about her Castilian family until you'd have supposed she was a princess of the blood royal. Why, it took her parents and myself a whole day to bring the girl around to take a sensible view of matters. On my soul, except that I didn't want to acknowledge defeat, I felt a dozen times like telling her to go straight up. And when she did marry you, she was as happy as a lark--wasn't she, Juan? But I like to have the thing over with in--well, say half an hour's time. Then we can have refreshments, and smoke, and discuss the prospects of the young couple."
Uncle Lance's question was hard to answer. Enrique had known the girl for several years, had danced with her on many a feast day, and never lost an opportunity to whisper the old, old story in her willing ear. Others had done the like, but the dark-eyed senorita is an adept in the art of coquetry, and there you are. But Enrique swore a great oath he would know. Yes, he would. He would lay siege to her as he had never done before. He would become un oso grande. Just wait until the branding was over and the fiestas of the Christmas season were on, and watch him dog her every step until he received her signal of surrender. Witness, all the saints, this row of Enrique Lopez, that the Dona Anita should have no peace of mind, no, not for one little minute, until she had made a complete capitulation. Then Don Lauce, the padrino of Las Palomas, would at once write the letter which would command the hand of the corporal's daughter. Who could refuse such a request, and what was a daughter of Santa Maria compared to a son of Las Palomas?
Tarancalous Creek ran almost due east, and rancho Santa Maria was located near its source, depending more on its wells for water supply than on the stream which only flowed for a few months during the year. Where the watering facilities were so limited the rodeo was an easy matter. A number of small round-ups at each established watering point, a swift cutting out of everything bearing the Las Palomas brand, and we moved on to the next rodeo, for we had an abundance of help at Santa Maria. The work was finished by the middle of the afternoon. After sending, under five or six men, our cut of several hundred cattle westward on our course, our outfit rode into rancho Santa Maria proper to pay our respects. Our wagon had provided an abundant dinner for our assistants and ourselves; but it would have been, in Mexican etiquette, extremely rude on our part not to visit the rancho and partake of a cup of coffee and a cigarette, thanking the ranchero on parting for his kindness in granting us the rodeo.
So when the last round-up was reached, Don Mateo and Uncle Lance turned the work over to their corporals, and in advance rode up to Santa Maria. The vaqueros of our ranch were anxious to visit the rancho, so it devolved on the white element to take charge of the cut. Being a stranger to Santa Maria, I was allowed to accompany our segundo, June Deweese, on an introductory visit. On arriving at the rancho, the vaqueros scattered among the jacals of their amigos, while June and myself were welcomed at the casa primero. There we found Uncle Lance partaking of refreshment, and smoking a cigarette as though he had been born a Senor Don of some ruling hacienda. June and I were seated at another table, where we were served with coffee, wafers, and home-made cigarettes. This was perfectly in order, but I could hardly control myself over the extravagant Spanish our employer was using in expressing the amity existing between Santa Maria and Las Palomas. In ordinary conversation, such as cattle and ranch affairs, Uncle Lance had a good command of Spanish; but on social and delicate topics some of his efforts were ridiculous in the extreme. He was well aware of his shortcomings, and frequently appealed to me to assist him. As a boy my playmates had been Mexican children, so that I not only spoke Spanish fluently but could also readily read and write it. So it was no surprise to me that, before taking our departure, my employer should command my services as an interpreter in driving an entering wedge. He was particular to have me assure our host and hostess of his high regard for them, and his hope that in the future even more friendly relations might exist between the two ranches. Had Santa Maria no young cavalier for the hand of some daughter of Las Palomas? Ah! there was the true bond for future friendships. Well, well, if the soil of this rancho was so impoverished, then the sons of Las Palomas must take the bit in their teeth and come courting to Santa Maria. And let Dona Gregoria look well to her daughters, for the young men of Las Palomas, true to their race, were not only handsome fellows but ardent lovers, and would be hard to refuse.
After taking our leave and catching up with the cattle, we pushed westward for the Ganso, our next stream of water. This creek was a tributary to the Nueces, and we worked down it several days, or until we had nearly a thousand cattle and were within thirty miles of home. Turning this cut over to June Deweese and a few vaqueros to take in to the ranch and brand, the rest of us turned westward and struck the Nueces at least fifty miles above Las Palomas. For the next few days our dragnet took in both sides of the Nueces, and when, on reaching the mouth of the Ganso, we were met by Deweese and the vaqueros we had another bunch of nearly a thousand ready. Dan Happersett was dispatched with the second bunch for branding, when we swung north to Mr. Booth's ranch on the Frio, where we rested a day. But there is little recreation on a cow hunt, and we were soon under full headway again. By the time we had worked down the Frio, opposite headquarters, we had too large a herd to carry conveniently, and I was sent in home with them, never rejoining the outfit until they reached Shepherd's Ferry. This was a disappointment to me, for I had hopes that when the outfit worked the range around the mouth of San Miguel, I might find some excuse to visit the McLeod ranch and see Esther. But after turning back up the home river to within twenty miles of the ranch, we again turned southward, covering the intervening ranches rapidly until we struck the Tarancalous about twenty-five miles east of Santa Maria.
We had spent over thirty days in making this circle, gathering over five thousand cattle, about one third of which were cows with calves by their sides. On the remaining gap in the circle we lost two days in waiting for rodeos, or gathering independently along the Tarancalous, and, on nearing the Santa Maria range, we had nearly fifteen hundred cattle. Our herd passed within plain view of the rancho, but we did not turn aside, preferring to make a dry camp for the night, some five or six miles further on our homeward course. But since we had used the majority of our remuda very hard that day, Uncle Lance dispatched Enrique and myself, with our wagon and saddle horses, by way of Santa Maria, to water our saddle stock and refill our kegs for camping purposes. Of course, the compliments of our employer to the ranchero of Santa Maria went with the remuda and wagon.
I delivered the compliments and regrets to Don Mateo, and asked the permission to water our saddle stock, which was readily granted. This required some time, for we had about a hundred and twenty-five loose horses with us, and the water had to be raised by rope and pulley from the pommel of a saddle horse. After watering the team we refilled our kegs, and the cook pulled out to overtake the herd, Enrique and I staying to water the remuda. Enrique, who was riding the saddle horse, while I emptied the buckets as they were hoisted to the surface, was evidently killing time. By his dilatory tactics, I knew the young rascal was delaying in the hope of getting a word with the Dona Anita. But it was getting late, and at the rate we were hoisting darkness would overtake us before we could reach the herd. So I ordered Enrique to the bucket, while I took my own horse and furnished the hoisting power. We were making some headway with the work, when a party of women, among them the Dona Anita, came down to the well to fill vessels for house use.
This may have been all chance--and then again it may not. But the gallant Enrique now outdid himself, filling jar after jar and lifting them to the shoulder of the bearer with the utmost zeal and amid a profusion of compliments. I was annoyed at the interruption in our work, but I could see that Enrique was now in the highest heaven of delight. The Dona Anita's mother was present, and made it her duty to notice that only commonplace formalities passed between her daughter and the ardent vaquero. After the jars were all filled, the bevy of women started on their return; but Dona Anita managed to drop a few feet to the rear of the procession, and, looking back, quietly took up one corner of her mantilla, and with a little movement, apparently all innocence, flashed a message back to the entranced Enrique. I was aware of the flirtation, but before I had made more of it Enrique sprang down from the abutment of the well, dragged me from my horse, and in an ecstasy of joy, crouching behind the abutments, cried: Had I seen the sign? Had I not noticed her token? Was my brain then so befuddled? Did I not understand the ways of the senoritas among his people?--that they always answered by a wave of the handkerchief, or the mantilla? Ave Maria, Tomas! Such stupidity! Why, to be sure, they could talk all day with their eyes.
A setting sun finally ended his confidences, and the watering was soon finished, for Enrique lowered the bucket in a gallop. On our reaching the herd and while we were catching our night horses, Uncle Lance strode out to the rope corral, with the inquiry, what had delayed us. "Nothing particular," I replied, and looked at Enrique, who shrugged his shoulders and repeated my answer. "Now, look here, you young liars," said the old ranchero; "the wagon has been in camp over an hour, and, admitting it did start before you, you had plenty of time to water the saddle stock and overtake it before it could possibly reach the herd. I can tell a lie myself, but a good one always has some plausibility. You rascals were up to some mischief, I'll warrant."
I had caught out my night horse, and as I led him away to saddle up, Uncle Lance, not content with my evasive answer, followed me. "Go to Enrique," I whispered; "he'll just bubble over at a good chance to tell you. Yes; it was the Dona Anita who caused the delay." A smothered chuckling shook the old man's frame, as he sauntered over to where Enrique was saddling. As the two led off the horse to picket in the gathering dusk, the ranchero had his arm around the vaquero's neck, and I felt that the old matchmaker would soon be in possession of the facts. A hilarious guffaw that reached me as I was picketing my horse announced that the story was out, and as the two returned to the fire Uncle Lance was slapping Enrique on the back at every step and calling him a lucky dog. The news spread through the camp like wild-fire, even to the vaqueros on night herd, who instantly began chanting an old love song. While Enrique and I were eating our supper, our employer paced backward and forward in meditation like a sentinel on picket, and when we had finished our meal, he joined us around the fire, inquiring of Enrique how soon the demand should be made for the corporal's daughter, and was assured that it could not be done too soon. "The padre only came once a year," he concluded, "and they must be ready."
"Well, now, this is a pretty pickle," said the old matchmaker, as he pulled his gray mustaches; "there isn't pen or paper in the outfit. And then we'll be busy branding on the home range for a month, and I can't spare a vaquero a day to carry a letter to Santa Maria. And besides, I might not be at home when the reply came. I think I'll just take the bull by the horns; ride back in the morning and set these old precedents at defiance, by arranging the match verbally. I can make the talk that this country is Texas now, and that under the new regime American customs are in order. That's what I'll do--and I'll take Tom Quirk with me for fear I bog down in my Spanish."
But several vaqueros, who understood some English, advised Enrique of what the old matchmaker proposed to do, when the vaquero threw his hands in the air and began sputtering Spanish in terrified disapproval. Did not Don Lance know that the marriage usages among his people were their most cherished customs? "Oh, yes, son," languidly replied Uncle Lance. "I'm some strong on the cherish myself, but not when it interferes with my plans. It strikes me that less than a month ago I heard you condemning to perdition certain customs of your people. Now, don't get on too high a horse--just leave it to Tom and me. We may stay a week, but when we come back we'll bring your betrothal with us in our vest pockets. There was never a Mexican born who can outhold me on palaver; and we'll eat every chicken on Santa Maria unless they surrender."
As soon as the herd had started for home the next morning, Uncle Lance and I returned to Santa Maria. We were extended a cordial reception by Don Mateo, and after the chronicle of happenings since the two rancheros last met had been reviewed, the motive of our sudden return was mentioned. By combining the vocabularies of my employer and myself, we mentioned our errand as delicately as possible, pleading guilty and craving every one's pardon for our rudeness in verbally conducting the negotiations. To our surprise,--for to Mexicans customs are as rooted as Faith,--Don Mateo took no offense and summoned Dona Gregoria. I was playing a close second to the diplomat of our side of the house, and when his Spanish failed him and he had recourse to English, it is needless to say I handled matters to the best of my ability. The Spanish is a musical, passionate language and well suited to love making, and though this was my first use of it for that purpose, within half an hour we had won the ranchero and his wife to our side of the question.
Then, at Don Mateo's orders, the parents of the girl were summoned. This involved some little delay, which permitted coffee being served, and discussion, over the cigarettes, of the commonplace matters of the country. There was beginning to be a slight demand for cattle to drive to the far north on the trails, some thought it was the sign of a big development, but neither of the rancheros put much confidence in the movement, etc., etc. The corporal and his wife suddenly made their appearance, dressed in their best, which accounted for the delay, and all cattle conversation instantly ceased. Uncle Lance arose and greeted the husky corporal and his timid wife with warm cordiality. I extended my greetings to the Mexican foreman, whom I had met at the rodeo about a month before. We then resumed our seats, but the corporal and his wife remained standing, and with an elegant command of his native tongue Don Mateo informed the couple of our mission. They looked at each other in bewilderment. Tears came into the wife's eyes. For a moment I pitied her. Indeed, the pathetic was not lacking. But the hearty corporal reminded his better half that her parents, in his interests, had once been asked for her hand under similar circumstances, and the tears disappeared. Tears are womanly; and I have since seen them shed, under less provocation, by fairer-skinned women than this simple, swarthy daughter of Mexico.
It was but natural that the parents of the girl should feign surprise and reluctance if they did not feel it. The Dona Anita's mother offered several trivial objections. Her daughter had never taken her into her confidence over any suitor. And did Anita really love Enrique Lopez of Las Palomas? Even if she did, could he support her, being but a vaquero? This brought Uncle Lance to the front. He had known Enrique since the day of his birth. As a five-year-old, and naked as the day he was born, had he not ridden a colt at branding time, twice around the big corral without being thrown? At ten, had he not thrown himself across a gateway and allowed a caballada of over two hundred wild range horses to jump over his prostrate body as they passed in a headlong rush through the gate? Only the year before at branding, when an infuriated bull had driven every vaquero out of the corrals, did not Enrique mount his horse, and, after baiting the bull out into the open, play with him like a kitten with a mouse? And when the bull, tiring, attempted to make his escape, who but Enrique had lassoed the animal by the fore feet, breaking his neck in the throw? The diplomat of Las Palomas dejectedly admitted that the bull was a prize animal, but could not deny that he himself had joined in the plaudits to the daring vaquero. But if there were a possible doubt that the Dona Anita did not love this son of Las Palomas, then Lance Lovelace himself would oppose the union. This was an important matter. Would Don Mateo be so kind as to summon the senorita?
The senorita came in response to the summons. She was a girl of possibly seventeen summers, several inches taller than her mother, possessing a beautiful complexion with large lustrous eyes. There was something fawnlike in her timidity as she gazed at those about the table. Dona Gregoria broke the news, informing her that the ranchero of Las Palomas had asked her hand in marriage for Enrique, one of his vaqueros. Did she love the man and was she willing to marry him? For reply the girl hid her face in the mantilla of her mother. With commendable tact Dona Gregoria led the mother and daughter into another room, from which the two elder women soon returned with a favorable reply. Uncle Lance arose and assured the corporal and his wife that their daughter would receive his special care and protection; that as long as water ran and grass grew, Las Palomas would care for her own children.
We accepted an invitation to remain for dinner, as several hours had elapsed since our arrival. In company with the corporal, I attended to our horses, leaving the two rancheros absorbed in a discussion of Texas fever, rumors of which were then attracting widespread attention in the north along the cattle trails. After dinner we took our leave of host and hostess, promising to send Enrique to Santa Maria at the earliest opportunity.
It was a long ride across country to Las Palomas, but striking a free gait, unencumbered as we were, we covered the country rapidly. I had somewhat doubted the old matchmaker's sincerity in making this match, but as we rode along he told me of his own marriage to Mary Bryan, and the one happy year of life which it brought him, mellowing into a mood of seriousness which dispelled all doubts. It was almost sunset when we sighted in the distance the ranch buildings at Las Palomas, and half an hour later as we galloped up to assist the herd which was nearing the corrals, the old man stood in his stirrups and, waving his hat, shouted to his outfit: "Hurrah for Enrique and the Dona Anita!" And as the last of the cattle entered the corral, a rain of lassos settled over the smiling rascal and his horse, and we led him in triumph to the house for Miss Jean's blessing.