Dawn found the ranch astir and a heavy fog hanging over the Frio valley. Don Pierre had a remuda corralled before sun-up, and insisted on our riding his horses, an invitation which my employer alone declined. For the first hour or two the pack scouted the river bottoms with no success, and Uncle Lance's verdict was that the valley was too soggy for any animal belonging to the cat family, so we turned back to the divide between the Frio and San Miguel. Here there grew among the hills many Guajio thickets, and from the first one we beat, the hounds opened on a hot trail in splendid chorus. The pack led us through thickets for over a mile, when they suddenly turned down a ravine, heading for the river. With the ground ill splendid condition for trailing, the dogs in full cry, the quarry sought every shelter possible; but within an hour of striking the scent, the pack came to bay in the encinal. On coming up with the hounds, we found the animal was a large catamount. A single shot brought him from his perch in a scraggy oak, and the first chase of the day was over. The pelt was worthless and was not taken.
It was nearly noon when the kill was made, and Don Pierre insisted that we return to the ranch. Uncle Lance protested against wasting the remainder of the day, but the courteous Creole urged that the ground would be in fine condition for hunting at least a week longer; this hunt he declared was merely preliminary--to break the pack together and give them a taste of the chase before attacking the cougar. "Ah," said Don Pierre, with a deprecating shrug of the shoulders, "you have nothing to hurry you home. I come by your rancho an' stay one hol' week. You come by mine, al' time hurry. Sacre! Let de li'l dogs rest, an' in de mornin', mebbe we hunt de cougar. Ah, Meester Lance, we must haff de pack fresh for him. By Gar, he was one dam' wil' fellow. Mek one two pass, so. Biff! two dog dead."
Uncle Lance yielded, and we rode back to the ranch. The next morning our party included the three daughters of our host. Don Pierre led the way on a roan stallion, and after two hours' riding we crossed the San Miguel to the north of his ranch. A few miles beyond we entered some chalky hills, interspersed with white chaparral thickets which were just bursting into bloom, with a fragrance that was almost intoxicating. Under the direction of our host, we started to beat a long chain of these thickets, and were shortly rewarded by hearing the pack give mouth. The quarry kept to the cover of the thickets for several miles, impeding the chase until the last covert in the chain was reached, where a fight occurred with the lead hound. Don Pierre was the first to reach the scene, and caught several glimpses of a monster puma as he slunk away through the Brazil brush, leaving one of the Don's favorite hounds lacerated to the bone. But the pack passed on, and, lifting the wounded dog to a vaquero's saddle, we followed, lustily shouting to the hounds.
The spoor now turned down the San Miguel, and the pace was such that it took hard riding to keep within hearing. Mr. Vaux and Uncle Lance usually held the lead, the remainder of the party, including the girls, bringing up the rear. The chase continued down stream for fully an hour, until we encountered some heavy timber on the main Frio, our course having carried us several miles to the north of the McLeod ranch. Some distance below the juncture with the San Miguel the river made a large horseshoe, embracing nearly a thousand acres, which was covered with a dense growth of ash, pecan, and cypress. The trail led into this jungle, circling it several times before leading away. We were fortunately able to keep track of the chase from the baying of the hounds without entering the timber, and were watching its course, when suddenly it changed; the pack followed the scent across a bridge of driftwood on the Frio, and started up the river in full cry.
As the chase down the San Miguel passed beyond the mouth of the creek, Theodore Quayle and Frances Vaux dropped out and rode for the McLeod ranch. It was still early in the day, and understanding their motive, I knew they would rejoin us if their mission was successful. By the sudden turn of the chase, we were likely to pass several miles south of the home of my sweetheart, but our location could be easily followed by the music of the pack. Within an hour after leaving us, Theodore and Frances rejoined the chase, adding Tony Hunter and Esther to our numbers. With this addition, I lost interest in the hunt, as the course carried us straightaway five miles up the stream. The quarry was cunning and delayed the pack at every thicket or large body of timber encountered. Several times he craftily attempted to throw the hounds off the scent by climbing leaning trees, only to spring down again. But the pack were running wide and the ruse was only tiring the hunted. The scent at times left the river and circled through outlying mesquite groves, always keeping well under cover. On these occasions we rested our horses, for the hunt was certain to return to the river.
From the scattering order in which we rode, I was afforded a good opportunity for free conversation with Esther. But the information I obtained was not very encouraging. Her mother's authority had grown so severe that existence under the same roof was a mere armistice between mother and daughter, while this day's sport was likely to break the already strained relations. The thought that her suffering was largely on my account, nerved me to resolution.
The kill was made late in the day, in a bend of the river, about fifteen miles above the Vaux ranch, forming a jungle of several thousand acres. In this thickety covert the fugitive made his final stand, taking refuge in an immense old live-oak, the mossy festoons of which partially screened him from view. The larger portion of the cavalcade remained in the open, but the rest of us, under the leadership of the two rancheros, forced our horses through the underbrush and reached the hounds. The pack were as good as exhausted by the long run, and, lest the animal should spring out of the tree and escape, we circled it at a distance. On catching a fair view of the quarry, Uncle Lance called for a carbine. Two shots through the shoulders served to loosen the puma's footing, when he came down by easy stages from limb to limb, spitting and hissing defiance into the upturned faces of the pack. As he fell, we dashed in to beat off the dogs as a matter of precaution, but the bullets had done their work, and the pack mouthed the fallen feline with entire impunity.
Dan Happersett dragged the dead puma out with a rope over the neck for the inspection of the girls, while our horses, which had had no less than a fifty-mile ride, were unsaddled and allowed a roll and a half hour's graze before starting back. As we were watering our mounts, I caught my employer's ear long enough to repeat what I had learned about Esther's home difficulties. After picketing our horses, we strolled away from the remainder of the party, when Uncle Lance remarked: "Tom, your chance has come where you must play your hand and play it boldly. I'll keep Tony at the Vaux ranch, and if Esther has to go home to-night, why, of course, you'll have to take her. There's your chance to run off and marry. Now, Tom, you've never failed me yet; and this thing has gone far enough. We'll give old lady McLeod good cause to hate us from now on. I've got some money with me, and I'll rob the other boys, and to-night you make a spoon or spoil a horn. Sabe?"
I understood and approved. As we jogged along homeward, Esther and I fell to the rear, and I outlined my programme. Nor did she protest when I suggested that to-night was the accepted time. Before we reached the Vaux ranch every little detail was arranged. There was a splendid moon, and after supper she plead the necessity of returning home. Meanwhile every cent my friends possessed had been given me, and the two best horses of Las Palomas were under saddle for the start. Uncle Lance was arranging a big hunt for the morrow with Tony Hunter and Don Pierre, when Esther took leave of her friends, only a few of whom were cognizant of our intended elopement.
With fresh mounts under us, we soon covered the intervening distance between the two ranches. I would gladly have waived touching at the McLeod ranch, but Esther had torn her dress during the day and insisted on a change, and I, of necessity, yielded. The corrals were at some distance from the main buildings, and, halting at a saddle shed adjoining, Esther left me and entered the house. Fortunately her mother had retired, and after making a hasty change of apparel, she returned unobserved to the corrals. As we quietly rode out from the inclosure, my spirits soared to the moon above us. The night was an ideal one. Crossing the Frio, we followed the divide some distance, keeping in the open, and an hour before midnight forded the Nueces at Shepherd's. A flood of recollections crossed my mind, as our steaming horses bent their heads to drink at the ferry. Less than a year before, in this very grove, I had met her; it was but two months since, on those hills beyond, we had gathered flowers, plighted our troth, and exchanged our first rapturous kiss. And the thought that she was renouncing home and all for my sake, softened my heart and nerved me to every exertion.
Our intention was to intercept the south-bound stage at the first road house south of Oakville. I knew the hour it was due to leave the station, and by steady riding we could connect with it at the first stage stand some fifteen miles below. Lighthearted and happy, we set out on this last lap of our ride. Our horses seemed to understand the emergency, as they put the miles behind them, thrilling us with their energy and vigor. Never for a moment in our flight did my sweetheart discover a single qualm over her decision, while in my case all scruples were buried in the hope of victory. Recrossing the Nueces and entering the stage road, we followed it down several miles, sighting the stage stand about two o'clock in the morning. I was saddle weary from the hunt, together with this fifty-mile ride, and rejoiced in reaching our temporary destination. Esther, however, seemed little the worse for the long ride.
The welcome extended by the keeper of this relay station was gruff enough. But his tone and manner moderated when he learned we were passengers for Corpus Christi. When I made arrangements with him to look after our horses for a week or ten days at a handsome figure, he became amiable, invited us to a cup of coffee, and politely informed us that the stage was due in half an hour. But on its arrival, promptly on time, our hearts sank within us. On the driver's box sat an express guard holding across his knees a sawed-off, double-barreled shotgun. As it halted, two other guards stepped out of the coach, similarly armed. The stage was carrying an unusual amount of treasure, we were informed, and no passengers could be accepted, as an attempted robbery was expected between this and the next station.
Our situation became embarrassing. For the first time during our ride, Esther showed the timidity of her sex. The chosen destination of our honeymoon, nearly a hundred miles to the south, was now out of the question. To return to Oakville, where a sister and friends of my sweetheart resided, seemed the only avenue open. I had misgivings that it was unsafe, but Esther urged it, declaring that Mrs. Martin would offer no opposition, and even if she did, nothing now could come that would ever separate us. We learned from the keeper that Jack Martin was due to drive the north-bound stage out of Oakville that morning, and was expected to pass this relay station about daybreak. This was favorable, and we decided to wait and allow the stage to pass north before resuming our journey.
On the arrival of the stage, we learned that the down coach had been attacked, but the robbers, finding it guarded, had fled after an exchange of shots in the darkness. This had a further depressing effect on my betrothed, and only my encouragement to be brave and face the dilemma confronting us kept her up. Bred on the frontier, this little ranch girl was no weakling; but the sudden overturn of our well-laid plans had chilled my own spirits as well as hers. Giving the up stage a good start of us, we resaddled and started for Oakville, slightly crestfallen but still confident. In the open air Esther's fears gradually subsided, and, invigorated by the morning and the gallop, we reached our destination after our night's adventure with hopes buoyant and colors flying.
Mrs. Martin looked a trifle dumfounded at her early callers, but I lost no time in informing her that our mission was an elopement, and asked her approval and blessing. Surprised as she was, she welcomed us to breakfast, inquiring of our plans and showing alarm over our experience. Since Oakville was a county seat where a license could be secured, for fear of pursuit I urged an immediate marriage, but Mrs. Martin could see no necessity for haste. There was, she said, no one there whom she would allow to solemnize a wedding of her sister, and, to my chagrin, Esther agreed with her.
This was just what I had dreaded; but Mrs. Martin, with apparent enthusiasm over our union, took the reins in her own hands, and decided that we should wait until Jack's return, when we would all take the stage to Pleasanton, where an Episcopal minister lived. My heart sank at this, for it meant a delay of two days, and I stood up and stoutly protested. But now that the excitement of our flight had abated, my own Esther innocently sided with her sister, and I was at my wit's end. To all my appeals, the sisters replied with the argument that there was no hurry--that while the hunt lasted at the Vaux ranch Tony Hunter could be depended upon to follow the hounds; Esther would never be missed until his return; her mother would suppose she was with the Vaux girls, and would be busy preparing a lecture against her return.
Of course the argument of the sisters won the hour. Though dreading some unforeseen danger, I temporarily yielded. I knew the motive of the hunt well enough to know that the moment we had an ample start it would be abandoned, and the Las Palomas contingent would return to the ranch. Yet I dare not tell, even my betrothed, that there were ulterior motives in my employer's hunting on the Frio, one of which was to afford an opportunity for our elopement. Full of apprehension and alarm, I took a room at the village hostelry, for I had our horses to look after, and secured a much-needed sleep during the afternoon. That evening I returned to the Martin cottage, to urge again that we carry out our original programme by taking the south-bound stage at midnight. But all I could say was of no avail. Mrs. Martin was equal to every suggestion. She had all the plans outlined, and there was no occasion for me to do any thinking at all. Corpus Christi was not to be considered for a single moment, compared to Pleasanton and an Episcopalian service. What could I do?
At an early hour Mrs. Martin withdrew. The reaction from our escapade had left a pallor on my sweetheart's countenance, almost alarming. Noticing this, I took my leave early, hoping that a good night's rest would restore her color and her spirits. Returning to the hostelry, I resignedly sought my room, since there was nothing I could do but wait. Tossing and pitching on my bed, I upbraided myself for having returned to Oakville, where any interference with our plans could possibly develop.
The next morning at breakfast, I noticed that I was the object of particular attention, and of no very kindly sort. No one even gave me a friendly nod, while several avoided my glances. Supposing that some rumor of our elopement might be abroad, I hurriedly finished my meal and started for the Martins'. On reaching the door, I was met by its mistress, who, I had need to remind myself, was the sister of my betrothed. To my friendly salutation, she gave me a scornful, withering look.
"You're too late, young man," she said. "Shortly after you left last night, Esther and Jack Oxenford took a private conveyance for Beeville, and are married before this. You Las Palomas people are slow. Old Lance Lovelace thought he was playing it cute San Jacinto Day, but I saw through his little game. Somebody must have told him he was a matchmaker. Well, just give him my regards, and tell him he don't know the first principles of that little game. Tell him to drop in some time when he's passing; I may be able to give him some pointers that I'm not using at the moment. I hope your sorrow will not exceed my happiness. Good-morning, sir."