A few days later, when Uncle Lance returned from San Antonio, we had a confidential talk, and he decided not to send me with the McLeod check to the San Miguel. He had reasons of his own, and I was dispatched to the Frio instead, while to Enrique fell the pleasant task of a similar errand to Santa Maria. In order to grind an axe, Glenn Gallup was sent down to Wilson's with the settlement for the Ramirena cattle, which Uncle Lance made the occasion of a jovial expression of his theory of love-making. "Don't waste any words with old man Nate," said he, as he handed Glenn the check; "but build right up to Miss Jule. Holy snakes, boy, if I was your age I would make her dizzy with a big talk. Tell her you're thinking of quitting Las Palomas and driving a trail herd yourself next year. Tell it big and scary. Make her eyes fairly bulge out, and when you can't think of anything else, tell her she's pretty."
I spent a day or two at the Booth ranch, and on my return found the Las Palomas outfit in the saddle working our horse stock. Yearly we made up new manadas from the two-year-old fillies. There were enough young mares to form twelve bands of about twenty-five head each. In selecting these we were governed by standard colors, bays, browns, grays, blacks, and sorrels forming separate manadas, while all mongrel colors went into two bands by themselves. In the latter class there was a tendency for the colors of the old Spanish stock,--coyotes, and other hybrid mixtures,--after being dormant for generations, to crop out again. In breaking these fillies into new bands, we added a stallion a year or two older and of acceptable color, and they were placed in charge of a trusty vaquero, whose duty was to herd them for the first month after being formed. The Mexican in charge usually took the band round the circuit of the various ranchitas, corralling his charge at night, drifting at will, so that by the end of the month old associations would be severed, and from that time the stallion could be depended on as herdsman.
In gathering the fillies, we also cut out all the geldings three years old and upward to break for saddle purposes. There were fully two hundred of these, and the month of April was spent in saddle-breaking this number. They were a fine lot of young horses, and under the master eye of two perfect horsemen, our segundo and employer, every horse was broken with intelligence and humanity. Since the day of their branding as colts these geldings had never felt the touch of a human hand; and it required more than ordinary patience to overcome their fear, bring them to a condition of submission, and make serviceable ranch horses out of them. The most difficult matter was in overcoming their fear. It was also necessary to show the mastery of man over the animal, though this process was tempered with humanity. We had several circular, sandy corrals into which the horse to be broken was admitted for the first saddling. As he ran round, a lasso skillfully thrown encircled his front feet and he came down on his side. One fore foot was strapped up, a hackamore or bitless bridle was adjusted in place, and he was allowed to arise. After this, all depended on the patience and firmness of the handler. Some horses yielded to kind advances and accepted the saddle within half an hour, not even offering to pitch, while others repelled every kindness and fought for hours. But in handling the gelding of spirit, we could always count on the help of an extra saddler.
While this work was being done, the herd of geldings was held close at hand. After the first riding, four horses were the daily allowance of each rider. With the amount of help available, this allowed twelve to fifteen horses to the man, so that every animal was ridden once in three or four days. Rather than corral, we night-herded, penning them by dawn and riding our first horse before sun-up. As they gradually yielded, we increased our number to six a day and finally before the breaking was over to eight. When the work was finally over they were cut into remudas of fifty horses each, furnished a gentle bell mare, when possible with a young colt by her side, and were turned over to a similar treatment as was given the fillies in forming manadas. Thus the different remudas at Las Palomas always took the name of the bell mare, and when we were at work, it was only necessary for us to hobble the princess at night to insure the presence of her band in the morning.
When this month's work was two thirds over, we enjoyed a holiday. All good Texans, whether by birth or adoption, celebrate the twenty-first of April,--San Jacinto Day. National holidays may not always he observed in sparsely settled communities, but this event will remain a great anniversary until the sons and daughters of the Lone Star State lose their patriotism or forget the blessings of liberty. As Shepherd's Ferry was centrally located, it became by common consent the meeting-point for our local celebration. Residents from the Frio and San Miguel and as far south on the home river as Lagarto, including the villagers of Oakville, usually lent their presence on this occasion. The white element of Las Palomas was present without an exception. As usual, Miss Jean went by ambulance, starting the afternoon before and spending the night at a ranch above the ferry. Those remaining made a daybreak start, reaching Shepherd's by ten in the morning.
While on the way from the ranch to the ferry, I was visited with some misgivings as to whether Esther McLeod had yet returned from San Antonio. At the delivery of San Miguel's cattle at Las Palomas, Miss Jean had been very attentive to Tony Hunter, Esther's brother-in-law, and through him she learned that Esther's school closed for the summer vacation on the fifteenth of April, and that within a week afterward she was expected at home. Shortly after our reaching the ferry, a number of vehicles drove in from Oakville. One of these conveyances was an elaborate six-horse stage, owned by Bethel & Oxenford, star route mail contractors between San Antonio and Brownsville, Texas. Seated by young Oxenford's side in the driver's box sat Esther McLeod, while inside the coach was her sister, Mrs. Martin, with the senior member of the firm, his wife, and several other invited guests. I had heard something of the gallantry of young Jack Oxenford, who was the nephew of a carpet-bag member of Congress, and prided himself on being the best whip in the country. In the latter field I would gladly have yielded him all honors, but his attentions to Esther were altogether too marked to please either me or my employer. I am free to admit that I was troubled by this turn of affairs. The junior mail contractor made up in egotism what he lacked in appearance, and no doubt had money to burn, as star route mail contracting was profitable those days, while I had nothing but my monthly wages. To make matters more embarrassing, a blind man could have read Mrs. Martin's approval of young Oxenford.
The programme for the forenoon was brief--a few patriotic songs and an oration by a young lawyer who had come up from Corpus Christi for the occasion. After listening to the opening song, my employer and I took a stroll down by the river, as we were too absorbed in the new complications to pay proper attention to the young orator.
"Tom," said Uncle Lance, as we strolled away from the grove, "we are up against the real thing now. I know young Oxenford, and he's a dangerous fellow to have for a rival, if he really is one. You can't tell much about a Yankee, though, for he's usually egotistical enough to think that every girl in the country is breaking her neck to win him. The worst of it is, this young fellow is rich--he's got dead oodles of money and he's making more every hour out of his mail contracts. One good thing is, we understand the situation, and all's fair in love and war. You can see, though, that Mrs. Martin has dealt herself a hand in the game. By the dough on her fingers she proposes to have a fist in the pie. Well, now, son, we'll give them a run for their money or break a tug in the effort. Tom, just you play to my lead to-day and we'll see who holds the high cards or knows best how to play them. If I can cut him off, that'll be your chance to sail in and do a little close-herding yourself."
We loitered along the river bank until the oration was concluded, my employer giving me quite an interesting account of my rival. It seems that young Oxenford belonged to a family then notoriously prominent in politics. He had inherited quite a sum of money, and, through the influence of his congressional uncle, had been fortunate enough to form a partnership with Bethel, a man who knew all the ropes in mail contracting. The senior member of the firm knew how to shake the tree, while the financial resources of the junior member and the political influence of his uncle made him a valuable man in gathering the plums on their large field of star route contracts. Had not exposure interrupted, they were due to have made a large fortune out of the government.
On our return to the picnic grounds, the assembly was dispersing for luncheon. Miss Jean had ably provided for the occasion, and on reaching our ambulance on the outer edge of the grove, Tiburcio had coffee all ready and the boys from the home ranch began to straggle in for dinner. Miss Jean had prevailed on Tony Hunter and his wife, who had come down on horseback from the San Miguel, to take luncheon with us, and from the hearty greetings which Uncle Lance extended to the guests of his sister, I could see that the owner and mistress of Las Palomas were diplomatically dividing the house of McLeod. I followed suit, making myself agreeable to Mrs. Hunter, who was but very few years the elder of Esther. Having spent a couple of nights at their ranch, and feeling a certain comradeship with her husband, I decided before dinner was over that I had a friend and ally in Tony's wife. There was something romantic about the young matron, as any one could see, and since the sisters favored each other in many ways, I had hopes that Esther might not overvalue Jack Oxenford's money.
After luncheon, as we were on our way to the dancing arbor, we met the Oakville party with Esther in tow. I was introduced to Mrs. Martin, who, in turn, made me acquainted with her friends, including her sister, perfectly unconscious that we were already more than mere acquaintances. From the demure manner of Esther, who accepted the introduction as a matter of course, I surmised she was concealing our acquaintance from her sister and my rival. We had hardly reached the arbor before Uncle Lance created a diversion and interested the mail contractors with a glowing yarn about a fine lot of young mules he had at the ranch, large enough for stage purposes. There was some doubt expressed by the stage men as to their size and weight, when my employer invited them to the outskirts of the grove, where he would show them a sample in our ambulance team. So he led them away, and I saw that the time had come to play to my employer's lead. The music striking up, I claimed Esther for the first dance, leaving Mrs. Martin, for the time being, in charge of her sister and Miss Jean. Before the first waltz ended I caught sight of all three of the ladies mingling in the dance. It was a source of no small satisfaction to me to see my two best friends, Deweese and Gallup, dancing with the married sisters, while Miss Jean was giving her whole attention to her partner, Tony Hunter. With the entire Las Palomas crowd pulling strings in my interest, and Father, in the absence of Oxenford, becoming extremely gracious, I grew bold and threw out my chest like the brisket on a beef steer.
I permitted no one to separate me from Esther. We started the second dance together, but no sooner did I see her sister, Mrs. Martin, whirl by us in the polka with Dan Happersett, than I suggested that we drop out and take a stroll. She consented, and we were soon out of sight, wandering in a labyrinth of lover's lanes which abounded throughout this live-oak grove. On reaching the outskirts of the picnic grounds, we came to an extensive opening in which our saddle horses were picketed. At a glance Esther recognized Wolf, the horse I had ridden the Christmas before when passing their ranch. Being a favorite saddle horse of the old ranchero, he was reserved for special occasions, and Uncle Lance had ridden him down to Shepherd's on this holiday. Like a bird freed from a cage, the ranch girl took to the horses and insisted on a little ride. Since her proposal alone prevented my making a similar suggestion, I allowed myself to be won over, but came near getting caught in protesting. "But you told me at the ranch that Wolf was one of ten in your Las Palomas mount," she poutingly protested.
"He is," I insisted, "but I have loaned him to Uncle Lance for the day."
"Throw the saddle on him then--I'll tell Mr. Lovelace when we return that I borrowed his horse when he wasn't looking."
Had she killed the horse, I felt sure that the apology would have been accepted; so, throwing saddles on the black and my own mount, we were soon scampering down the river. The inconvenience of a man's saddle, or the total absence of any, was a negligible incident to this daughter of the plains. A mile down the river, we halted and watered the horses. Then, crossing the stream, we spent about an hour circling slowly about on the surrounding uplands, never being over a mile from the picnic grounds. It was late for the first flora of the season, but there was still an abundance of blue bonnets. Dismounting, we gathered and wove wreaths for our horses' necks, and wandered picking the Mexican strawberries which grew plentifully on every hand.
But this was all preliminary to the main question. When it came up for discussion, this one of Quirk's boys made the talk of his life in behalf of Thomas Moore. Nor was it in vain. When Esther apologized for the rudeness her mother had shown me at her home, that afforded me the opening for which I was longing. We were sitting on a grassy hummock, weaving garlands, when I replied to the apology by declaring my intention of marrying her, with or without her mother's consent. Unconventional as the declaration was, to my surprise she showed neither offense nor wonderment. Dropping the flowers with which we were working, she avoided my gaze, and, turning slightly from me, began watching our horses, which had strayed away some distance. But I gave her little time for meditation, and when I aroused her from her reverie, she rose, saying, "We'd better go back--they'll miss us if we stay too long."
Before complying with her wish, I urged an answer; but she, artfully avoiding my question, insisted on our immediate return. Being in a quandary as to what to say or do, I went after the horses, which was a simple proposition. On my return, while we were adjusting the garlands about the necks of our mounts, I again urged her for an answer, but in vain. We stood for a moment between the two horses, and as I lowered my hand on my knee to afford her a stepping-stone in mounting, I thought she did not offer to mount with the same alacrity as she had done before. Something flashed through my addled mind, and, withdrawing the hand proffered as a mounting block, I clasped the demure maiden closely in my arms. What transpired has no witnesses save two saddle horses, and as Wolf usually kept an eye on his rider in mounting, I dropped the reins and gave him his freedom rather than endure his scrutiny. When we were finally aroused from this delicious trance, the horses had strayed away fully fifty yards, but I had received a favorable answer, breathed in a voice so low and tender that it haunts me yet.
As we rode along, returning to the grove, Esther requested that our betrothal be kept a profound secret. No doubt she had good reasons, and it was quite possible that there then existed some complications which she wished to conceal, though I avoided all mention of any possible rival. Since she was not due to return to her school before September, there seemed ample time to carry out our intentions of marrying. But as we jogged along, she informed me that after spending a few weeks with her sister in Oakville, it was her intention to return to the San Miguel for the summer. To allay her mother's distrust, it would be better for me not to call at the ranch. But this was easily compensated for when she suggested making several visits during the season with the Vaux girls, chums of hers, who lived on the Frio about thirty miles due north of Las Palomas. This was fortunate, since the Vaux ranch and ours were on the most friendly terms.
We returned by the route by which we had left the grounds. I repicketed the horses and we were soon mingling again with the revelers, having been absent little over an hour. No one seemed to have taken any notice of our absence. Mrs. Martin, I rejoiced to see, was still in tow of her sister and Miss Jean, and from the circle of Las Palomas courtiers who surrounded the ladies, I felt sure they had given her no opportunity even to miss her younger sister. Uncle Lance was the only member of our company absent, but I gave myself no uneasiness about him, since the mail contractors were both likewise missing. Rejoining our friends and assuming a nonchalant air, I flattered myself that my disguise was perfect.
During the remainder of the afternoon, in view of the possibility that Esther might take her sister, Mrs. Martin, into our secret and win her as an ally, I cultivated that lady's acquaintance, dancing with her and leaving nothing undone to foster her friendship. Near the middle of the afternoon, as the three sisters, Miss Jean, and I were indulging in light refreshment at a booth some distance from the dancing arbor, I sighted my employer, Dan Happersett, and the two stage men returning from the store. They passed near, not observing us, and from the defiant tones of Uncle Lance's voice, I knew they had been tampering with the 'private stock' of the merchant at Shepherd's. "Why, gentlemen," said he, "that ambulance team is no exception to the quality of mules I'm raising at Las Palomas. Drive up some time and spend a few days and take a look at the stock we're breeding. If you will, and I don't show you fifty mules fourteen and a half hands or better, I'll round up five hundred head and let you pick fifty as a pelon for your time and trouble. Why, gentlemen, Las Palomas has sold mules to the government."
On the return of our party to the arbor, Happersett claimed a dance with Esther, thus freeing me. Uncle Lance was standing some little distance away, still entertaining the mail contractors, and I edged near enough to notice Oxenford's florid face and leery eye. But on my employer's catching sight of me, he excused himself to the stage men, and taking my arm led me off. Together we promenaded out of sight of the crowd. "How do you like my style of a man herder?" inquired the old matchmaker, once we were out of hearing. "Why, Tom, I'd have held those mail thieves until dark, if Dan hadn't drifted in and given me the wink. Shepherd kicked like a bay steer on letting me have a second quart bottle, but it took that to put the right glaze in the young Yank's eye. Oh, I had him going south all right! But tell me, how did you and Esther make it?"
We had reached a secluded spot, and, seating ourselves on an old fallen tree trunk, I told of my success, even to the using of his horse. Never before or since did I see Uncle Lance give way to such a fit of hilarity as he indulged in over the perfect working out of our plans. With his hat he whipped me, the ground, the log on which we sat, while his peals of laughter rang out like the reports of a rifle. In his fit of ecstasy, tears of joy streaming from his eyes, he kept repeating again and again, "Oh, sister, run quick and tell pa to come!"
As we neared the grounds returning, he stopped me and we had a further brief confidential talk together. I was young and egotistical enough to think that I could defy all the rivals in existence, but he cautioned me, saying: "Hold on, Tom. You're young yet; you know nothing about the weaker sex, absolutely nothing. It's not your fault, but due to your mere raw youth. Now, listen to me, son: Don't underestimate any rival, particularly if he has gall and money, most of all, money. Humanity is the same the world over, and while you may not have seen it here among the ranches, it is natural for a woman to rave over a man with money, even if he is only a pimply excuse for a creature. Still, I don't see that we have very much to fear. We can cut old lady McLeod out of the matter entirely. But then there's the girl's sister, Mrs. Martin, and I look for her to cut up shameful when she smells the rat, which she's sure to do. And then there's her husband to figure on. If the ox knows his master's crib, it's only reasonable to suppose that Jack Martin knows where his bread and butter comes from. These stage men will stick up for each other like thieves. Now, don't you be too crack sure. Be just a trifle leary of every one, except, of course, the Las Palomas outfit."
I admit that I did not see clearly the reasoning behind much of this lecture, but I knew better than reject the advice of the old matchmaker with his sixty odd years of experience. I was still meditating over his remarks when we rejoined the crowd and were soon separated among the dancers. Several urged me to play the violin; but I was too busy looking after my own fences, and declined the invitation. Casting about for the Vaux girls, I found the eldest, with whom I had a slight acquaintance, being monopolized by Theodore Quayle and John Cotton, friendly rivals and favorites of the young lady. On my imploring the favor of a dance, she excused herself, and joined me on a promenade about the grounds, missing one dance entirely. In arranging matters with her to send me word on the arrival of Esther at their ranch, I attempted to make her show some preference between my two comrades, under the pretense of knowing which one to bring along, but she only smiled and maintained an admirable neutrality.
After a dance I returned the elder Miss Vaux to the tender care of John Cotton, and caught sight of my employer leaving the arbor for the refreshment booth with a party of women, including Mrs. Martin and Esther McLeod, to whom he was paying the most devoted attention. Witnessing the tireless energy of the old matchmaker, and in a quarter where he had little hope of an ally, brought me to thinking that there might be good cause for alarm in his warnings not to be overconfident. Miss Jean, whom I had not seen since luncheon, aroused me from my reverie, and on her wishing to know my motive for cultivating the acquaintance of Miss Vaux and neglecting my own sweetheart, I told her the simple truth. "Good idea, Tom," she assented. "I think I'll just ask Miss Frances home with me to spend Sunday. Then you can take her across to the Frio on horseback, so as not to offend either John or Theodore. What do you think?"
I thought it was a good idea, and said so. At least the taking of the young lady home would be a pleasanter task for me than breaking horses. But as I expressed myself so, I could not help thinking, seeing Miss Jean's zeal in the matter, that the matchmaking instinct was equally well developed on both sides of the Lovelace family.
The afternoon was drawing to a close. The festivities would conclude by early sundown. Miss Jean would spend the night again at the halfway ranch, returning to Las Palomas the next morning; we would start on our return with the close of the amusements. Many who lived at a distance had already started home. It lacked but a few minutes of the closing hour when I sought out Esther for the "Home, Sweet Home" waltz, finding her in company of Oxenford, chaperoned by Mrs. Martin, of which there was need. My sweetheart excused herself with a poise that made my heart leap, and as we whirled away in the mazes of the final dance, rivals and all else passed into oblivion. Before we could realize the change in the music, the orchestra had stopped, and struck into "My Country, 'tis of Thee," in which the voice of every patriotic Texan present swelled the chorus until it echoed throughout the grove, befittingly closing San Jacinto Day.