The return of Miss Jean the next forenoon, accompanied by Frances Vaux, was an occasion of more than ordinary moment at Las Palomas. The Vaux family were of creole extraction, but had settled on the Frio River nearly a generation before. Under the climatic change, from the swamps of Louisiana to the mesas of Texas, the girls grew up fine physical specimens of rustic Southern beauty. To a close observer, certain traces of the French were distinctly discernible in Miss Frances, notably in the large, lustrous eyes, the swarthy complexion, and early maturity of womanhood. Small wonder then that our guest should have played havoc among the young men of the countryside, adding to her train of gallants the devoted Quayle and Cotton of Las Palomas.
Aside from her charming personality, that Miss Vaux should receive a cordial welcome at Las Palomas goes without saying, since there were many reasons why she should. The old ranchero and his sister chaperoned the young lady, while I, betrothed to another, became her most obedient slave. It is needless to add that there was a fair field and no favor shown by her hosts, as between John and Theodore. The prize was worthy of any effort. The best man was welcome to win, while the blessings of master and mistress seemed impatient to descend on the favored one.
In the work in hand, I was forced to act as a rival to my friends, for I could not afford to lower my reputation for horsemanship before Miss Frances, when my betrothed was shortly to be her guest. So it was not to be wondered at that Quayle and Cotton should abandon the medeno in mounting their unbroken geldings, and I had to follow suit or suffer by comparison. The other rascals, equal if not superior to our trio in horsemanship, including Enrique, born with just sense enough to be a fearless vaquero, took to the heavy sand in mounting vicious geldings; but we three jauntily gave the wildest horses their heads and even encouraged them to buck whenever our guest was sighted on the gallery. What gave special vim to our work was the fact that Miss Frances was a horsewoman herself, and it was with difficulty that she could be kept away from the corrals. Several times a day our guest prevailed on Uncle Lance to take her out to witness the roping. From a safe vantage place on the palisades, the old ranchero and his protege would watch us catching, saddling, and mounting the geldings. Under those bright eyes, lariats encircled the feet of the horse to be ridden deftly indeed, and he was laid on his side in the sand as daintily as a mother would lay her babe in its crib. Outside of the trio, the work of the gang was bunglesome, calling for many a protest from Uncle Lance,--they had no lady's glance to spur them on,--while ours merited the enthusiastic plaudits of Miss Frances.
Then came Sunday and we observed the commandment. Miss Jean had planned a picnic for the day on the river. We excused Tiburcio, and pressed the ambulance team into service to convey the party of six for the day's outing among the fine groves of elm that bordered the river in several places, and afforded ample shade from the sun. The day was delightfully spent. The chaperons were negligent and dilatory. Uncle Lance even fell asleep for several hours. But when we returned at twilight, the ambulance mules were garlanded as if for a wedding party.
The next morning our guest was to depart, and to me fell the pleasant task of acting as her escort. Uncle Lance prevailed on Miss Frances to ride a spirited chestnut horse from his mount, while I rode a grulla from my own. We made an early start, the old ranchero riding with us as far as the river. As he held the hand of Miss Vaux in parting, he cautioned her not to detain me at their ranch, as he had use for me at Las Palomas. "Of course," said he, "I don't mean that you shall hurry him right off to-day or even to-morrow. But these lazy rascals of mine will hang around a girl a week, if she'll allow it. Had John or Theodore taken you home, I shouldn't expect to see either of them in a fortnight. Now, if they don't treat you right at home, come back and live with us. I'll adopt you as my daughter. And tell your pa that the first general rain that falls, I'm coming over with my hounds for a cat hunt with him. Good-by, sweetheart."
It was a delightful ride across to the Frio. Mounted on two splendid horses, we put the Nueces behind us as the hours passed. Frequently we met large strings of cattle drifting in towards the river for their daily drink, and Miss Frances insisted on riding through the cows, noticing every brand as keenly as a vaquero on the lookout for strays from her father's ranch. The young calves scampered out of our way, but their sedate mothers permitted us to ride near enough to read the brands as we met and passed. Once we rode a mile out of our way to look at a manada. The stallion met us as we approached as if to challenge all intruders on his domain, but we met him defiantly and he turned aside and permitted us to examine his harem and its frolicsome colts.
But when cattle and horses no longer served as a subject, and the wide expanse of flowery mesa, studded here and there with Spanish daggers whose creamy flowers nodded to us as we passed, ceased to interest us, we turned to the ever interesting subject of sweethearts. But try as I might, I could never wring any confession from her which even suggested a preference among her string of admirers. On the other hand, when she twitted me about Esther, I proudly plead guilty of a Platonic friendship which some day I hoped would ripen into something more permanent, fully realizing that the very first time these two chums met there would be an interchange of confidences. And in the full knowledge that during these whispered admissions the truth would be revealed, I stoutly denied that Esther and I were even betrothed.
But during that morning's ride I made a friend and ally of Frances Vaux. There was some talk of a tournament to be held during the summer at Campbellton on the Atascosa. She promised that she would detain Esther for it and find a way to send me word, and we would make up a party and attend it together. I had never been present at any of these pastoral tourneys and was hopeful that one would be held within reach of our ranch, for I had heard a great deal about them and was anxious to see one. But this was only one of several social outings which she outlined as on her summer programme, to all of which I was cordially invited as a member of her party. There was to be a dance on St. John's Day at the Mission, a barbecue in June on the San Miguel, and other local meets for the summer and early fall. By the time we reached the ranch, I was just beginning to realize that, socially, Shepherd's Ferry and the Nueces was a poky place.
The next morning I returned to Las Palomas. The horse-breaking was nearing an end. During the month of May we went into camp on a new tract of land which had been recently acquired, to build a tank on a dry arroyo which crossed this last landed addition to the ranch. It was a commercial peculiarity of Uncle Lance to acquire land but never to part with it under any consideration. To a certain extent, cows and land had become his religion, and whenever either, adjoining Las Palomas, was for sale, they were looked upon as a safe bank of deposit for any surplus funds. The last tract thus secured was dry, but by damming the arroyo we could store water in this tank or reservoir to tide over the dry spells. All the Mexican help on the ranch was put to work with wheelbarrows, while six mule teams ploughed, scraped, and hauled rock, one four-mule team being constantly employed in hauling water over ten miles for camp and stock purposes. This dry stream ran water, when conditions were favorable, several months in the year, and by building the tank our cattle capacity would be largely increased.
One evening, late in the month, when the water wagon returned, Tiburcio brought a request from Miss Jean, asking me to come into the ranch that night. Responding to the summons, I was rewarded by finding a letter awaiting me from Frances Vaux, left by a vaquero passing from the Frio to Santa Maria. It was a dainty missive, informing me that Esther was her guest; that the tournament would not take place, but to be sure and come over on Sunday. Personally the note was satisfactory, but that I was to bring any one along was artfully omitted. Being thus forced to read between the lines, on my return to camp the next morning by dawn, without a word of explanation, I submitted the matter to John and Theodore. Uncle Lance, of course, had to know what had called me in to the ranch, and, taking the letter from Quayle, read it himself.
"That's plain enough," said he, on the first reading. "John will go with you Sunday, and if it rains next month, I'll take Theodore with me when I go over for a cat hunt with old man Pierre. I'll let him act as master of the horse,--no, of the hounds,--and give him a chance to toot his own horn with Frances. Honest, boys, I'm getting disgusted with the white element of Las Palomas. We raise most everything here but white babies. Even Enrique, the rascal, has to live in camp now to hold down his breakfast. But you young whites--with the country just full of young women--well, it's certainly discouraging. I do all I can, and Sis helps a little, but what does it amount to--what are the results? That poem that Jean reads to us occasionally must be right. I reckon the Caucasian is played out."
Before the sun was an hour high, John Cotton and myself rode into the Vaux ranch on Sunday morning. The girls gave us a cheerful welcome. While we were breakfasting, several other lads and lasses rode up, and we were informed that a little picnic for the day had been arranged. As this was to our liking, John and I readily acquiesced, and shortly afterward a mounted party of about a dozen young folks set out for a hackberry grove, up the river several miles. Lunch baskets were taken along, but no chaperons. The girls were all dressed in cambric and muslin and as light in heart as the fabrics and ribbons they flaunted. I was gratified with the boldness of Cotton, as he cantered away with Frances, and with the day before him there was every reason to believe that his cause would he advanced. As to myself, with Esther by my side the livelong day, I could not have asked the world to widen an inch.
It was midnight when we reached Las Palomas returning. As we rode along that night, John confessed to me that Frances was a tantalizing enigma. Up to a certain point, she offered every encouragement, but beyond that there seemed to be a dead line over which she allowed no sentiment to pass. It was plain to be seen that he was discouraged, but I told him I had gone through worse ordeals.
Throughout southern Texas and the country tributary to the Nueces River, we always looked for our heaviest rainfall during the month of June. This year in particular, we were anxious to see a regular downpour to start the arroyo and test our new tank. Besides, we had sold for delivery in July, twelve hundred beef steers for shipment at Rockport on the coast. If only a soaking rain would fall, making water plentiful, we could make the drive in little over a hundred miles, while a dry season would compel; us to follow the river nearly double the distance.
We were riding our range thoroughly, locating our fattest beeves, when one evening as June Deweese and I were on the way back from the Ganso, a regular equinoctial struck us, accompanied by a downpour of rain and hail. Our horses turned their backs to the storm, but we drew slickers over our heads, and defied the elements. Instead of letting up as darkness set in, the storm seemed to increase in fury and we were forced to seek shelter. We were at least fifteen miles from the ranch, and it was simply impossible to force a horse against that sheeting rain. So turning to catch the storm in our backs, we rode for a ranchita belonging to Las Palomas. By the aid of flashes of lightning and the course of the storm, we reached the little ranch and found a haven. A steady rain fell all night, continuing the next day, but we saddled early and rode for our new reservoir on the arroyo. Imagine our surprise on sighting the embankment to see two horsemen ride up from the opposite direction and halt at the dam. Giving rein to our horses and galloping up, we found they were Uncle Lance and Theodore Quayle. Above the dam the arroyo was running like a mill-tail. The water in the reservoir covered several acres and had backed up stream nearly a quarter mile, the deepest point in the tank reaching my saddle skirts. The embankment had settled solidly, holding the gathering water to our satisfaction, and after several hours' inspection we rode for home.
With this splendid rain, Las Palomas ranch took on an air of activity. The old ranchero paced the gallery for hours in great glee, watching the downpour. It was too soon yet by a week to gather the beeves. But under the glowing prospect, we could not remain inert. The next morning the segunao took all the teams and returned to the tank to watch the dam and haul rock to rip-rap the flanks of the embankment. Taking extra saddle horses with us, Uncle Lance, Dan Happersett, Quayle, and myself took the hounds and struck across for the Frio. On reaching the Vaux ranch, as showers were still falling and the underbrush reeking with moisture, wetting any one to the skin who dared to invade it, we did not hunt that afternoon. Pierre Vaux was enthusiastic over the rain, while his daughters were equally so over the prospects of riding to the hounds, there being now nearly forty dogs in the double pack.
At the first opportunity, Frances confided to me that Mrs. McLeod had forbidden Esther visiting them again, since some busybody had carried the news of our picnic to her ears. But she promised me that if I could direct the hunt on the morrow within a few miles of the McLeod ranch, she would entice my sweetheart out and give me a chance to meet her. There was a roguish look in Miss Frances's eye during this disclosure which I was unable to fathom, but I promised during the few days' hunt to find some means to direct the chase within striking distance of the ranch on the San Miguel.
I promptly gave this bit of news in confidence to Uncle Lance, and was told to lie low and leave matters to him. That evening, amid clouds of tobacco smoke, the two old rancheros discussed the best hunting in the country, while we youngsters danced on the gallery to the strains of a fiddle. I heard Mr. Vaux narrating a fight with a cougar which killed two of his best dogs during the winter just passed, and before we retired it was understood that we would give the haunts of this same old cougar our first attention.