My memory of what happened immediately after Mrs. Martin's contemptuous treatment of me is as vague and indefinite as the vaporings of a fevered dream. I have a faint recollection of several friendly people offering their sympathy. The old stableman, who looked after the horses, cautioned me not to start out alone; but I have since learned that I cursed him and all the rest, and rode away as one in a trance. But I must have had some little caution left, for I remember giving Shepherd's a wide berth, passing several miles to the south.
The horses, taking their own way, were wandering home. Any exercise of control or guidance over them on my part was inspired by an instinct to avoid being seen. Of conscious direction there was none. Somewhere between the ferry and the ranch I remember being awakened from my torpor by the horse which I was leading showing an inclination to graze. Then I noticed their gaunted condition, and in sympathy for the poor brutes unsaddled and picketed them in a secluded spot. What happened at this halt has slipped from my memory. But I must have slept a long time; for I awoke to find the moon high overhead, and my watch, through neglect, run down and stopped. I now realized the better my predicament, and reasoned with myself whether I should return to Las Palomas or not. But there was no place else to go, and the horses did not belong to me. If I could only reach the ranch and secure my own horse, I felt that no power on earth could chain me to the scenes of my humiliation.
The horses decided me to return. Resaddling at an unknown hour, I rode for the ranch. The animals were refreshed and made good time. As I rode along I tried to convince myself that I could slip into the ranch, secure my own saddle horse, and meet no one except the Mexicans. There was a possibility that Deweese might still be in camp at the new reservoir, and I was hopeful that my employer might not yet be returned from the hunt on the Frio. After a number of hours' riding, the horse under saddle nickered. Halting him, I listened and heard the roosters crowing in a chorus at the ranch. Clouds had obscured the moon, and so by making a detour around the home buildings I was able to reach the Mexican quarters unobserved. I rode up to the house of Enrique, and quietly aroused him; told him my misfortune and asked him to hide me until he could get up my horse. We turned the animals loose, and, taking my saddle inside the jacal, held a whispered conversation. Deweese was yet at the tank. If the hunting party had returned, they had done so during the night. The distant range of my horse made it impossible to get him before the middle of the forenoon, but Enrique and Dona Anita assured me that my slightest wish was law to them. Furnishing me with a blanket and pillow, they made me a couch on a dry cowskin on the dirt floor at the foot of their bed, and before day broke I had fallen asleep.
On awakening, I found the sun had already risen. Enrique and his wife were missing from the room, but a peep through a crevice in the palisade wall revealed Dona Anita in the kitchen adjoining. She had detected my awakening, and soon brought me a cup of splendid coffee, which I drank with relish. She urged on me also some dainty dishes, which had always been favorites with me in Mexican cookery, but my appetite was gone. Throwing myself back on the cowskin, I asked Dona Anita how long Enrique had been gone in quest of my horse, and was informed that he left before dawn, not even waiting for his customary cup of coffee. With the kindness of a sister, the girl wife urged me to take their bed; but I assured her that comfort was the least of my concerns, complete effacement being my consuming thought.
Dona Anita withdrew, and as I lay pondering over the several possible routes of escape, I heard a commotion in the ranch. I was in the act of rising when Dona Anita burst into the jacal to tell me that Don Lance had been sighted returning. I was on my feet in an instant, heard the long-drawn notes of the horn calling in the hounds, and, peering through the largest crack, saw the cavalcade. As they approached, driving their loose mounts in front of them, I felt that my ill luck still hung over me; for among the unsaddled horses were the two which I had turned free but a few hours before. The hunters had met the gaunted animals between the ranch and the river, and were bringing them in to return them to their own remuda. But at the same time the horses were evidence that I was in the ranch. From the position of Uncle Lance, in advance, I could see that he was riding direct to the house, and my absence there would surely cause surprise. At best it was but a question of time until I was discovered.
In the face of this new development, I gave up. There was no escaping fate. Enrique might not return for two hours yet, and if he came, driving in my horse, it would only prove my presence. I begged Dona Anita to throw open the door and conceal nothing. But she was still ready to aid in my concealment until night, offering to deny my presence. But how could I conceal myself in a single room, and what was so simple a device to a worldly man of sixty years' experience? To me the case looked hopeless. Even before we had concluded our discussion, I saw Uncle Lance and the boys coming towards the Mexican quarters, followed by Miss Jean and the household contingent. The fact that the door of Enrique's jacal was closed, made it a shining mark for investigation. Opening the inner door, I started to meet the visitors; but Dona Anita planted herself at the outer entrance of the stoop, met the visitors, and within my hearing and without being asked stoutly denied my presence. "Hush up, you little liar," said a voice, and I heard a step and clanking spurs which I recognized. I had sat down on the edge of the bed, and was rolling a cigarette as the crowd filed into the jacal. A fortunate flush of anger came over me which served to steady my voice; but I met their staring, after all, much as if I had been a culprit and they a vigilance committee.
"Well, young fellow, explain your presence here," demanded Uncle Lance. Had it not been for the presence of Miss Jean, I had on my tongue's end a reply, relative to the eleventh commandment, emphasized with sulphurous adjectives. But out of deference to the mistress of the ranch, I controlled my anger, and, taking out of my pocket a flint, a steel, and, a bit of yesca, struck fire and leisurely lighted my cigarette. Throwing myself back on the bed, as my employer repeated his demand, I replied, "Ask Anita." The girl understood, and, nothing abashed, told the story in her native tongue, continually referring to me as pobre Tomas. When her disconnected narrative was concluded, Uncle Lance turned on me, saying:--
"And this is the result of all our plans. You went into Oakville, did you? Tom, you haven't, got as much sense as a candy frog. Walked right into a trap with your head up and sassy. That's right--don't you listen to any one. Didn't I tell you that stage people would stick by each other like thieves? And you forgot all my warnings and deliberately"--
"Hold on," I interrupted. "You must recollect that the horses had had a fifty-mile forced ride, were jaded, and on the point of collapse. With the down stage refusing to carry us, and the girl on the point of hysteria, where else could I go?"
"Go to jail if necessary. Go anywhere but the place you went. The horses were jaded on a fifty-mile ride, were they? Either one of them was good for a hundred without unsaddling, and you know it. Haven't I told you that this ranch would raise horses when we were all dead and gone? Suppose you had killed a couple of horses? What would that have been, compared to your sneaking into the ranch this way, like a whipped cur with your tail between your legs? Now, the countryside will laugh at us both."
"The country may laugh," I answered, "but I'll not be here to hear it. Enrique has gone after my horse, and as soon as he gets in I'm leaving you for good."
"You'll do nothing of the kind. You think you're all shot to pieces, don't you? Well, you'll stay right here until all your wounds heal. I've taken all these degrees myself, and have lived to laugh at them afterward. And I have had lessons that I hope you'll never have to learn. When I found out that my third wife had known a gambler before she married me, I found out what the Bible means by rottenness of the bones with which it says an evil woman uncrowns her husband. I'll tell you about it some day. But you've not been scarred in this little side-play. You're not even powder burnt. Why, in less than a month you'll be just as happy again as if you had good sense."
Miss Jean now interrupted. "Clear right out of here," she said to her brother and the rest. "Yes, the whole pack of you. I want to talk with Tom alone. Yes, you too--you've said too much already. Run along out."
As they filed out, I noticed Uncle Lance pick up my saddle and throw it across his shoulder, while Theodore gathered up the rancid blankets and my fancy bridle, taking everything with them to the house. Waiting until she saw that her orders were obeyed, Miss Jean came over and sat down beside me on the bed. Anita stood like a fawn near the door, likewise fearing banishment, but on a sign from her mistress she spread a goatskin on the floor and sat down at our feet. Between two languages and two women, I was as helpless as an ironed prisoner. Not that Anita had any influence over me, but the mistress of the ranch had. In her hands I was as helpless as a baby. I had come to the ranch a stranger only a little over a year before, but had I been born there her interest could have been no stronger. Jean Lovelace relinquished no one, any more than a mother would one of her boys. I wanted to escape, to get away from observation; I even plead for a month's leave of absence. But my reasons were of no avail, and after arguing pro and con for over an hour, I went with her to the house. If the Almighty ever made a good woman and placed her among men for their betterment, then the presence of Jean Lovelace at Las Palomas savored of divine appointment.
On reaching the yard, we rested a long time on a settee under a group of china trees. The boys had dispersed, and after quite a friendly chat together, we saw Uncle Lance sauntering out of the house, smiling as he approached. "Tom's going to stay," said Miss Jean to her brother, as the latter seated himself beside us; "but this abuse and blame you're heaping on him must stop. He did what he thought was best under the circumstances, and you don't know what they were. He has given me his promise to stay, and I have given him mine that talk about this matter will be dropped. Now that your anger has cooled, and I have you both together, I want your word."
"Tom," said my employer, throwing his long bony arm around me, "I was disappointed, terribly put out, and I showed it in freeing my mind. But I feel better now--towards you, at least. I understand just how you felt when your plans were thwarted by an unforeseen incident. If I don't know everything, then, since the milk is spilt, I'm not asking for further particulars. If you did what you thought was best under the circumstances, why, that's all we ever ask of any one at Las Palomas. A mistake is nothing; my whole life is a series of errors. I've been trying, and expect to keep right on trying, to give you youngsters the benefit of my years; but if you insist on learning it for yourselves, well enough. When I was your age, I took no one's advice; but look how I've paid the fiddler. Possibly it was ordained otherwise, but it looks to me like a shame that I can't give you boys the benefit of my dearly bought experience. But whether you take my advice or not, we're going to be just as good friends as ever. I need young fellows like you on this ranch. I've sent Dan out after Deweese, and to-morrow we're going to commence gathering beeves. A few weeks' good hard work will do you worlds of good. In less than a year, you'll look back at this as a splendid lesson. Shucks! boy, a man is a narrow, calloused creature until he has been shook up a few times by love affairs. They develop him into the man he was intended to be. Come on into the house, Tom, and Jean will make us a couple of mint juleps."
What a blessed panacea for mental trouble is work! We were in the saddle by daybreak the next morning, rounding up remudas. Every available vaquero at the outlying ranchitas had been summoned. Dividing the outfit and horses, Uncle Lance took twelve men and struck west for the Ganso. With an equal number of men, Deweese pushed north for the Frio, which he was to work down below Shepherd's, thence back along the home river. From the ranch books, we knew there were fully two thousand beeves over five years old in our brand. These cattle had never known an hour's restraint since the day they were branded, and caution and cool judgment would be required in handling them. Since the contract only required twelve hundred, we expected to make an extra clean gathering, using the oldest and naturally the largest beeves.
During the week spent in gathering, I got the full benefit of every possible hour in the saddle. We reached the Ganso about an hour before sundown. The weather had settled; water was plentiful, and every one realized that the work in hand would require wider riding than under dry conditions. By the time we had caught up fresh horses, the sun had gone down. "Boys," said Uncle Lance, "we want to make a big rodeo on the head of this creek in the morning. Tom, you take two vaqueros and lay off to the southwest about ten miles, and make a dry camp to-night. Glenn may have the same help to the southeast; and every rascal of you be in your saddles by daybreak. There are a lot of big ladino beeves in those brushy hills to the south and west. Be sure and be in your saddles early enough to catch all wild cattle out on the prairies. If you want to, you can take a lunch in your pocket for breakfast. No; you need no blankets--you'll get up earlier if you sleep cold."
Taking Jose Pena and Pasquale Arispe with me, I struck off on our course in the gathering twilight. The first twitter of a bird in the morning brought me to my feet; I roused the others, and we saddled and were riding with the first sign of dawn in the east. Taking the outside circle myself, I gave every bunch of cattle met on my course a good start for the centre of the round-up. Pasquale and Jose followed several miles to my rear on inner circles, drifting on the cattle which I had started inward. As the sun arose, dispelling the morning mists, I could see other cattle coming down in long strings out of the hills to the eastward. Within an hour after starting, Gallup and I met. Our half circle to the southward was perfect, and each turning back, we rode our appointed divisions until the vaqueros from the wagon were sighted, throwing in cattle and closing up the northern portion of the circle. Before the sun was two hours high, the first rodeo of the day was together, numbering about three thousand mixed cattle. In the few hours since dawn, we had concentrated all animals in a territory at least fifteen miles in diameter.
Uncle Lance was in his element. Detailing two vaqueros to hold the beef cut within reach and a half dozen to keep the main herd compact, he ordered the remainder of us to enter and begin the selecting of beeves. There were a number of big wild steers in the round-up, but we left those until the cut numbered over two hundred. When every hoof over five years of age was separated, we had a nucleus for our beef herd numbering about two hundred and forty steers. They were in fine condition for grass cattle, and, turning the main herd free, we started our cut for the wagon, being compelled to ride wide of them as we drifted down stream towards camp, as there were a number of old beeves which showed impatience at the restraint. But by letting them scatter well, by the time they reached the wagon it required but two vaqueros to hold them.
The afternoon was but a repetition of the morning. Everything on the south side of the Nueces between the river and the wagon was thrown together on the second round-up of the day, which yielded less than two hundred cattle for our beef herd. But when we went into camp, dividing into squads for night-herding, the day's work was satisfactory to the ranchero. Dan Happersett was given five vaqueros and stood the first watch or until one A.M. Glenn Gallup and myself took the remainder of the men and stood guard until morning. When Happersett called our guard an hour after midnight, he said to Gallup and me as we were pulling on our boots: "About a dozen big steers haven't laid down. There's only one of them that has given any trouble. He's a pinto that we cut in the first round-up in the morning. He has made two breaks already to get away, and if you don't watch him close, he'll surely give you the slip."
While riding to the relief, Glenn and I posted our vaqueros to be on the lookout for the pinto beef. The cattle were intentionally bedded loose; but even in the starlight and waning moon, every man easily spotted the ladino beef, uneasily stalking back and forth like a caged tiger across the bed ground. A half hour before dawn, he made a final effort to escape, charging out between Gallup and the vaquero following up on the same side. From the other side of the bed ground, I heard the commotion, but dare not leave the herd to assist. There was a mile of open country surrounding our camp, and if two men could not turn the beef on that space, it was useless for others to offer assistance. In the stillness of the morning hour, we could hear the running and see the flashes from six-shooters, marking the course of the outlaw. After making a half circle, we heard them coming direct for the herd. For fear of a stampede, we raised a great commotion around the sleeping cattle; but in spite of our precaution, as the ladino beef reentered the herd, over half the beeves jumped to their feet and began milling. But we held them until dawn, and after scattering them over several hundred acres, left them grazing contentedly, when, leaving two vaqueros with the feeding herd, we went back to the wagon. The camp had been astir some time, and when Glenn reported the incident of our watch, Uncle Lance said: "I thought I heard some shooting while I was cat-napping at daylight. Well, we can use a little fresh beef in this very camp. We'll kill him at noon. The wagon will move down near the river this morning, so we can make three rodeos from it without moving camp, and to-night we'll have a side of Pinto's ribs barbecued. My mouth is watering this very minute for a rib roast."
That morning after a big rodeo on the Nueces, well above the Ganso, we returned to camp. Throwing into our herd the cut of less than a hundred secured on the morning round-up, Uncle Lance, who had preceded us, rode out from the wagon with a carbine. Allowing the beeves to scatter, the old ranchero met and rode zigzagging through them until he came face to face with the pinto ladino. On noticing the intruding horseman, the outlaw threw up his head. There was a carbine report and the big fellow went down in his tracks. By the time the herd had grazed away, Tiburcio, who was cooking with our wagon, brought out all the knives, and the beef was bled, dressed, and quartered.
"You can afford to be extravagant with this beef," said Uncle Lance to the old cook, when the quarters had been carried in to the wagon. "I've been ranching on this river nearly forty years, and I've always made it a rule, where cattle cannot be safely handled, to beef them then and there. I've sat up many a night barbecuing the ribs of a ladino. If you have plenty of salt, Tiburcio, you can make a brine and jerk those hind quarters. It will make fine chewing for the boys on night herd when once we start for the coast."
Following down the home river, we made ten other rodeos before we met Deweese. We had something over a thousand beeves while he had less than eight hundred. Throwing the two cuts together, we made a count, and cut back all the younger and smaller cattle until the herd was reduced to the required number. Before my advent at Las Palomas, about the only outlet for beef cattle had been the canneries at Rockport and Fulton. But these cattle were for shipment by boat to New Orleans and other coast cities. The route to the coast was well known to my employer, and detailing twelve men for the herd, a horse wrangler and cook extra, we started for it, barely touching at the ranch on our course. It was a nice ten days' trip. After the first night, we used three guards of four men each. Grazing contentedly, the cattle quieted down until on our arrival half our numbers could have handled them. The herd was counted and received on the outlying prairies, and as no steamer was due for a few days, another outfit took charge of them.
Uncle Lance was never much of a man for towns, and soon after settlement the next morning we were ready to start home. But the payment, amounting to thirty thousand dollars, presented a problem, as the bulk of it came to us in silver. There was scarcely a merchant in the place who would assume the responsibility of receiving it even on deposit, and in the absence of a bank, there was no alternative but to take it home. The agent for the steamship company solicited the money for transportation to New Orleans, mentioning the danger of robbery, and referring to the recent attempt of bandits to hold up the San Antonio and Corpus Christi stage. I had good cause to remember that incident, and was wondering what my employer would do under the circumstances, when he turned from the agent, saying:--
"Well, we'll take it home just the same. I have no use for money in New Orleans. Nor do I care if every bandit in Texas knows we've got the money in the wagon. I want to buy a few new guns, anyhow. If robbers tackle us, we'll promise them a warm reception--and I never knew a thief who didn't think more of his own carcass than of another man's money."
The silver was loaded into the wagon in sacks, and we started on our return. It was rather a risky trip, but we never concealed the fact that we had every dollar of the money in the wagon. It would have been dangerous to make an attempt on us, for we were all well armed. We reached the ranch in safety, rested a day, and then took the ambulance and went on to San Antonio. Three of us, besides Tiburcio, accompanied our employer, each taking a saddle horse, and stopping by night at ranches where we were known. On the third day we reached the city in good time to bank the money, much to my relief.
As there was no work pressing at home, we spent a week in the city, thoroughly enjoying ourselves. Uncle Lance was negotiating for the purchase of a large Spanish land grant, which adjoined our range on the west, taking in the Ganso and several miles' frontage on both sides of the home river. This required his attention for a few days, during which time Deweese met two men on the lookout for stock cattle with which to start a new ranch on the Devil's River in Valverde County. They were in the market for three thousand cows, to be delivered that fall or the following spring. Our segundo promptly invited them to meet his employer that evening at our hotel. As the ranges in eastern Texas became of value for agriculture, the cowman moved westward, disposing of his cattle or taking them with him. It was men of this class whom Deweese had met during the day, and on filling their appointment in the evening, our employer and the buyers soon came to an agreement. References were exchanged, and the next afternoon a contract was entered into whereby we were to deliver, May first, at Las Palomas ranch, three thousand cows between the ages of two and four years.
There was some delay in perfecting the title to the land grant. "We'll start home in the morning, boys," said Uncle Lance, the evening after the contract was drawn. "You simply can't hurry a land deal. I'll get that tract in time, but there's over a hundred heirs now of the original Don. I'd just like to know what the grandee did for his king to get that grant. Tickled his royal nibs, I reckon, with some cock and bull story, and here I have to give up nearly forty thousand dollars of good honest money. Twenty years ago I was offered this same grant for ten cents an acre, and now I'm paying four bits. But I didn't have the money then, and I'm not sure I'd have bought it if I had. But I need it now, and I need it bad, and that's why I'm letting them hold me up for such a figure."
Stopping at the "last chance" road house on the outskirts of the city the next morning, for a final drink as we were leaving, Uncle Lance said to us over the cattle contract: "There's money in it--good money, too. But we're not going to fill it out of our home brand. Not in this year of our Lord. I think too much of my cows to part with a single animal. Boys, cows made Las Palomas what she is, and as long as they win for me, I intend--to swear by them through thick and thin, in good and bad repute, fair weather or foul. So, June, just as soon as the fall branding is over, you can take Tom with you for an interpreter and start for Mexico to contract these cows. Las Palomas is going to branch out and spread herself. As a ranchman, I can bring the cows across for breeding purposes free of duty, and I know of no good reason why I can't change my mind and sell them. Dan, take Tiburcio out a cigar."