Deweese and I came back from Mexico during Christmas week. On reaching Las Palomas, we found Frank Nancrede and Add Tully, the latter being also a trail foreman, at the ranch. They were wintering in San Antonio, and were spending a few weeks at our ranch, incidentally on the lookout for several hundred saddle horses for trail purposes the coming spring. We had no horses for sale, but nevertheless Uncle Lance had prevailed on them to make Las Palomas headquarters during their stay in the country.
The first night at the ranch, Miss Jean and I talked until nearly midnight. There had been so many happenings during my absence that it required a whole evening to tell them all. From the naming of Anita's baby to the rivalry between John and Theodore for the favor of Frances Vaux, all the latest social news of the countryside was discussed. Miss Jean had attended the dance at Shepherd's during the fall, and had heard it whispered that Oxenford and Esther were anything but happy. The latest word from the Vaux ranch said that the couple had separated; at least there was some trouble, for when Oxenford had attempted to force her to return to Oakville, and had made some disparaging remarks, Tony Hunter had crimped a six-shooter over his head. I pretended not to be interested in this, but secretly had I learned that Hunter had killed Oxenford, I should have had no very serious regrets.
Uncle Lance had promised Tully and Nancrede a turkey hunt during the holidays, so on our unexpected return it was decided to have it at once. There had been a heavy mast that year, and in the encinal ridges to the east wild turkeys were reported plentiful. Accordingly we set out the next afternoon for a camp hunt in some oak cross timbers which grew on the eastern border of our ranch lands. Taking two pack mules and Tiburcio as cook, a party of eight of us rode away, expecting to remain overnight. Uncle Lance knew of a fine camping spot about ten miles from the ranch. When within a few miles of the place, Tiburcio was sent on ahead with the pack mules to make camp. "Boys, we'll divide up here," said Uncle Lance, "and take a little scout through these cross timbers and try and locate some roosts. The camp will be in those narrows ahead yonder where that burnt timber is to your right. Keep an eye open for javalina signs; they used to be plentiful through here when there was good mast. Now, scatter out in pairs, and if you can knock down a gobbler or two we'll have a turkey bake to-night."
Dan Happersett knew the camping spot, so I went with him, and together we took a big circle through the encinal, keeping alert for game signs. Before we had gone far, evidence became plentiful, not only of turkeys, but of peccary and deer. Where the turkeys had recently been scratching, many times we dismounted and led our horses--but either the turkeys were too wary for us, or else we had been deceived as to the freshness of the sign. Several successive shots on our right caused us to hurry out of the timber in the direction of the reports. Halting in the edge of the timber, we watched the strip of prairie between us and the next cover to the south. Soon a flock of fully a hundred wild turkeys came running out of the encinal on the opposite side and started across to our ridge. Keeping under cover, we rode to intercept them, never losing sight of the covey. They were running fast; but when they were nearly halfway across the opening, there was another shot and they took flight, sailing into cover ahead of us, well out of range. But one gobbler was so fat that he was unable to fly over a hundred yards and was still in the open. We rode to cut him off. On sighting us, he attempted to rise; but his pounds were against him, and when we crossed his course he was so winded that our horses ran all around him. After we had both shot a few times, missing him, he squatted in some tall grass and stuck his head under a tuft. Dismounting, Dan sprang on to him like a fox, and he was ours. We wrung his neck, and agreed to report that we had shot him through the head, thus concealing, in the absence of bullet wounds, our poor marksmanship.
When we reached the camp shortly before dark, we found the others had already arrived, ours making the sixth turkey in the evening's bag. We had drawn ours on killing it, as had the others, and after supper Uncle Lance superintended the stuffing of the two largest birds. While this was in progress, others made a stiff mortar, and we coated each turkey with about three inches of the waxy play, feathers and all. Opening our camp-fire, we placed the turkeys together, covered them with ashes and built a heaping fire over and around them. A number of haunts had been located by the others, but as we expected to make an early hunt in the morning, we decided not to visit any of the roosts that night. After Uncle Lance had regaled us with hunting stories of an early day, the discussion innocently turned to my recent elopement. By this time the scars had healed fairly well, and I took the chaffing in all good humor. Tully told a personal experience, which, if it was the truth, argued that in time I might become as indifferent to my recent mishap as any one could wish.
"My prospects of marrying a few years ago," said Tully, lying full stretch before the fire, "were a whole lot better than yours, Quirk. But my ambition those days was to boss a herd up the trail and get top-notch wages. She was a Texas girl, just like yours, bred up in Van Zandt County. She could ride a horse like an Indian. Bad horses seemed afraid of her. Why, I saw her once when she was about sixteen, take a black stallion out of his stable,--lead him out with but a rope about his neck,--throw a half hitch about his nose, and mount him as though he was her pet. Bareback and without a bridle she rode him ten miles for a doctor. There wasn't a mile of the distance either but he felt the quirt burning in his flank and knew he was being ridden by a master. Her father scolded her at the time, and boasted about it later.
"She had dozens of admirers, and the first impression I ever made on her was when she was about twenty. There was a big tournament being given, and all the young bloods in many counties came in to contest for the prizes. I was a double winner in the games and contests--won a roping prize and was the only lad that came inside the time limit as a lancer, though several beat me on rings. Of course the tournament ended with a ball. Having won the lance prize, it was my privilege of crowning the 'queen' of the ball. Of course I wasn't going to throw away such a chance, for there was no end of rivalry amongst the girls over it. The crown was made of flowers, or if there were none in season, of live-oak leaves. Well, at the ball after the tournament I crowned Miss Kate with a crown of oak leaves. After that I felt bold enough to crowd matters, and things came my way. We were to be married during Easter week, but her mother up and died, so we put it off awhile for the sake of appearances.
"The next spring I got a chance to boss a herd up the trail for Jesse Ellison. It was the chance of my life and I couldn't think of refusing. The girl put up quite a mouth about it, and I explained to her that a hundred a month wasn't offered to every man. She finally gave in, but still you could see she wasn't pleased. Girls that way don't sabe cattle matters a little bit. She promised to write me at several points which I told her the herd would pass. When I bade her good-by, tears stood in her eyes, though she tried to hide them. I'd have gambled my life on her that morning.
"Well, we had a nice trip, good outfit and strong cattle. Uncle Jess mounted us ten horses to the man, every one fourteen hands or better, for we were contracted for delivery in Nebraska. It was a five months' drive with scarcely an incident on the way. Just a run or two and a dry drive or so. I had lots of time to think about Kate. When we reached the Chisholm crossing on Red River, I felt certain that I would find a letter, but I didn't. I wrote her from there, but when we reached Caldwell, nary a letter either. The same luck at Abilene. Try as I might, I couldn't make it out. Something was wrong, but what it was, was anybody's guess.
"At this last place we got our orders to deliver the cattle at the junction of the middle and lower Loup. It was a terror of a long drive, but that wasn't a circumstance compared to not hearing from Kate. I kept all this to myself, mind you. When our herd reached its destination, which it did on time, as hard luck would have it there was a hitch in the payment. The herd was turned loose and all the outfit but myself sent home. I stayed there two months longer at a little place called Broken Bow. I held the bill of sale for the herd, and would turn it over, transferring the cattle from one owner to another, on the word from my employer. At last I received a letter from Uncle Jesse saying that the payment in full had been made, so I surrendered the final document and came home. Those trains seemed to run awful slow. But I got home all too soon, for she had then been married three months.
"You see an agent for eight-day clocks came along, and being a stranger took her eye. He was one of those nice, dapper fellows, wore a red necktie, and could talk all day to a woman. He worked by the rule of three,--tickle, talk, and flatter, with a few cutes thrown in for a pelon; that gets nearly any of them. They live in town now. He's a windmill agent. I never went near them."
Meanwhile the fire kept pace with the talk, thanks to Uncle Lance's watchful eye. "That's right, Tiburcio, carry up plenty of good lena," he kept saying. "Bring in all the black-jack oak that you can find; it makes fine coals. These are both big gobblers, and to bake them until they fall to pieces like a watermelon will require a steady fire till morning. Pile up a lot of wood, and if I wake up during the night, trust to me to look after the fire. I've baked so many turkeys this way that I'm an expert at the business."
"A girl's argument," remarked Dan Happersett in a lull of talk, "don't have to be very weighty to fit any case. Anything she does is justifiable. That's one reason why I always kept shy of women. I admit that I've toyed around with some of them; have tossed my tug on one or two just to see if they would run on the rope. But now generally I keep a wire fence between them and myself if they show any symptoms of being on the marry. Maybe so I was in earnest once, back on the Trinity. But it seems that every time that I made a pass, my loop would foul or fail to open or there was brush in the way."
"Just because you have a few gray hairs in your head you think you're awful foxy, don't you?" said Uncle Lance to Dan. "I've seen lots of independent fellows like you. If I had a little widow who knew her cards, and just let her kitten up to you and act coltish, inside a week you would he following her around like a pet lamb."
"I knew a fellow," said Nancrede, lighting his pipe with a firebrand, "that when the clerk asked him, when he went for a license to marry, if he would swear that the young lady--his intended--was over twenty-one, said: 'Yes, by G--, I'll swear that she's over thirty-one.'"
At the next pause in the yarning, I inquired why a wild turkey always deceived itself by hiding its head and leaving the body exposed. "That it's a fact, we all know," volunteered Uncle Lance, "but the why and wherefore is too deep for me. I take it that it's due to running to neck too much in their construction. Now an ostrich is the same way, all neck with not a lick of sense. And the same applies to the human family. You take one of these long-necked cowmen and what does he know outside of cattle. Nine times out of ten, I can tell a sensible girl by merely looking at her neck. Now snicker, you dratted young fools, just as if I wasn't talking horse sense to you. Some of you boys haven't got much more sabe than a fat old gobbler."
"When I first came to this State," said June Deweese, who had been quietly and attentively listening to the stories, "I stopped over on the Neches River near a place called Shot-a-buck Crossing. I had an uncle living there with whom I made my home the first few years that I lived in Texas. There are more or less cattle there, but it is principally a cotton country. There was an old cuss living over there on that river who was land poor, but had a powerful purty girl. Her old man owned any number of plantations on the river--generally had lots of nigger renters to look after. Miss Sallie, the daughter, was the belle of the neighborhood. She had all the graces with a fair mixture of the weaknesses of her sex. The trouble was, there was no young man in the whole country fit to hold her horse. At least she and her folks entertained that idea. There was a storekeeper and a young doctor at the county seat, who it seems took turns calling on her. It looked like it was going to be a close race. Outside of these two there wasn't a one of us who could touch her with a twenty-four-foot fish-pole. We simply took the side of the road when she passed by.
"About this time there drifted in from out west near Fort McKavett, a young fellow named Curly Thorn. He had relatives living in that neighborhood. Out at the fort he was a common foreman on a ranch. Talk about your graceful riders, he sat a horse in a manner that left nothing to be desired. Well, Curly made himself very agreeable with all the girls on the range, but played no special favorites. He stayed in the country, visiting among cousins, until camp meeting began over at the Alabama Camp Ground. During this meeting Curly proved himself quite a gallant by carrying first one young lady and the next evening some other to camp meeting. During these two weeks of the meeting, some one introduced him to Miss Sallie. Now, remember, he didn't play her for a favorite no more than any other. That's what miffed her. She thought he ought to.
"One Sunday afternoon she intimated to him, like a girl sometimes will, that she was going home, and was sorry that she had no companion for the ride. This was sufficient for the gallant Curly to offer himself to her as an escort. She simply thought she was stealing a beau from some other girl, and he never dreamt he was dallying with Neches River royalty. But the only inequality in that couple as they rode away from the ground was an erroneous idea in her and her folks' minds. And that difference was in the fact that her old dad had more land than he could pay taxes on. Well, Curly not only saw her home, but stayed for tea--that's the name the girls have for supper over on the Neches--and that night carried her back to the evening service. From that day till the close of the session he was devotedly hers. A month afterward when he left, it was the talk of the country that they were to be married during the coming holidays.
"But then there were the young doctor and the storekeeper still in the game. Curly was off the scene temporarily, but the other two were riding their best horses to a shadow. Miss Sallie's folks were pulling like bay steers for the merchant, who had some money, while the young doctor had nothing but empty pill bags and a saddle horse or two. The doctor was the better looking, and, before meeting Curly Thorn, Miss Sallie had favored him. Knowing ones said they were engaged. But near the close of the race there was sufficient home influence used for the storekeeper to take the lead and hold it until the show down came. Her folks announced the wedding, and the merchant received the best wishes of his friends, while the young doctor took a trip for his health. Well, it developed afterwards that she was engaged to both the storekeeper and the doctor at the same time. But that's nothing. My experience tells me that a girl don't need broad shoulders to carry three or four engagements at the same time.
"Well, within a week of the wedding, who should drift in to spend Christmas but Curly Thorn. His cousins, of course, lost no time in giving him the lay of the land. But Curly acted indifferent, and never even offered to call on Miss Sallie. Us fellows joked him about his girl going to marry another fellow, and he didn't seem a little bit put out. In fact, he seemed to enjoy the sudden turn as a good joke on himself. But one morning, two days before the wedding was to take place, Miss Sallie was missing from her home, as was likewise Curly Thorn from the neighborhood. Yes, Thorn had eloped with her and they were married the next morning in Nacogdoches. And the funny thing about it was, Curly never met her after his return until the night they eloped. But he had a girl cousin who had a finger in the pie. She and Miss Sallie were as thick as three in a bed, and Curly didn't have anything to do but play the hand that was dealt him.
"Before I came to Las Palomas, I was over round Fort McKavett and met Curly. We knew each other, and he took me home and had me stay overnight with him. They had been married then four years. She had a baby on each knee and another in her arms. There was so much reality in life that she had no time to become a dreamer. Matrimony in that case was a good leveler of imaginary rank. I always admired Curly for the indifferent hand he played all through the various stages of the courtship. He never knew there was such a thing as difference. He simply coppered the play to win, and the cards came his way."
"Bully for Curly!" said Uncle Lance, arising and fixing the fire, as the rest of us unrolled our blankets. "If some of my rascals could make a ten strike like that it would break a streak of bad luck which has overshadowed Las Palomas for over thirty years. Great Scott!--but those gobblers smell good. I can hear them blubbering and sizzling in their shells. It will surely take an axe to crack that clay in the morning. But get under your blankets, lads, for I'll call you for a turkey breakfast about dawn."