During the month of June only two showers fell, which revived the grass but added not a drop of water to our tank supply or to the river. When the coast winds which followed set in, all hope for rain passed for another year. During the residence of the old ranchero at Las Palomas, the Nueces valley had suffered several severe drouths as disastrous in their effects as a pestilence. There were places in its miles of meanderings across our range where the river was paved with the bones of cattle which had perished with thirst. Realizing that such disasters repeat themselves, the ranch was set in order. That fall we branded the calf crop with unusual care. In every possible quarter, we prepared for the worst. A dozen wells were sunk over the tract and equipped with windmills. There was sufficient water in the river and tanks during the summer and fall, but by Christmas the range was eaten off until the cattle, ranging far, came in only every other day to slake their thirst.
The social gayeties of the countryside received a check from the threatened drouth. At Las Palomas we observed only the usual Christmas festivities. Miss Jean always made it a point to have something extra for the holiday season, not only in her own household, but also among the Mexican families at headquarters and the outlying ranchites. Among a number of delicacies brought up this time from Shepherd's was a box of Florida oranges, and in assisting Miss Jean to fill the baskets for each jacal, Aaron Scales opened this box of oranges and found a letter, evidently placed there by some mischievous girl in the packery from which the oranges were shipped. There was not only a letter but a visiting card and a small photograph of the writer. This could only be accepted by the discoverer as a challenge, for the sender surely knew this particular box was intended for shipment to Texas, and banteringly invited the recipient to reply. The missive certainly fell upon fertile soil, and Scales, by right of discovery, delegated to himself the pleasure of answering.
Scales was the black sheep of Las Palomas. Born of a rich, aristocratic family in Maryland, he had early developed into a good-natured but reckless spendthrift, and his disreputable associates had contributed no small part in forcing him to the refuge of a cattle ranch. He had been offered every opportunity to secure a good education, but during his last year in college had been expelled, and rather than face parental reproach had taken passage in a coast schooner for Galveston, Texas. Then by easy stages he drifted westward, and at last, to his liking, found a home at Las Palomas. He made himself a useful man on the ranch, but, not having been bred to the occupation and with a tendency to waywardness, gave a rather free rein to the vagabond spirit which possessed him. He was a good rider, even for a country where every one was a born horseman, but the use of the rope was an art he never attempted to master.
With the conclusion of the holiday festivities and on the return of the absentees, a feature, new to me in cattle life, presented itself--hide hunting. Freighters who brought merchandise from the coast towns to the merchants of the interior were offering very liberal terms for return cargoes. About the only local product was flint hides, and of these there were very few, but the merchant at Shepherd's Ferry offered so generous inducements that Uncle Lance investigated the matter; the result was his determination to rid his range of the old, logy, worthless bulls. Heretofore they had been allowed to die of old age, but ten cents a pound for flint hides was an encouragement to remove these cumberers of the range, and turn them to some profit. So we were ordered to kill every bull on the ranch over seven years old.
In our round-up for branding, we had driven to the home range all outside cattle indiscriminately. They were still ranging near, so that at the commencement of this work nearly all the bulls in our brand were watering from the Nueces. These old residenter bulls never ranged over a mile away from water, and during the middle of the day they could be found along the river bank. Many of them were ten to twelve years old, and were as useless on the range as drones in autumn to a colony of honey-bees. Las Palomas boasted quite an arsenal of firearms, of every make and pattern, from a musket to a repeater. The outfit was divided into two squads, one going down nearly to Shepherd's, and the other beginning operations considerably above the Ganso. June Deweese took the down-river end, while Uncle Lance took some ten of us with one wagon on the up-river trip. To me this had all the appearance of a picnic. But the work proved to be anything but a picnic. To make the kill was most difficult. Not willing to leave the carcasses near the river, we usually sought the bulls coming in to water; but an ordinary charge of powder and lead, even when well directed at the forehead, rarely killed and tended rather to aggravate the creature. Besides, as we were compelled in nearly every instance to shoot from horseback, it was almost impossible to deliver an effective shot from in front. After one or more unsuccessful shots, the bull usually started for the nearest thicket, or the river; then our ropes came into use. The work was very slow; for though we operated in pairs, the first week we did not average a hide a day to the man; after killing, there was the animal to skin, the hide to be dragged from a saddle pommel into a hide yard and pegged out to dry.
Until we had accumulated a load of hides, Tiburcio Leal, our teamster, fell to me as partner. We had with us an abundance of our best horses, and those who were reliable with the rope had first choice of the remuda. Tiburcio was well mounted, but, on account of his years, was timid about using a rope; and well he might be, for frequently we found ourselves in a humorous predicament, and sometimes in one so grave that hilarity was not even a remote possibility.
The second morning of the hunt, Tiburcio and I singled out a big black bull about a mile from the river. I had not yet been convinced that I could not make an effective shot from in front, and, dismounting, attracted the bull's attention and fired. The shot did not even stagger him and he charged us; our horses avoided his rush, and he started for the river. Sheathing my carbine, I took down my rope and caught him before he had gone a hundred yards. As I threw my horse on his haunches to receive the shock, the weight and momentum of the bull dragged my double-cinched saddle over my horse's head and sent me sprawling on the ground. In wrapping the loose end of the rope around the pommel of the saddle, I had given it a half hitch, and as I came to my feet my saddle and carbine were bumping merrily along after Toro. Regaining my horse, I soon overtook Tiburcio, who was attempting to turn the animal back from the river, and urged him to "tie on," but he hesitated, offering me his horse instead. As there was no time to waste, we changed horses like relay riders. I soon overtook the animal and made a successful cast, catching the bull by the front feet. I threw Tiburcio's horse, like a wheeler, back on his haunches, and, on bringing the rope taut, fetched Toro to his knees; but with the strain the half-inch manila rope snapped at the pommel like a twine string. Then we were at our wit's end, the bull lumbering away with the second rope noosed over one fore foot, and leaving my saddle far in the rear. But after a moment's hesitation my partner and I doubled on him, to make trial of our guns, Tiburcio having a favorite old musket while I had only my six-shooter. Tiburcio, on my stripped horse, overtook the bull first, and attempted to turn him, but El Toro was not to be stopped. On coming up myself, I tried the same tactics, firing several shots into the ground in front of him but without deflecting the enraged bull from his course. Then I unloosed a Mexican blanket from Tiburcio's saddle, and flaunting it in his face, led him like a matador inviting a charge. This held his attention until Tiburcio, gaining courage, dashed past him from the rear and planted a musket ball behind the base of his ear, and the patriarch succumbed.
After the first few days' work, we found that the most vulnerable spot was where the spinal cord connects with the base of the brain. A well-directed shot at this point, even from a six-shooter, never failed to bring Toro to grass; and some of us became so expert that we could deliver this favorite shot from a running horse. The trouble was to get the bull to run evenly. That was one thing he objected to, and yet unless he did we could not advantageously attack him with a six-shooter. Many of these old bulls were surly in disposition, and even when they did run, there was no telling what moment they would sulk, stop without an instant's notice, and attempt to gore a passing horse.
We usually camped two or three days at a place, taking in both sides of the river, and after the work was once well under way we kept our wagon busy hauling the dry hides to a common yard on the river opposite Las Palomas. Without apology, it can be admitted that we did not confine our killing to the Las Palomas brand alone, but all cumberers on our range met the same fate. There were numerous stray bulls belonging to distant ranches which had taken up their abode on the Nueces, all of which were fish to our net. We kept a brand tally of every bull thus killed; for the primary motive was not one of profit, but to rid the range of these drones.
When we had been at work some two weeks, we had an exciting chase one afternoon in which Enrique Lopez figured as the hero. In coming in to dinner that day, Uncle Lance told of the chase after a young ladino bull with which we were all familiar. The old ranchero's hatred to wild cattle had caused him that morning to risk a long shot at this outlaw, wounding him. Juan Leal and Enrique Lopez, who were there, had both tried their marksmanship and their ropes on him in vain. Dragging down horses and snapping ropes, the bull made his escape into a chaparral thicket. He must have been exceedingly nimble; for I have seen Uncle Lance kill a running deer at a hundred yards with a rifle. At any rate, the entire squad turned out after dinner to renew the attack. We saddled the best horses in our remuda for the occasion, and sallied forth to the lair of the ladino bull, like a procession of professional bull-fighters.
The chaparral thicket in which the outlaw had taken refuge lay about a mile and a half back from the river and contained about two acres. On reaching the edge of the thicket, Uncle Lance called for volunteers to beat the brush and rout out the bull. As this must be done on foot, responses were not numerous. But our employer relieved the embarrassment by assigning vaqueros to the duty, also directing Enrique to take one point of the thicket and me the other, with instructions to use our ropes should the outlaw quit the thicket for the river. Detailing Tiburcio, who was with us that afternoon, to assist him in leading the loose saddle horses, he divided the six other men into two squads under Theodore Quayle and Dan Happersett. When all was ready, Enrique and myself took up our positions, hiding in the outlying mesquite brush; leaving the loose horses under saddle in the cover at a distance. The thicket was oval in form, lying with a point towards the river, and we all felt confident if the bull were started he would make for the timber on the river. With a whoop and hurrah and a free discharge of firearms, the beaters entered the chaparral. From my position I could see Enrique lying along the neck of his horse about fifty yards distant; and I had fully made up my mind to give that bucolic vaquero the first chance. During the past two weeks my enthusiasm for roping stray bulls had undergone a change; I was now quite willing that all honors of the afternoon should fall to Enrique. The beaters approached without giving any warning that the bull had been sighted, and so great was the strain and tension that I could feel the beating of my horse's heart beneath me. The suspense was finally broken by one or two shots in rapid succession, and as the sound died away, the voice of Juan Leal rang out distinctly: "Cuidado por el toro!" and the next moment there was a cracking of brush and a pale dun bull broke cover.
For a moment he halted on the border of the thicket: then, as the din of the beaters increased, struck boldly across the prairie for the river. Enrique and I were after him without loss of time. Enrique made a successful cast for his horns, and reined in his horse; but when the slack of the rope was taken up the rear cinch broke, the saddle was jerked forward on the horse's withers, and Enrique was compelled to free the rope or have his horse dragged down. I saw the mishap, and, giving my horse the rowel, rode at the bull and threw my rope. The loop neatly encircled his front feet, and when the shock came between horse and bull, it fetched the toro a somersault in the air, but unhappily took off the pommel of my saddle. The bull was on his feet in a jiffy, and before I could recover my rope, Enrique, who had reset his saddle, passed me, followed by the entire squad. Uncle Lance had been a witness to both mishaps, and on overtaking us urged me to tie on to the bull again. For answer I could only point to my missing pommel; but every man in the squad had loosened his rope, and it looked as if they would all fasten on to the ladino, for they were all good ropers. Man after man threw his loop on him; but the dun outlaw snapped the ropes as if they had been cotton strings, dragging down two horses with their riders and leaving them in the rear. I rode up alongside Enrique and offered him my rope, but he refused it, knowing it would be useless to try again with only a single cinch on his saddle. The young rascal had a daring idea in mind. We were within a quarter mile of the river, and escape of the outlaw seemed probable, when Enrique rode down on the bull, took up his tail, and, wrapping the brush on the pommel of his saddle, turned his horse abruptly to the left, rolling the bull over like a hoop, and of course dismounting himself in the act. Then before the dazed animal could rise, with the agility of a panther the vaquero sprang astride his loins, and as he floundered, others leaped from their horses. Toro was pinioned, and dispatched with a shot.
Then we loosened cinches to allow our heaving horses to breathe, and threw ourselves on the ground for a moment's rest. "That's the best kill we'll make on this trip," said Uncle Lance as we mounted, leaving two vaqueros to take the hide. "I despise wild cattle, and I've been hungering to get a shot at that fellow for the last three years. Enrique, the day the baby is born, I'll buy it a new cradle, and Tom shall have a new saddle and we'll charge it to Las Palomas--she's the girl that pays the bills."
Scarcely a day passed but similar experiences were related around the camp-fire. In fact, as the end of the work came in view, they became commonplace with us. Finally the two outfits were united at the general hide yard near the home ranch. Coils of small rope were brought from headquarters, and a detail of men remained in camp, baling the flint hides, while the remainder scoured the immediate country. A crude press was arranged, and by the aid of a long lever the hides were compressed into convenient space for handling by the freighters.
When we had nearly finished the killing and baling, an unlooked-for incident occurred. While Deweese was working down near Shepherd's Ferry, report of our work circulated around the country, and his camp had been frequently visited by cattlemen. Having nothing to conceal, he had showed his list of outside brands killed, which was perfectly satisfactory in most instances. As was customary in selling cattle, we expected to make report of every outside hide taken, and settle for them, deducting the necessary expense. But in every community there are those who oppose prevailing customs, and some who can always see sinister motives. One forenoon, when the baling was nearly finished, a delegation of men, representing brands of the Frio and San Miguel, rode up to our hide yard. They were all well-known cowmen, and Uncle Lance, being present, saluted them in his usual hearty manner. In response to an inquiry--"what he thought he was doing"--Uncle Lance jocularly replied:--
"Well, you see, you fellows allow your old bulls to drift down on my range, expecting Las Palomas to pension them the remainder of their days. But that's where you get fooled. Ten cents a pound for flint hides beats letting these old stagers die of old age. And this being an idle season with nothing much to do, we wanted to have a little fun. And we've had it. But laying all jokes aside, fellows, it's a good idea to get rid of these old varmints. Hereafter, I'm going to make a killing off every two or three years. The boys have kept a list of all stray brands killed, and you can look them over and see how many of yours we got. We have baled all the stray hides separate, so they can be looked over. But it's nearly noon, and you'd better all ride up to the ranch for dinner--they feed better up there than we do in camp."
Rather than make a three-mile ride to the house, the visitors took dinner with the wagon, and about one o'clock Deweese and a vaquero came in, dragging a hide between them. June cordially greeted the callers, including Henry Annear, who represented the Las Norias ranch, though I suppose it was well known to every one present that there was no love lost between them. Uncle Lance asked our foreman for his list of outside brands, explaining that these men wished to look them over. Everything seemed perfectly satisfactory to all parties concerned, and after remaining in camp over an hour, Deweese and the vaquero saddled fresh horses and rode away. The visitors seemed in no hurry to go, so Uncle Lance sat around camp entertaining them, while the rest of us proceeded with our work of baling. Before leaving, however, the entire party in company of our employer took a stroll about the hide yard, which was some distance from camp. During this tour of inspection, Annear asked which were the bales of outside hides taken in Deweese's division, claiming he represented a number of brands outside of Las Norias. The bales were pointed out and some dozen unbaled hides looked over. On a count the baled and unbaled hides were found to tally exactly with the list submitted. But unfortunately Annear took occasion to insinuate that the list of brands rendered had been "doctored." Uncle Lance paid little attention, though he heard, but the other visitors remonstrated with Annear. This only seemed to make him more contentious. Finally matters came to an open rupture when Annear demanded that the cordage be cut on certain bales to allow him to inspect them. Possibly he was within his rights, but on the Nueces during the seventies, to question a man's word was equivalent to calling him a liar; and liar was a fighting word all over the cattle range.
"Well, Henry," said Uncle Lance, rather firmly, "if you are not satisfied, I suppose I'll have to open the bales for you, but before I do, I'm going to send after June. Neither you nor any one else can cast any reflections on a man in my employ. No unjust act can be charged in my presence against an absent man. The vaqueros tell me that my foreman is only around the bend of the river, and I'm going to ask all you gentlemen to remain until I can send for him."
John Cotton was dispatched after Deweese. Conversation meanwhile became polite and changed to other subjects. Those of us at work baling hides went ahead as if nothing unusual was on the tapis. The visitors were all armed, which was nothing unusual, for the wearing of six-shooters was as common as the wearing of hoots. During the interim, several level-headed visitors took Henry Annear to one side, evidently to reason with him and urge an apology, for they could readily see that Uncle Lance was justly offended. But it seemed that Annear would listen to no one, and while they were yet conversing among themselves, John Cotton and our foreman galloped around the bend of the river and rode up to the yard. No doubt Cotton had explained the situation, but as they dismounted Uncle Lance stepped between his foreman and Annear, saying:--
"June, Henry, here, questions the honesty of your list of strays killed, and insists on our cutting the bales for his inspection." Turning to Annear, Uncle Lance inquired, "Do you still insist on opening the bales?"
"Yes, sir, I do."
Deweese stepped to one side of his employer, saying to Annear: "You offer to cut a bale here to-day, and I'll cut your heart out. Behind my back, you questioned my word. Question it to my face, you dirty sneak."
Annear sprang backward and to one side, drawing a six-shooter in the movement, while June was equally active. Like a flash, two shots rang out. Following the reports, Henry turned halfway round, while Deweese staggered a step backward. Taking advantage of the instant, Uncle Lance sprang like a panther on to June and bore him to the ground, while the visitors fell on Annear and disarmed him in a flash. They were dragged struggling farther apart, and after some semblance of sanity had returned, we stripped our foreman and found an ugly flesh wound crossing his side under the armpit, the bullet having been deflected by a rib. Annear had fared worse, and was spitting blood freely, and the marks of exit and entrance of the bullet indicated that the point of one lung had been slightly chipped.
"I suppose this outcome is what you might call the amende honorable" smilingly said George Nathan, one of the visitors, later to Uncle Lance. "I always knew there was a little bad blood existing between the boys, but I had no idea that it would flash in the pan so suddenly or I'd have stayed at home. Shooting always lets me out. But the question now is, How are we going to get our man home?"
Uncle Lance at once offered them horses and a wagon, in case Annear would not go into Las Palomas. This he objected to, so a wagon was fitted up, and, promising to return it the next day, our visitors departed with the best of feelings, save between the two belligerents. We sent June into the ranch and a man to Oakville after a surgeon, and resumed our work in the hide yard as if nothing had happened. Somewhere I have seen the statement that the climate of California was especially conducive to the healing of gunshot wounds. The same claim might be made in behalf of the Nueces valley, for within a month both the combatants were again in their saddles.
Within a week after this incident, we concluded our work and the hides were ready for the freighters. We had spent over a month and had taken fully seven hundred hides, many of which, when dry, would weigh one hundred pounds, the total having a value of between five and six thousand dollars. Like their predecessors the buffalo, the remains of the ladinos were left to enrich the soil; but there was no danger of the extinction of the species, for at Las Palomas it was the custom to allow every tenth male calf to grow up a bull.