A heavy rainfall continued the greater portion of two days. None of us ventured away from the house until the weather settled, and meantime I played the fiddle almost continuously. Night work and coarse living in camps had prepared us to enjoy the comforts of a house, as well as to do justice to the well-laden table. Miss Jean prided herself, on special occasions and when the ranch had company, on good dinners; but in commemoration of the breaking of this drouth, with none but us boys to share it, she spread a continual feast. The Mexican contingent were not forgotten by master or mistress, and the ranch supplies in the warehouse were drawn upon, delicacies as well as staples, not only for the jacals about headquarters but also for the outlying ranchitas. The native element had worked faithfully during the two years in which no rain to speak of had fallen, until the breaking hour, and were not forgotten in the hour of deliverance. Even the stranger vaqueros were compelled to share the hospitality of Las Palomas like invited guests.
While the rain continued falling, Uncle Lance paced the gallery almost night and day. Fearful lest the downpour might stop, he stood guard, noting every change in the rainfall, barely taking time to eat or catch an hour's sleep. But when the grateful rain had continued until the evening of the second day, assuring a bountiful supply of water all over our range, he joined us at supper, exultant as a youth of twenty. "Boys," said he, "this has been a grand rain. If our tanks hold, we will be independent for the next eighteen months, and if not another drop falls, the river ought to flow for a year. I have seen worse drouths since I lived here, but what hurt us now was the amount of cattle and the heavy drift which flooded down on us from up the river and north on the Frio. The loss is nothing; we won't notice it in another year. I have kept a close tally of the hides taken, and our brand will be short about two thousand, or less than ten per cent of our total numbers. They were principally old cows and will not be missed. The calf crop this fall will be short, but taking it up one side and down the other, we got off lucky."
The third day after the rain began the sun rose bright and clear. Not a hoof of cattle or horses was in sight, and though it was midsummer, the freshness of earth and air was like that of a spring morning. Every one felt like riding. While awaiting the arrival of saddle horses, the extra help hired during the drouth was called in and settled with. Two brothers, Fidel and Carlos Trujillo, begged for permanent employment. They were promising young fellows, born on the Aransas River, and after consulting with Deweese Uncle Lance took both into permanent service on the ranch. A room in an outbuilding was allotted them, and they were instructed to get their meals in the kitchen. The remudas had wandered far, but one was finally brought in by a vaquero, and by pairs we mounted and rode away. On starting, the tanks demanded our first attention, and finding all four of them safe, we threw out of gear all the windmills. Theodore Quayle and I were partners during the day's ride to the south, and on coming in at evening fell in with Uncle Lance and our segundo, who had been as far west as the Ganso. Quayle and I had discussed during the day the prospect of a hunt at the Vaux ranch, and on meeting our employer, artfully interested the old ranchero regarding the amount of cat sign seen that day along the Arroyo Sordo.
"It's hard luck, boys," said he, "to find ourselves afoot, and the hunting so promising. But we haven't a horse on the ranch that could carry a man ten miles in a straightaway dash after the hounds. It will be a month yet before the grass has substance enough in it to strengthen our remudas. Oh, if it hadn't been for the condition of saddle stock, Don Pierre would have come right through the rain yesterday. But when Las Palomas can't follow the hounds for lack of mounts, you can depend on it that other ranches can't either. It just makes me sick to think of this good hunting, but what can we do for a month but fold our hands and sit down? But if you boys are itching for an excuse to get over on the Frio, why, I'll make you a good one. This drouth has knocked all the sociability out of the country; but now the ordeal is past, Theodore is in honor bound to go over to the Vaux ranch. I don't suppose you boys have seen the girls on the Frio and San Miguel in six months. Time? That's about all we have got right now. Time?--we've got time to burn."
Our feeler had borne fruit. An excuse or permission to go to the Frio was what Quayle and I were after, though no doubt the old matchmaker was equally anxious to have us go. In expressing our thanks for the promised vacation, we included several provisos--in case there was nothing to do, or if we concluded to go--when Uncle Lance turned in his saddle and gave us a withering look. "I've often wondered," said he, "if the blood in you fellows is really red, or if it's white like a fish's. Now, when I was your age, I had to steal chances to go to see my girl. But I never gave her any show to forget me, and worried her to a fare-ye-well. And if my observation and years go for anything, that's just the way girls like to have a fellow act. Of course they'll bluff and let on they must be wooed and all that, just like Frances did at the tournament a year ago. I contend that with a clear field the only way to make any progress in sparking a girl, is to get one arm around her waist, and with the other hand keep her from scratching you. That's the very way they like to be courted."
Theodore and I dropped behind after this lecture, and before we reached the ranch had agreed to ride over to the Frio the next morning. During our absence that day, there had arrived at Las Palomas from the Mission, a padrino in the person of Don Alejandro Travino. Juana Leal, only daughter of Tiburcio, had been sought in marriage by a nephew of Don Alejandro, and the latter, dignified as a Castilian noble, was then at the house negotiating for the girl's hand. Juana was nearly eighteen, had been born at the ranch, and after reaching years of usefulness had been adopted into Miss Jean's household. To ask for her hand required audacity, for to master and mistress of Las Palomas it was like asking for a daughter of the house. Miss Jean was agitated and all in a flutter; Tiburcio and his wife were struck dumb; for Juana was the baby and only unmarried one of their children, and to take her from Las Palomas--they could never consent to that. But Uncle Lance had gone through such experiences before, and met the emergency with promptness.
"That's all right, little sister," said the old matchmaker to Miss Jean, who had come out to the gate where we were unsaddling. "Don't you borrow any trouble in this matter--leave things to me. I've handled trifles like this among these natives for nearly forty years now, and I don't see any occasion to try and make out a funeral right after the drouth's been broken by a fine rain. Shucks, girl, this is a time for rejoicing! You go back in the house and entertain Don Alejandro with your best smiles till I come in. I want to have a talk with Tiburcio and his wife before I meet the padrino. There's several families of those Travinos over around the Mission and I want to locate which tribe this oso comes from. Some of them are good people and some of them need a rope around their necks, and in a case of keeps like getting married, it's always safe to know what's what and who's who. Now, Sis, go on back in the house and entertain the Don. Come with me, Tom."
I saw our plans for the morrow vanish into thin air. On arriving at the jacal, we were admitted, but a gloom like the pall of death seemed to envelop the old Mexican couple. When we had taken seats around a small table, Tia Inez handed the ranchero the formal written request. As it was penned in Spanish, it was passed to me to read, and after running through it hastily, I read it aloud, several times stopping to interpret to Uncle Lance certain extravagant phrases. The salutatory was in the usual form; the esteem which each family had always entertained for the other was dwelt upon at length, and choicer language was never used than the padrino penned in asking for the hand of Dona Juana. This dainty missive was signed by the godfather of the swain, Don Alejandro Travino, whose rubric riotously ran back and forth entirely across the delicately tinted sheet. On the conclusion of the reading, Uncle Lance brushed the letter aside as of no moment, and, turning to the old couple, demanded to know to which branch of the Travino family young Don Blas belonged.
The account of Tiburcio and his wife was definite and clear. The father of the swain conducted a small country store at the Mission, and besides had landed and cattle interests. He was a younger brother of Don Alejandro, who was the owner of a large land grant, had cattle in abundance, and was a representative man among the Spanish element. No better credentials could have been asked. But when their patron rallied them as to the cause of their gloom, Tia Inez burst into tears, admitting the match was satisfactory, but her baby would be carried away from Las Palomas and she might never see her again. Her two sons who lived at the ranch, allowed no day to pass without coming to see their mother, and the one who lived at a distant ranchita came at every opportunity. But if her little girl was carried away to a distant ranch--ah! that made it impossible! Let Don Lance, worthy patron of his people, forbid the match, and win the gratitude of an anguished mother. Invoking the saints to guide her aright, Dona Inez threw herself on the bed in hysterical lamentation. Realizing it is useless to argue with a woman in tears, the old matchmaker suggested to Tiburcio that we delay the answer the customary fortnight.
Promising to do nothing further without consulting them, we withdrew from the jacal. On returning to the house, we found Miss Jean entertaining the Don to the best of her ability, and, commanding my presence, the old matchmaker advanced to meet the padrino, with whom he had a slight acquaintance. Bidding his guest welcome to the ranch, he listened to the Don's apology for being such a stranger to Las Palomas until a matter of a delicate nature had brought him hither.
Don Alejandro was a distinguished-looking man, and spoke his native tongue in a manner which put my efforts as an interpreter to shame. The conversation was allowed to drift at will, from the damages of the recent drouth to the prospect of a market for beeves that fall, until supper was announced. After the evening repast was over we retired to the gallery, and Uncle Lance reopened the matchmaking by inquiring of Don Alejandro if his nephew proposed taking his bride to the Mission. The Don was all attention. Fortunately, anticipating that the question might arise, he had discussed that very feature with his nephew. At present the young man was assisting his father at the Mission, and in time, no doubt, would succeed to the business. However, realizing that her living fifty miles distant might be an objection to the girl's parents, he was not for insisting on that point, as no doubt Las Palomas offered equally good advantages for business. He simply mentioned this by way of suggestion, and invited the opinion of his host.
"Well, now, Don Alejandro," said the old matchmaker, in flutelike tones, "we are a very simple people here at Las Palomas. Breeding a few horses and mules for home purposes, and the rearing of cattle has been our occupation. As to merchandising here at the ranch, I could not countenance it, as I refused that privilege to the stage company when they offered to run past Las Palomas. At present our few wants are supplied by a merchant at Shepherd's Ferry. True, it's thirty miles, but I sometimes wish it was farther, as it is quite a temptation to my boys to ride down there on various pretexts. We send down every week for our mail and such little necessities as the ranch may need. If there was a store here, it would attract loafers and destroy the peace and contentment which we now enjoy. I would object to it; 'one man to his trade and another to his merchandise.'"
The padrino, with good diplomacy, heartily agreed that a store was a disturbing feature on a ranch, and instantly went off on a tangent on the splendid business possibilities of the Mission. The matchmaker in return agreed as heartily with him, and grew reminiscent. "In the spring of '51," said he, "I made the match between Tiburcio and Dona Inez, father and mother of Juana. Tiburcio was a vaquero of mine at the time, Inez being a Mission girl, and I have taken a great interest in the couple ever since. All their children were born here and still live on the ranch. Understand, Don Alejandro, I have no personal feeling in the matter, beyond the wishes of the parents of the girl. My sister has taken a great interest in Juana, having had the girl under her charge for the past eight years. Of course, I feel a pride in Juana, and she is a fine girl. If your nephew wins her, I shall tell the lucky rascal when he comes to claim her that he has won the pride of Las Palomas. I take it, Don Alejandro, that your visit and request was rather unexpected here, though I am aware that Juana has visited among cousins at the Mission several times the past few years. But that she had lost her heart to some of your gallants comes as a surprise to me, and from what I learn, to her parents also. Under the circumstances, if I were you, I would not urge an immediate reply, but give them the customary period to think it over. Our vaqueros will not be very busy for some time to come, and it will not inconvenience us to send a reply by messenger to the Mission. And tell Don Blas, even should the reply be unfavorable, not to be discouraged. Women, you know, are peculiar. Ah, Don Alejandro, when you and I were young and went courting, would we have been discouraged by a first refusal?"
Senor Travino appreciated the compliment, and, with a genial smile, slapped his host on the back, while the old matchmaker gave vent to a vociferous guffaw. The conversation thereafter took several tacks, but always reverted to the proposed match. As the hour grew late, the host apologized to his guest, as no doubt he was tired by his long ride, and offered to show him his room. The padrino denied all weariness, maintaining that the enjoyable evening had rested him, but reluctantly allowed himself to be shown to his apartment. No sooner were the good-nights spoken, than the old ranchero returned, and, snapping his fingers for attention, motioned me to follow. By a circuitous route we reached the jacal of Tiburcio. The old couple had not yet retired, and Juana blushingly admitted us. Uncle Lance jollied the old people like a robust, healthy son amusing his elders. We took seats as before around the small table, and Uncle Lance scattered the gloom of the jacal with his gayety.
"Las Palomas forever!" said he, striking the table with his bony fist. "This padrino from the Mission is a very fine gentleman but a poor matchmaker. Just because young Don Blas is the son of a Travino, the keeper of a picayune tienda at the Mission, was that any reason to presume for the hand of a daughter of Las Palomas? Was he any better than a vaquero just because he doled out frijoles by the quart, and never saw a piece of money larger than a media real? Why, a Las Palomas vaquero was a prince compared to a fawning attendant in a Mission store. Let Tia Inez stop fretting herself about losing Juana--it would not be yet awhile. Just leave matters to him, and he'd send Don Alejandro home, pleased with his visit and hopeful over the match, even if it never took place. And none of those frowns from the young lady!"
As we all arose at parting, the old matchmaker went over to Juana and, shaking his finger at her, said: "Now, look here, my little girl, your mistress, your parents, and myself are all interested in you, and don't think we won't act for your best interests. You've seen this young fellow ride by on a horse several times, haven't you? Danced with him a few times under the eyes of a chaperon at the last fiesta, haven't you? And that's all you care to know, and are ready to marry him. Well, well, it's fortunate that the marriage customs of the Mexicans protect such innocents as you. Now, if young Don Blas had worked under me for a year as a vaquero, I might be as ready to the match as you are; for then I'd know whether he was worthy of you. What does a girl of your age know about a man? But when you have as many gray hairs in your head as your mother has, you'll thank me for cautioning every one to proceed slowly in this match. Now dry those tears and go to your mother."
The next morning Don Alejandro proposed returning to the Mission. But the old ranchero hooted the idea, and informed his guest that he had ordered the ambulance, as he intended showing him the recent improvements made on Las Palomas. When the guest protested against a longer absence from home, the host artfully intimated that by remaining another day a favorable reply might possibly go with him. Don Alejandro finally consented. I was pressed in as driver and interpreter, and our team tore away from the ranch with a flourish. To put it mildly, I was disgusted at having my plans for the day knocked in the head, yet knew better than protest. As we drove along, myriads of grass-blades were peeping up since the rain, giving every view a greenish cast. Nearly every windmill on the ranch on our circuit was pointed out, and we passed three of our four tanks, one of which was over half a mile in length. After stopping at an outlying ranchita for refreshment, we spent the afternoon in a similar manner. From a swell of the prairie some ten miles to the westward of the ranch, we could distinctly see an outline of the Ganso. Halting the ambulance, the old ranchero pointed out to his guest the meanderings of that creek from its confluence with the parent stream until it became lost in the hills to the southward.
"That tract of ground," said he, "is my last landed addition to Las Palomas. It lies north and south, giving me six miles' frontage on the Nueces. and extending north of the river about four miles, Don Alejandro, when I note the great change which has come over this valley since I settled here, it convinces me that if one wishes to follow ranching he had better acquire title to what range he needs. Land has advanced in price from a few cents an acre to four bits, and now they say the next generation will see it worth a dollar. This Ganso grant contains a hundred and fourteen sections, and I have my eye on one or two other adjoining tracts. My generation will not need it, but the one who succeeds me may. Now, as we drive home, I'll try to show you the northern boundary of our range; it's fairly well outlined by the divide between the Nueces and the Frio rivers."
From the conversation which followed until we reached headquarters, I readily understood that the old matchmaker was showing the rose and concealing its thorn. His motive was not always clear to me, for one would have supposed from his almost boastful claims regarding its extent and carrying capacity for cattle, he was showing the ranch to a prospective buyer. But as we neared home, the conversation innocently drifted to the Mexican element and their love for the land to which they were born. Then I understood why I was driving four mules instead of basking in the smiles of my own sweetheart on the San Miguel. Nor did this boasting cease during the evening, but alternated from lands and cattle to the native people, and finally centred about a Mexican girl who had been so fortunate as to have been born to the soil of Las Palomas.
When Don Alejandro asked for his horse the following morning on leaving, Uncle Lance, Quayle, and myself formed a guard of honor to escort our guest a distance on his way. He took leave of the mistress of Las Palomas in an obeisance worthy of an old-time cavalier. Once we were off, Uncle Lance pretended to have had a final interview with the parents, in which they had insisted on the customary time in which to consider the proposal. The padrino graciously accepted the situation, thanking his host for his interest in behalf of his nephew. On reaching the river, where our ways separated, all halted for a few minutes at parting.
"Well, Don Alejandro," said the old ranchero, "this is my limit of escort to guests of the ranch. Now, the only hope I have in parting is, in case the reply should he unfavorable, that Don Blas will not be discouraged and that we may see you again at Las Palomas. Tender my congratulations to your nephew, and tell him that a welcome always awaits him in case he finds time and inclination to visit us. I take some little interest in matches. These boys of mine are going north to the Frio on a courting errand to-day. But our marriage customs are inferior to yours, and our young people, left to themselves, don't seem to marry. Don Alejandro, if you and I had the making of the matches, there'd be a cradle rocking in every jacal." Both smiled, said their "Adios, amigos," and he was gone.
As our guest cantered away, down the river road, Quayle and I began looking for a ford. The river had been on a rampage, and while we were seeking out a crossing our employer had time for a few comments. "The Don's tickled with his prospects. He thinks he's got a half inch rope on Juana right now; but if I thought your prospects were no better than I know his are, you wouldn't tire any horse-flesh of mine by riding to the Frio and the San Miguel. But go right on, and stay as long as you want to, for I'm in no hurry to see your faces again. Tom, with the ice broken as it is, as soon as Esther can remove her disabilities--well, you won't have to run off the next time. And Theodore, remember what I told you the other day about sparking a girl. You're too timid and backward for a young fellow. I don't care if you come home with one eye scratched out, just so you and Frances have come to an understanding and named the day."