The winter succeeding the drouth was an unusually mild one, frost and sleet being unseen at Las Palomas. After the holidays several warm rains fell, affording fine hunting and assuring enough moisture in the soil to insure an early spring. The preceding winter had been gloomy, but this proved to be the most social one since my advent, for within fifty miles of the ranch no less than two weddings occurred during Christmas week. As to little neighborhood happenings, we could hear of half a dozen every time we went to Shepherd's after the mail.
When the native help on the ranch was started at blocking out the stone for the chapel, Uncle Lance took the hounds and with two of the boys went down to Wilson's ranch for a hunt. Gallup went, of course, but just why he took Scales along, unless with the design of making a match between one of the younger daughters of this neighboring ranchman and the Marylander, was not entirely clear. When he wanted to, Scales could make himself very agreeable, and had it not been for his profligate disposition, his being taken along on the hunt would have been no mystery. Every one on the ranch, including the master and mistress, were cognizant of the fact that for the past year he had maintained a correspondence with a girl in Florida--the one whose letter and photograph had been found in the box of oranges. He hardly deserved the confidence of the roguish girl, for he showed her letters to any one who cared to read them. I had read every line of the whole correspondence, and it was plain that Scales had deceived the girl into believing that he was a prominent ranchman, when in reality the best that could be said of him was that he was a lovable vagabond. From the last letter, it was clear that he had promised to marry the girl during the Christmas week just past, but he had asked for a postponement on the ground that the drouth had prevented him from selling his beeves.
When Uncle Lance made the discovery, during a cow hunt the fall before, of the correspondence between Scales and the Florida girl, he said to us around the camp-fire that night: "Well, all I've got to say is that that girl down in Florida is hard up. Why, it's entirely contrary to a girl's nature to want to be wooed by letter. Until the leopard changes his spots, the good old way, of putting your arm around the girl and whispering that you love her, will continue to be popular. If I was to hazard an opinion about that girl, Aaron, I'd say that she was ambitious to rise above her surroundings. The chances are that she wants to get away from home, and possibly she's as much displeased with the young men in the orange country as I sometimes get with you dodrotted cow hands. Now, I'm not one of those people who're always harping about the youth of his day and generation being so much better than the present. That's all humbug. But what does get me is, that you youngsters don't profit more by the experience of an old man like me who's been married three times. Line upon line and precept upon precept, I have preached this thing to my boys for the last ten years, and what has it amounted to? Not a single white bride has ever been brought to Las Palomas. They can call me a matchmaker if they want to, but the evidence is to the contrary." This was on the night after we passed Shepherd's, where Scales had received a letter from the Florida girl. But why he should accompany the hunt now to Remirena, unless the old ranchero proposed reforming him, was too deep a problem for me.
On leaving for Wilson's, there was the usual bustle; hounds responding to the horn and horses under saddle champing their bits. I had hoped that permission to go over to the Frio and San Miguel would be given John and myself, but my employer's mind was too absorbed in something else, and we were overlooked in the hurry to get away. Since the quarrying of the rock had commenced, my work had been overseeing the native help, of which we had some fifteen cutting and hauling. In numerous places within a mile of headquarters, a soft porous rock cropped out. By using a crowbar with a tempered chisel point, the Mexicans easily channeled the rock into blocks, eighteen by thirty inches, splitting each stone a foot in thickness, so that when hauled to the place of use, each piece was ready to lay up in the wall. The ranch house at headquarters was built out of this rock, and where permanency was required, it was the best material available, whitening and apparently becoming firmer with time and exposure.
I had not seen my sweetheart in nearly a month, but there I was, chained to a rock quarry and mule teams. The very idea of Gallup and the profligate Scales riding to hounds and basking in the society of charming girls nettled me. The remainder of the ranch outfit was under Deweese, building the new corrals, so that I never heard my own tongue spoken except at meals and about the house. My orders included the cutting of a few hundred rock extra above the needs of the chapel, and when this got noised among the help, I had to explain that there was some talk of building a stone cottage, and intimated that it was for Juana and Fidel. But that lucky rascal was one of the crew cutting rock, and from some source or other he had learned that I was liable to need a cottage at Las Palomas in the near future. The fact that I was acting segundo over the quarrying outfit, was taken advantage of by Fidel to clear his skirts and charge the extra rock to my matrimonial expectations. He was a fast workman, and on every stone he split from the mother ledge, he sang out, "Otro piedra por Don Tomas!" And within a few minutes' time some one else would cry out, "Otro cillar por Fidel y Juana," or "Otro piedra por padre Norquin."
A week passed and there was no return of the hunters. We had so systematized our work at the quarry that my presence was hardly needed, so every evening I urged Cotton to sound the mistress for permission to visit our sweethearts. John was a good-natured fellow who could be easily led or pushed forward, and I had come to look upon Miss Jean as a ready supporter of any of her brother's projects. For that reason her permission was as good as the master's; but she parried all Cotton's hints, pleading the neglect of our work in the absence of her brother. I was disgusted with the monotony of quarry work, and likewise was John over building corrals, as no cow hand ever enthuses over manual labor, when an incident occurred which afforded the opportunity desired. The mistress needed some small article from the store at Shepherd's, and a Mexican boy had been sent down on this errand and also to get the mail of the past two weeks. On the boy's return, he brought a message from the merchant, saying that Henry Annear had been accidentally killed by a horse that day, and that the burial would take place at ten o'clock the next morning.
The news threw the mistress of Las Palomas into a flutter. Her brother was absent, and she felt a delicacy in consulting Deweese, and very naturally turned to me for advice. Funerals in the Nueces valley were so very rare that I advised going, even if the unfortunate man had stood none too high in our estimation. Annear lived on the divide between Shepherd's and the Frio at a ranch called Las Norias. As this ranch was not over ten miles from the mouth of the San Miguel, the astute mind can readily see the gleam of my ax in attending. Funerals were such events that I knew to a certainty that all the countryside within reach would attend, and the Vaux ranch was not over fifteen miles distant from Las Norias. Acting on my advice, the mistress ordered the ambulance to be ready to start by three o'clock the next morning, and gave every one on the ranch who cared, permission to go along. All of us took advantage of the offer, except Deweese, who, when out of hearing of the mistress, excused himself rather profanely.
The boy had returned late in the day, but we lost no time in acting on Miss Jean's orders. Fortunately the ambulance teams were in hand hauling rock, but we rushed out several vaqueros to bring in the remuda which contained our best saddle horses. It was after dark when they returned with the mounts wanted, and warning Tiburcio that we would call him at an early hour, every one retired for a few hours' rest. I would resent the charge that I am selfish or unsympathetic, yet before falling asleep that night the deplorable accident was entirely overlooked in the anticipated pleasure of seeing Esther.
As it was fully a thirty-five-mile drive we started at daybreak, and to encourage the mules Quayle and Happersett rode in the lead until sun-up, when they dropped to the rear with Cotton and myself. We did not go by way of Shepherd's, but crossed the river several miles above the ferry, following an old cotton road made during the war, from the interior of the state to Matamoras, Mexico. It was some time before the hour named for the burial when we sighted Las Norias on the divide, and spurred up the ambulance team, to reach the ranch in time for the funeral. The services were conducted by a strange minister who happened to be visiting in Oakville, but what impressed me in particular was the solicitude of Miss Jean for the widow. She had been frequently entertained at Las Palomas by its mistress, as the sweetheart of June Deweese, though since her marriage to Annear a decided coolness had existed between the two women. But in the present hour of trouble, the past was forgotten and they mingled their tears like sisters.
On our return, which was to be by way of the Vauxes', I joined those from the McLeod ranch, while Happersett and Cotton accompanied the ambulance to the Vaux home. Nearly every one going our way was on horseback, and when the cavalcade was some distance from Las Norias, my sweetheart dropped to the rear for a confidential chat and told me that a lawyer from Corpus Christi, an old friend of the family, had come up for the purpose of taking the preliminary steps for securing her freedom, and that she expected to be relieved of the odious tie which bound her to Oxenford at the May term of court. This was pleasant news to me, for there would then be no reason for delaying our marriage.
Happersett rode down to the San Miguel the next morning to inform Quayle and myself that the mistress was then on the way to spend the night with the widow Annear, and that the rest of us were to report at home the following evening. She had apparently inspected the lines on the Frio, and, finding everything favorable, turned to other fields. I was disappointed, for Esther and I had planned to go up to the Vaux ranch during the visit. Dan suggested that we ride home together by way of the Vauxes'. But Quayle bitterly refused even to go near the ranch. He felt very sore and revengeful over being jilted by Frances after she had let him crown her Queen of the ball at the tournament dance. So, agreeing to meet on the divide the next day for the ride back to Las Palomas, we parted.
The next afternoon, on reaching the divide between the Frio and the home river, Theodore and I scanned the horizon in vain for any horsemen. We dismounted, and after waiting nearly an hour, descried two specks to the northward which we knew must be our men. On coming up they also threw themselves on the ground, and we indulged in a cigarette while we compared notes. I had nothing to conceal, and frankly confessed that Esther and I expected to marry during the latter part of May. Cotton, though, seemed reticent, and though Theodore cross-questioned him rather severely, was non-committal and dumb as an oyster; but before we recrossed the Nueces that evening, John and I having fallen far to the rear of the other two, he admitted to me that his wedding would occur within a month after Lent. It was to be a confidence between us, but I advised him to take Uncle Lance into the secret at once.
But on reaching the ranch we learned that the hunting party had not returned, nor had the mistress. The next morning we resumed our work, Quayle and Cotton at corral building and I at the rock quarry. The work had progressed during my absence, and the number of pieces desired was nearing completion, and with but one team hauling the work-shop was already congested with cut building stone. By noon the quarry was so cluttered with blocks that I ordered half the help to take axes and go to the encinal to cut dry oak wood for burning the lime. With the remainder of my outfit we cleaned out and sealed off the walls of an old lime kiln, which had served ever since the first rock buildings rose on Las Palomas. The oven was cut in the same porous formation, the interior resembling an immense jug, possibly twelve feet in diameter and fifteen feet in height to the surface of the ledge. By locating the kiln near the abrupt wall of an abandoned quarry, ventilation was given from below by a connecting tunnel some twenty feet in length. Layers of wood and limestone were placed within until the interior was filled, when it was fired, and after burning for a few hours the draft was cut off below and above, and the heat retained until the limestone was properly burned.
Near the middle of the afternoon, the drivers hauling the blocks drove near the kiln and shouted that the hunters had returned. Scaling off the burnt rock in the interior and removing the debris made it late before our job was finished; then one of the vaqueros working on the outside told us that the ambulance had crossed the river over an hour before, and was then in the ranch. This was good news, and mounting our horses we galloped into headquarters and found the corral outfit already there. Miss Jean soon had our segundo an unwilling prisoner in a corner, and from his impatient manner and her low tones it was plain to be seen that her two days' visit with Mrs. Annear had resulted in some word for Deweese. Not wishing to intrude, I avoided them in search of my employer, finding him and Gallup at an outhouse holding a hound while Scales was taking a few stitches in an ugly cut which the dog had received from a javeline. Paying no attention to the two boys, I gave him the news, and bluntly informed him that Esther and I expected to marry in May.
"Bully for you, Tom," said he. "Here, hold this fore foot, and look out he don't bite you. So she'll get her divorce at the May term, and then all outdoors can't stand in your way the next time. Now, that means that you'll have to get out fully two hundred more of those building rock, for your cottage will need three rooms. Take another stitch, knot your thread well, and be quick about it. I tell you the javeline were pretty fierce; this is the fifth dog we've doctored since we returned."
On freeing the poor hound, we both looked the pack over carefully, and as no others needed attention, Aaron and Glenn were excused. No sooner were they out of hearing than I suggested that the order be made for five hundred stone, as no doubt John Cotton would also need a cottage shortly after Lent. The old matchmaker beamed with smiles. "Is that right, Tom?" he inquired. "Of course, you boys tell each other what you would hardly tell me. And so they have made the riffle at last? Why, of course they shall have a cottage, and have it so near that I can hear the baby when it cries. Bully for tow-headed John. Oh, I reckon Las Palomas is coming to the front this year. Three new cottages and three new brides is not to be sneezed at! Does your mistress know all this good news?"
I informed him that I had not seen Miss Jean to speak to since the funeral, and that Cotton wished his intentions kept a secret. "Of course," he said; "that's just like a sap-headed youth, as if getting married was anything to be ashamed of. Why, when I was the age of you boys I'd have felt proud over the fact. Wants it kept a secret, does he? Well, I'll tell everybody I meet, and I'll send word to the ferry and to every ranch within a hundred miles, that our John Cotton and Frank Vaux are going to get married in the spring. There's nothing disgraceful in matrimony, and I'll publish this so wide that neither of them will dare back out. I've had my eye on that girl for years, and now when there's a prospect of her becoming the wife of one of my boys, he wants it kept a secret? Well, I don't think it'll keep."
After that I felt more comfortable over my own confession. Before we were called to supper every one in the house, including the Mexicans about headquarters, knew that Cotton and I were soon to be married. And all during the evening the same subject was revived at every lull in the conversation, though Deweese kept constantly intruding the corral building and making inquiries after the hunt. "What difference does it make if we hunted or not?" replied Uncle Lance to his foreman with some little feeling. "Suppose we did only hunt every third or fourth day? Those Wilson folks have a way of entertaining friends which makes riding after hounds seem commonplace. Why, the girls had Glenn and Aaron on the go until old man Nate and myself could hardly get them out on a hunt at all. And when they did, provided the girls were along, they managed to get separated, and along about dusk they'd come slouching in by pairs, looking as innocent as turtle-doves. Not that those Wilson girls can't ride, for I never saw a better horsewoman than Susie--the one who took such a shine to Scales."
I noticed Miss Jean cast a reproving glance at her brother on his connecting the name of Susie Wilson with that of his vagabond employee. The mistress was a puritan in morals. That Scales fell far below her ideal there was no doubt, and the brother knew too well not to differ with her on this subject. When all the boys had retired except Cotton and me, the brother and sister became frank with each other.
"Well, now, you must not blame me if Miss Susie was attentive to Aaron," said the old matchmaker, in conciliation, pacing the room. "He was from Las Palomas and their guest, and I see no harm in the girls being courteous and polite. Susie was just as nice as pie to me, and I hope you don't think I don't entertain the highest regard for Nate Wilson's family. Suppose one of the girls did smile a little too much on Aaron, was that my fault? Now, mind you, I never said a word one way or the other, but I'll bet every cow on Las Palomas that Aaron Scales, vagabond that he is, can get Susie Wilson for the asking. I know your standard of morals, but you must make allowance for others who look upon things differently from you and me. You remember Katharine Vedder who married Carey Troup at the close of the war. There's a similar case for you. Katharine married Troup just because he was so wicked, at least that was the reason she gave, and she and you were old run-togethers. And you remember too that getting married was the turning-point in Carey Troup's life. Who knows but Aaron might sober down if he was to marry? Just because a man has sown a few wild oats in his youth, does that condemn him for all time? You want to be more liberal. Give me the man who has stood the fire tests of life in preference to one who has never been tempted."
"Now, Lance, you know you had a motive in taking Aaron down to Wilson's," said the sister, reprovingly. "Don't get the idea that I can't read you like an open book. Your argument is as good as an admission of your object in going to Ramirena. Ever since Scales got up that flirtation with Suzanne Vaux last summer, it was easy to see that Aaron was a favorite with you. Why don't you take Happersett around and introduce him to some nice girls? Honest, Lance, I wouldn't give poor old Dan for the big beef corral full of rascals like Scales. Look how he trifled with that silly girl in Florida."
Instead of continuing the argument, the wily ranchero changed the subject.
"The trouble with Dan is he's too old. When a fellow begins to get a little gray around the edges, he gets so foxy that you couldn't bait him into a matrimonial trap with sweet grapes. But, Sis, what's the matter with your keeping an eye open for a girl for Dan, if he's such a favorite with you? If I had half the interest in him that you profess, I certainly wouldn't ask any one to help. It wouldn't surprise me if the boys take to marrying freely after John and Tom bring their brides to Las Palomas. Now that Mrs. Annear is a widow, there's the same old chance for June. If Glenn don't make the riffle with Miss Jule, he ought to be shot on general principles. And I don't know, little sister, if you and I were both to oppose it, that we could prevent that rascal of an Aaron from marrying into the Wilson family. You have no idea what a case Susie and Scales scared up during our ten days' hunt. That only leaves Dan and Theodore. But what's the use of counting the chickens so soon? You go to bed, for I'm going to send to the Mission to-morrow after the masons. There's no use in my turning in, for I won't sleep a wink to-night, thinking all this over."