Spring was now at hand after an unusually mild winter. With the breaking of the drouth of the summer before there had sprung up all through the encinal and sandy lands an immense crop of weeds, called by the natives margoso, fallow-weed. This plant had thriven all winter, and the cattle had forsaken the best mesquite grazing in the river bottoms to forage on it. The results showed that their instinct was true; for with very rare exceptions every beef on the ranch was fit for the butcher's block. Truly it was a year of fatness succeeding a lean one. Never during my acquaintance with Las Palomas had I seen the cattle come through a winter in such splendid condition. But now there was no market. Faint rumors reached us of trail herds being put up in near-by counties, and it was known that several large ranches in Nueces County were going to try the experiment of sending their own cattle up the trail. Lack of demand was discouraging to most ranchmen, and our range was glutted with heavy steer cattle.
The first spring work of any importance was gathering the horses to fill a contract we had with Captain Byler. Previous to the herd which Deweese had sold and delivered at Fort Worth the year before, our horse stock had amounted to about four thousand head. With the present sale the ranch holdings would be much reduced, and it was our intention to retain all manadas used in the breeding of mules. When we commenced gathering we worked over every one of our sixty odd bands, cutting out all the fillies and barren mares. In disposing of whole manadas we kept only the geldings and yearlings, throwing in the old stallions for good measure, as they would be worthless to us when separated from their harems. In less than a week's time we had made up the herd, and as they were all in the straight 'horse hoof' we did not road-brand them. While gathering them we put them under day and night herd, throwing in five remudas as we had agreed, but keeping back the bell mares, as they were gentle and would be useful in forming new bands of saddle horses. The day before the appointed time for the delivery, the drover brought up saddle horses and enough picked mares to make his herd number fifteen hundred.
The only unpleasant episode of the sale was a difference between Theodore Quayle and my employer. Quayle had cultivated the friendship of the drover until the latter had partially promised him a job with the herd, in case there was no objection. But when Uncle Lance learned that Theodore expected to accompany the horses, he took Captain Frank to task for attempting to entice away his men. The drover entered a strong disclaimer, maintaining that he had promised Quayle a place only in case it was satisfactory to all concerned; further, that in trail work with horses he preferred Mexican vaqueros, and had only made the conditional promise as a favor to the young man. Uncle Lance accepted the explanation and apologized to the drover, but fell on Theodore Quayle and cruelly upbraided him for forsaking the ranch without cause or reason. Theodore was speechless with humiliation, but no sooner were the hasty words spoken than my employer saw that he had grievously hurt another's feelings, and humbly craved Quayle's pardon.
The incident passed and was apparently forgotten. The herd started north on the trail on the twenty-fifth of March, Quayle stayed on at Las Palomas, and we resumed our regular spring work on the ranch. While gathering the mares and fillies, we had cut out all the geldings four years old and upward to the number of nearly two hundred, and now our usual routine of horse breaking commenced. The masons had completed their work on all three of the cottages and returned to the Mission, but the carpenter yet remained to finish up the woodwork. Fidel and Juana had begun housekeeping in their little home, and the cosy warmth which radiated from it made me impatient to see my cottage finished. Through the mistress, arrangements had been made for the front rooms in both John's cottage and mine to be floored instead of cemented.
Some two weeks before Easter Sunday, Cotton returned from the Frio, where he had been making a call on his intended. Uncle Lance at once questioned him to know if they had set the day, and was informed that the marriage would occur within ten days after Lent, and that he expected first to make a hurried trip to San Antonio for a wedding outfit.
"That's all right, John," said the old ranchero approvingly, "and I expect Quirk might as well go with you. You can both draw every cent due you, and take your time, as wages will go right on the same as if you were working. There will not be much to do except the usual horse breaking and a little repairing about the ranch. It's quite likely I shan't be able to spare Tom in the early summer, for if no cattle buyers come along soon, I'm going to send June to the coast and let him sniff around for one. I'd like the best in the world to sell about three thousand beeves, and we never had fatter ones than we have to-day. If we can make a sale, it'll keep us busy all the fore part of the summer. So both you fellows knock off any day you want to and go up to the city. And go horseback, for this ranch don't give Bethel & Oxenford's stages any more of its money."
With this encouragement, we decided to start for the city the next morning. But that evening I concluded to give a certain roan gelding a final ride before turning him over to the vaqueros. He was a vicious rascal, and after trying a hundred manoeuvres to unhorse me, reared and fell backward, and before I could free my foot from the stirrup, caught my left ankle, fracturing several of the small bones in the joint. That settled my going anywhere on horseback for a month, as the next morning I could not touch my foot to the ground. John did not like to go alone, and the mistress insisted that Theodore was well entitled to a vacation. The master consented, each was paid the wages due him, and catching up their own private horses, the old cronies started off to San Antonio. They expected to make Mr. Booth's ranch in a little over half a day, and from there a sixty-mile ride would put them in the city.
After the departure of the boys the dull routine of ranch work went heavily forward. The horse breaking continued, vaqueros rode the range looking after the calf crop, while I had to content myself with nursing a crippled foot and hobbling about on crutches. Had I been able to ride a horse, it is quite possible that a ranch on the San Miguel would have had me as its guest; but I must needs content myself with lying around the house, visiting with Juana, or watching the carpenter finishing the cottages. I tried several times to interest my mistress in a scheme to invite my sweetheart over for a week or two, but she put me off on one pretext and another until I was vexed at her lack of enthusiasm. But truth compels me to do that good woman justice, and I am now satisfied that my vexation was due to my own peevishness over my condition and not to neglect on her part. And just then she was taking such an absorbing interest in June and the widow, and likewise so sisterly a concern for Dan Happersett, that it was little wonder she could give me no special attention when I was soon to be married. It was the bird in the bush that charmed Miss Jean.
Towards the close of March a number of showers fell, and we had a week of damp, cloudy weather. This was unfortunate, as it called nearly every man from the horse breaking to ride the range and look after the young calves. One of the worst enemies of a newly born calf is screw worms, which flourish in wet weather, and prove fatal unless removed; for no young calf withstands the pest over a few days. Clear dry weather was the best preventive against screw worms, but until the present damp spell abated every man in the ranch was in the saddle from sunrise to sunset.
In the midst of this emergency work a beef buyer by the name of Wayne Orahood reached the ranch. He was representing the lessees of a steamship company plying between New Orleans and Texas coast points. The merchant at the ferry had advised Orahood to visit Las Palomas, but on his arrival about noon there was not a white man on the ranch to show him the cattle. I knew the anxiety of my employer to dispose of his matured beeves, and as the buyer was impatient there was nothing to do but get up horses and ride the range with him. Miss Jean was anxious to have the stock shown, and in spite of my lameness I ordered saddle horses for both of us. Unable to wear a boot and still hobbling on crutches, I managed to Indian mount an old horse, my left foot still too inflamed to rest in the stirrup. From the ranch we rode for the encinal ridges and sandy lands to the southeast, where the fallow-weed still throve in rank profusion, and where our heaviest steers were liable to range. By riding far from the watering points we encountered the older cattle, and within an hour after leaving the ranch I was showing some of the largest beeves on Las Palomas.
How that beef buyer did ride! Scarcely giving the cattle a passing look, he kept me leading the way from place to place where our salable stock was to be encountered. Avoiding the ranchitos and wells, where the cows and younger cattle were to be found, we circled the extreme outskirts of our range, only occasionally halting, and then but for a single glance over some prime beeves. We turned westward from the encinal at a gallop, passing about midway between Santa Maria and the home ranch. Thence we pushed on for the hills around the head of the Ganso. Not once in the entire ride did we encounter any one but a Mexican vaquero, and there was no relief for my foot in meeting him! Several times I had an inclination to ask Mr. Orahood to remember my sore ankle, and on striking the broken country I suggested we ride slower, as many of our oldest beeves ranged through these hills. This suggestion enabled me to ease up and to show our best cattle to advantage until the sun set. We were then twenty-five miles from the ranch. But neither distance nor approaching darkness checked Wayne Orahood's enthusiasm. A dozen times he remarked, "We'll look at a few more cattle, son, and then ride in home." We did finally turn homeward, and at a leisurely gait, but not until it was too dark to see cattle, and it was several hours after darkness when we sighted the lamps at headquarters, and finished the last lap in our afternoon's sixty-mile ride.
My employer and Mr. Orahood had met before, and greeted each other with a rugged cordiality common among cowmen. The others had eaten their supper; but while the buyer and I satisfied the inner man, Uncle Lance sat with us at the table and sparred with Orahood in repartee, or asked regarding mutual friends, artfully avoiding any mention of cattle. But after we had finished Mr. Orahood spoke of his mission, admitted deprecatingly that he had taken a little ride south and west that afternoon, and if it was not too much trouble he would like to look over our beeves on the north of the Nueces in the morning. He showed no enthusiasm, but acknowledged that he was buying for shipment, and thought that another month's good grass ought to put our steers in fair condition. I noticed Uncle Lance clouding up over the buyer's lack of appreciation, but he controlled himself, and when Mr. Orahood expressed a wish to retire, my employer said to his guest, as with candle in hand the two stood in parting:--
"Well, now, Wayne, that's too bad about the cattle being so thin. I've been working my horse stock lately, and didn't get any chance to ride the range until this wet spell. But since the screw worms got so bad, being short-handed, I had to get out and rustle myself or we'd lost a lot of calves. Of course, I have noticed a steer now and then, and have been sorry to find them so spring-poor. Actually, Wayne, if we were expecting company, we'd have to send to the ferry and get a piece of bacon, as I haven't seen a hoof fit to kill. That roast beef which you had for supper--well, that was sent us by a neighbor who has fat cows. About a year ago now, water was awful scarce with us, and a few old cows died up and down this valley. I suppose you didn't hear of it, living so far away. Heretofore, every time we had a drouth there was such a volunteer growth of fallow-weed that the cattle got mud fat following every dry spell. Still I'll show you a few cattle among the guajio brush and sand hills on the divide in the morning and see what you think of them. But of course, if they lack flesh, in case you are buying for shipment I shan't expect you to bid on them."
The old ranchero and the buyer rode away early the next morning, and did not return until near the middle of the afternoon, having already agreed on a sale. I was asked to write in duplicate the terms and conditions. In substance, Las Palomas ranch agreed to deliver at Rockport on the coast, on the twentieth of May, and for each of the following three months, twelve hundred and fifty beeves, four years old and upward. The consideration was $27.50 per head, payable on delivery. I knew my employer had oversold his holdings, but there would be no trouble in making up the five thousand head, as all our neighbors would gladly turn in cattle to fill the contract. The buyer was working on commission, and the larger the quantity he could contract for, the better he was suited. After the agreement had been signed in duplicate, Mr. Orahood smilingly admitted that ours were the best beeves he had bought that spring. "I knew it," said Uncle Lance; "you don't suppose I've been ranching in this valley over forty years without knowing a fat steer when I see one. Tom, send a muchacho after a bundle of mint. Wayne, you haven't got a lick of sense in riding--I'm as tired as a dog."
The buyer returned to Shepherd's the next morning. The horse breaking was almost completed, except allotting them into remudas, assigning bell mares, and putting each band under herd for a week or ten days. The weather was fairing off, relieving the strain of riding the range, and the ranch once more relaxed into its languid existence. By a peculiar coincidence, Easter Sunday occurred on April the 13th that year, it being also the sixty-sixth birthday of the ranchero. Miss Jean usually gave a little home dinner on her brother's birthday, and had planned one for this occasion, which was but a few days distant. In the mail which had been sent for on Saturday before Easter, a letter had come from John Cotton to his employer, saying he would start home in a few days, and wanted Father Norquin sent for, as the wedding would take place on the nineteenth of the month. He also mentioned the fact that Theodore expected to spend a day or two with the Booths returning, but he would ride directly down to the Vaux ranch, and possibly the two would reach home about the same time.
I doubt if Uncle Lance ever enjoyed a happier birthday than this one. There was every reason why he should enjoy it. For a man of his age, his years rested lightly. The ranch had never been more prosperous. Even the drouth of the year before had not proved an ill wind; for the damage then sustained had been made up by conditions resulting in one of the largest sales of cattle in the history of the ranch. A chapel and three new cottages had been built without loss of time and at very little expense. A number of children had been born to the soil, while the natives were as loyal to their master as subjects in the days of feudalism. There was but one thing lacking to fill the cup to overflowing--the ranchero was childless. Possessed with a love of the land so deep as to be almost his religion, he felt the need of an heir.
"Birthdays to a man of my years," said Uncle Lance, over Easter dinner, "are food for reflection. When one nears the limit of his allotted days, and looks back over his career, there is little that satisfies. Financial success is a poor equivalent for other things. But here I am preaching when I ought to be rejoicing. Some one get John's letter and read it again. Let's see, the nineteenth falls on Saturday. Lucky day for Las Palomas! Well, we'll have the padre here, and if he says barbecue a beef, down goes the fattest one on the ranch. This is the year in which we expect to press our luck. I begin to feel it in my old bones that the turning-point has come. When Father Norquin arrives, I think I'll have him preach us a sermon on the evils of single life. But then it's hardly necessary, for most of you boys have got your eye on some girl right now. Well, hasten the day, every rascal of you, and you'll find a cottage ready at a month's notice."
The morning following Easter opened bright and clear, while on every hand were the signs of spring. A vaquero was dispatched to the Mission to summon the padre, carrying both a letter and the compliments of the ranch. Among the jobs outlined for the week was the repairing of a well, the walls of which had caved in, choking a valuable water supply with debris. This morning Deweese took a few men and went to the well, to raise the piping and make the necessary repairs, curbing being the most important. But while the foreman and Santiago Ortez were standing on a temporary platform some thirty feet down, a sudden and unexpected cave-in occurred above them. Deweese saw the danger, called to his companion, and, in a flash laid hold of a rope with which materials were being lowered. The foreman's warning to his companion reached the helpers above, and Deweese was hastily windlassed to the surface, but the unfortunate vaquero was caught by the falling debris, he and the platform being carried down into the water beneath. The body of Ortez was recovered late that evening, a coffin was made during the night, and the next morning the unfortunate man was laid in his narrow home.
The accident threw a gloom over the ranch. Yet no one dreamt that a second disaster was at hand. But the middle of the week passed without the return of either of the absent boys. Foul play began to be suspected, and meanwhile Father Norquin arrived, fully expecting to solemnize within a few days the marriage of one of the missing men. Aaron Scales was dispatched to the Vaux ranch, and returned the next morning by daybreak with the information that neither Quayle nor Cotton had been seen on the Frio recently. A vaquero was sent to the Booth ranch, who brought back the intelligence that neither of the missing boys had been seen since they passed northward some two weeks before. Father Norquin, as deeply affected as any one, returned to the Mission, unable to offer a word of consolation. Several days passed without tidings. As the days lengthened into a week, the master, as deeply mortified over the incident as if the two had been his own sons, let his suspicion fall on Quayle. And at last when light was thrown on the mystery, the old ranchero's intuition proved correct.
My injured foot improved slowly, and before I was able to resume my duties on the ranch, I rode over one day to the San Miguel for a short visit. Tony Hunter had been down to Oakville a few days before my arrival, and while there had met Clint Dansdale, who was well acquainted with Quayle and Cotton. Clint, it appeared, had been in San Antonio and met our missing men, and the three had spent a week in the city chumming together. As Dansdale was also on horseback, the trio agreed to start home the same time, traveling in company until their ways separated. Cotton had told Dansdale what business had brought him to the city, and received the latter's congratulations. The boys had decided to leave for home on the ninth, and on the morning of the day set forth, moneyless but rich in trinkets and toggery. But some where about forty miles south of San Antonio they met a trail herd of cattle from the Aransas River. Some trouble had occurred between the foreman and his men the day before, and that morning several of the latter had taken French leave. On meeting the travelers, the trail boss, being short-handed, had offered all three of them a berth. Quayle had accepted without a question. The other two had stayed all night with the herd, Dansdale attempting to dissuade Cotton, and Quayle, on the other hand, persuading him to go with the cattle. In the end Quayle's persuasions won. Dansdale admitted that the opportunity appealed strongly to him, but he refused the trail foreman's blandishments and returned to his ranch, while the two Las Palomas lads accompanied the herd, neither one knowing or caring where they were going.
When I returned home and reported this to my employer, he was visibly affected. "So that explains all," said he, "and my surmises regarding Theodore were correct. I have no particular right to charge him with ingratitude, and yet this ranch was as much his home as mine. He had the same to eat, drink, and wear as I had, with none of the concern, and yet he deserted me. I never spoke harshly to him but once, and now I wish I had let him go with Captain Byler. That would have saved me Cotton and the present disgrace to Las Palomas. I ought to have known that a good honest boy like John would be putty in the hands of a fellow like Theodore. But it's just like a fool boy to throw away his chances in life. They still sell their birthright for a mess of pottage. And there stands the empty cottage to remind me that I have something to learn. Old as I am, my temper will sometimes get away from me. Tom, you are my next hope, and I am almost afraid some unseen obstacle will arise as this one did. Does Frances know the facts?" I answered that Hunter had kept the facts to himself, not even acquainting his own people with them, so that aside from myself he was the first to know the particulars. After pacing the room for a time in meditation, Uncle Lance finally halted and asked me if Scales would be a capable messenger to carry the news to the Vaux family. I admitted that he was the most tactful man on the ranch. Aaron was summoned, given the particulars, and commanded to use the best diplomacy at his command in transmitting the facts, and to withhold nothing; to express to the ranchman and his family the deep humiliation every one at Las Palomas felt over the actions of John Cotton.
Years afterward I met Quayle at a trail town in the north. In the limited time at our command, the old days we spent together in the Nueces valley occupied most of our conversation. Unmentioned by me, his desertion of Las Palomas was introduced by himself, and in attempting to apologize for his actions, he said:--
"Quirk, that was the only dirty act I was ever guilty of. I never want to meet the people the trick was practiced on. Leaving Las Palomas was as much my privilege as going there was. But I was unfortunate enough to incur a few debts while living there that nothing but personal revenge could ever repay. Had it been any other man than Lance Lovelace, he or I would have died the morning Captain Byler's horse herd started from the Nueces River. But he was an old man, and my hand was held and my tongue was silent. You know the tricks of a certain girl who, with her foot on my neck, stretched forth a welcoming hand to a rival. Tom, I have lived to pay her my last obligation in a revenge so sweet that if I die an outcast on the roadside, all accounts are square."