Of my exile of over two years in Mexico, little need be said. By easy stages, I reached the haciendas on the Rio San Juan where we had received the cows in the summer of '77. The reception extended me was all one could ask, but cooled when it appeared that my errand was one of refuge and not of business. I concealed my offense, and was given employment as corporal segundo over a squad of vaqueros. But while the hacienda to which I was attached was larger than Las Palomas, with greater holdings in live-stock, yet my life there was one of penal servitude. I strove to blot out past memories in the innocent pleasures of my associates, mingling in all the social festivities, dancing with the dark-eyed senoritas and gambling at every fiesta. Yet in the midst of the dissipation, there was ever present to my mind the thought of a girl, likewise living a life of loneliness at the mouth of the San Miguel.
During my banishment, but twice did any word or message reach me from the Nueces valley. Within a few months after my locating on the Rio San Juan, Enrique Lopez, a trusted vaquero from Las Palomas, came to the hacienda, apparently seeking employment. Recognizing me at a glance, at the first opportunity he slipped me a letter unsigned and in an unknown hand. After reading it I breathed easier, for both Hunter and Oxenford had recovered, the former having been shot through the upper lobe of a lung, while the latter had sustained three wounds, one of which resulted in the loss of an arm. The judge had reserved his decision until the recovery of both men was assured, but before the final adjournment of court, refused the decree. I had had misgivings that this would be the result, and the message warned me to remain away, as the stage company was still offering a reward for my arrest. Enrique loitered around the camp several days, and on being refused employment, made inquiry for a ranch in the south and rode away in the darkness of evening. But we had had several little chats together, in which the rascal delivered many oral messages, one of which he swore by all the saints had been intrusted to him by my own sweetheart while visiting at the ranch. But Enrique was capable of enriching any oral message, and I was compelled to read between the lines; yet I hope the saints, to whom he daily prayed, will blot out any untruthful embellishments.
The second message was given me by Frank Nancrede, early in January, '81. As was his custom, he was buying saddle horses at Las Palomas during the winter for trail purposes, when he learned of my whereabouts in Mexico. Deweese had given him directions where I could be found, and as the Rio San Juan country was noted for good horses, Nancrede and a companion rode directly from the Nueces valley to the hacienda where I was employed. They were on the lookout for a thousand saddle horses, and after buying two hundred from the ranch where I was employed, secured my services as interpreter in buying the remainder. We were less than a month in securing the number wanted, and I accompanied the herd to the Rio Grande on its way to Texas. Nancrede offered me every encouragement to leave Mexico, assuring me that Bethel & Oxenford had lost their mail contract between San Antonio and Brownsville, and were now operating in other sections of the state. He was unable to give me the particulars, but frauds had been discovered in Star Route lines, and the government had revoked nearly all the mail contracts in southern Texas. The trail boss promised me a job with any of their herds, and assured me that a cow hand of my abilities would never want a situation in the north. I was anxious to go with him, and would have done so, but felt a compunction which I did not care to broach to him, for I was satisfied he would not understand.
The summer passed, during which I made it a point to meet other drovers from Texas who were buying horses and cattle. From several sources the report of Nancrede, that the stage line south from San Antonio was now in new hands, was confirmed. One drover assured me that a national scandal had grown out of the Star Route contracts, and several officials in high authority had been arraigned for conspiracy to defraud. He further asserted that the new contractor was now carrying the mail for ten per cent, of what was formerly allowed to Bethel & Oxenford, and making money at the reduced rate. This news was encouraging, and after an exile of over two years and a half, I recrossed the Rio Grande on the same horse on which I had entered. Carefully avoiding ranches where I was known, two short rides put me in Las Palomas, reaching headquarters after nightfall, where, in seclusion, I spent a restless day and night.
A few new faces were about the ranch, but the old friends bade me a welcome and assured me that my fears were groundless. During the brief time at my disposal, Miss Jean entertained me with numerous disclosures regarding my old sweetheart. The one that both pleased and interested me was that she was contented and happy, and that her resignation was due to religious faith. According to my hostess's story, a camp meeting had been held at Shepherd's during the fall after my banishment, by a sect calling themselves Predestinarians. I have since learned that a belief in a predetermined state is entertained by a great many good people, and I admit it seems as if fate had ordained that Esther McLeod and I should never wed. But it was a great satisfaction to know that she felt resigned and could draw solace from a spiritual source, even though the same was denied to me. During the last meeting between Esther and Miss Jean, but a few weeks before, the former had confessed that there was now no hope of our ever marrying.
As I had not seen my parents for several years, I continued my journey to my old home on the San Antonio River. Leaving Las Palomas after nightfall, I passed the McLeod ranch after midnight. Halting my horse to rest, I reviewed the past, and the best reasoning at my command showed nothing encouraging on the horizon. That Esther had sought consolation from a spiritual source did not discourage me; for, under my observation, where it had been put to the test, the love of man and wife overrode it. But to expect this contented girl to renounce her faith and become my wife, was expecting her to share with me nothing, unless it was the chance of a felon's cell, and I remounted my horse and rode away under a starry sky, somewhat of a fatalist myself. But I derived contentment from my decision, and on reaching home no one could have told that I had loved and lost. My parents were delighted to see me after my extended absence, my sisters were growing fast into womanhood, and I was bidden the welcome of a prodigal son. During this visit a new avenue in life opened before me, and through the influence of my eldest brother I secured a situation with a drover and followed the cattle trail until the occupation became a lost one. My last visit to Las Palomas was during the winter of 1894-95. It lacked but a few months of twenty years since my advent in the Nueces valley. After the death of Oxenford by small-pox, I had been a frequent visitor at the ranch, business of one nature and another calling me there. But in this last visit, the wonderful changes which two decades had wrought in the country visibly impressed me, and I detected a note of decay in the old ranch. A railroad had been built, passing within ten miles of the western boundary line of the Ganso grant. The Las Palomas range had been fenced, several large tracts of land being added after my severing active connections with the ranch. Even the cattle, in spite of all the efforts made for their improvement, were not so good as in the old days of the open range, or before there was a strand of wire between the Nueces and Rio Grande rivers. But the alterations in the country were nothing compared to the changes in my old master and mistress. Uncle Lance was nearing his eighty-second birthday, physically feeble, but mentally as active as the first morning of our long acquaintance. Miss Jean, over twenty years the junior of the ranchero, had mellowed into a ripeness consistent with her days, and in all my aimless wanderings I never saw a brother and sister of their ages more devoted to, or dependent on each other.
On the occasion of this past visit, I was in the employ of a live-stock commission firm. A member of our house expected to attend the cattle convention at Forth Worth in the near future, and I had been sent into the range sections to note the conditions of stock and solicit for my employers. The spring before, our firm had placed sixty thousand cattle for customers. Demand continued, and the house had inquiry sufficient to justify them in sending me out to secure, of all ages, not less than a hundred thousand steer cattle. And thus once more I found myself a guest of Las Palomos.
"Don't talk cattle to me," said Uncle Lance, when I mentioned my business; "go to June--he'll give you the ages and numbers. And whatever you do, Tom, don't oversell us, for wire fences have cut us off, until it seems like old friends don't want to neighbor any more. In the days of the open range, I used to sell every hoof I had a chance to, but since then things have changed. Why, only last year a jury indicted a young man below here on the river for mavericking a yearling, and sent him to Huntsville for five years. That's a fair sample of these modern days. There isn't a cowman in Texas to-day who amounts to a pinch of snuff, but got his start the same way, but if a poor fellow looks out of the corner of his eye now at a critter, they imagine he wants to steal it. Oh, I know them; and the bigger rustlers they were themselves on the open range, the bitterer their persecution of the man who follows their example."
June Deweese was then the active manager of the ranch, and after securing a classification of their salable stock, I made out a memorandum and secured authority in writing, to sell their holdings at prevailing prices for Nueces river cattle. The remainder of the day was spent with my old friends in a social visit, and as we delved into the musty past, the old man's love of the land and his matchmaking instincts constantly cropped out.
"Tom," said he, in answer to a remark of mine, "I was an awful fool to think my experience could be of any use to you boys. Every last rascal of you went off on the trail and left me here with a big ranch to handle. Gallup was no better than the rest, for he kept Jule Wilson waiting until now she's an old maid. Sis, here, always called Scales a vagabond, but I still believe something could have been made of him with a little encouragement. But when the exodus of the cattle to the north was at its height, he went off with a trail herd just like the rest of you. Then he followed the trail towns as a gambler, saved money, and after the cattle driving ended, married an adventuress, and that's the end of him. The lack of a market was one of the great drawbacks to ranching, but when the trail took every hoof we could breed and every horse we could spare, it also took my boys. Tom, when you get old, you'll understand that all is vanity and vexation of spirit. But I am perfectly resigned now. In my will, Las Palomas and everything I have goes to Jean. She can dispose of it as she sees fit, and if I knew she was going to leave it to Father Norquin or his successor, my finger wouldn't be raised to stop it. I spent a lifetime of hard work acquiring this land, and now that there is no one to care for the old ranch, I wash my hands of it."
Knowing the lifetime of self-sacrifice in securing the land of Las Palomas, I sympathized with the old ranchero in his despondency.
"I never blamed you much, Tom," he resumed after a silence; "but there's something about cattle life which I can't explain. It seems to disqualify a man for ever making a good citizen afterward. He roams and runs around, wasting his youth, and gets so foxy he never marries."
"But June and the widow made the riffle finally," I protested.
"Yes, they did, and that's something to the good, but they never had any children. Waited ten years after Annear was killed, and then got married. That was one of Jean's matches. Tom, you must go over and see Juana before you go. There was a match that I made. Just think of it, they have eight children, and Fidel is prouder over them than I ever was of this ranch. The natives have never disappointed me, but the Caucasian seems to be played out."
I remained overnight at the ranch. After supper, sitting in his chair before a cheerful fire, Uncle Lance dozed off to sleep, leaving his sister and myself to entertain each other. I had little to say of my past, and the future was not encouraging, except there was always work to do. But Miss Jean unfolded like the pages of an absorbing chronicle, and gave me the history of my old acquaintances in the valley. Only a few of the girls had married. Frances Vaux, after flirting away her youth, had taken the veil in one of the orders in her church. My old sweetheart was contentedly living a life of seclusion on the ranch on which she was born, apparently happy, but still interested in any word of me in my wanderings. The young men of my acquaintance, except where married, were scattered wide, the whereabouts of nearly all of them unknown. Tony Hunter had held the McLeod estate together, and it had prospered exceedingly under his management. My old friend, Red Earnest, who outrode me in the relay race at the tournament in June, '77, was married and serving in the Customs Service on the Rio Grande as a mounted river guard.
The next morning, I made the round of the Mexican quarters, greeting my old friends, before taking my leave and starting for the railroad. The cottage which had been built for Esther and me stood vacant and windowless, being used only for a storehouse for zacahuiste. As I rode away, the sight oppressed me; it brought back the June time of my youth, even the hour and instant in which our paths separated. On reaching the last swell of ground, several miles from the ranch, which would give me a glimpse of headquarters, I halted my horse in a farewell view. The sleepy old ranch cosily nestled among the encinal oaks revived a hundred memories, some sad, some happy, many of which have returned in retrospect during lonely hours since.