A College Vagabond


A College Vagabond was published in Adams' collection, Cattle Brands: A Collection of Winter Camp-fire Stories (1906).

The ease and apparent willingness with which some men revert to an aimless life can best be accounted for by the savage or barbarian instincts of our natures. The West has produced many types of the vagabond,--it might be excusable to say, won them from every condition of society. From the cultured East, with all the advantages which wealth and educational facilities can give to her sons, they flocked; from the South, with her pride of ancestry, they came; even the British Isles contributed their quota. There was something in the primitive West of a generation or more ago which satisfied them. Nowhere else could it be found, and once they adapted themselves to existing conditions, they were loath to return to former associations.

About the middle of the fifties, there graduated from one of our Eastern colleges a young man of wealthy and distinguished family. His college record was good, but close application to study during the last year had told on his general health. His ambition, coupled with a laudable desire to succeed, had buoyed up his strength until the final graduation day had passed.

Alexander Wells had the advantage of a good physical constitution. During the first year at college his reputation as an athlete had been firmly established by many a hard fought contest in the college games. The last two years he had not taken an active part in them, as his studies had required his complete attention. On his return home, it was thought by parents and sisters that rest and recreation would soon restore the health of this overworked young graduate, who was now two years past his majority. Two months of rest, however, failed to produce any improvement, but the family physician would not admit that there was immediate danger, and declared the trouble simply the result of overstudy, advising travel. This advice was very satisfactory to the young man, for he had a longing to see other sections of the country.

The elder Wells some years previously had become interested in western and southern real estate, and among other investments which he had made was the purchase of an old Spanish land grant on a stream called the Salado, west of San Antonio, Texas. These land grants were made by the crown of Spain to favorite subjects. They were known by name, which they always retained when changing ownership. Some of these tracts were princely domains, and were bartered about as though worthless, often changing owners at the card-table.

So when travel was suggested to Wells, junior, he expressed a desire to visit this family possession, and possibly spend a winter in its warm climate. This decision was more easily reached from the fact that there was an abundance of game on the land, and being a devoted sportsman, his own consent was secured in advance. No other reason except that of health would ever have gained the consent of his mother to a six months' absence. But within a week after reaching the decision, the young man had left New York and was on his way to Texas. His route, both by water and rail, brought him only within eighty miles of his destination, and the rest of the distance he was obliged to travel by stage.

San Antonio at this time was a frontier village, with a mixed population, the Mexican being the most prominent inhabitant. There was much to be seen which was new and attractive to the young Easterner, and he tarried in it several days, enjoying its novel and picturesque life. The arrival and departure of the various stage lines for the accommodation of travelers like himself was of more than passing interest. They rattled in from Austin and Laredo. They were sometimes late from El Paso, six hundred miles to the westward. Probably a brush with the Indians, or the more to be dreaded Mexican bandits (for these stages carried treasure--gold and silver, the currency of the country), was the cause of the delay. Frequently they carried guards, whose presence was generally sufficient to command the respect of the average robber.

Then there were the freight trains, the motive power of which was mules and oxen. It was necessary to carry forward supplies and bring back the crude products of the country. The Chihuahua wagon was drawn sometimes by twelve, sometimes by twenty mules, four abreast in the swing, the leaders and wheelers being single teams. For mutual protection trains were made up of from ten to twenty wagons. Drivers frequently meeting a chance acquaintance going in an opposite direction would ask, "What is your cargo?" and the answer would be frankly given, "Specie." Many a Chihuahua wagon carried three or four tons of gold and silver, generally the latter. Here was a new book for this college lad, one he had never studied, though it was more interesting to him than some he had read. There was something thrilling in all this new life. He liked it. The romance was real; it was not an imitation. People answered his few questions and asked none in return.

In this frontier village at a late hour one night young Wells overheard this conversation: "Hello, Bill," said the case-keeper in a faro game, as he turned his head halfway round to see who was the owner of the monster hand which had just reached over his shoulder and placed a stack of silver dollars on a card, marking it to win, "I've missed you the last few days. Where have you been so long?"

"Oh, I've just been out to El Paso on a little pasear guarding the stage," was the reply. Now the little pasear was a continuous night and day round-trip of twelve hundred miles. Bill had slept and eaten as he could. When mounted, he scouted every possible point of ambush for lurking Indian or bandit. Crossing open stretches of country, he climbed up on the stage and slept. Now having returned, he was anxious to get his wages into circulation. Here were characters worthy of a passing glance.

Interesting as this frontier life was to the young man, he prepared for his final destination. He had no trouble in locating his father's property, for it was less than twenty miles from San Antonio. Securing an American who spoke Spanish, the two set out on horseback. There were several small ranchitos on the tract, where five or six Mexican families lived. Each family had a field and raised corn for bread. A flock of goats furnished them milk and meat. The same class of people in older States were called squatters, making no claim to ownership of the land. They needed little clothing, the climate being in their favor.

The men worked at times. The pecan crop which grew along the creek bottoms was beginning to have a value in the coast towns for shipment to northern markets, and this furnished them revenue for their simple needs. All kinds of game was in abundance, including waterfowl in winter, though winter here was only such in name. These simple people gave a welcome to the New Yorker which appeared sincere. They offered no apology for their presence on this land, nor was such in order, for it was the custom of the country. They merely referred to themselves as "his people," as though belonging to the land.

When they learned that he was the son of the owner of the grant, and that he wanted to spend a few months hunting and looking about, they considered themselves honored. The best jacal in the group was tendered him and his interpreter. The food offered was something new, but the relish with which his companion partook of it assisted young Wells in overcoming his scruples, and he ate a supper of dishes he had never tasted before. The coffee he declared was delicious.

On the advice of his companion they had brought along blankets. The women of the ranchito brought other bedding, and a comfortable bed soon awaited the Americanos. The owner of the jacal in the mean time informed his guest through the interpreter that he had sent to a near-by ranchito for a man who had at least the local reputation of being quite a hunter. During the interim, while awaiting the arrival of the man, he plied his guest with many questions regarding the outside world, of which his ideas were very simple, vague, and extremely provincial. His conception of distance was what he could ride in a given number of days on a good pony. His ideas of wealth were no improvement over those of his Indian ancestors of a century previous. In architecture, the jacal in which they sat satisfied his ideals.

The footsteps of a horse interrupted their conversation. A few moments later, Tiburcio, the hunter, was introduced to the two Americans with a profusion of politeness. There was nothing above the ordinary in the old hunter, except his hair, eyes, and swarthy complexion, which indicated his Aztec ancestry. It might be in perfect order to remark here that young Wells was perfectly composed, almost indifferent to the company and surroundings. He shook hands with Tiburcio in a manner as dignified, yet agreeable, as though he was the governor of his native State or the minister of some prominent church at home. From this juncture, he at once took the lead in the conversation, and kept up a line of questions, the answers to which were very gratifying. He learned that deer were very plentiful everywhere, and that on this very tract of land were several wild turkey roosts, where it was no trouble to bag any number desired. On the prairie portion of the surrounding country could be found large droves of antelope. During drouthy periods they were known to come twenty miles to quench their thirst in the Salado, which was the main watercourse of this grant. Once Tiburcio assured his young patron that he had frequently counted a thousand antelope during a single morning. Then there was also the javeline or peccary which abounded in endless numbers, but it was necessary to hunt them with dogs, as they kept the thickets and came out in the open only at night. Many a native cur met his end hunting these animals, cut to pieces with their tusks, so that packs, trained for the purpose, were used to bay them until the hunter could arrive and dispatch them with a rifle. Even this was always done from horseback, as it was dangerous to approach the javeline, for they would, when aroused, charge anything.

All this was gratifying to young Wells, and like a congenial fellow, he produced and showed the old hunter a new gun, the very latest model in the market, explaining its good qualities through his interpreter. Tiburcio handled it as if it were a rare bit of millinery, but managed to ask its price and a few other questions. Through his companion, Wells then engaged the old hunter's services for the following day; not that he expected to hunt, but he wanted to acquaint himself with the boundaries of the land and to become familiar with the surrounding country. Naming an hour for starting in the morning, the two men shook hands and bade each other good-night, each using his own language to express the parting, though neither one knew a word the other said. The first link in a friendship not soon to be broken had been forged.

Tiburcio was on hand at the appointed hour in the morning, and being joined by the two Americans they rode off up the stream. It was October, and the pecans, they noticed, were already falling, as they passed through splendid groves of this timber, several times dismounting to fill their pockets with nuts. Tiburcio frequently called attention to fresh deer tracks near the creek bottom, and shortly afterward the first game of the day was sighted. Five or six does and grown fawns broke cover and ran a short distance, stopped, looked at the horsemen, and then capered away.

Riding to the highest ground in the vicinity, they obtained a splendid view of the stream, outlined by the foliage of the pecan groves that lined its banks as far as the eye could follow either way. Tiburcio pointed out one particular grove lying three or four miles farther up the creek. Here he said was a cabin which had been built by a white man who had left it several years ago, and which he had often used as a hunting camp in bad weather. Feeling his way cautiously, Wells asked the old hunter if he were sure that this cabin was on and belonged to the grant. Being assured on both points, he then inquired if there was anything to hinder him from occupying the hut for a few months. On the further assurance that there was no man to dispute his right, he began plying his companions with questions. The interpreter told him that it was a very common and simple thing for men to batch, enumerating the few articles he would need for this purpose.

They soon reached the cabin, which proved to be an improvement over the ordinary jacal of the country, as it had a fireplace and chimney. It was built of logs; the crevices were chinked with clay for mortar, its floor being of the same substance. The only Mexican feature it possessed was the thatched roof. While the Americans were examining it and its surroundings, Tiburcio unsaddled the horses, picketing one and hobbling the other two, kindled a fire, and prepared a lunch from some articles he had brought along. The meal, consisting of coffee, chipped venison, and a thin wafer bread made from corn and reheated over coals, was disposed of with relish. The two Americans sauntered around for some distance, and on their return to the cabin found Tiburcio enjoying his siesta under a near-by pecan tree.

Their horses refreshed and rested, they resaddled, crossing the stream, intending to return to the ranchito by evening. After leaving the bottoms of the creek, Tiburcio showed the young man a trail made by the javeline, and he was surprised to learn that an animal with so small a foot was a dangerous antagonist, on account of its gregarious nature. Proceeding they came to several open prairies, in one of which they saw a herd of antelope, numbering forty to fifty, making a beautiful sight as they took fright and ran away. Young Wells afterward learned that distance lent them charms and was the greatest factor in their beauty. As they rode from one vantage-point to another for the purpose of sight-seeing, the afternoon passed rapidly.

Later, through the interpreter he inquired of Tiburcio if his services could be secured as guide, cook, and companion for the winter, since he had fully made up his mind to occupy the cabin. Tiburcio was overjoyed at the proposition, as it was congenial to his tastes, besides carrying a compensation. Definite arrangements were now made with him, and he was requested to be on hand in the morning. On reaching the ranchito, young Wells's decision was announced to their host of the night previous, much to the latter's satisfaction. During the evening the two Americans planned to return to the village in the morning for the needed supplies. Tiburcio was on hand at the appointed time, and here unconsciously the young man fortified himself in the old hunter's confidence by intrusting him with the custody of his gun, blankets, and several other articles until he should return.

A week later found the young hunter established in the cabin with the interpreter and Tiburcio. A wagon-load of staple supplies was snugly stored away for future use, and they were at peace with the world. By purchase Wells soon had several saddle ponies, and the old hunter adding his pack of javeline dogs, they found themselves well equipped for the winter campaign.

Hunting, in which the young man was an apt scholar, was now the order of the day. Tiburcio was an artist in woodcraft as well as in his knowledge of the habits of animals and birds. On chilly or disagreeable days they would take out the pack of dogs and beat the thickets for the javeline. It was exciting sport to bring to bay a drove of these animals. To shoot from horseback lent a charm, yet made aim uncertain, nor was it advisable to get too close range. Many a young dog made a fatal mistake in getting too near this little animal, and the doctoring of crippled dogs became a daily duty. All surplus game was sent to the ranchito below, where it was always appreciated.

At first the young man wrote regularly long letters home, but as it took Tiburcio a day to go to the post-office, he justified himself in putting writing off, sometimes several weeks, because it ruined a whole day and tired out a horse to mail a letter. Hardships were enjoyed. They thought nothing of spending a whole night going from one turkey roost to another, if half a dozen fine birds were the reward. They would saddle up in the evening and ride ten miles, sleeping out all night by a fire in order to stalk a buck at daybreak, having located his range previously.

Thus the winter passed, and as the limit of the young man's vacation was near at hand, Wells wrote home pleading for more time, telling his friends how fast he was improving, and estimating that it would take at least six months more to restore him fully to his former health. This request being granted, he contented himself by riding about the country, even visiting cattle ranches south on the Frio River. Now and then he would ride into San Antonio for a day or two, but there was nothing new to be seen there, and his visits were brief. He had acquired a sufficient knowledge of Spanish to get along now without an interpreter.

When the summer was well spent, he began to devise some excuse to give his parents for remaining another winter. Accordingly he wrote his father what splendid opportunities there were to engage in cattle ranching, going into detail very intelligently in regard to the grasses on the tract and the fine opportunity presented for establishing a ranch. The water privileges, the faithfulness of Tiburcio, and other minor matters were fully set forth, and he concluded by advising that they buy or start a brand of cattle on this grant. His father's reply was that he should expect his son to return as soon as the state of his health would permit. He wished to be a dutiful son, yet he wished to hunt just one more winter.

So he felt that he must make another tack to gain his point. Following letters noted no improvement in his health. Now, as the hunting season was near at hand, he found it convenient to bargain with a renegade doctor, who, for the consideration offered, wrote his parents that their son had recently consulted him to see if it would be advisable to return to a rigorous climate in his present condition. Professionally he felt compelled to advise him not to think of leaving Texas for at least another year. To supplement this, the son wrote that he hoped to be able to go home in the early spring. This had the desired effect. Any remorse of conscience he may have felt over the deception resorted to was soon forgotten in following a pack of hounds or stalking deer, for hunting now became the order of the day. The antlered buck was again in his prime. His favorite range was carefully noted. Very few hunts were unrewarded by at least one or more shots at this noble animal. With an occasional visitor, the winter passed as had the previous one. Some congenial spirit would often spend a few days with them, and his departure was always sincerely regretted.

The most peculiar feature of the whole affair was the friendship of the young man for Tiburcio. The latter was the practical hunter, which actual experience only can produce. He could foretell the coming of a norther twenty-four hours in advance. Just which course deer would graze he could predict by the quarter of the wind. In woodcraft he was a trustworthy though unquoted authority. His young patron often showed him his watch and explained how it measured time, but he had no use for it. He could tell nearly enough when it was noon, and if the stars were shining he knew midnight within a few minutes. This he had learned when a shepherd. He could track a wounded deer for miles, when another could not see a trace of where the animal had passed. He could recognize the footprint of his favorite saddle pony among a thousand others. How he did these things he did not know himself. These companions were graduates of different schools, extremes of different nationalities. Yet Alexander Wells had no desire to elevate the old hunter to his own standard, preferring to sit at his feet.

But finally the appearance of blades of grass and early flowers warned them that winter was gone and that spring was at hand. Their occupation, therefore, was at an end. Now how to satisfy the folks at home and get a further extension of time was the truant's supreme object. While he always professed obedience to parental demands, yet rebellion was brewing, for he did not want to go East--not just yet. Imperative orders to return were artfully parried. Finally remittances were withheld, but he had no use for money. Coercion was bad policy to use in his case. Thus a third and a fourth winter passed, and the young hunter was enjoying life on the Salado, where questions of state and nation did not bother him.

But this existence had an end. One day in the spring a conveyance drove up to the cabin, and an elderly, well-dressed woman alighted. With the assistance of her driver she ran the gauntlet of dogs and reached the cabin door, which was open. There, sitting inside on a dry cow-skin which was spread on the clay floor, was the object of her visit, surrounded by a group of Mexican companions, playing a game called monte. The absorbing interest taken in the cards had prevented the inmates of the jacal from noticing the lady's approach until she stood opposite the door. On the appearance of a woman, the game instantly ceased. Recognition was mutual, but neither mother nor son spoke a word. Her eye took in the surroundings at a glance. Finally she spoke with a half-concealed imperiousness of tone, though her voice was quiet and kindly.

"Alexander, if you wish to see your mother, come to San Antonio, won't you, please?" and turning, she retraced her steps toward the carriage.

Her son arose from his squatting posture, hitching up one side of his trousers, then the other, for he was suspenderless, and following at a distance, scratching his head and hitching his trousers alternately, he at last managed to say, "Ah, well--why--if you can wait a few moments till I change my clothes, I'll--I'll go with you right now."

This being consented to, he returned to the cabin, made the necessary change, and stood before them a picture of health, bewhiskered and bronzed like a pirate. As he was halfway to the vehicle, he turned back, and taking the old black hands of Tiburcio in his own, said in good Spanish, though there was a huskiness in his voice, "That lady is my mother. I may never see you again. I don't think I will. You may have for your own everything I leave."

There were tears in the old hunter's eyes as he relinquished young Wells's hands and watched him fade from his sight. His mother, unable to live longer without him, had made the trip from New York, and now that she had him in her possession there was no escape. They took the first stage out of the village that night on their return trip for New York State.

But the mother's victory was short-lived and barren. Within three years after the son's return, he failed in two business enterprises in which his father started him. Nothing discouraged, his parents offered him a third opportunity, it containing, however, a marriage condition. But the voice of a siren, singing of flowery prairies and pecan groves on the Salado, in which could be heard the music of hounds and the clattering of horses' hoofs at full speed following, filled every niche and corner of his heart, and he balked at the marriage offer.

When the son had passed his thirtieth year, his parents became resigned and gave their consent to his return to Texas. Long before parental consent was finally obtained, it was evident to his many friends that the West had completely won him; and once the desire of his heart was secured, the languid son beamed with energy in outfitting for his return. He wrung the hands of old friends with a new grip, and with boyish enthusiasm announced his early departure.

On the morning of leaving, quite a crowd of friends and relatives gathered at the depot to see him off. But when a former college chum attempted to remonstrate with him on the social sacrifice which he was making, he turned to the group of friends, and smilingly said, "That's all right. You are honest in thinking that New York is God's country. But out there in Texas also is, for it is just as God made it. Why, I'm going to start a cattle ranch as soon as I get there and go back to nature. Don't pity me. Rather let me pity you, who think, act, and look as if turned out of the same mill. Any social sacrifices which I make in leaving here will be repaid tenfold by the freedom and advantages of the boundless West."

A College Vagabond was featured as The Short Story of the Day on Wed, May 03, 2017


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