A Texas Matchmaker/Spring Of '76
The spring of '76 was eventful at Las Palomas. After the pigeon hunt, Uncle Lance went to San Antonio to sell cattle for spring delivery. Meanwhile, Father Norquin visited the ranch and spent a few days among his parishioners, Miss Jean acting the hostess in behalf of Las Palomas. The priest proved a congenial fellow of the cloth, and among us, with Miss Jean's countenance, it was decided not to delay Enrique's marriage; for there was no telling when Uncle Lance would return. All the arrangements were made by the padre and Miss Jean, the groom-to-be apparently playing a minor part in the preliminaries. Though none of the white element of the ranch were communicants of his church, the priest apparently enjoyed the visit. At parting, the mistress pressed a gold piece into his chubby palm as the marriage fee for Enrique; and, after naming a day for the ceremony, the padre mounted his horse and left us for the Tarancalous, showering his blessings on Las Palomas and its people.
During the intervening days before the wedding, we overhauled an unused jacal and made it habitable for the bride and groom. The jacal is a crude structure of this semi-tropical country, containing but a single room with a shady, protecting stoop. It is constructed by standing palisades on end in a trench. These constitute the walls. The floor is earthen, while the roof is thatched with the wild grass which grows rank in the overflow portions of the river valley. It forms a serviceable shelter for a warm country, the peculiar roofing equally defying rain and the sun's heat. Under the leadership of the mistress of the ranch, assisted by the Mexican women, the jacal was transformed into a rustic bower; for Enrique was not only a favorite among the whites, but also among his own people. A few gaudy pictures of Saints and the Madonna ornamented the side walls, while in the rear hung the necessary crucifix. At the time of its building the jacal had been blessed, as was customary before occupancy, and to Enrique's reasoning the potency of the former sprinkling still held good.
Weddings were momentous occasions among the Mexican population at Las Palomas. In outfitting the party to attend Enrique's wedding at Santa Maria, the ranch came to a standstill. Not only the regular ambulance but a second conveyance was required to transport the numerous female relatives of the groom, while the men, all in gala attire, were mounted on the best horses on the ranch. As none of the whites attended, Deweese charged Tiburcio with humanity to the stock, while the mistress admonished every one to be on his good behavior. With greetings to Santa Maria, the wedding party set out. They were expected to return the following evening, and the ranch was set in order to give the bride a rousing reception on her arrival at Las Palomas. The largest place on the ranch was a warehouse, and we shifted its contents in such a manner as to have quite a commodious ball-room. The most notable decoration of the room was an immense heart-shaped figure, in which was worked in live-oak leaves the names of the two ranches, flanked on either side with the American and Mexican flags. Numerous other decorations, expressing welcome to the bride, were in evidence on every hand. Tallow was plentiful at Las Palomas, and candles were fastened at every possible projection.
The mounted members of the wedding party returned near the middle of the afternoon. According to reports, Santa Maria had treated them most hospitably. The marriage was simple, but the festivities following had lasted until dawn. The returning guests sought their jacals to snatch a few hours' sleep before the revelry would be resumed at Las Palomas. An hour before sunset the four-mule ambulance bearing the bride and groom drove into Las Palomas with a flourish. Before leaving the bridal couple at their own jacal, Tiburcio halted the ambulance in front of the ranch-house for the formal welcome. In the absence of her brother, Miss Jean officiated in behalf of Las Palomas, tenderly caressing the bride. The boys monopolized her with their congratulations and welcome, which delighted Enrique. As for the bride, she seemed at home from the first, soon recognizing me as the padrino segundo at the time of her betrothal.
Quite a delegation of the bride's friends from Santa Maria accompanied the party on their return, from whom were chosen part of the musicians for the evening—violins and guitars in the hands of the native element of the two ranches making up a pastoral orchestra. I volunteered my services; but so much of the music was new to me that I frequently excused myself for a dance with the senoritas. In the absence of Uncle Lance, our segundo, June Deweese, claimed the first dance of the evening with the bride. Miss Jean lent only the approval of her presence, not participating, and withdrawing at an early hour. As all the American element present spoke Spanish slightly, that became the language of the evening. But, further than to countenance with our presence the festivities, we were out of place, and, ere midnight, all had excused themselves with the exception of Aaron Scales and myself. On the pleadings of Enrique, I remained an hour or two longer, dancing with his bride, or playing some favorite selection for the delighted groom.
Several days after the wedding Uncle Lance returned. He had been successful in contracting a trail herd of thirty-five hundred cattle, and a remuda of one hundred and twenty-five saddle horses with which to handle them. The contract called for two thousand two-year-old steers and fifteen hundred threes. There was a difference of four dollars a head in favor of the older cattle, and it was the ranchero's intention to fill the latter class entirely from the Las Palomas brand. As to the younger cattle, neighboring ranches would be invited to deliver twos in filling the contract, and if any were lacking, the home ranch would supply the deficiency. Having ample range, the difference in price was an inducement to hold the younger cattle. To keep a steer another year cost nothing, while the ranchero returned convinced that the trail might soon furnish an outlet for all surplus cattle. In the matter of the horses, too, rather than reduce our supply of saddle stock below the actual needs of the ranch, Uncle Lance concluded to buy fifty head in making up the remuda. There were several hundred geldings on the ranch old enough for saddle purposes, but they would be as good as useless in handling cattle the first year after breaking.
As this would be the first trail herd from Las Palomas, we naturally felt no small pride in the transaction. According to contract, everything was to be ready for final delivery on the twenty-fifth of March. The contractors, Camp & Dupree, of Fort Worth, Texas, were to send their foreman two weeks in advance to receive, classify, and pass upon the cattle and saddle stock. They were exacting in their demands, yet humane and reasonable. In making up the herd no cattle were to be corralled at night, and no animal would be received which had been roped. The saddle horses were to be treated likewise. These conditions would put into the saddle every available man on the ranch as well as on the ranchitas. But we looked eagerly forward to the putting up of the herd. Letters were written and dispatched to a dozen ranches within striking distance, inviting them to turn in two-year-old steers at the full contract price. June Deweese was sent out to buy fifty saddle horses, which would fill the required standard, "fourteen hands or better, serviceable and gentle broken." I was dispatched to Santa Maria, to invite Don Mateo Gonzales to participate in the contract. The range of every saddle horse on the ranch was located, so that we could gather them, when wanted, in a day. Less than a month's time now remained before the delivery day, though we did not expect to go into camp for actual gathering until the arrival of the trail foreman.
In going and returning from San Antonio my employer had traveled by stage. As it happened, the driver of the up-stage out of Oakville was Jack Martin, the son-in-law of Mrs. McLeod. He and Uncle Lance being acquainted, the old ranchero's matchmaking instincts had, during the day's travel, again forged to the front. By roundabout inquiries he had elicited the information that Mrs. McLeod had, immediately after the holidays, taken Esther to San Antonio and placed her in school. By innocent artful suggestions of his interest in the welfare of the family, he learned the name of the private school of which Esther was a pupil. Furthermore, he cultivated the good will of the driver in various ways over good cigars, and at parting assured him on returning he would take the stage so as to have the pleasure of his company on the return trip—the highest compliment that could be paid a stage-driver.
From several sources I had learned that Esther had left the ranch for the city, but on Uncle Lance's return I got the full particulars. As a neighboring ranchman, and bearing self-invented messages from the family, he had the assurance to call at the school. His honest countenance was a passport anywhere, and he not only saw Esther but prevailed on her teachers to give the girl, some time during his visit in the city, a half holiday. The interest he manifested in the girl won his request, and the two had spent an afternoon visiting the parks and other points of interest. It is needless to add that he made hay in my behalf during this half holiday. But the most encouraging fact that he unearthed was that Esther was disgusted with her school life and was homesick. She had declared that if she ever got away from school, no power on earth could force her back again.
"Shucks, Tom," said he, the next morning after his return, as we were sitting in the shade of the corrals waiting for the remuda to come in, "that poor little country girl might as well be in a penitentiary as in that school. She belongs on these prairies, and you can't make anything else out of her. I can read between the lines, and any one can see that her education is finished. When she told me how rudely her mother had treated you, her heart was an open book and easily read. Don't you lose any sleep on how you stand in her affections—that's all serene. She'll he home on a spring vacation, and that'll be your chance. If I was your age, I'd make it a point to see that she didn't go back to school. She'll run off with you rather than that. In the game of matrimony, son, you want to play your cards boldly and never hesitate to lead trumps."
To further matters, when returning by stage my employer had ingratiated himself into the favor of the driver in many ways, and urged him to send word to Mrs. McLeod to turn in her two-year-olds on his contract. A few days later her foreman and son-in-law, Tony Hunter, rode down to Las Palomas, anxious for the chance to turn in cattle. There had been little opportunity for several years to sell steers, and when a chance like this came, there would have been no trouble to fill half a dozen contracts, as supply far exceeded demand.
Uncle Lance let Mrs. McLeod's foreman feel that in allotting her five hundred of the younger cattle, he was actuated by old-time friendship for the family. As a mark of special consideration he promised to send the trail foreman to the San Miguel to pass on the cattle on their home range, but advised the foreman to gather at least seven hundred steers, allowing for two hundred to be culled or cut back. Hunter remained over night, departing the next morning, delighted over his allowance of cattle and the liberal terms of the contract.
It was understood that, in advance of his outfit, the trail foreman would come down by stage, and I was sent into Oakville with an extra saddle horse to meet him. He had arrived the day previous, and we lost no time in starting for Las Palomas. This trail foreman was about thirty years of age, a quiet red-headed fellow, giving the name of Frank Nancrede, and before we had covered half the distance to the ranch I was satisfied that he was a cowman. I always prided myself on possessing a good eye for brands, but he outclassed me, reading strange brands at over a hundred yards, and distinguishing cattle from horse stock at a distance of three miles.'
We got fairly well acquainted before reaching the ranch, but it was impossible to start him on any subject save cattle. I was able to give him a very good idea of the remuda, which was then under herd and waiting his approval, and I saw the man brighten into a smile for the first time on my offering to help him pick out a good mount for his own saddle. I had a vague idea of what the trail was like, and felt the usual boyish attraction for it; but when I tried to draw him out in regard to it, he advised me, if I had a regular job on a ranch, to let trail work alone.
We reached the ranch late in the evening and I introduced Nancrede to Uncle Lance, who took charge of him. We had established a horse camp for the trail remuda, north of the river, and the next morning the trail foreman, my employer, and June Deweese, rode over to pass on the saddle stock. The remuda pleased him, being fully up to the contract standard, and he accepted it with but a single exception. This exception tickled Uncle Lance, as it gave him an opportunity to annoy his sister about Nancrede, as he did about every other cowman or drover who visited the ranch. That evening, as I was chatting with Miss Jean, who was superintending the Mexican help milking at the cow pen, Uncle Lance joined us.
"Say, Sis," said he, "our man Nancrede is a cowman all right. I tried to ring in a 'hipped' horse on him this morning,—one hip knocked down just the least little bit,—but he noticed it and refused to accept him. Oh, he's got an eye in his head all right. So if you say so, I'll give him the best horse on the ranch in old Hippy's place. You're always making fun of slab-sided cowmen; he's pony-built enough to suit you, and I kind o' like the color of his hair myself. Did you notice his neck?—he'll never tie it if it gets broken. I like a short man; if he stubs his toe and falls down he doesn't reach halfway home. Now, if he has as good cow sense in receiving the herd as he had on the remuda, I'd kind o' like to have him for a brother-in-law. I'm getting a little too old for active work and would like to retire, but June, the durn fool, won't get married, and about the only show I've got is to get a husband for you. I'd as lief live in Hades as on a ranch without a woman on it. What do you think of him?"
"Why, I think he's an awful nice fellow, but he won't talk. And besides, I'm not baiting my hook for small fish like trail foremen; I was aiming to keep my smiles for the contractors. Aren't they coming down?"
"Well, they might come to look the herd over before it starts out. Now, Dupree is a good cowman, but he's got a wife already. And Camp, the financial man of the firm, made his money peddling Yankee clocks. Now, you don't suppose for a moment I'd let you marry him and carry you away from Las Palomas. Marry an old clock peddler?—not if he had a million! The idea! If they come down here and I catch you smiling on old Camp, I'll set the hounds on you. What you want to do is to set your cap for Nancrede. Of course, you're ten years the elder, but that needn't cut any figure. So just burn a few smiles on the red-headed trail foreman! You know you can count on your loving brother to help all he can."
The conversation was interrupted by our segundo and the trail foreman riding up to the cow pen. The two had been up the river during the afternoon, looking over the cattle on the range, for as yet we had not commenced gathering. Nancrede was very reticent, discovering a conspicuous lack of words to express his opinion of what cattle Deweese had shown him.
The second day after the arrival of the trail foreman, we divided our forces into two squads and started out to gather our three-year-olds. By the ranch records, there were over two thousand steers of that age in the Las Palomas brand. Deweese took ten men and half of the ranch saddle horses and went up above the mouth of the Ganso to begin gathering. Uncle Lance took the remainder of the men and horses and went down the river nearly to Shepherd's, leaving Dan Happersett and three Mexicans to hold and night-herd the trail remuda. Nancrede declined to stay at the ranch and so joined our outfit on the down-river trip. We had postponed the gathering until the last hour, for every day improved the growing grass on which our mounts must depend for subsistence, and once we started, there would be little rest for men or horses.
The younger cattle for the herd were made up within a week after the invitations were sent to the neighboring ranches. Naturally they would be the last cattle to be received and would come in for delivery between the twentieth and the last of the month. With the plans thus outlined, we started our gathering. Counting Nancrede, we had twelve men in the saddle in our down-river outfit. Taking nothing but three-year-olds, we did not accumulate cattle fast; but it was continuous work, every man, with the exception of Uncle Lance, standing a guard on night-herd. The first two days we only gathered about five hundred steers. This number was increased by about three hundred on the third day, and that evening Dan Happersett with a vaquero rode into camp and reported that Nancrede's outfit had arrived from San Antonio. He had turned the remuda over to them on their arrival, sending the other two Mexicans to join Deweese above on the river.
The fourth day finished the gathering. Nancrede remained with us to the last, making a hand which left no doubt in any one's mind that he was a cowman from the ground up. The last round-up on the afternoon of the fourth day, our outriders sighted the vaqueros from Deweese's outfit, circling and drifting in the cattle on their half of the circle. The next morning the two camps were thrown together on the river opposite the ranch. Deweese had fully as many cattle as we had, and when the two cuts had been united and counted, we lacked but five head of nineteen hundred. Several of Nancrede's men joined us that morning, and within an hour, under the trail foreman's directions, we cut back the overplus, and the cattle were accepted.
Under the contract we were to road-brand them, though Nancrede ordered his men to assist us in the work. Under ordinary circumstances we should also have vented the ranch brand, but owing to the fact that this herd was to be trailed to Abilene, Kansas, and possibly sold beyond that point, it was unnecessary and therefore omitted. We had a branding chute on the ranch for grown cattle, and the following morning the herd was corralled and the road-branding commenced. The cattle were uniform in size, and the stamping of the figure '4' over the holding "Lazy L" of Las Palomas, moved like clockwork. With a daybreak start and an abundance of help the last animal was ironed up before sundown. As a favor to Nancrede's outfit, their camp being nearly five miles distant, we held them the first night after branding.
No sooner had the trail foreman accepted our three-year-olds than he and Glen Gallup set out for the McLeod ranch on the San Miguel. The day our branding was finished, the two returned near midnight, reported the San Miguel cattle accepted and due the next evening at Las Palomas. By dawn Nancrede and myself started for Santa Maria, the former being deficient in Spanish, the only weak point, if it was one, in his make-up as a cowman. We were slightly disappointed in not finding the cattle ready to pass upon at Santa Maria. That ranch was to deliver seven hundred, and on our arrival they had not even that number under herd. Don Mateo, an easy-going ranchero, could not understand the necessity of such haste. What did it matter if the cattle were delivered on the twenty-fifth or twenty-seventh? But I explained as delicately as I could that this was a trail man, whose vocabulary did not contain mañana. In interpreting for Nancrede, I learned something of the trail myself: that a herd should start with the grass and move with it, keeping the freshness of spring, day after day and week after week, as they trailed northward. The trail foreman assured Don Mateo that had his employers known that this was to be such an early spring, the herd would have started a week sooner.
By impressing on the ranchero the importance of not delaying this trail man, we got him to inject a little action into his corporal. We asked Don Mateo for horses and, joining his outfit, made three rodeos that afternoon, turning into the cattle under herd nearly two hundred and fifty head by dark that evening. Nancrede spent a restless night, and at dawn, as the cattle were leaving the bed ground, he and I got an easy count on them and culled them down to the required number before breakfasting. We had some little trouble explaining to Don Mateo the necessity of giving the bill of sale to my employer, who, in turn, would reconvey the stock to the contractors. Once the matter was made clear, the accepted cattle were started for Las Palomas. When we overtook them an hour afterward, I instructed the corporal, at the instance of the red-headed foreman, to take a day and a half in reaching the ranch; that tardiness in gathering must not be made up by a hasty drive to the point of delivery; that the animals must be treated humanely.
On reaching the ranch we found that Mr. Booth and some of his neighbors had arrived from the Frio with their contingent. They had been allotted six hundred head, and had brought down about two hundred extra cattle in order to allow some choice in accepting. These were the only mixed brands that came in on the delivery, and after they had been culled down and accepted, my employer appointed Aaron Scales as clerk. There were some five or six owners, and Scales must catch the brands as they were freed from the branding chute. Several of the owners kept a private tally, but not once did they have occasion to check up the Marylander's decisions. Before the branding of this hunch was finished, Wilson, from Ramirena, rode into the ranch and announced his cattle within five miles of Las Palomas. As these were the last two hundred to be passed upon, Nancrede asked to have them in sight of the ranch by sun-up in the morning.
On the arrival of the trail outfit from San Antonio, they brought a letter from the contractors, asking that a conveyance meet them at Oakville, as they wished to see the herd before it started. Tiburcio went in with the ambulance to meet them, and they reached the ranch late at night. On their arrival twenty-six hundred of the cattle had already been passed upon, branded, and were then being held by Nancrede's outfit across the river at their camp. Dupree, being a practical cowman, understood the situation; but Camp was restless and uneasy as if he expected to find the cattle in the corrals at the ranch. Camp was years the older of the two, a pudgy man with a florid complexion and nasal twang, and kept the junior member busy answering his questions. Uncle Lance enjoyed the situation, jollying his sister about the elder contractor and quietly inquiring of the red-haired foreman how and where Dupree had picked him up.
The contractors had brought no saddles with them, so the ambulance was the only mode of travel. As we rode out to receive the Wilson cattle the next morning, Uncle Lance took advantage of the occasion to jolly Nancrede further about the senior member of the firm, the foreman smiling appreciatingly. "The way your old man talked last night," said he, "you'd think he expected to find the herd in the front yard. Too bad to disappoint him; for then he could have looked them over with a lantern from the gallery of the house. Now, if they had been Yankee clocks instead of cattle, why, he'd been right at home, and could have taken them in the house and handled them easily. It certainly beats the dickens why some men want to break into the cattle business. It won't surprise me if he asks you to trail the herd past the ranch so he can see them. Well, you and Dupree will have to make him some dinero this summer or you will lose him for a partner. I can see that sticking out."
We received and branded the two hundred Wilson cattle that forenoon, sending them to the main herd across the river. Mr. Wilson and Uncle Lance were great cronies, and as the latter was feeling in fine fettle over the successful fulfillment of his contract, he was tempted also to jolly his neighbor ranchero over his cattle, which, by the way, were fine. "Nate," said he to Mr. Wilson, "it looks like you'd quit breeding goats and rear cattle instead. Honest, if I didn't know your brand, I'd swear some Mexican raised this bunch. These Fort Worth cowmen are an easy lot, or yours would never have passed under the classification."
An hour before noon, Tomas Martines, the corporal of Santa Maria, rode up to inquire what time we wished his cattle at the corrals. They were back several miles, and he could deliver them on an hour's notice. One o'clock was agreed upon, and, never dismounting, the corporal galloped away to his herd. "Quirk," said Nancrede to me, noticing the Mexican's unaccustomed air of enterprise, "if we had that fellow under us awhile we'd make a cow-hand out of him. See the wiggle he gets on himself now, will you?" Promptly at the hour, the herd were counted and corralled, Don Mateo Gonzales not troubling to appear, which was mystifying to the North Texas men, but Uncle Lance explained that a mere incident like selling seven hundred cattle was not sufficient occasion to arouse the ranchero of Santa Maria when his corporal could attend to the business.
That evening saw the last of the cattle branded. The herd was completed and ready to start the following morning. The two contractors were driven across the river during the afternoon to look over the herd and remuda. At the instance of my employer, I wrote a letter of congratulation to Don Mateo, handing it to his corporal, informing him that in the course of ten days a check would he sent him in payment. Uncle Lance had fully investigated the financial standing of the contractors, but it was necessary for him to return with them to San Antonio for a final settlement.
The ambulance made an early start for Oakville on the morning of the twenty-sixth, carrying the contractors and my employer, and the rest of us rode away to witness the start of the herd. Nancrede's outfit numbered fifteen,—a cook, a horse wrangler, himself, and twelve outriders. They comprised an odd mixture of men, several barely my age, while others were gray-haired and looked like veteran cow-hands. On leaving the Nueces valley, the herd was strung out a mile in length, and after riding with them until they reached the first hills, we bade them good-by. As we started to return Frank Nancrede made a remark to June Deweese which I have often recalled: "You fellows may think this is a snap; but if I had a job on as good a ranch as Las Palomas, you'd never catch me on a cattle trail."