A Texas Matchmaker/A Two Years' Drouth
The spring of '78 was an early one, but the drouth continued, and after the hide hunting was over we rode our range almost night and day. Thousands of cattle had drifted down from the Frio River country, which section was suffering from drouth as badly as the Nueces. The new wells were furnishing a limited supply of water, but we rigged pulleys on the best of them, and when the wind failed we had recourse to buckets and a rope worked from the pommel of a saddle. A breeze usually arose about ten in the morning and fell about midnight. During the lull the buckets rose and fell incessantly at eight wells, with no lack of suffering cattle in attendance to consume it as fast as it was hoisted. Many thirsty animals gorged themselves, and died in sight of the well; weak ones being frequently trampled to death by the stronger, while flint hides were corded at every watering point. The river had quit flowing, and with the first warmth of spring the pools became rancid and stagnant. In sandy and subirrigated sections, under a March sun, the grass made a sickly effort to spring; but it lacked substance, and so far from furnishing food for the cattle, it only weakened them.
This was my first experience with a serious drouth. Uncle Lance, however, met the emergency as though it were part of the day's work, riding continually with the rest of us. During the latter part of March, Aaron Scales, two vaqueros, and myself came in one night from the Ganso and announced not over a month's supply of water in that creek. We also reported to our employer that during our two days' ride, we had skinned some ten cattle, four of which were in our own brand.
"That's not as bad as it might be," said the old ranchero, philosophically. "You see, boys, I've been through three drouths since I began ranching on this river. The second one, in '51, was the worst; cattle skulls were as thick along the Nueces that year as sunflowers in August. In '66 it was nearly as bad, there being more cattle; but it didn't hurt me very much, as mavericking had been good for some time before and for several years following, and I soon recovered my losses. The first one lasted three years, and had there been as many cattle as there are now, half of them would have died. The spring before the second drouth, I acted as padrino for Tiburcio and his wife, who was at that time a mere slip of a girl living at the Mission. Before they had time to get married, the dry spell set in and they put the wedding off until it should rain. I ridiculed the idea, but they were both superstitious and stuck it out. And honest, boys, there wasn't enough rain fell in two years to wet your shirt. In my forty years on the Nueces, I've seen hard times, but that drouth was the toughest of them all. Game and birds left the country, and the cattle were too poor to eat. Whenever our provisions ran low, I sent Tiburcio to the coast with a load of hides, using six yoke of oxen to handle a cargo of about a ton. The oxen were so poor that they had to stand twice in one place to make a shadow, and we wouldn't take gold for our flint hides but insisted on the staples of life. At one point on the road, Tiburcio had to give a quart of flour for watering his team both going and coming. They say that when the Jews quit a country, it's time for the gentiles to leave. But we old timers are just like a horse that chooses a new range and will stay with it until he starves or dies with old age."
I could see nothing reassuring in the outlook. Near the wells and along the river the stock had trampled out the grass until the ground was as bare as a city street. Miles distant from the water the old dry grass, with only an occasional green blade, was the only grazing for the cattle. The black, waxy soil on the first bottom of the river, on which the mesquite grass had flourished, was as bare now as a ploughed field, while the ground had cracked open in places to an incredible depth, so that without exercising caution it was dangerous to ride across. This was the condition of the range at the approach of April. Our horse stock, to be sure, fared better, ranging farther and not requiring anything like the amount of water needed by the cattle. It was nothing unusual to meet a Las Palomas manada from ten to twelve miles from the river, and coming in only every second or third night to quench their thirst. We were fortunate in having an abundance of saddle horses, which, whether under saddle or not, were always given the preference in the matter of water. They were the motive power of the ranch, and during this crisis, though worked hard, must be favored in every possible manner.
Early that spring the old ranchero sent Deweese to Lagarto in an attempt to sell Captain Byler a herd of horse stock for the trail. The mission was a failure, though our segundo offered to sell a thousand, in the straight Las Palomas brand, at seven dollars a head on a year's credit. Even this was no inducement to the trail drover, and on Deweese's return my employer tried San Antonio and other points in Texas in the hope of finding a market. From several places favorable replies were received, particularly from places north of the Colorado River; for the drouth was local and was chiefly confined to the southern portion of the state. There was enough encouragement in the letters to justify the old ranchero's attempt to reduce the demand on the ranch's water supply, by sending a herd of horse stock north on sale. Under ordinary conditions, every ranchman preferred to sell his surplus stock at the ranch, and Las Palomas was no exception, being generally congested with marketable animals. San Antonio was, however, beginning to be a local horse and mule market of some moment, and before my advent several small selected bunches of mares, mules, and saddle horses had been sent there, and had found a ready and profitable sale.
But this was an emergency year, and it was decided to send a herd of stock horses up the country. Accordingly, before April, we worked every manada which we expected to keep, cutting out all the two-year-old fillies. To these were added every mongrel-colored band to the number of twenty odd, and when ready to start the herd numbered a few over twelve hundred of all ages from yearlings up. A remuda of fifty saddle horses, broken in the spring of '76, were allotted to our use, and our segundo, myself, and five Mexican vaqueros were detailed to drive the herd. We were allowed two pack mules for our commissary, which was driven with the remuda. With instructions to sell and hurry home, we left our horse camp on the river, and started on the morning of the last day of March.
Live-stock commission firms in San Antonio were notified of our coming, and with six men to the herd and the seventh driving the remuda, we put twenty miles behind us the first day. With the exception of water for saddle stock, which we hoisted from a well, there was no hope of watering the herd before reaching Mr. Booth's ranch on the Frio. He had been husbanding his water supply, and early the second evening we watered the herd to its contentment from a single shaded pool. From the Frio we could not follow any road, but were compelled to direct our course wherever there was a prospect of water. By hobbling the bell mare of the remuda at evening, and making two watches of the night-herding, we easily systematized our work. Until we reached the San Antonio River, about twenty miles below the city, not over two days passed without water for all the stock, though, on account of the variations from our course, we were over a week in reaching San Antonio. Having moved the herd up near some old missions within five or six miles of the city, with an abundance of water and some grass, Deweese went into town, visiting the commission firms and looking for a buyer. Fortunately a firm, which was expecting our arrival, had a prospective purchaser from Fort Worth for about our number. Making a date with the firm to show our horses the next morning, our segundo returned to the herd, elated over the prospect of a sale.
On their arrival the next morning, we had the horses already watered and were grazing them along an abrupt slope between the first and second bottoms of the river. The salesman understood his business, and drove the conveyance back and forth on the down hill side, below the herd, and the rise in the ground made our range stock look as big as American horses. After looking at the animals for an hour, from a buckboard, the prospective buyer insisted on looking at the remuda. But as these were gentle, he gave them a more critical examination, insisting on their being penned in a rope corral at our temporary camp, and had every horse that was then being ridden unsaddled to inspect their backs. The remuda was young, gentle, and sound, many of them submitting to be caught without a rope. The buyer was pleased with them, and when the price came up for discussion Deweese artfully set a high figure on the saddle stock, and, to make his bluff good, offered to reserve them and take them back to the ranch. But Tuttle would not consider the herd without the remuda, and sparring between them continued until all three returned to town.
It was a day of expectancy to the vaqueros and myself. In examining the saddle horses, the buyer acted like a cowman; but as regarding the range stock, it was evident to me that his armor was vulnerable, and if he got any the best of our segundo he was welcome to it. Deweese returned shortly after dark, coming directly to the herd where I and two vaqueros were on guard, to inform us that he had sold lock, stock, and barrel, including the two pack mules. I felt like shouting over the good news, when June threw a damper on my enthusiasm by the news that he had sold for delivery at Fort Worth.
"You see," said Deweese, by way of explanation, "the buyer is foreman of a cattle company out on the forks of the Brazos in Young County. He don't sabe range horses as well as he does cows, and when we had agreed on the saddle stock, and there were only two bits between us on the herd, he offered me six bits a head all round, over and above his offer, if I would put them in Fort Worth, and I took him up so quick that I nearly bit my tongue doing it. Captain Redman tells me that it's only about three hundred miles, and grass and water is reported good. I intended to take him up at his offer, anyhow, and seventy-five cents a head extra will make the old man nearly a thousand dollars, which is worth picking up. We'll put them there easy in three weeks, learn the trail and see the country besides. Uncle Lance can't have any kick coming, for I offered them to Captain Byler for seven dollars, and here I'm getting ten six-bits—nearly four thousand dollars' advance, and we won't be gone five weeks. Any money down? Well, I should remark! Five thousand deposited with Smith & Redman, and I was particular to have it inserted in the contract between us that every saddle horse, mare, mule, gelding, and filly was to be in the straight 'horse hoof' brand. There is a possibility that when Tuttle sees them again at Fort Worth, they won't look as large as they did on that hillside this morning."
We made an early start from San Antonio the next morning, passing to the westward of the then straggling city. The vaqueros were disturbed over the journey, for Fort Worth was as foreign to them as a European seaport, but I jollied them into believing it was but a little pasear. Though I had never ridden on a train myself, I pictured to them the luxuriant ease with which we would return, as well as the trip by stage to Oakville. I threw enough enthusiasm into my description of the good time we were going to have, coupled with their confidence in Deweese, to convince them in spite of their forebodings. Our segundo humored them in various ways, and after a week on the trail, water getting plentiful, using two guards, we only herded until midnight, turning the herd loose from then until daybreak. It usually took us less than an hour to gather and count them in the morning, and encouraged by their contentment, a few days later, we loose-herded until darkness and then turned them free. From then on it was a picnic as far as work was concerned, and our saddle horses and herd improved every day.
After crossing the Colorado River, at every available chance en route we mailed a letter to the buyer, notifying him of our progress as we swept northward. When within a day's drive of the Brazos, we mailed our last letter, giving notice that we would deliver within three days of date. On reaching that river, we found it swimming for between thirty and forty yards; but by tying up the pack mules and cutting the herd into four bunches, we swam the Brazos with less than an hour's delay. Overhauling and transferring the packs to horses, throwing away everything but the barest necessities, we crossed the lightened commissary, the freed mules swimming with the remuda. On the morning of the twentieth day out from San Antonio, our segundo rode into the fort ahead of the herd. We followed at our regular gait, and near the middle of the forenoon were met by Deweese and Tuttle, who piloted us to a pasture west of the city, where an outfit was encamped to receive the herd. They numbered fifteen men, and looked at our insignificant crowd with contempt; but the count which followed showed we had not lost a hoof since we left the Nueces, although for the last ten nights the stock had had the fullest freedom.
The receiving outfit looked the brands over carefully. The splendid grass and water of the past two weeks had transformed the famishing herd of a month before, and they were received without a question. Rounding in our remuda for fresh mounts before starting to town, the vaqueros and I did some fancy roping in catching out the horses, partially from sheer lightness of heart because we were at our journey's end, and partially to show this north Texas outfit that we were like the proverbial singed cat—better than we looked. Two of Turtle's men rode into town with us that evening to lead back our mounts, the outfit having come in purposely to receive the horse herd and drive it to their ranch in Young County. While riding in, they thawed nicely towards us, but kept me busy interpreting for them with our Mexicans. Tuttle and Deweese rode together in the lead, and on nearing town one of the strangers bantered Pasquale to sell him a nice maguey rope which the vaquero carried. When I interpreted the other's wish to him, Pasquale loosened the lasso and made a present of it to Tuttle's man. I had almost as good a rope of the same material, which I presented to the other lad with us, and the drinks we afterward consumed over this slight testimony of the amicable relations existing between a northern and southern Texas outfit over the delivery and receiving of a horse herd, showed no evidence of a drouth. The following morning I made inquiry for Frank Nancrede and the drovers who had driven a trail herd of cattle from Las Palomas two seasons before. They were all well known about the fort, but were absent at the time, having put up two trail herds that spring in Uvalde County. Deweese did not waste an hour more than was necessary in that town, and while waiting for the banks to open, arranged for our transportation to San Antonio. We were all ready to start back before noon. Fort Worth was a frontier town at the time, bustling and alert with live-stock interests; but we were anxious to get home, and promptly boarded a train for the south. After entering the train, our segundo gave each of the vaqueros and myself some spending money, the greater portion of which went to the "butcher" for fruits. He was an enterprising fellow and took a marked interest in our comfort and welfare. But on nearing San Antonio after midnight, he attempted to sell us our choice of three books, between the leaves of one of which he had placed a five-dollar bill and in another a ten, and offered us our choice for two dollars, and June Deweese became suddenly interested. Coming over to where we were sitting, he knocked the books on the floor, kicked them under a seat, and threatened to bend a gun over the butcher's head unless he made himself very scarce. Then reminding us that "there were tricks in all trades but ours," he kept an eye over us until we reached the city.
We were delayed another day in San Antonio, settling with the commission firm and banking the money. The next morning we took stage for Oakville, where we arrived late at night. When a short distance out of San Antonio I inquired of our driver who would relieve him beyond Pleasanton, and was gratified to hear that his name was not Jack Martin. Not that I had anything particular against Martin, but I had no love for his wife, and had no desire to press the acquaintance any further with her or her husband. On reaching Oakville, we were within forty miles of Las Palomas. We had our saddles with us, and early the next morning tried to hire horses; but as the stage company domineered the village we were unable to hire saddle stock, and on appealing to the only livery in town we were informed that Bethel & Oxenford had the first claim on their conveyances. Accordingly Deweese and I visited the offices of the stage company, where, to our surprise, we came face to face with Jack Oxenford. I do not think he knew us, though we both knew him at a glance. Deweese made known his wants, but only asked for a conveyance as far as Shepherd's. Yankeelike, Oxenford had to know who we were, where we had been, and where we were going. Our segundo gave him rather a short answer, but finally admitted that we belonged at Las Palomas. Then the junior member of the mail contractors became arrogant, claiming that the only conveyance capable of carrying our party was being held for a sheriff with some witnesses. On second thought he offered to send us to the ferry by two lighter vehicles in consideration of five dollars apiece, insolently remarking that we could either pay it or walk. I will not repeat Deweese's reply, which I silently endorsed.
With the soil of the Nueces valley once more under our feet we felt independent. On returning to the vaqueros, we found a stranger among them, Bernabe Cruze by name, who was a muy amigo of Santiago Ortez, one of our Mexicans. He belonged at the Mission, and when he learned of our predicament offered to lend us his horse, as he expected to be in town a few days. The offer was gratefully accepted, and within a quarter of an hour Manuel Flores had started for Shepherd's with an order to the merchant to send in seven horses for us. It was less than a two hours' ride to the ferry, and with the early start we expected Manuel to return before noon. Making ourselves at home in a coffeehouse conducted by a Mexican, Deweese ordered a few bottles of wine to celebrate properly our drive and to entertain Cruze and our vaqueros. Before the horses arrived, those of us who had any money left spent it in the cantina, not wishing to carry it home, where it would be useless. The result was that on the return of Flores with mounts we were all about three sheets in the wind, reckless and defiant.
After saddling up, I suggested to June that we ride by the stage office and show Mr. Oxenford that we were independent of him. The stage stand and office were on the outskirts of the scattered village, and while we could have avoided it, our segundo willingly led the way, and called for the junior member of the firm. A hostler came to the door and informed us that Mr. Oxenford was not in.
"Then I'll just leave my card," said Deweese, dismounting. Taking a brown cigarette paper from his pocket, he wrote his name on it; then pulling a tack from a notice pasted beside the office door, he drew his six-shooter, and with it deftly tacked the cigarette paper against the office door jamb. Remounting his horse, and perfectly conscious that Oxenford was within hearing, he remarked to the hostler: "When your boss returns, please tell him that those fellows from Las Palomas will neither walk with him nor ride with him. We thought he might fret as to how we were to get home, and we have just ridden by to tell him that he need feel no uneasiness. Since I have never had the pleasure of an introduction to him, I've put my name on that cigarette paper. Good-day, sir."
Arriving at Shepherd's, we rested several hours, and on the suggestion of the merchant changed horses before starting home. At the ferry we learned that there had been no serious loss of cattle so far, but that nearly all the stock from the Frio and San Miguel had drifted across to the Nueces. We also learned that the attendance on San Jacinto Day had been extremely light, not a person from Las Palomas being present, while the tournament for that year had been abandoned. During our ride up the river before darkness fell, we passed a strange medley of brands, many of which Deweese assured me were owned from fifty to a hundred miles to the north and west. Riding leisurely, it was nearly midnight when we sighted the ranch and found it astir. An extra breeze had been blowing, and the vaqueros were starting to their work at the wells in order to be on hand the moment the wind slackened. Around the two wells at headquarters were over a thousand cattle, whose constant moaning reached our ears over a mile from the ranch.
Our return was like entering a house of mourning. Miss Jean barely greeted Deweese and myself, while Uncle Lance paced the gallery without making a single inquiry as to what had become of the horse herd. On the mistress's orders, servants set out a cold luncheon, and disappeared, as if in the presence of death, without a word of greeting. Ever thoughtful, Miss Jean added several little delicacies to our plain meal, and, seating herself at the table with us, gave us a clear outline of the situation. In seventy odd miles of the meanderings of the river across our range, there was not a pool to the mile with water enough for a hundred cattle. The wells were gradually becoming weaker, yielding less water every week, while of four new ones which were commenced before our departure, two were dry and worthless. The vaqueros were then skinning on an average forty dead cattle a day, fully a half of which were in the Las Palomas brand. Sympathetically as a sister could, she accounted for her brother's lack of interest in our return by his anxiety and years, and she cautioned us to let no evil report reach his ears, as this drouth had unnerved him.
Deweese at once resumed his position on the ranch, and the next morning the ranchero held a short council with him, authorizing him to spare no expense to save the cattle. Deweese returned the borrowed horses by Enrique, and sent a letter to the merchant at the ferry, directing him to secure and send at least twenty men to Las Palomas. The first day after our return, we rode the mills and the river. Convinced that to sink other wells on the mesas would be fruitless, the foreman decided to dig a number of shallow ones in the bed of the river, in the hope of catching seepage water. Accordingly the next morning, I was sent with a commissary wagon and seven men to the mouth of the Ganso, with instructions to begin sinking wells about two miles apart. Taking with us such tools as we needed, we commenced our first well at the confluence of the Ganso with the Nueces, and a second one above. From timber along the river we cut the necessary temporary curbing, and put it in place as the wells were sunk. On the third day both wells became so wet as to impede our work, and on our foreman riding by, he ordered them curbed to the bottom and a tripod set up over them on which to rig a rope and pulley. The next morning troughs and rigging, with a remuda of horses and a watering crew of four strange vaqueros, arrived. The wells were only about twenty feet deep; but by drawing the water as fast as the seepage accumulated, each was capable of watering several hundred head of cattle daily. By this time Deweese had secured ample help, and started a second crew of well diggers opposite the ranch, who worked down the river while my crew followed some fifteen miles above. By the end of the month of May, we had some twenty temporary wells in operation, and these, in addition to what water the pools afforded, relieved the situation to some extent, though the ravages of death by thirst went on apace among the weaker cattle.
With the beginning of June, we were operating nearly thirty wells. In some cases two vaqueros could hoist all the water that accumulated in three wells. We had a string of camps along the river, and at every windmill on the mesas men were stationed night and day. Among the cattle, the death rate was increasing all over the range. Frequently we took over a hundred skins in a single day, while at every camp cords of fallen flint hides were accumulating. The heat of summer was upon us, the wind arose daily, sand storms and dust clouds swept across the country, until our once prosperous range looked like a desert, withered and accursed. Young cows forsook their offspring in the hour of their birth. Motherless calves wandered about the range, hollow-eyed, their piteous appeals unheeded, until some lurking wolf sucked their blood and spread a feast to the vultures, constantly wheeling in great flights overhead. The prickly pear, an extremely arid plant, affording both food and drink to herds during drouths, had turned white, blistered by the torrid sun until it had fallen down, lifeless. The chaparral was destitute of foliage, and on the divides and higher mesas, had died. The native women stripped their jacals of every sacred picture, and hung them on the withered trees about their doors, where they hourly prayed to their patron saints. In the humblest homes on Las Palomas, candles burned both night and day to appease the frowning Deity.
The white element on the ranch worked almost unceasingly, stirring the Mexicans to the greatest effort. The middle of June passed without a drop of rain, but on the morning of the twentieth, after working all night, as Pasquale Arispe and I were drawing water from a well on the border of the encinal I felt a breeze spring up, that started the windmill. Casting my eyes upward, I noticed that the wind had veered to a quarter directly opposite to that of the customary coast breeze. Not being able to read aright the portent of the change in the wind, I had to learn from that native-born son of the soil: "Tomas," he cried, riding up excitedly, "in three days it will rain! Listen to me: Pasquale Arispe says that in three days the arroyos on the hacienda of Don Lancelot will run like a mill-race. See, companero, the wind has changed. The breeze is from the northwest this morning. Before three days it will rain! Madre de Dios!"
The wind from the northwest continued steadily for two days, relieving us from work. On the morning of the third day the signs in sky and air were plain for falling weather. Cattle, tottering with weakness, came into the well, and after drinking, playfully kicked up their heels on leaving. Before noon the storm struck us like a cloud-burst. Pasquale and I took refuge under the wagon to avoid the hailstones. In spite of the parched ground drinking to its contentment, water flooded under the wagon, driving us out. But we laughed at the violence of the deluge, and after making everything secure, saddled our horses and set out for home, taking our relay mounts with us. It was fifteen miles to the ranch and in the eye of the storm; but the loose horses faced the rain as if they enjoyed it, while those under saddle followed the free ones as a hound does a scent. Within two hours after leaving the well, we reined in at the gate, and I saw Uncle Lance and a number of the boys promenading the gallery. But the old ranchero leisurely walked down the pathway to the gate, and amid the downpour shouted to us: "Turn those horses loose; this ranch is going to take a month's holiday."