A Texas Matchmaker/Horse Brands
Before gathering the fillies and mares that spring, and while riding the range, locating our horse stock, Pasquale brought in word late one evening that a ladino stallion had killed the regular one, and was then in possession of the manada. The fight between the outlaw and the ranch stallion had evidently occurred above the mouth of the Ganso and several miles to the north of the home river, for he had accidentally found the carcass of the dead horse at a small lake and, recognizing the animal by his color, had immediately scoured the country in search of the band. He had finally located the manada, many miles off their range; but at sight of the vaquero the ladino usurper had deserted the mares, halting, however, out of gunshot, yet following at a safe distance as Pasquale drifted them back. Leaving the manada on their former range, Pasquale had ridden into the ranch and reported. It was then too late in the day to start against the interloper, as the range was fully twenty-five miles away, and we were delayed the next morning in getting up speedy saddle horses from distant and various remudas, and did not get away from the ranch until after dinner. But then we started, taking the usual pack mules, and provisioned for a week's outing.
Included in the party was Captain Frank Byler, the regular home crowd, and three Mexicans. With an extra saddle horse for each, we rode away merrily to declare war on the ladino stallion. "This is the third time since I've teen ranching here," said Uncle Lance to Captain Frank, as we rode along, "that I've had stallions killed. There always have been bands of wild horses, west here between the Leona and Nueces rivers and around Espontos Lake. Now that country is settling up, the people walk down the bands and the stallions escape, and in drifting about find our range. They're wiry rascals, and our old stallions don't stand any more show with them than a fat hog would with a javaline. That's why I take as much pride in killing one as I do a rattlesnake."
We made camp early that evening on the home river, opposite the range of the manada. Sending out Pasquale to locate the band and watch them until dark, Uncle Lance outlined his idea of circling the band and bagging the outlaw in the uncertain light of dawn. Pasquale reported on his return after dark that the manada were contentedly feeding on their accustomed range within three miles of camp. Pasquale had watched the band for an hour, and described the ladino stallion as a cinnamon-colored coyote, splendidly proportioned and unusually large for a mustang.
Naturally, in expectation of the coming sport, the horses became the topic around the camp-fire that night. Every man present was a born horseman, and there was a generous rivalry for the honor in telling horse stories. Aaron Scales joined the group at a fortunate time to introduce an incident from his own experience, and, raking out a coal of fire for his pipe, began:—
"The first ranch I ever worked on," said he, "was located on the Navidad in Lavaca County. It was quite a new country then, rather broken and timbered in places and full of bear and wolves. Our outfit was working some cattle before the general round-up in the spring. We wanted to move one brand to another range as soon as the grass would permit, and we were gathering them for that purpose. We had some ninety saddle horses with us to do the work,—sufficient to mount fifteen men. One night we camped in a favorite spot, and as we had no cattle to hold that night, all the horses were thrown loose, with the usual precaution of hobbling, except two or three on picket. All but about ten head wore the bracelets, and those ten were pals, their pardners wearing the hemp. Early in the evening, probably nine o'clock, with a bright fire burning, and the boys spreading down their beds for the night, suddenly the horses were heard running, and the next moment they hobbled into camp like a school of porpoise, trampling over the beds and crowding up to the fire and the wagon. They almost knocked down some of the boys, so sudden was their entrance. Then they set up a terrible nickering for mates. The boys went amongst them, and horses that were timid and shy almost caressed their riders, trembling in limb and muscle the while through fear, like a leaf. We concluded a bear had scented the camp, and in approaching it had circled round, and run amuck our saddle horses. Every horse by instinct is afraid of a bear, but more particularly a range-raised one. It's the same instinct that makes it impossible to ride or drive a range-raised horse over a rattlesnake. Well, after the boys had petted their mounts and quieted their fears, they were still reluctant to leave camp, but stood around for several hours, evidently feeling more secure in our presence. Now and then one of the free ones would graze out a little distance, cautiously sniff the air, then trot back to the others. We built up a big fire to scare away any bear or wolves that might he in the vicinity, but the horses stayed like invited guests, perfectly contented as long as we would pet them and talk to them. Some of the boys crawled under the wagon, hoping to get a little sleep, rather than spread their bed where a horse could stampede over it. Near midnight we took ropes and saddle blankets and drove them several hundred yards from camp. The rest of the night we slept with one eye open, expecting every moment to hear them take fright and return. They didn't, but at daylight every horse was within five hundred yards of the wagon, and when we unhobbled them and broke camp that morning, we had to throw riders in the lead to hold them back."
On the conclusion of Scales's experience, there was no lack of volunteers to take up the thread, though an unwritten law forbade interruptions. Our employer was among the group, and out of deference to our guest, the boys remained silent. Uncle Lance finally regaled us with an account of a fight between range stallions which he had once witnessed, and on its conclusion Theodore Quayle took his turn.
"The man I was working for once moved nearly a thousand head of mixed range stock, of which about three hundred were young mules, from the San Saba to the Concho River. It was a dry country and we were compelled to follow the McKavett and Fort Chadbourne trail. We had timed our drives so that we reached creeks once a day at least, sometimes oftener. It was the latter part of summer, and was unusually hot and drouthy. There was one drive of twenty-five miles ahead that the owner knew of without water, and we had planned this drive so as to reach it at noon, drive halfway, make a dry camp over night, and reach the pools by noon the next day. Imagine our chagrin on reaching the watering place to find the stream dry. We lost several hours riding up and down the arroyo in the hope of finding relief for the men, if not for the stock. It had been dusty for weeks. The cook had a little water in his keg, but only enough for drinking purposes. It was twenty miles yet to the Concho, and make it before night we must. Turning back was farther than going ahead, and the afternoon was fearfully hot. The heat waves looked like a sea of fire. The first part of the afternoon drive was a gradual ascent for fifteen miles, and then came a narrow plateau of a divide. As we reached this mesa, a sorrier-looking lot of men, horses, and mules can hardly be imagined. We had already traveled over forty miles without water for the stock, and five more lay between us and the coveted river.
"The heat was oppressive to the men, but the herd suffered most from the fine alkali dust which enveloped them. Their eyebrows and nostrils were whitened with this fine powder, while all colors merged into one. On reaching this divide, we could see the cotton-woods that outlined the stream ahead. Before we had fully crossed this watershed and begun the descent, the mules would trot along beside the riders in the lead, even permitting us to lay our hands on their backs. It was getting late in the day before the first friendly breeze of the afternoon blew softly in our faces. Then, Great Scott! what a change came over man and herd. The mules in front threw up their heads and broke into a grand chorus. Those that were strung out took up the refrain and trotted forward. The horses set up a rival concert in a higher key. They had scented the water five miles off.
"All hands except one man on each side now rode in the lead. Every once in a while, some enthusiastic mule would break through the line of horsemen, and would have to be brought back. Every time we came to an elevation where we could catch the breeze, the grand horse and mule concert would break out anew. At the last elevation between us and the water, several mules broke through, and before they could be brought back the whole herd had broken into a run which was impossible to check. We opened out then and let them go.
"The Concho was barely running, but had long, deep pools here and there, into which horses and mules plunged, dropped down, rolled over, and then got up to nicker and bray. The young mules did everything but drink, while the horses were crazy with delight. When the wagon came up we went into camp and left them to play out their hands. There was no herding to do that night, as the water would hold them as readily as a hundred men."
"Well, I'm going to hunt my blankets," said Uncle Lance, rising. "You understand, Captain, that you are to sleep with me to-night. Davy Crockett once said that the politest man he ever met in Washington simply set out the decanter and glasses, and then walked over and looked out of the window while he took a drink. Now I want to be equally polite and don't want to hurry you to sleep, but whenever you get tired of yarning, you'll find the bed with me in it to the windward of that live-oak tree top over yonder."
Captain Frank showed no inclination to accept the invitation just then, but assured his host that he would join him later. An hour or two passed by.
"Haven't you fellows gone to bed yet?" came an inquiry from out of a fallen tree top beyond the fire in a voice which we all recognized. "All right, boys, sit up all night and tell fool stories if you want to. But remember, I'll have the last rascal of you in the saddle an hour before daybreak. I have little sympathy for a man who won't sleep when he has a good chance. So if you don't turn in at all it will be all right, but you'll be routed out at three in the morning, and the man who requires a second calling will get a bucket of water in his face."
Captain Frank and several of us rose expecting to take the hint of our employer, when our good intentions were arrested by a query from Dan Happersett, "Did any of you ever walk down a wild horse?" None of us had, and we turned back and reseated ourselves in the group.
"I had a little whirl of it once when I was a youngster," said Dan, "except we didn't walk. It was well known that there were several bands of wild horses ranging in the southwest corner of Tom Green County. Those who had seen them described one band as numbering forty to fifty head with a fine chestnut stallion as a leader. Their range was well located when water was plentiful, but during certain months of the year the shallow lagoons where they watered dried up, and they were compelled to leave. It was when they were forced to go to other waters that glimpses of them were to be had, and then only at a distance of one or two miles. There was an outfit made up one spring to go out to their range and walk these horses down. This season of the year was selected, as the lagoons would be full of water and the horses would be naturally reduced in flesh and strength after the winter, as well as weak and thin blooded from their first taste of grass. We took along two wagons, one loaded with grain for our mounts. These saddle horses had been eating grain for months before we started and their flesh was firm and solid.
"We headed for the lagoons, which were known to a few of our party, and when we came within ten miles of the water holes, we saw fresh signs of a band—places where they had apparently grazed within a week. But it was the second day before we caught sight of the wild horses, and too late in the day to give them chase. They were watering at a large lake south of our camp, and we did not disturb them. We watched them until nightfall, and that night we planned to give them chase at daybreak. Four of us were to do the riding by turns, and imaginary stations were allotted to the four quarters of our camp. If they refused to leave their range and circled, we could send them at least a hundred and fifty miles the first day, ourselves riding possibly a hundred, and this riding would be divided among four horses, with plenty of fresh ones at camp for a change.
"Being the lightest rider in the party, it was decided that I was to give them the first chase. We had a crafty plainsman for our captain, and long before daylight he and I rode out and waited for the first peep of day. Before the sun had risen, we sighted the wild herd within a mile of the place where darkness had settled over them the night previous. With a few parting instructions from our captain, I rode leisurely between them and the lake where they had watered the evening before. At first sight of me they took fright and ran to a slight elevation. There they halted a moment, craning their necks and sniffing the air. This was my first fair view of the chestnut stallion. He refused to break into a gallop, and even stopped before the rest, turning defiantly on this intruder of his domain. From the course I was riding, every moment I was expecting them to catch the wind of me. Suddenly they scented me, knew me for an enemy, and with the stallion in the lead they were off to the south.
"It was an exciting ride that morning. Without a halt they ran twenty miles to the south, then turned to the left and there halted on an elevation; but a shot in the air told them that all was not well and they moved on. For an hour and a half they kept their course to the east, and at last turned to the north. This was, as we had calculated, about their range. In another hour at the farthest, a new rider with a fresh horse would take up the running. My horse was still fresh and enjoying the chase, when on a swell of the plain I made out the rider who was to relieve me; and though it was early yet in the day the mustangs had covered sixty miles to my forty. When I saw my relief locate the band, I turned and rode leisurely to camp. When the last two riders came into camp that night, they reported having left the herd at a new lake, to which the mustang had led them, some fifteen miles from our camp to the westward.
"Each day for the following week was a repetition of the first with varying incident. But each day it was plain to be seen that they were fagging fast. Toward the evening of the eighth day, the rider dared not crowd them for fear of their splitting into small bands, a thing to be avoided. On the ninth day two riders took them at a time, pushing them unmercifully but preventing them from splitting, and in the evening of this day they could be turned at the will of the riders. It was then agreed that after a half day's chase on the morrow, they could be handled with ease. By noon next day, we had driven them within a mile of our camp.
"They were tired out and we turned them into an impromptu corral made of wagons and ropes. All but the chestnut stallion. At the last he escaped us; he stopped on a little knoll and took a farewell look at his band.
"There were four old United States cavalry horses among our captive band of mustangs, gray with age and worthless—no telling where they came from. We clamped a mule shoe over the pasterns of the younger horses, tied toggles to the others, and the next morning set out on our return to the settlements."
Under his promise the old ranchero had the camp astir over an hour before dawn. Horses were brought in from picket ropes, and divided into two squads, Pasquale leading off to the windward of where the band was located at dusk previous. The rest of the men followed Uncle Lance to complete the leeward side of the circle. The location of the manada, had been described as between a small hill covered with Spanish bayonet on one hand, and a zacahuiste flat nearly a mile distant on the other, both well-known landmarks. As we rode out and approached the location, we dropped a man every half mile until the hill and adjoining salt flat had been surrounded. We had divided what rifles the ranch owned between the two squads, so that each side of the circle was armed with four guns. I had a carbine, and had been stationed about midway of the leeward half-circle. At the first sign of dawn, the signal agreed upon, a turkey call, sounded back down the line, and we advanced. The circle was fully two miles in diameter, and on receiving the signal I rode slowly forward, halting at every sound. It was a cloudy morning and dawn came late for clear vision. Several times I dismounted and in approaching objects at a distance drove my horse before me, only to find that, as light increased, I was mistaken.
When both the flat and the dagger crowned hill came into view, not a living object was in sight. I had made the calculation that, had the manada grazed during the night, we should be far to the leeward of the band, for it was reasonable to expect that they would feed against the wind. But there was also the possibility that the outlaw might have herded the band several miles distant during the night, and while I was meditating on this theory, a shot rang out about a mile distant and behind the hill. Giving my horse the rowel, I rode in the direction of the report; but before I reached the hill the manada tore around it, almost running into me. The coyote mustang was leading the band; but as I halted for a shot, he turned inward, and, the mares intervening, cut off my opportunity. But the warning shot had reached every rider on the circle, and as I plied rowel and quirt to turn the band, Tio Tiburcio cut in before me and headed them backward. As the band whirled away from us the stallion forged to the front and, by biting and a free use of his heels, attempted to turn the manada on their former course. But it mattered little which way they turned now, for our cordon was closing round them, the windward line then being less than a mile distant.
As the band struck the eastward or windward line of horsemen, the mares, except for the control of the stallion, would have yielded, but now, under his leadership, they recoiled like a band of ladinos. But every time they approached the line of the closing circle they were checked, and as the cordon closed to less than half a mile in diameter, in spite of the outlaw's lashings, the manada quieted down and halted. Then we unslung our carbines and rifles and slowly closed in upon the quarry. Several times the mustang stallion came to the outskirts of the band, uttering a single piercing snort, but never exposed himself for a shot. Little by little as we edged in he grew impatient, and finally trotted out boldly as if determined to forsake his harem and rush the line. But the moment he cleared the band Uncle Lance dismounted, and as he knelt the stallion stopped like a statue, gave a single challenging snort, which was answered by a rifle report, and he fell in his tracks.