A Texas Matchmaker/Interlocutory Proceedings
A big summer's work lay before us. When Uncle Lance realized the permanent loss of three men from the working force of Las Palomas, he rallied to the situation. The ranch would have to run a double outfit the greater portion of the summer, and men would have to be secured to fill our ranks. White men who were willing to isolate themselves on a frontier ranch were scarce; but the natives, when properly treated, were serviceable and, where bred to the occupation and inclined to domesticity, made ideal vaqueros. My injured foot improved slowly, and as soon as I was able to ride, it fell to me to secure the extra help needed. The desertion of Quayle and Cotton had shaken my employer's confidence to a noticeable degree, and in giving me my orders to secure vaqueros, he said:—
"Tom, you take a good horse and go down the Tarancalous and engage five vaqueros. Satisfy yourself that the men are fit for the work, and hire every one by the year. If any of them are in debt, a hundred dollars is my limit of advance money to free them. And hire no man who has not a family, for I'm losing confidence every minute in single ones, especially if they are white. We have a few empty jacals, and the more children that I see running naked about the ranch, the better it suits me. I'll never get my money back in building that Cotton cottage until I see a mother, even though she is a Mexican, standing in the door with a baby in her arms. The older I get, the more I see my mistake in depending on the white element."
I was gone some three days in securing the needed help. It was a delicate errand, for no ranchero liked to see people leave his lands, and it was only where I found men unemployed that I applied for and secured them. We sent wagons from Las Palomas after their few effects, and had all the families contentedly housed, either about headquarters or at the outlying ranchitas, before the first contingent of beeves was gathered. But the attempt to induce any of the new families to occupy the stone cottage proved futile, as they were superstitious. There was a belief among the natives, which no persuasion could remove, regarding houses that were built for others and never occupied. The new building was tendered to Tio Tiburcio and his wife, instead of their own palisaded jacal, but it remained tenantless—an eyesore to its builder.
Near the latter end of April, a contract was let for two new tanks on the Ganso grant of land. Had it not been for the sale of beef, which would require our time the greater portion of the summer, it was my employer's intention to have built these reservoirs with the ranch help. But with the amount of work we had in sight, it was decided to let the contract to parties who made it their business and were outfitted for the purpose. Accordingly in company with the contractor, Uncle Lance and myself spent the last few days of the month laying off and planning the reservoir sites on two small tributaries which formed the Ganso. We were planning to locate these tanks several miles above the juncture of the small rivulets, and as far apart as possible. Then the first rainfall which would make running water, would assure us a year's supply on the extreme southwestern portion of our range. The contractor had a big outfit of oxen and mules, and the conditions called for one of the reservoirs to be completed before June 15th. Thus, if rains fell when they were expected, one receptacle at least would be in readiness.
When returning one evening from starting the work, we found Tony Hunter a guest of the ranch. He had come over for the special purpose of seeing me, but as the matter was not entirely under my control, my employer was brought into the consultation. In the docket for the May term of court, the divorce proceedings between Esther and Jack Oxenford would come up for a hearing at Oakville on the seventh of the month. Hunter was anxious, if possible, to have all his friends present at the trial. But dates were getting a little close, for our first contingent of beeves was due on the coast on the twentieth, and to gather and drive them would require not less than ten days. A cross-bill had been filed by Oxenford's attorney at the last hour, and a fight was going to be made to prevent the decree from issuing. The judge was a hold-over from the reconstruction régime, having secured his appointment through the influence of congressional friends, one of whom was the uncle of the junior stage man. Unless the statutory grounds were clear, there was a doubt expressed by Esther's attorney whether the court would grant the decree. But that was the least of Hunter's fears, for in his eyes the man who would willfully abuse a woman had no rights, in court or out. Tony, however, had enemies; for he and Oxenford had had a personal altercation, and since the separation the Martin family had taken the side of Jack's employer and severed all connections with the ranch. That the mail contractors had the village of Oakville under their control, all agreed, as we had tested that on our return from Fort Worth the spring before. In all the circumstances, though Hunter had no misgivings as to the ultimate result, yet being a witness and accused of being the main instigator in the case, he felt that he ought, as a matter of precaution, to have a friend or two with him.
"Well, now, Tony," said my employer, "this is crowding the mourners just a trifle, but Las Palomas was never called on in a good cause but she could lend a man or two, even if they had to get up from the dinner table and go hungry. I don't suppose the trial will last over a day or two at the furthest, and even if it did, the boys could ride home in the night. In our first bunch and in half a day, we'll gather every beef in two rodeos and start that evening. Steamships won't wait, and if we were a day behind time, they might want to hold out demurrage on us. If it wasn't for that, the boys could stay a week and you would be welcome to them. Of course, Tom will want to go, and about the next best man I could suggest would be June. I'd like the best in the world to go myself, but you see how I'm situated, getting these cattle off and a new tank building at the same time. Now, you boys make your own arrangements among yourselves, and this ranch stands ready to back up anything you say or do."
Tony remained overnight, and we made arrangements to meet him, either at Shepherd's the evening before or in Oakville on the morning of the trial. Owing to the behavior of Quayle and Cotton, none of us had attended the celebration of San Jacinto Day at the ferry. Nor had any one from the Vaux or McLeod ranches, for while they did not understand the situation, it was obvious that something was wrong, and they had remained away as did Las Palomas. But several of Hunter's friends from the San Miguel had been present, as likewise had Oxenford, and reports came back to the ranch of the latter's conduct and of certain threats he had made when he found there was no one present to resent them. The next morning, before starting home, Tony said to our segundo and myself;—
"Then I'll depend on you two, and I may have a few other friends who will want to attend. I don't need very many for a coward like Jack Oxenford. He is perfectly capable of abusing an unprotected woman, or an old man if he had a crowd of friends behind to sick him on. Oh, he's a cur all right; for when I told him that he was whelped under a house, he never resented it. He loves me all right, or has good cause to. Why, I bent the cylinder pin of a new six-shooter over his head when he had a gun on him, and he forgot to use it. I don't expect any trouble, but if you don't look a sneaking cur right in the eye, he may slip up behind and bite you."
After making arrangements to turn in two hundred beeves on our second contingent, and send a man with them to the coast, Hunter returned home. There was no special programme for the interim until gathering the beeves commenced, yet on a big ranch like Las Palomas there is always work. While Deweese finished curbing the well in which Ortez lost his life, I sawed off and cut new threads on all the rods and piping belonging to that particular windmill. With a tireless energy for one of his years, Uncle Lance rode the range, until he could have told at a distance one half his holdings of cattle by flesh marks alone. A few days before the date set for the trial, Enrique brought in word one evening that an outfit of strange men were encamped north of the river on the Ganso Tract. The vaquero was unable to make out their business, but was satisfied they were not there for pleasure, so my employer and I made an early start the next morning to see who the campers were. On the extreme northwestern corner of our range, fully twenty-five miles from headquarters, we met them and found they were a corps of engineers, running a preliminary survey for a railroad. They were in the employ of the International and Great Northern Company, which was then contemplating extending their line to some point on the Rio Grande. While there was nothing definite in this prior survey, it sounded a note of warning; for the course they were running would carry the line up the Ganso on the south side of the river, passing between the new tanks, and leaving our range through a sag in the hills on the south end of the grant. The engineer in charge very courteously informed my employer that he was under instructions to run, from San Antonio to different points on the river, three separate lines during the present summer. He also informed us that the other two preliminary surveys would be run farther west, and there was a possibility that the Las Palomas lands would be missed entirely, a prospect that was very gratifying to Uncle Lance.
"Tom," said he, as we rode away, "I've been dreading this very thing for years. It was my wish that I would never live to see the necessity of fencing our lands, and to-day a railroad survey is being run across Las Palomas. I had hoped that when I died, this valley would be an open range and as primitive as the day of my coming to it. Here a railroad threatens our peace, and the signs are on every hand that we'll have to fence to protect ourselves. But let it come, for we can't stop it. If I'm spared, within the next year, I'll secure every tract of land for sale adjoining the ranch if it costs me a dollar an acre. Then if it comes to the pinch, Las Palomas will have, for all time, land and to spare. You haven't noticed the changes in the country, but nearly all this chaparral has grown up, and the timber is twice as heavy along the river as when I first settled here. I hate the sight even of a necessity like a windmill, and God knows we have no need of a railroad. To a ranch that doesn't sell fat beeves over once in ten years, transportation is the least of its troubles."
About dusk on the evening of the day preceding the trial, June Deweese and I rode into Shepherd's, expecting to remain overnight. Shortly after our arrival, Tony Hunter hastily came in and informed us that he had been unable to get hotel accommodations for his wife and Esther in Oakville, and had it not been that they had old friends in the village, all of them would have had to return to the ferry for the night. These friends of the McLeod family told Hunter that the stage people had coerced the two hotels into refusing them, and had otherwise prejudiced the community in Oxenford's favor. Hunter had learned also that the junior member of the stage firm had collected a crowd of hangers-on, and being liberal in the use of money, had convinced the rabble of the village that he was an innocent and injured party. The attorney for Esther had arrived, and had cautioned every one interested on their side of the case to be reserved and careful under every circumstance, as they had a bitter fight on their hands.
The next morning all three of us rode into the village. Court had been in session over a week, and the sheriff had sworn in several deputies to preserve the peace, as there was considerable bitterness between litigants outside the divorce case. These under-sheriffs made it a point to see that every one put aside his arms on reaching the town, and tried as far as lay in their power to maintain the peace. During the early days of the reconstruction regime, before opening the term the presiding judge had frequently called on the state for a company of Texas Rangers to preserve order and enforce the mandates of the court. But in '79 there seemed little occasion for such a display of force, and a few fearless officers were considered sufficient. On reaching the village, we rode to the house where the women were awaiting us. Fortunately there was ample corral room at the stable, so we were independent of hostelries and liveries. Mrs. Hunter was the very reverse of her husband, being a timid woman, while poor Esther was very nervous under the dread of the coming trial. But we cheered them with our presence, and by the time court opened, they had recovered their composure.
Our party numbered four women and five men. Esther lacked several summers of being as old as her sister, while I was by five years the youngest of the men, and naturally looked to my elders for leadership. Having left our arms at the house, we entered the court-room in as decorous and well-behaved a manner as if it had been a house of worship and this a Sabbath morning. A peculiar stillness pervaded the room, which could have been mistaken as an omen of peace, or the tension similar to the lull before a battle. Personally I was composed, but as I allowed my eyes from time to time to rest upon Esther, she had never seemed so near and dear to me as in that opening hour of court. She looked very pale, and moved by the subtle power of love, I vowed that should any harm come to or any insulting word be spoken of her, my vengeance would be sure and swift.
Court convened, and the case was called. As might have been expected, the judge held that under the pleadings it was not a jury case. The panel was accordingly excused for the day, and joined those curiously inclined in the main body of the room. The complaining witnesses were called, and under direct examination the essential facts were brought forth, laying the foundation for a legal separation. The plaintiff was the last witness to testify. As she told her simple story, a hushed silence fell over the room, every spectator, from the judge on the bench to the sheriff, being eager to catch every syllable of the recital. But as in duty bound to a client, the attorney for the defendant, a young man who had come from San Antonio to conduct the case, opened a sharp cross-questioning. As the examination proceeded, an altercation between the attorneys was prevented only by the presence of the sheriff and deputies. Before the inquiry progressed, the attorney for the plaintiff apologized to the court, pleading extenuating circumstances in the offense offered to his client. Under his teachings, he informed the court, the purity of womanhood was above suspicion, and no man who wished to be acknowledged as a gentleman among his equals would impugn or question the statement of a lady. The witness on the stand was more to him than an ordinary client, as her father and himself had been young men together, had volunteered under the same flag, his friend offering up his life in its defense, and he spared to carry home the news of an unmarked grave on a Southern battle-field. It was a privilege to him to offer his assistance and counsel to-day to a daughter of an old comrade, and any one who had the temerity to offer an affront to this witness would be held to a personal account for his conduct.
The first day was consumed in taking testimony. The defense introduced much evidence in rebuttal. Without regard to the truth or their oaths, a line of witnesses were introduced who contradicted every essential point of the plaintiff's case. When the credibility of their testimony was attacked, they sought refuge in the technicalities of the law, and were supported by rulings of the presiding judge. When Oxenford took the stand in his own behalf, there were not a dozen persons present who believed the perjured statements which fell from his lips. Yet when his testimony was subjected to a rigid cross-questioning, every attempt to reach the truth precipitated a controversy between attorneys as bitter as it was personal. That the defendant at the bar had escaped prosecution for swindling the government out of large sums of money for a mail service never performed was well known to every one present, including the judge, yet he was allowed to testify against the character of a woman pure as a child, while his own past was protected from exposure by rulings from the bench.
When the evidence was all in, court adjourned until the following day. That evening our trio, after escorting the women to the home of their friend, visited every drinking resort, hotel, and public house in the village, meeting groups of Oxenford's witnesses, even himself as he dispensed good cheer to his henchmen. But no one dared to say a discourteous word, and after amusing ourselves by a few games of billiards, we mounted our horses and returned to Shepherd's for the night. As we rode along leisurely, all three of us admitted misgivings as to the result, for it was clear that the court had favored the defense. Yet we had a belief that the statutory grounds were sufficient, and on that our hopes hung.
The next morning found our party in court at the opening hour. The entire forenoon was occupied by the attorney for the plaintiff in reviewing the evidence, analyzing and weighing every particle, showing an insight into human motives which proved him a master in his profession. After the noon recess, the young lawyer from the city addressed the court for two hours, his remarks running from bombast to flights of oratory, and from eulogies upon his client to praise of the unimpeachable credibility of the witnesses for the defense. In concluding, the older lawyer prefaced his remarks by alluding to the divine intent in the institution of marriage, and contending that of the two, women were morally the better. In showing the influence of the stronger upon the weaker sex, he asserted that it was in the power of the man to lift the woman or to sink her into despair. In his peroration he rose to the occasion, and amid breathless silence, facing the court, who quailed before him, demanded whether this was a temple of justice. Replying to his own interrogatory, he dipped his brush in the sunshine of life, and sketched a throne with womanhood enshrined upon it. While chivalry existed among men, it mattered little, he said, as to the decrees of courts, for in that higher tribunal, human hearts, woman would remain forever in control. At his conclusion, women were hysterical, and men were aroused from their usual languor by the eloquence of the speaker. Had the judge rendered an adverse decision at that moment, he would have needed protection; for to the men of the South it was innate to be chivalrous to womanhood. But the court was cautious, and after announcing that he would take the case under advisement until morning, adjourned for the day.
All during the evening men stood about in small groups and discussed the trial. The consensus of opinion was favorable to the plaintiff. But in order to offset public opinion, Oxenford and a squad of followers made the rounds of the public places, offering to wager any sum of money that the decree would not be granted. Since feeling was running rather high, our little party avoided the other faction, and as we were under the necessity of riding out to the ferry for accommodation, concluded to start earlier than the evening before. After saddling, we rode around the square, and at the invitation of Deweese dismounted before a public house for a drink and a cigar before starting. We were aware that the town was against us, and to maintain a bold front was a matter of necessity. Unbuckling our belts in compliance with the sheriff's orders, we hung our six-shooters on the pommels of our saddles and entered the bar-room. Other customers were being waited on, and several minutes passed before we were served. The place was rather crowded, and as we were being waited on, a rabble of roughs surged through a rear door, led by Jack Oxenford. He walked up to within two feet of me where I stood at the counter, and apparently addressing the barkeeper, as we were charging our glasses, said in a defiant tone:—
"I'll bet a thousand dollars Judge Thornton refuses to grant a separation between my wife and me."
The words flashed through me like an electric shock, and understanding the motive, I turned on the speaker and with the palm of my hand dealt him a slap in the face that sent him staggering back into the arms of his friends. Never before or since have I felt the desire to take human life which possessed me at that instant. With no means of defense in my possession but a penknife, I backed away from him, he doing the like, and both keeping close to the bar, which was about twenty feet long. In one hand I gripped the open-bladed pocket knife, and, with the other behind my back, retreated to my end of the counter as did Oxenford to his, never taking our eyes off each other. On reaching his end of the bar, I noticed the barkeeper going through motions that looked like passing him a gun, and in the same instant some friend behind me laid the butt of a pistol in my hand behind my back. Dropping the knife, I shifted the six-shooter to my right hand, and, advancing on the object of my hate, fired in such rapid succession that I was unable to tell even whether my fire was being returned. When my gun was empty, the intervening clouds of smoke prevented any view of my adversary; but my lust for his life was only intensified when, on turning to my friends, I saw Deweese supporting Hunter in his arms. Knowing that one or the other had given me the pistol, I begged them for another to finish my work. But at that moment the smoke arose sufficiently to reveal my enemy crippling down at the farther end of the bar, a smoking pistol in his hand. As Oxenford sank to the floor, several of his friends ran to his side, and Deweese, noticing the movement, rallied the wounded man in his arms. Shaking him until his eyes opened, June, exultingly as a savage, cried, "Tony, for God's sake stand up just a moment longer. Yonder he lies. Let me carry you over so you can watch the cur die." Turning to me he continued: "Tom, you've got your man. Run for your life; don't let them get you."
Passing out of the house during the excitement, I was in my saddle in an instant, riding like a fiend for Shepherd's. The sun was nearly an hour high, and with a good horse under me, I covered the ten miles to the ferry in less than an hour. Portions of the route were sheltered by timber along the river, but once as I crossed a rise opposite a large bend, I sighted a posse in pursuit several miles to the rear. On reaching Shepherd's, fortunately for me a single horse stood at the hitch-rack. The merchant and owner of the horse came to the door as I dashed up, and never offering a word of explanation, I changed horses. Luckily the owner of the horse was Red Earnest, a friend of mine, and feeling that they would not have long to wait for explanations, I shook out the reins and gave him the rowel. I knew the country, and soon left the river road, taking an air-line course for Las Palomas, which I reached within two hours after nightfall. In few and profane words, I explained the situation to my employer, and asked for a horse that would put the Rio Grande behind me before morning. A number were on picket near by, and several of the boys ran for the best mounts available. A purse was forced into my pocket, well filled with gold. Meanwhile I had in my possession an extra six-shooter, and now that I had a moment's time to notice it, recognized the gun as belonging to Tony Hunter. Filling the empty chambers, and waving a farewell to my friends, I passed out by the rear and reached the saddle shed, where a well-known horse was being saddled by dexterous hands. Once on his back, I soon passed the eighty miles between me and the Rio Grande, which I swam on my horse the next morning within an hour after sunrise.