A Texas Matchmaker/Summer of '77
During our trip into Mexico the fall before, Deweese contracted for three thousand cows at two haciendas on the Rio San Juan. Early in the spring June and I returned to receive the cattle. The ranch outfit under Uncle Lance was to follow some three weeks later and camp on the American side at Roma, Texas. We made arrangements as we crossed into Mexico with a mercantile house in Mier to act as our bankers, depositing our own drafts and taking letters of credit to the interior. In buying the cows we had designated Mier, which was just opposite Roma, as the place for settlement and Uncle Lance on his arrival brought drafts to cover our purchases, depositing them with the same merchant. On receiving, we used a tally mark which served as a road brand, thus preventing a second branding, and throughout—much to the disgust of the Mexican vaqueros—Deweese enforced every humane idea which Nancrede had practiced the spring before in accepting the trail herd at Las Palomas. There were endless quantities of stock cattle to select from on the two haciendas, and when ready to start, under the specifications, a finer lot of cows would have been hard to find. The worst drawback was that they were constantly dropping calves on the road, and before we reached the river we had a calf-wagon in regular use. On arriving at the Rio Grande, the then stage of water was fortunately low and we crossed the herd without a halt, the import papers having been attended to in advance.
Uncle Lance believed in plenty of help, and had brought down from Las Palomas an ample outfit of men and horses. He had also anticipated the dropping of calves and had rigged up a carrier, the box of which was open framework. Thus until a calf was strong enough to follow, the mother, as she trailed along beside the wagon, could keep an eye on her offspring. We made good drives the first two or three days; but after clearing the first bottoms of the Rio Grande and on reaching the tablelands, we made easy stages of ten to twelve miles a day. When near enough to calculate on our arrival at Las Palomas, the old ranchero quit us and went on into the ranch. Several days later a vaquero met the herd about thirty miles south of Santa Maria, and brought the information that the Valverde outfit was at the ranch, and instructions to veer westward and drive down the Ganso on approaching the Nueces. By these orders the delivery on the home river would occur at least twenty miles west of the ranch headquarters.
As we were passing to the westward of Santa Maria, our employer and one of the buyers rode out from that ranch and met the herd. They had decided not to brand until arriving at their destination on the Devil's River, which would take them at least a month longer. While this deviation was nothing to us, it was a gain to them. The purchaser was delighted with the cattle and our handling of them, there being fully a thousand young calves, and on reaching their camp on the Ganso, the delivery was completed—four days in advance of the specified time. For fear of losses, we had received a few head extra, and, on counting them over, found we had not lost a single hoof. The buyers received the extra cattle, and the delivery was satisfactorily concluded. One of the partners returned with us to Las Palomas for the final settlement, while the other, taking charge of the herd, turned them up the Nueces. The receiving outfit had fourteen men and some hundred and odd horses. Aside from their commissary, they also had a calf-wagon, drawn by two yoke of oxen and driven by a strapping big negro. In view of the big calf crop, the partners concluded that an extra conveyance would not be amiss, and on Uncle Lance making them a reasonable figure on our calf-wagon and the four mules drawing it, they never changed a word but took the outfit. As it was late in the day when the delivery was made, the double outfit remained in the same camp that night, and with the best wishes, bade each other farewell in the morning. Nearly a month had passed since Deweese and I had left Las Palomas for the Rio San Juan, and, returning with the herd, had met our own outfit at the Rio Grande. During the interim, before the ranch outfit had started, the long-talked-of tournament on the Nueces had finally been arranged. The date had been set for the fifth of June, and of all the home news which the outfit brought down to the Rio Grande, none was as welcome as this. According to the programme, the contests were to include riding, roping, relay races, and handling the lance. Several of us had never witnessed a tournament; but as far as roping and riding were concerned, we all considered ourselves past masters of the arts. The relay races were simple enough, and Dan Happersett volunteered this explanation of a lance contest to those of us who were uninitiated:—
"Well," said Dan, while we were riding home from the Ganso, "a straight track is laid off about two hundred yards long. About every forty yards there is a post set up along the line with an arm reaching out over the track. From this there is suspended an iron ring about two inches in diameter. The contestant is armed with a wooden lance of regulation length, and as he rides down this track at full speed and within a time limit, he is to impale as many of these rings as possible. Each contestant is entitled to three trials and the one impaling the most rings is declared the victor. That's about all there is to it, except the award. The festivities, of course, close with a dance, in which the winner crowns the Queen of the ball. That's the reason the girls always take such an interest in the lancing, because the winner has the choosing of his Queen. I won it once, over on the Trinity, and chose a little cripple girl. Had to do it or leave the country, for it was looked upon as an engagement to marry. Oh, I tell you, if a girl is sweet on a fellow, it's a mighty strong card to play."
Before starting for the Rio Grande, the old ranchero had worked our horse stock, forming fourteen new manadas, so that on our return about the only work which could command our attention was the breaking of more saddle horses. We had gentled two hundred the spring before, and breaking a hundred and fifty now, together with the old remudas, would give Las Palomas fully five hundred saddle horses. The ranch had the geldings, the men had time, and there was no good excuse for not gentling more horses. So after a few days' rest the oldest and heaviest geldings were gathered and we then settled down to routine horse work. But not even this exciting employment could keep the coming tournament from our minds. Within a week after returning to the ranch, we laid off a lancing course, and during every spare hour the knights of Las Palomas might be seen galloping over the course, practicing. I tried using the lance several times, only to find that it was not as easy as it looked, and I finally gave up the idea of lancing honors, and turned my attention to the relay races.
Miss Jean had been the only representative of our ranch at Shepherd's on San Jacinto Day. But she had had her eyes open on that occasion, and on our return had a message for nearly every one of us. I was not expecting any, still the mistress of Las Palomas had met my old sweetheart and her sister, Mrs. Hunter, at the ferry, and the three had talked the matter over and mingled their tears in mutual sympathy. I made a blustering talk which was to cover my real feelings and to show that I had grown indifferent toward Esther, but that tactful woman had not lived in vain, and read me aright.
"Tom," said she, "I was a young woman when you were a baby. There's lots of things in which you might deceive me, but Esther McLeod is not one of them. You loved her once, and you can't tell me that in less than a year you have forgotten her. I won't say that men forget easier than women, but you have never suffered one tenth the heartaches over Esther McLeod that she has over you. You can afford to be generous with her, Tom. True, she allowed an older sister to browbeat and bully her into marrying another man, but she was an inexperienced girl then. If you were honest, you would admit that Esther of her own accord would never have married Jack Oxenford. Then why punish the innocent? Oh, Tom, if you could only see her now! Sorrow and suffering have developed the woman in her, and she is no longer the girl you knew and loved."
Miss Jean was hewing too close to the line for my comfort. Her observations were so near the truth that they touched me in a vulnerable spot. Yet as I paced the room, I expressed myself emphatically as never wishing to meet Esther McLeod again. I really felt that way. But I had not reckoned on the mistress of Las Palomas, nor considered that her strong sympathy for my former sweetheart had moved her to more than ordinary endeavor.
The month of May passed. Uncle Lance spent several weeks at the Booth ranch on the Frio. At the home ranch practice for the contests went forward with vigor. By the first of June we had sifted the candidates down until we had determined on our best men for each entry. The old ranchero and our segundo, together with Dan Happersett, made up a good set of judges on our special fitness for the different contests, and we were finally picked in this order: Enrique Lopez was to rope; Pasquale Arispe was to ride; to Theodore Quayle fell the chance of handling the lance, while I, being young and nimble on my feet, was decided on as the rider in the ten-mile relay race.
In this contest I was fortunate in having the pick of over three hundred and fifty saddle horses. They were the accumulation of years of the best that Las Palomas bred, and it was almost bewildering to make the final selection. But in this I had the benefit of the home judges, and when the latter differed on the speed of a horse, a trial usually settled the point. June Deweese proved to be the best judge of the ranch horses, yet Uncle Lance never yielded his opinion without a test of speed. When the horses were finally decided on, we staked off a half-mile circular track on the first bottom of the river, and every evening the horses were sent over the course. Under the conditions, a contestant was entitled to use as many horses as he wished, but must change mounts at least twenty times in riding the ten miles, and must finish under a time limit of twenty-five minutes. Out of our abundance we decided to use ten mounts, thus allotting each horse two dashes of a half mile with a rest between.
The horse-breaking ended a few days before the appointed time. Las Palomas stood on the tiptoe of expectancy over the coming tourney. Even Miss Jean rode—having a gentle saddle horse caught up for her use, and taking daily rides about the ranch, to witness the practice, for she was as deeply interested as any of us in the forthcoming contests. Born to the soil of Texas, she was a horsewoman of no ordinary ability, and rode like a veteran. On the appointed day, Las Palomas was abandoned; even the Mexican contingent joining in the exodus for Shepherd's, and only a few old servants remaining at the ranch. As usual, Miss Jean started by ambulance the afternoon before, taking along a horse for her own saddle. The white element and the vaqueros made an early start, driving a remuda of thirty loose horses, several of which were outlaws, and a bell mare. They were the picked horses of the ranch—those which we expected to use in the contests, and a change of mounts for the entire outfit on reaching the martial field. We had herded the horses the night before, and the vaqueros were halfway to the ferry when we overtook them. Uncle Lance was with us and in the height of his glory, in one breath bragging on Enrique and Pasquale, and admonishing and cautioning Theodore and myself in the next.
On nearing Shepherd's, Uncle Lance preceded us, to hunt up the committee and enter a man from Las Palomas for each of the contests. The ground had been well chosen,—a large open bottom on the north side of the river and about a mile above the ferry. The lancing course was laid off; temporary corrals had been built, to hold about thirty range cattle for the roping, and an equal number of outlaw horses for the riding contests; at the upper end of the valley a half-mile circular racecourse had been staked off. Throwing our outlaws into the corral, and leaving the remuda in charge of two vaqueros, we galloped into Shepherd's with the gathering crowd. From all indications this would be a red-letter day at the ferry, for the attendance drained a section of country fully a hundred miles in diameter. On the north from Campbellton on the Atascosa to San Patricio on the home river to the south, and from the Blanco on the east to well up the Frio and San Miguel on the west, horsemen were flocking by platoons. I did not know one man in twenty, but Deweese greeted them all as if they were near neighbors. Later in the morning, conveyances began to arrive from Oakville and near-by points, and the presence of women lent variety to the scene.
Under the rules, all entries were to be made before ten o'clock. The contests were due to begin half an hour later, and each contestant was expected to be ready to compete in the order of his application. There were eight entries in the relay race all told, mine being the seventh, which gave me a good opportunity to study the riding of those who preceded me. There were ten or twelve entries each in the roping and riding contests, while the knights of the lance numbered an even thirty. On account of the large number of entries the contests would require a full day, running the three classes simultaneously, allowing a slight intermission for lunch. The selection of disinterested judges for each class slightly delayed the commencement. After changing horses on reaching the field, the contests with the lance opened with a lad from Ramirena, who galloped over the course and got but a single ring. From the lateness of our entries, none of us would be called until afternoon, and we wandered at will from one section of the field to another. "Red" Earnest, from Waugh's ranch on the Frio, was the first entry in the relay race. He had a good mount of eight Spanish horses which he rode bareback, making many of his changes in less than fifteen seconds apiece, and finishing full three minutes under the time limit. The feat was cheered to the echo, I joining with the rest, and numerous friendly bets were made that the time would not be lowered that day. Two other riders rode before the noon recess, only one of whom came under the time limit, and his time was a minute over Earnest's record.
Miss Jean had camped the ambulance in sight of the field, and kept open house to all comers. Suspecting that she would have Mrs. Hunter and Esther for lunch, if they were present, I avoided our party and took dinner with Mrs. Booth. Meanwhile Uncle Lance detailed Deweese and Happersett to handle my horses, allowing us five vaqueros, and distributing the other men as assistants to our other three contestants. The day was an ideal one for the contests, rather warm during the morning, but tempered later by a fine afternoon breeze. It was after four o'clock when I was called, with Waugh's man still in the lead. Forming a small circle at the starting-point, each of our vaqueros led a pair of horses, in bridles only, around a ring,—constantly having in hand eight of my mount of ten. As handlers, I had two good men in our segundo and Dan Happersett. I crossed the line amid the usual shouting with a running start, determined, if possible, to lower the record of Red Earnest. In making the changes, all I asked was a good grip on the mane, and I found my seat as the horse shot away. The horses had broken into an easy sweat before the race began, and having stripped to the lowest possible ounce of clothing, I felt that I was getting out of them every fraction of speed they possessed. The ninth horse in my mount, a roan, for some unknown reason sulked at starting, then bolted out on the prairie, but got away with the loss of only about ten seconds, running the half mile like a scared wolf. Until it came the roan's turn to go again, no untoward incident happened, friendly timekeepers posting me at every change of mounts. But when this bolter's turn came again, he reared and plunged away stiff-legged, crossed the inward furrow, and before I could turn him again to the track, cut inside the course for two stakes or possibly fifty yards. By this time I was beyond recall, but as I came round and passed the starting-point, the judges attempted to stop me, and I well knew my chances were over. Uncle Lance promptly waived all rights to the award, and I was allowed to finish the race, lowering Earnest's time over twenty seconds. The eighth contestant, so I learned later, barely came under the time limit.
The vaqueros took charge of the relay mounts, and, reinvesting myself in my discarded clothing, I mounted my horse to leave the field, when who should gallop up and extend sympathy and congratulations but Miss Jean and my old sweetheart. There was no avoiding them, and discourtesy to the mistress of Las Palomas being out of the question, I greeted Esther with an affected warmth and cordiality. As I released her hand I could not help noticing how she had saddened into a serious woman, while the gentleness in her voice condemned me for my attitude toward her. But Miss Jean artfully gave us little time for embarrassment, inviting me to show them the unconcluded programme. From contest to contest, we rode the field until the sun went down, and the trials ended.
It was my first tournament and nothing escaped my notice. There were fully one hundred and fifty women and girls, and possibly double that number of men, old and young, every one mounted and galloping from one point of the field to another. Blushing maidens and their swains dropped out of the throng, and from shady vantage points watched the crowd surge back and forth across the field of action. We were sorry to miss Enrique's roping; for having snapped his saddle horn with the first cast, he recovered his rope, fastened it to the fork of his saddletree, and tied his steer in fifty-four seconds, or within ten of the winner's record. When he apologized to Miss Jean for his bad luck, hat in hand and his eyes as big as saucers, one would have supposed he had brought lasting disgrace on Las Palomas.
We were more fortunate in witnessing Pasquale's riding. For this contest outlaws and spoilt horses had been collected from every quarter. Riders drew their mounts by lot, and Pasquale drew a cinnamon-colored coyote from the ranch of "Uncle Nate" Wilson of Ramirena. Uncle Nate was feeling in fine fettle, and when he learned that his contribution to the outlaw horses had been drawn by a Las Palomas man, he hunted up the ranchero. "I'll bet you a new five-dollar hat that that cinnamon horse throws your vaquero so high that the birds build nests in his crotch before he hits the ground." Uncle Lance took the bet, and disdainfully ran his eye up and down his old friend, finally remarking, "Nate, you ought to keep perfectly sober on an occasion like this—you're liable to lose all your money."
Pasquale was a shallow-brained, clownish fellow, and after saddling up, as he led the coyote into the open to mount, he imitated a drunken vaquero. Tipsily admonishing the horse in Spanish to behave himself, he vaulted into the saddle and clouted his mount over the head with his hat. The coyote resorted to every ruse known to a bucking horse to unseat his rider, in the midst of which Pasquale, languidly lolling in his saddle, took a small bottle from his pocket, and, drinking its contents, tossed it backward over his head. "Look at that, Nate," said Uncle Lance, slapping Mr. Wilson with his hat; "that's one of the Las Palomas vaqueros, bred with just sense enough to ride anything that wears hair. We'll look at those new hats this evening."
In the fancy riding which followed, Pasquale did a number of stunts. He picked up hat and handkerchief from the ground at full speed, and likewise gathered up silver dollars from alternate sides of his horse as the animal sped over a short course. Stripping off his saddle and bridle, he rode the naked horse with the grace of an Indian, and but for his clownish indifference and the apparent ease with which he did things, the judges might have taken his work more seriously. As it was, our outfit and those friendly to our ranch were proud of his performance, but among outsiders, and even the judges, it was generally believed that he was tipsy, which was an injustice to him.
On the conclusion of the contest with the lance, among the thirty participants, four were tied on honors, one of whom was Theodore Quayle. The other contests being over, the crowd gathered round the lancing course, excitement being at its highest pitch. A lad from the Blanco was the first called for on the finals, and after three efforts failed to make good his former trial. Quayle was the next called, and as he sped down the course my heart stood still for a moment; but as he returned, holding high his lance, five rings were impaled upon it. He was entitled to two more trials, but rested on his record until it was tied or beaten, and the next man was called. Forcing her way through the crowded field, Miss Jean warmly congratulated Theodore, leaving Esther to my tender care. But at this juncture, my old sweetheart caught sight of Frances Vaux and some gallant approaching from the river's shade, and together we galloped out to meet them. Miss Vaux's escort was a neighbor lad from the Frio, but both he and I for the time being were relegated to oblivion, in the prospects of a Las Palomas man by the name of Quayle winning the lancing contest. Miss Frances, with a shrug, was for denying all interest in the result, but Esther and I doubled on her, forcing her to admit "that it would be real nice if Teddy should win." I never was so aggravated over the indifference of a girl in my life, and my regard for my former sweetheart, on account of her enthusiasm for a Las Palomas lad, kindled anew within me.
[Illustration: HE SPED DOWN THE COURSE]
But as the third man sped over the course, we hastily returned to watch the final results. After a last trial the man threw down his lance, and, riding up, congratulated Quayle. The last contestant was a red-headed fellow from the Atascosa above Oakville, and seemed to have a host of friends. On his first trial over the course, he stripped four rings, but on neither subsequent effort did he equal his first attempt. Imitating the former contestant, the red-headed fellow broke his lance and congratulated the winner.
The tourney was over. Esther and I urged Miss Frances to ride over with us and congratulate Quayle. She demurred; but as the crowd scattered I caught Theodore's eye and, signaling to him, he rode out of the crowd and joined us. The compliments of Miss Vaux to the winner were insipid and lifeless, while Esther, as if to atone for her friend's lack of interest, beamed with happiness over Quayle's good luck. Poor Teddy hardly knew which way to turn, and, nice girl as she was, I almost hated Miss Frances for her indifferent attitude. A plain, blunt fellow though he was, Quayle had noticed the coolness in the greeting of the young lady whom he no doubt had had in mind for months, in case he should win the privilege, to crown as Queen of the ball. Piqued and unsettled in his mind, he excused himself on some trivial pretense and withdrew. Every one was scattering to the picnic grounds for supper, and under the pretense of escorting Esther to the Vaux conveyance, I accompanied the young ladies. Managing to fall to the rear of Miss Frances and her gallant for the day, I bluntly asked my old sweetheart if she understood the attitude of her friend. For reply she gave me a pitying glance, saying, "Oh, you boys know so little about a girl! You see that Teddy chooses Frances for his Queen to-night, and leave the rest to me."
On reaching their picnic camp, I excused myself, promising to meet them later at the dance, and rode for our ambulance. Tiburcio had supper all ready, and after it was over I called Theodore to one side and repeated Esther's message. Quayle was still doubtful, and I called Miss Jean to my assistance, hoping to convince him that Miss Vaux was not unfriendly towards him. "You always want to judge a woman by contraries," said Miss Jean, seating herself on the log beside us. "When it comes to acting her part, always depend on a girl to conceal her true feelings, especially if she has tact. Now, from what you boys say, my judgment is that she'd cry her eyes out if any other girl was chosen Queen."
Uncle Lance had promised Mr. Wilson to take supper with his family, and as we were all sprucing up for the dance, he returned. He had not been present at the finals of the lancing contest, but from guests of the Wilsons' had learned that one of his boys had won the honors. So on riding into camp, as the finishing touches were being added to our rustic toilets, he accosted Quayle and said: "Well, Theo, they tell me that you won the elephant. Great Scott, boy, that's the best luck that has struck Las Palomas since the big rain a year ago this month! Of course, we all understand that you're to choose the oldest Vaux girl. What's that? You don't know? Well, I do. I've had that all planned out, in case you won, ever since we decided that you was to contest as the representative of Las Palomas. And now you want to balk, do you?"
Uncle Lance was showing some spirit, but his sister checked him with this explanation: "Just because Miss Frances didn't show any enthusiasm over Theo winning, he and Tom somehow have got the idea in their minds that she don't care a rap to be chosen Queen. I've tried to explain it to them, but the boys don't understand girls, that's all. Why, if Theo was to choose any other girl, she'd set the river afire."
"That's it, is it?" snorted Uncle Lance, pulling his gray mustaches. "Well, I've known for some time that Tom didn't have good sense, but I have always given you, Theo, credit for having a little. I'll gamble my all that what Jean says is Bible truth. Didn't I have my eye on you and that girl for nearly a week during the hunt a year ago, and haven't you been riding my horses over to the Frio once or twice a month ever since? You can read a brand as far as I can, but I can see that you're as blind as a bat about a girl. Now, young fellow, listen to me: when the master of ceremonies announces the winners of the day, and your name is called, throw out your brisket, stand straight on those bow-legs of yours, step forward and claim your privilege. When the wreath is tendered you, accept it, carry it to the lady of your choice, and kneeling before her, if she bids you arise, place the crown on her brow and lead the grand march. I'd gladly give Las Palomas and every hoof on it for your years and chance."
The festivities began with falling darkness. The master of ceremonies, a school teacher from Oakville, read out the successful contestants and the prizes to which they were entitled. The name of Theodore Quayle was the last to be called, and excusing himself to Miss Jean, who had him in tow, he walked forward with a military air, executing every movement in the ceremony like an actor. As the music struck up, he and the blushing Frances Vaux, rare in rustic beauty and crowned with a wreath of live-oak leaves, led the opening march. Hundreds of hands clapped in approval, and as the applause quieted down, I turned to look for a partner, only to meet Miss Jean and my former sweetheart. Both were in a seventh heaven of delight, and promptly took occasion to remind me of my lack of foresight, repeating in chorus, "Didn't I tell you?" But the music had broken into a waltz, which precluded any argument, and on the mistress remarking "You young folks are missing a fine dance," involuntarily my arm encircled my old sweetheart, and we drifted away into elysian fields.
The night after the first tournament at Shepherd's on the Nueces in June, '77, lingers as a pleasant memory. Veiled in hazy retrospect, attempting to recall it is like inviting the return of childish dreams when one has reached the years of maturity. If I danced that night with any other girl than poor Esther McLeod, the fact has certainly escaped me. But somewhere in the archives of memory there is an indelible picture of a stroll through dimly lighted picnic grounds; of sitting on a rustic settee, built round the base of a patriarchal live-oak, and listening to a broken-hearted woman lay bare the sorrows which less than a year had brought her. I distinctly recall that my eyes, though unused to weeping, filled with tears, when Esther in words of deepest sorrow and contrition begged me to forgive her heedless and reckless act. Could I harbor resentment in the face of such entreaty? The impulsiveness of youth refused to believe that true happiness had gone out of her life. She was again to me as she had been before her unfortunate marriage, and must be released from the hateful bonds that bound her. Firm in this resolve, dawn stole upon us, still sitting at the root of the old oak, oblivious and happy in each other's presence, having pledged anew our troth for time and eternity.
With the breaking of day the revelers dispersed. Quite a large contingent from those present rode several miles up the river with our party. The remuda had been sent home the evening before with the returning vaqueros, while the impatience of the ambulance mules frequently carried them in advance of the cavalcade. The mistress of Las Palomas had as her guest returning, Miss Jule Wilson, and the first time they passed us, some four or five miles above the ferry, I noticed Uncle Lance ride up, swaggering in his saddle, and poke Glenn Gallup in the ribs, with a wink and nod towards the conveyance as the mules dashed past. The pace we were traveling would carry us home by the middle of the forenoon, and once we were reduced to the home crowd, the old matchmaker broke out enthusiastically:—
"This tourney was what I call a success. I don't care a tinker's darn for the prizes, but the way you boys built up to the girls last night warmed the sluggish blood in my old veins. Even if Cotton did claim a dance or two with the oldest Vaux girl, if Theo and her don't make the riffle now—well, they simply can't help it, having gone so far. And did any of you notice Scales and old June and Dan cutting the pigeon wing like colts? I reckon Quirk will have to make some new resolutions this morning. Oh, I heard about your declaring that you never wanted to see Esther McLeod again. That's all right, son, but hereafter remember that a resolve about a woman is only good for the day it is made, or until you meet her. And notice, will you, ahead yonder, that sister of mine playing second fiddle as a matchmaker. Glenn, if I was you, the next time Miss Jule looks back this way, I'd play sick, and maybe they'd let you ride in the ambulance. I can see at a glance that she's being poorly entertained."