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LIPPINCOTT'S MAGAZINE

_OCTOBER, 1885_.

ON A TEXAS SHEEP-RANCH.

I.

There are words which have careers as well as men, or, perhaps it may be
more happily said, as well as women. Mere words breathed on by Fancy,
and sent forth not so much to serve man's ordinary colloquial uses,
apparently, as to fascinate his mind, have their _débuts_. their season,
their vogue, and finally a period in which it is really too bad if they
have not the consolation of reflecting upon their conquests; for
conquests they certainly have. The great captivators - the Cleopatras of
the vocabulary - one easily recognizes; but besides these there is a host
of small flirts and every-day coquettes, whom one hardly suspects till
they have a little carried him away. Almost every one remembers how in
this light company he first came across the little word _ranch_. It had
in its youth distinctly the _cachet_ of the verbal flying squadron, the
"nameless something," the oenanthic whiff which flies to the head. There
are signs that its best days as a word are now over, and in
contemplating it at present one has a vision of a _passée_ brunette, in
the costume of Fifine at the Fair, solacing herself with thoughts of
early triumphs. "Would a farm have served?" she murmurs. "Would a
plantation, an orange-grove, have satisfied the desperate young man? No,
no; he must have his ranch! There was no charm could soothe his
melancholy, and wring for him the public bosom, save mine."

I made this reflection during a period of incarceration in a
sleeping-car, - a form of confinement which, like any other, throws the
prisoner considerably on his fancy; and a vision somewhat like the above
smoothed for a moment the pillow of an "upper berth," and pleased better
than the negro porter. Half a dozen of those days of too many paper
novels, of too much tobacco, of too little else, followed each other
with the sameness of so many raw oysters. Then there came a chill night
of wide moonlit vacuity passed on the prairie by the side of the driver
of a "jumper," - a driver who slumbered, happy man! - and at peep of dawn
I found myself standing, stiff and shivering, in a certain little Texas
town. A much-soiled, white little street, a bit of greenish-yellow,
treeless plain soft in the morning mist, a rosy fringe at the edge of
the sky, - it was of these things, together with a disagreeable sense of
imponderability of body from the cold and sleepless ride, that I was
vaguely aware as the jumper - rigorous vehicle! - disappeared round a
corner. Frontier towns are not lovely, and the death-like peace which
seemed properly to accompany the chalky pallor of the buildings was
somewhat uncanny; but it proved to be only what sleep can do for a
village with railroad influences one hundred miles away. We entered
boldly the adobe before which we had been dropped, and found a genial
landlord in an impromptu costume justified by the hour, an inn-album of
quite cosmopolitan range of inscriptions, and a breakfast for which a
week of traveller's fare had amply fortified the spirit.

The village was the chief, indeed, wellnigh the only, town of a great
west-by-north county, in which Rhode Island would be lost and
Massachusetts find elbow-room. It was an irregular little bunch of
buildings gathered along an arterial street which, after a run of three
hundred yards or so, broke to pieces and scattered its dispersed
shanties about a high, barren plain. It stood on the steep bank of a
little river, and over against it, on a naked hill, was Uncle Sam's
military village, - a fort by courtesy, - where, when not sleeping, black
soldiers and white strolled about in the warm sun. When the little
street was fairly awake, it presented a very lively appearance and had
the air of doing a great deal of business. The wan houses emitted their
occupants, and numerous pink-faced riders, in leathers and broad hats,
poured in from all sides, and, tying their heavily-accoutred ponies,
disappeared into the shops with a sort of bow-legged waddle, like
sailors ashore. Off his horse, the cow-boy is frankly awkward. Purchases
made, they departed with a rush, filling the glare with dust. Officers
from the post, with cork helmets and white trousers, came across the
river and stood in the broad shadows of adobe door-ways, gaping, and
switching their legs with bamboo canes. "It's magnificent," one seemed
to hear them mutter, "but it isn't war!" Groups of Mexicans stood about,
or, selecting a white wall, leaned against it, as they are apt to do at
home, for the better relief of their swarthy faces and brilliant scarfs;
and slowly moving down the street, stopping occasionally to speak to the
various clusters of men, there went the beneficent if somewhat untidy
figure of the Catholic father, in whose company we had breakfasted, a
fat, jolly, anecdotal inheritor of the mantle of some founder of the
Missions. The sun took absolute and merciless possession of the street.
You put your hand in your pocket for the smoked glass through which you
observed the last eclipse. Everything seemed bleached, - the white
buildings, the yellow road, the eyebrows of the cow-boys.

We did the drive of twenty miles to the ranch in a canvas-topped buggy,
drawn by a pair of devil-may-care little nags, who took us across dry
_arroyos_ and the rocky beds of running streams in a style that promised
to make sticks of the vehicle. It held good, however, and rattled out a
sort of derisive snicker at every fresh attempt to shiver it. The
country through which we passed afforded views of superb breadth and a
most interesting and delightful quality. No landscape has in the exact
sense such charm as one in which Nature manifests herself in a large and
simple way: one feels with a thrill that she is about to tell the
secret. The earth lay almost in its nakedness beneath the inane dome of
the sky. But over the large simplicity of form one was soon aware of an
exquisite play of hues. The easy undulations, as they ran off to the
unattainable horizon, were so many waves of delicate and varying color.
There were great sweeps of ochre, of gray, of fresh, light green,
pointed with black dots of live-oak, and traversed by tortuous lines of
indigo where the pecan treed creeks pursued their foiled courses, and
troops of little hills grouped themselves about, - pink, pinkish, purple,
purpling blue, white, as they faded from view like the evanescent
cherubs in the corner of an old master. The hills, however, were little
only because the stretch was so vast; it was really a broad plafond upon
which they had solemnly entered to dance a minuet with the playful
shadows of the clouds. The sky possessed everything. There was so much
of it that existence seemed to have become in a sense a celestial - or at
least an aerial - affair: the world was your balloon.

After the third creek-crossing the road ran straight as an avenue
through a broad, level reach, and we flew along gayly. The little
mesquite-trees, prim, dainty, and delicate, stood about in seeming
order, civilizing the landscape and giving it the air of an orchard; the
prairie-dog villages were thrown into a tumult of excitement by our
passage; a chaparral-cock slipped out of a bush, stared an instant,
pulled the string that lifts his tail and top-knot, and settled down for
a race directly under the horses' feet. We passed the point of a hill,
gained a slight rise, and the ranch was in sight. It must be confessed
that it was not in appearance all that the name might imply, - not the
sort of place for which one starts after having provided one's self with
a navy revolver and a low estimate of the value of human life. It was,
in fact, a very pretty and domestic scene, a little village of half a
dozen buildings and a net-work of white limestone and brush corrals.
Shortly I was supping in a neat little cottage, and endeavoring in the
usual way to be agreeable to some one in muslin. In this modern world we
change our skies, truly, but not - not our bric-à-brac. On the walls of
the pretty dining-room one beheld with rising feeling one's old friends
the Japanese fan and the discarded plate still clinging with the
touching persistence of the ivy to the oak. To be sure, there was a tall
half-breed Indian moving about with the silent agility of the warpath,
but he wore a white apron, and his hideous intention was to fill one's
wineglass. If the longitude had led me to meditate right buffalo's hump,
"washed down" with something coarse and potent enough to justify the
phrase, it was clear that I was painfully behind the stroke of the
clock. Life, good lady, takes an undignified pleasure in arranging these
petty shocks to the expectations, which we soon learn to dismiss with a
smile. The cold mutton and _ordinaire_ were excellent, and we had some
coffee and a cigarette on the piazza. The sun was setting far away
behind a hill on the other side of the creek. A soft sound came down the
valley from a remote flock of sheep. A little breeze sprang up and ran
tremulously about, shaking the tufted grass and the slim boughs of the
mesquites, and putting some question with a wistfully hopeful swish.
Plainly, one could be very much at home here. The visionary brunette had
evidently ranged herself, was living down the reputation of early vivid
experiences and successfully cultivating the domestic virtues.




II.


Six or eight years earlier, four young men had left New York on a
Galveston steamer, their departure being attended by such an assemblage
of young women that on the second day out their companions of the voyage
confided the supposition that it had been a "bridal party." That little
Spanish-American word ravaging our coasts and carrying off the pride of
the youth has to answer for many such bridal parties, whose tours have
been followed with pins and colored pencils and eyes more eager than
those of mothers-in-law. In a month or so the young men had pitched a
wall-tent within a day's ride of the Rio Grande, and were seriously
occupied in sacrificing each other's feelings on the altar of
experimental cookery, in herding sheep with the assistance of paper
novels, and in writing exceedingly long letters to the North. This
wall-tent was the larva of the ranch. But the arid southern country
proved inconvenient, and collecting their effects in a prairie-schooner
and driving their flocks before them, they effected a masterly change of
base, which brought them two hundred miles to the northward and set them
down in a delightful pasture-land, watered by three pretty creeks, near
one of which they erected an adobe hut. This solitary house on a broad
flat, an object of amazement to wandering hordes of cattle, was the
ranch during a most interesting period, and its thatched roof and
somewhat fetid walls became for the occupants overgrown with fine
clusters of association. Within a few miles of its site the present
village took shape.

The country was a frankly monotonous conformation of alternating hills
and valleys, - "divides" and "draws," - with wide flats near the creeks.
Gulches, more or less deep, down the valley-lines of the draws, and
traversing the flats to the creeks, - the so-called _arroyos_, - were a
common physical feature. In the wet season they were running streams,
but for most of the year they were dry, with here and there a waterhole,
flowers and chaparral growing in them, and, at intervals, pecans. The
pecan-trees grew thickly along the borders of the creeks, while the
mesquites cloaked with gossamer wide portions of the flats; and here and
there in the valleys and on the sides of the hills the sombre,
self-enwrapped live-oaks stood about, like philosophers musing amid the
general lightness. Spanish-dagger, bear-grass, and persimmon-bushes
freckled the sides of the rocky divides with dark spots, and mistletoe
hung its fine green globes like unillumined lanterns in the branches of
the mesquites. Over the plains and slopes a sparse turf of various
grasses, differing in color and changing with the season, gave the airy
landscape its brilliant and versatile complexion. A dozen varieties of
cactus, portulaccas, geraniums, petunias, verbenas, scattered over the
prairie, morning-glories and sunflowers in the arroyos and along the
creeks, and many a flower nameless to the general, abounded. So, it
should be added, did in their season plover, snipe, ducks, and geese.

The business of the ranch was the antediluvian occupation of rearing and
shearing sheep, and to that end the village included a shearing-shed and
a large wool-house. Besides these there were three cottages and several
other buildings, among which one called the "ranch-house" was the focus
of the activity of the place, and, being also a survival from a
comparatively early day, was a somewhat characteristic affair. It was a
box-house, painted red, with a broad porch thatched with bear-grass, and
a saddle-shed butting up against it. The interior, barring a little
store at one end, was a single large room, bedroom, sitting-room,
office, furnished with home-made tables with blankets for cloths,
knocked-up chairs with cowhide seats and coyote-skin backs, deers'
antlers draped with "slickers" (Texan for the 'longshoreman's yellow
water-proof) and wide-brimmed "ten-dollar" hats, and at one end two
tiers of bunks, with leather cases for six-shooters nailed to their
sides. This room served for the abode of the storekeeper, for the
transaction of business, and for the accommodation of the perennial
casual guest. It was rude, but, especially of evenings about the lamp,
it had a marked air of pipe-and-tobacco comfort.

The little store was patronized by the cow-boy, so much abused with
sensational or picturesque intentions, and by the small farmers with
irrigation patches in the vicinity. It was likewise the resort of
Encarnacion and Tomas, and others their brethren, from the Mexican
village a few miles up the creek, or from isolated abiding-places round
about. Here they would come, and, rolling cigarettes of the brown paper
they affect and the eleemosynary tobacco open on the counter, to which
all were welcome (such were the amenities of shopping on the ranch),
they would lounge about, ever smiling and chattering in soft voices,
finally to say '_uenos dias_ with two bits' worth of bacon, or
corn-meal, or pink candy for the _chiquitas_. Here, too, would come
Tomasa, and, with even more than usual feminine zeal in matters of
dress, at once try on the ready-made calico gown she purchased, while
the store-keeper smoked his pipe and stroked his beard.

Excepting the cow-boys, the people composing the clientage of the store
were for the most part resident in one of two farm-settlements located
on the creek, about ten miles apart, one exclusively Mexican, the other
almost entirely "white." Besides these, the families of many of the
Mexican hands lived close by. These last were constantly assisting
conversation at the cottages with such incidents as the following:

The cook - a tall, gaunt negro of a mediaevally "intense" nature - came
in with an excited manner, followed by Madame Alguin, very much
troubled, wringing her hands, and dissolved in tears.

"Panchot's little boy," said the cook, "is killed."

We were naturally aghast. Little Panchot had been _colero_ at the recent
shearing.

"Is he dead?" we queried hoarsely.

"He was dead," replied the cook, with seriousness: "he is not dead now."

With this light and delicate touch the cook swept the gamut of our
emotions from awe at little Panchot's sudden taking off to pleasure at
his speedy resurrection. We repaired at once to Madame Alguin's
residence to view the subject of this miracle: lest the miracle should
not be so complete as one might wish, we carried with us a little
hartshorn and Pond's extract. Madame Alguin's villa was a fine
wide-spreading live-oak, with a tent as a sort of annex, about two
minutes from the ranch. On our arrival we found four Mexican women,
seven children, one man, three dogs, four goats, and several roosters,
gathered round the form of little Panchot stretched beneath the
live-oak. A fire smouldered a little way off, and a cradle hung from the
branch of the fatherly tree. Little Panchot had a nasty cut about an
inch long through his cheek. He had been herding his goats on the bank
of the creek when he was knocked over by a stone from the other side. He
swooned, - then he was dead; he came to, - and, _presto_, he was alive
again. He was soon running about with his wonted friskiness, and making
himself useful in chasing wild tennis-balls. This little boy's mother
was, poor woman, very much of a sloven, but he had a string of little
sisters who were as nice as could be. They went about in white cotton
gowns - amazingly clean, considering that they lived under a tree - tied
at the waist with red scarfs; their black hair was smoothly gathered at
the backs of their pretty heads, and they had a demure and quaintly
maternal air; they looked at you with a tranquil, moon-like gaze, which
seemed to say that their ideas, which were on the way, had tarried for
the moment in some boon southern country.




III.


In riding about the range it was very pleasant to find, as one
constantly did, by the side of some "motte" (Texan for a considerable
cluster of scrub growth), or beneath the shade of a great live-oak, or
on the barren face of a divide, the little canvas A-tents of the
herders, nestled cosily to circular pens for the sheep, and generally
surrounded by brush to prevent the intrusion of inquisitive cattle.
Within the tent a sheepskin or so, stretched on the ground or on a
lattice of branches, for his bed, and without, a padlocked chest, with a
coffee mill screwed to the top, in which he keeps his rations, a skillet
and a few other utensils hanging from the branches of a neighboring
tree, a whitened buffalo's skull for a _metate_, a smouldering
fire, - this little spot, with its surrounding fence shutting out the
solitude, is the herder's palace, schloss, villa, town-and
country-house. "_Seguro_," says Juan, as he lights a brown cigarette and
quenches the yellow fuse in an empty cartridge-shell, "man wants but
little here below." They were a genial and hospitable set, the herders,
and if one arrived about mid-day they would regale him with scraps of
jerked beef, a cake of unleavened bread cooked in the skillet, and
coffee which, considering what it was made of, was a very inspiring
drink. In particular I recall the _pastor_ Patricio, a very pretty
fellow, with curly black hair and black eyes, a fine nose with a
patrician lift to the nostrils, a little black moustache bristling like
a cat's on a smiling lip, a red handkerchief about his neck: he was very
voluble of soft words, and made the waste blossom with his distinguished
manner. A dozen of these camps were to be discovered about the range,
and the brush fences and unused corrals of many more, which had been
used and would be used again as the sheep were moved from
grazing-ground to grazing-ground and portions of the range temporarily
exhausted.

From his camp the herder goes forth at daybreak with his flock of
fourteen hundred ewes and lambs or two thousand wethers, grazing slowly
toward the creek or neighboring water-hole where at noon he lies up in
the shade; and to it he slowly returns in the cool of the afternoon, the
flock moving in loose order among the mesquites, taking a nip here, a
nip there, but ever hanging together and dependent, the most gregarious
of animals. In their unity of action, in their interdependence and
solidarity, the timid sheep are capable of a momentary suggestion of
awe. About weaning-time a couple of large flocks got temporarily
together, and one could see driven by the herder a compact mass of four
thousand advancing over the prairie with a quick step, "a unit in
aggregate, a simple in composite," their impassible countenances gazing
fixedly forward, resembling, it seemed to me, a brigade going into
action. For most of the year it is thought by no means advisable to fold
the sheep in the corral at night, so they sleep at large near it.
Especially on moonlight nights they are apt to be uneasy and to move
from their bed-ground short distances, when the herder quits his tent,
and, rolling a cigarette, follows his fanciful flock about the blanched
and wistful prairie till they subside; then, throwing his cloak over his
shoulder with the swing of an hidalgo, he falls asleep beside them.

The herder's incidents are the fortnightly arrival of his rations and
the weekly or possibly more frequent visit of the superintendent to
count and examine his flock and inquire after the general condition of
things. The Mexican herder invariably denies all knowledge of English
and compels one to meet him on his own ground, which, it is needless to
say, is a far cry from Castile; and in encounters between Juan and the
superintendent the fine feathers of syntax are apt to fly in a way I
shall not attempt to reproduce.

"Good-afternoon, Juan," says the superintendent.

"Good-afternoon, señor."

"How's the flock, Juan?"

"Oh, pretty well, señor."

"No better than pretty?"

"No, señor."

"How's that?"

And then Juan goes on to explain that the recent unusually wet weather
has made many lame, etc., etc., to which the superintendent listens with
a grave countenance. Perhaps some unfortunate ewe has been bitten by a
"cat," or in some way received a wound in which the fly has deposited
its malignant egg: they lay her on her side and doctor her in company.
Finally, the superintendent gives the herder some tobacco, some
cigarette-papers, and a couple of yards of yellow fuse, and, mounting
his horse, nods farewell, and Juan touches his hat, smiles, and says,
"_Adios_."

In the ordinary course of events this is his weekly allowance of human
intercourse. It was the common opinion that none but Juan and his
brethren could stand this sort of thing; but what there is in the
Mexican character that adapts him to it only becomes a mystery on
acquaintance therewith. His most obvious and, one inclines to think, his
highest and most estimable quality is his sociability. He has a sense of
the agreeableness of life, with a very considerable feeling for manners.
This feeling makes it a pleasure for him to meet you; it causes him to
put _himself_ into the most commonplace conversation, the simplest
greeting, and make it, in his small way, a matter of art. It makes it a
pleasure for him to call upon a friend beneath the shade of some
live-oak or in a dugout or _jacal_, carrying some white sugar for his
wife or some candy for his little ones. Our instinctive disposition to
infer deplorable lacunae in the region of morals from the possession of
a talent for manners is in the case of the poor Mexican too thoroughly
justified. For him there is no such region; it is an undiscovered
country. He is the lightest of light-weights. When his heart is warmest
he is tossing a silver dollar in the air and thinking; of _monte_.
Cimental herded industriously during the winter, and became the proud
possessor of a horse and saddle, a Winchester, and a big ivory-handled
pistol. In May, shearing going on, he drove his flock to the
shearing-shed, and spent the night at the ranch. In the morning he came
into the store laughing. What about? Oh, he had had a little _monte_
over-night, and horse, saddle, rifle, revolver, all were gone. He had
been shorn of half a year's growth. But there was still a large deposit
at his bank, - the bank of Momus.

The herder has, of course, his "consolatory interstices and sprinklings
of freedom;" he undoubtedly mitigates his solitary life by frequent
derelictions, nightly visits to the farm - settlements (or the _jacal_)
which a few possess, and where he keeps, possibly, a wife and family.
But, on the whole, his life, and not unfrequently his death, is lonely,
Just before shearing-time Juan Lucio and his flock were lost. The flock
was found, but not Juan. It was impossible to say what had become of
him: he had a reputation for steadiness, and it seemed unlikely that he
had taken French leave. When shearing was in full swing, a couple of
freighters came for a load of wood. After some talk, they drove off to
camp, a little way up the creek, proposing to return in the morning.
About sunset they were seen slowly approaching the shearing-shed, It
seemed that in watering their horses they had seen a man in the creek.
The small freighter imparted this information in a low voice, with some
hesitation and a deprecatory half-smile. The young and large freighter


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