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A Midnight Ride on a Californian Ranch by A. F. Walker

 

It was in San Benito County, California, or, to be more explicit, in the Hernandez Valley, the nearest station to which is King City, "up country" from Los Angeles. My friend, Tom Bain, owned a cattle-ranche up there, right in the valley which lies between the hills forming the coastal range of California.

It is high up, this beautiful valley. I arrived at King City over-night, and my old school pal, who had asked me to pay him a visit, met me at the Central Saloon early next morning—so early, that we had breakfasted and were off in a pair-horse buckboard by seven o'clock. And then we had a fourteen hours' drive, climbing, ever climbing, with a dip here and there as we negotiated the irregularities of the high country, the air becoming cooler and crisper every hour, and so clear that you could see for miles over the plains beneath.

It is rather wonderful, this clearness of the atmosphere in Western America. In Arizona, I believe, the phenomenon is even more noticeable, at times. The trees stand out distinctly and almost individually on hills miles and miles away, and a camera speedily proves how really free is the atmosphere of all visionary obstruction. A photograph of a horse, a bullock, or of any such object out on the hills, will secure a reproduction of a background quite extraordinary in the extent and clearness of the picture.

And it is a sweet, pure air to breathe—life-giving, and capable of making the heart glad for the very joy of things. Driving over these hills, although it took us from seven in the morning until nine o'clock at night to complete the journey, was anything but tiring to the human physique. Around and beyond, Nature spread herself in a delightful panorama of scenic beauty—

"And every living thing did joy in life,
And every thing of beauty did seem living."

There were two or three other fellows on the ranche with my friend Bain. Fine, big fellows they were, too; loose-limbed and strong featured. Scarcely one of them was over five-and-twenty, yet you would have vowed that such development in face, feature, and limb could not have been attained before the age of thirty-five years. Silent, unassuming fellows, too, not welcoming me with a smile even, nor with the slightest demonstration of friendliness beyond a grip of the hand that made me begin to feel glad that I had brought my "Elliman's" with me.

It is a peculiarity—at least, we think it a peculiarity—of the Western man, that he rarely smiles. Perhaps it would be fairer to say that he never smiles unless there is something very positive to smile at. He seems to have such large ideas concerning all things, and to suggest by his manner, especially when you are out on the plains with him, that he cares more for his cattle, and for his horse particularly, than he does for you. Yet no man is more ready with a helping hand—and a hand that is capable of doing most things a man's hand can do—than he; none more full of sympathy and sincere kindliness.

But he is an undemonstrative being, this man of the West, and you take a long time to find out whether he likes you or not. If you are a "tenderfoot" you can't do better than hold your tongue about the wonders of Europe and its cities, about your own various exploits here and there. You will learn a lot by not talking, and if you don't mind soiling your hands a little, and keeping an eye lifted to discover the way in which things are done, you will get on very well on a Western cattle-ranche.

There was another ranche not far away, owned by an old settler, who had his wife and daughter with him. These were the only women within our immediate ken. She was a real child of the West, this old settler's daughter, and as sweet and dainty as she was capable; about twenty years of age, I should think, and looked after as much by every man on my friend's ranche as she was by her own father. In fact, my friend Bain seemed to take more than a fatherly interest in her. She called him Tom, and he called her Edna, though in this particular respect Tom was not privileged more than any of the other fellows. But her eyes were always bright when Tom was near, and—but there, it was none of my business. Only, as I said before, I kept one eye lifted for most things.

Very soon I began really to enjoy the life very much, for its own sake. There were many things lacking in the matter of house accommodation and comfort, compared with my English home; but it was jolly, real jolly. I never felt so well and strong in all my life as when I was galloping over those hills, on occasion of a general inspection of the ranche. And it was a lark, I tell you, rounding up the cattle.

Of course, all the fellows on the ranche could ride like—well, they could ride anything. I got out of the road when there was any of the expert business on, such as "cutting out," and "corralling." But I began gradually to feel my way in accomplishing their many tricks of horsemanship, and I was able, in course of time, to take a small part in the work of the corral.

I essayed to throw the lasso, or lariat, of course, as one of the very first experiences in ranche life. It is one of the many interesting things you must learn on a cattle-ranche—to use the lasso. Every man carries his rope on his saddle, as a necessary—in fact, there, the most necessary—part of his equipment. A ranchero would as soon think of riding off without his lasso as an English sportsman would think of going partridge-shooting without his gun.

It looks so easy, throwing the lasso. You begin first on foot, and try to throw the rope over a post or something, not very far away. After many hours, at the end of which time you know what it is to have an arm-ache—it may be many days, even many weeks, before you are able to do it—you succeed in lassoing your object two or three times in succession. Ha! ha! You have conquered. You have discovered the knack at last. And you hastily mount your horse to see if you can manage the real thing.

You throw aside your practice rope, unwind the lasso from the horn of the saddle, and essay a "mounted" throw. Your patient animal remains perfectly still and quiet. He seems to know you are a tenderfoot, and to feel quite sure what is going to happen. You whirl your lasso round your head, and aim it at the horns of a harmless steer in the corral some yards away. But you look in vain to see the rope curl round your particular objective. Instead, it flops over your horse's ears, or smacks you on the side of your own head. Oh, it was so easy on the ground, too, when you left off!

And your horse is patient still. He even seems to be smiling quietly to himself. After many more attempts, and with an arm that acheth much, you succeed in affixing your rope round something, throwing from the saddle. At last you have managed it.

Later on an opportunity occurs for the display of your prowess. You are in the corral with a bunch of moving beasts. You single out one as your particular victim. This time the beast is not standing still, and you throw your lasso, carefully watching the fall as it whirls through the air. Poor animal! Instead of roping it by the horns, you nearly jerk its tail off! There are very many accomplishments that seem easy in the hands of an expert and which prove most difficult to the uninitiated, but I think the throwing of the lasso can claim more mysteries than most others.

When out on an inspection of the ranche, reckoning up the stock, and seeing that all are able to secure sufficient food, it frequently happens that some of the cattle will be missing. They get away into all sorts of places, some almost inaccessible among the hills, and if they are not found and brought back to the pastures within easy reach of the corral, they become wild, and then there is mischief to pay. They sneak down late at night or in the small hours of the morning to the corn and wheat fields, break the fences, and trample the crops in a way that spells disaster to many a settler.

Some of the cattle belonging to my friend's ranche had gone astray in this way, and we were unable to locate them.

I remember we were sitting in our adobe house one evening, three or four of us together. It was about seven o'clock, and we had been talking over matters in connection with the decision of the "boss" to drive a bunch of cattle down to King City, where they would be entrained for 'Frisco. The "boss" was up at the other ranche. He had gone to ask the old settler to give us a hand with the cattle next day at the rodeo, or "round-up."

He hadn't offered to take me with him. I suppose that was Edna's fault. Anyhow, we had been sitting there discussing things, when we heard Bain coming in, after unsaddling his horse, in quite a noisy mood. He was muttering hard, and I wondered what Edna had been saying to him. But it wasn't Edna at all. He had come down from the other ranche, higher up the valley, and had passed the cornfields, in which he had noticed unusual movement. He had investigated, and had found that a bunch of wild cattle had broken down the fences, and were eating and trampling down the corn.

A hasty consultation decided that we should make a midnight raid on the beasts, and take as many of them as we could capture down to King City with our own bunch. We had been feeling rather sleepy, but this news made us at once very much alive. However, we decided not to undertake the raid until the next night. The wild cattle would be gone with the morning light, but they would return at dark.

We went to bed, which meant simply rolling ourselves up in our blankets on the floor. I lay awake for some time anticipating the excitement of the next evening. It is not all play, this raiding of wild cattle. It is a risky business, and you must have expert lassoers to lead the way, or there will be trouble.

Next day we went up to the old settler's ranche, "Edna's house," as we called it, up the valley, and there we secured the help of some of our neighbour's men. We were there all the evening, waiting for the hour of midnight at which to sally forth. Edna had expressed a desire to come too! She was a fine horsewoman, and fearless, and she loved excitement of this sort. Tom promised to take care of her, so she was permitted to join our party. Lucky Tom!

As the little clock on the settler's mantelpiece struck twelve, we saddled our horses and set off for the corn-brake. I was keen on seeing how these fellows were going to capture the wild cattle, but I was too inexperienced to take a very active part at the time.

The corn-patch was right in the hollow of the valley, on a flat on the eastern bank of the dry bed of the river. We rode down together—never a word being spoken on the way—to where a group of oak-trees raised their stately heads, and there we held our final council of war. Bain, anxious to give a tenderfoot a chance of seeing as much of the proceedings as possible, directed me to get off my horse and climb the bank, from which I should obtain a view of the field and of the cattle as they were feeding. I was very quiet, for the beasts have ears rather sharper than anything. Tom had given me his directions in a whisper.

So I climbed the bank and looked over the cornfield, and there in the centre I could see a small black mass of moving things, about three hundred yards away. I went quietly back to the river-bed, and found that most of the fellows had dismounted and were "cinching" up their saddles.

A moment later I was told off with a vaquero (cowboy) to ride up the bed of a creek that ran at right-angles to the river and parallel with the cornfield. We were to try to "head" the cattle, and so prevent them from breaking out of the field, up the hillside, and getting away into the mountains again, where we should have had to leave them.

The creek-bed was low, and afforded us good cover for three parts of the way. Then it shallowed, and we soon were able to see, from our horses, the cattle in the corn. We thought we had been very quiet indeed, but we noticed a hurried movement among the beasts, and with a cry "They're off!" my companion dug his spurs into his horse and was off like the wind himself. And I after him.

We dashed into the corn, and raced like mad to head the stampeding beasts. It was the strangest sensation in the world, galloping in the moonlight through the waving corn, which was up to our horses' shoulders. It made me quite giddy for a second or two, but I galloped madly on after my companion, who, with his shrill cowboy yells, helped the roaring cattle to wake the midnight silences of the valley. I joined in the yelling, too, and, so soon as our voices were heard, there was a chorus in reply from where we had left the rest of our party.

"We shall never head them," I cried.

"Perhaps not, but we'll try," answered the vaquero, as we tore onward. I thought we had not the slightest hope of heading them. Up the hillside we tore to keep them on the flat ground, and at every leap over a rough incline I thought my horse would break his neck and mine too. But as surefooted as goats are those horses of the hills. At length, for some reason or other, the cattle wheeled and went back down towards the river, and we, of course, followed.

Suddenly, two of them broke away to the right, and I after them. I thought I might be of some little use, even if I were not an expert lassoer. But those two wild cattle knew too much for me. They tore across a gully, dashed up the other side and away at full gallop into the hills. I let them go. If I had pursued them farther most probably I should not be writing this now. As it was, it was a marvel I had not broken my neck. Only my splendid horse had saved me.

So I rode back to the oak-trees, and there—there was not a sign of life. All was as silent and still as if nothing had ever disturbed Nature's quiet. I remember how beautiful was the night. A half-moon shone out in a clear sky, like a semicircle of pure, bright silver, the tops of the mountains were silhouetted against the sky as if they were cut out of cardboard, and all was so calm just then. You don't get such lovely nights elsewhere. The moon has not the sterling brightness; the air not the clearness nor the stillness that it has there.

Where were my companions? I did not know. My panting horse was glad to get breathing-space, so I sat there in the saddle, waiting. I pulled my coat around my shoulders, for the air was chilly. It was then about 2 A.M.

A sharp sound disturbed my reverie—the sound of a horse's hoofs galloping over the rocky river-bed. The rattle was so clear, so distinct, in that atmosphere and at that hour, that I could hear it long before my eyes could detect anything, even in that bright moonlight. Then, in a few moments, there approached a horse at full gallop, with his head low down and neck extended—at first apparently riderless, but as he came nearer I was startled to discover a black shape, hanging over the off-side, and, as the frightened steed tore past me, I saw it was a woman.

It was Edna. Who else could it be? Her left foot, still in the stirrup, had come right over the saddle with her as she fell, and she was clinging desperately with her hands to the horse's long mane, but so low down that, at the pace, it seemed to be impossible for her to recover.

Without a moment's thought of how I should save her, I galloped after her maddened steed as hard as I could go. I was on an English saddle and without a lasso—since to me such a thing would have been of little use on such a risky expedition as we had undertaken; but I urged my horse onwards and galloped him at his utmost in an endeavour to head the other, when perhaps I might be able to clutch a rein and stop the runaway. But Edna's horse was the fleetest of any on the ranche; moreover, her light weight was a comparative advantage, and so I gained not a whit on the horse with his imperilled burden. It was terrible. How long could the poor girl hang on like that? Not much longer, I was sure, yet prayed that she might have strength.

Then, ahead of us, in the distant moonlight, I discerned other galloping figures. A horseman was pursuing at full speed along the bank a huge steer that bellowed as it endeavoured to secure a free run up into the hills, there to be safe from its mortal enemy. I yelled at the top of my voice, with all the breath I had left.

Immediately the horseman pulled his horse back on its haunches and from the bank stared down at pursued and pursuer. In a twinkling he seemed to realise the situation, wheeled, and galloped down the bank at an angle calculated to make it easier for him to get within reach of Edna's horse. Then I saw it was Tom, and he must have guessed that it was Edna ahead of him, in a position of direst peril. How we had all become separated I could not guess, and there was no time to wonder now.

I saw Tom gather his loop in his right hand, holding the coil in his left, and begin to swing the loop round his head. What! was he going to take such a risk? To lasso the horse and check it suddenly when at a mad gallop like that? Surely the animal would come to earth with a fearful crash, most probably on the side on which it was weighed down with its burden.

Then I saw the rope whirl through the air, and though it could have been but a moment, it seemed to hang there for minutes without falling. This was the time for skill. If ever Tom should throw his lariat well, it must be now. With unerring aim the rope was cast, and the loop settled over the head of the runaway, though the maddened animal was galloping with neck stretched full length and head low down.

Gradually the rope tightened round its shoulders, Tom galloping his own horse hard behind. By the most skilful manipulation of the lariat, Edna's horse was compelled to slacken its pace, Tom getting nearer and nearer by degrees and taking in the slack until he was right alongside. He soon brought the runaway to a stand-still, and directed me to release Edna's foot from the stirrup, which I did. She sank to the ground, completely exhausted. And little wonder. Her hands were cut and bleeding with the tenacious grip she had kept on the horse's mane, and it was some time before she recovered sufficient strength to move.

As soon as she was able, she told us that she had become separated from the other riders when galloping through the cornbrake, and a wild steer had gored her horse in the side. This had so startled the animal that he reared, and then dashed off madly up the valley in the way I had seen her coming. She had fallen over, and as her foot had caught in the stirrup, she clutched her horse's long mane, and so saved herself from being dragged along the ground, and, probably, from a horrible death.

We now were able to see that her horse had been badly ripped on the near side, and from loss of blood and as the result of his long, mad gallop, the poor animal was in a bad way. He was led back to the ranche and there cared for.

It appeared that the others had galloped along on the other side of the field until they had found that the cattle had turned. Then they waited until they could get behind them, and, when this was managed, they secured half a dozen of them with their lariats.

One man had let go his lasso. This sometimes happens. In cases of emergency a man has to let go his rope, and that is why the cowboys practise picking up things from the ground at full gallop. It is not done there for show; there is no gallery to play to. It is a necessary accomplishment. A man has lost his rope, the other end of it, perhaps, being round the horns of a steer. He gallops after it, as soon as he is clear of the bunch, and picks up the end at full speed. At the proper time he gives the lasso a turn round the horn of the saddle, pulls up his well-trained horse, and the steer is jerked to his feet. It is neatly done—and it takes doing.

Next day the cattle were all in the corrals, and the wild ones were placed in the bunch to be travelled down to King City. But the newcomers were too unruly. They continually broke away en route, and gave so much trouble that before our destination was reached we shot every one of them.

I left my friend's ranche shortly after this. I had had some experience that was worth winning, and I had gained a little knowledge of ranche life of the West.

Lately I received a delicate little wedding-card, neatly inscribed, and figured with a design representing a coiled lariat. And from out of the coil there peeped the daintily written words—"Tom and Edna."