I'll Tell You a Tale is a garland of some of Frank Dobie's best writing, put together by Isabel Gaddis, one of his former students at the University of Texas. The tales included are those the author himself liked best, and he even rewrote some of them especially for this anthology. Ben Carlton Mead has contributed 32 original line drawings to illustrate the stories.
These tales spring from the soil and folklore of our land; but more than this, they make the readers contemporary with the times, filling us with the wonder of something past and yet still with us. They are arranged topically into sections whose titles speak for them: "The Longhorn Breed," "Mustangs and Mustangers," "The Saga of the Saddle," "Characters and Happenings of Long Ago," "Animals of the Wild," "In Realms of Gold," and "Ironies."
In talking of bulls I have dwelt long on their wonderful utterances. No wild animal, or domestic either, that I know of has as many vocal tones as the longhorn. In comparison, the bulls and cows of highly bred varieties of cattle are voiceless. The cow of the longhorns has one moo for her newborn calf, another for it when it is older, one to tell it to come to her side and another to tell it to stay hidden in the tall grass. Moved by amatory feelings, she has a low audible breath of yearning. In anger she can run a gamut. If her calf has died or been otherwise taken from her, she seems to be turning her insides out into long, sharp, agonizing bawls. I have heard steers make similar sounds. They seemed to be in the utmost agony of expressing something so poignant to them that the utterance meant more than life, something that would willingly be paid for by death.
The bawling of thirsty cattle used to be all too familiar a sound on ranches before wells and tanks became plentiful and the gasoline engine was devised to pump water when the wind fails to blow. Day and night, day and night, it would go on around empty water troughs, the moans getting weaker in time, though the endurance of a cow brute in keeping up a continual bawling would make insignificant the record of any long-winded filibusterer holding the floor of Congress. Cattle walking a fence in futile anxiety to get back to a range they have been driven from make the same distressful, relentless sounds.
The mingled bawls and lowings, each of a different pitch and timbre, of a big herd of mixed cattle held forcibly while hungry and thirsty after a day of being ginned about, frantic heifers and headstrong old cows separated from their calves, calves in misery for their mothers, yearlings adding to the din in the same way that each of forty babies will go to crying if one opens up, steers bawling for their lost powers of masculinity or for the same reason that great arctic wolves bay at the midnight sun or from some urge that only God is aware of, bulls bellowing at the memory of past combats or maybe without memory at all—all make music to a cowman's ears, especially at a distance.
Bill Halsell was a cowman of the old Texas breed that held their horses against Comanches, their cattle against thieves, and, for a little while, their ranges against settlers. He fought his hardest fights, though, against blizzards and drouths. And now after the rise, the plateau, and the fall of fighting and holding, Bill Halsell lay a-dying in faraway California. His friend Charles A. Jones of the S M S Ranch went to the hospital to see him.
"I'm not long for this country, Charlie," the cowman on the bed said.
There was a pause. Then he added, "Before I leave there's one thing I'd like mighty well to experience again. I've been wishing for it for days. You couldn't guess what it is."
"No, but I imagine it has to do with ranching."
"Yes, I'm camping again away out yonder where it's quiet and roomy and the wind's blowing over mesquite grass. I'm listening one more time to an old Texas bull beller down the canyon. Don't talk to me about a lot of taller-faced angels singing hymns. Who that's ever rode a good horse and heard a genuine bull beller could want to be a god-damned angel, anyhow?"
Bill Halsell and the original Thomas O'Connor represented a breed of men and a breed of cattle both vanished from the earth except here and there in some kind of menagerie isolation. In 1836, about the time when the word "cow-boy" denoting border raiders after Mexican cattle came into use, Tom O'Connor had a ranch on which some of the lifted cows stopped. As the years passed, he accumulated sections of land by the score, and ten thousand cattle wore his T-H-C connected brand. Then, having galloped a little while with the years more swiftly than the weaver's shuttle, Tom O'Connor could no longer pull up into his saddle and ride free across the seas of grass on which his brand fattened and multiplied.
One night he told Pat Lambert, his boss, to take all hands out early next morning and bring in the biggest herd they could gather. To Pat Lambert, early morning always meant by four o'clock. After he and his hands had ridden out a few miles, they stopped to wait for daylight. They rode hard and they rode far, and about an hour before sundown they drove a vast herd of mixed cattle to the holding and cutting grounds not far from the O'Connor ranch house. Bulls were challenging, cows were bawling, stags were bellowing, calves were bleating. Heifers, yearlings, young steers and old mossy-horns, all ages of cattle of both sexes milled about, their blended voices rising above the dust raised by their hoofs.
While some of the hands held the herd and others changed horses, Pat Lambert went into the room where Tom O'Connor lay on his bed.
"We made a big drag, Mr. Tom," he said.
"I hear them," Tom O'Connor replied. His voice was thin.
"What you want me to do with them, Mr. Tom?"
"Nothing, Pat. Just hold them there. I'm a-dying, and I want to go out with their music in my ears."
This Marqués de Aguayo owned lands stretching from the interior of Texas to Zacatecas, and he made a ride that is still the wonder of all this country of riding tradition. Folk living on the haciendas to which he once held title sometimes yet see him in the night desperately spurring—so they who want to be credulous say. As I myself rode and slept among such witnesses, the Marqués became far more of a reality to me than he appeared when I read the excellently documented book of facts written to refute the legend. But this legend belongs; I tell it as generations of vaqueros, drivers of wood-laden burros, and old women of the metate have blended it to make it their own Cid of spur and blood.
To begin, as the old ballad about the Marqués begins—for there is a ballad—"the ancient parchments tell not, nor do the chronicles point out with exactitude, the year or the day of this strange event." But it was three hundred years ago or so—say, around 1650. Of the various subdivisions of land called estancias that the Marqués owned, his favorite—even above Las Cinco Llagas—was La Villa de los Patos. Here in mature but vigorous years he brought his young and beautiful wife Angela. Here also came as visitor and ward a comely nephew, Don Félix. The Marqués was often away for long periods, sometimes riding great distances both by day and night, overseeing his far-flung enterprises, making war on savage marauders, and not infrequently halting to carouse and gamble.
One day, upon returning to Los Patos from a prolonged absence, he discovered something that made him as jealous as Othello. It was his nature to act swiftly, and now he was fury-bent. He had many horses that were as fleet on the mountain trails as they were sure-footed. He had many peons who obeyed without question. In those days it was the custom to travel with a caballada of horses for changes on the route. The Marqués ordered five peons, besides his mozo of the stirrup, to prepare to ride with him and twelve picked horses for his caballada. As soon as men and horses were ready, which was promptly after his order was issued, he set out for Mazapil, a combined mining camp and hacienda that was also one of his possessions.
Mazapil as the crow flies lies some twenty leagues—around fifty miles—south of Los Patos across a mountain-wrinkled basin. As the trails twist, the distance must be at least sixty miles. The country between the two points is without water or trees. About four leagues out from Los Patos the Marques ordered one of his servants to halt with two horses and to remain there until he should return. Four leagues farther on he left another peon with two horses, and at like intervals over the entire distance he arranged postas. He rode into Mazapil accompanied only by the personal mozo.
At Mazapil he had friends. It was not long after dark before, with plenty of brandy of Parras—where the cellars of the Marques de Aguayo yet age the juice of grapes—they had begun a game of monte. Soon the Marqués took occasion to withdraw. "Con permiso," he said, and stepped out. His comrades went on drinking and gambling, deeply absorbed.
As he had ordered, he found his horse saddled and ready, mozo by the stirrup. He was setting out on a journey to which he wished no witnesses. Accordingly he seized the peon by the throat and quickly choked him to death, in silence and without marks. It took but a few minutes to put the body out of the way. The place for it had been prepared, for this "Croesus of Mexico," it must be remembered, owned and ordered everything. Then he rode.
He rode for honor, for death, for vengeance. There is no way to tell how fast he rode; he rode without regard for horseflesh. In an incredibly brief time he was at the place where he had posted his last relay of horses. As he dismounted, his horse spread his legs out stiff, swayed, and then fell over dead. In a minute's time the saddle was changed, and, leaving the peon to hold the other fresh horse against his return, the Marqués was again on the road, alone. Thus killing every horse he rode but managing with fine precision to reach a posta before the mount succumbed, he sped on to La Villa de Los Patos—and to the room of his young wife Angela.
As he expected, Don Félix was with her. Anger did not prevent finesse. He stabbed the woman before either she or her lover knew that he was there. Then, overpowering the nephew, he forced him to stab himself. He left the knife in his hand so that the double murder would have the appearance of having been done by the betrayer of the bed. In the patio the Marqués found a watchful house servant. The dead do not bear witness. The Marqués was leaving no witnesses.
While getting a fresh mount from his stables, he met another servant; this man also he killed. Then back towards Mazapil he rode. He returned, if possible, more swiftly than he had come. Only now, as he changed mounts at the postas, he killed one by one the witnesses of his nighttime ride.
Just how many hours it took him to make the round trip the story does not say. It was dark when with a polite "con permiso" he excused himself from his comrades and set out. It was still dark and the game of monte was still going on when he reentered the room at Mazapil and took his place.
When, the next day, news came of the deaths at Los Patos, the Marqués appeared to be stricken with grief. He ordered a royal funeral and made provision for countless Masses. But despite the care with which he had removed all witnesses, despite the arrangement he had made of the dead lovers, and despite his own high position—or perhaps because of it, for the higher in station a man stands the higher up do enemies rise—he was suspected and brought to court. The only evidence was circumstantial, and the admitted fact that he was at Mazapil at both the beginning and the ending of the night on which the Marquésa and Don Félix met their death proved an alibi. That in the intervening hours he could have ridden to Los Patos and returned was considered humanly impossible. Some say that a little servant girl who had witnessed the killing of the Marquésa Angela appeared but was barred by law from testifying.
Investigations went on for many years. The viceroy of the king of Spain in Mexico City took a hand. At length a high judge—the oidor—from Guadalajara came to Los Patos, where, except for hirelings, the Marqués lived alone in the dark, gloomy house still pointed out as la Casa de Cadena. His plan was to draw out a confession. Yet if such a confession were brought into court, the Marqués would deny having made it. The oidor foresaw this and foresaw the necessity of having testimony to corroborate his own word. Having, as he thought, gained the confidence of the Marqués, he one dark evening hid a man under the table, which was heavily draped with a green cloth, in the salon where guests were usually received.
After a good dinner at which both oidor and Marqués fortified themselves well with wine, the two entered the salon. The candles but shadowly lighted it.
"Come, now, Señor Marqués," the oidor said in an easy way. "As you know, the court can do nothing with you. There is no testimony. Not as an official but as your friend and as a human being with intense curiosity, I burn to know how in one night you kept the game of monte going in Mazapil and at the same time that of daggers in Los Patos."
"I will tell you," the Marqués replied with a frankness that surprised his guest. "When a man who loves glory has achieved some remarkable thing, he itches for it to be known."
"Yes, yes," the oidor eagerly assented, "and your name, my Marqués, praised by the king of Spain in the Escorial beyond the ocean and trembled at by every savage Chichimec in Nueva Vizcaya, must be ever gathering to itself fresh renown."
p"For that reason only, I talk now," the Marqués went on. He seemed absolutely careless. "Those who say that the dead have better memories than the living lack blood and are stuffed with pigeon livers."
But before beginning his story the Marqués pulled his chair up against the mantled table, on the side across from the oidor, who sat near the brazier of coals. He told all in detail—of the relays stationed, of the ride, of the swift dispatch of lovers and witnesses alike. Then he concluded: "It was a dishonor that only blood could wash out."
At the end of the story the high judge from Guadalajara arose and called out, "Witness, you have heard. Come forth. We have the confession."
But the witness under the mantled table did not speak or stir. The Marqués remained seated, at his ease.
"Witness of the court," the oidor called in a more commanding voice, "come forth. We have heard what we came to hear."
Still there was no stir or response. The Marqués had not moved from his relaxed position.
A third time the oidor spoke. He was impatient. "Why do you not respond?" he called.
Then the Marqués spoke. "Porque los muertos no hablan." Because the dead do not talk.
At these words he quietly pulled up the overhanging folds of the heavy green cloth. Huddled on the floor under the table lay the lifeless body of the secret witness. The Marqués had choked him with his sharp knees. The exercise of furious and constant riding, it is said, had given to Aguayo's legs and knees muscles that, even to a generation of men living on horseback, were astonishingly strong.
"You have authority," the Marqués added, looking at the oidor, "to hold inquests. Here is paper with pen and ink. You will write that this man, whose name I know not but who is known to you, died in my house on this night of apoplexy."
The oidor wrote and left. The processes of law never got further.