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The Last of the California Rangers (1928) by Jill L. Cossley-Batt


III
ANOTHER VENTURE

At the close of seven years’ residence in Mississippi, Taliaferro Howard decided to move his family farther West, so he purchased a farm in Washington County, in the independent Republic of Texas. It took ten days to prepare for the journey. As usual, the Major, his wife and children led the way in the old family coach, followed in the rear by slaves and baggage, in exactly the same way that they had left old Virginia.

The trip proved both pleasant and thrilling to William, who was now an excellent shot. As they traveled farther West the country became more wild and the coloring more vivid. The young people daily discovered some new wild growth, and numerous kinds of flowers met their eager gaze. Indeed, this part of the globe has been generously endowed by Mother Nature. In the late springtime they arrived at their new home, which, sad to relate, proved a great disappointment. It is true they did not experience much trouble with bandits and negro-stealers; nevertheless, the mosquitoes were a real pest, and every member of the family suffered continuous attacks of malarial fever; therefore, on account of fever and crop-failures, Major Howard, at the end of one season, moved his family nearer to Austin, on the Brazos.

Here the surroundings were more interesting; they carried William’s mind back to Mississippi. Yes, the same kind of home, with large rooms, vast open fire-places, and wide hunting-hall. The house was built on a slope, almost two miles from the River Brazos. Bordering the river were large oak-trees, which tested the boy’s skill at climbing. There was also a corn and cotton plantation, with negro quarters some distance from the main residence.

At six o’clock every morning it was William’s allotted duty to cross the bayou on his pony and call the slaves. How his heart leaped when he thought of the vicious alligators in the water, for they were especially fond of dogs, hogs, and little boys! Sometimes, however, the mischievous lad could not resist catching a half-grown specimen of these ugly creatures, and using it to play tricks upon the faithful old servants.

His old Mammy, “Aunt Agnes,” was the head milker; she was in the habit of keeping her stool and bucket inside of the wooden fence which protected the cows in the pasture. Many times William reached through the fence and dipped his cup into the fresh, warm milk. When Mammy discovered his trick, she moved the bucket away from the fence; then the naughty boy procured a joint of hollow cane, and by pushing it through the rails into the pail was able to indulge freely. Eventually, “Aunt Agnes” was successful in placing the bucket of milk out of her tormentor’s reach, and he, one day, gained revenge by almost frightening the poor old woman to death.

On bright days the alligators often came out on the bank to bask in the sun, and on this occasion the boy caught one four feet long. Carefully tying a cord around its neck, he attached the other end to the door-key, which Mammy usually hid under her door-step. Restoring the key to its accustomed place, he put the reptile in the waterhole under the cabin. When “Aunt Agnes” returned early in the evening and picked up her key, she naturally dragged the alligator with it. The shock caused her to scream and almost collapse from heart-failure, while the alligator fled, dragging the key after it. William watched the proceedings from a well-chosen corner, and at the critical moment came to the rescue, saying:

“Mammy, if you promise not to whip me, I will get the key for you.”

She promised, and at the boy’s request fetched an ax. With this implement William killed the alligator, secured the door-key, and handed it to her with a naughty look on his face.

Shortly after their arrival at the Brazos, Taliaferro Howard had a school-house erected and engaged Mr. Melvin as tutor. With all the excitement of his surroundings, William found it very difficult to study. His attention was continually attracted to some new discovery. He loved to study the flowers in the garden; there was the Spanish bayonet, with its pure flaxen flowers; and there was the exotic cactus, with its gorgeous blossoms; also the pinks, the forget-me-nots, hollyhocks, and purple, yellow, and pink gillyflowers. Stately lilies, all kinds of beautiful roses, gardenia, lemon-verbena, and the sweet olive filled the air with fragrance. All this beauty was the delight of his mother, too, for, according to the Virginian custom, the flower-garden was the result of the housewife’s good taste.

In spite of its malarial climate, the Brazos region was charming, and William Howard had the time of his life amidst the wonderful works of the oldest “Mother” in the world. He made pets of the frogs, kingfishers, water-snakes, doves, pigs, deer, and sometimes a baby alligator. In this enchanted forest his mind developed in a most remarkable manner, and a strong foundation was built for his creative powers. Is it a wonder that as the years advanced he selected such a thrilling life for himself? He grew extremely fond of hunting, and every evening at the completion of his lessons and other duties, would take his gun and wander into the woods, in spite of the annoying mosquitoes that attacked him in swarms.

Occasionally, his father would take trips to Galveston and leave him to manage the plantation. These periods of responsibility helped to mould his character, and as he grew into manhood they gave him judgment and self-confidence. It was in this environment that he acquired his knowledge of the Spanish language and of the great out-of-doors, which, later in life, proved invaluable to him in his labors as one of the makers of California.



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