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


V
WILLIAM’S FIRST LOVE

A few days after Sister Ann’s marriage, William set out on a business mission to Velasco, a small town on the mainland, one hundred miles from Galveston. It was three o’clock in the afternoon when he walked up the main street of the Island, on his way to the ferry-boat. Fully equipped with pistol and ammunition in case of emergency, he looked quite attractive in his well-fitting riding boots and breeches.

Suddenly his attention was attracted in the direction of a seething mass of people; they were shouting and cursing at a negro who was endeavoring to escape. On making inquiries as to the reason for all this disturbance, he learned that a drunken old woman had informed a Swiss tailor that the negro had insulted her by biting her on the cheek. When the tailor heard this complaint he had run out of the house and begun exciting the mob. Mobs were of frequent occurrence on the Island, and William had heard of them, but had not had a previous opportunity to be in the midst of such a scene.

Naturally, the intention of visiting Velasco vanished from his mind as he joined the excited crowd, whose members hardly seemed to know what they were yelling about. Pushing his way through the people into the front line, William was just in time to see several men putting a rope around the neck of the struggling negro. Then they tied the poor fellow to a dray, which was drawn by a mule, and amid shrieks of laughter and much shouting, the victim was dragged by the neck through the streets until dead. Before the police were able to interfere, they cut off his head and stuck it on a pole, while some of them picked up the crushed body and battered it with an iron dray-pin.

As young William witnessed this ghastly scene he could hardly contain himself. The affair made him feel quite ill, yet revengeful, for he had always had a horror of injustice.

When the mob had quieted down and the perturbed citizens were slowly wending their way to their various homes, William noticed a beautiful girl standing near him. She looked about sixteen, had long blonde hair and large blue eyes. Yes, the horrible scene had been too much for her; she had become extremely pale, and now she suddenly fainted. Impulsively the young Virginian rushed forward, caught her in his arms, and anxiously bent over the beautiful form that lay unconscious in his embrace. When the girl at length regained consciousness, she looked up into his eyes and asked in pathetic tones, “Where am I, and who are you?” The young man not only explained, but, taking courage, asked the fair maid for her name and address, intimating that he would be glad to see her to her door. Miss Eliza Crozier was her name, and William, with the air of a cavalier, accompanied her to her home, where she hurriedly explained to anxious parents how the young man had saved her from a violent fall. Mr. and Mrs. Crozier expressed their thanks to the young Virginian, whom they recognized as the late Major Taliaferro Howard’s son.

It was quite dark when William arrived at his own home, and there, alone and in absolute silence, he took his evening meal. Before retiring, he had a short talk with his mother, and gave her the usual good-night kiss. Somehow he could not sleep, and as the early morning approached, his thoughts went out to the fascinating blonde who had stepped into his life under extraordinary circumstances.

Truly, it was the first fever of love, and try as he might it seemed impossible to quiet his feelings. They were stirred to such an intensity that be appeared to be surrounded completely by some very elusive power. He was experiencing those wonderful sensations which, until now, he had regarded as mythical, unreal, experienced only by the gods and goddesses, or by the most favored ones in this matter-of-fact world.

At the breakfast table, after a restless night, he heard his mother say, “William, you are very absent-minded this morning. What is the matter? Are you quite well?”

“Oh, yes,” replied the lad, “I’m all right.” However, his one thought was Eliza; he must look into those big blue eyes again.

The fever which water can not quench, and which neither thirst nor starvation can overcome, had gripped him, and he now realized the futility of trying to stand against such a compelling force. The driving power of love is simply irresistible, and if fought against will leave one battered and maimed.

Precisely at ten o’clock he saddled his horse, and made another start for Velasco.

On the way to the ferry, William looked and longed for a glimpse of the fair-haired belle, but alas, no such good fortune! While waiting for the boat, which seemed later than usual, he became impatient, then desperate. By way of relief to his taut nerves, he entered the delinquent ferryman’s hut and killed time by putting salt into his jug of whisky. When the ferry-boat arrived, the youth was soon aboard with his horse, and half-an-hour later, having reached the mainland, he vaulted into the saddle and galloped the rest of the way to Velasco.

His first duty in this town was to call upon a temperamental Southern Tennessee lady, named Mrs. William Wharton, who invited him to stay for a few days and enjoy some shooting.

On the third day, William, having just returned from a hard and exciting day’s hunting, while in conversation with his hostess, accidentally dropped his pistol on the floor. It was loaded, but fortunately did not go off. His hostess became very much excited, commenced to reprimand him severely, and in the midst of all the commotion, who should appear upon the scene but—Eliza!

She had arrived during his absence, and was in the company of John Wharton, the only son of this rich widow. How delighted William was to see the beautiful girl! But here was John, his rival again; yes, John Wharton had been his rival before—on more than one occasion.

Without waiting for an introduction, William stepped forward and said in gentle tones, “Well, Miss Crozier, I am very glad to see you, and trust that you are none the worse for your fall.” “Oh, no,” she replied with a girlish blush, “I must thank you with all my heart for saving my life.”

Just as the conversation was reaching an interesting climax, John Wharton shouted in a nervous and impatient manner, “I say, Howard, don’t you think it’s about time you picked up that pistol?”

William picked up the loaded weapon, made a courteous bow, and apologized profusely to his distinguished hostess. Mrs. Wharton quickly grasped the situation—two young men in love with the same girl; therefore, moved by love for her son, she hastened Mr. Howard’s departure by inviting him outside to look at some property she had for sale. While looking at and passing remarks about the property, William inwardly planned how he could make an appointment with Eliza.

Re-entering the house, he asked Mrs. Wharton for some writing paper. Then he scribbled the following note:

“Eliza, come shooting with me on Thursday. Meet me ten o’clock at the gate of your home.     W. J. H.”

He also wrote another note with regard to some future business respecting the property, and handed it to his hostess. When bidding them all good-by, on shaking hands with Miss Crozier he diplomatically pressed her fingers and left the crumpled paper in her hand. No explanation was needed; she treasured the contents, and, as arranged, met William on Thursday morning.

It was a beautiful day when William, his brother Torn, Miss Crozier and her brother Bob all set out for a day of real pleasure. With loaded guns and well-filled luncheon baskets they wandered far into the woods. Everyone appeared extremely happy—especially William; the great desire of his life had been granted, for his little blonde friend was by his side.

As the day advanced, all went well, and they enjoyed excellent luck with their shooting. Just before deciding to go home, they arrived at the border of a beautiful little lake, where there were many ducks, and brother Torn, anxious to secure more game, crawled quietly along the edge of the water. Suddenly a man on the opposite side frightened the ducks and irritated the temper of the marksman so much that he fired right at him. One shot grazed the forehead of the victim, whose name was Parker; he was in the employ of William’s mother.

The four young people became terrified, and appeared anxious to keep the incident from Mrs. Howard’s ears; but Parker told her the story of the whole affair. It was an unfortunate ending to a happy day, a day which had meant so much to William J. Howard, for he had “put one over” on John Wharton, and had been in the company of his beloved Eliza for ten golden hours.

Father Time rolled on, and William’s friendship with Eliza grew stronger. So far, many of their meetings had been in secret, and they meant more to him than the mere historian’s pen may venture to describe. He adored her; she was the most beautiful girl in Galveston, graceful, a good musician, and full of vivacity. When William was not exchanging thoughts and sentiments with her, face to face, he was dreaming of her, and each moment they spent together he treasured as a precious jewel.

Eliza loved to go sailing, and as William owned the best boat on the Island, many parties were indulged in. On all these excursions he would talk to her about his future plans. In making a landing one afternoon, altho the boat was drawn as near to the shore as possible, they had to wade in the water. It was the duty of each man to carry his sweetheart, and Torn, having no lady, grabbed Eliza. This annoyed William immensely; he made a dash for Brother Tom, and in the struggle that ensued all three fell into the water.

A few days after this sailing expedition William obtained permission from Mr. Crozier to take Eliza to the “grand ball” at the Tremont Hotel. The request was granted with the understanding that the girl be taken care of and brought safely home at midnight.

At last the evening of the great event arrived. William secured his mother’s carriage and pair, and with Edmund as coachman called for his partner. The blue-eyed youth looked remarkably handsome in his well-tailored dress-suit, which had been brushed and pressed for the occasion, as with a graceful bow he greeted Eliza and assisted her into the carriage.

Many thoughts passed quickly through William’s mind while on the way to the ball. He and his beloved Eliza were going to experience a most delightful evening. This was his first dance with her, and, who knows? it might be the last. For the cry of “Gold! Gold. California!” had just reached the Texan shores, and so his thoughts rambled on. A new dream— Gold and California!

When they arrived at the Tremont Hotel, William dismissed the coachman with instructions to return at twelve o’clock. Then, with the young lady’s hand on his arm, they entered the ball-room together, and it was not many moments before the handsome couple were gliding to the dreamy waltz-music. Dance after dance followed, and both young people were kept actively engaged.

During the evening Eliza danced frequently with John Wharton, and all went well until midnight. At the stroke of twelve, William went to Eliza and asked her to leave with him, as he was anxious to keep the promise made to her father. She refused to go, and girl-like, kept saying, “Just one more dance.” A whole hour passed, and William, becoming impatient, called her attention to the fact that it was time to go home. Eliza sharply replied, “I will go home with Mr. Wharton.”

This was too much for Howard’s youthful blood. He quickly put on his wraps, jumped into the carriage, and commanded Edmund to drive to the Croziers’ home. On arriving there, he told his story to Mr. Crozier, a very obstinate man, who immediately borrowed William’s carriage and set out to bring his daughter home.

Eliza’s actions pierced the young Virginian to the heart. How could a woman be so cruel? This was the first hard jolt in William James Howard’s life. It was the end of his first love affair, and the next day he sent the fair and fickle one a poetic farewell announcing, among other things:

“A cruel fate between us rolls;
We part—we part to meet no more.”


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