This is part one of a three-part serial. James C. Moore has kindly allowed this piece to be reprinted from his Substack, “Texas to the World: Dispatches from the Center of the Known Universe.”
Down near the Terlingua ghost town, the Rio Grande marks a course through ancient volcanic lava before it enters Santa Elena Canyon’s 1500-foot walls. The river’s history and geology are profoundly complex as it approaches the remote National Park. In one low, sandy, flood plain, the horses of General “Black Jack” Pershing’s soldiers long ago trod toward a shallow crossing to enter Mexico in a vain pursuit of the revolutionary Pancho Villa, who had prompted military response by his attack on American soil. A hundred yards distant, the water’s flow edges up against a shining green golf course laid out by a resort designer amid a deadly arid land.
Westward, the ranch road that parallels the river to Presidio rises sharply through switchbacks, toward a mountain pass with a panoramic unmatched on most American roadways. A traveler can stop and look in either direction and see the power of time and water, and the evolution of a natural boundary that has seemed to both unite and divide. The caliche roadbed is the sole, and somewhat feeble, indication humans have ever reached these heights. Even the appearance of birds is rare in the aeries of these imposing Precambrian mesas.
A group of people had gathered on a cliffside overlook as the morning sun was chasing shadows up the mountain. The center of their attention was a woman, the governor of the state of Texas, who precariously held an American bald eagle on her leather-sheathed and extended arm. The wounded creature had been rehabilitated by Texas Parks and Wildlife biologists, and Ann W. Richards was releasing the great bird of prey back to the sunburnt wilds of the Southwest.
“He looks like he’s ready to go, y’all, don’t he?”
Richards turned to the onlookers; her fierce blue eyes barely visible under a straw hat. Our TV camera captured the bird’s tentative extension of its broad wingspan, testing a long unused ability to lift itself into the air.
“Governor, if you’ll just step a little bit closer to the overlook, we can let him see the canyon and maybe give him more encouragement to fly away.”
The park ranger gently edged Richards and the bird in the direction of a thousand-foot precipice. A thermal lift quickly came up the canyon and curled against a broad talus slide. The eagle bent his head sharply in the wind’s direction, opened his beak, and flapped wings, tentatively, but with intent. The great bird must have instinctively known the purpose of the breeze, and lightened, he arose from the governor’s arm with a powerful push of talons and press of feathers.
The eagle went down instead of up, though, diving toward the canyon and the river, gliding, not ascending. We lost track of the line of flight below the edge of a rock incline, and a few of us were startled by thoughts the creature had simply swooped to a demise, unable to remember how to fly. Momentarily, though, he sought altitude with effort, almost straight up against the pale blue heavens, the outstretched wings driving him nearly beyond the reach of our vision over the increasing distance.
“Oh my, y’all,” the governor said. “Ain’t that a beautiful thing? Look at him.”
I was looking, instead, at her. Ann Richards appeared to contemplate her own freedom. In a denim shirt and jeans, she had a profile of the casual explorer, and the weight of office was not visible. Critics and opponents and budget worries and coalition building did not appear a burden. She was in one of her favorite spots in Texas, maybe the world, and did not have to hurry to a meeting or a news conference to speak to reporters.
“Here he comes back!”
Someone yelled and pointed. The eagle was on a straight line from a spectacular height out on the horizon and he appeared to be targeting our small gathering like we were mere rodents ready for grasping in curled talons. We all stood, motionless, waiting, and watched his fearless descent. The space between us closed with increasing speed until he could have landed in our midst. Instead, he bent his long neck south toward Mexico and wheeled back out over the river rapids below and disappeared behind a dark mesa.
A few minutes later we gave up on the bird’s return and began walking to our vehicles. The governor, energized, was talkative. She had made plans to raft through Santa Elena Canyon with friends before returning to Austin. Musician Steven Fromholz, a veteran river rider and guide, she said, was to be her boatman, and an outfitter would provide a gourmet meal at an overnight camping site.
“Why don’t y’all come along?”
I did not realize she was speaking to my cameraman, Jerry, and me.
“Yes, y’all. I’m sure you’d enjoy it.”
“Ha, of course, I would. But just sounds like it’s old friends and private,” I said.
“Well, I’ve been looking at you since I was at the county, so I reckon you’ll be okay.”
“Sure, we’ll go, assuming we can bring our gear?”
“That’ll be fine.”
I had long loved the river but had never passed beneath the walls of Santa Elena. The Rio Grande was a mysterious transition zone to me, where countries and cultures and geographies merged into a unique landscape nearly impossible for an outlander to comprehend. I had wandered its reaches, though, from the Rio Grande Gorge in Northern New Mexico to Boca Chica Beach where it emptied into the open water at the Gulf.
My fascination began when we were young and newly married; my employer had ski parties on his boat down where the river passed under the international bridges connecting the two countries. The day he invited us I hardly noticed the turgid water, but I saw the tall Washington palms and sugar cane on shore. Children sat on the muddy south bank and watched us with hungry eyes as we passed carefree into the sun. I saw them staring when the boat trailer was backed down the ramp and the craft was reeled up to be towed home. I see them still, their brown skin and muddy clothes, plastic bags of modest belongings shuffling back toward the brush where parents waited on their haunches for darkness, as if they were poised to leap into the unknown.
We later moved up the river to Laredo and lived in a trailer on a ranch about a half mile from the Rio Grande and sometimes at night the immigrants, still dripping with water, came to our doorstep to ask for a drink or food. There were often children, silent and frightened, and they followed their parents out toward the Interstate highway and the railroad tracks. I did not understand what they were doing but the rancher who was our landlord said the immigrants walked north between the rails through the night and before sunrise they crept off into the brush among the prickly pear cactus and rattlesnakes to sleep during the day. San Antonio was 120 miles distant. Nights later, I might be on the TV news where I worked, reporting on black and bloated bodies caught in root tangles under the river’s edge. These were, not infrequently, drowned children.
All rivers are mysterious, but the Rio Grande has always been particularly vexing to me. The valley of its passage has certainly known joy but existence within the watershed is often more unforgiving than happy. I suspect the role of international frontier changes the character of a river with commerce and immigration and the pull of two cultures and economies tearing at each other while they also try to stitch together a simple way of being.
The union of two rivers can even be mystical. After it drains a watershed almost the size of the Mississippi River Valley, Mexico’s Rio Conchos meets the Rio Grande at Presidio and Ojinaga. The sere earth was made green and fertile by floods over a plain that came to be known as “La Junta de los Rios,” the junction of two rivers. Recent archaeological digs have turned up detritus from ancient civilizations at La Junta that indicate it may be the oldest continually occupied location in North America. Indigenous peoples known as the Jumano, and later the Comanche and Apache, lived thousands of years by taking wildlife, fishing, gathering nuts, and picking wild peaches and berries. They were the first to encounter Spanish missionaries traveling through to look for cities of gold.
A European presence did not begin to be felt at La Junta until after the conclusion of the 1848 Mexican-American War. Two U.S. soldiers lingered by the water and adjoining green pastures after they had put down their guns. Milton Faver, who had traveled alone on horseback from Missouri as a runaway 17-year-old, began hauling produce and dry goods in a cart from Chihuahua City and, ultimately, became a renowned merchant and rancher. He might have even been the first American cowboy when he initiated cattle drives of longhorn to Fort Davis, where he sold beef to the Buffalo Soldiers stationed at the remote outpost.
Faver protected his family from Comanche by building a fort at Cibolo Creek, which was constructed with three-foot thick adobe walls. When civilization began its hesitant approach to the remote Southwest, he once rode a train to San Antonio to meet his son returning from the Civil War. Faver found the experience so disconcerting, he bought two horses to ride for their return trip. His home has become a contemporary resort with an airstrip for flying machines that deliver movie and rock stars seeking a retreat, and where he raised his family and ran a great ranch, a U.S. Supreme Court justice drew his last breath inside the fort’s now luxurious walls.
Ben Leaton, who had also fought the Mexicans, prospered at La Junta like Faver, though he was not the sole progenitor of his story. Lacking any interest in returning to the organized states of the north, he started a trading post with his Mexican wife, which also turned into a fort and the headquarters for a cattle company. Leaton’s horses and peasants hauled giant loads of freight on massive, wooden-wheeled carts to be sold to the strangers drifting toward the river’s comforting promises to make a life, or who were, perhaps, mid passage on their way to Chihuahua City to search for silver.
His relationships with the Comanche and Apache were fraught with anxiety and distrust, even though he had made money by purchasing goods they had stolen from settlers. The Indians kept rustling his cattle, however. Leaton’s version of an olive branch was to invite the chiefs to his fort to dine and drink his peach brandy. One of his workers translated to his guests and expressed Ben’s interest in reaching a peace accord by offering the tribal chiefs a few animals, and when they agreed, he thought his problem was solved. The departing natives, however, made off with dozens of longhorns that evening. Drunk and sated, they were still able to think deviously enough to steal.
Leaton had another idea, considerably less charitable. The Comanche were invited for a return feast. They again grew intoxicated on the sweet peach liquor and drowsy on the chunky steaks served up on a broad oaken table in the fort’s courtyard. None of them took note of the false wall that had been erected, which hid a couple of cannons. Leaton excused himself and his wife from the table and went around a corner to give a signal to fire. The blasts did not kill every Comanche seated, but riflemen standing on the parapets of the fort and firing into the courtyard, stilled the last moving Indians. Leaton’s cattle was never again stolen by that tribe.
His stories are still alive, and the fort bearing his name remains standing in restored, pristine condition on the Rio Grande almost two centuries after his passing, and he persists as an archetype of the white, male European who imposed their vision of development on the border. Leaton’s legend, though, was constructed partially of apocrypha, and a certain narrative cleansing. No one is certain the slaughter of the Comanche occurred as the story was related but Leaton was a known killer and scalp hunter. The term for how he earned his daily bread on the frontier was “Comanchero,” which meant he swapped with the Comanche and Apache, guns, wagons, and cattle, or anything of value that either party had robbed from settlers and adventurers passing through the borderland.
When the Mexican government decided it wanted to be shed of indigenous peoples and end their depredations, it began paying $1.50 per scalp, and Leaton took to marauding. This is how he initially earned his living, on the deaths of innocents. Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian had an evil protagonist, too vile to be considered even an anti-hero, a scalp hunter and murderer, which many researchers are convinced was based, in part, on Leaton, and cold-soul Irishman James Kirker. Both men killed whoever they came upon in possession of a scalp on their heads, left bodies to desiccate in the harsh sun, and sold their bounty to the Mexicans.
Leaton might have fallen into honest commerce, eventually, but his history would have almost certainly been diminished had he not come upon Juana Pedrasa, a Mexican widow with money, who bought a vast tract of land in La Junta. As a consequence of that encounter, she became the catalyst of the outlaw’s transition to businessman and historic figure. Juana, obsessed with an entrepreneurial ambition, knew that the river offered a route for commerce between San Antonio and Chihuahua City, and she intended to get wealthy off the wagon haulers, cowboys, dreamers, and merchants making their way to the silver mines of Mexico. Mule trains rumbled along the Chihuahua Trail, which passed through her ranch, and Juana saw wealth that needed to be captured.
Life, however, has never been simple or easy for women in Texas.
When she met the Ben Leaton, her emotional reaction was probably informed less by love and romance than enlisting the partnership of a man who had the fearlessness to help her get rich. Pedrasa had also purchased an old Spanish mission on the banks of the Rio Grande and had transformed the crumbling adobe into the first private fort on la frontera, even in advance of Faver’s Cibolo Creek. The 40-room structure became a trading post for travelers and merchants transiting the border, and each arrival led to barbecues and memorable celebrations that only built her reputation as a businesswoman and visionary.
Because much of their trading company still involved negotiating with Indians for goods they had obtained illegally, Leaton got most of the credit for the fort’s prosperity. Unfortunately, when the U.S. annexed Texas, and Leaton was shot and killed on a trip to San Antonio, Juana Pedrasa discovered her considerable holdings were no longer governed by Mexican law, which meant they were passed onto her sons, Leaton’s heirs, not his spouse.
She managed the operations for many years but was unable to adapt to the changing nature of border commerce, and, eventually, they all lost the fort to lenders. Juana returned to Mexico, but her sons and their descendants continued a violent vendetta in a decades-long and failed confrontation to reclaim the fort. The structure, eventually, became a Texas state park that bears Leaton’s name, not Juana Pedrasa’s, and the docents do not lead their storytelling with Leaton’s mendacious beginnings as a scalp hunter and robber, or how he might be unknown to history were it not for a singularly focused woman.
Across the river to the south of Fort Leaton, three crosses adorn an old stone chapel known as El Cerrito de la Santa Cruz. Dona Juana took great comfort in the shrine because the legend had assured believers that the crosses possessed a spell that “kept the devil in his cave.” She often relaxed in a rocking chair, gazing across the water at the rustic structure in the evening light, whispering her prayers. The mythical power of the crosses, though, ultimately, appeared to have failed Juana Predrasa, and she survives as hardly more than a footnote to her husband’s terror and myth.
No stories along the border ever feel old, though. A nameless appeal sustains them into the present, and they continue to live the entire length of the Rio Grande. Not much cleverness is required of a writer to engage an audience with the frontier’s history. The challenge has always been to find a clear and sustaining narrative. The river moves, time changes its course, humans struggle and celebrate, but the tale is not singular or truly understandable, which, I suppose, accounts for my personal intrigue.
None of this was distracting me the morning my cameraman Jerry and I pushed our raft into the water, easing toward Santa Elena Canyon. The only subject baffling me was why we were the only journalists that the Texas governor had invited on the excursion. The group was comprised mostly of her senior staffers, a few major donors, and personal friends. Normally uninhibited for a politician, I suspected the presence of our TV camera might, nonetheless, constrain Richard’s enjoyment of the trip.