Big Bend Real Estate Guide January 2023 | Page 10

Continued from page 6 . “ Why don ’ t y ’ all come along ?” I did not realize she was speaking to my cameraman , Jerry , and me . “ Us , governor ?” “ 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
10 Big Bend Real Estate Guide • January 2023