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SECRETS of the PECOS Mystic River of the West

Jackye Havenhill

Royal Fireworks Press Unionville, New York

Also by Jackye Havenhill Texas Legends

Copyright Š 2012, Royal Fireworks Publishing Co., Inc. All Rights Reserved. Royal Fireworks Press First Avenue, PO Box 399 Unionville, NY 10988-0399 (845) 726-4444 FAX: (845) 726-3824 email: website: ISBN: 978-0-88092-561-7 Printed and bound in the United States of America on acid-free, recycled paper using vegetable-based inks and environmentally-friendly cover coatings by the Royal Fireworks Printing Co. of Unionville, New York.



El Rio Pecos, named by the early Spanish conquistadors, was a river of violent extremes, a river that transgressed the very laws of nature. During the early history of Texas, this mystic river of the West was known as both saint and devil to those who came to settle in the arid country. The river begins its journey as a clean mountain steam in the Sangre del Cristo Mountains northeast of Santa Fe, New Mexico, and travels more than nine hundred miles before it joins the less stormy Rio Grande. As it flows through the serene mountains of New Mexico, it is peaceful and untroubled, watering the fields of many tiny villages and the thirsty pastures of larger ranches. But soon comes a metamorphosis, an unbelievable transformation. Before entering Texas, the river begins to lose its mountain coolness and purity. Soft alkaline soil replaces the rocky bottom. Both the river bed and the geographic surroundings become very different, as the Pecos flows through a vast, flat desert dotted with mesquite trees and greasewood bushes. Within the distance of only a few miles, the sweet water becomes salty. It becomes a tantalizing but useless brine that causes men to endure terrible thirst for miles without relief, for the salt water can be deadly to both man and his animals if drunk in abundance. 1

The once grassy banks have disappeared, which only brings more danger. Scattered along the now steep, barren banks are deceiving beds of quicksand that make the river even more treacherous to cross. A complete transformation has taken place. The once peaceful and friendly Pecos River has become hostile. Even though the river was a challenge for those who arrived at its banks, they still came. Settlers, cattlemen, cowboys, and travelers made their way to the river and crossed. Though many who crossed went on to a more compatible environment, a great number settled along the river, determined to tame the harsh land. Why? None seemed to have an answer, other than that they were captivated by the majesty of the land. It was the Comanche Indians who first crossed the often raging water of the Pecos. In their search for more and better horses, the Indians came from the high plains to plunder the villages along the Rio Grande and in northern Mexico. The Spanish Conquistadors followed the Indians, arriving in the new land in the early sixteenth century. Their exploration of the new country brought them to the banks of the river. Though filled with dread and superstition, they followed the violent river as it meandered its way through the Chihuahuan Desert. To them, both the river and land seemed unconquerable. Defeated, they moved on, calling the measureless area el despoblado, the uninhabited place. The origin of the word Pecos is unknown, but many of the early settlers believed it may have come from the Spanish word pecaso, meaning freckled. The most often told story is that as Spanish explorers watched the sun flickering off the rolling water, the dancing sparkles reminded them of freckles. Another belief, and one more acceptable as fact, is that the word Pecos came from an Indian word meaning crooked. Certainly the mystic river of the West is that. From its beginning, it twists and turns and then turns again as it moves toward its rendezvous with the Rio Grande. 2

In the early 1850s, many crossed the river. From their wagons they watched the dust devils dance before them; they saw buzzards soar lazily, high above in a blue sky filled with fleecy white clouds. They were enchanted by the beauty of the sky and the vastness of the land. Though many only traveled through the Trans-Pecos on their way to the gold fields in California, men with families came carrying dreams of eking out a life on the vast but sparse grazing land. The lure of the gold fields in California brought lumbering stagecoaches carrying mail and passengers across the Trans-Pecos. In time, Army posts were established throughout the region, bringing soldiers and scouts to challenge Comanche and Apache claim, on the rugged land. They all came to the river. In those days the river was described as one hundred feet wide and seven to ten feet deep. Its rapid current made it fordable at only a few sites, and at these points, crossings were established. All trails going west led to one of the crossings. Settlers often had to travel many extra miles to reach one. Traveling the eighty miles of dry desert from the Concho River to the Pecos often meant death. Yet those who arrived ready to accept the harsh reality of the river and the land endured and conquered. Through the years, tales of those who survived the many hardships along the Pecos River became legends. When cattle drovers sat around their campfires at night, and settlers camped at the end of a day, they talked of the events that happened along the river, and told tales of golden treasures buried along the banks of the river by the Spaniards and Mexicans. They shared legends of ghostly sights and unnatural happenings, stories of the bravery of lawmen, accounts of the ruthlessness of bandits, and the courage of the settlers who came to stay. It was around the campfires that Pecos Bill was born. Yarns of this popular folk hero were swapped by cowboys and cattle-men during the long cattle drives. However, this fabricated character’s deeds don’t ring true to those who came and conquered the far western frontier. One rancher is known to have 3

said, “Pecos Bill doesn’t have anything to do with the real Pecos country, because you see, Pecos Bill could do anything and everything real easy-like. Now that just can’t be the truth, ’cause nobody along the Pecos ever did anything easy-like. Believe me, everything out here west of the Pecos is hard.” These pages record the events that sprang to life along the banks of the mighty river of the West. Many have become a part of history, though the stories have been embellished in their retelling. Here are actual accounts of such men as Clay Allison, who was a gunfighter turned gentleman; trail drivers Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving, who lost cattle in the quicksand at Horsehead Crossing; the Butterfield Stage that battled the swift current at Pope’s Crossing; the death of one entire group of pioneers at Emigrant’s Crossing; ranchers who came to build cattle empires; the brave exploits of the famous Buffalo Soldiers; and the story of Judge Roy Bean, who brought an unusual but appropriate type of justice to the land west of the Pecos. These are true stories of the hardships of those who came to the Trans-Pecos, those whose toughness matched that of the land and the river. Woven into accounts of their daily reality are their dreams and their fantasies. These are the secrets of the Pecos River, as it was in the beginning.




Men required both strength and stamina to live along the Pecos River. The flat, torrid land with its incessant wind, the dry burning sun and the lonely days and nights caused many to move on to distant places and others to turn back to their original homes. Even though the land was a desolate place of Indian massacres, of ghosts who wandered across the prairie, of lethal thirst and of madness, many settlers came and did stay, held captive by the vastness of the land and its mystic grandeur. Small villages sprang into being at the safe crossings, beginning at the river’s entrance into Texas and at following it down hundreds of miles until it vanished into the Rio Grande. Pecos, a little village given the same name as the river, was founded by the Spanish Conquistadors. For years it remained a tiny settlement on the banks of the river serving travelers at Pope’s Crossing. It became home to many who came to claim some land and gather up a herd from the numberless Longhorn cattle that roamed the open range. Indian migration, the pioneers’ westward movement, the arrival of the cavalry, and finally, the coming of the historic cattle drives, changed Pecos into a bustling, roaring Western town. Cowboys, seeking escape from their lonely days under a 5

searing sun, walked the dusty streets with their spurs jingling, and all too often, with their guns blazing. A number of saloons along with cattle pens and a few mercantile stores had quickly come into existence. In 1896, R.S. Johnson, a former Texas Ranger, wanting to improve the town, built a two-story building. The first floor was the famous Number 11 Saloon while the upper floor housed a number of decorated bedrooms for boarders and travelers. The saloon quickly became the gathering place for everyone in the area. Many a cowboy would ride fifty to seventy-five miles to visit Number 11 to drink and mix with the boisterous crowd. Life west of the Pecos River begins in the stormy cowboy town of Pecos and ends in Langtry, a similar town where Judge Roy Bean occasionally based his rulings of justice on a single lawbook, the 1879 Revised Statutes of Texas.




Jane Cazneau pulled her white handkerchief from beneath the cuff of her shirtwaist blouse and wiped the dust from her forehead. She licked her dry lips and wished she had a drink of cool water. How could the man across the aisle from her be so comfortable and so content? Looking at him with consternation she asked, “Are we almost to our next stop? I’m so very thirsty, and we have no more water in our canteen.” The man, who took up more than his share of room on the narrow seat, raised his eyebrows slightly and shook his head. “I’m afraid it’s quite a ways yet, ma’am. This your first trip West?” “Yes. My sister and I have come from St. Louis. We’re going to San Francisco to join our husbands.” The man smiled knowingly. “They got the gold fever, I guess, and took off?” There was a brief silence before the second woman spoke. “Yes, but they sent us money for fare, so they must be doing well.” Her tone and the brief look she gave her sister hinted doubt about their husbands’ success. Again Jane rubbed her lips, this time with her handkerchief. “I do need a drink. Are we still in Texas, Mr.—” 7

“Butterfield, ma’am. John Butterfield.” The broad shouldered man shifted in the narrow seat, attempting to adjust his long legs which were jammed against those of the short, round man directly across from him. “Yes ma’am, you’re still in Texas, and you will be for many more days.” The woman sighed wearily. Extending her hand she said, “I’m Jane Cazneau, Mr. Butterfield, and this is my sister, Mary Helm.” The second woman also extended her gloved hand and was surprised at the gentleness of the big man’s grasp. As if not believing what she had heard she asked, “Did you say we’ll travel for several days before we leave the state? We’ve been in Texas for days.” “That’s what I said, ma’am. You see, you entered Texas when you crossed the Red River, a ways east and some north of here. You’re about to reach the Pecos River now and then head west toward the town of El Paso. It’s there that you leave Texas and go into Indian Territory. It takes about twenty-five days to get across Texas by stage or wagon.” “But we will stop again, won’t we? Our last stop was so short, we had no time to rest.” Mary’s voice showed her tiredness and her discomfort. “The last stop was to change horses, but it did give you a chance to stretch a little. We’ll be coming to Pope’s Crossing in not much longer, and right up the hill from the crossing is Pope’s Camp. It’s a real nice inn, and that’s where you’ll spend the night. By morning you’ll be all rested up and ready to travel again.” Both women, seemingly content with John Butterfield’s assurance that they would be at the inn soon, settled back in the narrow seat and tried to ignore the roughness of the desert road. ✦ ✦ ✦ The year was l860, and the Butterfield Overland Stage had been running for more than three years. In 1857, Congress awarded John Butterfield a mail contract to carry the United States mail from St. Louis to California two times a week. He 8

was paid $60,000 a year by the government for delivering the mail, and was allowed whatever amount of profit he could make by transporting passengers. Though land was surveyed and roads made passable, the stagecoach route was often no more than a cattle trail. This 2,795 mile route from St. Louis to California was the longest traveled in a vehicle drawn by a horse or mule. To meet the mail delivery requirements of the government, the coach was to cross Texas in twenty-five days, so the carriages moved quickly and steadily. The desert country from the fort on the Concho River to Horsehead Crossing, the first useable crossing on the Pecos River, was seventy-five miles across barren desert country. At the crossing, the stage stopped briefly. While a relief team was harnessed, the passengers were allowed to move around outside the stage, to relieve themselves, and get fresh water to drink. With fresh horses hitched to the coach and the reins gathered in the firm hands of a new driver perched on the high seat, his loud call for everyone to “load up” brought the passengers back to their cramped seats, and the long trip began again. For one hundred and twenty miles from Horsehead, the stage followed the river to Emigrant’s Crossing, a second well-known ford of the Pecos. There was no stopping here. The driver was pressed for time. He was expected to arrive at Pope’s Crossing by nightfall. Slapping the long leather reins against the backs of the horses, he pushed his team on. Inside, the passengers gazed at the river, wondering how many more miles they’d travel before reaching Pope’s Crossing, and dreamed of cool water to drink and a night’s rest in a comfortable bed. This Butterfield route, which began in Missouri and crossed Texas, used ninety coaches and wagons that were pulled by 1,358 horses or mules. One hundred and forty-three stations were built along it. Thinking of the comfort of the passengers and drivers, the stations were positioned about twenty miles apart. However, the procedure changed once the route turned west and began its trek across Texas. Here the coach traveled 9

a dusty, alkaline trail known to have little water and often no suitably drinking water at all, and there were few stops. Though travel by stage was uncomfortable, the seats were usually filled by anxious passengers. The cumbersome, sturdy Butterfield Coach was designed to be lighter and faster than those that traveled the eastern roads. Its body was paneled and its bottom curved like a barrel. These Texas coaches had room inside for six passengers. At times another passenger was allowed to either sit up top or crowd inside and ride with his feet hanging out one of the narrow windows. Three people sat facing each other on both seats. The aisle separating the seats was so narrow that often the passenger’s knees were interlaced, which made shifting positions almost impossible. The driver’s seat on top of the coach was set high on the front, making him about six feet from the ground. A “boot” for storage was under the driver’s seat and another was directly beneath the coach. The compartment under the coach carried the mail and other valuables. Heavy luggage was fastened to the back of the coach by strong leather straps or heavy chains. Perched on the right side of the high seat, the driver directed the horses and maneuvered the brakes for steep inclines. On his left sat an armed guard wearing a pair of six guns and balancing a sawed-off shotgun loaded with buckshot across his lap. His primary job was to make certain the mail got through. Secondarily, he offered protection to the passengers and their valuables. ✦ ✦ ✦ The six horses pulling the swaying coach were moving at a fast pace from Horsehead Crossing. When their gallop slowed, Mary Helm pulled the heavy duck curtain that covered the window aside and peered out. Turning to Butterfield she asked, “Are we there? We’re beginning to slow.” “No, we’re not there yet. In fact we’re a number of miles from Pope’s Camp. The horses are tiring. We’ve covered a lot 10

of miles, and they need water. That may be why the driver is slowing them.” The little man seated across from Butterfield eyed the tall man. “You seem to know a lot about this country, mister. Are you the Butterfield who operates the stage line?” “I am.” The tall man smiled. “Even I have to travel by stage. I often ride just to check on the route.” The little man extended his hand. “I’m Raphael Pumpley, Mr. Butterfield. I should have recognized you by your dress, you know, the long yellow duster, the flat-crowned hat, and those high leather boots. I’m a drummer by trade and sell clothing. Your dress has become quite famous to those traveling in the West.” John Butterfield smiled. “I wear the clothes because they fit the country, and that’s the only reason. Where are you going, Mr. Pumpley, to California?” “No, I’m stopping at El Paso. I’ve been told it’s a growing, bustling little town on the Mexico border, and the people there are wanting to buy.” “I hope you find it so. But I must warn you, and these ladies as well, the trip from Pope’s Crossing to El Paso is a long way, and there’s no water. We do have a few stations where you will stop, but they won’t be long stops, only long enough to get fresh horses and deliver or pick up mail. We will even travel sometimes at night. We have to. You see, it’s Indian country and could be dangerous, so we keep the coaches moving.” Jane slumped in her seat. When she spoke, her voice sounded weary. “Then we’re only going to have about ten minutes when we get to this Pope’s Crossing?” “Oh, no. You’ve already traveled about sixty miles today. When we get there, you’ll have a good hot supper and a nice soft bed to sleep in. Keep listening now. Before long you’ll hear a blast on a horn. That’ll be the lookout at the crossing telling those at the inn that we’re coming in and to be ready for us. If this were only a ten-minute stop, the horn blast would 11

tell the inn keepers to have fresh horses standing by ready to be hitched to the stage. Tonight though, ladies, you’ll have a good night’s rest.” Suddenly a shot split the air. It came from the thick sage and mesquite bushes bordering the trail. The women looked at each other, their eyes wide with surprise and fright. John Butterfield slowly pulled the thick window curtain aside and peered out. Without a word, he pulled a six-shooter from the holster on his hip. Everyone in the coach was silent as the snorting horses were pulled to a halt. “It seems we have some visitors.” John Butterfield watched two riders circle the stage. “Don’t move or speak. Maybe these men just want some information, and aren’t the ‘knights of the road’.” “Knights of the road?” Mary’s voice was almost a whisper. Butterfield nodded. “We’ve had an epidemic of stage holdups along the Pecos River. Robbers have been stopping the stages, pilfering the mailbag, and robbing the passengers of their valuables.” Mr. Pumpley pulled his ornate gold watch from his pocket and began unfastening the long chain. “You ladies better hide any jewelry you’re wearing, too.” “Hiding it won’t help. They’ll search you if they’ve a mind to.” John Butterfield leaned nearer to the women, holding his gun close to his body as he spoke. Loud voices drifted through the window. “Drop your rifle and handguns to the ground, Mr. Guard. You climb down please, sir. You too, Mr. Driver. Come down from your high perch, and let us take a good look at you.” From inside the coach the passengers watched as two sixguns and a sawed-off rifle dropped past the windows to the dusty trail. The driver and guard were soon standing on the ground, holding their hands high in the air. The lead robber got off his horse, walked to the coach and yanked open the door. His eyes widened in surprised when he saw the two women 12

huddled together. A wide smile came to his face, showing a row of very white teeth. Taking off his hat, he bowed gallantly and motioned with his gun for everyone to step outside. John Butterfield placed his gun aside and stepped out. When he turned to assist the ladies he discovered he was too late. The bowing bandit had extended his hand and was helping Mary through the narrow doorway. He smiled at her warmly and turned to Jane. With indifference, he looked at the drummer and abruptly slammed the door. Then turning to the driver, he snapped out a command and pointed to the mailbag stored below the coach. Everyone stood quietly as the bags were pulled from their hiding place and laid at the bandit’s feet. As he bent to pick up a bulging bag, a barrage of shots pierced the air. Bullets hit the ground scattering dust in every direction. The bandit who was still on his horse galloped away. The other stood calmly and watched as a group of soldiers raced toward them at breakneck speed. Turning to the two ladies, he bowed and kissed their hands and then, with agility, swung up onto his saddle. With a shout and wave of his hat, he dashed away and was quickly hidden by the trees along the river. It was not until the coach was once again moving toward Pope’s Crossing that anyone spoke. “Where did those soldiers come from?” Pumpley asked while reattaching his watch. “From Fort Concho, I suspect. Small regiments of soldiers often patrol the country along the Pecos, especially so since our Mexican Robin Hood has become so active.” “You mean there is a Robin Hood out here in the West?” John Butterfield smiled. “Yes, Mrs. Helm, even out here. He’s our ‘knight of the road.’ When I saw the man’s red beard, I knew it was Juan Nepomuceno Cortinas. He robs all across Texas, but to the people of Mexico, he’s a Robin Hood. He shares what he steals with his people.” “Well,” Jane said quietly as she looked at the gloved hand he had kissed, “he was certainly most gallant.”


As the stagecoach rapidly moved along the trail, the passengers grew quiet, the ladies remembering the chivalry of the Mexican bandit with the red beard, the drummer thankful that he still had his watch, and John Butterfield relieved that the mail had not been tampered with. After traveling for several miles, they heard the shrill blast of a horn. The lumbering coach pulled by six very tired horses plunged down the incline and crossed the raging river. Only a short distance up the bank stood a roomy stone and adobe building. In front of its long porch, the horses stopped. When the door of the stage opened, a smiling man said, “Welcome to Pope’s Camp, ladies.” He took the hand of each, helped her to the ground, and led them both into the inn. Inside Pope’s Station, the weary travelers enjoyed the coolness of the room and savored a good supper. When led to their sleeping quarters, Jane and Mary stepped hesitantly into their assigned room. There they found a high bed with a fluffy feather mattress, a nightstand with a wash basin holding a pitcher of water, and a low dresser with a very murky mirror. Mary sighed wearily as she sat on the side of the bed. “Well, it doesn’t look like much, but it smells clean, and the bed is good.” Jane opened her valise and began pulling out clothes. “I’m so glad to be out of that coach that I’d welcome any kind of room.” ✦ ✦ ✦ The stage waited in front of the inn, ready to continue the journey west, just as the sun would be peeping over the eastern horizon. The passengers left the comfort of the building and walked out onto the board veranda. They scanned the flat countryside. Jane took a deep breath. “The morning air is so refreshing; there’s no dust at all.” John Butterfield was quick to answer. “Early mornings and late evenings on the Pecos are the most enjoyable. It’s the hot days that make you suffer.” 14

As Jane walked toward the coach she was surprised by the six fresh animals that were harnessed and ready to go. “Why, those animals are mules! What in the world? Where are the horses?” The driver, who had hurried over to help her into the coach, heard her remark. As he took her elbow to guide her into the coach, he answered her question. “Yes, ma’am, they’re mules. You see, we’ll be using mules for the rest of the trip across Texas.” “Really, why mules?” “It’s the Indians, ma’am. We’ll be seeing Indians all the way from here to the next stop. If we’re driving mules, they probably won’t bother us, but if we had horses, it would be different. You see, they want horses, and will most surely attack to get them. So, we’re driving mules, ma’am. It’s safer if we do.” The coach left Pope’s Camp in a cloud of dust, and soon the low building was out of sight. Mary and Jane settled back in their uncomfortable seat, determined to enjoy their journey. Butterfield smiled when he overheard Jane say, “Isn’t it amazing, the courteous way we’re treated? Why, I can hardly believe the gallantry shown to us by these Texas men.” “Yes, it’s strange, isn’t it, that the men in this rough, almost uninhabited country, exhibit the chivalry of medieval knights.” Smiling, Mary added, “Even the red-bearded Mexican Robin Hood.” She pulled the curtain away from the window and gazed at the prairie, at the sparse vegetation, at the cloudless blue sky where birds were gliding effortlessly. Perhaps she was looking for the “knight of the road.”


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