Ours must have seemed a strange procession as we headed south out of Alpine, Texas, that May morning. Even in 1909, when animal-drawn vehicles were the customary mode of travel, I could see curiosity in the eyes of early risers who watched us leave town.
Out in front, astride a belled gray mare, rode the lanky Mexican boy, Enrique Diaz. Behind him and following the mare, plodded eight Mexican burros, drawing an ore wagon piled high with our household goods and all the provisions I could afford to buy. On top of all this rode the squat and cheerful Juan Salas.
Chained to the ore wagon came our buckboard, with my wife Bessie and me sitting on the springseat, our eighteen-months-old daughter Lovie between us. Tex, our female collie dog, brought up the rear, padding along in the hoof-trampled dust, now and then leaving the wagon trace to sniff inquisitively at a gopher hole.
Stretching away from us on all sides were great sweeps of prairie, lushly green with tall grasses, splotched with yellow and blue and red patches of wild flowers; studded here and there with upthrusting, creamy white blooms of flowering sotol. Cattle grazed on the prairie, and horses; and we were hardly out of town before we disturbed a band of antelope, who flared their short tails like white fans and bounded away at unbelievable speed.
To the south and west, lifting itself above the rolling foothills, rose the ragged crest of a mountain range, its sharp peaks a misty blue in the distance.
Somewhere beyond that range, and beyond the Chisos Mountains on the other side, one hundred and fifteen miles away, lay our destination. There, in the country where the Rio Grande made its big bend, lay a three-section homestead for us. It was a homestead we'd never seen. A homestead on which I'd gambled almost everything I had, without even looking the place over first.
This was a fantastic country, like none I'd ever seen, like no other I've seen since. And, looking back on it now, I can see that ours was a fantastic situation. A chronically ill man of thirty-one, a travelling salesman out of Mississippi, using up his last few dollars to take his wife and baby to a homestead in the wild, unknown country of the Texas Big Bend.
On the face of it, such a gamble was sheer madness. The odds were all against us. Homesteading anywhere is for the strong and vigorous man, not for one whose health is broken by years of malaria and indigestion. Then there was Bessie. A city girl, pregnant now, and with no money to bring her back to civilization when her time came. And Lovie, still a baby, and so far from a doctor.
We still had a little over two hundred dollars in the bank at Midland, but I knew it would squeeze that money to feed us for the next three years of continuous occupancy that the homestead law required.
And that wasn't taking into account the three hundred dollars more we were required to spend in improvements in those three years. That three hundred I'd have to earn yet, in some manner I couldn't foresee. And then, after that, there'd still be the annual payments on the land to meet.
One serious accident, and we'd go under. Or maybe even without an accident—if I couldn't figure out some way to provide for us and earn some cash over and above our living. What if my health grew worse, so that I became a helpless invalid? What would become of Bessie and the babies out here in this lonely wilderness if I should die?
By conscious effort, I steered my mind away from such dismal thoughts. I made myself think of what we had in our favor. To begin with, there were Bessie and I, and our faith in each other. Bessie knew as well as I what we were up against; but she was willing to go anywhere in the world that there was a faint hope of restoring my health.
And our hope lay now in the hot spring on our new property. The spring that boiled up out of a rock ledge on the river bank and spilled its medicinal waters into the Rio Grande.
This search for my health had started years ago when I'd contracted malaria in my home state of Mississippi. I'd been just a big kid then, and I'd forget I had malaria the minute I recovered from one bout with it and wouldn't think about it till the next attack.
But too many bouts weakened me badly and left me with such a torn-up stomach that I could hardly eat. I began listening to the people who said "Go West, young man!"
On the day I finally made up my mind to leave the dank swamp country of Mississippi, I was out in the middle of my father's cotton field, picking cotton. And right then, without mulling the subject over any more, I dropped my cotton sack and walked away. I went to my room and put on my seersucker suit. I packed my ten-dollar blue serge, a couple of shirts, two celluloid collars, and three pairs of socks. I was getting away from this fever-ridden country of calomel, chill tonic, and quinine. That day I bought a ticket for as far west as my last five dollars would take me.
But in less than two years, I was back again, too ill with malaria to take care of myself. I spent several months at home in bed where my mother could look after me. It was a long time before I was finally able to go to work again.
This time I took a job as a travelling salesman for a firm in Nashville, Tennessee. I worked a territory covering Louisiana and Alabama. And it was at this time that I met Bessie.
I was singing in the choir at a little church in Tupelo, Mississippi, and I can remember still how she looked when she came in. She was a big girl, with heavy, blonde hair looped and piled high on her head. She was late and flustered, so that her face glowed a pretty pink.
I stopped singing, leaving the choir short one bass. I gulped, watching the girl walk to her seat. "That's the one for me," I thought. "That's the girl."
I lost no time getting acquainted, and soon began such an urgent courtship that I crowded Bessie into marrying me. It was the smartest thing I ever did.
For awhile, Bessie and I lived in Montgomery, Alabama, and she occasionally went with me on my selling trips out in the territory. But my health continued to be bad, and as soon as I thought I'd saved enough money to quit my job, we moved to Dallas.
In Dallas, I was some better; but I was still a long way from being well. Before long, we decided to make another move. We went farther west, to Midland, Texas.
And still I was a sick man. I was able to work only part of the time and was having to spend too large a portion of my income on doctor bills and medicine.
So once again, I had decided to try to move farther west, still in the hope that I could regain my health. By this time, Lovie had been born; she was eighteen months old now. I had left Bessie and Lovie in Midland while I went to Alpine to look around. I was hoping to hear of some school land for homesteading.
I registered at the Alpine Hotel, and it was in the lobby that same morning that I heard a man tell of the hot mineral springs down in the Big Bend country.
"They'll cure anything!" he vowed. "Stomach trouble, rheumatism, all sorts of skin diseases."
A less desperate man than I might have discounted such a sweeping statement. But any man in my wretched physical condition would have listened.
I moved closer to the man, trying to catch every word he said. "There's no mistake about it," he went on. "Plenty of sick folks have gone down there and drunk that water and bathed in it and come back well. The Indians were using it long before white men ever got out this way. They chipped themselves out a bathtub, right in solid rock, where they could bathe all they liked."
I introduced myself to the man and told him my trouble. I asked him if he thought the springs would help me. He told me he was sure they would.
"I wonder why it is," I asked, "that I've never heard of those springs before. It looks like somebody would have tried to develop them like they've done at Hot Springs, Arkansas."
"Oh, nobody could go down there and live long enough for that," the man answered.
"Why not?" I asked.
"Nothing down there but rattlesnakes and bandit Mexicans," he said. "And it's too far away from anywhere for a sick man to feel like going there to get cured. That damned country promises more and gives less than any place I ever saw." Then he grinned. "The Mexicans say that when God was making the world, he used up the best of the material before he got to the Big Bend country and just dumped the leavings down there. There's nothing down there that don't have claws or thorns or a sting to it."
"Is there anyone on the spring now?" I asked.
The man shook his head. "Nope," he said. "It's on a section of school land, all right—but one old German went down and tried homesteading it and finally gave up. He couldn't stand it. No man in his right mind would try homesteading down there, anyway. Too lonesome!"
I was getting excited. "You mean it's open now?"
"I reckon so," the man answered. "If there's any man fool enough to live on it."
The man didn't know it, but he was talking to just such a fool. I went back to my room and tried to consider the thing calmly, but it was too late. In spite of all the overwhelming disadvantages the man had pointed out, he had promised my returned health. I knew I had to have that hot springs property.
I knew I ought to go look at the land before I filed on it and that I should talk the thing over with Bessie first. But now that I had made up my mind, I couldn't wait. If I took what I knew to be only proper precautions, I'd lose days and weeks, maybe months. And now that the property was coming to mean so much to me, I began to be obsessed with the fear that someone else would feel the same way about it and file before I did. No, I couldn't wait. I had to file on it now.
I rushed out of my room and headed down the cow-town street toward the surveyor's office. I did pause on the way a time or two to make further inquiries. At a bank and at a couple of stores, I got the same stories. Nobody questioned the curative powers of the springs; but everyone felt that they were too far away from civilization ever to prove of financial value. The land itself was considered to be worth very little.
I listened, made myself weigh and consider each answer, but the urge to file on the land kept mounting inside me.
The county surveyor was a big man, a typical westerner. Playing it cautious, I asked him about various sections of school land, hoping to cover my eagerness to file on the land with the spring. The surveyor described the sections indifferently until I asked if there was any open land fronting the Rio Grande. Then he came alive. "There's a good piece down at the mouth of Tornillo Creek," he said. "I recently ran a survey on it—Section 50, Block G17, GCSF Railway, which includes the mouth of the creek. Got a hot spring on it."
He turned to his maps with a sigh. "Wanted to file on it myself," he said, "but my wife wouldn't listen to it. Said I needn't expect her to live in a godforsaken place like that for three solid years."
I took one look at the map, located the mouth of Tornillo Creek, made certain of the location of the hot spring, and said: "I'll give you ten dollars to fill out filing papers for me on that section and these two near it."
Legally, I could have filed on a full complement of eight sections. It was listed as mineral and grazing land and priced at a minimum of $1.50 an acre. But right then I didn't need to be gambling any more money on land. I submitted a bid of $1.61 an acre on the section with the spring, but only bid the minimum on the other two sections. These bids were opened and passed on every day in Austin, with the land going to the highest bid submitted at the time of the opening.
The first payment on the land was to be sent in with the bid, but there was a liberal forty-year loan available at three percent interest. I took the loan and figured my payment. It came to seventy-three dollars and seventy-six cents.
I paid the surveyor his ten dollars, but he told me they wouldn't accept a check for my bid in Austin. I'd have to send a money order. That meant I had to go back to town to find someone who would cash a check for me before I could buy my money order.
I walked back to town, fearful that nobody would want to cash the check of a total stranger. I didn't know a soul in the country, and as I walked along, I began to worry. I knew I'd hesitate to cash a stranger's check. I stood around awhile, wondering where to start. Finally, I stopped a big tall lanky cowhand who strolled toward me, his spurs clanking on the sidewalk. I told him who I was and asked him where he thought would be my best chance of cashing a check.
He looked me over carefully, chewed the corner of his underlip a moment, then said: "Why, hell, make out your check. I reckon I can cash it."
Just to look at him in his shabby, half-dirty riding clothes, you wouldn't have suspected he had the price of a drink on him. But he reached down into his hip pocket to withdraw a flattened roll of greenbacks big enough to choke a mule. While I wrote out the check, he licked a thumb and carefully peeled off seventy-three dollars in greenbacks, then dug around in his pocket till he found the extra seventy-six cents.
I was too startled to thank him properly, but he didn't seem interested, anyhow. He just said, "Yeah, sure," and stuffed my check in his pocket and went on down the street, dragging his heavy spurs.
I never saw the man again.
I went back to the county surveyor's office, picked up my filing papers, then hurried to the postoffice to get my money order. But when I got there, the postoffice was closed.
I began to feel panicky. I was filled with a pushing, driving urge to get this thing settled right away. I was afraid to lose a minute. Soon it would be train time, and here I was, unable to get the papers off on that train.
I hunted up the postmaster, L. W. Derrell, and he gladly went back down to the postoffice with me and issued me the money order. Once again, I was impressed by how cheerfully the citizens of this little West Texas cow-town went to all sorts of extra trouble to accommodate a stranger.
When the train came through from El Paso that night, I was at the depot, standing ready to hand my letter to the mail clerk.
Two weeks later, back in Midland, I received my award card. As soon as I could then, I packed up our furniture and even our buckboard for shipment by rail to Alpine. My team I sold there in Midland, and that was the last that buckboard was to see of a team of its own.
And now, here we were, bound for our claim on the Rio Grande. Beside me, Lovie sat up suddenly. "Look at the birdies, Daddy," she called excitedly, pointing. "Look at the little running birdies!" I looked in the direction she pointed. "Quail, baby," I said. "Blue quail!"
We were right on them, but the slate-blue birds with their tiny white topknots didn't fly. They merely ran and scattered, uttering little querulous cries, and melted from sight into the grass.
The wheels of the wagons rumbled over the rocky road. Juan Salas woke up enough to shout vigorous commands at his slow-traveling burros, who paid no attention to him whatever. Astride the mare, Enrique broke into a plaintive Mexican song that seemed somehow—although I could understand none of the words—to express exactly what I felt about this vast, strange and silent land that seemed to swallow us as quickly as the brush and grass had swallowed the quail.