by William Worthington Fowler, 1877
No portion of our country has been the scene of more romantic and dangerous adventures than that region described under the broad and vague term the “Southwest.” Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona are vast, remote, and varied fields with which danger and hardship, wonder and mystery are ever associated. The country itself embraces great contrarieties of scenery and topography — the rich farm, the expansive cattle ranch, the broad lonely prairie watered by majestic rivers, the barren desert, the lofty plateau, the secluded mining settlement, and vast mountain ranges furrowed by torrents into black canyons where sands of gold lie heaped in inaccessible, useless riches.
The forms of human society are almost equally diverse. Strange and mysterious tribes, each with different characteristics, here live side by side.
Vile mongrel breeds of men multiply to astonish the ethnologist and the moralist. Here roam the Comanche and the Apache, the most remorseless and bloodthirsty of all the North American aboriginal tribes. Mexican bandits traverse the plains and lurk in the mountain passes, and American outlaws and desperadoes here find a refuge from justice.
As the Anglo-Saxon after fording the Sabine, the Brazos, and the Colorado River of Texas, advances westward, he is brought face to face with these different races with whom is mixed in greater or less proportion the blood of the old Castilian conquerors. Each of these races is widely alien from, and most of them instinctively antagonistic to the North European people.
Taking into view the immense distances to be traversed, the natural difficulties presented by the face of the country, the remoteness of the region from civilization, and the mixed, incongruous and hostile character of the inhabitants, we might naturally expect that its occupation by peaceful settlers,–by those forms of household life in which woman is an essential element–would be indefinitely postponed. But that energy and ardor which marks alike the men and the women of our race has carried the family, that germ of the state, overall obstacles and planted it in the inhospitable soil of the most remote corners of this region, and there it will flourish and germinate doubtless till it has uprooted every neighboring and noxious product.
The northeastern section of this extensive country is composed of that stupendous level tract known as the “Llano Estacado,” or “Staked Plain.” Stretching hundreds of miles in every direction, this sandy plain, treeless, arid, with only here and there patches of stunted herbage, whitened by the bones of horses and mules, and by the more ghastly skeletons of too adventurous travelers, presents an area of desolation scarcely more than paralleled by the great African Desert.
In the year 1846, after news had reached the States that our troops were in peaceful occupation of New Mexico, a party of men and women set out from the upper valley of the Red River of Louisiana, with the intention of settling in the valley of the river Pecos, in the eastern part of the newly conquered territory. The company consisted of seven persons: Mr. and Mrs. Benham and their child of seven years, Mr. and Mrs. Braxton and two sons of fifteen and eighteen years respectively.
They made rapid and comfortable progress through the valley of the Red River, and in two weeks reached the edge of the “Staked Plain,” which they now made preparations to cross, for the difficulties and dangers of the route were not unknown to them.
Disencumbering their pack-mules of all useless burdens and supplying themselves with water for two days, they pushed forward on their first stage which brought them on the evening of the second day to a kind of oasis in this desert where they found wood, water, and grass. From this point, there was a stretch of ninety miles perfectly bare of wood and water, and with rare intervals of scanty herbage for the beasts. After this desolate region had been passed they would have a comparatively easy journey to their destination.
On the evening of the second day of their passage across this arid tract they had the misfortune to burst their only remaining water cask and to see the thirsty sands drink up in a moment every drop of the precious liquid. They were then forty miles from the nearest water. Their beasts were jaded and suffering from thirst. The two men were incapacitated for exertion by slight sun-strokes received that day, and one of the boys had been bitten in the hand by a rattlesnake while taking from its burrow a prairie dog which he had shot.
The next day they pursued their march only with the utmost difficulty; the two men were barely able to sit on their horses, and the boy who had been bitten was faint and nerveless from the effect of the poison. The heat was felt very severely by the party as they dragged themselves slowly across the white expanse of sand, which reflected the rays of the sun with a painful glare into the haggard eyes of the wretched wanderers. Before they had made fifteen miles, or little more than one-third of the distance that would have to be accomplished before reaching water, the horses and mules gave out and at three o’clock in the afternoon the party dismounted and panting with heat and thirst stretched themselves on the sand. The sky above them was like brass and the soil was coated with a fine alkali deposit which rose in clouds at their slightest motion, filling their nostrils and eyes, and increasing the agonies they were suffering.
Their only hope was that they would be discovered by some passing train of hunters or emigrants. This hope faded away as the sun declined and nothing but the sky and the long dreary dazzling expanse of sand met their eyes.
The painful glare slowly softened, and with sunset came coolness; this was some slight mitigation to their sufferings; sleep too, promised to bring oblivion; and hope, which a merciful Providence has ordained to cast its halo over the darkest hours, told its flattering tale of possible relief on the morrow.
The air of that desert is pellucid as crystal, and the last beams of the sun left on the unclouded azure of the sky a soft glow, through which everything in the western horizon was outlined as if drawn by some magic pencil. Casting their eyes in that direction the wretched wayfarers saw far away a dun-colored haze through which small black specks seemed to be moving.
Growing larger and more distinct it approached them slowly over the vast expanse until its true nature was apparent. It was a cloud of dust such as a party of horsemen makes when in rapid motion over a soil as fine and light as ashes. Was it friend or foe? Was it American cavalry or was it a band of Mexican guerrillas that was galloping so fiercely over that arid plain?
These torturing doubts were soon solved. Skimming over the ground like swallows, six sunburned men with hair as black as the crow’s wing, gaily dressed, and bearing long lances, soon reined in their mustangs within twenty paces of the party and gazed curiously at them. One of the band then rode up and asked in broken English if they were “Americans;” having thus made a reconnaissance and seeing their helplessness, without waiting for a reply, he beckoned to his companions who approached and demanded the surrender of the party. Under other circumstances, a stout resistance would have been made, but in their present forlorn condition, they could do nothing.
Their guns, a part of their money, and whatever the unfortunate families had that pleased the guerrillas, was speedily appropriated, the throats of their horses and mules were cut, Mrs. Braxton and Mrs. Benham were seized, and in spite of their struggles and shrieks each of them was placed in front of a swarthy bandit, and then the Mexicans rode away cursing “Los Americanos,” and barbarously leaving them to die of hunger and thirst.
After a four hours’ gallop, the marauders reached an adobe house on Picosa Creek, a tributary of the Rio Pecos. This was the headquarters of the gang, and here they kept relays of fresh horses, mustangs, fiery, and full of speed and bottom. Mrs. Benham and Mrs. Braxton were placed in a room by themselves on the second story, and the door was barricaded so that escape by that avenue was impossible; but the windows were only guarded by stout oaken bars, which the women, by their united strength, succeeded in removing. Their captors were plunged in a profound slumber when Mrs. Benham and her companion dropped themselves out of the window and succeeded in reaching the stable without discovery. Here they found six fresh horses ready saddled and bridled, the others on which the bandits had made their raid being loose in the enclosure.
It was a cruel necessity that impelled our brave heroines to draw their knives across the hamstrings of the tired horses, thus disabling them so as to prevent pursuit. Then softly leading out the six fresh mustangs, each of our heroines mounted one of the horses man-fashion and led the others lashed together with lariats; walking the beasts until out of hearing, they then put them to a gallop, and, riding all night, came, at sunrise, to the spot where their suffering friends lay stretched on the sand, having abandoned all hope.
After a brief rest, the whole party pushed rapidly forward on their journey, arriving that evening at a place of safety. Two days after, they reached the headwaters of the Pecos. Here they purchased a large adobe house, and an extensive tract, suitable both for grazing and tillage.
These events occurred early in the autumn. During the following winter, the Mexicans revolted and massacred Governor Bent and his military household.