An errant boyhood in the Texas borderlands
The boy wears a cowboy hat and boots, his jeans tucked in. He carries a gun, and a knife, and sometimes a sword. He can’t be older than five or six. He stalks small birds, rabbits, lizards, and longs for a snake to show itself. Feral house cats, some lacking tails and ears, maintain a wary distance. The boy played no part in that mutilation, but the cats avoid all human contact. He wanders in and among dusty pens, spying on enemies, then out into the mesquite and cedar brush, wary of Indians lurking on the hilltops above.
He carefully avoids the prickly pear, lechuguilla, and other spiny desert shrubs that grow all around him. Sotol and Spanish daggers and yucca entice him with their tall, woody stalks. Always looking for better guns, knives, and swords, he tests each stick with earnest concentration. He searches among fragments of chert for arrowheads, knives, ax heads, overlooking the mortar holes that pock limestone outcroppings, the stone wickiup rings and trash middens, all of which bear witness to thousands of years of human struggle in an unforgiving desert landscape.
Heat drives him back into the shade of the barn. Generators rumble, turning the long driveshafts of the shearing rig. Dusty men speaking Spanish, caked with sweat and grime, wearing dungarees black with lanolin, bend over bleating ewes, rapidly running clippers through the oily wool, over the belly, and inside the legs. They tie legs together and clip the wool from backs, haunches, necks, heads. Too fast and bright red lines appear, then blood. A foreman steps over with a needle and thread and stitches the wound. Untied, a shorn ewe leaps twice and scrambles back to her sisters just off the shearing floor. The boy watches from the shadows, sees his father deep in conversation with another man who wears a broad straw hat. They speak of breeding, stud rams, market prices, the never-ending drought. The boy slinks farther back into the barn, the crepuscular gloom broken by slashes of light glinting through old boards, and climbs a haphazard mountain of burlap sacks stuffed with wool, at least five hundred pounds each, and disappears into his game.
One afternoon a few years later the boy and his brother prowl about with their pellet guns, looking for something to shoot. They discover dozens of small birds, some brightly colored and others dull and tan but all of them lively and chattering, captives of an old wire shed that might once have been a chicken coop. They kill every one of them. When the boys finish with their game, small carcasses litter the floor of the shed; others hang upside down by their feet from wires and perches. On this ranch and others like it the boys grow used to the sight of blood. Blood from the lambs whose ears they mark, whose severed tails shower them with gore. Kid goats must be marked and calves branded and castrated. A colt’s ears might be spared but not his testicles. Varmints they hunt down without mercy, for they compete for resources. The foxes and the coyotes and the bobcats and the mountain lions. The coons and the ringtails. Rabbits perish by the hundreds; they eat the grass, which is more precious than blood.
My childhood ended when I was twelve years old. Not so much because I began sampling my father’s liquor, but because that year I went to work, in the summer after seventh grade. Of course I had labored in one way or another for as long as I could remember, because my father believed a boy’s day should be filled with chores. We lived on a little piece of land just outside the Del Rio city limits, on ten acres among a patchwork of homes and irrigated fields, adjacent to a chicken farm, a trailer park, and a private rodeo ring where older kids practiced their calf roping. The old Border Patrol station for the agency’s Del Rio sector was one road over, and the international bridge across the Rio Grande was just a few miles away. On a clear day I could see the low hills of Ciudad Acuña through my bedroom window.
My childhood chores had been simple drudge work, and I hated them. I filled wheelbarrows with rocks from the fill dirt that had been spread around our house to make a proper lawn out of what was previously a field. I was lazy, and the job seemed endless. In my young eyes the yard was vast. After a pipe fence was built on the property, I had to prime and paint the fence with Rust-Oleum and collect the heavy leftover pipe segments that the welders had left lying everywhere. Somewhat more interesting was the care and feeding of the sheep, goats, horses, and the occasional calf that populated our pens out back, on the other side of an irrigation ditch. I would much rather have been splashing about in that ditch with my dogs, catching crawdads or snakes, and so I would somehow forget about my chores and lose myself in that tiny wilderness. Until I heard my father coming up the driveway, and then I’d make a desperate run for the wheelbarrow.
But in the summer of 1980, I began to work for hire, for a boss other than my father. I can’t recall how it was decided, though I do remember sitting in the office of the Southwest Livestock and Trucking Company, before the intimidating figure of Darrell Hargrove. Darrell agreed to take me on, working in his stock pens with a motley gang of other boys more or less my age. I would make $37.50 a week.
Such work was good training for country boys who had ambitions as ranch hands. In those days I always assumed that I was destined to be a rancher, that it was my duty to carry on the family business, so I was proud of my new job. Every morning we showed up at Hargrove’s pens on the north side of the Southern Pacific railroad tracks. All day we loaded and unloaded sheep, goats, and cattle from eighteen-wheeled tractor-trailer rigs and gooseneck trailers pulled by six-wheeled “dually” double-cabbed pickups and every other imaginable vehicle that could be kitted out to haul stock so that the animals could be counted, weighed, handled, assessed, fed, watered, then sold or traded and shipped on down the line.
Sometimes the livestock went right back on the truck, destined for a buyer in Mexico or some more distant market. Other times the animals were driven into pens where they awaited their indeterminate fate, milling about and bawling in their various brutish dialects. We put out alfalfa hay for feed and washed water troughs, threw rocks and knives at lizards, swatted flies and wasps and bumblebees, tortured crickets and grasshoppers, peed on ants, and sketched diagrams of naked women in the dust with sticks. We dipped Copenhagen snuff, strutting around the pens and feeling superior to the boys who spent their summer hanging out at the pool just up the road at the San Felipe Country Club.
I suppose I showed some promise as a hand, because after a few days of such work I was chosen to help with a special project. Hargrove had leased much of the Babb ranch in Terrell County and was grazing thousands of sheep in the rough canyon lands out there along the Rio Grande. The time had come for shearing, so he sent a team of cowboys out to do the gathering. The ranch was more than an hour west of Del Rio, so Darrell’s teenage son Frank would pick me up at home every morning at 3:30 for the long drive through the outer dark. Frank had longish blond hair that emerged from under a baseball cap and covered his ears, and a large nose. He was funny and bragged constantly about his exploits with girls. I did my best to stay awake with my wad of Copenhagen lodged against my gums, but the drive inevitably blurred into a half-waking nightmare of fanfaronade, loud music, and the aroma of rank tobacco spit in nasty makeshift spittoons.
At 4:30 or 5:00 A.M. we would pull up at the ranch in front of Smokey Babb’s trailer house. After a brief visit with the proprietors—Smokey was skinny with wild black hair, and his wife, whose name I’ve forgotten, was quite fat; I have a strong memory of being given a rubbery piece of steak to eat that was cooked in a microwave—we would saddle up and ride through the predawn darkness for what seemed like hours so that we’d be in the back of the pasture by daybreak. I was given a mule to ride, and on the first morning, like a fool, I immediately drifted to the head of the group, though I had no idea where we were going. Darrell’s son-in-law, a wise young cowboy named Carl, spoke quietly to me that first day. He advised me never to ride at the front of a party, but always to hang back, where I could watch the other men and perhaps learn something. Then we had arrived, and I was sent off, taking my portion of a pasture of several thousand acres, riven by canyons and choked with brush, with little real sense of what I was supposed to be doing.
I hooted and hollered in imitation of my elders, driving sheep out of draws and off the top of what seemed like mountains, pushing them in what I hoped was the desired direction, toward a fence where they’d bunch up and settle down for the long walk to the barn. My mule, with its choppy gait, was torture to ride, but at least it was sure-footed as we climbed up and down the slick limestone outcroppings and made our haphazard way through the day. I remember sitting on my mule at the cusp of an impassable jumble of rock and brush dropping down toward the thin brown ribbon of the Rio Grande, slowly carving its way in broad meanders through the stone landscape. I remember thinking how easy it would be to cross.
The morning’s gathering ended with a huge flock of sheep clumped together, balking before a gate, hesitating until one or two leaders, pressed forward by the fearful mass of their ovine comrades, leaped through the gate, as if expecting a coyote to spring out from behind the cedar picket fence. After we ran the sheep from one pen to another, carefully counting two by two, the shearing commenced. The days were long and hot, with temperatures above one hundred degrees, and at noon all work stopped. Then the men told stories in Spanish and joked about subjects I pretended to understand. One day an older man, an Anglo cowboy who seemed to dislike me, took me aside and chewed me out for some imaginary offense. He told me he’d kick my ass if I ever did it again, and then he’d kick my daddy’s ass. I took the abuse in silence and walked away, mostly because I was fighting back the urge to bawl like a baby. Carl looked on from the shadows and nodded his head in approval of my silence.
After a few days of this routine I called in sick. I was tired of dragging myself out of bed at 3:30 A.M. and getting home at 9:00 P.M. I lost my place in the cowboy crew and went back to the dreary monotony of work in the stock pens, where at least I could get a decent night’s sleep. One of the chores we boys performed every morning in the stockyard involved hauling out the carcasses of animals that had died overnight, from being either crushed or otherwise injured in transit, or simply from the stress and terror of the experience. Typically, we’d find a handful of dead sheep or goats every morning. We collected them using a small tractor with a front-end loader. On what turned out to be my last day working for Darrell Hargrove, a boy named Mike and I went out to fetch some dead sheep. I remember standing in the front bucket of the tractor tugging on the carcass of a dead ewe when Mike started joking around, moving the bucket back and forth. I remember laughing, and then I lost my balance. My butt slipped between the tractor’s front end and the bucket of the loader, which closed on my body with crushing force. I heard a loud crack and tumbled to the ground. As I lay facedown in sheep dung, I heard Mike ask if I was all right.
I tried to tell him he’d broken my back. Mike must have run for help, for after some time I heard voices. Someone said to just get me up and walk me around, that I’d be okay. I’m not sure what happened next, but I remember screaming with pain.
Though my back wasn’t broken, that was the end of my first summer job. After two weeks in the hospital, my broken pelvis had healed enough that I was able to hobble about on crutches. A few weeks later I went to see Darrell Hargrove. He wrote me a check for seventy-five dollars.
Six months later I enrolled at Texas Military Institute in San Antonio. I had taken to running with an unruly crowd, drinking Coors around campfires in weedy overgrown lots or out at the cliffs of Amistad Reservoir, a huge lake formed by the dammed waters of the Rio Grande, the Pecos, and the Devils River. We wore cowboy boots and Wrangler jeans hitched around our skinny waists with braided belts and rodeo belt buckles and fought with other aspiring tough boys who called themselves cholos. No doubt I was getting a reputation around town as a hellion. My father grew alarmed and sent me off to school. At TMI, I learned to smoke pot and drop acid and drink ever greater quantities of alcohol. The music of Rush, Cheap Trick, AC/DC, and Black Sabbath provided the soundtrack to an education in delinquency.
When I came home for high school, I brought my new habits with me and introduced my friends to marijuana. My friend Scott liked it too much. His parents had died in a car accident, and eventually he came into some insurance money and bought a white Chevy Camaro. We all thought he was lucky until he crashed the Camaro and damaged his brain. I went to see him at the hospital in San Antonio. He looked so small in that bed—skinny, broken, with his jaw wired shut and a catheter on his penis. His eyes were open, though he was still in a coma, and he babbled incessantly. He was never quite the same.
All of us were lucky we didn’t end up like Scott. At our family ranch in Juno, along the upper Devils River, about fifty-five miles northwest of Del Rio, when I was fifteen, I rolled a ranch pickup. I was driving too fast on a stretch of highway along the banks of the river. One of our heifers had gotten through the fence and I took my eyes off the road, and then I was rolling and tumbling. I kicked my way out of the vehicle and caught a ride back to the house. Somehow I never crashed when I was drinking. The ranch manager, a fair-haired bachelor from East Texas named Pete, died on that road a few years later after flipping his pickup at a low-water crossing.
When I wasn’t out at the ranch, I went to Mexico every weekend, to bars with names like Boccaccio’s and Ma Crosby’s and Lando’s. We drank flaming tequila shots, bourbon and Coke, and endless beers, and fought with boys from other Texas towns who we thought were invading our territory. Sometimes I made the drive to Acuña from the ranch, much of it following the old U.S. Cavalry route along the Devils River.
Cocaine started showing up among some of my friends in 1984. I ran into my neighborhood drug dealer one night in Acuña, and he suggested we go for a ride. He directed me to a quiet spot under some trees in the shadow of the Acuña bullfighting ring, and we shared a couple of lines. Snorting coke in a car in Mexico was probably the single stupidest thing I’ve ever done. My dealer friend later sold me a baggie of what was probably baking soda for a hundred dollars, thus ending what might have been a dangerous infatuation.
The drug war was escalating all along the border at that time, but I didn’t really have the wit to notice it or to connect it to my cravings for stimulation and release. My father began to grow more agitated about our outings to Mexico. Rumors of kidnappings and killings on both sides of the river were circulating. Bodies and body parts began to turn up in border towns. Not all the killings were drug related.
On Friday, January 27, 1984, a customs inspector named Richard Latham was abducted from the international bridge at Del Rio. He was one of my father’s best friends, practically an uncle to me. I was at home alone the next day when I got a call that Richard was dead. A man collecting firewood along the highway near Eagle Pass found his body facedown in a ditch. He had been bound with his own handcuffs, shot twice in the back with his own gun.
Richard’s killers had robbed a jewelry store in Acuña. They crossed the river at around 4:00 P.M. in a gray 1978 Pontiac Grand Prix. In those days the port of entry at Del Rio was very low-tech and casual, with just a few inspection lanes and no video cameras. Agents entered license plate numbers by hand as cars approached. They used to just wave me through when I was headed home at 1:00 A.M. The agent on duty that day had some questions about the robbers’ papers, so he pulled them over for a secondary inspection, and Richard was working secondary. No one saw what happened. It was an hour before anyone noticed that Richard was missing.
My father told me that Richard had never wanted to take a job that would require him to carry a gun; he was afraid of developing a lawman’s swagger. But good jobs are hard to come by along the border, so he became a lawman in the end, though he never let the gun on his hip change him.
I can’t explain why, but I have dreamed about Richard’s death off and on for thirty years. I’ve tried to imagine what went through his mind during that last hour of his life as his kidnappers drove south toward Eagle Pass. I have sought to picture the killing itself, to feel what he felt as the life drained out of him into the dry rocky ground where he lay. I guess you could say his death scarred me, because all these years later I’m still haunted by it. If you talk to Border Patrol and customs people nowadays, everyone knows who Richard Latham was. His portrait hangs in the new state-of-the-art port of entry at Del Rio. Other agents who were on the bridge that day blamed themselves for his death. Some never got over it.
When I was eighteen years old, I packed up my car and left Texas forever. Maybe not forever, but I’m still gone. I spend as much time there as I can, and its landscapes inhabit my imagination, but since that bright, sunny day in 1985 when I drove off to college in Tennessee, unconsciously reversing my family’s long-ago westward migration, I haven’t lived in my home state for more than a few months at a time. The Texas that I keep in mind is largely defined by the Rio Grande and from my hometown perspective stretches westward from Del Rio—which sits at a crossroads of Texas geography, on the northern shoulder of that intermittent stream that we insist on calling a big river, where the rolling grasslands of the Edwards Plateau give way to the great Chihuahuan Desert—through Comstock and beyond the Trans-Pecos creosote flats and the steep draws along the canyons of the Rio Grande and the wide volcanic vistas of the Big Bend to the barren, sandy wastelands of El Paso. But also and especially it includes the rugged canyons of the western Hill Country that drain into the Devils River as it winds its way toward the Rio Grande. Beyond the immediate range of my boyhood domain, that long riverine landscape drops below the Balcones Escarpment to encompass the flat savannas and harsh Tamaulipan thorn brush of South Texas and the fertile lowland vegas of the lower Rio Grande valley. Beyond the Hill Country to our northwest, the Llano Estacado rises up and opens the infinite expanses of the high plains, whence the Comanches came down their raiding trails toward the rivers, where they preyed on their ancient enemies the Apaches as well as the precarious settlements and ranches of Texas and northern Mexico.
Above all, I think of Juno, now just a name on a map, a spot on a perilous winding road, no longer a town. The post office and the school, the hotels and the saloons and the old country store are all long vanished, the stones and the lovely old hardwood washed away by floods, carried off by interior decorators and “reclaimed,” or gone to dust.
Today I hold these images in my mind as I seek to reconcile the borderlands of my youth with the great change that has come over this landscape. Nowadays our neighbors’ ranches are mostly empty of livestock; predator populations are booming, and exotic creatures like aoudads and axis deer have invaded. They aren’t the only invaders. Tobacco lawyers, oil tycoons, and the Nature Conservancy have been buying up the empty ranches and putting up high fences, while drug mules paid by Mexican drug cartels play cat and mouse with various armed functionaries of the Department of Homeland Security.
The transformation was gradual, but I remember hearing talk in Del Rio about the bloody head that was found in a dumpster one day, and other body parts were rumored to have shown up across town. Then there was the drug-smuggling cult in Matamoros that carried out human sacrifices and made jewelry from its victims’ bones. Rising violence in Mexico, fueled by the perverse cycles of drug prohibition and insatiable market demand, destroyed the local economies on both sides of the river. Piles of bodies, usually mutilated, often with messages carved in them, began showing up in Mexican border towns, and hundreds of women were murdered in Juárez, across from El Paso.
On the American side, an enormous law-enforcement presence descended on the region. All outbound traffic from Del Rio on Highway 90, heading both east and west, is routinely stopped at Border Patrol inspection stations. Camera arrays automatically photograph every driver and license plate, and agents question residents about their destinations and private business. Helicopters and drones buzz overhead. Sinister sedans with darkened windows and federal license plates race along the highways. The border country has been transformed into an armed camp, and this militarization and the anxieties it heralds seem to echo and recapitulate the history of the region in curious and unexpected ways. Down on the border, we’re playing cowboys and Indians, cavalry and Comanches, all over again.
Excerpted from Texas Blood: Seven Generations Among the Outlaws, Ranchers, Indians, Missionaries, Soldiers, and Smugglers of the Borderlands by Roger D. Hodge, to be published by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House, in October 2017.
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