Cenizo Journal Winter 2023 - Page 26

Continued from page 9

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 were 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 the white , male European who imposed their vision of development on the border . Leaton ’ s legend , though , was constructed partially of apocrypha , and a certain narrative cleansing . No one is certain the slaughter of the Comanche occurred as the story was related but Leaton was a known killer and scalp hunter . The term for how he earned his daily bread on the frontier was “ Comanchero ,” which meant he swapped with the Comanche and Apache , guns , wagons , and cattle , or anything of value that either party had robbed from settlers and adventurers passing through the borderland .
When the Mexican government decided it wanted to be shed of indigenous peoples and end their depredations , it began paying $ 1.50 per scalp , and Leaton took to marauding . This is how he initially earned his living , on the deaths of innocents . Cormac McCarthy ’ s Blood Meridian had an evil protagonist , too vile to be considered even an anti-hero , a scalp hunter and murderer , which many researchers are convinced was based , in part , on Leaton , and cold-soul Irishman James Kirker . Both men killed whoever they came upon in possession of a scalp on their heads , left bodies to desiccate in the harsh sun , and sold their bounty to the Mexicans .
Leaton might have fallen into honest commerce , eventually , but his history would have almost certainly been diminished had he not come upon Juana Pedrasa , a Mexican widow with money , who bought a vast tract of land in La Junta . As a consequence of that encounter , she became the catalyst of the outlaw ’ s transition to businessman and historic figure . Juana , obsessed with an entrepreneurial ambition , knew that the river offered a route for commerce between San Antonio and Chihuahua City , and she intended to get wealthy off the wagon haulers , cowboys , dreamers , and merchants making their way to the silver mines of Mexico . Mule trains rumbled along the Chihuahua Trail , which passed through her ranch , and Juana saw wealth that needed to be captured . Life , however , has never been simple or easy for women in Texas . When she met Ben Leaton , her emotional reaction was probably informed less by love and romance than enlisting the partnership of a man who had the fearlessness to help her get rich . Pedrasa had also purchased an old Spanish mission on the banks of the Rio Grande and had transformed the crumbling adobe into the first private fort on la frontera , even in advance of Faver ’ s Cibolo Creek . The 40-room structure became a trading post for travelers and merchants transiting the border , and each arrival led to barbecues and memorable celebrations that only built her reputation as a businesswoman and visionary .
Because much of their trading company still involved negotiating with
Dona Juana took great comfort in the shrine because the legend had assured believers that the crosses possessed a spell that “ kept the devil in his cave .”
Indians for goods they had obtained illegally , Leaton got most of the credit for the fort ’ s prosperity . Unfortunately , when the U . S . annexed Texas , and Leaton was shot and killed on a trip to San Antonio , Juana Pedrasa discovered her considerable holdings were no longer governed by Mexican law , which meant they were passed onto her sons , Leaton ’ s heirs , not his spouse .
She managed the operations for many years but was unable to adapt to the changing nature of border commerce , and , eventually , they all lost the fort to lenders . Juana returned to Mexico , but her sons and their descendants continued a violent vendetta in a decades-long and failed confrontation to reclaim the fort . The structure , eventually , became a Texas state park that bears Leaton ’ s name , not Juana Pedrasa ’ s , and the docents do not lead their storytelling with Leaton ’ s mendacious beginnings as a scalp hunter and robber , or how he might be unknown to history were it not for a singularly focused woman .
Across the river to the south of Fort Leaton , three crosses adorn an old stone chapel known as El Cerrito de la Santa Cruz . Dona Juana took great comfort in the shrine because the legend had assured believers that the crosses possessed a spell that “ kept the devil in his cave .” She often relaxed in a rocking chair , gazing across the water at the rustic structure in the evening light , whispering her prayers . The mythical power of the crosses , though , ultimately , appeared to have failed Juana Pedrasa , and she survives as hardly more than a footnote to her husband ’ s terror and myth .
No stories along the border ever feel old , though . A nameless appeal sustains them into the present , and they continue to live the entire length of the Rio Grande . Not much cleverness is required of a writer to engage an audience with the frontier ’ s history . The challenge has always been to find a clear and sustaining narrative . The river moves , time changes its course , humans struggle and celebrate , but the tale is not singular or truly understandable , which , I suppose , accounts for my personal intrigue .
None of this was distracting me the morning my cameraman Jerry and I pushed our raft into the water , easing toward Santa Elena Canyon . The only subject baffling me was why we were the only journalists that the Texas governor had invited on the excursion . The group was comprised mostly of her senior staffers , a few major donors , and personal friends . Normally uninhibited for a politician , I suspected the presence of our TV camera might , nonetheless , constrain Richard ’ s enjoyment of the trip . �

26 Cenizo Winter 2023