Pecos River Valley Kills Many Hopes but Nurtures Dreams : West: Even buffalo hunters dreaded it. "When a bad man dies, he goes either to hell or the Pecos," they said.

From National Geographic

T he Pecos River is no place for sissies. Even the buffalo hunters dreaded it. "When a bad man dies, he goes either to hell or the Pecos," they said.

Some places are meant for the few, for a tough strain of humanity who, by fate or choice, live out their span in harsh isolation. Pecos River country--distant, dry, unforgiving--is such a place, Cathy Newman writes in National Geographic.

For most of its 900-mile run through eastern New Mexico and western Texas, the Pecos is by turns narrow, sluggish, salty, shallow. In some places it vanishes altogether, into limestone outcrop.

The Pecos begins in mountain wilderness and ends in furnace desert with not much in between but long horizon and hard blue sky. It surrenders to the Rio Grande on the Texas-Mexico border.

"Graveyard of the cowman's hopes," Charles Goodnight called it. In 1866 he drove 2,000 cattle along the river and lost more than 300 to thirst. His partner later lost his life to a Comanche bullet.

It is the graveyard of many hopes--of Spanish conquistadores who came looking for gold in the 16th Century, of 19th-Century homesteaders lured by dreams of land ripe for the plow, of 20th-Century wildcatters seduced by the whisper of oil.

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Though short on water, the Pecos has always been long on mythology. Here, folk-tale cowboy Pecos Bill, who cut his teeth on a bowie knife, rode a mountain lion while twirling a live rattlesnake lariat.

Real-life cattle king John Chisum employed cowhands so accustomed to the alkaline taste of Pecos water, it is said, that they carried salt in their saddlebags to doctor fresh water they found.

The cattle baron himself inspired "Chisum," an action-packed Western starring John Wayne that was set in the 1870s land wars.

"Pecos" even became a verb. To "pecos" someone meant to deep-six him.

Many towns throughout the upper Pecos Valley have dried up and blown away. The malaise affects Colonias; only nine families remain in this New Mexico village of red dust.

Its church, vacant and decaying, is being restored. Caretaker Fabiola Saiz mixes earth and water in a trench and fills a large can with the adobe.

She was married here. Her parents are buried here. And so is her handicapped son. "I reach for a trowel and a handful of adobe," Newman writes, "adding a prayer of my own for the church of San Jose."

As if with a sigh of relief, the river emerges from canyon walls into plains south of Colonias. Red rock disappears; pale green prairie appears.

Here in its middle basin, the river is at its most productive. For the rest of its run through New Mexico, the Pecos stitches together fields of alfalfa and cotton and pastures for cattle.

In Ft. Sumner, there are two Billy the Kid museums. Is the town big enough for both?

"No," says Don Sweet, who owns Billy museum No. 1. Displays include a grave marked "Replica." Museum No. 2, the Old Ft. Sumner Museum, boasts the "authentic grave."

The object of this rivalry--Billy the Kid--was shot dead in Ft. Sumner, N.M., at 21 by Sheriff Pat Garrett in 1881. Legend says the kid with the choirboy face killed 21 men. Fact says it was no more than 10.

Long after he was supposed to be dead, Billy, the Elvis of his time, was reported to be living in Mexico.

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Ft. Sumner's dark legend encompasses a more tragic chapter: Beginning in 1863 the U.S. Army rounded up 10,000 Navajos and marched them 350 miles from their homeland. Only 8,500 arrived, joining 450 Mescalero Apaches.

Ft. Sumner held the American Indians prisoners. Food was scarce. Disease claimed hundreds.

"Thousands of my people died," says Pearl Sunrise, a Santa Fe, N.M., museum curator. "Our hearts were torn out. When you go, you can feel their spirits lingering."

The Pecos has been involved in classic Western water warfare. In 1988, after a 16-year courtroom battle, Texas won a suit that accused New Mexico of hogging more than its share of water.

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed and ordered New Mexico to pay $14 million in damages.

Even in Texas, size isn't everything. Mentone (population 20) has a pink-stone courthouse, a post office, a one-pump gas station, the A&G; Cafe. That's it.

Mentone, the seat of Loving County (population 100), is the only town in this least densely populated county in the contiguous United States. Sheriff Elgin (Punk) Jones took office in 1965 with 65 votes.

Cafe owner Ann Hogue, a wiry woman with hair the color of a dried chili pepper, says Mentone folks are "tough on the outside, marshmallows inside."

The sheriff is the toughest marshmallow. He shows off his jail: two barred windows, bunk bed bolted to the floor, sink, urinal, shower. "At that," Newman writes, "it looks better than some of the motel rooms I've slept in recently. That evening I check into jail."

In the hand dealt by the Pecos, a wild card turns up--a dream comes true. For Ira and Ann Yates, that moment came in 1926, when their well No. 1 blew in, dispelling the belief that there was no oil west of the Pecos. There was an ocean of it.

As the Pecos nears the Rio Grande, the Chihuahuan Desert tightens its grip. Out here, they say, everything stings, bites or sticks.

"It is land that will not tolerate a bad guess," Newman writes. "How much water to carry, distance to the next gas pump, interval from storm to flash flood. There's no margin for error."

The Pecos can still turn mean in a flash. Why do people live here? Perhaps they find something of themselves in the lean, spare landscape.

"We just do whatever it takes," says Margaret Woodward, wife of a Texas sheep rancher.

Wave after wave of pioneers have crossed this river with hope. Many have left with broken hearts. Through it all there echoes a Pecos refrain, constant as the sighing wind: Whatever it takes.

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