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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Texas Tales"

Old Pecos

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
She didn’t have a particularly feminine sounding name, but the old heifer they called Pecos sure came branded with a good story.

The tale came to light in the fall of 1928, when W.E. (Will) Pruett of Santa Rita, NM showed up in Alpine and Fort Davis looking for old acquaintances.

His father, Philip H. Pruett, had been one of Fort Davis’ earliest civilian settlers. He and his family had arrived at the small town adjacent to the frontier cavalry post in what is now Jeff Davis County in the summer of 1880.

Forty-eight years later Will Pruett found only two people still living in Fort Davis who had been around during his youth, and only one person in Alpine . But at some point during his visit he ran into a newspaper correspondent who interviewed him and wrote a story about him for the Dallas Morning News. (The journalist may have been Barry Scobee, who came to Fort Davis in 1917, but the piece does not have a byline.)

In 1876, Pruett related, his father took the family by train from White County in Arkansas to Trinidad, Colo. From there, Philip Pruett carried his wife Martha and five kids (then eight-year-old Will was the oldest child) in a wagon to Santa Fe, NM. That fall Pruett bought a herd of 40 shorthorn cattle and with his family and three cowboys left New Mexico for West Texas.

All they had was one wagon and two horses. Along the way, they had to melt snow to provide drinking water for themselves and their stock.

On New Year’s Day 1877, they finally reached Ben Ficklin, at the time the seat of Tom Green County. The 500-plus mile trip in the dead of winter had been hard on man and beast.

“After our long and perilous journey,” Pruett recalled, “all of our herd died of the Texas fever [a tick-borne illness] except four dogie calves and one 2-year-old heifer.”

That sturdy heifer was Pecos, named after the river the Pruetts had to cross mid-way on their journey from Santa Fe to Texas.

Not yet named, Pecos joined the herd about a week before Christmas. The Pruetts and their herders sat in camp on the north side of the river near the present town of Pecos when a rider approached. The man, who worked on a nearby farm, offered a two-year-old heifer to Pruett in exchange for a pound of coffee.

“Father told the Mexican that he had no saddle horse and that the heifer was wild and that he couldn’t keep her with the bunch,” Pruett remembered.

The visitor said he would stay with them until the heifer settled down.

“So my father told him that he would give him the pound of coffee for the heifer,” Pruett continued. “Then the Mexican went from the camp and in a little while came back with the heifer roped.”

The man tied her to a mesquite bush for the night. The next morning they formally made the trade, cow for coffee. Soon after, presumably, the previous owner of the heifer enjoyed a hot cup of Joe on a cold December day.

Not long after acquiring Pecos, the Pruetts ran into a caravan of traders on their way to Mexico down the Chihuahua Trail. Their wagons were loaded with dried buffalo meat.

After that, Pruett said, they did not see anyone else for 19 days straight, the time it took them to travel the stage coach road from Horsehead Crossing on the Pecos to Ben Ficklin.

The Pruett family stayed in the Concho country until 1880, when the elder Pruett decided to relocate to Fort Davis. They pushed a herd of Longhorns into that high country, according to Will Pruett, “the first bunch of stock cattle ever driven west of the Pecos.”

They lived two miles up Limpia Canyon, initially making a living by selling milk and butter to the military garrison. Later the family moved to Musquiz Canyon, where Pruett continued to run cattle. The pioneer rancher also played a role in setting up one of the area’s first school and helped blaze the road from Fort Davis to the new railroad town of Murphyville, later renamed Alpine.

Pruett kept Pecos, the heifer he got for a pound of coffee, for the rest of her long life. He had made a sharp trade. According to Will Pruett, Pecos lived for 23 years, giving birth to 19 heifers and one steer calf.

“Her increase ran to more than 200 head in a few years,” Pruett said in his 1928 interview. “One thousand dollars profit on the pound of coffee is a very conservative estimate of what the initial investment brought.”
© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales"
July 17, 2008 column

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Announcement
Mike Cox's "The Texas Rangers: Wearing the Cinco Peso, 1821-1900," the first of a two-volume, 250,000-word definitive history of the Rangers, was released by Forge Books in New York on March 18, 2008

Kirkus Review, the American Library Association's Book List and the San Antonio Express-News have all written rave reviews about this book, the first mainstream, popular history of the Rangers since 1935.
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