Mustang Draw

Published Jul 15th 2001 in Habitats

Step back in time for a moment. If you were trying to tell someone where to look for a spring, or a hunting area, you would first outline the drainage patterns. "Go to the fourth draw you cross as you head southeast. You may hit that draw upstream or downstream from your final goal. Upstream from Mustang Springs there are almost no trees for an hour's ride. Downstream a mile or two, you come to a lake (Estes Lake) that has water all the time except in a hot, dry summer, and downstream another three miles is a marshy area (Mustang Ponds). Still further downstream from there, you go about three miles where you hit a series of tree groves. The first grove is made up of hackberries, the second is a bunch of young soapberries, next is a grove of middle-aged hackberries followed by a dead soapberry forest and finally, at a bend, you will find thickets of Gum Bumelia at the head of a mile-long forest situated about a mile before the confluence of Mustang Draw with Johnson Draw. In the area of the Bumelia thickets is a little rocky outcropping of chert. If you need to make some arrowheads, it will do in a pinch."

Mustang Draw starts in northwest Martin County, below where the drainage from the confluence of Seminole and Monument Draws joins McKenzie Draw, which begins west of Cedar Lake near Seagraves. Mustang Draw runs southeast across Martin County, cuts a corner of northeast Midland County, loops first south and then north in the northwest corner of Glasscock County, where it joins Johnson Draw -- which has meanwhile picked up drainage from Midland and Monahans Draws. Downstream from the confluence of Johnson and Mustang Draws, the watercourse heads northeast to joins Sulphur Springs Creek, where it becomes Beal’s Creek, which flows eastward through Big Spring into Mitchell County, where it joins the Colorado River south of Colorado City.

What may sound like a pile of spaghetti is basic to understanding the southern Llano Estacado. One cannot really form a mental picture of the area until they can envision the drainage patterns. Until then, landmarks are disjointed, their relationships to each other incoherent. When the Ipa-nde, Indeh Quahadis, Jumanos, Panatekas, Ciboleros, and Comancheros rode across this country, everyone had to have such a mental map. Many modern folks think the land is featureless, boring, flat, and ugly. It only takes a tiny bit of effort to learn the watercourse map of our homeland. See if you can find a map that shows them -- unless you have Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s "Natural Heritage of Texas" map (with drawings of endangered species around the edge), you may have to piece it together at an Internet site.

Mustang Springs has not flowed, nor has Estes Lake held water through the winter since the advent of irrigation in the early 1950s. Mustang Ponds were wet during the rainy 1980s. A grove of Salt Cedar chokes the draw there now, at the junction of the road south of Stanton and east of Greenwood. Some of the tree groves downstream from Mustang Ponds were plowed in the 1980s, but most of that country has been turned back to grass with the Conservation Reserve Program.

For twenty five years, the Midland Naturalists had permission to visit the lower part of Mustang Draw located on private land. Billy Houston's granddad had settled the area, and the family enjoyed showing off the property and its wildlife. As long as Billy was alive, we could call him up to chat awhile and, more often than not, we would get an invite. I spent "many a night" camping there. Billy showed up every morning to check on the stock, feed the turkeys, and watch the bobcats go to bed under the collapsed old homeplace. The late Sue Corson, the most ardent amateur naturalist of Big Spring and also Billy's niece, would often come out, too. Sue led the Midland Naturalists up and down the draw looking for birds, wildflowers, snakes, mammals, and more. She added information about changes in the habitat that she had noticed over the years in stories she told about growing up as a tomboy cowgirl. As amateur naturalists, we systematically surveyed this particular location on Mustang Draw, taking notes, photographing, and doing our best to identify every life form we encountered.

Many questions arose as we studied the landscape. For example, we found Golden-fronted Woodpeckers there, which we almost never see in Midland. We wondered if there was a relationship between the Bumelia and the woodpeckers. On the slope with the chert, we found a small population of little-leaf sumac. In the hills above Big Spring, the species is relatively common, but the grouping of the species on Billy's place is the westernmost until reaching the Mescalero Escarpment on the western edge of the Llano Estacado.

When I was a teenager, Billy, Sue, my parents, and I were sitting under a full moon one night listening to the coyotes howl and trying to spotlight a Screech Owl that was screaming from a senescent grove of soapberries. We got to talking about the little ledge of chert, and I brought up the sumac plants, commenting how strange it was to find the plants there. I have been a plant nerd since I was nine years old. I love to know about the uses indigenous people make of plants, so I also related the fact that sumac makes a great lemonade-like drink.

Billy, in his quiet and measured way observed, "What if a Comanche was coming across here, and he stopped to make some points? He would camp, eat a little meat, maybe kill a turkey, let's say. In his buffalo stomach canteen, he would have water from the spring upstream. But to make it taste a little better, he might carry the dried berries of the sumacs. He would make some ‘lemonade.’ After eating, he might have walked up to the ledge to whack off a bit of rock to make a point. He would sit there on the ledge, sipping his lemonade, and when one of the berries would get in his mouth, he would spit it out. At least one of each species must have landed in a perfect place to germinate."

The Screech Owl screamed as Billy's voice stopped. The Owl flew, moth-like, to the platform below the slowly spinning blades of the windmill. Did his ancestor reveal himself to that Comanche working on emergency points? There are a thousand stories from Mustang Draw. Some are mythical, such as a trade rendezvous in the mid-1600s between Jumanos, Indeh, and Hasani, in which Sabeata became a trusted statesman as they discussed how to respond to the changes brought by the Spanish incursion. Other mythical stories can include a meeting between Bose Ikard and outlaws seeking to steal some of John Chisum's money, and a honeymoon night between Cynthia Ann Parker and Nocona. Historical stories abound as well, such as Captain Randolph Marcy's night at Mustang Springs. When stories are told, a seemingly featureless landscape becomes incredibly detailed.