Lover’s Leap

Lovers Leap
Lovers Leap
Lovers Leap
Lover’s Leap

Legend has a young lovesick Indian couple leaping to their deaths from a rugged limestone bluff near my hometown of Junction. Their parents had refused their dream of marriage, so they went hand-in-hand together over the edge and into the Great Beyond.

The craggy cliff is known to this day as Lover’s Leap, and the legend of those despairing young Indians has long been part of the magic of my home. An unknown scribe from long ago had this to say: “Knowing their love can never be, the young couple stare at the swirling river far below. One last kiss, and then, holding hands, they leap off the cliff, united forever in death – and legend.”

That river below had to be the South Llano which joins the North Llano by the town of Junction, forming the Main Llano which winds on toward the Gulf of Mexico.

Lover’s Leap overlooks the annual Junction Easter pageant which is held in the Lover’s Leap Amphitheater, a cleared area beneath the rocky bluff and close to the spot where legend had the young Indians meeting their death.

There are Lover’s Leap cliffs with similar legends in three other Texas locales, but the one at Junction has always been the one which inspired a writer by the name of J. E. Grinstead to wax poetic in his 1916 magazine called Grinstead’s Graphic.

Wrote Grinstead:

Thus they stood a single moment,
On that rocky, towering heap;
Then, they named the place forever –
As they made the Lover’s Leap.

I believe the legend. It was part of my boyhood.

I fished the swirling waters of that river below, and I hunted the juniper covered hills of Kimble County which surround the town of Junction, truly the land of living waters.

To this day, when I take Exit 456 off of IH–10, and start the sloping road descent north beside the high craig which is Lover’s Leap, I look down with mist of eye and nostalgic chill upon the prettiest little river valley town in the entire State of Texas.

Junction will always be my home.

Spring and then summer were the seasons I loved as a kid growing up in Junction. When the mesquites showed their first traces of green, off came the boots and shoes. The pecan trees in our yard were towering. Their leaves followed the mesquites.The sweet scent of blooming agarita bushes belongs to Junction and Kimble County. I loved going barefoot during the grade school years. My feet grew callouses that were tough as a pig snout, enabling me to run with impunity through grass burr and goathead thorn patches that would seriously cripple a city kid.

My father, Grady Kindrick, had died before I was a year old. I lived with my mother, Bernice, in the little stucco house my father hand built. It had a standing-seam metal roof, and a fireplace built by master rock mason Oliver Lynn Verlin. There were two bedrooms, a small living and dining room combination with a hardwood floor, and a small kitchen with linoleum flooring. It was a mansion in my eyes, the most beautiful home in the entire world. The flat standing-seam metal roof was drained by square metal pipes. The noise they made put me to sleep on many a rainy night, and when Junction got its occasional snow, I could hear the drains making a strange ticking sound. When I heard that sound at night I bounded out of bed the next morning to play in the mysterious white stuff. I knew the snow would be covering the ground.

Our house also had an adjoining one-bedroom garage apartment, but I couldn’t recall any of the tenants. They were mostly working women, none of them staying for any significant length of time.

In the summer months before I was to enter the eighth grade in school, I prowled the South Llano River banks with a fishing rod and a dog. I don’t think my mother worried a lot. I had learned to swim at age 6. My mother was there, too. I took my first swimming strokes at Flat Rock Crossing, a natural swimming hole at the time on the South Llano River about a mile from our house in Junction. At that exact spot, my mother had me baptised by a Baptist preacher. I took to the water much quicker than I took to the preacher. My mother was a natural athlete and a dark-haired country beauty, starring on the Junction High School girls basketball team, and swimming like a Llano River bank beaver when she was a young girl.

She led me out to the deeper water and held me belly-down, supporting me with her hands on my midsection. I had seen her swim and I knew what to do. I started stroking with my arms and kicking my feet. She stepped back and I was swimming free. I crossed the Flat Rock Crossing deep hole with little effort, and after that day nobody could have kept me out of the river.

With cane poles and later a cheap Montgomery Ward rod-and-reel, I stalked the fishes of the Llanos, landing an array of perch and catfish that included sun perch and black Rio Grande perch, silvery channel catfish and blue cats when I was still very young. The heavyweight yellow cats and alligator gar would come later when I was older and strong enough to handle the deep water throw lines and trotlines which required a boat.

I can close my eyes and conjure up a South Llano River morning as if a 75-year gap in time did not exist. My spotted terrier mix pup Tippy is sniffing the river bottom humus, checking for grey squirrel scent and maybe some coon sign left over from the night before. The sparkling clear water is gurgling and burbling as it spils over a gravel bar into a pool below, lined by sycamore and water elms.The sun is just beginning to rise on a Kimble County morning, beautiful and inviting as steam slowly rises from the pristine water and lily pads of the South Llano.

Then splat! The cork on my fishing line disappears under the river surface. My breath was like pure oxygen. I had the long-shanked hook baited with earthworms. I had raised and nurtured those worms with liberal helpings of coffee grounds from our kitchen.. The cane pole tipped and then bent as a flash of orange appeared just beneath the river surface. It was a sun perch, a big one, maybe a quarter pound or more. My mother deep-fried these fish, cooking them crisp so bones and meat could be consumed safely together. Much like potato chips.

I would have a full stringer of perch, plus a channel cat or two if I was lucky, and the sun would be setting on a happy country boy as Tippy and I made our way home. I wore nothing but cutoff jeans and a shapeless farm boy straw hat that didn’t cost more than a couple of dollars. A cacophony of frog and cricket sounds would follow me as I left the river bottom.The call of a wild gobbler was not uncommon. Harmless Texas water snakes would leave their v wakes as they glided across the river. And we would see the occasional poisonous copperheads and cottonmouths that bothered no one if they were not messed with.

My back and feet were not tanned by the sun.They were burnished the color of a burnt stump but nobody cared. I will forever remember the sounds of the river at night. They were the familiar hoot of a great horned owl, the crazy gabble of a screech owl, the mournful cry of the whippoorwill, the warning pop of a beaver’s tail hitting the surface, and the sharp bark of a hunting fox. I loved all of the sounds, even the spooky ones nobody could identify. I have always believed they might have been made by ghost people killed by the Comanche–Indians who left their arrow points and kitchen middens on the Llano watersheds for some of us to find.

Animals, both wild and domestic, were a huge part of my childhood. Dogs, cats, burros, pigeons, hamsters, white rats, raccoons, possums, squirrels, feather-legged bantam chickens, bats, snakes, and one beaver were all part of the menagerie which my poor mother managed to tolerate. My mother allowed a small metal shed out behind our house where I raised pigeons and bantam cickens. The beaver’s name was Sawdust, and Sawdust had to go when he chewed the leg off a dining room chair. One of two donkeys I kept in the fenced area behind the house was a tough little critter I rode into town from Johnson Fork Creek some 10 miles distance. I called him Samson. The wildest pet who enjoyed the most longevity in our house was Possie the pet possum, a nocturnal little creature with a perpetual grin who liked to suck eggs and eat cat food. Possie lived undetected in the house for the better part of six months, emerging at night to dine on the cat’s food. My mother finally caught him just before daylight one morning when she got out of bed for some unknown reason. She opened an outside door and the possum was happy to go.

Nobody around Junction had ever heard of a golden hampster. I found a hamster ad in a Fur, Fish, and Game magazine, and my mother let me order a pair of the little animals. I don’t recall what happened to my hamster business.

Those pre-pubescent years were the happiest I was to enjoy with my mom. She was still trying to accept the death of my father, and the stark reality of our situation was that she didn’t know what to do with me. When two large Texas water moccasins escaped from an aquarium tank I had in the garage, my terrified mother wouldn’t go near the garage for a month. I guess the snakes high-tailed it for the river. They never came back. But my mother never cracked down on my propensity for collecting wild critters. She basically allowed me to do as I pleased.

My closest childhood friend remained in my life through high school, college, and into adulthood. As I entered my pre-teens and early teens I spent a lot of time on the Coke Stevenson Ranch on the headwaters of the South Llano with Rex Thompson Sherry, a powerfully-built kid whose father Rex Sherry was Coke Stevenson’s ranch foreman. Rex Thompson was known only as Tommy Sherry in those days, and his younger brother Roger was Bubba.

My maternal grandparents leased ranched on the Stevenson property several miles from the Stevenson home and ranch worker lodgings. I often found myself hanging out with the Sherry brothers. When we weren’t hunting or fishing, we hatched other activities to blunt the boredom, usually in the hottest months of late summer.

One unique game we played was called High Pissing. I’m not sure who originated this one, but I do know it became fairly popular with us and some of our associates.

The object was simple. We competed to see who could urinate on a dead run and hit the highest mark on the side of a building with our piss stream. We pissed high on the side of a Stevenson ranch stock barn, and we also competed with town friends on the back side of our garage apartment when my mother was away.

Tommy Sherry and I excelled at the High Pissing competition, along with his little brother Bubba and town kids who included Kenneth Stapp and Bob Wallace. We practiced and we perfected our various techniques.

In the competition, we drank all the water we could hold, then waited 20 or 30 minutes before gathering at the designated starting line. We performed individually. When the water was on the verge of bursting our bladders, we unbuttoned our britches, pinched the ends of our peckers tightly with one hand, and then broke into a dead run directly at the barn wall. It was like a cavalry charge with no horse. We knew exactly when to go airborne and when to relax the grip on our tallywhackers. If this was all completed with precision at the apex of our leap, the resulting blast of urine would hit high on the wall, sometimes head high or even higher. Crashing headlong into the wall was no grounds for disqualification. High pissing was not for pussies. The highest piss mark on the wall determined the winner, no matter what happened to the contestant.

While we were largely responsible for invention of the pissing game, the great mountain lion hoax just seemed to naturally fall our way. I don’t know who stole the stuffed cougar, a frightening mount that had somehow disappeared from a hunting lodge on one of the South Llano dude ranches, either Lynside or The Flying L. I never was sure which ranch it came from. Nor was I ever positive who stole the fearsome-looking feline, a silently snarling menace that seemed ready to pounce on anyone who ventured too close. I know I didn’t steal the stuffed cat, but I was quick to join in the fun with the Sherry brothers when we learned what startling effect the big lion had on night traveling motorists.

Placed on the side of any number of Junction-area highways and ranch roads, and positioned so that it woud be directly facing oncoming vehicles, our stuffed mountin lion proved to be a sensational hoax that would exceed even our wildest dreams. Big cats are rare in Kimble County, but they have aways been there. So we had a plausible scare stunt. When the lion appeared in car or truck headlights, the vehicle usually pulled on past before stopping. There were no cell phones in those days, and a nighttime motorist confronted by a snarling mountain lion was more than rattled. Most of them were scared shitless. After a quick stop, it was a fast dash into town and a telephone where either the town marshal or the sheriff was called.

It didn’t take us long to perfect and streamline the hoax. I put small strips of red relective tape on the mount’s glass eyes and the result was mind-blowing. Never mind that no real mountain lion’s eyes would shine red in the night, the reflective tape was the crowning touch.

When one country motorist backed up his pickup and fired what we guessed was a 30-30 rifle bullet at our cat, we quickly took safety measures. From that point on Tommy Sherry and I took turns driving and positioning the mount.

We had a long piece of cotton rope tied to the cat. One of us drove and let the other one out with the cat. When a motorist saw the cougar and started slowing down, the one hiding in the bushes immediately dragged the mount off the road and into the brush.

The driver in our team would return to pick the other one and our cat up after the excitement was over.

We waited for days and sometimes weeks between our cougar episodes. Mountain lion reports were flying around Junction for months. We continued the tomfoolery until our poor old mountain lion was a tattered mess of raggedy hide that would no longer frighten anyone. Dragging him through the rocks and brush had taken a toll.

Nobody ever exposed us in official fashion, but Sheriff Rip Martin did tell me near the end that we had best pull up with the lion foolishness. I think he must have figured it out. Real mountain lions don’t have eyeballs that glow like red marbles in a fish bowl.

The cougar pranks and pissing matches were diversions from boredom. I killed deer and wild turkey, but varmint hunting with dogs was my true love.

Tommy Sherry’s father Rex owned two Treeing Walker bobcat hounds he called Streak and Saddler. They were big, rangy, black-and-white spotted animals with broad muzzles and medium-long ears that were notched and scarred from fighting bobcats. Ranch people all over that area were acquainted with Rex Sherry and his dogs. Bobcats are the most voracious of all predators in Texas sheep and goat country. Streak and Saddler were always welcome on most any of the South Llano River ranches.

I was intrigued by the excitement.

Some ranch person would spot a bobcat crossing the road, usually at night as they drove home from town. Rex Sherry would get a call on one of those ancient party line phones with ringer, crank, and hand-held receiver. Sometimes Tommy and I would go along as Rex loaded the dogs into the back of his rusty old pickup truck and headed out. This was not kid play. This was serious business. We were going out with two celebrated cat hounds, the best in our part of Texas. If there was moisture on the ground, the dogs would quickly pick up the bobcat’s trail. The chases would sometimes be short, sometime longer and taking several hours before the dogs had the cat in a tree. If the cat left the tree, the fight would be epic– a snarling, roaring, and screeching donnybrook with the cat’s demise happening under the night sky. Usually, though, if the quarry remained in the tree, Rex Sherry would dispatch the cat with a 22 caliber rifle bullet and we would all be headed for the house.

Inspired by the Rex Sherry hounds, I bought my two Walker hounds, Rock and Ruby. Rock died early and I kept Ruby until I went off to college, leaving her with a dog man friend who kept her until her death.

We hunted coon, fox, an occasional bobcat, and mostly ringtails. The ringtail cat is a beautiful buff-colored animal with distinctive black and white rings on its long tail. In Mexico and some western states it is technically known as a “cacomistle.” It is a relative of the fox.

When we were growing up, ringtail pelts were being used as imitation mink for coats and other garments. At one time, Leonard Sutton, the Kimble County fur and pecan buyer in Junction was paying up to $10 each for prime ringtail pelts.

With dogs and headlights, kids like us could sometimes bag as many as a half dozen ringtails in a single night. A $60 fortune for us.

We varmint hunted at night and on horseback, always in the dead of winter when varmint fur was prime. Junction and Kimble County record some of the coldest winter temperatures in Central Texas. We rode the Stevenson ranch horses bareback for their body warmth. They were a gelding named Star and a mare called Flaxie. The geldingwas a sorrel with a white star between his eyes. The marewas a dun the color of broom straw. Flax colored. I usually rode the mare. Both horses had been broken by my cowboy hero Red Smith, and both of them were as gentle as house kittens. Standard bridle bits were not needed with these horses. They were easily steered with rope hackamores, bridles that required only light pressure on the mount’s nose. We had gaps in fences which encircled both the Paint Creek Ranch and the Seven Hundred Springs Ranch, enabling us to hunt on both of these Texas paradises without detection. We crossed onto them from the Stevenson property when the mood struck. There was a spring-fed ditch near the Sherry cow pens. Sometimes we hunted all night, returning to the house in the pre-dawn hours. The irrigation ditch was only a couple of feet wide, but Flaxie had an aversion to getting her feet wet. Instead of wading the ditch, she would stop dead still and then jump the little waterway. By that time of the morning I would be half asleep on the mare’s back. When she made her little crow hop I invariable toppled from her back and into the icy water.

Flaxie would turn and patiently wait for me, the hackamore bridle trailing in the water. Flaxie’s eyes said it all: “Come on, dumb shit, let’s get on into the barn.”

When I night hunted with a dog it was always with Ruby, a petite hound with black and tan spots on a white body with a sprinkling of blue freckles around her face and muzzle. The people who sold her to me said she had some of the Tennessee July foxhound blood in her along with some Treeeing Walker.

Ruby had the sweetest disposition of any dog I ever owned, and a hunting instinct that was a constant threat to her health. She would run over the rocky terrain of the Texas Hill Country until her paws were leaving bloody prints, and then she would run some more. Her big flaw in our part of the country was her disdain for fighting or sitting under a tree. If the quarry–whether it be coon, fox, or cat–went underground or into a tree, Ruby soon lost interest and went on to chase another critter that would run.

Hound dog men in my neck of the woods were into tree dogs that would fight the quarry. I always heard that true fox hunters in other southern areas were satisfied to sit by a campfire and listen to their dogs. I think Ruby had more July foxhound blood in her that anyone suspected. I always enjoyed her high-pitched excitement when she was running a trail. It always reminded me of the old foxhound story The Voice of Bugle Ann which was an early-day motion picture.

Ruby didn’t have a conventional bay when on a varmint trail. She had a soprano song like no other. Red Smith said she sounded like a squeaky bed spring.

There was no calling Ruby off a trail. She ran until she could run no more. If we were hunting anywhere near Junction, Ruby would find her way home. I once took her on a hunt many miles away near the Kimble/Edwards county line. She had run completely out of hearing, and we had returned the 25-mile distance to Junction before the sun came up.

No Ruby, but I knew what to do. Later that day, around noon it was, I returned to the ranch we had hunted the night before. There had been a campfire, and I had left my Levi jacket by the fire ashes when we left for home.

Ruby was there sleeping on my coat as I had known she woud be.

One of the hardest decisions of my life was to leave Ruby behind with others when I went off to college at Sul Ross in Alpine. I truly loved the crazy little girl.