How the West Was Sold



Boy howdy, is it. We’re inside the Badlands Saloon in this no-horse town, here where the end of the earth meets the Rio Grande in a stormcloud of dust and a cavalcade of Suburbans. Outside, a stone’s throw from the shaded patio with the Tex-Mex buffet and mariachis (“Make this one upbeat boys — Upbeat”) is Lajitas International Airport, a bacon-sized strip of land so lousy with execujets and helicopters it could be an S&L repo lot, circa 1986.

But these high-fliers are different. They’re dot-commers and global gunslingers come to duel for the soul of a soulless town. Lajitas, a “full-service resort, complete with motels, hotels, condos and cabins, restaurants, golf course, retail stores,” is the creation of Houston developer Walter Mischer, now seventy-seven and in failing health. His weak ticker and recent bout with prostate cancer, along with a string of annual losses on the place, convinced him the time was right to sell.

So here we’re gathered: a rental car fleet of auction-house employees, perhaps a dozen in all, crisp, clean, white, identically clad: blue blazers, khaki pants, stars-and-stripes neckties. Then there’s a covey of reporters flocked near the open bar; an assortment of sunbaked locals; and seated around a small cocktail table in the middle of the barroom is Founding Father Mischer, in Stetson and starched pale blue shirt, surrounded by a phalanx of family members. Scattered around the barroom, too, are Mischerville’s seven suitors. No riff-raff among them: each bidder has antéd up $100,000 earnest money.

“Sell, sell, sell! That’s what we do, folks. That’s why we’re here!” Our auctioneer is T. Eddie Haynes, an agreeable Oklahoman with a televangelist’s silver pompadour and tongue. On the wall behind Eddie are a dozen or so Big Bend ranch brands; to his left, on the side wall closer to the bar, is an over-the-top oil portrait of a reclining nude. Once Eddie warms up his pipes with a few stale after-dinner jokes, he describes the properties up for grabs. In addition to the town proper, there are two other lots: one parcel of 7,770 acres and the other of 12,823 acres. But it is the town itself that has attracted these would-be desert magnates, these Lawrences of Lajitas; the undeveloped acreage is for tax accountants and scorpions.

A preliminary round of separate bidding for each of the three lots serves mainly to I.D. the players, to offer Mischer, who’s retained the right to yank his fiefdom off the block if no serious bid emerges, a chance to see who’s hat and who’s cattle. All three lots go — for a total of $2.82 million — to Bidder No. 124, a mystery man in black polo shirt, a portly, ruddy-faced stranger. No one in the room save his two flunkies seems to know him. He swooped in by helicopter at High Noon, just two hours before Eddie Haynes commenced the proceedings.

When the gavel comes down on the last of the first-round bids, reporters are intent on remedying the preliminary winner’s anonymity. We learn he is Stephen R. Smith, a 55-year-old Austin zillionaire who made his fortune when Excel Communications, the company he helped found, went public in 1996. We also learn he grew up in El Paso, had seen Lajitas once years ago, but hadn’t been back until deciding on a whim that what he really wanted to do today was buy a town.

But Steve Smith can not yet declare himself the Law West of Terlingua. Still to come, following a ten-minute mariachi interlude, was the “combinations” phase of the auction, which would allow any and all bidders the opportunity to make offers on all three parcels. One ne’er-do-well, Mr. 905, offered a paltry $660,000 before retreating into silence. Then things got interesting, as the previously mute Mr. 151 tossed his hat in the ring from the back of the room. Egged on most efficaciously by Eddie Haynes and his Stepford Husband minions scattered around the room (“Tomorrow’s too late,” yells one; “It’s only money,” pipes up another) the two survivors quickly escalate the price to more than $3.5 million. Back and forth it goes, Mr. 151 raising it by $25,000 or $50,000 and Mr. 124, a.k.a. Steve Smith, calling him.

When Mr. 151 bids $3.8 million, it appears he might have it. Eddie Haynes pleads for another $50,000 in the pot, but Steve Smith seems to have had enough. Then Haynes reaches into his bag of tricks: he bangs his gavel once — twice. No peep from Smith. A beat passes. Another. Still no peep. Haynes: “Let’s take a five-minute break and bring the boys back in for another number.” During the cooling-off period, word surfaces that Mr. 151 is a San Francisco-based hotelier named Manou Mobedshahi. He is guzzling bottled water and attempting to wring his hands from his wrists, but otherwise appears poised to consummate the deal. When play resumes, however, Smith finds his nerve anew. Back and forth the bidding goes. Smith offers $3.9 million. Mobedshahi tosses another $25,000 in the pot; Smith matches him. Finally, at the thin-air price of $3.95 million, Manou Mobedshahi folds. He stands up, walks across the crowded saloon to his opponent, and concedes the battle with a handshake. “It’s yours. Do justice to it,” he tells Smith. “It’s a fantastic property.” Mobedshahi returns to his table, where he accepts condolences. “All right,” says Eddie Haynes, regaining the floor and sounding the end of era in the neo-Old West. “We’re going once, three million nine hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Do I hear any increase?” Hearing none, and none again on the second and third calls, Eddie Haynes brings down the gavel. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he says, looking directly at a beaming Walter Mischer, “we have sold the property.”

Bill Adler, the Observer‘s Big Bend Bureau Chief, spends valuable reporting time contemplating desert sunsets, small reptiles, and minor league baseball.