In 1962, I read a book by Earle
Stanley Gardiner, the creator of Perry Mason.
The book described the Baja Peninsula in California as a wild, lawless place
that demanded caution of any visitor. He also talked about Superstition
Mountain, near Phoenix, where prospectors were found beheaded by the local
Indians, their heads placed in their laps. Anyone who has ever seen that
mountain, dim, gloomy and shrouded by rain, can understand the shivers produced
by such stories. And farther on in the book, Gardiner pointed to the dangerous area
of Senora in northwest Mexico where the Apaches had stayed on the warpath until
1940, only twenty years before. The warriors rode unshod ponies and raided
Mexican villages, slaughtering everyone until the late 1930s, when Mexico military
forces finally cornered Geronimo III and his warriors in a box canyon and
killed every Indian that they could find. A handful of Apaches escaped and were
still believed to be at large and roaming the mountains, and they were still
regarded as a menace.
The Gardiner book became the
basis of a 1962 trip to Mexico by me and my best friend, Jud Mygatt. We headed for Senora, to the area believed to
still be home to the rogue Apaches or of Mexican bandits who were reported to have
killed and disemboweled their victims. We went in a Land Rover. Jud was four
years older than I was; he was a lean, thoughtful man who was also honest and
sensible. He had a high sense of duty, he didn’t scare, and he was kind, and
had compassionate imagination. We became the kind of close friends that only
young guys can know; we knew each other’s mind and trusted each other
We knew what we faced going down
there, and so we went armed, taking a 30.06 long rifle and a .38 revolver. I
don’t think we told the border people anything about being armed, they didn’t
ask, and so we just went into Mexico and Monterey-Nuevo Laredo.
Just the previous summer, I had
taught riflery at Camp Owatonna in Maine. I had been shooting since I was a teenager, and
I had been a professional trapper and hunter. In Maine, I had a co instructor,
Frank Best, who was an excellent shot. We used to shoot against in other in
exhibitions. I was slightly better. I shot two or three “possibles” – putting
five shots in the same hole — that summer. Frank shot two.
I was in that phase of young
manhood where you wanted to test your strength of nerve. Napoleon liked to ride
along and look at the corpses of war to test his nerve. My own test was less
dramatic. At twilight one night, I was trying to feel invulnerable and I told Frank
to shoot a small Kellogg’s cereal box off the top of my head. Two years earlier,
I had an older friend, Richard Haas, who had been in the Army who told me how in
training he had crawled under wire with a machine firing over head. One trainee
was killed when a bad round entered his skull. So that incident was present in
my mind as I made the dare for Best to shoot the little box of cereal. In case I was hit by a bad round, we went and
got a witness, Tommy Parker, who would later go into the Merchant Marine. I
stood there at the end of the range holding the box on my head with my index
fingers, and Frank got ready. The distance between Frank and me was between 65-70
feet. At that range, a rifle pointing at our head looks like it’s aiming right
between your eyes. I watched Frank sighting, he fired, and there was this
terrific “whack” as the bullet hit the box. In the movies they talk about a
bullet “parting your hair” which I thought was a silly myth. It wasn’t. Tommy
Parker was almost sick, on verge of vomiting, (I think he did vomit), but we performed
the stunt a few more times. In all, I had the boxes shot off my head three
different times or perhaps four. I’m not certain.
Jud and I headed west toward
Senora. The roads were really primitive and a one point, while crossing river,
we had to use the winch at the front of the Rover to drag the vehicle out of
the current. Two weeks later, the river would overflow and he had to hire a
Mexican freight train, loading the Rover on the back of a flat car and coming
out in the caboose of the lumber trains with the Mexican train crew, who proved
to be spirited young men like ourselves.
We finally came to the town of
Creel, a tiny, isolated lumber town. There were huge barancas or canyons nearby,
some bigger than the Grand Canyon, but you would never have known it. The town
was set deep in the woods. The appearance of the town was a shock. Creel looked
like Deadwood in the 1870s. It had the old Wild West store fronts, board
sidewalks, dirt streets etc. It had no telephones, no ice, no amenities. I
don’t think it had a restaurant. It did have a railhead as I mentioned.
Jud and I were very interested
in the Tarahumara Indians who Gardiner said were the greatest natural runners
in the world. They dressed like Hollywood Apaches – breech clouts, moccasins to
the knee, bare thighs, and impassive faces. However, they did not speak
Spanish, which Jud did, but I knew Sioux sign language, and they appeared to
understand it and could gesture intelligently in reply to my words.
The Indians played this game
which lasted for 24 hours where they kicked a small wooden ball up and the incredibly
steep hills in some sort of relay race, passing the ball from one player to
another. To run for 24 hours is astonishing, hard to believe, but it was true. I
had been told that these Indians would hunt deer by running them to death.
We were camped on the crown of a high hill
sheltered by tall pines. It was very lonely and isolated. We set up a pup tent,
pegged it taut, and were standing on the ridge looking out on our first night
there when we saw in the gathering darkness, a single figure that was running
down a sharp, steep slope to our right. We squinted in the dusk. It was an
Indian. The figure disappeared from sight, under the lip of our tall ridge,
then after a time, he reappeared, still running up his incredible grade.
A few days
later, we met some of the Indians. Once when Jud went in to town for something,
leaving me with the supplies and the weapons, I set out empty food tins on the thick,
heavy fallen stump, then stepped back and began to blow the empty tins off the
log, one shot at a time, using the .38. I shot well and was pleased at my eye, enjoying
the pleasure of hitting what you saw. I went up to replace the cans, did so, but
when I turned round, I was shocked to see about 30 Indians standing there — a
swarthy shoal of impassive faces watching me with no expression. I greeted them
in sign language and some nodded, but most did not. They were entirely silent,
very curious, but not hostile. I went
back to shooting and when I looked back, I saw that most had left.
I had become
an excellent pistol shot a year or more ago. As I said, I was a professional
hunter and trapper. I shot minks, badgers, raccoons, and skunks and skinned
them and cured their hides. My mother was appalled one day, when she opened the
freezer and out tumbled a body of a raccoon that I hadn’t yet skinned and cured.
She thought me a barbarian.
Maine, I had worked as a camp counselor at a remote farm in Rutland, Vermont. I
bought a used 32. Caliber automatic and trained my eye, trained my mind to remember
the impact of a shot, the muscular contraction as the gun went off — stuff
like that. I shot well with a rifle, and I practiced all the time with both.
One day on a sunny morning on the Vermont farm, I had my long rifle when heard
tiny, shrill screams of some tiny animal, a distressing sound that made my
blood turn to marble. I took my rifle
and headed towards an old, disordered stone wall. I heard the screams again,
small, truly pitiable sounds. I froze, and the sounds suddenly stopped, leaving
a vast ocean of silence. Suddenly I saw a tiny head pop up on the top of the old,
stone wall. It was a dark weasel with a sleek head. I realized that he had been hunting the chipmunks
that nested along the stone wall. That’s what had caused those tiny, desperate
terrible cries of fear. Seeing me, the sleek, tiny creature ducked down. I
waited my rifle at my shoulder. I was
certain he would pop up again, and took a wild a guess as to where he would
emerge. I waited. I waited. I waited and was about to give up when suddenly there
he was! The weasel had poked up his sleek head and was looking at me with
curiosity. We stared at each other, and as he moved, I shot. He disappeared. I cursed. I ran over to the
wall, not convinced I had hit anything, but there he was, lying atop the back
of the crumbling stones. It was an amazing shot; it had severed the rear of the
neck. I held him up. He was a beautiful
thing, sleek, marvelous, a miracle of design. Yet he had a soul that took pleasure in murder
for its own sake. He liked killing small animals for the fun of it. It should
be noted that I loved chipmunks. Each
summer I would trap a few, put them in a nice airy cage and feed them peanut
butter. They got used to you and made good friends. Anyway, I took the weasel’s corpse up front,
and the kids formed a ring and admired the animal. Later someone tried to nail above a doorway
to one of the huts, but I took the thing down and tossed it into the woods.
I shot in
competition all summer, and it was then that I bought a used 32.caliber
automatic. The previous owner had a system where he would hang empty gasoline
tins from a tree limb the tins painted with white target circles, and he would fire
at the tins to improve his eye. That is
what I did. I painted a small, white circle on the tins and I began to
practice. And practice. And practice.
The bullets in those days cost 8 cents apiece, and I spent most of my $1200
salary as a counselor firing them. My
mother turned on me with a face hardened with anger when I told her how I spent
my money. But the fact was that I had become a very good shot – I could fire
nine shots in a marked tin less than three seconds.
Back to the
remember during another time when I, salted away and alone up there in the pine
woods was surprised. Jud was gone, in town getting supplies, and I lay down for
a nap, and I heard a noise and grabbed for the gun to look up and see a male
Indian looking down at me with an empty face and blank eyes. My pistol was
right beside me. I had thought I was alone – nothing but solitude and the wind
in the tall pine trees. He simply left. I didn’t point the weapon at him. He
wasn’t hostile. (It never occurred to me to shoot him.)
But Jud and
I were always alert because of the danger of bandits. One night as the dusk was
gathering, we heard a noise and we were both up and alert instantly. The noise
got closer. Jud got his rifle and stepped out of the light, and I got the
pistol and at a signal, he slipped back the tent flap and I threw down on a
hapless cow chewing grass strings.
evening at twilight, we heard something usual; we heard a sound that stiffened
us to alertness, we made noiseless gestures, and Jud went and got his 30.06 and
faded out of sight to the right. Our reaction was justified: there was
something odd and menacing moving in the woods. We were not going to be robbed
or killed. I waited, and finally a man emerged from the brush and trees. He had
on some outfit that I couldn’t see clearly in the growing dusk. I was not
bloodthirsty, but I wasn’t going to allow anyone to take Jud’s life or my life.
We were not going to be killed or disemboweled. If that man made a hostile or a
sudden, erratic move, I was going to put two shots into his center mass. I knew
I could do that, and, more, I knew I would. I had no trepidation about doing
that, if that was what the situation required.
So I watched
the stranger. I stood in a clearing, confronting the figure, my pistol leveled
at his waist. The man came over
carefully, his form growing more indistinct in the dusk. I asked him who he was,
and he was friendly in his replies, which made me suspicious. He spoke English.
He said he was with the Mexican Army. Apparently people in the town had spread
the word there were to gringos camping up in the hills. The man had a rifle
across his chest, half-pointed at me, and after greeting him; I had broken off
any eye contact with him. Clearly, he
saw my gun, clearly he saw I was an American, and again I told him who I was
and asked what he was doing here. The standoff continued. I never mentioned Jud. I wanted the stranger to think I was alone. I
watched him very carefully. He did not have evil eyes, but who knew? Had he
raised the rifle, I would have had no problem killing him if that was what it
took to protect Jud and myself. I had killed pests for farmers and had watched
an animal as the last light faded out of its eyes. If I had to, I would kill
the man with no hard feelings. Don’t make me kill you, I thought.
uninvited stranger and I kept talking and we came to believe in the
harmlessness of the other, and he smiled and said to me, “You can call in your
man now,” and he smiled. I was still watching him ready to shoot him, when he
put his rifle on the ground, and, to my surprise, he then had called in his
comrade, and the man, armed with a rifle came who had me in his sights. And then
Jud came in. It had never occurred to me that I was in the sight of his
comrade; I had been so focused on the man before me. We all shared beers and
got along well. They warned us about bandits.
Jud and I took
turns that night, posting watches in case they came back.
occurred to me what Jud and I would have done if we’d shot that man. Would we
have shot his partner? Buried them both? Neither ever crossed my mind. But that
incident was a turning point for me. It showed me that I had nerve after all. I
had nerve or perhaps it was simply luck. Call it the boldness of innocence.