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 absolutely.
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.
Before 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 Indians.
I do 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.
But one 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.
The 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.
It never 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.