Shooting Times Magazine

August 1987



While Skeeter Skelton was in the hospital recovering from surgery, Shooting Times Magazine reprinted several of his previous "Hipshots" articles. The date of original publication of the article is not given.


There's a truism I first encountered when I still wasn't shaving regularly that goes like this: "The old times were tougher - men were really men."


That lament was first impressed on me when I played high-school football. My gangling group of Texas teenagers trained fastidiously, avoided the companionship of girls, and would run a mile to get away from a Camel. But we heard stories that indicated the Hereford Whiteface teams of the '30s consumed bootleg booze by the hogshead, even sold it at times for carousing money, and were prone to blind the occasional opposing guard or tackle by splitting tobacco juice in his eyes.


In the Marines, it was the same. The "Old Corps" had been staffed by individuals who could Springfield the eyebrow from a hummingbird at 1000 yards, lick the bejesus out of any selected group of 10 or more "swabbies", or march double time for 40 miles carrying a rifle and a 75-pound field transport pack. Our crop of boots at Parris Island, we were told, were "pogie bait" marines and should be sent home to Mama to live out our lives on strawberry ice cream.


And so it was in the Border Patrol.


I was duly run over the jumps at the Border Patrol Academy, then in El Paso, Texas. I was exposed to basic Spanish and the necessity of being in proper uniform and presenting an officerlike image to the public at all times. I was also informed that it would be my duty within the 12 months of my probationary period to virtually commit to memory the entirety of the U.S. immigration laws and regulations, which were contained in a shelf of books slightly more voluminous that the Encyclopedia Britannica.


In my spare time, I was taught judo, led on rapid jogs through the desert, and instructed in the civilized use of the hand by Bill Toney, the chief firearms instructor, who was later to become a national pistol champion and my friend.


I was assigned to the Tucson, Arizona, sector, which covered the state except for the area around Yuma. A great plan glittered in my head. I would work hard, pass the probationary examinations in law and Spanish magna cum laude, and become a famous federal investigator. I would wear a snap-brim hat and a trenchcoat and have mysterious meetings  with mysterious people in mysterious nightclubs and dark alleys.


It didn't turn out quite that way. I reported to Tucson in the garb I had worn all my life: a good Stetson with a four-inch brim, a pair of handmade cowboots that had cost two weeks' pay, and about $1.49's worth of clothes in between.


The Chief Patrol Inspector, Carson Morrow, was of the old school. Probably more for sentimental reasons than any other, he maintained among his other outstations what I believe was the last horseback unit of the Border Patrol. The corrals and a tiny trailer-house office were in Amado, Arizona, a post-office sized place in the Santa Cruz river valley, not far north of the border city of Nogales. My clothes betrayed me: Carson thought I was a fine candidate for Amado.


My wife and I stowed all our worldly goods into the back of our old Plymouth and rented a semi-furnished adobe shack at Carmen, a village of 100 about 10 miles from Amado. I reported for duty to Buck Smith, the Senior Patrol Inspector.


To a probationary Border Patrolman in those days, a "Senior" was a wondrous person who held your fate in his hard hand. He was as businesslike as a banker, as authoritative as a Marine gunnery sergeant, as heartless as a Hollywood producer, and as indifferent to a probationer's personal problems as a statue of Joseph Stalin. A silly, ingratiating grin must have been on my face when I first met Buck, because I had just learned that no new recruit in the Arizona sector had passed his 12-month probationary period in approximately six years. All had been given the boot.


I looked Buck over and saw a muscular, square-built man in his early 40s. Like many of the patrol inspectors in that time and place, he had been a cowboy and a miner before signing up for the "soft" life offered by the Patrol.


I saw that he was a gunman. His Myres River Holster contained an impossible-to-get 3½-inch Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum. His cartridge loops were filled with well-made handloads.


Buck looked me over and saw a skinny kid in hi8s early 20s wearing an ill-fitting khaki rough-duty outfit. His eyes passed over my gunbelt, which was regulation, bought new in El Paso, and the issue Colt News Service .38 Special in its holster. I think he smirked, and my face felt hot, because I had tuned a .38-44 Smith Heavy Duty and a then-scarce .38 Special Combat Masterpiece in my gear at home.


In order to carry a personally owned sidearm, a Border Patrolman had to make formal application, describe the revolver as meeting all standards of the service, then wait months until the application was approved at the top, presumably by President Truman. I hadn't  had tome to go through this rigamarole and was stuck with the unfamiliar New Service, which marked me as a mullet in the eyes of the gunwise Senior.


I was accompanied by two other new men. One was an ex-schoolteacher from back East, a likable guy who would have made a good officer on his home ground, but he regarded a saddle horse as a cross between a cobra and a rogue rhinoceros. He was nervous about our impending duty.


The other rookie was a tough-talking stud from the city, as eager as I was to get away from the Arizona boondocks and into the real action. Like the schoolteacher, he didn't care much for guns or horses.


Though Amado wasn't my dream assignment, I tried to be philosophical as I daily forked horse manure from the corrals, washed saddle blankets, and did all the old country chores I had entered the federal service to escape.


My take-home pay was $104 every two weeks. I had two days off each week, Wednesday and Thursday. On Wednesday, my spouse and I would travel to either Tuscon or Nogales, visit the laundromat, buy groceries, and see a movie. Thursdays found me at home, studying Spanish and law over a quart of 80¢ Jose Cuervo tequila and a plate of jalapeño peppers stuffed with shrimp, turkey, or cheese-nutriment caustic enough to set my wind-chapped lips afire and bring tears to my eyes.


The daily routine was fairly simple. Dry canyons, with names like Josephine, Calabasas, and Baca Float, ran perpendicular to the path of any northbound, illegally entered alien. By riding horseback up these canyons each day, you could see the clear sign of huaraches, the Mexican sandles soled with the tread of spare tires, heading for the interior of the U.S. After a bit of experience, you could identify individuals in the group you following by their Firestones, B.F. Goodriches, or the popular Mexican General Popo brands.


We played lots of tricks and caught our fair share of illegal aliens, hauling them back to Nogales and pushing them across the line so they could attempt the same journey the next day. But the fun for me was being out in that big country everyday, with a tough horse under me and a handgun on my hip. The gun was used almost always for chance shots at rabbit and coyotes, practically never to effect the arrest of the gentle, work-seeking Mexicans.


My schoolteacher partner approached each duty session with a pale face and trembling hands. The old plug he was assigned to ride couldn't have jumped four inches off the ground, but I solemnly assured the Easterner that if his horse ever tried to buck, all he had to do was haul back on the reins and hold the horse's head up.


The little sorrel I rode was nasty humored, fast moving, and as short-coupled as a cat. His neck was so short I could spit between his ears, and I'm not a good spitter. He shied at every rock and weed, just yearning for an excuse to throw me. One day he did, rolling me right back over cruppers to land in the rocks on my butt.


Following instructions, the teacher heaved heavily on his reins, even though his placid bangtail hadn't batted an eyelash. But the hard yank on the bits caused the animal to rear up a little bit, and my Yankee sidekick joined me in the thorny dirt. He resigned the next day and took a job with a Saudi Arabian oil company. I've often wondered if they put him to work on a camel.


The other "probie" also became fed up and resigned, leaving only Buck Smith and me to keep the Arizona border safe - cavalry style. Occasionally Buck would take a day off, and Fred D'Albini, a border character every bit as salty as the rawhide Buck, would leave his Senior's duties at Nogales and come to ride with me.


Fred was tall, lanky, and taciturn. If he ever smiled, I don't remember it. Like Buck Smith, he had spent his life on ranches and in mines, had been shot, and had seen the elephant. Feeling no need to prove himself, he wore the usual non-regulation, broad Stetson, batwing chaps, and tennis shoes, which were easier on his feet when he rode.


Winter and summer, he wore the short, regulation rough-duty jacket, and under it he carried a five-inch .357 Smith & Wesson he'd obtained personally from Doug Wesson, its originator. Fred had made his own holster from half-inch-thick saddle stock. It was a shoulder rig, holding the long Smith upside down, somewhat in the style of the little Berns-Martin shoulder holster made for snub-nose .38s.


Fred liked leather and fitted his magnum with large, adapter-type grips made of the same shtick stuff as his holster, except that they were applied in several layers. He rounded them off slightly, but they still looked and felt like a five-inch section of a 2x4. This massive arrangement made Fred's left arm hang at about a 45-degree angle, but that didn't seem to worry him. Since he was a crack pistol shot - and not inclined toward unnecessary conversation - little was said about his armament.


We rode together one early November morning down a narrow lane on the Libby Fruit Co. Property. The desert night had been chilly, and a small rattler had stiffly crawled out into our path.


Fred dismounted, handed me his reins and instructed, "Hold my horse, Pete." (Fred called everybody "Pete."). I figured he was going to shoot the snake. He didn't draw his magnum, so I then concluded he was going to take down lariat rope and, using the honda as a whip, pop the snake's head off, cowboy style. He didn't take down his rope.


What he did was walk up to the little rattlesnake, coiloed and noisy by now, and stomp on his with right tennis shoe. Then he recovered his reins from me, and we rode on. No words were passed, but I reflected that if I had tried the stunt, the sidewinder would have crawled right up my pants leg and masticated some of my more valued parts.


After a few months on the job, I learned that regulations were less fierce on the outback posts like Amado, so I wore a faded Levi jacket and pants, along my treasured Combat Masterpiece in carved S.D. Myres crossdraw holster. I was worried about what Senior Fred would say about my garb, but i view of his tennis shoes, I wasn't that worried.


The only sarcasm I received was when D'Albini, of the three-pound shoulder-holster fame, eyed my light Myres rig and queried, "Where'd you get that piece of chicken hide, Pete?"


Later that same day, close on what had started as an easily read hot trail through the sandy washes, we found ourselves on a high promontory of solid rock, swept as clean as a kitchen floor by the wind. As a good probationer should, I kept quiet and followed Fred's lead for a couple of miles. I didn't see any tracks. We were riding a course that was not in line with the one we had started.


Breaching both silence and professional etiquette, I blurted, "Where the hell we goin', Fred?"


He didn't look at me. "Followin' them tracks, Pete."


"What tracks?" I protested, looking down at what resembled a clean sidewalk.


Jerking his old bay to halt, Fred indignantly pointed straight down at the bare rock. "Those tracks right there. Don't you see 'em, Pete? They stand out like rat sign in a sugar bowl!"


I still didn't see them, but we stayed on course and caught four illegal aliens about dark.


A week or two later, I had a day off and was loafing in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. A happy encounter with a Mexican city policeman, who was wearing an excellent Colt SA .41 with factory ivory stocks, indicated that he wanted a Smith & Wesson .38 Special. Fred had one in his office, and I ran, not walked, back across the border and traded him a K-22 for it. Then, in the relaxed manner of those days, I re-crossed the international boundary and swapped for the single-action .41, later delivering it to Chet Carmichael's shop in Tucson to be re-barreled to .45 Colt.


Meanwhile, Buck and I worked on. There was a Mexican immigrant family down near Tumacacori that was known to hide their snuck-in countrymen in a shed until they had enough to make a farm crew. Then they would call one of the American cotton farmers on their waiting list and offer the group of laborers for sale, receiving so much per head.


This was kind of a tough family. Whenever any stranger, especially anyone who looked like the hated chota - the police - arrived at their front gate, the screen door of the house would open, and a man-eating German shepherd would streak forth, intent on devouring any intruder.


Buck and I knew this, but when we learned there were a dozen or so illegal aliens hiding on the place, we decided to pay a social call. In those days, an officer wasn't required to approach a known den of thieves with a piece of paper in one hand, his hat in the other, and an apology on his lips.


We arrived at the alien "halfway house" and walked through the yard gate. An invisible hand pushed open a door, and the vicious dog was running at us. Buck, well known in the area for what he would or wouldn't do, simply placed his hand on the butt of his magnum. A great rush of householders emerged hard on the heels of the dog and saved his life by tying him to a tree. Without further negotiations, Buck and I hauled a pickup load of illegally entered aliens back to Mexico.


My year was about up, and I drove with trepidation to headquarters for the final exams. I felt pretty secure about the Spanish part, because Buck, unlike many supervisors, had not been teaching me to say, "Where were born?" or "Do you have a passport?" Instead, he had required me to put into Spanish such useful phrases as "The farmer got hit with a bucket of s---" and "The cow jumped over the moon." I have been able to communicate with Spanish-speaking people ever since.


I managed to get through my probationary exams and become a full-fledged patrol inspector. I took a couple of weeks' leave to return home to Texas, a sojourn that obviously softened me up in Buck's point of view.


On my way back to Amado, I picked up my new, ivoried .45 single action. I checked in with Buck at midnight, and he said the Border Patrol plane had spotted a fencing crew, probably one worth checking, on a big horse ranch over north of Saabe. We would load the horses and leave early that morning.


Buck was setting me up. He probably wanted to know if having passed the vale into full-fledged Border Patroldom was going to change my attitude about hard work and discipline.


We left at 4:00 a.m., hauling the horses many miles to the ranch. Then, about 15 miles from the site of the suspected camp, Buck parked the truck and told me to unload the horses from the trailer. I mildly objected, pointing out that we could drive right up to the camp. We didn't. We rode 15 unnecessary miles. We left our lunchboxes in the truck.


The camp was easy to find. It was an old eight-man Army tent; inside were several flat blanket rolls and cardboard boxes filled with family letters from Mexico and dirty socks and shirts. Hind and front quarters of venison hung on a mesquite tree outside, and a deep bed of coals kept two iron pots simmering, one with deer meat chili and the other with peppery pinto beans. It was about 10:00 a.m. The crew was out working.


Buck had covered me from the side of the hill with his magnum. He had also made some snide remarks about my non-regulation, ivory-stocked single action. We sat down to wait, hoping the workers would come home for lunch. They didn't.


We sat down with our dozing horses hidden in the brush, wordless while we waited out the long day. At an hour from sundown, the crew still hadn't returned to camp. I was hungry. I was tired. I was half-mad at what I considered to be a long, needless ride that old Buck had made as one last test of my mettle.


I didn't look at Buck. I hitched my fancy single action into a more comfortable spot in my waistband. I tightened the cinch on my crazy sorrel and rode into the empty Mexican camp, feeling my superior officer's eyes on my back.


There was a somewhat greasy and sandy tin plate on top of a box of others like it, along with some spoons. I wiped it with the sleeve of my shirt and loaded it with the red, spicy deer chili and the bubbling beans. In a cardboard box, I found some dusty four tortillas and dug in.


As I ate what was one of the more savory meals of my life, I heard a slow-trotting horse. I didn't look up.


Buck Smith dismounted, tied his pony, and picked up a dirty plate. Without speaking, we ate our fill, then mounted and started the 15 miles back to the pickup. In silence. I had violated the rule of letting the Senior call the shots. I knew the only the judgement could break that silence.


It was dark as we loosened the cinches and loaded the horses for the long ride home. Buck closed and latched the trailer gate. Then he looked at me and grinned. That grin made me feel like of the boys and Buck's compadre.



 * * *


They closed our horse station, ending an era, in early 1952. Buck was moved to Benson, then to Gila Bend. I went to Tucson. In 1954, I decided to leave the Patrol and go home to Texas to try the sheriffing business. At about the same time, Buck left the Patrol and was reassigned as an inspector with the administrative arm of the Immigration Service. He checked incoming aliens at Nogales, then San Luis, Arizona. He served 4½ years in Mexico, helping to operate immigrant labor-clearing systems at Hermosilla, Guaymas, Empalme, and Irapuato.


From Mexico, Buck went to Honolulu, still serving as an Immigrant Inspector. Then came Guam, where he was a supervisor. After a few years, he transferred back at the port of entry at Calexico, California, soon moving to duty in Lukeville, Arizona. He retired in 1967.


I hadn't seen Buck since I left the Patrol. I was sitting by my house in the New Mexico desert one day when a big motorcycle roared up and stopped. It was Buck Smith on 750cc BMW. He was grayer and leaner, but the grin was the same one I had received at the end of our long ride.


Buck was there to inform me that he was moving in near me. He was in his 70s and regularly rode the huge motorcycle round trip to Mexico's interior and to California. He still packed a gun when he felt the need - now a light Colt Cobra .38 Special.


We visit frequently now and talk of guns and old times and the changes in law enfrocement. I recently asked Buck what gun he would choose if he could have just one for all purposes.


"That's a tough question, Skeet. But I guess it would have to be that little 3½ inch Smith .357 I had in the Patrol. That gun sort of just fit my hand.


"Do you remember the time . . . ."




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