Deep Into MexicoBorn 1954, M, from Cocoa Beach/FL, United States
DEEP INTO MEXICO
BY GORDON ENGLAND
Two weeks before Christmas vacation I was antsy. I asked Dad, “Where are we going hunting this year?”
“Dr. Kelly has a special trip for us to Mexico.”
“Mexico! Wow! That’s boss. How did he swing that?”
“Dr. Kelly’s partner is Dr. DeBakey, the famous heart surgeon. They have a patient from Mexico, Juan Rodriguez. They saved Juan’s life with a heart transplant, so Juan told Dr. Kelly to come down to his ranch to hunt anytime. That’s where we’re headed.”
“This is gonna be so groovy. How many of us are going this year?”
“The same five fathers and six sons that went last year to Laredo. We head out the day after Christmas and stay for four days.”
"This is a great tradition, Dad. I get to spend time with you and my other friends on the coolest hunting trips."
The week before Christmas we began preparations. Dad packed cold weather clothes, cleaned weapons, and bought ammunition. December in Texas and Mexico was brutally cold, requiring outdoorsmen to wear long johns and heavy boots. The day after Christmas we met at Dr. Kelly's house to pack two 1966 Volkswagen buses with a full contingent of dogs, boys, food, booze, guns, thousands of rounds of ammo, spare gas cans, and other supplies necessary to survive an expedition to Mexico. Dad and Dr. Kelly took cooking very seriously, so we stopped for a major soiree at a grocery store to buy enough food for a small army. The grocery expedition was an adventure unto itself, with a gang of camouflaged teenagers sporting gun belts, running up and down the aisles throwing food into the baskets and terrorizing the store in general.
By noon, we were on the road to the border town of Eagle Pass, with five adults, (two of which were doctors) in one van, while I rode in the other van with John Kelly, Jerry Abbot, and two other boys who had just received their driver's licenses. I was fourteen years old, with the other boys ranging from twelve to sixteen. Three hours later we pulled up to the wide Rio Grande River and got out of the cars to stretch our legs. A thrill of anticipation ran through us as we looked at mysterious Mexico across the deep, muddy river.
I asked Jerry, “Have you been here before?”
“Naw, but my older brother came down to boys town with his fraternity. You wouldn’t believe the women and beer they went through.” We were too young to participate in those escapades, but we laughed nervously like we knew all about it.
Dad asked Doc, “Is crossing the border a problem? I hear there’s been difficulties with drug smugglers this year.”
“Don’t worry. That was down in Laredo, not up here in Eagle Pass. I got it all lined up. Just smile and hand out twenties.”
On the other side of the river was the border town of Piedras Negras. The mayor, Jorge Martinez, was another one of Dr. Kelly’s patients. He met us on the American side of the bridge, sporting a black hat, black cowboy boots, black shirt, black pressed jeans, and black mustache.
Jorge gave Dr. Kelly a friendly handshake, asking, “Como esta?”
“I am great Jorge. How are you feeling?”
"Muy bueno, now that you fix my heart. What can I do for you, amigo?"
“We would like to come over and spend a few days hunting in Coahuila. Do we need licenses?”
“There are no licenses in Mexico. Our people are too poor to hunt here and do not have guns. Come with me, Doctor. I take care of you. Give twenty dollars to each guard. They are all my cousins, so there will be no trouble. Remember you can’t bring game back into the States.”
Dr. Kelly responded, “Yes we know. We will give plenty of birds to the villagers as Christmas presents.”
“I trust you will, Doctor. You’re a man with a good heart.”
“I’ll see you next month for your check-up Jorge.”
Back in our cars, we followed him across the bridge and waited in line at the checkpoint. Dad and Doctor Kelly handed out twenties like candy to customs officers as they waved us through the checkpoint. This tradition, called mordida (the bite), has always been part of Mexican culture. While it was not legal to bring guns or ammo into Mexico, a little mordida to the Federales assured there were no inspections of our vehicles.
We left the United States to start the adventure in earnest. We entered a primitive world of cactus, rock, mesquite brush, and Mexicans. We drove an hour southward on the only paved road through the brush country. Pavement gave way to a rough, two-lane dirt road for two more hours, then narrowed down to one-lane. As we twisted through the head-high brush and cactus, we came upon the first of many mud-hut villages, called pueblos, where very poor peasants lived like in old western movies. There was no electricity and only a few trucks in the pueblos. It was the first time I had seen smoke drift over villages from wood fires used to cook and heat homes in the winter. The cold weather kept people indoors, making the villages appear to be smoky, empty, still-life photographs.
When we entered one un-named village of twenty huts, a black police car was menacingly parked across the road. With serious faces and macho attitudes, two fat Federales policemen stepped out of the car and sauntered toward us. In the boys van, we watched with concern when Dad and Dr. Kelly got out of their van and casually walked up to the police. After talking to the policemen for a few minutes, bills changed hands, and the smiling Federales waved us through.
A mile out of town, the adults stopped to laugh about the police stop and make hot buttered rum on Coleman burners to augment weak heaters in the old Volkswagens.
Twenty miles later, the road ended at a gate covered with cow skulls and barbed wire where Juan Rodriguez waited for us. With nervous anticipation, we jumped out of the vans to stretch our legs. We were finally here, wherever that was. Juan slid out of his truck, adjusted his old cowboy hat, kicked his dusty boots, and shuffled over in a bowlegged swagger to meet Dr. Kelly.
With a firm handshake and big smile, Juan said, “This is the great Dr. Kelly who saved my life. Anything you want at my ranch is yours. Except mi espousa.”
I asked, “Do you have any daughters?”
“Si. But I cut off your balls and kill you if you touch them.”
We laughed, but knew he was serious.
"Follow me, amigos. Just a few more miles."
We continued down the road, wondering if we would get to the ranch house before dark. Juan’s spread was five thousand acres of scrub and brush ranch land. As the sun set, we finally came to a large ranch house overlooking the Rio Grande Del Rancho River, our headquarters for the next three days. Juan’s wife came outside to greet us.
“Doctor, we will have a real Mexican dinner after you unpack.”
Ranch hands helped us unload our gear at the bunkhouses. One bunkhouse had a fireplace, while the other did not. I knew there would be a discussion later about sleeping arrangements, but right now hunger was the only thing on our minds.
We went back to the main house where a feast awaited us. We had a wonderful meal of freshly barbecued beef and goat, large pots of frijoles and rice, flour tortillas fresh off the grill, and bowls of jalapenos, onions, and tomatoes. This Mexican food had local spices and ingredients with a milder flavor than the Tex-Mex we were used to back home.
After we ate our fill, John Kelly asked, “Are you ready to shoot some rabbits?”
“You betcha,” I replied.
“They’re everywhere after dark. Let's get our guns.”
Dad yelled, “Wait! You boys remember the rule.”
We replied in unison, “Shoot what you want, but eat what you shoot.”
We raced back to the vans, loaded up rifles, ammo, spotlights, and two Mexican boys to go on an unbelievable escapade of night hunting. This was a first for us because hunting at night was not legal in the States. The vans had two swiveling, rooftop chairs mounted on luggage racks. There were gun racks in front of the chairs and walkie-talkies to communicate with the driver.
I said, "Let's shoot for the first chair ride."
I threw a coke can out in the car headlights. Rifles blazed at the can, making it dance down the road.
“Stop!” I yelled. “Jerry and John hit it first. They get on top.”
In this wild ranch land, game was everywhere. We drove down dirt roads and across fields at breakneck speeds, using spotlights to search for jackrabbits or occasional deer. We had semiautomatic 22-caliber rifles and shotguns. When we spied a rabbit, we chased it across fields and rocks with guns a blazing from the top seats and out of the side windows. Though it was cold in the dark night, we were having too much fun to worry about being chilly. On the rough roads at moderate speeds, our accuracy was poor; but that made it all the more fun as we shot wildly at rabbits while they zigzagged through fields and brush. When we would hit a rabbit, a Mexican boy jumped out of the van and fetched it for us. We rotated seats between the roof and interior as rabbits were killed. It wasn’t long before the back of the van was full of rabbits.
I finally said, "I have as many as I want to clean. Let's call it a night." We headed back to camp where our Mexican boys taught us how to clean rabbits.
In the States, dove and quail were the primary game birds. Down here in Old Mexico we also shot rabbits, roadrunners, meadowlarks, redbirds, and any other birds we saw. At the end of the day, all of the game went into a big pot of stew. We found that all birds pretty much tasted the same, especially when stewed with onions, gravy, and jalapenos.
After cleaning our rabbits, we returned to the bunkhouse with a fireplace, only to find our fathers had claimed all the beds.
I asked Dad, “Where do we sleep?”
“You boys get the bunkhouse out back.”
“But there’s no fireplace.”
Laughing, he said, "Wear your long johns."
Jerry, John, and I looked at each other miserably. We grabbed our sleeping bags and headed to the dark, cold bunkhouse. We didn’t mind too much since the excitement of actually being in Mexico kept us up horsing around most of the night.
Early the next morning, us boys were up for target practice on the river. We honed our accuracy by shooting hundreds of rounds with our light 22s as fast as we could reload them.
After breakfast we loaded up the vans and put on jackets, cactus proof chaps, heavy boots and warm hats. We hunted from both vehicles. The lead van had two gunners on rooftop chairs. The remainder of the hunting party rode anxiously inside the vans, ready to burst out with guns blazing when game was spotted. The rooftop seats were the choice positions with the most shooting, so we rotated stations every half hour, about as long as we could stand the cold wind blowing across the top of the van.
Jerry said, "Let's flip for top seats." We took out coins and flipped for the order of riding up top.
“Jerry,” I said, “you and I are up first. Get your gun and coat ready.”
The drill was to proceed at slow speed down a narrow dirt road barely wide enough for the vehicles. When the spotters up top saw a dove they shot right away, not an easy task on top of the bouncing car. The sky was thick with white wing doves, giving us plenty of targets. After a few hours of practice, I got to where I consistently hit the birds from the moving van. When we shot a dove, the van skidded to a stop, doors flew open, and our Springer Spaniels and weimaraners raced out to fetch the bird.
After a while, we topped a rise in the road where I saw the day’s first covey of bobwhite quail running at twenty yards down the road.
“Stop!” I yelled into the walkie-talkie. “Quail in front of us.”
When the van slammed to a stop, guys and dogs bailed out and the chase was on. Jerry and I grabbed our guns, stepped to the front roof, dropped down on our butts, slid onto the spare tire mounted on the front bumper, jumped to the ground, and took off running.
Weimaraners were excellent pointers, so we let them lead the way. Springer Spaniels were flushing dogs, not pointers. Dad kept them heeled behind us while the weimaraners followed the birds off the road and went on point at a big cactus patch, their front foot raised and quivering tails straight up. We slowly fanned out and approached the cactus with shotguns raised.
When I saw a multitude of birds gathered in the cactus, I readied for fast and furious shooting by putting a spare shell in my teeth for a fourth shot.
Dad whispered, “Ready?”
When we nodded, he kicked the cactus pile. Dozens of quail exploded with thunderous fury in all directions in the most startling, adrenalin filled instant imaginable. The Springers left their heeled position and chased the rising birds. Quail flew head high, zigzagging through brush as shotguns blasted all around me. I instantly pointed to a bird flying straight away and dropped it with a quick shot. I swiveled to the right and shot at another quail, but he rose up as I peppered cactus underneath him. I pumped another round into my twenty-gauge and tumbled the elusive bird with my third shot.
For eight seconds there was total chaos as eleven guns shot at birds flying in all directions in and out of cactus. We were careful not to shoot the dogs as they jumped after the fleeing birds. I rapidly grabbed the shell from my mouth and inserted it into my shotgun as three more late risers caught us by surprise. One flew between Dad and me. I hesitated until it passed Dad, and then shot as the bird disappeared behind another cactus clump, leaving a trail of feathers floating in the air.
Dad looked at me and said, “Good job waiting for a clear shot.”
We reloaded and ran through the brush at breakneck speed following wounded quail. We chased stragglers for five more minutes before circling back to the van to regroup. The count was eleven quail. Not a bad way to start the day. We loaded up and headed down the road for more action.
Running through cactus and mesquite made it imperative to wear chaps and snake boots. By the end of the day, our poor dog's feet and legs looked like pincushions full of cactus thorns. That night we spent hours with tweezers pulling cactus out of moaning dogs. The next day we put boots on the dogs to reduce their misery. The boots offered cactus protection, but the dogs sure looked funny hopping around in red shoes.
When we rounded the next bend, I yelled into the walkie-talkie, “Blue tops on the right!”
Blue top quail were bigger than bobwhites. They were the marathon runners of quail, darting through brush and refusing to fly until we ran right up on top of them. They would not hold tight and flush like bobwhites; they just kept running in small groups from brush pile to cactus patch. When chasing blues, we let the Springers charge out front, hoping to force the speedy birds to fly for an easy shot. Running after blues at full speed with shotguns off safety was a madhouse chase through the brush. I shot at quail on the ground, trying not to hit the dogs nipping at their tails. If I got close enough to the birds, one or two would flush, fly a few yards, and then go back down. The blue tops scurried faster than we could run, so it became an endurance contest to see if we could flush them before we wore out. Of course, the boys chased the quail a lot further than the fathers.
At one point, Dad followed a covey of quail through the brush and tripped over a log. He dropped his shotgun and sprawled to the ground.
Through the brush I heard, “Oh no.”
I pushed through the cactus to see Dad frozen flat on his stomach. His face was white. Four feet away a rattlesnake as thick as his arm was coiled up, rattling, and ready to strike. I instantly stopped. I didn’t have a clear shot through the brush, so I waited to see what Dad would do. He stared the snake down and very slowly crawled backward.
When he was out of striking range, I asked, “Want me to shoot it?”
“No, I want that son of a bitch.” He retrieved his shotgun and made short work of the snake. He proudly marched back to the van with the six-foot snake raised head high.
I said, “Dad, you know the rules. You have to clean and cook that snake.”
“Bring me a beer first,” he replied. “I need to settle my nerves.”
That night the Mexican cook fried up fresh rattlesnake; and yes, it tasted like chicken. Even more fun was the abundance of roadrunners, which were twice the size of quail. They really do run crazy like the cartoons, darting along the road or fence line rather than flying. One quick shot was all I would get before they disappeared into the brush. Chasing them in the van and shooting out the windows was the best bet because a roadrunner could run faster than a man.
When we stopped for lunch, a buzzard circled down and landed in a tree fifty yards away.
John smiled and asked me, “Think you can hit it?”
“Just watch.” I leveled my 22 on the hood of the car and fired off a shot that knocked the buzzard out of the tree. We ran through the brush whooping and laughing, but pulled up short when we came up on one pissed-off bird.
It jumped all around, squawking with a broken wing while Jerry laughed at me, “Kill it, Gordon. Kill it.”
I raised my shotgun and fired from ten yards. The impact knocked that tough buzzard down, but its heavy feathers stopped the birdshot from penetrating into the body. He jumped up and screeched again. I shot two more times with the shotgun, to no avail. That tough buzzard just kept getting up! We were flabbergasted.
Jerry finally said, “Use the 22.” A couple of rounds finally put him out of his misery.
Dad came through the brush, “What is all this shooting about?”
Jerry and John laughed, “Gordon shot a buzzard. Does he have to eat it?”
With a big grin, Dad said, "You know the rule, you shoot it, you have to eat it." I grimaced as the other boys roared with laughter.
After a day full of shooting, we returned to the ranch house where us boys cleaned a garbage can full of birds while the fathers drank beer and supervised. I got the cleaning drill down to where I could breast and skin a bird in seven seconds flat.
Then I had to clean that nasty, stinking buzzard. It took me thirty minutes of plucking feathers while my buddies rolled with laughter, giving me a hard time.
We had a huge feast of stewed and fried game that night. The buzzard did not go into the main pot; rather, Juan cooked it separately just for me. I can honestly say that it did taste like chicken, only tougher. That was the last time I shot a buzzard, or any other animal of questionable taste.
After dinner we were resting in chairs, tired from chasing quail and dove all day.
John Kelly challenged us, “Ready to go night hunting again guys?”
I hesitated briefly, and then replied, “Yeah, I’ll go again.”
I couldn’t resist another round of chasing rabbits with spotlights. We had another crazy night of driving through the brush until we stuck the van in a ditch, miles from the ranch house. We dug, pried, and lifted for an hour until we pulled the van out of the ditch. That put a damper on chasing through the brush in the dark.
Jerry asked, “Wanna try something different?”
“I brought a dying rabbit call. Let’s see if we can bring in a coyote.”
John replied, “Cool. I never shot one of those.”
We parked the van behind a brush pile and turned off the lights. Jerry and John went up to the top seats with a spotlight and rifles. The rest of us settled onto logs in the brush, excited to try something new. The still moonless night was pitch black. There were no other lights for hundreds of miles. In the clean, cold air of the high Mexican plain, God's innumerable stars shined magically bright.
Jerry pumped the rubber call that squealed like an injured rabbit. Sightings of several coyotes during the day gave us hopes one would respond tonight. He waited two minutes and squealed again. Far away we heard the faint howl of a lonely coyote. We perked up, hoping Jerry could bring him into rifle range. Every five minutes he worked the call, loud and long, then soft and quick. After thirty minutes, the exercise of the day and stillness of the night caught up with me and I started drifting.
A sudden, high-pitched animal scream fifty yards in front of us shook me from my daze. What the hell was that? No one uttered a sound. I heard safeties click on guns. Thirty seconds later another ungodly shriek echoed fifty yards behind us. I crawled back to the van where the other guys were huddled up. Despite the dark of the night, I saw the white of wide-open eyes.
I trembled with a death grip on my rifle, “What was that?”
Jerry whispered, “Mountain lion. He’s got us surrounded.”
Another terrible yowl fifty yards to the right melted us. Four of us on the ground scrambled to the top of the van, bending the chair frame and roof. We panted with palpable fear. Jerry shined the spotlight into the brush on our right, searching for the source of the terrible shrieks. The next scream was on our left! Guns shot blindly into the dark.
I yelled, "Let's get out of here."
We bailed off the roof, flung open the doors, and scrambled inside. Jerry started the motor, shifted into first, popped the clutch, and killed the engine.
“Hurry up,” shouted John.
Jerry restarted the van, spun in a circle, and bounced wildly down the dirt road. In silence, we drove straight back to the ranch house, wondering what kind of cat had been stalking us.
The cold north wind made the bunkhouse miserably frigid. We built a huge bonfire outside, partly to stay warm and partly to keep creatures away. I put on extra heavy long underwear, laid down by the fire to get warm, then stumbled back to my sleeping bag in the bunkhouse. I couldn’t wait until I was old enough sleep in the big house.
A few hours later I woke up shivering and mumbled, “God, I feel like an Eskimo.” I stumbled out to the fire, fed it logs until I was warm, and then went back to my sleeping bag again.
John and I woke early the next morning to sneak down to the river where I had seen Canada Geese the previous day. Sure enough, they were back in the same little cove on a sand bar. We crawled through the brush until we were very close, which surprised me because geese were normally very spooky.
I hissed, "Let's take ‘em."
We jumped up and shot all four geese while they were still on the ground.
John asked, “Are they always that easy.”
“I don’t know? I never shot a goose before.” We staggered back to camp carrying the heavy birds.
When we rounded the corner of the house, the cook ran out screaming, “El rancho gooso! El rancho gooso!”
How were we to know they were her pet geese? The rest of the gang rolled with laughter while the housekeeper screamed at us in Spanish. We didn’t speak Spanish, but we sure got the gist of what she was saying. She calmed down after Dad gave her a few dollars.
At breakfast, the fathers discussed the day’s plans.
Dr. Kelly asked Jaun, “Where do you think we should go today?”
“There’s big deer up in Sierra Santa Rosa Mountains. It’s a long ride, but you like hunting there.”
Dad asked, “How far is it?”
“Maybe fifty miles. I take you.”
“What do you think Doc? Can we make it that far today?”
“If we take extra gas and food I think we can get in some good hunting and maybe bag a big whitetail.”
Dad replied, "Sounds good to me, Doc. Boys, let's get loaded up."
We pushed deeper into Old Mexico, dads in one van drinking hot buttered rum, boys in the other. We gradually moved deeper south into high country, shooting a few birds along the way. Cactus and brush gave way to cedar trees and rock as we drove higher into the foothills. Our heavily loaded vans strained up steep roads, bouncing off the rocks.
I asked John, "How far do you think we can get without four-wheel drive?"
“With all you guys here to push, I’m not worried. As a matter of fact, the other van just got stuck. Too much rum. Out we go.”
We pushed the dad’s van off a rock for the third time.
I asked, “Juan, how much farther?”
He pointed. “Up to the next ridge.”
Three hours from the ranch, we finally came to the end of the road at an Indian village on the side of a mountain. The Indians had never seen white men before, so the villagers surrounded our vans, curiously looking at us and our strange vehicles. Dr. Kelly attempted to communicate with them, but they did not speak Spanish. Luckily, Juan spoke their language. The village consisted of a dozen one-room log huts with no doors, windows, water, electricity, or bathrooms. Inside were dirt floors and a bucket for a toilet. Children played with a bear chained to the front door of one hut. This was dirtier and more primitive than any barnyard I had seen.
When the sun dropped early behind the mountains, we made camp near the village and traded the Indians dove for fresh tortillas. Dr. Kelly put a pot of fresh chili over a bonfire and we feasted around the campfire telling stories. Hot buttered rum kept the dads warm while the boys horsed around and snuck samples when the dads weren’t watching.
I asked Jerry, “Have you camped in the mountains before?”
“No, this is my first time.”
“Me too.” I looked up at stars right on the mountaintops, twinkling like Christmas lights.
“Have you ever seen so many stars?”
“We’re surrounded. I didn’t know you could get so close to heaven. If my arm was just a little longer I know could reach up and grab one.”
We huddled around the campfire to stay warm and watched the wondrous stars through clear mountain air. We put down sleeping bags, fed the fire, and fell asleep in the midst of stars twinkling around our camp.
The next morning, Indians told Juan we should follow animal trails up the mountain to find game. We walked up the rocky mountain on foot in a single file. When the mountain became steeper, our pace slowed. Mark was walking in front of Harry. Harry slipped on a rock and came down on his shotgun. He had committed the cardinal sin of having the safety off. Boom! The gun went off and shredded Mark’s new boot. Mark fell to the ground screaming in pain. In shock, we gathered round him as he writhed in misery.
Dr. Kelly looked at the bloody wound and said, “That should have taken his foot off. Good thing he had new boots on. I can stop the bleeding, but we need to get back to camp now! Fletcher, help me with a tourniquet.”
Harry was white as a ghost. “I didn’t mean to shoot him. What are we going to do?” This was not a pretty situation.
Dad said, “Everybody unload your guns now. Boys, we have to carry Mark down. Ya’ll pick him up, but not by the foot.”
Jerry anguished, “That could have been me.”
John moaned, “Or me.” The fun and games were over.
We started the long descent down the mountain with Mark twisting in agony.
Back at the van, Dr. Kelly and Dr. Fletcher field cleaned the wound and shot Mark full of morphine. We bounced down the mountain road at breakneck speed in the vans for three long, miserable hours while Mark cried in agony with every bump. We made several stops for Dr. Kelly to change the dressing and give Mark more morphine. We were on our own, far from civilization.
We pulled up to the ranch house long after dark and immediately took Mark inside. The doctors cleaned the kitchen table to create a makeshift operating room. They spent hours meticulously cutting dozens of BBs out of Mark's foot. While the heavy leather boots stopped most of the shot, the doctors could not reach numerous pellets deep in the heel bone. They worked on Mark much of the night while the rest of us worried about Mark and silently packed for a long trip home.
At sunrise, the somber group headed home with little conversation.
We were not allowed by Customs and Immigration to bring game back over the border, but the guns were okay. We stopped at villages along the way and gave away our game to hungry peasants. We crossed the border and took the highway to San Antonio. The heavily loaded vans maxed out at fifty mph, making for another three hours of quiet introspection. We drove straight to a hospital, where surgeons operated for two hours to remove a dozen more pellets from Mark's heel bone. Because of the prompt care from Doctors Kelly and Fletcher, Mark eventually recovered with no permanent damage.
At the time, we did not realize this would be the last of our Mexico expeditions. Border conditions rapidly deteriorated when drug smuggling picked up, making it impossible to take weapons across the border again. From then on we had father-son hunts in south Texas and told stories of wild Mexico.