Cutting sign in the old Border Patrol By Delbert W Gilbow
Monday, November 23, 2009
Not rated by the Author.
How it used to be done.
Back when the U.S. Border Patrol Academy was in El Paso and before electronic gadgets, cell phones, and other space age stuff became available to the men who patrolled the border, we had to do it the old fashioned way. Many of the PI's were from the rural backwoods, and grew up tracking game during hunting season or marauding predators on local ranches. Tracking illegal aliens entering the U.S. was a different game though, very much low tech, however it did require perseverance, knowledge of the local terrain, and a nodding acquaintance with the peculiarities of the local flora, and fauna. Most of us had to learn this from the old timers. The vehicles we used for sign cutting back then were cloth topped jeeps that had the doors removed so that the driver and the Border Patrol Officer riding shotgun would have good view of the ground.
Near Sierra Blanca, TX, 1956
It was mid summer in West Texas and the harsh southwestern sun beat down with a vengeance even though it was early in the morning. The glare off the baked hardpan was merciless.
I pulled my hat down over my eyes to keep the sun from giving me a headache. I was driving that day, Joe Holloway was riding shotgun. I maneuvered the jeep slowly along the barbed-wire fence line driving into the early morning sun, and squinted at the ground on the left side of the jeep. Talk was small; Shotgun's oldest daughter's 11th birthday on Friday, the price of a new 30/30 Marlin down at Guerra's store, and the cute new waitress Pilar at the Chuck Wagon Café. The temperature was already over 80 degrees and would climb to 110 as the day wore on. There was no wind and the dust boiling up from around the tires made a cloud around the jeep, even the smell was hot. By the first hour both of our olive drab uniforms were covered with dust; we looked very much like sugar coated donuts.
Holloway touched me on my right arm. "Hold it a minute." I stopped the jeep and scanned the ground closely on my side of the jeep. Holloway, without getting out, peered at a circular scuff near a fence post.
"We got somebody crossing the fence here."
Someone indeed, had crossed the fence and where they put their foot down was a semi-circular bruise near the base of the fence post. I backed the jeep slowly, watching the ground ahead as I did. "There." Holloway said as he pointed to the left front. "Yeah, I see it." I stopped the jeep.
We both got out. Holloway climbed the fence and walked toward the south with his head down, watching the ground, and I walked across Highway 80 angling to the west about fifty feet as I did. When I reached the bar ditch on the north side of the highway I began walking east, looking for tracks. I walked about 30 feet before finding what I sought. There, in front of me, were several flat, compacted sand patches; sign left by someone who had walked either north or south. I stooped and looked closely at the tracks, examining the heel and toe marks, noting that sand had been pushed down on the north end of each track. There was no question, whoever made them were heading north.
I continued walking east and found another set of tracks; then another. Three men had crossed the highway and continued on north, we had a trail. The sun was still low on the horizon and the light reflected off the tracks like phosphorescent paint. The compacted dirt in the tracks appeared to be shining. I stood and looked to the south and saw Holloway watching me from a hundred yards away. Holloway waved his hand and raised his hat three times.
I walked back to the jeep and picked up the microphone and spoke into it, "Seventeen fourteen to seventeen twelve. Do you read me over? The response was immediate, "Seventeen twelve, over." "Seventeen fourteen, we've got three wets out here on Eagle Flat, looks like they’re guiding on Apache Peak - probably crossed at Ojos Calienties. Over." "Seventeen twelve, roger, you have three wets on Eagle Flat heading toward Apache Peak we will check the Hunnicutt place. Out." The Hunnicutt Ranch lay about six miles north of the highway. George Hunnicutt was an old time cowboy who had cowboyed all over the west; now he and his wife lived on a hard scrabble place trying to eke out a living with a few old half Brahman cows, a dozen laying hens, and a garden. George and his wife never turned down a visitor. If you came by you got fed.
Both me and Holloway looked at the tracks on the north side of the highway. Holloway pulled a golf club handle with several rubber bands on it from the rear of the jeep. First he measured the size of the print and put one rubber band on the handle to designate the length of the track. Then he measured the stride and placed another rubber band along the handle to designate the length of the stride. While he was doing this I was measuring another set of tracks the same way. When we finished Holloway pointed to one of the tracks which had stepped on top of a beetle trail.
"Well we know they passed here some time after midnight." I nodded assent. "So, they have at least six and a half hours on us. Hunnicut's water tank is about four hours north and Bounds and Carter are going there now." Without further adieu Holloway began walking along following the tracks.
I went back to the jeep and drove west for about a mile, crossed the highway and opened the gate on the north-side. After closing the gate I continued north along a two rutted trail for about three quarters of a mile and then turned across country perpendicular to the route Holloway was walking. I began looking for tracks. Fifteen minutes later I found them. I parked the jeep, shut the engine off and began walking north on the tracks. I saw that a side winder traveling east had over marked the tracks I was following. That most likely would have happened before the sun got up this morning so, sometime before five thirty or six.
I continued walking, knowing that Holloway would be getting to the jeep about now and leap-frogging on north. As I approached an area made up of mostly sandstone the tracks disappeared. I walked back to the last track and placed the golf club handle down with one of the rubber bands at the end of the track then looked closely at the ground alongside of the next rubber band. The scuff mark was very faint, but I able to make out where the sandstone had been scraped by someone walking on it. Just a few scratch marks was all there was. I made my way over the sandstone measuring the distance between tracks until I picked up another scuff mark - one step at a time. When I finally reached the north side of the sandstone outcropping I pulled my canteen out and took a drink. I looked north as I drank and watched three crows about a mile and a half away flying in a straight line. Suddenly they veered from their path; something had startled them. I rolled that around in my mind and figured that most likely it was the three men we were tracking; they hadn’t got such an early start as we thought; if I was correct, they were about a mile shy of Hunnicutt’s water tank. Fifteen minutes later I saw Holloway driving south toward me along the tracks. When Holloway pulled up he was grinning. "See those crows?" he asked.
"Sure did, it will be a short daytoday.Seventeen fourteen to seventeen twelve, over.”
“Seventeen twelve, we saw the crows and have the wets in sight, we will need your help to transport, over.”
“Rodger that, we are on the way, seventeen fourteen, out.”