January 03, 2011
The twin cities of Nogales, Sonora, and Nogales, Arizona, are hot in autumn, and this story started in the heart of the Mexican twin on a sweaty September day in 1951.
Stop for a minute and let a balding middle-ager recall that once upon a time a hasty shine on his spurworn boots, clean Levis, and a few silver pesos in his pocket were all that was required to enjoy a day and night in that friendly border town, and to relax at the end of a week of far riding on a U.S. Border Patrol broomtail. After cooperating with a slug or two of Jose Cuervo tequila bracketed by salt, I ventured forth this fall day to inspect the action around the big shady plaza.
The only thing moving seemed to be a plump traffic policeman, all brass and starched khaki. I lonesomely aimed toward him, figuring on practicing my Spanish.
All thoughts of linguistic betterment left me when I saw the sixgun at his hip. It was a short-barreled Colt single-action in almost new factory condition.
In my most flowery Tex-Mex I inquired if the officer's sidearm was for sale. It was not. Many turistas had offered him much money for his gun, "but a police official must be armed, senor." Would the Captain (he was a corporal) consider a trade?
His eyes were those of a Spanish conqueror about to loot a Mayan temple. Drawing himself erect and haughtily sucking in his belly, he proclaimed, "It would require a new .38 Special to exchange for my pistol--a new Smith y Wesson."
I reached inside my shirt and handed him my gun so fast he probably thought I was throwing down on him. It was a brand-new Smith Heavy Duty .38-44, topped off with a fifteen-dollar pair of Lew Sanderson's custom grips. No more conversation was necessary. A bargain had been struck.
My prize was a beautifully casehardened and blued Model P Colt in .41 Long Colt caliber--not the best for my law enforcement tasks. But I later rebarreled it to .45 Colt and toted it many a horseback mile, trailing up illegally entered aliens in the Santa Cruz river valley of Arizona. I had hated to lose my big Smith & Wesson .38, but the fatter slug of the .45 I wound up with was much more authoritative. Having cut my teeth on a Colt thumbbuster, I was infinitely more comfortable with the new hogleg and damned grateful to get it.
Everyone knows how tough it was to get single-actions between '41 and '55, when Colt knuckled under and started making them again. It seemed to me at the time that all the well-heeled Fancy Dans in the world were conspiring against me to take every existing Colt Model P out of circulation and hang them on a wall somewhere. My success with the Nogales cop planted a seed in my mind, and a hungry gun hunt began.
My trail led me into Mexico several times a year, and I started making the most of these safaris, asking everyone I could buttonhole if they knew anyone who had an old gun. At first, I was met with suspicion and innocent-eyed avowals that "the people around here don't carry guns, senor." There was a new federal arms registration law in effect. I knew of no one who was complying with it, but to have a stranger come out of the sunset and ask you point blank if you had a gun was a disquieting experience, requiring cautious answers. It took tact, patience, a few funny stories over a bottle of beer, and finally a display of multi-colored Mexican bank notes to get the ball rolling in each new village I hit. But each one yielded up guns. Guns like I had never seen before.
They showed me Remington derringers in .41 Rimfire. Colt percussion revolvers, converted to cartridge use, were retired from service as tackhammers and stovepokers to tempt the crazy American gunbuyer. Enough old '66, '73, '92, and '94 Winchesters to make a picket fence around a hill country goat ranch were dug out and offered up. I didn't buy any of 'em.
Displaying the business acumen that has kept me broke all my life, I stayed doggedly with the single purpose that had inspired me. My meager supply of cash went only for good specimens of Colt Model Ps and Bisleys. The other jewels that any of today's collectors would swap their left ventricles for were proudly rejected.
When my money began to run out, I took my sidekick, Curley Barrett, into the deal. Loading a camp outfit consisting of a couple of bedrolls, dutch oven and coffee pot, and a Collins machete, we mounted up my old pickup and headed for the backcountry towns and ranches that sparsely dotted the Sonoran desert.
In Magdelena, we contacted Ignacio Flores, the Comandante of Police. Ignacio, known locally as The Owl, had talked to me before and knew what I was after. He wore a nickeled Colt .38 Special that Curley and I had presented him earlier, and his fierce cavalry moustaches, buckskin jacket, and pinch-crowned Stetson combined with the showy sixgun to make him look like an ad for a Pancho Villa movie.
"I have had my men searching for the pistolas tejanas you like," said The Owl. "It is mysterious to me why you should want them, but it gives me pleasure to present you with these." Digging in his desk drawer, the Chief handed Curley and me each a rusty single-action. Mine was a .32-20 without a front sight. Its cracked rubber grips were stuck to the grip frame with strips of dried rawhide, rather than a screw.
Curley made out a little better, scoring a .44-40 with 7½-inch barrel and minute traces of the original nickel. Lacking a bolt spring, its cylinder spun like a slot machine tumbler, and the trigger was sprung far forward, complaining of a broken sear.
These clunkers would have sold for $75 in a Phoenix hockshop, and we happily added them to our horde for future rebuilding. As we passed the evening over a few watercooled bottles of Carta Blanca, I pumped the Chief.
"I have been paying two hundred to four hundred pesos ($25 to $50 at the 1951 rate of exchange) for these guns, but they are hard to find. Should I offer more money?"
The old policeman growled and fixed me with his pale green stare. "You throw away your money like a gringo tourist. Pay 40 pesos--never more than 80. I will send my cabo to guide you to the ranch people and prevent you from being cheated."
The grinning corporal was Gabriel Rascon, a tough old cowboy-turned-cop who carried an S&W .32-20 and bore the scars of several knife and gun battles. Happy to get off his village beat for a few days, and to tank up on our stateside groceries, he directed us on a 100-kilometer jaunt through mesquite jungle over roads that degenerated frequently into nothing more than rocky cow trails. My pickup sighed with relief when we camped for the first night of our quest. We had traveled hardly farther than
a good day's horseback ride from town. We had seen no people; we had ruined a new tire; we had bought no Colts.
While Gabriel hacked up a supply of dead mesquite with my machete, Curley trimmed the steaks with an old Marine Corps bowie and muttered to himself that if he had wanted a tour of the brush country, he would have stayed in Arizona.
Late that night, two horsemen rode into our camp and squatted around our fire over coffee and cigarettes. Warmed with shots of bourbon between coffees, their eyes lighted when Gabriel explained our mission. There were plenty of the old revolvers we wanted among their neighbors. If we would meet them at the ranch of Francisco Bustamonte the next morning, they would have all their friends who owned such guns on hand to sell them to us.
Believe it or not, that's just what happened. Dawn saw us breakfasting on mesquite-fried bacon and eggs. Two hours of washboard roads took us to a dry riverbed, where we got stuck in the fine sand and were extracted by a passing merchant's Jeep. Another hour had us at Francisco Bustamonte's place, where several timid farmers waited to haggle prices and finally supply us with seven or eight old Colts in varying stages of disrepair.
Pleased at the unusual visit of a couple of foreigners, Senor Bustamonte had a stout lunch served up and, by way of dessert, volunteered that he, too, was the owner of an old pistol that he would like to show us. It turned out to be an absolutely mint condition .44 Russian Model P Colt with 5½-inch barrel and carved ivory grips. It would have been mint, that is, except for one small item. Deep, rude scratches, looking like they had been made with a horseshoe nail, sprawled across the entire length of the right side of the frame, proudly emblazoning the owner's name, "FRANCISCO BUSTAMONTE," and ruining what would have otherwise been one of the finest specimens of single-actions in existence.
Even though my stomach tightened at the sight of the mutilated finish on the lovely sixshooter, I wanted it badly. It developed that our host wanted a .38 Super Colt equally as badly. He had only kept it all these years because it was the gift of an official of the State Judicial Police in the Sonora Capitol, Hermosillo. This friend had confiscated it from some culprit or other and presented it to the rancher, who had politely kept it wrapped in oily rags ever since the horrible engraving job was completed.
On my promise of buying him a spanking new .38 Super the next time he visited Tucson, Francisco handed over his .44, and Gabriel led a couple of happy gringo gunbugs back to Magdalena.
Before returning home, we queried Comandante Ignacio Flores about the whereabouts of all the handguns that his department had doubtlessly taken from arrested criminals over the years. The Owl replied that all such weapons were surrendered to the Comandante of the State Judicial Police in Hermosillo. With his own eyes, he had seen a large trunk filled with these pistols, lying in a remote corner of the state office.
Happy with out booty, Curley and I returned to Arizona and law enforcement chores. A lot of swapping and rebuilding of our Mexican booty turned us into the best armed sidegunners in our circle. It kept us so busy, in fact, that while we frequently pondered the idea, we never got around to driving the short distance to Hermosillo for a look at the State Police trunk.
Three years went by before the urge hit me again to dip my net into the Mexican Colt cornucopia. By then, I was badge-toting in Texas, and it was a long drive to get back to my old, familiar Sonora stomping grounds.
With a comfortable camping rig, my gun-bitten buddy, Curt Barclay, and I loaded up on biscuit mix, booze, and pesos in Yuma, Arizona, and entered Sonora at San Luis. The then-unpaved road was a tire-eatin' sonofagun, but we got to Sonoita, took care of our Mexican tourist permits, and worked our way slowly to that pleasant little pueblo, Caborca.
An inquiry for guns met the polite reply, "Sorry, senor, but you are too late. I sold my grandfather's pistol to some American gentlemen who come here every month, buying guns." My informant exhibited the business card of a well-known Phoenix gun dealer. "The gentlemen left this card and said to write them when I can locate more of the old pistols. They said no matter what I am offered for guns I find, to sell only to them. They promise to pay more than anyone else."
The bubble had burst. All along the lonely road, through Santana and on to the capitol, the story was the same. Commercial buyers had stepped in and were stripping out the old guns in efficient and businesslike fashion.
Curt and I found not a thumbbuster until we reached Hermosillo. There, a young cop conspired with us to find two old rebuilders for Curt, who wanted to make up a fancy pair. An old friend of mine, highly placed in the State Judicial Police, was out of town, and we were unable to verify the existence of that outfit's trunkful of goodies.
On the long drive home, I reflected that I wasn't sorry. I had only searched Mexico for the guns that I, personally, would put to use. Turning my trips into moneymaking ventures would have taken the fun out of them. I had gotten the guns I wanted for myself. I had seen a lot of far country and made some new friends. Only one real regret bugged me.
That dad-blasted Francisco Bustamonte and his horseshoe nail had ruined the best damned single-action I ever saw!