“Take a look at this Winchester 38-40 carbine, son.” I handed my boy this beautiful 100+ year old heavy lever action rifle. He studied it, maybe like a woman might look at jewels. The rifle had a hexagon barrel, rear adjustable sites, and a black-stained stock from gun powder, dirty hands, and a century on the trail. The 38-40 shell was a rare bullet, once used both in both pistols are rifles. “You will inherit this rifle from me when I die. Here is how I got this gun.”
I had bought a small ranch for a low price high in the Sangre du Cristo Mountains in northern New Mexico, near the little town of Mora. The locals called the place ‘La Sierra’. Spanish was the first language here, and it sure helped me that I spoke it. The place was up at 8800 feet with a year around flowing stream and a well that never went dry. It was at the end of a five mile long dirt road and was without any utilities at all. On my 24th birthday, on September 17th, 1970, I camped outside. When I awoke, I had over a foot of snow on the tarp covering my sleeping bag. I had just discovered that this place had only a 75 day growing season. This was going to be a tough place to survive.
When we had a three foot snow drift over my only access road in November, I learned I had better get my firewood in early. I would now be using Pharaoh, my Spanish Mustang stud horse, to get in and out, for snow plows were unheard of around here. But if someone wanted to get snowed in and lost, this was the perfect place. My only contact with the outside world was the post office, and that was seven miles away.
By January, I had cabin fever bad. My job as an ambulance driver did not begin until they finished the clinic next summer, so I had no work to keep me here. As the winter wore on, thoughts of camping out in the Sonoran Desert dominated my days while I chopped and carried wood. Most of my activities related directly to keeping myself alive. My big joy at the end of the day was crawling under thick blankets with my Aladdin lantern brightly burning and reading the stack of good books and magazines I had with me. Even then, my fingers got cold holding the books outside the blankets.
Finally I found Cheryl, a hardy mountain woman who was looking for a place to stay. She had a reputation for honesty and hard work. I offered her the place rent free if she would keep the horse fed and take care of the home. I had enough feed and firewood for her to last the winter. She accepted and moved in. She promptly cleaned the place better than I ever had.
I waited for a break in the weather. I loaded up my four-wheel drive pickup truck with all my camping gear. I reminded Cheryl to guard the place well. Then my dog Kingfish and I began the trek down the mountain. When I came to the snow drifts, I gunned the truck. Snow flew onto the windshield, blinding my vision. If I slipped off the road here, down the hillside, this truck wasn’t going anyplace until springtime. Only the gravity of driving downhill and my momentum kept me rolling. I was sliding to either side. But to stop was to get stuck. I finally made it to the base of the mountain and to paved highway. I first stopped at my friends Ronald and Rosa and left Kingfish and my 22 rifle with them. Now I began a long slow drive to the southern desert, and warmth.
I spent the winter camping out in the Sonoran Desert of the USA and Mexico. In sleepy border towns and abandoned mining camps, in Mexican cantinas and villages, with occasional trips to Puerto Penasco or Santa Ana or Tucson for supplies. My major expenses were bulk food, gas, beer, some smoke, and auto parts for whenever my truck broke down. You used to be able to do that at the border in those days without fear of death….
Come springtime and I began the drive back north. When I arrived in Mora, it was green. There was plenty of water in the valleys below from the mountain snow melt. When I turned off to La Sierra, I switched the front wheel hubs to four wheel drive, and began the long climb up to my cabin. The road is muddy and slippery in places, but the snow is finally gone. I am worried because I have not heard from Cheryl, although I have sent her several letters. Much of that is my fault as I have not been still enough to receive a letter. When I see my cabin, I am relieved that it did not burn down this winter. I see smoke coming out of the chimney and my horse Pharaoh tied inside the fence. Good. I would have to break him in for riding again, as I had to every every spring. He was a stud horse and he went wild whenever he hadn’t been ridden for a while, or when he caught the scent of a mare in heat. I could understand that.
I turned my truck to park it in a little pull-off. But in front of me I see a stripped frame of a vehicle. It wasn’t there when I left. The frame isn’t rusty at all. I park next to it.
I walk into the kitchen and there is Cheryl standing at the wood stove. With her are two young ladies. The two women are dressed like they clearly are not from around here. They look like college students. Their faces are serious.
“Have you seen Two Braids?” Cheryl asks intensely.
That is the first thing Cheryl says? Not a hello, welcome back, or anything.
“Who is Two Braids?”
“He would be driving a 65 Plymouth” one girl says.
“A blue one. Two door” the other girl adds.
“What’s going on here?”
We sit down at the table and I listen. The two girls were driving from Boston to LA. They picked up this guy and woman who were hitchhiking, Two Braids and Willow. Two Braids asks if he can borrow their car to get some medicine. The girls say okay. Then Two Braids and Willow drop the two girls off at my place and tell them to wait. They say they will be back in a few hours. That was two days ago.
“What’s with this stripped down car in my parking spot?”
“Oh yeah. Just after you left, Two Braids brought it here. They had a mechanic take all the parts off it to sell.”
“And they left it here? Whose is it?”
“It was a rental car. They didn’t return it.”
“And who is this Two Braids?” I almost shout at Cheryl. “You let him come into my home to do all this?”
“Two-Braids is a bandito from New York City. He’s been living in the mountains this winter, robbing the Texans’ cabins. He’s hurt a few people too. There’s been some gun fights up in the mountains too. He’s a big guy and he’s always got a gun on his hip when he comes here. How can I throw him out?” At this point one of the two girls starts crying. “They’ve got our purses and money and credit cards. Everything.” one of them says. She asks me to drive her to town so she can call her parents. I agree.
I first stop at the Mora County Emergency Care Center to tell them I am back and I will be able to begin working shortly. Then we drive down to a pay phone and I wait. I give the girls money for the call as they have nothing at all. From the truck I can hear the young lady crying. They talk a while and then the girl waves for me to come to the phone. I do. She says that her mother wants to talk with me and hands me the phone. I take the receiver and listen to a frantic woman. She does not completely trust me and asks me to take her daughter and her friend to the police. I tell her I know sheriff Sanchez personally and I will do that. I also explain that I have never met this ‘Two Braids’ and I have no idea who he is. The mother asks me if I will loan her daughter and friend money to get to LA. She promises again and again to repay me. I tell her that I will. I spend a lot of time assuring the mother that her daughter and friend are safe now. She is still very worried when we end the conversation. I find myself really angry at this situation.
We go to Sheriff Sanchez’s office. When I enter, he has his chair tilted against the wall, chatting with a few Chicano friends of ours. Sanchez seems young for a sheriff to me. Maybe ten years older than me. He has the mandatory mustache and is wearing a gray stetson hat.
“Finally back, huh?” We shake hands. I speak Spanish with him. He says I am the only hippie here who speaks Spanish. I speak Spanish to them as a way of showing respect to the people who were here long before me. I think it works too. I look at the gun on Sanchez’ hip. It is a double-action stainless steel Colt 357 magnum. What stands out is the silver handle with turquoise inlays. It is one of the most beautiful hand guns I have ever seen. Sheriff Sanchez and I switch back to English. Then the young women repeat their story. Sanchez apologizes for what has happened. He has the women sign papers reporting the stolen car. I stress to Sanchez that I have no idea who this guy Two-Braids is. Sanchez tells us that the robberies and break-ins and even cattle rustlings have really increased ever since these banditos came here. The New Mexico State Police has even sent a mounted posses into the hills this winter looking for them, but with no luck so far. Then Sanchez leans forward and his voice drops. “We heard that those banditos killed two of their own this winter. Their leader, a guy named Lobo, and another guy named Two Bears.”
I mention that Cheryl told me about the same thing.
Sanchez says “Personally,I don’t care if they kill all of themselves off. We’d like that. But in the meantime, we’re hunting them down.”
“What should I do if a group of them come around my farm packing guns?”
“You got a gun?”
“ A few.”
Sheriff Sanchez took a long breath. “If they are trespassing on your land, and they come with guns to rob you, then shoot them dead. You are way up there. No one is going to help you in time. And there is no jury in this state of New Mexico that would ever convict you. But I can assure you personally that I would make sure that it would never get to a jury here. We’d give you a medal first.”
I nod. Then I look at the girls. Now they are really panicked. I guess the cops in Boston don’t talk like this. I ask Sanchez where is an inexpensive, secure place nearby where the girls can stay. He directs me to a motel down the road. We shake hands and leave. I take the girls to the motel and and pay the seven dollars a day for the room. I give them a hundred dollars as I had promised their mother and I tell them I will check in on them tomorrow. Then I drive back up to La Sierra.
When I pull up to my place, I see a 1965 blue Plymouth parked there. Cheryl comes running out. “THEY JUST LEFT!” she shouts. “Two Braids and Willow came back with the car and unloaded it with a pile of stuff they bought in Santa Fe. It’s laying all over your bed room. They used the girls’ credit cards to buy it all. They say they’re done with the car and left me the keys for it. Two Braids said to tell the girls that they just need to report the credit cards as stolen and they won’t have to pay a thing.” Cheryl was puffing. “They’re gonna come back soon and get the rest of their stuff.”
My adrenalin was going. I dug up my pistol, a terribly weak Beretta 25 caliber. The only thing it was better than was no gun at all. My rifle was in storage with a friend. I first decided to return the car to the girls. I drove it down to Mora and found them in their motel. They were excited to have their car back. They wanted nothing more than to get on the road and out of here forever. They checked their purses. Their credit cards were missing. I told them of the loot that Two Braids and Willow had been buying with their cards. The girls said they thought they could get to LA on a hundred dollars. We exchanged addresses. I asked the girls to drive me back to my home. They were hesitant. I told them to just take me close, to save me time. We drove up the dirt road to within a half mile of my home. When I got out, they told me to be careful. As if I needed reminding. They squeezed my hand. I walked off the road back to my home. I crept up to my home carefully. Cheryl was waiting nervously.
“What are you going to do when they come back?” she asked.
“You stay away when they come.”
I went into my bedroom and checked the gear that they had bought with the girIs’ credit cards. A new tent, an ax, hatchets, buck knives, cast iron skillets, horse bridles, a western saddle, new boots, fishing poles, lots of outdoor gear, and boxes of ammo. Ammo? I looked around there in the corner was a rifle leaning against the wall. It was a Winchester lever action type. I checked it out. It was a 38-40. I had never heard of that caliber before. I took the gun and ammo out to the hay loft in my barn. I loaded the 38-40 and walked up the hill. I aimed at a tree and shot it. BOOM! It worked. I decided to keep that rifle and the Beretta with me at all times.
I moved my truck off the road so that someone could not easily see it. That night I slept in the hayloft of my barn with loaded guns to my side. I told Cheryl not to mention a word to Two Braids that I was back.
“What do I say when he finds his gun is missing?” She asked. I didn’t have an answer for that. Then Cheryl said she would be leaving today ‘for a while’. I didn’t blame her.
Two Braids did not come back that day. Or the next either. I ceased carrying the heavy 38-40 around with me everyplace I went, although I kept it nearby. I kept the Beretta with me at all times.
On my third day home, I had a visit from Ronald. He had heard that I was back. Ronald was a Nam Vet, recently back from the war. He had been an infantry ground grunt who had seen it all, and did not talk about any of it. He returned to me my semi-auto 22 long rifle. It too was underpowered. But at least it held 16 under-powered rounds. Ronald broke out a joint and we smoked. I told him about the incident with Two Braids and I showed him the rifle I had confiscated. Ronald admired it as perhaps only a veteran can. We talked a while about my trip to the Sonoran Desert. But Ronald did not have my dog Kingfish with him. I asked him where Kingfish was. Ronald shook his head. “The ranchers set poison out near my place for the coyotes and feral dogs. And Kingfish ate it. Sorry about that. I buried him near our cabin.”
There went my best companion — my only companion — for the last five years. The smartest dog I have ever had. I didn’t know how to take it. We sat there silent.
There was a loud knock on the door. Before we could answer, a big guy stepped in. “Where’s Cheryl?” he asked.
“She’s moved away” I answered.
“What?” he looked directly at me. “Who are you?”
In my own home — who are you?
He was broad and tall, with a long-barreled large caliber pistol hanging reverse holster on his hip. His face was weather beaten and rough like a ranch hand. He had two long long braids down his back. I looked over to Ronald and — maybe I sort of nodded. But I felt the adrenalin going off. I didn’t say anything as I stood up. Later I would think what I did was out of panic. And I doubt that I would have done it if Ronald weren’t there. But what I did do was charge Two Braids with a few running steps and hit him with my shoulder direct into his chest. Two Braids fell back halfway out the door. I quickly got hold of his braids and began banging his head hard as I could against the wooden steps. I was head-butting him too as he tried to get my hands off his hair, but he couldn’t. His braids were the perfect handles. I recall letting one braid loose and elbowing his face again and again while banging his head on the stair. I must have knocked his head good because he didn’t have much fight in him. I just kept banging his head. Then I panicked about his gun and reached down for it.
“DONT WORRY! I’VE GOT IT!” I hear Ronald yelling.
“What’s going on here?” a woman’s voice shouting.
I keep banging and elbowing Two Braids’ head until he seems limp. There is blood on his face. Two Braids is just trying to cover himself up. I jump up and see that Ronald is holding Two Braid’s large single action pistol.
“What you doing? What you doing?” Two Braids is yelling. I step back panting, completely out of breath. I am shouting at him full force as he is sitting on the floor, telling him if he ever comes around to my home again we’ll shoot him — that I’ve reported him to Sheriff Sanchez and they are looking for him — and to get the fuck out now!
Then Two Braids leans forward and begins sobbing. He is actually sobbing in front of his woman. I did not expect that. I remember feeling really good about this.
“We only came for our stuff. Just let us get it and we’ll leave.”
“Not the gun or ammo. We’re keeping the guns.”
“But they’re mine!”
“FUCK YOU! Not anymore. Get your shit and get out. Come back again and we’re shooting!” I am near out of my mind.
Ronald keeps the pistol in his hands as Two Braids and Willow get their remaining loot and tie it onto their horses. I look over to Willow. She is a tall, attractive young woman, sun-burned like Two Braids from living outside. She must be Two Braids’ partner in crime. Later I will wonder how she got there. I figured she was just another passive woman, easy to lead on.
As they ride off, I shout again that they better never come back. Ronald seconds it. Then I shout that they’d better get out of state, because I’ll be joining Sanchez’ posse. At this point, I am talking totally out of my ass.
Only when Two Braids and Willow are completely out of sight do Ronald and I go back in. Ronald congratulates me on ‘doing a number’ on Two Braids. Any other time I might have felt heady about it. But now, still under the heavy influence of marijuana and adrenalin, I am feeling unnerved and freaked out.
“What should I do with this?” Ronald holds up a Colt single action 44 magnum pistol. The barrel must be close to nine inches long. I have shot that caliber pistol before and it is simply too powerful for me. One blast from it and I had a flinch reaction from it for all the next shots.
“Looks like it’s yours now” I say. Then we begin to laugh. We cannot stop laughing, for whatever reason.
“You want to smoke some more?” Ronald asks.
“Fuuuuuuuucccccccck no!” I shout, and we laugh some more.
Ronald and I decide to sit outside, away from the cabin. In case Two Braids comes back with some of his banditos to settle a score, we want to see them first.
Later, Ronald takes off home to his wife Rosa. I make it a point to not sleep in my home, but on the hill above it. I build a small camp and cover it with brush so that no one will find it unless they stumble right upon it. I keep the 38-40 with me, along with my 22 rifle and the Beretta. But these are really the wrong guns for self-defense. I realize that I will have to re-armor myself. I start thinking about 223 caliber rifles, Remington 870 pump shotguns, and 357 magnum revolvers like Sanchez’.
About a week later, a lone bandito comes riding up to my home. He waves a white bandana. I recognize him as Texas John. He is a long, skinny, gaunt-eyed man who has done a lot of time and speed, and it shows. Cheryl said there was talk that it was Texas John who had killed Lobo last winter. I had once treated Tex at the clinic for a bad cut that sure looked like a knife stab to me. Since then Tex and I had gotten along well enough. Still, I do not put my gun down.
“Two Braids sent me to tell you he’d like to buy his 38-40 back from you.”
“So he could shoot me with it?”
“It dont hafta be that way.” Texas John drawled out as he got off his horse. “Two Braids just loved that gun. He’d like his Colt 44 back too.”
“Ronald’s keeping that. And I don’t think Two Braids wants to deal with him, cause Ronald’s still in Vietnam you know. He loves hunting — animals — people — it don’t matter. Ronald’s got something else Two Braids don’t got either. A lot of US army training and field experience.”
“Look” Tex shouts back. “It ain’t like I’m a friend of Two Braids. Or that anyone else is either. Two Braids gave me some money and gear so I’d come here and tell you this. This time I’m just the messenger.”
I put my Beretta back in my pocket and Tex and I sit down and smoke a joint. We both want it and it feels good to be relaxing for once. I give Texas John maybe a quarter ounce of good smoke for later. Up in the mountains, all isolated, a man can really appreciate that.
“It’s like this, Tex. I gave those girls money to get to where they was going. I went through a lot of shit dealing with the mess Two Braids made. Two Braids did this to me in my own home. I deserve something. You tell this to Two Braids. We can meet at some safe place and fight it out mano a mano, no weapons. He can bring a backup. Ronald’ll be mine. If Two Braids wins, he gets the 38-40 back. But if I win, I get to cut off his braids and wear them on my war bonnet.”
Texas John broke his deep inhale with a smoky cough that turned into laughter. His smile showed his broken and missing teeth. He sat there shaking his head. And this was from a guy who never showed much feeling at all. Real slow he said “I sort of like those terms. I might like to watch this one myself. Y’all could sell tickets.” He got up and went to his horse. “I’ll tell him what you said — and thanks for the smoke.” With our goofy, smiling faces, we didn’t feel like violent men right then.
I never saw Two Braids again. I wrote a letter to the girls and the mother telling them not to send money because I had confiscated guns from Two Braids. Those guns were worth more than a hundred dollars. They answered my letter and thanked me for whatever help I did for them. Later, rumor in the valley had it that Two Braids went up to Montana to rob there.
I returned to the valley 20 years later and I spoke with a long-time resident named Maya. She told me that Two Braids did return once briefly. While he was back, he gave her teen-aged son a terrible beating. Maya cryptically stated that she wished that I would have ‘solved’ the Two Braids problem once and for all.
I lost all contact with Ronald. I have tried to find him, but without success. I heard he and Rosa later had two children, and then divorced. He moved to Las Vegas, then returned to his home of New Jersey. But all of our mutual friends have since passed away. I feel sadness at the thought of time gone by and never having seen such a good friend Ronald again.
In the fall of 1971 I drove back to Indiana from New Mexico to visit my parents. Before I left, I also bought a Winchester 25-20 at a pawn shop for a good price. It looked just like the 38-40, except it shot a much smaller bullet. I was not sure at the time if I was wanted by the police or not, so I had to be careful coming home. But I sure wanted to see my family. This time I came in through the back door with relatively short hair. That was much easier on my parents. I had some polished lies in place so that they did not know the true nature of my life.
After we talked a bit, I said, “Hey dad, I got something for you.”
I went out to my truck and brought in the two Winchesters and laid them on the kitchen table. My dad and my brothers gathered around and looked at them like diamonds. Only a family of hunters could appreciate guns like that. My dad fondled the guns like a mother would her new-born baby.
After a long inspection, my dad looked up from the table and said “These are some hell of a guns, son. Thank you.” That was maybe the first, last and only time my dad ever said ‘thank you’ to me. So I know he meant it. Any other time, he said that whatever good deeds I did were simply expected from me in the first place.
I think the guns were the third best gifts I ever gave to my dad. And what were the other two? Handing to my father his newly born grandson, and dedicating a book to him.
I don’t know what ever happened to the 25-20. My brother Kenny said that dad traded it away for another gun. That surprised me. I wouldn’t expect him to do that. After dad died, Kenny stored the 38-40. When Kenny died, his son Greg inherited it. When I told Greg the abbreviated history of the 38-40, Greg immediately gave it to me. What a gentlemanly thing for my nephew Greg to do.
And son, this is the insane story behind the 38-40 I am giving you. May both of them stay with you a long time.