Along about the middle of the hearing in Room 1302 of the Longworth Building, Mark Smith reached under the witness table and slung out his saddle.
It weighs about 60 pounds and so it hit the table pretty hard. The saddle horn had a bullet hole in it.
"On Tuesday, the 23rd of February, while on horseback river patrol, I heard a shot fired," Smith explained in the style of a formal report. He is a cowboy, but he is also a GS-7. "When my horse jumped all of a sudden, I decided to leave that area immediately. Upon later inspection, we saw that a slug had struck the saddle horn, and been deflected down. Returning to the place of the incident, we found a number of inner tubes in the river, evidence that there had been a crossing by illegal aliens about that time."
Rep. George E. Brown Jr. (D-Calif.), chairman of the agriculture department operations subcommittee, nodded. Smith is a government cowboy, one of 90 cattle inspectors better known along the Rio Grande as "tick riders." He and his partners are petitioning Congress for authorization to bear sidearms in their work.
"Mark's own uncle was murdered in his bed, and the case is still unsolved," added Tom Deats, who was sitting next to Smith at the witness table.
Also there was Ed Bowers, a big fellow with cropped gray hair who testified to having been "personally assaulted by gunfire during the performance of my duties."
It was estimated at the hearing that it might cost as much as $150,000 to outfit the tick riders with handguns and set up a training program in their use. But Chairman Brown observed that the men in reality had long ago armed themselves. "What you're really saying is that what you want is for us to make it official."
"Yes, sir, you're pretty sharp, all right," Deats said. "Most of us grew up along the Rio Grande, and we've been using guns since we were kids. It's not a matter of having to train these men or any of that malarkey. Why, if we weren't cowboying for the government, we'd probably be doing it for free. Isn't a man in my outfit wants to do anything else."
No Man's Land
It didn't take too long after the hearing was over before Mark Smith got himself a Budweiser. This was at the National Democratic Club. The three tick riders had paid their own way to Washington to give their testimony, and now they were giving it some more.
"It was Aug. 23, 1976, when my uncle, Bob Sample, was murdered," Smith said. "To this day, nobody knows why."
"He had probably seen some smugglers and they thought he'd turn them in," said Deats.
"I guess that's right," said Smith.
"It's a regular no man's land out there," said Deats.
"Now don't call it a no man's land," Ed Bowers said. "You make it sound uncivilized." Deats and Smith looked over at Bowers, who is 6 feet 3 inches tall even when he is sitting down.
"It is a no man's land," Deats repeated.
What a tick rider does is to patrol the United States border with Mexico, the wild, desolate country that parallels the Rio Grande. They go out alone, on horseback, in jeans and chaps and leggings and boots, with a lariat and an unauthorized 30-30 on their saddles. They are looking for stray cattle, or animals in transport, to inspect for cattle ticks (Boophilus annulatus), which carry cattle tick fever (bovine pirolasmosis). They can stop any animal for search without a warrant, but tick inspectors are not authorized to arrest human beings.
They have to contend with crumbling river banks, quicksand, rattlesnakes, mountain lions, rabid coyotes, flash floods and wild livestock, but the real danger is the people they are likely to meet up with on the border nowadays.
"Dope dealers, importers of illegal aliens, cattle rustlers, racehorse smugglers and a whole lot of very desperate people," Deats explained. "They don't care if you're a tick rider or a border patrol or a Customs man or somebody from the Drug Enforcement Administration. They see you as the Authorities.
"You'll come upon a group of aliens who have paid $300 each to cross the border," he went on, "and they wouldn't think anything of shooting at a tick rider. The expression is, 'If there's trouble, just float 'em.' That means they shoot you and you fall into the river and float down to Laredo and wash up there. With these dope dealers and wetbacks, we need authorized firearms for our own protection."
"Nobody's saying anything bad about the Mexican people," Bowers said. "The Mexican people are lovely. Illegal aliens are the problem. That is what you're supposed to call them, instead of wetbacks."
"Wets is what you call them, though," Deats said.
Deats is the president of Local 3106 of the American Federation of Government Employees, so he is a little wised up and always ready to make a point. Bowers, being a little older, displays a Montaigne-like evenness of disposition (he drives his pickup truck so slowly and carefully it drives both Deats and Smith nuts, they report). Smith had come along because his was the saddle with the hole in it, but he was finding Washington kind of strange. Like his partners, he wore a western-cut suit, boots and Stetson. But many of the people he saw did not seem to fit in very well. "You've got a regular uniform up here," he said. "Pin-striped suits, tan trench coat, one of those leather briefcases."
"Do you think it was all right, in the hearing, when I told the chairman he was pretty sharp?" Deats wondered.
"Yes, it was all right to do that," somebody said.
On annual salaries of about $17,500, they do a lot at their own expense. Each man maintains his own horse, tack and other gear. It is important to have a good horse, because when you lasso a steer the three of you get pretty intimate for a while, insofar as you are tied together with the rope.
"There's an old saying down in Star County," said Bowers. "When you're riding up on some Mexican stock and you don't know what to do, 'rope it and see what happens.' "
"One time I was riding this green colt," Deats said.
"You weren't riding no green colt," said Smith. "Tick riders have the finest horses in the world."
"Well, I roped this big old cow, and she started bucking, and I just hopped off and let the two animals fight it out."
"You hopped off?" Bowers said.
"No, I was thrown off," Deats said.
"You said you hopped off," Smith said. "What're you doing hopping off your horse?"
"I never hopped off," Deats said. "But you ever see a big red cow hoofing at you? You're riding a 700-pound horse and here comes a bull weighing 1,500 pounds. A man on a horse is nothing to a bull like that. They'll run right through you. Sometimes as soon as you get near them they go on the attack."
Bowers and Smith nodded.
The river riders carry no radios, and they ride alone. What would happen if a man broke his leg out there?
"Just mount up and ride for help," Bowers said, straight-faced.
"One of our guys was riding and the river bank collapsed under him," said Deats. "Horse fell about 15 feet and broke his neck and rolled on the man. Busted his pelvic bone, compound fracture. When a man is on patrol and he's overdue, somebody goes out to find what happened. This fellow had to wait 6 1/2 hours."
"Now one time," Bowers said, "I only sent in one tick sample for my quarterly report. They said, that's not enough ticks. So then I sent in four more. Where did they come from, they asked. One from a dog, one from a house cat, one from a coyote and one from a U.S. Customs inspector."
Deats and Smith thought this was pretty funny.
"It's not that glamorous a job," Deats explained. "It's cold in the winter and 115 in the summer, and you ride in the rain, too.
"Why, it is dangerous work, that's true," Deats said. "We got into this dry quicksand once, scared me to death." He looked at Smith. "Mark was riding ahead and I heard this sound, and when I came around the bend there was nothing to be seen except his hat. Just the top of his hat there on the trail. So I crawled over to the hat and dug down, and uncovered his head. You never know, the quicksand could be four feet deep or 30 feet deep.
"I got his head out, and dug down deeper and sure enough there was his horse, too, which he was still sitting on. So we dug out the horse, and I told Mark he was pretty lucky. 'Yeah,' he says, 'a lot luckier than that steer we was standing on.' "
Smith rolled his eyes.
The word in the House was that the tick riders would probably get authorization to carry sidearms. After hearing their stories, Rep. Brown is going to try to get them walkie-talkies, too.
Yesterday Deats, Bowers and Smith flew back to Texas. They will be out on patrol again on Monday, alone on horseback along the Rio Grande.