IT WARMS THE Charles Bronson in us, doesn't it? Raw justice -- quick, clean and ruthless. Only the noose is missing. West Texas along the Rio Grande, where two wrongs still make a right. We could use some of that in the city, eh? Except they'd be on it like a blanket -- crowing about the guy's civil rights and blah, blah, blah. Somebody'd call it terrorism. The whole thing'd be blown outta sight -- and the three rifle-toting Lone Rangers who dragged the guy to justice in Texas would be villains overnight. For the vigilante in us, though, there's still the border -- mile after mile after mile of rock, sand, mesquite, cactus and critters. It's 125 miles to the Safeway.

"Listen," says John Hemphill, a West Texas assistant DA who lived in Washington for 13 years before returning home, "It's another world down there. Violence is an everyday part of their lives, especially on the Mexican side."

So people above and below the Rio Grande aren't hopped up that Refugio Gardea Gonzalez was busted out of the Ojinaga (that's O-he-na-ga), Mexico, jail in his underwear, punched a few times and hustled across the border, or that he came to be hogtied and left for a Texas sheriff at a roadside park. Oh, a few carpers wonder why the Midnight Extraditers didn't put a bullet through Gonzalez's head and leave him for coyote meat in the boundless Chihuahuan Desert. But that's not really a civil rights issue, is it?

The border is mum on El Incidente Gonzalez and he and his lawyer will be pretty much alone in court this Friday. Although the Justice Department is reviewing the case, Mexico hasn't complained about the breakout. The Brewster County, Texas, sheriff says he isn't investigating. Ditto the DA. He's not looking a gift horse in the mouth: Gonzalez -- a "wet" Mexican working illegally in Texas -- is charged with sexual assault, kidnaping, burglary and robbery. He's facing 5-to-life. He says he's innocent.

The sides seem drawn neatly enough. Yet a steady disbelief is healthy on the border, where an outsider nosing around is like Jack Nicholson nosing around in "Chinatown" -- nothing is ever as it seems. Gonzalez is the thread of a story that turns out to be not about a jailbreak in Mexico, but a weird travelogue of the Tex-Mex border in the last days of the lawless West.

The border is wetbacks, drug smugglers, hard-scrabblers, ranchers, and, oddly enough, tourism peddlers. On the border, fact, rumor and legend mingle in a harsh, stupefying moonscape reality where, after a while, the differences seem not to matter. On the border, a lot of implausible things seem plausible.

The Brewster County sheriff chuckles because some people think he might have been in on the jailbreak and are congratulating him for it. He says he wasn't. Border scuttlebutt from people who really have no reason to know says Ojinaga's reputed underworld boss, Pablo Acosta, was in on the jailbreak, but he denies it. And the name of one man comes up again and again, a tough, smart cowboy who's already a West Texas legend. He vaguely fits the description Mexican jail guards gave of an American who, with two Hispanics, broke Gonzalez out of jail. But the tough West Texas legend couldn't be reached. No doubt, he'd deny it too.

"This is just people on both sides of the river tryin' to get along with each other . . . ," says Billy Pat McKinney, a trim, tanned and spectacularly wrinkled West Texas constable whose badge bulges inside the chest pocket of his opal-button cowboy shirt. "I could tell you how this kind of thing comes about but I won't, because I don't want you messin' with it any more than the government . . . Mexico has its own ways of doin' things. Mordida -- it means 'the bite' -- is a way of life in Mexico . . . Yeah, somebody got paid off . . . You can get the FBI in here all you want, and they're just like you. They're not gonna find out anything.

"They never will."

L ET'S START at the beginning, in Alpine, Tex., with 5,465 people, the biggest town in Brewster County, located about 125 miles from the border. It's home to the office of County Sheriff George Jones, who looks a little soft for a Texas lawman, the weight of his 56 years having started the inexorable shift downward. But he still looks real western in his khaki police suit, cowboy boots and cowboy hat, although the hat does leave a silly-looking sweat ring.

"I'm just a Texas sheriff trying to do his job," Jones says in a friendly drawl punctuated with obscenities. "And, hey, it's a cesspool."

Sheriff Jones says the publicity on this case has gotten way out of hand, and he won't let Gonzalez be interviewed. Hey, it's his jail. Jones says he got an anonymous phone call about 8 one cold night in January and was told a naked man was running around a picnic area about 20 miles outside of town. Jones figured it was a prank. When he got to the park, though, Jones found the 22-year-old Gonzalez tied up, blindfolded -- and alone. The first words out of Gonzalez's mouth, Jones says, were "Mafiosa! Mafiosa!"

"There's probably people who think I had something to do with it," he says. "Hell, I'm a political animal, an elected official, and that's enticing to me. But it offends me as a professional . . . They think I did it. I had a woman in the restaurant hug my neck and say, 'Sheriff, I love you.' It's like the old joke about the guy who sees his mother-in-law drive over the cliff in his new Buick: He had mixed emotions . . . I don't know if the Mafia did it, if bounty hunters did it or if the government did it."

But Jones says he didn't do it -- though he's still glad to have Gonzalez back: The man is charged with a heinous crime -- his victim, a civic leader in Terlingua, Tex., was allegedly held prisoner overnight in her home at knife point and raped repeatedly. But efforts to get Gonzalez extradited after he entered Mexico went bust because Mexican law allowed him to be tried in Mexico for the alleged crime in Texas. Texans gave a mean laugh to that -- figuring some Mexican official was just waiting for a fat bribe.

But that's another story, or is it? The big question, Jones says, is really the crashing Mexican economy that has sent hordes of illegal aliens pouring across the mostly unpatrolled border in the last year. Crimes along Brewster's 165-mile border have skyrocketed, Jones says, because a new kind of wetback is fording the river -- guys with uncallused hands, satin disco shirts and Cuban heels, toughs from Mexico's hemorrhaging cities.

"They take anything not nailed down," Jones says of the nouveaux wets. "Radios, alarm clocks, guns. Anything they can sell." So despite Gonzalez's extralegal kidnaping, Jones says, his capture sends the right message to Mexicans: Don't mess with Brewster County, or they'll toss your butt in jail -- even if they have to drag you back.

Yet even wild and scenic West Texas does have the species known as The Defense Attorney, and just down the street from Jones' old brick jail house is the office of Kenneth DeHart, where the plot thickens. DeHart has an eccentric shock of sandy hair and a quirky persona that's tamed by the only East Coast standard-issue John T. Molloy suit and tie west of the Pecos.

"I'm on a crash course to get these guys prosecuted," he says of Gonzalez's abductors. "My client is in this country to be tried, and my feeling is the law doesn't just apply to him but to the guys who brought him back." DeHart's defense of Gonzalez will be ageless rape-case stuff: He and the alleged victim had consensual sex and she later charged rape. But that's a separate case from the jailbreak, says DeHart, because even if convicted Gonzalez could sue his abductors for civil rights violations. It's DeHart's suspicion that American authorities were somehow in on the jailbreak.

"Nothing would surprise me in this case," DeHart says. "It is a very isolated area of the United States and Mexico, and these people have to get along. To them the river is just a stream."

T HE DRIVE to the border from civilized Alpine -- with a Dairy Queen, nightclub and Mary Kay Cosmetics bumper stickers -- is a kind of primal deep breath. The tree-branch fence posts run along two lanes for 10, 20, 50, 100 miles, no relief. For miles and miles there are no cars or people, just a roadrunner, leaning ahead of itself like Carl Lewis, dashing across the road in 95-degree sun with a lizard in its mouth. The dreamy black to red to mauve plateaus and mountains rise in misty terraces amid desert scrub and bony mesquite sculptures softened only by a rare bird's nest against a sky so far away and so blue it looks unreal, like a painted dome. Once in a while cattle water at a solitary windmill, or a mule deer, with the body of a white-tailed deer and the ears of a burro, is dead by the road.

It's called Big Bend country, after the sharp curve in the Rio Grande that gives Texas its little toe. The astronauts trained for their moon walks in Big Bend, where the terrain hasn't changed in 75 million years. It's called the Badlands, deservedly. Judge Roy Bean held court nearby and Pancho Villa's bandits raided Big Bend. "Rawhide" was the story of a legendary Big Bend rancher. Big Bend, says local folklore, is where Libyan hit men were expected to enter the states.

Not much quaint about the place. No picturesque adobe huts, mostly shacks and trailers. The electric from Alpine can go down for days. Wells can go 800 feet. There's one person for every 10 square miles, a few hundred people crowded onto 3,000 square miles. "This country's big and it's hard and it'll get ya," Sheriff Jones had said, seeming like a westerner tweaking an easterner. In Big Bend, you see what he means.

Stop the car, get out and imagine what you'd do if you were in trouble. Sheriff Jones is two hours away, and Lord knows where you'd find a phone. Browbeating, the weapon of choice in Washington, wouldn't cut a snake's stomach here. You think your lawyer could call his lawyer? You're on your own, buckeroo. Just like the owls, coyotes, six-foot rattlers as thick as your calf, foxes and wolves, javelina pigs and mountain lions that will soon join you when the desert goes dark and cold.

It's a scary place. But isn't that what we want back East from the last toehold of America's lawless West? Isn't that why we're here? So that after 200 years of walking on pavement we can still fill up with the seductive, brutal and stupid idea that justice is self-evident and that civilization, complexity, compassion and law have destroyed our simple, God-given judiciousness? West Texas is supposed to be us untainted, before the sprawl. West Texas, still hard, is supposed to prove that the frontier still lives in the American spirit. Then comes Lajitas, Tex., a ticky-tacky tourist town that blows the reverie.

The first clue is the Saab parked near the Terlingua Trading Post, where not only tony western art is for sale, but a young woman from Kansas City in a flowered shirt, puffy pants, jogging shoes and lime socks is selling it. She's not alone -- they've dropped out and in from everywhere: New Jersey, Chicago, West Virginia. Immigrants from a Michelob ad rather than a Tex O'Reilly tale. It makes you sick to your idealizing stomach: The Gentrification of the Old West.

Yet this is prelude: Enter Lajitas -- call it New Lajitas, nesting on the very bank of the Rio Grande, where police say Gonzalez crossed the river to Mexico after the alleged attack. A decade ago Lajitas consisted of the Lajitas Trading Post, one of the border's oldest buildings. Then came Walter Mischer, a Houston money man. Today, New Lajitas is a toy cowboy town with a hotel (yes, the Badlands Hotel), a restaurant and a tavern, complete with Rubenesque nude. Naturally, there's a boutique and art gallery, a golf course and condos. Bald men and blue-haired wives abound -- and rugged border Texas is reduced to this self-actualizing blather: "Lajitas -- The Big Bend Experience." Or Pecos Bill goes Rolfing.

People here won't talk much about the Gonzalez breakout -- not out of respect for frontier justice, but respect for money: "A lot of businessmen are afraid the bad publicity will hurt tourism," says Ann Carr, who helps run the Terlingua ambulance service. "The influx is getting more and more each year. They have dollar signs in their eyes." Lajitas lost four -- count 'em, four -- bus tours after this Gonzalez bust. So folks want the lid clamped.

"The main business here is tourism," says Gil Felts, who owns Big Bend Travel Park, "and you don't want to scare 'em off with a bandito rapist under every bush."

And for all the fear of invading aliens, not everyone wants more law either. Mexicans from nearby Paso Lajitas and San Carlos work in Lajitas and Terlingua. People don't want that threatened by, shall we say, an overreaction to El Incidente Gonzalez.

"I would like to see a border patrol station here," says Ann Carr. "But it depends on who you talk to. People who work wets don't want a station."

T HE MEXICANS call the beautiful woman who lives alone in the Chihuahuan Desert "La Gringa Guera" -- the blond American. Mimi Webb-Miller is the niece of John Tower, the former Texas senator, a debutante from Wichita Falls, Tex., a one-time art dealer. With a gaggle of muckety-mucks she came to Big Bend nine years ago to dedicate this or that, and she never left. The border thrilled this debutante: The undertow of human and natural danger, the exotic mingling of cultures, the meaninglessness of class and status, the appeal of strong, lawless men. But this intrigued her most: If there was a place where right and wrong weren't self-evident, it was the border. So from filling corporate offices with numbered prints, Mimi began running horseback tours into the desert and logistics for movies shot in Big Bend. And she went native, moving 11 miles into Mexico onto 3,000 acres of Chihuahuan Desert scrub.

"I'm the only American on the other side," she says proudly, "and I live in this strange world." Mimi runs tourists across the river into the tiny Mexican village of San Carlos, where Gonzalez also was temporarily jailed after his arrest by Mexican authorities. On the chance that officials there might know something about the breakout, she guides the way to San Carlos. The border, Mimi says, is understandable, but only if you move at the border's pace in the border's way. On the road to San Carlos, you have no other choice.

Mimi's ailing '76 Chevy pickup dives off the American bank into the Rio Grande and onto a flagstone shelf beneath two feet of water. The truck navigates 150 feet of river and bounces up a narrow draw to emerge in Mexico, where a peasant in a sombrero is riding a burro along the one-lane dirt path to San Carlos -- a 14-mile, two-hour drive away.

Refugio Gonzalez was captured on this road last October, just after the alleged attack in Texas. A Texas deputy in pursuit contacted Paso Lajitas, Mexico, constable Jose' Rodriguez (also the rowboat ferry operator), and together they nabbed Gonzalez at La Manga, a geological oddity where the white-dirt San Carlos road turns red briefly.

Jose' got nervous about releasing Gonzalez to the Texas law, though, and wanted higher-up approval from officials in the nearby city of Ojinaga. So Gonzalez -- handcuffed to a truck mirror -- was held on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande all day. The border Texans were dumbfounded. The alleged victim was pretty and popular -- and nobody figured she'd volunteered to spend the night with a wetback. The phones buzzed: Let's take up a collection and pay off the Mexicans now. Let's get our guns and go get him. Why doesn't Jones just grab him? When Mexican officials announced that Gonzalez would stand trial in Mexico, the Texans went berserk.

Right now, though, it's pretty hard to concentrate on Gonzalez, with your knees crashing into the dash, your head into the roof, as Mimi's truck lurches and bounds from boulder to gulley to crater, the steering wheel spinning half-revolutions through her hands. It's as close to a Ram Tough Dodge truck commercial as you'll ever get. But Mimi's as calm as the morning's high-pressure zone.

"I'm open about the Mexican Mafia," she says blithely of the rumors that the Mexican underworld helped in Gonzalez's jailbreak. The Mafia story -- in line with Sheriff Jones' report that "Mafiosa! Mafiosa!" were Gonzalez's first words -- is that the Mexican Mafia in some unknown way greased the Gonzalez jailbreak, which wouldn't surprise Mimi. She says the Mexican Mafia -- common Mexican shorthand for that country's indigenous organized crime operations, mostly drug-running to the U.S. -- counts in matters large and small.

The Mafia, Mimi says, built the little chapel for peasant travelers on her ranch. When a Mexican man harassed Mimi recently, a Mafia man got a local comandante to get the guy off her back. When the cattle of two American widows were stolen and run into Mexico recently, the Mexican police sent searchers to a Mafia man. The cattle were returned.

"The Mafia is very concerned about tourism," Mimi says, seriously.

It's quite possible, she speculates, that Mafia men -- with wives and daughters of their own to protect -- believed that Gonzalez should go back to Texas for trial, so they helped in the break. It's a Robin Hood tale, and nobody spins it better than Mimi. But she, too, has money in mind: "A friend in New York wants to do a Mafia bandito movie, and this breakout is perfect."

The Mafia also has money at stake: Along this stretch of open border, U.S. law enforcement sources say, nighttime truckloads of marijuana regularly rumble along the sleepy San Carlos road headed for markets in the states.

Pulling off the road at Mimi's house is a break for the internal organs. She brings her horseback vacationers here, where they sleep in a real bunkhouse and even help feed the horses, cattle, ducks, cats, dogs and fighting cocks, which are raised by a Mexican boyfriend. The landscape is by Georgia O'Keeffe, and Mimi's house, neatly decorated with modern art, Mexican straw sculptures, Indian masks and old saddlebags, is almost SoHo sophisticated. There's a 42-foot waterfall in the back yard. The swimming pool, which Mimi says Mexican stonemasons built for $600 while they were hiding out from their jobs in Terlingua as the Border Patrol swept town, is downright decadent. But there's no electricity, only kerosene. Nights out consist of driving up a mountain, clamping a portable TV to the truck battery and watching Mexican pro boxing. City people, however, pay $90 to $125 a day for this. Mimi doesn't get rich, but a good year sees $8,000.

Finally in San Carlos, the red flag is out at Manuel Galindo's store, meaning he has meat today. The town, a collection of dust-gray, one-story buildings on dirt roads, has maybe 2,000 people. It's the biggest town for miles. Village magistrate Oscar Escontrias, who with Jose' stopped Gonzalez from being bundled off to Texas, sits barefooted in his kitchen. Despite credentials, he's sure we're FBI. Like everyone, he seems not to care about Gonzalez.

"People feel he had done bad and that he should be punished," Escontrias says, as Mimi interprets. "It was a very quiet thing. Nobody was hurt. We are not mad about it." Righteous indignation isn't easily contracted on this side of the border either. And for the same reason -- money: About 50 to 75 people in San Carlos work across the border, making San Carlos heavily dependent on wetback jobs. So who wants trouble? Let the Texans have Gonzalez.

On the ride back, Mimi's truck dies about seven miles outside Lajitas. Three neighbor girls she had picked up on the way to Lajitas hop out to walk. One is 3 years old. It's 100 degrees. We scrape the battery cables, hammer the starter, push the Chevy and pop the clutch. Then we wait, amid unrelieved desert.

Three San Carlos men on their way to work in Texas finally pass, and for $20 they'll give us a ride. For $20 more they'll come back for the truck. They want Mimi to ride in the cab, as Mexican women are expected to do, but she refuses and hops in the rear. A few miles later, we pick up the girls. In Paso Lajitas people wave and laugh, knowing that Mimi's truck is once again dead in the desert. We walk to the Rio Grande, and for a dollar Jose' rows us home.

"You learn to live differently here," Mimi says. People eke out a living as they can, legal or not. And myths aside, telling the white hats from the black in the Wild West is no easier than in New York.

Remember the young man you met last night, Mimi asks, the man known for his hard work and decency? Well, he's also a drug-runner. There is Spanish-English border slang, Mimi says, that captures the border's live-and-let-live attitude: "Chansa si', chansa no" -- maybe yes, maybe no. It's always followed by a shrug.

"It's a system," says Mimi. "And it's not going to change."

T HE FULL MOON is king in a sky of stars tonight, and it recalls this story: A father from L.A. was awakened by his screaming son their first night camping in the desert. The boy had poked his head outside the tent and seen so many more stars than were visible back home that he had cried out in terror. In the city, that's a sad story. But the wets shooting pool at the Lajitas Trading Post would trade the stars -- and Refugio Gonzalez -- for that boy's plight.

"We don't have nothing over there," says a young wetback. He holds a Mexican university degree, he says, but earns many times his white-collar Mexican income working the Lajitas golf course at $20 a day. He wears a Tour de France T-shirt. His GMC four-wheeler sits nearby. He points to the dozen men, ages 16 to 60, drinking Coors and playing pool outside under an awning and a Stroh's lamp in a swarm of mosquitoes.

"We want no problems with police or American people," he says. "We have no bar, no work, no nothing over there. We have no schools over there! Can you believe that? We are persons, we are people and we need the money to live. We are illegals on the frontier. We don't need problems. Gonzalez makes problems."

No doubt, Refugio Gonzalez is a man suffering for allies.

O KAY, THERE'S one way to unravel this Robin Hood Mafiosa stuff about how the Mexican underworld helped break Gonzalez out of jail, and that's to go to Ojinaga and find Pablo Acosta, the reputed organized-crime boss. Someone who knows someone who knows someone is contacted, and at dusk the next day in Ojinaga, a one-story town of 40,000 people, we go to the walkie-talkie base, located next door to an Ojinaga comandante's office, and ring up Acosta. No answer. So we "dar la vuelta," or "make the turn" -- cruise, an underworld pastime in Ojinaga.

This is no tourist trap, but an old-fashioned border town hundreds of miles from anywhere. But Acosta, in his late forties, is a man U.S. drug agents would love to meet north of the border: He's wanted on a 1976 Drug Enforcement Administration fugitive warrant for possession with intent to distrubute heroin, says a DEA spokesman.

" 'The Pablo Acosta organization is believed to be responsible for a lot of the narcotics coming into Texas from Mexico . . . ,' " says Phillip E. Jordan, special agent in charge of the Dallas DEA office, quoting from a special November 1985 DEA report on Acosta's organization. " 'He is a vicious and extremely dangerous person . . . The Acosta organization is also reported to be a major receiver of stolen weapons that are traded for narcotics . . . He is linked to the infamous Rafael Caro Quintero.' " Caro Quintero is a reputed Mexican drug trafficker charged with the 1985 kidnaping and murder of Guadalajara, Mexico, DEA agent Enrique Camarena Salazar.

Acosta isn't exactly coy about his reputation. He recently gave author Alan Weisman a taped interview for an upcoming book on the border, La Frontera. He posed for a picture in front of a shot-up Ford Bronco that Acosta was riding in during an attempt on his life. "In Ojinaga," says Weisman, "there is no doubt he is the Mafia."

My Ojinaga contact takes the Robin Hood view of Acosta. I hear of Acosta's love for his family, about how hard life is in Mexico, about honor among thieves. At street corners, my contact jumps out of the car to tell klatches of milling men we are looking for Acosta. They nod and glance around at me in the little Plymouth Horizon. We go by Acosta's house, but he's not home. "Sometimes he gets just so busy," my contact says. "It's just one interruption after another." We drive by the shot-up Ford Bronco. Finally, we are dispatched to wait at the walkie-talkie base.

It's one of those times fear helps you remember clearly. The dust envelops Ojinaga like a choking fog. As night falls, the refracting sunlight is replaced by the refracting headlights of old cars and trucks, always Fords and Chevys. We park outside the dirty white building and wait in the car. A street lamp on the corner showers the skeleton of a chinaberry tree that will soon be thick as an umbrella with springtime leaves. Three Mexican men, one wearing a cowboy hat, sit talking on the doorstep 10 feet away. A dog and two empty Coke bottles are on the ground before them. The crickets are deafening. A Ford truck passes with a burned-out taillight. Across the street a man sits in a beat-up Chevy Impala.

Acosta finally arrives in (what else?) a Ford pickup, an F150 with fog lights, roll bar and headers. He talks to the man in the Impala. Finally, he pulls next to us and my contact goes to his window. They talk for 10 minutes as Acosta's walkie-talkie cackles in the background. He will not talk to me. He's tired and he has been drinking tequila. But Acosta says this: He had nothing to do with the breakout!

For the final twist, he says, "I heard four gringos did it."

L EAVING the border the next day, I make one more swing past the home of the tough West Texas legend. He's not home. But down the road a few miles, Bob Dillard, the editor of The Alpine Avalanche, passes in his truck and we turn around to talk. Dillard's a robust 40, about 6 feet 4. He wears jeans and a flannel shirt. He often sucks a toothpick. He, too, is headed for the home of the tough West Texas legend.

"You think you know who did it, don't you?" I ask.

Dillard nods and smiles. No proof, though, only gossip. But it's gonna be the seed of another West Texas legend -- a Judge Roy Bean or "Rawhide."

Maybe, but it seems as much like the last days of the lawless West as it does their reprise. With busloads of blue-hairs today, can Dove Bars be far behind? Big Bend isn't the frontier anymore: It's badlands gone gladlands. Like Butch Cassidy and Sundance, where's an outlaw to hide?

Dillard still figures nobody'll ever get to the bottom of El Incidente Gonzalez. But he knows the tough West Texas legend, and when he sees him he's gonna ask outright if he did it. Dillard says he'll know by the smile on his face.

Maybe.

Chance si', chance no.