The best summer of my life was 1963 when I rode for the Ehrlecher spread in Jeff Davis County, Texas. They had about 30,000 acres and a couple of thousand head of mixed beef cattle that had to be counted, vaccinated and treated for screw-worms. I was trying to make a hand and they let me ride, paying me $50 a week and all I could eat. They set me up with 4 horses; I had to bring my own hotroll.
We had an old Airstream trailer where we slept, out in the middle of nowhere, too far from town to make it worth riding or driving in. The cook had a tent and a wagon where meals were prepared. After a long day in the saddle we'd wash off in the stock tank, have supper, and then entertain one another with stories--some of them were even true.
There was one story told by another hand, Sixto (his last name I don't recall) that he swore was true. I must’ve heard him tell it at least a half-dozen times that summer and it was always the same. Some of the other cowhands scoffed, but he swore it was true.
I've taken the liberty of putting it in first person, the way I heard it from Sixto, and I think I've got most of it right as to dialogue. I know the facts are just as he told them back then. Once in a while I've added a comment in [ ] to explain something a little better that he didn't originally tell, since we all knew back then what he was talking about.
It was in '53 when I was working for the sheriff's department down in Presidio. I was a new deputy in the department, and Sheriff Race was my boss. [Race Harland, known as "Sheriff Race" to most of the people in the county] I had night duty, and that meant I just drove around to see if there was trouble out on the roads. Kids would buy cheap wine or tequila over in “the O’ [Ojinaga, a Mexican town just across the border from Presidio] and raise hell in their daddy's car. Sometimes there'd be some bad wrecks, but usually just a car with drunk kids that run through a fence.
One particular Friday night in late October I was over on 67 [state highway 67, between Presidio and Marfa] when I saw this old yellow school bus chugging down the grade from Marfa. I pulled up alongside and saw a bunch of kids in the bus and they looked like football players because I could see some standing and talking with football jerseys on. The bus had "Shafter ISD" painted on the side. Like I said, it was an old-looking bus. I followed it for a while, mostly because I had nothing else to do but then I wondered if it was going to make it up the next hill. After a while I passed and waved at the driver and went on towards town.
A few days later I was in Shafter and stopped at a gas station for coffee and to stretch my legs. Just making conversation I asked the kid at the station about the high school football team, if they were having a good season. He shrugged and said "They used to have a six-man team here but not in a few years, I don't think." That puzzled me but not much since that old school bus could have been sold to another district and never painted so it could have been some other team I saw. But after I finished my coffee I went over to the school just to see, since I was curious and being curious is part of a deputy's job.
I walked around but didn't see any school bus even though classes were going on. The whole school didn't have more than about 80 students, brought in from the ranches and a few who lived right there in Shafter. After a while I saw an old guy painting and stopped to kill some time with him and just be known around town. When I asked him about the football team he said "Who told you there was any football team here?" I told him I'd seen the team on the bus just a couple of weekends before. He stopped painting and gave me a real funny look. "Deputy, we ain't had no team here in years, ever since the accident." About that time I felt this kind of chill run up my back.
He told me back in 1948 there was a six-man high school team that played some of the other little schools around, like Marathon and Fort Davis and Valentine, but that was the last year. He told me about the accident.
The Shafter team was returning home from a game in the school bus, getting close to home out on 67. The best anyone figures they topped a hill and began the downgrade, but something must have happened to the brakes or the steering because at the big curve right where 67 crossed Cibola Creek at the edge of town the bus went off the road and down a drop off into the dry creek bed. Every one of them was killed.
Sixto went on about checking the accident records in the Sheriff's office and he found the accident report, but he never told anyone who worked there what he'd seen because he feared losing his job or at least being laughed at. Only after he quit the department and started cowboying again did he feel he could talk about his experience, and then only to men he trusted not to call him a liar or a lunatic. After hearing his story and seeing the look in his eyes as he told it, I couldn’t call him either one.