Jack Van Ryder drawing of Border Patrol station
Jack Van Ryder drawing of Border Patrol station

HIS brother officers on the U. S. Border Patrol called him The Parson. The Mexican and American smugglers along the Chihuahua border called him Veneno Chico, or Little Poison. Both names had their fitness, for they are highly characteristic of the man, but require explanation.

When the patrol was organized in 1924 The Parson was serving with the United States Customs along the Texas border. He had returned to that service from the World War where he had earned distinction for fearlessness. In uniform, worn regularly for a large part of his life, he was the most dapper of officers. Civilian clothing was strange to him and his way of wearing it, together with regular attendance at Sunday school and church services, had earned him the sobriquet of The Parson among the patrolmen. So much for that. That name neither irked nor amused him. The men who used it were his friends. Parson made allowances for friends.

But Little Poison -- well that was another matter.

During the early days in the life of the patrol there was plenty of work for this new arm of the government. The southern boundary of the United States, extending over long miles of desolate country, required steady watching if the influx of aliens and contraband was to be stopped. Night and day the men of the patrol traveled on horseback, by automobile or afoot, where that was necessary, to plug gaps in the international line. It was no easy detail.

It was at El Paso, always a difficult post, that The Parson was stationed. And between El Paso and Ciudad, Juarez operated several of the cleverest smuggling bands along the border.

One night just before midnight, in the tule patches along the banks of the Rio Grande, two men made their way carefully down a well-worn trail toward that smooth shallow stream which separates the United States and Mexico. The first of the pair was The Parson, silent and careful. The second was a young patrolman on his first difficult assignment. They were waiting for smugglers who were due at any moment.

The Parson shifted the short repeating shot-gun under his arm and waited for his companion to catch up.

"Now listen, Mac, this outfit will have a pack-train," he said. "As they come across the river they will probably have a couple of men ahead, then the mules, then a couple of men behind to keep them clotted up.

"You stay here. I'm going to drift down to the river and as they come over I'll be behind them.
When I halt them you back my play. Now be careful, don't take any unnecessary chances and don't shoot unless you have to. We want these cholos so they can talk. They're no use to us stiff."

The Parson moved off into the dark of the desert night. Mac looked about him, suddenly feeling lonesome and wishing that he had been taken along. No sound came from the direction of the river.
"Hell," he muttered to himself. "How do I know what he'll be doing down there. I can't see from this place."

Retracing his steps along the trail he sought a spot where he could see at least a short distance despite the darkness. The heavy hum of the mosquitoes in the tules and the sounds of small night prowlers were all that he could hear. So far as he was concerned The Parson might as well have been swallowed up by the night.

Down by the river bank, standing in deep shadow cast by a mesquite tree, The Parson waited. It was an old game to him this waiting. He slapped silently at the stinging mosquitoes and wished that the smugglers would hurry up and get it over with. The danger of the next hour never occurred to him or if it did he bothered little about it. It was part of the job.

Finally the sound of horses' hoofs and the murmur of voices came from the opposite bank of the river as the smugglers guided the pack-train down the trail to the crossing. The moonlight came through the clouds just as the first man reached the water.

This man showed in clear relief as, after the first few splashing steps his horse lowered its head to drink then came on, to be followed by another rider and another.

"Three of 'em ahead," mused the Parson. "That's more than I expected. I hope Mac don't get spooked and start shooting or something. If he does, some one's going to get hurt."

The little Spanish mules, each bearing its swaying pack, followed the horsemen into the river. There were seven of the mules and The Parson quickly estimated their load. If it were whiskey and wines it would be worth plenty. If tequila and mescal not so valuable but still quite a prize.

The Parson whistled silently to himself as he suddenly saw four more riders appear out of the shadow and enter the river, pushing the straggling mules into a bunch and heading them for the American side.
"Seven in all," muttered The Parson. "Gosh, what a picnic this is going to be."

Straightening up he slid his shot-gun forward a bit as he watched the smugglers approach the bank and, their horses slipping in the soft earth, scramble out onto the trail. All the men carried arms and looked capable of using them. The Parson hoped again that Mac would not get excited and start something. Seven men of this kind needed careful handling.

As the last man passed him The Parson silently stepped out into the trail and fell in line, unheard by the smugglers. Pacing noiselessly along until he came to the point where according to his plan the head of the cavalcade would be close to where he had left Mac, he suddenly called out:

"Alto, manos arriba!" (Halt, hands up!) then added in Spanish, "Do not move; you are covered."

From the four in front of him came a quick cry of surprise, then a scrambling sound as one rider dragged a rifle from its boot. The startled smuggler nearest The Parson hung the hooks into his mount even as his hands stretched above his head. The horse leaped forward jamming the mounts of the others into a hopeless tangle in the narrow trail. Cries of excited men and the sounds of struggling horses and mules broke the silence of the night.

Then from the tangled mass came the flash of a pistol. With the first report the battle was on.

Hardly had the first shot sounded than it was followed by the heavier blast of The Parson's shotgun and the quick crack of a rifle. The shot-gun boomed again and again. The Parson in the dim light of the trail had the advantage of position but he was badly outnumbered. He hoped that Mac would get into action soon; this was getting too tight for fun. From in front of the mules the voices of the three smugglers could be heard calling to their companions but not a sound from Mac.

The guns cracked again and the smugglers, realizing that only one man stood between them and the river, bunched and charged.

The spat of the pistols and rifles blended with the roar of the shot-gun as the quiet night was turned into bedlam. Almost as quickly as it had started the fracas was stilled except for the milling horses. Not a man had passed The Parson on the way back to the river.

The Parson stepped forward carefully to where the sound of a moan told him that one of the smugglers lay in the tules. He found the wounded man, disarmed him and moved on up the trail. Where the quickly quieted horses and mules were standing the Parson found two more smugglers one wounded, the other apparently unhurt but dazed by a fall from his horse which, frightened by the noise, had thrown him. The officer gathered up his prisoners, binding up the injured as best he could with the aid of the uninjured man. They offered no resistance and he was soon ready to move out.

But where was Mac!

Making his unwounded prisoner help him, The Parson moved the two wounded men and the pack-train to the end of the trail and then looked about for the car he had left there. It was gone. So was Mac.

In the meantime, sure that The Parson had been killed in the sharp battle in the tules, Mac had taken the car and dashed away to the patrol headquarters for help. He was confident no man could have lived in that mélée in the narrow trail. Seven men against one!

With two other inspectors he returned at top speed, expecting only to find The Parson's bullet-riddled  body.

What he did see was quite a different picture.

The Parson, still comparatively spick and span, was standing guard over the remains of the pack-train.

His loot consisted of seven mules and their loads, four horses --saddled -- and several rifles and pistols. In addition he had six smugglers, one unwounded, two wounded and three dead. One man had escaped in the tules and recrossed the river.

It was later at the patrol headquarters that The Parson got his second name. The unwounded smuggler, looking at the little man who had so utterly routed seven men, shook his head and said: "Válgame Dios! Veneno Chico."

And Little Poison he remained.

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