At day’s end, I settled into my comfort zone. The third position on the recliner gave me a good view of the knotty pine beams bracing my ceiling. The amber-glowing wood and the crackling sounds in the fireplace set my nostalgic wheels in motion. Soon my mind’s eye traveled to a place that I shall not soon forget.
I’d recently had the opportunity to travel deep into Mexico. My uncle, Don Jesus “Chuy” Sánchez, Welo Mencho’s grandson and hunting guru, had called and asked if I could join him to take care of a situation. One Saturday morning, over a hot cup of coffee, he explained his request. A long-time friend of his had called with an invitation. Don Bartolo del Castillo knew my uncle was an avid big-game hunter, and he’d called in hopes that my uncle would help him deal with a problem at his Mexican ranch. The story goes that, for a couple of years, El Rancho del Cerro was losing cattle. Don Bartolo, who runs the ranch, was not sure what was causing the damage. Over the previous two years they’d lost a good dozen animals to some strange phenomenon. This year his losses were climbing.
My uncle readily accepted Don Bartolo’s invitation and then called me to ask that I would go to Mexico with him and meet with Don Bartolo. He also asked that I take my hunting gear and see if we could help the ranch get rid of “El Diablo,” whatever it was.
On the first weekend of December, I flew out of Houston to San Luis Potosi, Mexico. When I arrived, I met my uncle Jesus and Rene, one of Don Bartolo’s men. He was a pleasant fellow with an eager-to-help attitude. A good handshake and a smile later we were like old friends catching up on lost times. He soon filled us in on what the locals were now referring to as the El Diablo situation.
We drove east out of San Luis and crossed two distinct and sparsely populated mountain ranges. The road traffic was light, but the narrow, winding road over the peaks had me white-knuckled and holding on for dear life. Three hours later, we arrived at El Rancho del Cerro, and met Don Bartolo. He was a tall, handsome hombre with a handlebar moustache and a Mexican “John Wayne” attitude. Still, he embraced us like we were kinfolk, welcoming us to his ranch and offering his hospitality with the sincere expression, “Mi casa es su casa.”
I was able to rest for the remainder of the day, using the time to unpack my gear and prepare my equipment. That evening we had dinner with Don Bartolo. As we sat around the table, he shared the tale of El Diablo.
“Two years ago,” he said, “my ranch hands found a young bull on one of the trails. It was not so unusual. Sometimes we have mountain lions or coyotes that corner and kill a calf. This was different. The animal had multiple stab wounds on its ribs and neck. When the men checked the carcass, they found the meat badly bruised.”
“Yes,” I acknowledged, “we were told you were having some type of killer on the loose. You lost several head of cattle last year.”
“Sí, and this year, too,” exclaimed Don Bartolo. “We have seen more deaths, and with the same type of wounds. Whatever is killing the herd is not eating any part of the animals. It seems to kill for the joy of killing, and that bothers me.”
“Do you have any idea as to what might be doing this to your cattle?” I asked.
“If we were dealing with rustlers or hungry poor people, I could understand, and maybe we could come to some type of arrangement. But this senseless killing is a waste of good breeding animals.”
“I understand,” I said. “It is a shame. That’s a terrible waste.”
“I have not seen anything myself,” volunteered Don Bartolo. “I will tell you that the old man who lives in the shack by the canyon has been telling stories. He saw something. Rene will take you there in the morning, and you can visit with him.”
True to Don Bartolo’s words, the following morning Rene drove me around the huge ranch. We saw plenty of draws, canyons and rock formations where a wily animal could definitely hide. At the far end of the ranch, we came to a small wooden shack.
“This is where Don Ramiro lives,” Rene said. “He is the old man that the boss wants you to talk to. Don Enrique, at the hacienda, says this old man saw something a while back. Most people say that he is not all there. They say he sees things. I don’t know. Perhaps he is telling the truth. We will see.”
“Buenos días, muchachos. ¿Que se les ofrece?” greeted the old timer. “Good morning, young men. What can I do for you?”
Rene took the lead and explained to Don Ramiro what we were after. The old man smiled.
“It has been almost two years and no one believes me. Now you come to ask for information from this old man.” He chuckled. “My mind is old, and in two years a person can forget. Now you suddenly believe, or you just come to make fun?”
“Excuse the intrusion, señor.” Rene pleaded. “Don Bartolo at the Rancho del Cerro has lost several head of cattle these past two years. He has asked us to conduct an investigation. He sent us to you, said you might have seen something. What did you see?”
“I will tell you,” said the old man. Pull up a tree stump and sit a while.”
We looked at each other and pulled up some mesquite stumps that appeared to lend themselves for just such an occasion. Soon the old man wiped his brow with a once white handkerchief, rolled a corn shuck tobacco, and began his tale.
“If I remember correctly, it was late November … or maybe it was early December, about two years ago. I was out gathering leña (firewood). It was early in the morning, and I was at the foot of the mountain. As I went around a clump of trees, I heard noises. I heard loud noises like huffing and huffing and groaning. I was alone, and because of the terrible noises, I was scared to go any farther.”
“Did you see anything, señor?” Rene asked.
“Sí, m’ijo, I saw ‘El Diablo,’” the old man replied. “It was the devil himself. He was a wild-eyed monster. The devil had large forked horns and his face was bloody and he was foaming at the mouth.”
The old man looked at us and paused momentarily.
“You believe me, yes, señores?” he asked.
“At this time,” replied Rene, “we don’t know what to believe. We do not have any other witnesses. What more can you tell us?”
“I can tell you that he had a young bull pinned to the ground. He chased it down and rammed it with his thorny crown. The bull tried to run away, but the devil kept charging and ramming his horns into the side of the bull. He killed him dead, señores, killed him dead.”
“Did you try to chase the devil away, Don Ramiro?” Rene asked.
“No señor, like I said, I was alone, unarmed and afraid. I believe that the devil himself had appeared, and I certainly did not want something like that following me around. I am old, and it would not take too much effort to run down an old man such as myself.”
“So what did you do? What happened after that?” Rene asked.
“Well, that afternoon, I went to the hacienda and told the foreman, Don Enrique. He had some muchachos gathered around, and they heard my story. They laughed a good laugh. I can’t say I blame them. If I heard something like that from an old man, I would probably do the same.”
Don Ramiro directed us to the spot where he’d seen the apparition. Once we got to the site, Rene pulled out a map of the ranch and marked the spot on the map.
“These marks are the areas where we have found dead or damaged cattle,” said Rene pointing to the map. Except for three of the killings, the deaths appeared to be random encounters. Most of the killings occurred in the months of December and January.
The more we studied the case, the more intense the subject became. We considered the possibilities such as mountain lions, coyotes, or bears. But none of those predators had horns. And even so, they would have killed with the intent to eat the carcass. The clues didn’t fit. At long last I considered a rogue bull or maybe even a buck deer. I had heard of deer attacking people, but I had never heard of a wild deer attacking livestock. Still, it was a remote possibility.
Rene and I drove to the ranch house, where we picked up some photos. Then we headed back to Don Ramiro’s shack. We found Don Ramiro sitting in the shade, removing dried corn kernels from their cobs.
“Buenas tardes, Don Ramiro. Una pregunta,” greeted Rene. “Good afternoon, Don Ramiro. Just one question.”
“Sí, ¿como no?” responded the old man. “Yes, of course.”
“I have brought some pictures. Would you look at them and see if the devil that you saw looks like the one in the picture.”
“I would like to look at the pictures. Maybe you can show me something I have not seen. Let me see.”
“From what you tell me about El Diablo, I think he looks something like this. Is this the type of animal you saw that morning?”
“No, that is not El Diablo. El Diablo was much bigger, and he had fire in his eyes and he was covered in blood. Andaba encabronado. The beast was full of hate, and he was chasing and charging anything in his way.”
“So he looked like this, with horns, except bigger and meaner?” asked Rene.
“Oh, sí, señor, but much bigger. He was mad, loco. I would not want to be in El Diablo’s way when he comes around. It is not safe. You should carry your guns.”
In silence, we drove back to the ranch.
Don Chuy said it sounded like el macho en brama—a rut-crazed buck. We looked at each other in disbelief. That evening, we spoke to Don Bartolo. He was just as amazed. Still, he wanted the culprit found and put down.
The next morning, Rene, Don Chuy, and I set out to hunt for El Diablo. We went to the southeast part of the ranch first, the location where the last bull had been killed. At five in the morning, we spread corn over the open trails in hopes that he would show himself. Other deer came, but he refused our treat. We tried the rattle dance of my Welo Mencho, and nothing. We grunted, set out doe-in-heat scent, and still nothing.
For days on end we tried different pastures. We sat on the bluffs and scoped out the area. The panorama was clear of any movement. We then separated and looked in different directions, but there was nothing, no Diablo, no action. On the fourth day we got a break, spotting movement in the distance at 5 p.m. Moving out of a clump of trees, a large old buck lumbered along. Cautiously, steadily, he headed for the east part of the ranch. Just as he reached the ridge, he changed his gait, spooking and breaking into a gallop. We lost him over the rise.
Rene believed he knew where the buck was going. We headed for the truck and quickly cut across the valley. Two miles later, we came around a low rise, hid the truck down wind, and walked to the summit. There we waited.
After a 30-minute wait, we felt we had probably been discovered, or perhaps the buck had opted for another direction. We relaxed momentarily. Just as Rene sat up, I noticed a sudden movement in the valley below. The buck had been standing on the alert at the edge of the chaparral. He bolted when he saw us on the crest of the hill. We’d missed our chance.
Rene and Don Chuy refused to give up. We walked back away from the hill and hiked another mile around to where we could see the other side of the chaparral, hoping the buck would exit the wooded area in an attempt to flee. But getting to where we needed to be and looking back at the valley, it appeared that the buck had the choice of staying in the heavy cover or sneaking through a dry creek bed. We waited.
Before too long, the shadow of the peaks to the west overtook us as the sun began to set. We were running out of time. I aimed my binocular at the brush line and carefully examined every possible exit. At the same time, Rene directed his glass to the creek bed and watched for something, anything, to move.
At long last I caught a glimpse of the buck. He tilted his head to sniff the breeze, and it was then that I found him. I signaled to Rene. He smiled when he saw him, too.
“I need a bit of clearance,” I said. His chest is covered by brush, and I cannot get a good shot from here.”
“Go back down the hill and move farther to the left. You should get a good shot from there,” Rene suggested.
Ever so slowly I backed down the hill, then belly crawled a good 200 feet and snuck up to the hillcrest. There he was, still testing the breeze. I positioned my rifle and got him in the crosshairs. And just as I got set to shoot, the buck moved. He stomped his hoof and raised his antlers. He shook his head violently and drew his ears back. I took down my rifle and checked the area. Something had caught the buck’s attention.
I could not see what the buck was looking at, but in an instant he had moved out of the cover and bolted into a run. I looked ahead to see what he was running to. There it was, a small herd of cattle moving up from the valley. When the buck circled the herd and stopped a mere 30 feet to the side of the gathered livestock, I gently squeezed the trigger, and the sound of the shot echoed through the hills.
The buck flinched and bolted high and fast into the air. I saw a puff of dust just beyond his last stance. The way he ran, I feared that I had missed him.
“Your shot was low!” yelled Don Chuy. “Go for the second shot. Shoot him again.” But the buck was too quick. He found the edge of the brush and disappeared.
Rene and Don Chuy walked down the hill and looked for signs of blood or tissue. I waited with rifle in hand in case the buck returned. We found signs, found the rayones in the sand and deep tracks where he’d made his way into the brush, but no deer.
With no deer in sight and so little blood at the impact site, I started to doubt myself. The sun had slipped behind the mountain range. As a last resort, we used the truck’s lights to search further, and still, no deer. Rene walked back to the truck and got on the radio. We waited.
Over the next 20 minutes, Rene told us a story of a miracle dog.
“He is a sniffer Chihuahua,” Rene said. “He can trail wounded game in the most difficult places. You will see.”
I laughed at Rene’s faith in the tiny dog, but he was serious. A sniffer Chihuahua? Come on.
We left the area, making plans to return the next day. The time would allow the buck to bed down and perhaps bleed out. Sniffer dog, I thought to myself, shaking my head as we turned the truck around.
At 5 a.m. Don Enrique arrived with Mateo Ramirez Garza, a young boy of about 13. Rene explained to Don Enrique and Mateo what had happened with the hunt. Don Enrique smiled. “Hey, Mateo,” Don Enrique said. “Here is a good opportunity for your dog to show what a big boy he is. Bring him.”
The boy ran back to the truck and brought out a backpack. He placed it gently on the ground and opened the flap. Out popped the head of a little Chihuahua.
“This is Bon Bon,” Mateo said. “He is a smart little big dog. He is little in size, but he does not know that. He thinks he is muy chingón. He can find anything in the woods.”
A small pointy nose, bulging brown eyes, and stiff, alert ears peeked out of the pack. Mateo proceeded to lift the toy-sized dog out of the sack. I looked at Bon Bon and thought he might be a good snack for a tecolote (owl), a coyote, or even a big rattler. He was smaller than a rabbit! I truly had my doubts, but with wildlife and in Mexico, anything was possible.
Immediately, Bon Bon whipped his nose up in the air. He let out two small yelps, and then off he ran. Mateo followed close behind.
In a matter of minutes, we heard a barrage of barking and yelping—and then screaming!—coming from the chaparral. Apparently the little dog had found El Diablo in his domain. Don Enrique and Rene smiled.
“I think he found your deer, señor,” Don Enrique told me.
Very cautiously we made our way into the brush. The thicket was a snag of thorny branches, a most hostile environment. Slowly we advanced.
Suddenly we heard a loud commotion and someone yelling, “’Eze coming!” and then we saw first Mateo, running for dear life, behind him Bon Bon, and behind Bon Bon, El Diablo with fire in his eyes.
El Diablo galloped, antlers down, trying to hook Bon Bon. The buck was still full of life, and right in front of us, all hell broke loose. Just as they passed us, I heard the sound of the .30-30 Winchester from Don Chuy. Two shots struck at El Diablo and the buck stumbled, but kept after Bon Bon. The dog ran right on Mateo’s heels and the buck was right on Bon Bon’s, as the trio burst into the clearing.
I watched in disbelief and raised my 7mm Mag. I was too close to aim with the scope, so I fired from the hip. I shot just as El Diablo hooked Bon Bon and tossed him into the air. As the dog spiraled, screaming, into the air, the buck went down.
Shocked and shaken up, I carefully approach El Diablo. He was still alive and tried to get up. Don Chuy approached with the open-sight .30-30 and took him in the base of the skull. At the shot, the feisty little Chihuahua ran out of the brush and at the fallen buck. In a flash the dog was on him, biting him on the nose and trying to put a coup de grace on El Diablo. We made several attempts to pry the dog off the buck, but he was a tough little booger, absolutely electric, pumped for action and baring his teeth. The little champion jumped at the buck and claimed his prize.
Finally El Diablo was down.
The men gathered around the deer and offered each other hearty congratulations. We then raised our arms to the heavens and gave the Almighty special prayer of gratitude. This was a good hunt and a great challenge. The curse of El Diablo had been lifted.