By Owen Oates
Doc Vaught was an eclectic doctor who received a Doctor of Medicine degree from a medical school in Kansas that he attended for six months sometime about 1930. He settled in Presidio, set up a practice, and married a local girl named Filomina. Sometime along the way he bought a house, enclosed the back porch, and made an office for seeing patients. He had a thriving business, as there were no other doctors for 60 miles in any direction.
He could prescribe any drugs on the market, but he was careful not to reach into the darkness beyond his knowledge and careful not to hurt anyone. He learned in only a few years that most illnesses were psychosomatic and he treated them as such, mostly with sugar pills. He told me this himself. He could set broken limbs as neatly as anyone. He made house calls for broken legs or anyone too ill to travel. Broken arms had to be brought to his office. He did not have the makings for a cast. Whether they were difficult to make, too expensive, or some other reason I never did learn. He would take two thin boards, put one on each side of the break, and then tape the whole thing up with adhesive tape. Tight enough, this would last long enough for the break to heal.
In his early days he charged fifty cents for an office visit, of course the drugs were extra (Presidio had no drugstore and none were closer than another doctor), and by the time I got there he was up to three dollars. His proudest achievement, he told me, was to deliver three babies in one day, one in Ruidoso, thirty miles upriver from Presidio, one in Presidio, and one in Redford, sixteen miles below Presidio. With a model A Ford and the roads in the 1930s this was an heroic accomplishment. He trained his wife, Filomina, in the medical arts and by the time I got to Presidio she was seeing patients and prescribing medicine when he was absent. When he was present and with a Mexican patient, she did the interpreting. People in town laughed about this, but she never killed anyone or made anyone sicker. The women liked her and called her "La Doctora". She also kept the books and kept track of the pills and medicines and ordered more from Kansas City when needed. Doc never sent a bill. If the patient could pay at his office, he collected. If not, the patient usually left a promise to pay which Doc never attempted to collect. He did have to have money for the drugs though, and many a poor Mexican left with the illness identified but no means to correct it.
Frank Dupuy owned the bridge across the Rio Grande between Presidio and Ojinaga. He had built it during the 1930s under a permit issued by the Boundary and Water Commission. There had been no bridge there until he persuaded this bureau to issue a permit although this was not the right agency to do it and the State Department ignored many requests to look into it and build a free bridge. Dupuy charged a toll. Sixty five cents per auto when I was there, and that irked people. He had a Mexican kid sitting in a little hut at the end of the bridge on the U.S. side collecting from cars both ways. And that irked people. Dupuy was an absentee landlord and that irked people. Dupuy lived in El Paso and the Mexican kid had to call in the amount of tolls collected every night. Dupuy appeared to be avaricious, not an attractive trait. Dupuy came down once in a while to inspect his property and even stayed a few days when the great flood of 1958 washed away the bridge and sent our best patrol car tumbling down the river. He had a new bridge built, higher, and better than the one that got washed away. When he came to Presidio he could feel the wrath of people on both sides seething with resentment. Some called him names. Dupuy would not stay in town long. He would inspect his bridge, talk to the customs inspectors, and leave the same day he came. Anyway the trip was deductible.
The port of Presidio was a class B port, meaning that the port was closed from midnight to 8 a.m. There was a big wooden gate on the bridge that the customs agent would lock at midnight and then go home. When we PIs wanted to go to Ojinaga to drink a good beer or to feel the soothing embraces of some sinful activity, we had to decide before we went whether we would come back before or after midnight. If before, we could drive over. If later, we would leave our car at the bridge. Frank Mireles had a gambling casino just across the bridge. Some of the guys preferred to gamble a little, but most of us went on uptown and later to La Zona. This required a taxi and cost about a dollar. Then, in the small hours of the morning, another taxi brought us to the bridge.
We walked across, climbing the wooden gates. We were immigration officers and we admitted ourselves to the United States. We didn't pay the toll. Dupuy lost that toll collection and he lost more when he tangled with Doc Vaught. It was in 1960, I think. I was driving a jeep, alone, either to or from Redford (I can't remember which). I don't know if I heard the shots or not but something caused me to look up the gravel road running to the school. I saw an older, blue General Motors car run off the road into the ditch, hit something, bounce up and down, and then stop. On the way up there I saw Doc Vaught standing in his front yard, just inside his front gate, holding a rifle by the barrel with the butt on the ground. I stopped at the blue car. I knew immediately that the man was dead. He was slumped over the steering wheel and the horn was a plangent. I pulled the dead man off the horn and turned the ignition off. Examining the scene I could see a bullet hole in the windshield just inches from Dupuy's nose, another in his neck, and the third missed his head behind and exited through the right rear window. Doc Vaught had sent three bullets from a Winchester 45-70 lever action rifle into a moving car from about 150 feet away and the pattern was no bigger than the diameter of a basketball. The bullet that killed Dupuy went in his neck. The entry wound was ugly, a raw, red sore, as big as the last joint of your thumb, with the blood oozing out of it. It must have cut his spine because when I pulled him off the horn his head flopped over at an unnatural angle. I got on the radio and called the sheriff. Soon "Three-fingered" Tommy McCall, the local deputy, arrived with several other people. That was the second dead man I had seen that week and that was enough for me. I got out of there. It was none of my business. Doc told McCall that Dupuy was coming from El Paso and had stopped in Marfa and telephoned Doc telling him that he was coming to "fix his wagon." Doc didn't have a wagon and suspected a sinister motive. He told Dupuy to come on down and he would arrange a nice reception. The sheriff arrested Doc, charged him with murder, and let him out on a small bond. The prosecuting attorney asked the judge for a change of venue. The reason was that the local people liked Doc and hated Dupuy and he couldn't get a fair trial. Marfa was the county seat and they moved the trial to Alpine, 26 miles away. That was not far enough and the prosecuting attorney got another ruling and they moved the trial to Alice, Texas. There was a hung jury once and then a retrial lasting several months in all. Doc told the jury about the threatening phone call Dupuy made from Marfa, but there were no witnesses, no corroborating evidence. One thing in favor of his story was that when highway 67 hit Presidio Dupuy would have had to turn right to inspect his bridge but instead he turned left down the Redford highway. That was the way to Doc's house and, indeed, he was but half a block away when Doc gave him the promised reception. This must have been on the jury's mind. Sweet shooting may have influenced them too because good marksmanship is never far from a Texan's mind. They found a gun in Dupuy's car, but you could have found one in any car in West Texas so that didn't prove much. The jury acquitted Doc but the costs of the trial and room and board in Alice for so long had ruined him. He sold his home and property in Presidio and moved upcountry to some place where he could rent a nice place and maybe find some work. Dupuy had a son who took over managing the bridge and the situation remained that way until sometime in the 1970s, I think it was, that the U.S. and Mexico got an agreement and built a new, nice, concrete and steel bridge. This bridge was free on our side but Mexico, having lost out on the tolls for forty some odd years, now rectified that and began collecting tolls on their side. It was, some say, a tragedy of comic proportions. Or vice versa.