Posse member hangs up star after 25 years in the saddle
by Jim Keyworth
roundup staff reporter
After spending a quarter of a century chasing down lost hikers and staying up all night to guard crime scenes, Rim country resident Dora Dawes is retiring from the Gila County Sheriff's Posse.
During the group's annual Christmas party Saturday, Dawes received a plaque that she plans to display in her Mesa del Caballo home. But it's the memories she acquired during those 25 years that mean the most to the 78-year-old Rim country resident.
An Arizona native, Dawes was born in Douglas and raised in Phoenix, but she came to the Rim country by way of Fallbrook, Calif., a town about 20 miles from Oceanside. "I moved to California in 1946 when I got married," she said.
While there, she and her husband both worked at Camp Pendleton, a U.S. Marine base.
"But then he got sick and they retired him on a disability so we came back to Arizona in 1968 to be closer to my parents who were getting older," she said.
In the 22 years she was gone, Phoenix had changed from the little town she left behind to a bustling metropolis. Besides, she and her husband were not all that fond of the heat.
"Payson seemed like a pretty good place to live," Dawes said. "It was cool, and it was small, and we were still pretty close to my folks.
"But Payson was a different place back then," she quickly added. "There were no stoplights, and there were just forests where all the shopping centers are now. On Labor Day, the town just shut down."
She went to work for the Gila County court system, and was eventually hired away by Ronnie McDaniel, then head of the sheriff's office in Payson, to become the department's first woman dispatcher. She later went back to work at the courts, serving as chief clerk and small claims hearing officer for judges Howard Childers and Ezra Peace.
It was a combination of restlessness and her background in law enforcement that drove Dawes to join the posse, a volunteer organization. Its primary function these days is providing security at crime and fire scenes.
Back when she became a member of the posse, it also was heavily involved in search and rescue functions. Because Dawes had also bought a horse about that time, she was part of many mounted search and rescue operations.
"Those were the days before ATVs," Dawes said. "We had quite a few horses involved in searching for people who were lost."
The posse also had a chuckwagon it would set up when searches lasted several days.
"We'd provide meals for everybody involved in the search, and then we also used it as a fund-raiser to sell food at the rodeo and other events until the city got so fussy about licenses and things."
Dawes remembers some searches that didn't have happy endings. One involved the death of a small boy from Christopher Creek who followed his father when he went fishing.
"He was supposed to stay with his mother, and nobody knew he followed his dad. It snowed and we found him laying by a log after two days of searching," she said.
But she also remembers the successful rescues and some other extraordinary events.
"During the Dude Fire, those of us who could ride were assigned to move an entire herd of horses down to safety from Kohl's Ranch," she said.
She still laughs about an incident that happened on a posse training exercise somewhere in the Mazatzals.
"We were learning to read a map, and we were in small groups," she said. "Each group was supposed to figure out our location and call it up to the helicopter above. Well, one group did its calculations and announced to the people in the helicopter that they were somewhere near Prescott."
Dawes also remembers the time she and her mounted posse mates ended up walking an entire parade route from Cave Creek to Carefree when the horses they were supposed to ride didn't show up.
"The posse used to ride in parades all around the state in Cave Creek, Phoenix, Camp Verde," she said. "This parade we had decided to rent horses down there instead of hauling ours. When they weren't delivered, we figured the show must go on, so we just walked."
Dawes' own horse was an Indian pony named Joe.
"Its real name was Walter, but who ever heard of a horse named Walter?" she asked. "I changed it to Joe."
One of her most memorable experiences happened when Joe got hungry one night and decided to grab a midnight snack.
"We were with the Payson Horseman's Association, and we were getting ready to set out on this two- or three-day ride somewhere up on the Rim," she said.
"We trailered our horses to where we were going to start and made camp so we could start out early the next morning. Sometime in the middle of the night I woke up and decided to check on my horse in the corral. He was gone.
"I got dressed and found him over by where the feed was kept. I put him in the trailer so he couldn't get out of the corral again.
"I went back to bed, fell asleep, and woke up when I heard my horse whinnying real close. The horse I had caught and put in the trailer belonged to somebody else.
"Joe had finished his snack and come back to let me know," she said laughing.
Another time Dawes and her sister, Mary Lange, happened to be on a ride with an old cowboy. She and her sister, also a horse enthusiast and posse member, cornered him to have him demonstrate how to get knots out of a horse's mane.
"We tied Joe up to this pine tree so the cowboy could show us," Dawes said. "He showed us how to cut the small ones out with a knife, and when I asked him about the long ones, he raised his hand to show us how you pull them out. Well Joe thought he was about to get hit and he bolted out of there."
To complicate the scene, the horse pulled out the pine tree by the roots and raced away dragging it behind him.
"Every time Joe looked back he saw this pine tree chasing him, and that just scared him worse," Dawes said. "It took a cattle guard to finally stop him."
Dawes hung up her spurs a few years back, and she retired from the county in 1987. Now, at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve, she'll take off her badge for the last time.
"Every year I've threatened to retire, but now I'm getting old," she admitted. "I don't like staying up all night guarding crime or fire scenes anymore."
She may be retiring, but the posse will still be able to call on Dawes when they need advice or assistance from an old pro.
"I'll still be an adviser, and I'll still go to some of the meetings," she said.
But now she'll have more time for some of her other passions like playing poker. She and Lange belong to a group that gets together every Friday night for some serious penny-ante poker.
Displaying the same tenacity and singlemindedness she brought to her posse duties, Lange reports that her sister takes her poker quite seriously.
"There's a lot of bluffing going on, especially by the men," Lange said, "and Dora thinks she's pretty good at figuring them out. She doesn't trust any of them."