They carry guns and wear cowboy boots as they ride horseback through the rugged San Gabriel Mountains, just as lawmen of the Old West once did.
But instead of stalking outlaws in the dusty, inhospitable heat of the canyons, members of the San Dimas Sheriff's Mounted Posse spend much of their time writing parking tickets.
In fact, although the posse members are fully trained sheriff's reserve deputies, they all admit that their most important job is to maintain a visible presence in this 200-square-mile stretch of Angeles National Forest.
"The horses make it unique," said Sgt. Rod Morris, station coordinator of the San Dimas Sheriff's Reserves. "Although we're out to do the same thing (as other law enforcement officers), the horses make it more of a happy-mood type thing . . . . It's very good public relations."
Although no statistics are kept on the number and type of incidents that the 14-member posse handles, Morris said that illegal parking on the canyon roads is the most common problem. The posse also watches for illegal campfires, public intoxication and illegal target practice.
The San Dimas posse is just one of 18 sheriff's posses in Los Angeles County, but its territory--visited by an estimated 4 million people every year--is one of the most popular and heavily used recreational areas in the country.
However, just the sight of the posse maneuvering down the parched East Fork of the San Gabriel River, from Fish Canyon to the San Bernardino County line, is often enough to deter troublemakers.
"This is a see-and-be-seen type of thing," Morris said. "By doing that, we nip most problems in the bud--90%, I'd say."
Posse members, who take turns saddling up about one weekend each month, pursue diverse occupations during the workweek. They include a high school English teacher, an agricultural inspector, a general contractor, a homicide detective, a contractor for an airplane manufacturer, a driving school instructor and an insurance broker.
Despite the fact that they are paid just $1 a year, the reserves say they are eager to spend about 20 hours every month riding through the brown hills of the East Fork, wearing freshly pressed uniforms, carrying county-issued .38-caliber handguns and riding their own loyal mounts.
"This sure beats sitting around the TV all day and watching the ballgame," said Capt. Tony Lehman, noting that the $1-a-year salary qualifies reserve deputies for insurance benefits. "It's more fun, it's healthier and it's more useful."
Melinda Hearne, a homicide detective for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and one of two women in the posse, said that community service is the prime motivation of most reserves.
"We all enjoy horses and like the idea of doing something that is useful and functional," said Hearne, a regular sheriff's deputy who serves in the reserve posse as an associate member. "Of course, we all feel strongly about law enforcement as well. . . . The combination is unbeatable."
Members of the posse receive the same 12-week training program as other sheriff's reserves, including instruction in criminal law, search and seizure, weapons and first aid. Later, they receive specific training in riding techniques and horse-mounted crowd control.
The posse members also are required to provide their own horses and saddles and to have access to a trailer.
"It's not like a regular job," Morris said. "Besides wanting to perform a community service, they want to have fun. If they didn't have fun, they wouldn't do it."
Posse members said that the fun stems from being outdoors, a love of horses and a desire to help others. Although none of the reserves could think of a particularly dramatic incident in which they played a part, they expressed satisfaction with having helped protect the people who use the San Gabriel Canyon recreational area.
"We never know what to expect," Morris said, pointing out the dangerous terrain. "But we have to be able to handle whatever occurs."
However, on one hot Saturday afternoon, riding through the streaked hills of decomposed granite and scorched shrubbery, members of the San Dimas Sheriff's Mounted Posse seemed almost bored; there was not even a parking ticket to write.
"This is the quietest I've ever seen it up here," said Deputy Wayne Carroll, a five-year veteran of the posse. "That's the way we like it."
Carroll paused and adjusted his green-mesh sheriff's cap.
"Well, not too quiet," he added. "Then they wouldn't need us."