ALTURAS, Calif. -- Patricia Cantrall, nicknamed the "Annie Oakley of Modoc County," straps her .38 backward on her left hip. "I prefer the cross draw," said the 65-year-old county supervisor and part-time cafe waitress.
Cantrall and about 270 fellow residents of this sparsely populated corner of northeastern California routinely carry concealed handguns. When it comes to packing heat, at least legally, no other county in California surpasses Modoc.
According to state Department of Justice statistics, about one in 29 county residents has a concealed-weapons permit. That compares with one in 800 residents for the rest of the state.
Modoc County issues almost as many permits as Los Angeles County, which has more than 50 times more people. Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca has approved 377 permits, mostly for judges, prosecutors, public defenders, and retired federal agents.
Modoc County Sheriff Bruce Mix said he feels comfortable with the high number of guns because he knows most of the county's 9,400 residents.
"I pretty much know who is reliable and who is not," said Mix, 57, the head lawman and coroner here since 1988.
Besides, Mix said, he doesn't have enough deputies to adequately patrol the vast reaches of woods, desert, and lava fields that cover the county's 3,944 square miles.
Mix said he believes everybody who lives in his county has a constitutional right to self-protection. But bearing arms here appears to have little to do with fear of crime or violent confrontations with humans.
Often, said Undersheriff Mark Gentry, people seek to arm themselves before venturing to large California cities. "Someone will come in," said Gentry, "and say, 'I'm going to San Diego; I need a gun.' "
Originally part of the Utah Territory, and later transferred to the Nevada Territory, Modoc was one of the last areas annexed by what is now California. It can seem as if people are still adjusting to the arrangement.
The motto of Alturas, the county seat, is "Where the West Still Lives."
Here, cowboys haven't traded in their horses for all-terrain vehicles. Many of the region's settlers were Basque sheep herders; their customs still live on in places such as the Brass Rail, a family-style restaurant favored by local ranchers that serves lamb and carafes of red Spanish wine.
Alfalfa farmers gather at the Wagon Wheel cafe for breakfast and complain about the government in distant Sacramento, six hours by car. State antismoking regulations targeting bars are almost universally ignored. The county also claims California's lowest median household income, lowest home property values, and highest infant mortality rate.
This was the last territory relinquished to white settlers by local tribes. In 1872-73 it was the site of the last of the Indian wars fought in California and Oregon.
While an older West lives on here, it's not exactly thriving. Alturas and the surrounding area have gone through several decades of hard times.
The sawmills that used to employ hundreds have shut down. The railroad dropped its payroll from nearly 500 people to just two full-time and several part-time roadbed maintenance workers. Many downtown storefronts are boarded up, and the dilapidated movie theater is open only on weekends.
Without the working-class population that once made this a Democratic Party stronghold, said Rick Holloway, Modoc Record editor and Alturas native, the county has become increasingly conservative.
About half the local jobs today are with the state and federal government, primarily the US Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. The decline of the railroad and sawmills, said Holloway, gives the handful of ranchers who run cattle on the federal and state land even more sway in county politics than they had in the past.
In the Surprise Valley, across the Warner range from Alturas, John Estill, 45, is a sixth-generation Californian and owner of the Bare Ranch. The property, which includes thousands of acres of deeded land in California and Nevada and holds grazing permits to more than 1 million acres in the surrounding hills and desert, is one of the biggest in the state.
"Everybody up here has guns," Estill said. He pointed to a visiting reporter and photographer. "It's just like you have a pen and you have a camera."
Estill supplies guns to shepherds he brings in on special immigration visas from Peru to manage his sheep in the high mountain ranges. As he spoke, ranch hand Duane Herbert pulled up in a pickup, wearing a broad, flat-brimmed hat and a .32 magnum on his hip. Herbert said he uses his gun to kill rattlesnakes, coyotes, and other creatures.
Records kept by the state attorney general's office indicate that violent crimes occur in Modoc County at less than one-third the rate in Los Angeles County. According to FBI statistics, there was one homicide in Modoc County from 1993 through 2002. Sheriff Mix said the county averages about one "questionable death a year, including suicide."
A permit allows a person over 21, not previously convicted of a felony, to carry a concealed, short-barreled, loaded weapon anywhere in the state. In counties with fewer than 200,000 residents, the weapon may be openly displayed.
County Supervisor Cantrall, who serves as postmaster in the ranching community of Likely when she's not working at the Likely Cafe, said she first obtained a concealed-weapons permit 22 years ago for protection when she traveled to San Francisco and Sacramento.
She said she also carries it when she rides horses in the mountains, because, "I do not care to be dinner for a wonderful mountain lion." She said she has used her weapon to kill snakes, coyotes, and an aggressive badger.
"People up here were born and raised with firearms," said George Wistos, 70, owner of the Belligerent Duck, a gun and outdoor goods shop in Alturas. "To them it's a tool."