Black Jack’s Mexican Goose Chase

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Early in March, 19 if), Francisco “Pancho” Villa’s riders were operating closer to the United States border than ever before and almost daily firing upon our patrols from across the barbed-wire line, causing several American enlisted men to become quite dead as a result. On the first day of March a family of ranchers named Wright was kidnapped near Juárez, whereupon Mr. Wright had been murdered and his wife, Maud, taken by the raiders to face a perhaps even more harrowing denouement. But this was merely the latest of many incidents affecting relations between Mexico and the United States.

All told, about 170 American citizens had been killed by Mexican bandits, or factional troops, during recent years. Admittedly, most of the victims had died in Mexico, which had been in the throes of revolution since 1910. Under such circumstances, any adjacent foreigners are very likely to get hurt. But how to explain Villa’s recent plundering of Nogales, Arizona? What on earth was the meaning of it? And it was followed by the horrible affair at Santa Isabel, Chihuahua, in January, when a group of Villistas had stopped a train, ordered out the American passengers (nineteen employees of a mining company), and killed all but one. For what purpose? Nobody north of the border knew for certain, but the United States went wild with fury, and Senate Republicans petitioned the President to send our Army and Navy into action.

Was Pancho deliberately seeking United States intervention? He was not the man he used to be, but he still controlled 5,000 mounted irregulars; he was still the military emperor of Chihuahua, and quite openly he was threatening to kill all U.S. citizens in his state. A State Department agent named Carothers had already predicted that if the revolutionary wing received no support from Uncle Sam in its machinations against Venustiano Carranza (Mexico’s official First Chief) the irresponsible Villa would surely bring matters to a head by attacking some American town. As a result of this warning and recent depredations, six troops of the 13th U.S. Cavalry had been dispatched to Columbus, New Mexico, two miles north of the border. On March 7, Colonel H. J. Slocum, commanding, was advised that Villa and a large force were two miles south of the Border Gate.

Regrettably, next evening less than 200 of Slocum’s men were in Columbus proper. Others were garrisoned at Bailey’s Ranch and Gibson’s Ranch, three and fourteen miles west, respectively, and some officers were in El Paso, where they had been playing polo that afternoon. When at 2:30 A.M. Villa and a thousand men swept into the town from three directions, shouting “Viva Villa! Viva Mexico! Muerte a los americanos!” the cavalry regiment was badly split and taken by surprise. First to die was the sentry guarding the officer of the day’s shack. Within minutes the chatter of small arms, the pounding of hoofs, the yelling of the raiders, and the crackling of flames were mingling with the cries of women and babies to create a hellish cacophony. The town grocer, James Dean, was shot down in the middle of Main Street. As the Ritchie Hotel burst into flames, Mr. Ritchie ran out, and was held at gunpoint by the Mexicans. He begged for his life, offering all the money on his person: fifty dollars. They divested him of it and then killed him anyway.

Meanwhile American cavalrymen were bringing down substantial numbers of Villistas, partly with four machine guns, two of which soon jammed. (Splendid guns for fighting a war “between sun-up and sundown,” subsequently remarked the New York Sun.) The sergeant of F Troop was heard to call out: “Pick your men, there is hardly any more ammunition.” Lieutenant W. A. McCain killed one Mexican with his pistol butt. Another died at the end of a baseball bat. Villa’s men emptied Mr. Walker’s hardware store of saddles and other goods. Riderless horses and unmounted men darted in all directions, surrealistically illuminated by the flames of the Lemmon Store and the Ritchie Hotel, while most unarmed residents of the town tried to flee. Hidden within houses and behind improvised barricades, the white troopers and armed civilians took a murderous toll of the raiders. A sixteen-year-old boy named Arthur Ravel was grabbed by two Mexicans and walked down the main street, past the groaning, dying body of Mr. Ritchie. En route one was killed. The other cautioned Arthur to keep walking. Near the town drugstore, the remaining Mexican was also shot down. Saved by someone who knew how to handle a rifle, the boy ran for cover.

Several Villistas were caught in a crossfire as they crouched in clear sight against a kitchen wall. Direct hits and ricochets almost wiped them out. Mrs. Wright, a hysterical witness of the orgy, had been thrust into a nearby ditch. When Pancho Villa happened to ride by, she caught his eye and begged to be let free. He motioned her curtly toward the burning town. She ran to the house of a woman friend, whose husband lay dead on the threshold. It was now almost dawn, Mexican bugles were sounding retreat, and the remaining men of the 13th Cavalry were approaching Columbus in the best tradition of a television western, except that they were too late. As Major Frank Tompkins and other avengers clattered down the main street, past the smouldering wreckage, past scores of brown and white bodies sprawled in the dust, eighteen gringos were dead and about twice that number wounded. The cavalrymen pursued the Mexicans over the border, breaking through three rear-guard blocks, and later claimed that they killed 120 of them.