Black Jack’s Mexican Goose Chase

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Meanwhile, Villista forces had the effrontery to raid Glen Springs, Boquillas, Eagle Pass, and Dryden in rapid succession, killing and capturing more Texans and causing further property damage. Next Villa attacked the Mexican town of Guerrero and slaughtered Carranza’s entire garrison. But, it was claimed, his leg had been amputated as the result of a wound, and reportedly a brilliant maneuver had cut him and his men off from the mountains. These rumors turned out to be false. Matters were baffling, especially since Federales and Villistas were all mixed together in Chihuahua and looked exactly alike; and Carranza was now insisting that Pershing’s troops and supplies must not ride any Mexican railway, that his men had to stay out of all towns, and that he must use only north-south roads. The General began to perceive that his was a more delicate job than anticipated. Fortunately he was somewhat acquainted with the crazy terrain, over which he had chased Geronimo years ago. As chief guide he employed Alexander Carson, a man who had once been kidnapped by Pancho and knew Chihuahua as well as any American. At the same time, Villa moved his wife and children to Cuba. Was a showdown near? By late April Pershing had been strengthened to 9,000 effectives and had reached Casas Grandes, ninety miles south of the border. As yet there had been no serious contact with the enemy—either enemy.

The ground over which Pershing led his eight cavalry regiments, five artillery batteries, and five infantry regiments, plus various ordnance, Signal Corps, quartermaster, ambulance, and engineer detachments, is a study in contrasts. To the west lie the Sierra Madre Mountains, which work southward in a broadening, almost impenetrable mass of granite. Eastward, an elevated plain 6,000 feet above sea level merges into desert country. The western plateau can be desperately hot or freezing cold or a wind-swept fury of snow and sand. On the desert nothing lives but the mesquite, the wild goose, the yucca, the tarantula, the agave, the rattlesnake, the cactus, the horned toad, and a few hapless Indians. Through this deadly wasteland ran the Mexican National Railway.

Chihuahua is (and was) the richest of the Mexican states, about twice the size of New York. It abounded in silver, lead, gold, and copper. Countless cattle grazed in the beautiful uplands, where timber, barley, cotton, beans, and wheat also grew. Its population in 1916 was 327,000. Through coercion or inclination, virtually all these souls were loyal to Pancho Villa and apathetic toward Carranza’s Federales, who were supposed to be preserving law and order. But many Federal troops served cynically under Villa as well, on occasions that promised to be interesting; and of course the civilian populace took neither side when the chips were down. No peón or shopkeeper cared to proffer information— especially to the gringos—unless it was his intention to commit suicide next morning anyway.

Pershing divided his men into two columns—West and East—both of which used cowboys, half-breeds, Apaches, gun fighters, and gamblers as guides. Immediately the two-timing commenced. A typical comment to any question put by an American was: “ Si, we know Pancho. He stopped here last night. An hour ago he went to the south. Si, the man we saw is the hombre you are after. He is a big fat man with a black mustache, and Carranza says he is a bastard. Si, Si, we know Pancho.” Pershing joined the west column and worked his way down along the edge of the Sierra Madre, using an automobile as his headquarters. He carried no equipment worth mentioning and rode with only one aide. Two other cars completed the tiny safari of command, one of them a rattling wreck occupied by Floyd Gibbons of the Chicago Tribune and Robert Dunn of the New York Tribune, who had purchased it by signing a demand note inscribed on wrapping paper.

A buzzer telegraph line was hastily strung up as Pershing moved south, to keep him in touch with United States signalmen, and after two weeks, the General dictated his first communiqué: “Our troops seem to be pressing him, but I won’t hazard any predictions. Villa is no fool—it may be that the campaign has just started.” A scout sitting nearby commented, “As I figure it, General, we have got Villa entirely surrounded on one side.”

Nothing much, really, had happened in a military sense. There had been occasional brushes with Villa’s men, and the 7th Cavalry had just scattered some raiders and wounded Villa in the leg. The crack 10th (Negro) Cavalry was swinging south through the dry belt, followed by Major Frank Tompkins and his 13th.