Black Jack’s Mexican Goose Chase

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There were plenty of rumors. Some natives brought Pershing a pair of bloody boots and a bullet-riddled shirt; Villa, they announced solemnly, was dead. A few days later he was also killed in Santa Ana. He had also been crippled by a Carranzista in Juárez. The peones told the disgusted Americans dozens of other silly yarns. For observational purposes, Pancho had transformed himself into an agave plant. He was a little brown dog that yipped at the heels of U.S. cavalry mounts. He put horse shoes on backward, so that Pershing’s scouts would go the wrong way. He was disporting with the señoritas of Ojos Azules while Pershing’s men were only a few miles away—the only report which had a ring of truth. For on the night of March 30, as Pershing made camp near San Geronimo, 7,500 feet up in the Sierra Madre, in a blinding snowstorm, the fact was that Villa was traveling in a buggy toward Durango with 140 men. He had not been able to stay away from the expedition. It had fascinated him. He had kept scouting it, teasing it; and finally it had fetched him a bullet above the right knee, putting him out of action for weeks.

Much as the Mexicans resented foreign troops pouring into their country, business did boom. Prices soared and café windows carried the un-Mexican sign “Open All Night.” Along the lines of march Chinamen set up little booths and sold souvenirs to the Americans. The men chewed on syrupy cactus candy, pink tamales, and big black Mexican cigars; they tried out “Mex” cigarettes like Alfonsos and Belmontes; they drank Mex beer and mescal and sotol and tequila until drunkenness came to be a problem. Some of them sickened from the mouldy meat and dysentery-laden water. And business was exceptionally good for the perfumed Mexican prostitutes in little towns along the trek southward. Best of all, the gringos often paid in silver coin—not in the wretched paper currency which Villa and Carranza forced down the throats of their subjects. On the other hand, there was much resistance to official U.S. receipts; with them horses, cattle, flour, and other commodities were purchased until the Mexicans learned that it could take many months to work their way through U.S. red tape and get their cash.

In the Sierra Madre foothills, icicles hung from the whiskers of men and horses, and the water in canteens froze solid. Horseshoes and nails were so scarce that the men picked them up in any condition and saved them in oiled bags. Cash was short: Colonel W. C. Brown of the 10th Cavalry spent $1,680 of his own money on regimental supplies. “Other officers have advanced several hundred dollars,” he wrote Pershing plaintively. “How and when we will ever be reimbursed is problematical.” Under the blinding sun exhaustion became chronic, and there was seldom enough boiled water to drink. Scores of horses died. During rest periods the men were sometimes ordered to remain standing, for there was no rousing them if they lay down to sleep. At dusk darkness came to the canyons as though by the flick of a switch; the trails became a twisting nightmare; but each dawn the packmaster rattled his bells, the horses and mules drifted sleepily together, the expedition moved southward once more, and the men sang:

We left the border for Parral /In search of Villa and Lopez, his old pal. /Our horses, they were hungry, /And we ate parched corn. /It was damn hard living /In the state of Chihuahua /Where Pancho Villa was born.

All eight biplanes of the 1st Aero Squadron were cruelly squandered delivering messages between Pershing and his far-flung units, rather than being properly employed in reconnaissance duties as ordered. The fliers had no parachutes, their planes lacked replacement parts, gusty winds made desert landings risky, and soon only two planes were left. Lieutenant Benjamin Foulois flew one to Chihuahua City with a conciliatory message from General Pershing. Upon landing, he was astounded to find himself under attack from natives, who threw stones at him, fired at him, and ripped portions of the plane fabric with knives. Somehow he and his observer managed to stagger aloft and return to Pershing’s headquarters. Soon Foulois’ plane and the other remaining Jenny also cracked up, terminating the aerial phase of the expedition only five weeks after it had begun. This was a blow. Without air intelligence the punitive columns could only flounder around northern Mexico, irritate the populace, infuriate Carranza, amuse Villa, and accomplish nothing which bore the slightest resemblance to the lofty purposes enunciated by Mr. Wilson.

Would the cavalry ever come to grips with Villa? Early in April, Pershing helplessly asked Major Tompkins, who had rejoined the western column, “Tompkins, where is Villa?”

“General, I don’t know, but I would like mighty well to go find out where he is … I would head for Parral and would expect to cut his trail before reaching there.”

“Why?”

“The history of Villa’s bandit days shows that when hard pressed he invariably holes up in the mountains in the vicinity of Parral.”

“How many mules do you want?”

“Twelve.”