- Historic Sites
Papa And Pancho Villa
August 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 5
After a brief second look he ordered the squadron to unpack the dynamite and divide it into packets of four sticks bound together with baling wire. Everyone having been given two packets and a pair of fuses, Marti’n drew a rough sketch of a railroad car, quickly explained his special demolition technique, and then assigned a car to each man. Fierro was to blow up the caboose and Marti’n the engine. With only a bare half hour of darkness remaining, the thirteen saboteurs fanned out in a wide arc and stealthily crept their way across the scrubby plain.
To his great surprise my father felt no fear during this phase of the operation. All he could think about was the fourth car behind the engine, its silhouette looming larger and larger as he got closer. Suddenly he was there, right under the middle of its “long belly” (Martin’s term for it), and now he had to find the cross rod. His head bumped against it, and he was momentarily stunned. But he quickly regained his composure, pulled the dynamite packets from inside his shirt, tied them onto the cross rod, attached the fuse cord, and slowly commenced to unravel it while he crept backward in a crouched position. Glancing to his right he saw his companeros also pulling back from their respective cars in crouched positions, with their fuse cords unravelling. Fierro had apparently stabbed the man guarding the caboose, so until now they had not been detected by the fédérales . It was like a well-rehearsed game.
Then, quite suddenly, the sky seemed to shatter. Someone had spotted Marti’n as he was crawling away from the engine and immediately shouted a general alarm. Almost instantly the air was punctured by a wild scattering of bullets, most of them whistling into nowhere. Taking advantage of the brief chaos, the Odd Dozen hastily ignited their fuses, carefully laid them on the ground, and started crawling away, zigzagging every few feet to avoid gunfire. Once again following Marti’n’s lead, they commenced shooting back, hoping to distract attention from the sizzling fuses. Thus crawling and shooting and crawling once again, most of them managed to reach a safe distance before the railroad cars started to explode, first the engine and then the passenger cars, one after the other like falling dominoes. But the fourth car behind the engine—the one assigned to my father—did not explode. It merely teeter-tottered off the track as the cars on either side were blasted off the rails. That’s when my father, pausing to look back at the massive wreckage, remembered that in his panic he had forgotten to ignite his fuse.
When they finally got back to their horses and quickly mounted them for the getaway, it became painfully apparent that six of their companeros had been killed or disabled. Although four of the thirteen saboteurs had come on foot, escorting the ammunition mules, there were now two extra horses. My father, still acutely conscious of having flubbed his chore, deliberately trailed behind the others as they raced toward the protective shadows of the Sierra \ladrc foothills. Hc was heartsick and depressed, and when they had found a safe haven he told his older cousin about the unlit fuse and about the only car that hadn’t exploded, reluctantly but frankly admitting he had panicked as the gunfire broke out.
Martin looked at him with gentle cousinly concern and drew him into a tight embrace. “Never mind, Pepe, never mind. It happens to all of us. The man who says he’s never afraid is a liar or a fool. Even Pancho Villa is afraid sometimes. He simply hides his fear better than most men. And you’ll learn to hide yours, Pepe. It takes time.”
During the next few months my father did indeed learn to mask or at least ignore the awful fear. He ostensibly overcame his qualms in a succession of historic battles late in 1913, the first of which took place in San Sostenes, Durango, where the Villutas attacked a federal-army supply center in a bold maneuver that caught the enemy flat-footed during the siesta hour. That particular raid, which turned into a spirited handto-hand ruckus before the fédérales retreated into the hills, netted the rebels two tons of clothing, several thousand rounds of ammunition, and some miscellaneous railroad equipment.
Two weeks later Martin Lopez led a band of fifty specially chosen guerrillas into the town of Mulato, Chihuahua, a wind-blown village temporarily designated as a headquarters for the forces of Venustiano Carranza, the leader of the Constitutionalists. Again relying on surprise plus outrageous daring, the rebels moved in shortly after midnight. Except for a few drunkenly inattentive guards, the federal troops had taken refuge in an old adobe church facing the plaza, the more fortunate ones lying on rows of wooden benches while the others shared the hard-packed dirt floor with an occasional scorpion. Having wenched and drunk pulquc all evening long, they were sleeping quite soundly in spite of the hard bedding; and only two or three of them were even half awakened as Martin’s men carefully crept over inert bodies and between the benches, deftly expropriating rifles, pistols, knives, and ammunition. Then, having first posted his men at strategic places inside the chapel—fourteen of them now armed with newly acquired machine guns- Martin asked his bugler to blow a rousing three o’clock reveille.