Read The General and the Jaguar Online
Authors: Eileen Welsome
Copyright © 2006 by Eileen Welsome
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1: A Microbe Challenges an Elephant
5: Tell President Wilson to Save You
7: Rumors, Warnings, and Telegrams
8: Villa Is Coming Tonight, for Sure
12: Sunburn, Frostbite, and Blisters
15: Gasoline Baths and Confessions
19: Whore Dust and a Rabid Dog
23: Death Comes for the Horsemen
Casualties of the Columbus Raid
ALSO BY EILEEN WELSOME
The Plutonium Files:
America’s Secret Medical Experiments in the Cold War
For Libby, Racheal, Courtney, and in memory of Jay
I can whip Carranza and his entire army, but it is asking a great deal to whip the United States also, but I suppose I can
do that, too.
on the eve of the battle of Agua Prieta, October 31, 1915
HEN THE SOLDIERS
saw the yellow lights of the ranch house, they were seized with hunger.
Sometimes they lived for two or three days on a handful of parched corn, and the thought of well-cooked beef and hot green
chiles stimulated their dormant hunger pangs. Still, they did not dare spur their tired mounts past the erect back of the
colonel and continued to follow him down the hill.
The troops traveled mostly at night, wrapped in their serapes and sunk deep into their saddles, the clink of bridles and the
occasional ping of a horseshoe the only sounds on the trail. By restricting their movements to darkness, the soldiers were
able to evade the watchful eyes of their enemies, but the cold marches had sapped their strength. Once the sun rose and fell
upon their faces, the men slipped into jittery, colorless dreams on the backs of their moving animals. The heat soon brought
its own misery: the chafe of rotting clothes and the unbearable itch of unwashed bodies. They were tortured by lice, by mysterious
rashes, by abscesses and pimples that covered their buttocks, their groins, their backs. Some were scarred by smallpox, others
with poorly healed wounds. They had grown listless and numb, except for the buzz of anger deep in their brains. The ponies
and mules suffered, too. White worms bored into their withers and their backs were covered with sores that oozed and spread
each evening when the blankets were removed. The little animals did not cling to life and often died with a quick sigh, collapsing
under their riders along the frigid mountain passes or in the alkali dust of the desert. While their bodies were still warm,
they were butchered and their meat strapped onto the saddles.
Picking their way down the slope, the soldiers leaned back on their mounts to lessen the strain on the front legs of the ponies.
whirred up in front of their faces and all around them were loose, treacherous rocks and the thorny pull of cactus and mesquite.
With dusk came a penetrating cold, but it was early spring and a blue light still lingered in the sky. Mountains curled along
the horizon, fields lay waiting for crops, and crows exploded from thickening branches of cottonwood trees, their ragged cries
accentuating the stillness of the land.
Drawing near the ranch house, the soldiers could see a young woman, her soft, brown hair tucked up in a dust cap, moving back
and forth in the window. They smelled animals dozing in their straw stalls, a tank of drip water, and food; something hot
and bubbling on the stove—beans probably, seasoned with a few hunks of last winter’s pork, and cornbread or biscuits in the
oven. Once again, hunger gripped them.
Colonel Nicolás Fernández dismounted from his horse and walked across the courtyard, passing a small adobe dwelling where
the hired help lived, and headed for the main house. He was six feet tall and thin, with fine, almost delicate features and
deep-set, gray eyes inherited from German ancestors who had settled in Mexico in the seventeenth century. He wore a khaki
uniform, leather leggings that came up over the knees, and on the front of his battered hat was a bronze insignia the size
of a silver dollar with the word
inscribed in the middle. Though his clothing was dirty and his face hollow with fatigue, he was a commanding presence. He
stamped the dust from his boots and knocked.
Maud Wright touched her hand to her cap and jerked open the door, staring fearlessly at the cloaked visitor. Beyond the colonel,
in the courtyard, she counted a dozen soldiers, their dead eyes trained on her. More soldiers were pouring like dark water
down the hill. She saw a rind of blue sky, a few faint stars, and no sign of her husband, Ed, or his young friend, Frank Hayden.
The two men had left for the nearby town of Pearson earlier that afternoon to buy supplies and she expected them back momentarily.
A small tingle of fear ran down her backbone, but she stepped forward and welcomed the officer.
Speaking in courteous, mellifluous tones, he introduced himself and asked her if she would be willing to sell him food.
Puedo comprar comida para mis soldados?
No tengo muchísimo. Pero se doy lo que puedo.
Maud had only enough food for herself, her husband, and the hired family, but said she would give him what she could. The
colonel smiled tightly and swept past her into the warm kitchen. He glanced at her son, Johnnie, who was almost two, and already
spoke a few Spanish and English words. When Fernández had satisfied himself that no one else was present, he relaxed and grew
more talkative. He said that he and his troops were Carrancistas and were hunting the bandit Pancho Villa.
Maud nodded noncommittally. Their small ranch was located in the state of Chihuahua, about a hundred miles south of the New
Mexico border. She and Ed had been living in Mexico off and on since 1910, when the Mexican Revolution first began, and knew
that their long-term survival depended on their ability to remain neutral and friendly to all sides. In 1913 they had been
driven out of the country with more than a thousand other foreigners, but had returned the following year. They had rebuilt
their modest herd of cattle and horses and moved back to the ranch in February 1916, just a few weeks earlier, thinking the
worst was over.
It was easy to think that way. After years of civil war, the Mexican countryside was bleak and empty. Fields lay fallow and
small shops and stores had been looted so often that the shelves were bare. There was no food, no medicine, no clothing. Curtains,
carpets, and even the green cloth that covered pool tables had been ripped up and fashioned into clothing. When that was gone,
the people had covered themselves with corn sheaves and string. Thousands were dying from
—typhus. Starvation was claiming an even greater number of lives. “It was the custom,” remembered Martin Lyons, a mining engineer,
“to pick up little children and people sleeping in doorways and shake them to see if they were dead or alive and many times
they were dead.”
Bandits of all kinds roamed the countryside, robbing both foreigners and the native born. They extracted “loans” from mine
owners and lumber-mill operators and kidnapped wealthy landowners and held them for ransom. Villa’s troops were invariably
blamed for the depredations, yet the people in the villages and towns knew that the Constitutionalist troops commanded by
Venustiano Carranza, the self-proclaimed
or “first chief” of Mexico, were equally adept at plundering. Even before villagers could recognize approaching horsemen,
they hid their few valuables, and men of fighting age took to the hills to keep from being forcibly pressed into service by
one side or the other.
Maud was worried; the cattle and horses they had brought to the ranch represented years of hard work, and she found herself
growing angry as she wondered whether Fernández planned to take their livestock. Just twenty-seven years old, she was tall
and carried herself with an easy, unconscious strength. Her calico dress, soft and shapeless from many washings, hid her long
horsewoman’s legs and the fullness that had come with the birth of her first child. To the soldiers outside, she must have
seemed lovely, with gray eyes and a smile that unfolded slowly and filled her face with happiness. She spoke Spanish fluently,
but with an Alabama accent that slowed the quick, tripping syllables.
Maud served the colonel the food she had prepared for her family. While he was eating, Ed and Frank Hayden rode up in the
yard leading two pack mules. The two men nodded in a friendly way to the soldiers as they nonchalantly pulled the saddles
off their horses and carried them into the house. As soon as they had gone, the troops tore open the packages on the pack
mules, looking for food, clothing, money.
Maud introduced the two men to the colonel. Fernández nodded and continued to eat. When he was finished, he rose from the
table and announced that he had to feed his horse and asked Ed to show him where the grain was kept. The two men went outside
together, and a few moments later Hayden, who was twenty-five and from a wealthy New Orleans family, stood up and followed
After they left, soldiers poured into the house, bringing with them the ripe, fruity smell of their unwashed bodies. Johnnie
began to whimper. The soldiers ordered Maud to open her storeroom, where she kept a small stock of canned vegetables, flour,
beans, corn, salt, and molasses. The men longed to dip their fingers into the molasses but knew one mouthful surreptitiously
taken could mean a summary execution before a firing squad or a slow, gagging death at the end of a rope.