They Came To Cordura

Excerpt

Author’s Foreword

On the night of 8th March in 1916 a large mounted force under the revolutionist Franciso Villa crossed the American border and attacked the New Mexico town of Columbus. Eight civilians were killed, two wounded, and of the 13th Cavalry stationed there, seven soldiers were killed and five wounded. Woodrow Wilson, pursuing a policy of neutrality to the war in Europe and reluctant to offend the de facto government of Carranza, was forced to act. Telegrams from Washington authorized the formation of ‘Punitive Expedition, U.S. Army’. Commanded by General Pershing and consisting mainly of four regiments of cavalry, the Punitive Expedition moved into Mexico with orders to capture Villa and disperse his forces. It was to be the final cavalry campaign. Of the terrain, one officer, writing twenty years later, concluded that “If God has set out to mold a country as a stage for a cavalry campaign, He would have made…Chihuahua. This was a stage five hundred miles long and a hundred miles wide across which snow, sandstorms, tropic heat and sharp cold added to the misery of the actors.” In eleven months Pershing’s troopers fought now-forgotten engagements at Guerrero, Parral, Aguas Calientes, Tomochic and Carrizal. At a place called Ojos Azules a provisional squadron made the last mounted charge against an enemy in the history of the United States Cavalry. The Expedition was withdrawn in February of 1917. Villa had escaped. His bands, however, were broken and scattered. 
 
          This is not a book about Villa. The characters, except for General Pershing and a newspaper correspondent who appears briefly, are imagined. The designations of military units have been altered.  It is a book about certain minor fictitious events before and after the lost, last charge at Ojos Azules, which means Blue Eyes. 
 

Chapter One

           The country is a huge dead beast, lion-colored. To ride here is to crawl the  sides of the beast between the ridges of its ribs. The ribs are gnashed as though by the teeth of an angry deity. The land is carrion land.
          A series of immense plateaus from four to ten miles wide, from ten to thirty miles long, troughed by mountain ranges trending north and south, seems to chute off to the edges of the world and the plateaus are high, five to seven thousand feet, so that the sky is close and a man, pressed between plain and sky, is for once conscious of the shape, the roundness, of the earth.
          It is a country without grace. A man wishes for a sound. It is a country of no answers.
          Guerrero was fought in the early morning. The 6th Cavalry, Colonel Irwine commanding, numbering 25 officers and 345 enlisted men, reached the town after an all-night march, surprising a force of between 500 to 600 Villistas. A mounted pistol charge had been planned, but the enemy, difficult to reach because of several deep arroyos which had to be traversed, took advantage of the delay and fled with such speed that attack had to be initiated at long range.  After a few stands by retreating parties and some dismounted fire action, the bulk of the Villista force escaped into the mountains. The attack was four hours too late. Villa himself, with a leg wound, was reported by a Mexican doctor to have left the town at two o’clock in the morning by wagon with a small escort.
          The regiment was reassembled on the flat ground north of Guerrero. Men and animals were too exhausted to give pursuit, although a patrol was sent south to cut Villa’s trail if possible.  Outposts were placed. Working under circling vultures, a detail collected and buried the Mexican dead. Unsaddled, rubbed down, fed grain, the horses were then picketed to get what nourishment they could from the sere grass. The men cooked bacon and hard bread in mess kits. Some lay down in the grass to sleep. Their uniforms and equipment were, in the main, the 1912 issue: olive drab flannel shirts with flap pockets and breeches which laced down the side; olive drab sweaters worn outside or inside the shirt; leather or canvas leggings and shoes or, for those fortunate enough to lay hands on them, leather boots; on their heads, the peaked olive drab campaign hats with wide brims and chin-straps; about their waists web ammunition-belts with first-aid packets; .45 caliber automatic pistols carried low on the right leg in holster; most of them wore about their necks large handkerchiefs which could be raised over their noses and mouths to prevent irritation of the membranes of nostrils and throat by dust; a few, again the fortunate, had about the bands of their hats auto goggles of amber-colored glass or celluloid.
          A wind came up. At noon one of the aeroplanes of the 1st Aero Squadron flew in between the mountains from the north, waggled its wings, looked the ground over, then landed. Soldiers who had never before seen an aeroplane on the ground crowded about the machine.  It was a Curtiss JN-2 biplane, an open-cockpit two-seater powered by a 90-h.p. steel cylinder motor and numbered 44 on its fuselage. Cautioning the soldiers not to harm the fabric, the pilot and observer walked to tell Colonel Irwine that they had spotted General Pershing on his way from Tepehuanes and that he would arrive shortly.
          In half an hour the flying headquarters of the Punitive Expedition reached the regiment. Pershing rode in a Dodge touring car with his chief of staff, his personal aide, and the most recent newspaper correspondent to join the command, Emmett Harris of the New York Tribune. The Dodge was followed by two Fords carrying Booker, the General’s Negro cook, several enlisted men, and three other correspondents. As soon as a blanket was spread on the ground, maps got out and unfolded upon it, field headquarters were established. For mobility and frequent conferences with his commanders General Pershing traded comfort and the perspective of a central C.P. He used his motor-cars to their limit. He slept in his clothes. He stepped from the Dodge now, to shake hands with Irwine and hear his account of the morning’s fight. He wore a tie and, on each side of his shirt collar, the single silver star of a brigadier general. The correspondents left the cars to stretch, to listen, to write the story. Then, sitting cross-legged on the ground, the General talked with his chief of staff, Lieutenant Colonel DeRose, his aide, and Colonel Irwine and his executive officer, who sat or squatted or knelt over maps. It was also a briefing for the correspondents leaning over the officers’ shoulders. Booker built a fire, wrung the necks of two chickens bought by one of the correspondents and given to     the General, plucked and cleaned them and put them on to boil. The latest information of the whereabouts of Villa’s bands was related to the maps. Field orders for column commanders were prepared by the chief of staff.
          The velocity of the wind increased. Sand stung faces. Maps had to be held down. Headquarters were moved into the lee of the cars. An enlisted man buttoned the isinglass side-curtains into the tonneau of the Dodge. A report of the fight at Guerrero, to be telegraphed to the War Department, was drafted by the aide. The pilot of Aeroplane 44, who had flown in from El Paso, relayed the news that the German artillery assault on Verdun was continuing, with the French under Petain holding firm. Emmett Harris, the newcomer, asking Pershing if it was true he had met and shaken hands with Villa on the El Paso bridge the year before? The General said it was.
          “What did you talk about?”
          “I told him to behave.”
          “What did he say?”
          “He said he would.”
          There was laughter. Floyd Gibbons of the Chicago Tribune asked the commander if he could quote him as promising to capture Villa soon. He could say, Pershing responded, that the Punitive Expedition, U.S. Army, had Villa entirely surrounded--on one side.  There was laughter.
          Now the wind blew a gale. It wailed in from the west.  Troopers of the regiment attempting to cook on open ground found their meat-cans filled with sand and cups overturned. The attempts were given up and the men covered themselves with blankets. On the picket lines the horses turned away from the wind and lowered their heads humbly. The fuel was blown from Booker’s fire and he informed the General that he would save the chicken, but would have to serve ‘mergency rations’, which were pressed bars of a chocolate base mixed with desiccated vegetables and meat. The pilot and observer went to have the aeroplane pegged down with ropes. Out of the storm a messenger rode in on a staggering horse. He came all the way from Cusihuiriachic, he reported, where yesterday three or four hundred men under two of Villa’s generals, Cruz Dominiguez and one named Arrega, had attacked and taken over the town from the Federales; the Villistas had then moved on, after recruiting, to a ranch called Ojos Azules, which was owned by an American, a woman named Geary, and as far as he knew, were there yet. Asking for a map of the area, Pershing sent for the pilot of Aeroplane 44 and conferred with his chief of staff, DeRose. The correspondents, whose mouths had been ready for chicken, got back into the Fords to eat Armour Emergency Rations as Emmett Harris entered the Dodge.  DeRose noticed two men standing near-by, an officer and an enlisted man, obscured by the blowing dust, and did not know how long they had been there. When he motioned to them the officer approached.  It was Major Thorn. He wished to speak to the General. The Cusi decision made, DeRose took him.
          Thorn saluted and the General stood as though to shake hands, then returned the salute. Thorn, who had been Executive Officer of the 12th Cavalry under Colonel Selah Rogers when it was attacked at Columbus, had shortly thereafter been designated by Pershing as Awards Officer of the Expedition. He reported that he had left the main base at Colonia Dublán two days ago and had reached the 6th in time to see the fight this morning. The telegraph line to El Paso and been open a few hours, and the award of the Congressional Medal of Honor for Sergeant Boice had come in from the War Department, approved. The General could not hear him well, and told him to come into the car.
          The Major got into the front seat of the Dodge and slid to the right as Pershing sat in the rear beside Emmett Harris. The General introduced the two men. 
          “Boice?” Pershing said. “Oh yes, the boy at Columbus.”
          “I have the wire and the citation, sir,” Thorn said, taking papers from his shirt pocket and handing them over the seat. 
          “Here’s courage for you, Harris.” The General gave him the citation. “Here’s a story. Villa hit them in the middle of the night.  Boice was a machine-gunner, a boy of twenty or so. He got his weapon, took a bullet in the liver, but operated the gun for over an hour and finally keeled over from loss of blood. Thorn here wrote the citation. Read it.” He looked at Thorn. “Have you told Boice he’s a hero officially?”
          The Major waited before speaking. He took hold of the steering-wheel with one hand. He was a man of medium height and stocky build. The skin of his rather round face was grimed with dust.  He wore steel-rimmed glasses which had evidently been broken, for the left bow was taped to the rim hinge by a knot of black friction tape. It impaired vision. Whoever observed him was conscious of it, as he must himself have been: the black knot constantly at the corner of his left eye.
          “No sir,” he said, “I haven’t. Boice was killed yesterday. I was going to find him and tell him today.”
          The touring sedan swayed as a gust hit it broadside. It was quiet in the tonneau except for the whine of the wind and the pelleting of sand against the curtains. 
          “That’s hard news,” the General said. “I’m sorry.”
          “Superb.” Emmett Harris had finished reading the citation.  The New York Tribune man was short and plump with small, almost fragile hands and wrists. He wore a city overcoat and a new ten-gallon hat he had bought in Texas. He spoke in bursts. “A masterpiece of brevity. This might serve as a model for military prose, Major. I’ll certainly do a story on this, what’s-his-name, Boice.  Of course the sequel has impact.”
          “Share it with the others,” Pershing said.
          “General, that’s why I came to see you,” Thorn said. “I have another one, a private named Hetherington, out of L Troop of this regiment. What he did this morning is worth the Medal, I know, and I intend to write him up.”
          “What was it?”
          Briefly the officer described the deed.
          “Jesu,” Emmett Harris said. “I’ll do a piece on him, too.  Though I do think an award is always more picturesque when it’s posthumous.”
          “Wait until it’s approved,” Pershing advised. “Where is he, Thorn?”
          “Out there, sir, holding the horses.”
          The General opened the door, got out and strode to a figure holding the reins of two horses. The wind held the door open. Squinting, the men in the  car could see that the commander put a hand on the shoulder of the private and shook his hand. After a minute he returned.
          “I had to say something to him,” Pershing said. “Another young one, a fine lad.”
          “A latter-day Leonidas,” said the correspondent.
          “General, I would like to prevent what’s happened to Boice happening to Hetherington,” Major Thorn said abruptly. “I would like to keep him out of action and alive until the Medal is approved. That is the least we can do. May I have permission to send him back to base until we know, and any others I find?”
          “That sounds reasonable.”
          “Would you put it in writing, sir?”
          “If you want.”
          The General took a pad and pencil from his breast pocket and wrote, reading aloud. “This will authorize al commanders to detail those men selected by the bearer, Major Thorn, Awards Officer, Punitive Expedition, to him for temporary base duty. Pershing.” He re-read the order, tore off the sheet and gave it to Thorn. “Will that do?”
          “Thank you, sir.” Thorn folded the order. “Shall I take Hetherington to Dublan?”
          “No, it’s too far. I’m setting up an advance base at Cordura.  The trucks will be that far soon. It’s on the Tex-Mex Railroad--ask DeRose to show you the map.”
          “All right, sir. By the way, before I take him there, is anything coming up I should see?” the Major asked. “Anything in the next three or four days you know of?”
          Pershing told him about Cusihuiriachic and the Villistas at the Ojos Azules ranch. “Rogers is nearest there, at Gral. Trias, with seven troops of our outfit and the Apache scouts. When the wind dies I will send the aeroplane to him with orders to start for Cusi. He needs a fight.”
          “He does?” asked Emmett Harris.
          “Selah Rogers will be sixty-four this summer,” Pershing said, “retirement age. Something like this morning might make the Senate happy enough to give him a star before then.”
          “We’ll start for Cusi right away.” Thorn opened the door.  “Thank you, General. If I find any others I’ll take them to Cordura.”
          “All right.” The General leaned forward. “Thorn, I think you are right about this. It is the least we can do for them. Have DeRose locate Trias for you.”
          “Yes, sir.”
          The Major stepped out, slamming the door against the wind.  Pershing sat back against the leather. He seemed relieved the officer had gone. Emmett Harris was re-reading the Boice citation. 
          “It may be something in the genes,” he said.
          “What?”
          “Which makes it possible, or necessary, for a man to stay at a gun until he faints from loss of blood. Or do what this other one, Hetherington, did.”
          “I don’t know.”
          “How fascinating for a man to make the discovery about himself, what is conduct would be under similar circumstances. Or how terrifying.”
          “I wish this wind would die.”
          It was draughty in the tonneau of the Dodge. The newspaper-man buttoned the top button of his city overcoat.
          “General, isn’t it a little unusual to place all this stress on awards? I mean, appointing an officer of field grade Awards Officer, allowing him to  take men out of action?  Is this Army custom?”
          “There are good reasons.”
          “Would you care to mention them?”
          Pershing looked at him. “Since we can’t move, I will. I would guess this country is going to need an army soon, a big one, plus material and spirit to go with it. As always, the country will take too long. But in the meantime it will have some heroes to think about.”
          “I see. You believe we will enter the war, then?”
          “If you know how we can stay out, tell me.”
          “That’s the only reason?”
          “The principal. This is also the last cavalry campaign any of us will see. What General Sheridan started, General Motors is going to finish.”
          Time dragged. The wind fisted the touring car. Once the General’s aide came, a handkerchief muffling his face, and a door on the lee side of the car was opened upon a premature night in which the entire regiment, men and animals, was swallowed up by air-streams of sand.
          “General,” Emmett Harris said, “this ranch where you’re sending Rogers--did I understand it’s owned by a woman named Geary?”
          “I suppose it’s the ranch Senator Geary owned.”
          “Senator? Adolf Geary?”
          “I know he owned one.”
          “Jesu.” Harris sat up. “Then that’s his daughter; that’s where she’s hidden. Don’t you remember, Geary died in ’08 and she disappeared the same year? She has been out of sight for eight years. What opulent irony. Instead of Villa, the U.S. Cavalry catches up with Adelaide Geary. I didn’t connect the names.” Harris coughed violently.
          “I may have heard of her,” Pershing said. “I was in the Philippines then.”
          “You would have even there.” The newspaper-man filled him in. A member of the Indian Affairs Committee, a man of great wealth and long tenure in the Senate, Adolf Geary of Missouri had been convicted of fraud in connection with the sale of reservation lands in 1908, dying that year in prison. It had required considerable time and moral ingenuity (the term Harris applied), for his daughter to equal his disrepute, but this she had managed to do. “The delicious part being,” he concluded, “that it was all true about her. A woman more sinning than sinned against.”
          “If she’s the one,” the General said. 
          Using a small silver nail-cutter the Tribune man began to trim his nails, dropping each cutting carefully to the car floor. “Adelaide Geary,” he said. “What a stroke of luck.” He examined the trimmed nails, fingers extended. “Incidentallly, isn’t there something stuffy in the Constitution about a citizen giving aid and comfort to an enemy of the United States? Something to that effect?”
          “It would be a fine point to establish. We are not at war with Mexico.”
          “Unfortunate. I must look into it, though. What a lark it would be to haul her kicking and screaming back across the border.  Exclusive interviews from the El Paso pokey, that sort of thing.”
          The afternoon wore itself out. The wind did not abate. The stiffened isinglass of the side-curtains crackled.
          “Gibbons asked if you thought you would capture Villa, General, and you turned him off with a joke. Perhaps it’s a stupid question, but do you think you can?”
          Pershing sat in the corner of the seat, erect, his eyes closed.  Except for his posture, he might have been asleep.
          “Harris,” he said after a time, “understand something. When I talk to you this way, it is one person to another, nothing more. If you put what I say in your dispatches, I will cut it out. Now your question: do you think I can catch Villa? No, I don’t. He knows Chihuahua better than I do and he can live off it. I have a front seventy miles wide and practically no communications. Even so, I feel sorry for him. He has lost a lot lately, as I have.”
          It was dark in the tonneau. The correspondent could scarcely see the spare, sharp-boned face of the commander. The mouth was a straight line. Over it a moustache had begun to gray. Hooking down to the corner of the mouth a furrow cut deep in each cheek. The allusion to loss puzzled the correspondent until he recalled the tragedy of the year before: by telephone the General had been informed that his wife and three young daughters had lost their lives at San Francisco in a fire which had destroyed their quarters; only the infant son had survived.
          Emmett Harris changed the subject. “By the way, how exactly does an Awards Officer function? I see him galloping about the country looking for battles and bravery, then writing it all down in deathless prose.”
          “His duty is to find men who deserve recognition. He writes a citation, signs it and swears to it as an officer. Then I and the Chief of Staff of the Army and the Secretary of War must endorse it.  Congress will generally approve what we endorse.”
          “Remarkable,” Emmett Harris said. “If you don’t mind, I’ll do the first story on him.”
          “I do mind,” John Pershing said.
          “You do?”
          “I do.”
          “But he’s a hero-maker, General, a Homer on horseback. Or a Virgil--arms and the man he sings!” The correspondent flung up a plump hand in mock salute.
          “Harris, I said no.”
          The New York Tribune man was caught in mid-salute. The General’s words, direct as though delivered to a child, were less a statement than an order. Awkwardly Emmett Harris lowered the hand, leaned back. He was stunned. In some way he had given offence or stepped upon forbidden ground, and for it he had been rebuked. He could not allow this situation to firm. Opening the door of the Dodge he closed his eyes and went through the storm to the rear of the car to search blindly in the luggage strapped beside the spare wheel as the sand scoured the skin of his face and the wind blew his new hat from his head and brought him to his hands and knees so that he tipped over a water-can. Hating the wind and the country and what he was about to do, he thought: ‘You are a city man and live in a flat and you are afraid of this general; if you had been the soldier in Hetherington’s place you would have run for your life because you are probably a coward.’ Then coughing, spitting, hatless, he returned with a large, pre-baked ham he had intended to save for himself.
          “Here we are, General, with my compliments,” he forced himself to say. “We will starve before morning.”
          “Well, look here.” John Pershing opened a pocketknife. “I will have a little, thank you, Harris. We must take back most of it to the others, though.”
          They ate.

 

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