She stared at the photograph: bandoliers crisscrossing his chest, a big sombrero, and a cigarette clenched in a reckless smile. Pancho Villa!
Callie Masterson was mesmerized by a New York Times edition, dated March 1, 1916, on the exploits of the revolutionary Pancho Villa’s daring raids in Chihuahua Mexico. That photo lit a spark inside that drove her straight into the editor’s office of the Houston Chronicle, where her boss resided.
She placed the Times article right under his nose, as he put a match to his pipe.
Edward Shaughnessy was a tall, slender man, with shaggy gray hair and bushy gray eyebrows. He wore spectacles and had a fatigued look, probably from too much work, or maybe a legacy of his rough childhood in Ireland.
“Mr. Shaughnessy, have you seen this? Pancho Villa is furious at President Wilson for withdrawing his support. They say that he is bound to take revenge by attacking the United States. Listen to what he told the Times.” She picked up the paper and quoted Villa: ‘I consider myself the moral and physical champion of the Mexican people… and the Americans, our eternal enemies and the barbarians of the North.’
“They call him ‘El Leon del Norte’, the lion of the north.”
He calmly examined said paper while puffing fragrant clouds of smoke into the air, gazing up at Callie a few times. He had seen that look before. She had a winsome face, delicate some might call it, except for a small gap between her front teeth, which he thought gave her a little girl quality. Some remarked about her resemblance to silent film star Lilian Gish.
But she was a stubborn woman when she had a cause.
“What are you so fired up about, dearie? It’s just a matter of time before they get him. It’s a rag tag bunch. Why, it says right here they’re in dire need of arms, boots, ammunition, and the like.” “But don’t you see? Something is going to happen down there. Listen to this quote: “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.“ He feels betrayed by us-Wilson threw his hand in with Carranza. A man like Villa will exact a reprisal, and he’ll do it in the easiest place he can find-some sleepy defenseless border town.”
“You think so, huh?”
“Yes sir, I do and I want to be there when it happens.”
She had both hands on his desk and leaned forward like a lion herself, about to pounce. A strand of her black hair hung in her face, which had a look of agitated earnestness upon it. He thought back three years, when she had first arrived. She had virtually no experience, except for some essays from her college newspaper. But it was her outspoken nature and passionate feelings about issues of the day, like the vote for women and the plight of Negroes, that impressed him. What she lacked in finesse she made up for in enthusiasm. He admired the way she added dramatic flair to mundane stories, and so did his readers.
“Now that might be a very dangerous assignment young lady. I think-”
“Oh, but if we could get a scoop on this, be there when he strikes, why our circulation will skyrocket. Don’t you see Mr. Shaughnessy? It’s a natural.” She began to pace around the office, hands behind her back, her head spinning with ideas, articles with sensational headlines already taking form in her head. She always bit her lip when she had something important to do. “He’s the Mexican Robin Hood. That’s what they call him. He really does distribute cattle and loot from his raids to the poor campesinos.”
“Yes, and he often murders those who don’t agree with him.”
“Why, that’s just it. He’s a warrior, a desperado, a patriot, and the odds are against him…” she paused and tapped her finger on Villa’s photograph. “But the people love him! It‘s pure drama Mr. Shaughnessey, pure drama.”
He regarded the fierce determination in her blue eyes. This deceptively fragile looking 24 year old was one of his best reporters, and hard to resist. She had shown her toughness by being in the thick of it during labor unrest and racial confrontations in the streets of Houston. “Callie, I would hold myself responsible if anything happened to you. Let me think about it.”
Callie kept up the pressure. She had never felt so strongly about covering a story. Maybe it was because the turmoil in Europe was dominating the news. She felt that this revolution in her own hemisphere also needed a voice, a woman’s voice that would get to the heart of the struggle, in human terms. And Villa was a leader for the young century, reckless and daring, not some stodgy general commanding from the safety of an office. But most of all she yearned for some intensity in her life.
A week later a train bearing eighteen American mining employees was attacked in Chihuahua by a group of Villistas. They robbed, stripped, and shot all of them in cold blood, shouting “Viva Villa!” Congress debated whether to invade. President Wilson’s policy of “watchful waiting” was being sorely tested. Villa denied he gave any orders to kill.
Callie was on a train for Fort Bliss the next week.
She sat by the window as the serene landscape of the Texas Hill Country passed by. There was 400 miles yet to go before the Southern Pacific train reached El Paso, so Callie had plenty of time to research her notes. A pile of articles on recent developments in Mexico sat on her lap.
They were approaching the outskirts of San Antonio, not so very from Comanche Springs, the dusty little town where she had come into this world. She had done her best to put those lean years behind her, but an uncertain childhood, strewn with hardships, left its mark, and still had a bittersweet draw upon her heart. Even now, as a grown and independent woman, she missed her beloved grandmother, who passed on to Callie what she believed were her best assets- a determination to become a lady of culture and a stubborn optimism that things would work out if she persisted. It was she who had encouraged Callie to read all she could get her hands on, especially Shakespeare’s sonnets, which the elderly woman considered the jewels of the English language. Callie had memorized many of them by the age of ten. Images of black land farming country, cut by the Rio Blanco where she would pick colored pebbles out of the clear water, and the sharp scent of mesquite and sweet smell of fruit trees mingled with the tattered house that smelled of lye and stale bread, waking up to the sad sound of doves in the big live oak in the front yard.
Her father moved the family to San Antonio after her mother died, where she invented her own history and kept her poverty a locked secret from friends in school. And now, ten years later, she couldn’t quite believe she had ever lived like that. These things and more came to her as the steady rocking of the train put her gently to sleep.
Callie opened her eyes to a windswept desert on the outskirts of El Paso, where the vast military post of Fort Bliss stood enveloped in clouds of dust. She descended from the train and was nearly knocked over by a gust. A young officer quickly came to her aid and took her luggage.
“Miss Masterson? They sent us a photo and you must be her,” he half yelled over the howling wind. “I’m Lieutenant Troy.”
Callie, holding on to her hat and tearing up from dust in her eyes, nodded, and they were quickly off to the fort in a military truck.
Large groups of mounted cavalry moved all around the truck like ghosts, appearing then disappearing within the smoky dust. The driver regarded her profile and was taken by her lovely upturned nose and luxurious black hair, now disheveled from the wind. He leaned over to speak. “The winds blow like this out here all Spring, right up until June.”
“Yes, I remember now,” said Callie.
The wind gusts were shaking the truck as if it were a toy.
“What was that ma’am?” he yelled.
“Never mind,” she yelled back.
They stopped in front of a large brick building and the lieutenant escorted her up a flight of steps, clenching her arm firmly. They entered a large, cool vestibule, and once the door closed to the outside the sudden silence startled her.
“This way ma’am.”
He led her down a hallway, where photographs of various military parades, expeditions and portraits lined the walls. They stopped at a desk where a very serious looking fellow in spectacles sat. As he looked up at her, Callie was certain that he was not glad to see her.
“Miss Masterson, I am Lieutenant Polansky, press liaison officer for General Pershing. Normally we house the press in barracks, but as you are the sole female on these premises, General Pershing directed me to assign you to a special apartment. Lt. Troy will show take you there. It’s just out back.”
“When will I be able to speak with the General?”
“I have scheduled an appointment tomorrow morning at 8AM, sharp. His office is upstairs, on the third floor.”
“Why thank you. That will be fine.”
“Please be punctual.”
Before she could respond he bent his head down and busied himself with papers.
Callie was given her own tiny cottage, complete with a kitchen and a young Mexican maid. She had a light dinner and retired early, utterly exhausted from the 12 hour journey.
She arrived at her appointment at 7:55AM, and was ushered into the commander’s office at precisely 8AM.
Brigadier General John J. Pershing rose to greet Callie as she strode in, notepad in hand. She noticed at once that here was a commander, indeed. His face was strong and rugged, with a square jaw, neatly trimmed mustache, keen gray eyes, and closely cropped hair of the same color. The high round collar of his uniform only accentuated his military bearing, which was slightly softened by a grandfatherly smile.
“Welcome to Fort Bliss Miss Masterson,” he said, clasping her hand. “Please have a seat. We aren’t accustomed to female correspondents here, but you come highly recommended from your editor, Mr. Shaughnesey. However, he never mentioned how pretty his best reporter is. As a matter of fact, when you walked in I said to myself…she looks like that actress in Birth of a Nation. Now what’s her name?”
”People have told me that I resemble her, which I consider a fine compliment.”
“Well, I agree. Now, what can I do for you?”
“Can you brief me on the latest information concerning the probability of Villa invading the United States?”
Villa’s Pershing‘s countenance darkened. “He is very bitter about the President’s decision to support his rival, Carranza, and there have been unsubstantiated reports of his plans to carry out a raid, somewhere along the border. We are ever on alert.”
“Sir, I have in my files a photo of you and Villa and Obregon taken here at Fort Bliss.”
“Yes, that was in 1913, as I recall.”
“What sort of impression did he make on you? In terms of his morals and character?” She leaned closer to the desk. “Is he really a Robin Hood?”
Pershing smiled. “To be honest, we didn’t talk that long, but I can tell you he is a proud man, somewhat rough in his ways, and the man dearly loves his country. I came away with the impression that he would do anything for Mexico. His men idolize him. He’s reckless, possibly dangerous. But, he had that special something, oh, you know, like a cinema star.”
“You mean charisma.”
“Yes, exactly. You journalists always have the right word.”
“General, you’ve been on campaigns against the Apache, the Sioux and the war in the Philippines. If you had to fight Villa in Mexico, what would you expect?”
“It’s a real mess down there Miss Masterson. I honestly don’t know what to expect-will he have 500 or 5000 men? I just make sure the Eighth Brigade is ready to go when the order comes. If it comes. I’m a soldier.”
“Thank you sir. May I have a look at your facilities? I would love to interview some of the boys.”
“Of course. Lieutenant Troy has a little tour planned for you. And Miss Masterson?”
“May I call you Callie at our next meeting?”
“Why, of course General.”
“Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.”
This time he grasped her hand with both of his, and then gave her a quick little wink. On the way out she giggled, in spite of herself.
During the next week Callie was ferried around the base and observed maneuvers, gunnery ranges, obstacle courses and the powerful new mechanized advances, including transport trucks and machine guns, while interviewing officers and enlisted men to glean any bits of rumor and opinion on where Villa might strike.
But soon she grew weary of the military decorum and had a craving to get out into the desert and explore the border towns, closer to the real action, the revolution.
She studied the map and considered Presidio, south of El Paso, along the Rio Grande. Due west, in New Mexico, was Columbus. She had never been to that state, so she caught a morning train and headed out into the middle of nowhere.
There was no daydreaming on this trip. Callie was all wound up with excitement and her nose pressed against window for a possible glimpse of whatever she might see in Mexico, which was only a few hundred yards south of the tracks.
She wore a long black dress and a white blouse to counteract what she assumed would be intense desert sunshine, even though it would be hard to keep clean with all the dust. Instead of her regular buttoned up shoes, she brought a pair of western boots, which would be more practical and quicker to put on in case she had to move fast.
The train slowed as they approached the little village of Columbus. Callie thought the two-story station was rather gawky. The town itself was just a collection some wood and adobe buildings. There were no trees or even grass to relieve the parched look of the forlorn little settlement. Outside of the town the landscape was uniformly flat, except for three cone-shaped mountains to the west, the Tres Hermanos, and anything man-made was dwarfed by the immensity of the Chihuahuan desert. But then she stepped on to the platform and reveled in the grand amount of space that surrounded her. It felt wild and pure. Mercifully, only a moderate wind blew that day and the weather was uncommonly fine. Spring was only a few weeks away. There was no need for directions, for the Commercial Hotel was in plain sight and she quickly secured a room. It was small, but tidy, and furnished with a washbasin and pitcher, slop jar, bureau, and bed, with a kerosene lamp nearby. She came down into the parlor and saw curtained windows and oriental rugs. A hand-cranked Victrola and piano were nestled in a corner.
A smiling young man of about sixteen years came up to her. He was well dressed, but his black curly hair needed combing. Callie admired his big innocent brown eyes.
“Miss Masterson, welcome to our hotel. You are the first female reporter to honor us with your presence, so please let me know if you have need of anything.”
“Why thank you. And your name, sir?” Callie said, teasingly, for she could tell he was a little nervous.
“Oh, of course. I am Arthur Ravel, at your service ma’am.” An awkward bow followed.
“Arthur, aren’t you a little young to run a hotel?”
“Oh, it’s not mine ma’am, that is, my father, Sam Ravel, owns the building and runs the restaurant. He’s having some dental work in El Paso.”
“I do hope he come through it all right.”
“Thank you for your concern.”
“Could you tell me where the telegraph office is?”
“It’s right next to Miller’s Drug Store, to your right as you exit the hotel. And we have a telephone switchboard operator, as well. Mrs. Ellie Parker handles that. We’re quite up to date here Miss Masterson.”
“I’m impressed Arthur. May I call you Arthur?”
“Oh, anytime ma’am, anytime,” he stammered.
Callie went out on to the dusty street and stopped in front of the Telegraph Office. She saw a woman in the window with headphones, sitting very erect and in a serious conversation, so she crossed the street to the dry good’s store.
A pretty woman with a worried expression was sitting in a chair doing lacework. She looked up and smiled at Callie. “Can I help you find something?”
“Well, I just arrived. I’m Callie Masterson, a correspondent for the Houston Chronicle.”
“Hello,” she said as she rose, “I am Susan Moore. My husband John and run this store. Are you here because of Pancho Villa?” she said hesitantly.
“Why yes. Have you heard anything?”
She rubbed her hands together, as if they were cold. “I don’t know who to believe Miss Masterson. Some say he’s right across the border in Palomas.” She paused. It was obvious to Callie that the woman was upset. “Well, yesterday, about four o’clock, a well-dressed man came into the store. I went up to greet him and when I got close, I felt this cold chill go right through me. He was short, with dark eyes and a mustache. But he had a scar across his cheek that looked quite recent. He wanted some pants, and while I looked for his size I could just feel his eyes following me.” She stopped and looked at Callie for some sort of empathy. “You think he may have some connection with Villa?”
“I don’t know, I just know how I felt…that he seemed to be watching me…I had never seen him before. I just didn’t trust him.” She gathered her arms about herself and shuddered.
“Perhaps it’s all the rumors. You mustn’t get so worked up.” Callie touched her shoulder. “Are you here all alone?”
“My husband is at the bank.” She sat back down. “We’ve only been here for three years. I’m from New York, and to tell the truth, I just wasn’t prepared for all this. I’m not well acquainted with the ways along the border. Sometimes the wind shrieks for days on end. The store shakes so frightfully, I am afraid to go outside.”
She picked up a glass of water from a table and downed it entirely. “I have such a thirst all the time,” she half whispered. “The desert is so hard on one.”
Callie was starting to feel somewhat uncomfortable. This woman was clearly out of her element. She remembered Easterners who had lived near her house in Comanche Springs and were similarly traumatized by the harshness of the southwest. She has always felt a mixture of sympathy and bewilderment, as to why they had ever came west in the first place.
“I must go now Mrs. Moore. I do hope you feel better.”
Callie hurried out of the store, without bothering to buy the articles she had come in for.