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Authors: Glendon Swarthout

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They Came To Cordura

BOOK: They Came To Cordura
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They Came To Cordura

It is 1916, the year of the abortive American Punitive Expedition into Mexico. Major Thorn, Awards Officer of the campaign, has been ordered to escort five cavalrymen cited for the Medal of Honor across the barren state of
. A middle-aged soldier, tortured by the memory of a failure of nerve in a previous engagement, he ponders deeply on the five heroes in his charge as they travel. Bound to them by his own secret guilt as well as by admiration, he is fascinated by them, and dedicated to his mission of shepherding them to safety. Danger, hunger and thirst, lust and fever beset their trek, and base qualities are exposed in the golden mettle of his ‘heroes’, but Thorn does not waver. The end of his journey is at once a horror and a triumph.

This novel is an exploration of the most mysterious of human attributes: courage.


They Came To Cordura



William Heinemann Ltd




First published 1958


All rights reserved




“There is no man that hath power over the spirit to retain the spirit; neither hath he power in the day of death: and there is no discharge in that war.”



Author’s Foreword

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Author’s Foreword

On the night of 8th March in 1916 a large mounted force under the revolutionist Francisco 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
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...
. 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
Aguas Calientes
. 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

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.

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 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
. 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
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
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 black 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 the 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
, 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
was continuing, with the French under Pétain holding firm. Emmett Harris, the newcomer, asked 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
, he reported, where yesterday three or four hundred men under two of Villa’s generals, Cruz Dominiguez and one named Arreaga, 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 nearby, 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
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 the 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
had been open for 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 to 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.

BOOK: They Came To Cordura
8.71Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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