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Authors: Glendon Swarthout

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BOOK: They Came To Cordura
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But these were alive, Thorn protested.

Ben Ticknor said it was still pretty apt for a saw-bones without sleep two nights running.

Thorn asked about the wounded, and the surgeon replied he had lost one during the night, the boy who had been shot in the abdomen, so that there would be seven to bury rather than six. Thorn asked if the injury of the first sergeant of D would permit him to make the ride north. The surgeon said yes, but the man had taken a blow on the head powerful enough to fell an ox, and he must not have another. As simply as he could, he explained the effects of partial concussion, adding that recovery was usually complete except, possibly, for occasional vertigo, or dizziness. He listed the possible consequences of further damage to the skull and the brain cells beneath. He warned the Major about drinking water on the way, to make sure that it was moving, saying that from a medical point of view, the real danger to this Expedition was not Villa, but Pancho Diarrhoea.

Thorn almost smiled. Silently they watched a hand-forge hotted up with bellows as a blacksmith prepared to shoe.

Thorn said there was something else he had been meaning to ask. It was natural to wonder why men did these things. He wondered if there might be a physical basis for it, something in the system. Ben Ticknor reflected. It was true, excitement increased sugar in the blood, sent an extra shot of adrenalin into the glands, and maybe in the heat of a fight—but he doubted you could account for courage physiologically. Himself, he would rather not try. He wanted some mystery in the world, even in medicine. He put a hand on his friend’s shoulder.

Rather than bringing them together, his touch, instinctive, cut them apart completely. Ben Ticknor withdrew his hand even as Thorn moved from it. For both the pain of realization was acute. The severance seemed physical, as though one had died. They could not speak, could not look at each other. Finally Major Thorn said he must assemble his party. The surgeon wished him a good trip. They could not shake hands. The Major started away.

“Tom.”

Thorn turned. Ben Ticknor, the compassionate, tried to say something, his tired face creased with effort, then changed his mind, and with the obstinacy of a boy pointed his stogie. “Admit it was apt, dammit,” he said.

“It was,” Thorn managed.

At the granary Hetherington was waiting with their horses saddled and they rode to the
terreno.
Soon the four men detailed to base duty joined them. Troops seemed to be assembling beyond the cottonwoods. A
vaquero
of the ranch brought up a compact buckskin mare with obvious Arabian breeding behind it, and in a few minutes, guarded by a trooper, the Geary woman strode from the
casa grande
to the mare and mounted. She wore whip-cord breeches, ankle boots, a chamois jacket and a
Chihuahueno
hat. She was tall as a man. A boy, evidently a servant of the household, brought from the patio and handed up to her the bird of many-colored plumage, which she tethered to the pommel of her saddle by a leather thong. Leading, Major Thorn rode out through the gate and turned on to the road. As they passed the cottonwoods he saw five troops of the Provisional Squadron drawn up in dismounted ceremonial ranks. They were burying the dead. He halted his party and removed his hat.

Since no coffins were available, the seven dead had been wrapped in blankets and placed in newly dug graves with their names and records sealed in bottles.

Selah Rogers stood bareheaded beside the graves, while near him Lieutenant Treat of C Troop read the short oration he had composed the night before, this being one of the onerous duties usually imposed upon the youngest officers. Campaign hats at their sides, the troops stood at attention as the sun glazed the morning sky. The party on the road listened to Lieutenant Treat’s oration. “Some are born to tread the paths of peace, to walk among the sheltered ways, to dwell in the midst of tranquility, and when their allotted race is ended, to look back from the sunset of life upon an even and uneventful course. But others come forth into the midst of trials and tribulations, to be surrounded by perils, and to be tossed by the storms of life.” Major Thorn did not really listen. He thought instead of the fight there might be this day or the next at
Pilon Cillos
, of those whose heroism, since he would be absent, would go unrecognized. “Of such are they who step forward at the call of their country in its hour of need. With souls fired by the glorious spark of patriotism, animated by the desire to spread the blessings of liberty, equality and justice to all men and to less fortunate peoples, they lay down their lives in furtherance of these high and righteous ideals.” He thought of the journey to
Cordura
before him now, of the five men in his charge, of what they represented. It was apt. They were of the golden race indeed, by deed. “We have congregated today to do the last rites and honors to some of that noble class, upon whom falls the unique honor of being among the first to lay down their lives, to die a soldier’s death, than which none is more honorable. Their conduct calls for our emulation and highest admiration, and should instill in our breasts pride that they have been one with us in body and will continue with us in spirit.” He was glad, after all, to take them himself; to be free of those of this regiment who, sharing his secret, shared him; to have four new citations to write, and thus, answers to seek. ‘And I have a command again,’ he thought. ‘I have had platoons, troops, once a squadron, I have been second-in-command of a regiment. For three days I will be in charge of a temporary duty detail. That is a kind of command, too. But I wonder if any officer in any war has ever had one like it. I will do my duty to them, whatever it is. And to what they stand for, whatever that may be. God help me do my duty.’ “Let us with humble and contrite spirits consign to their temporary abiding places all that is mortal of our comrades in arms.”

Colonel Rogers nodded approval, then recited the Twenty-third Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer while Captain Paltz dropped a handful of earth into each of the seven graves. A squad fired three volleys from Springfields. Replacing his hat, forgetting to wait for taps, Thomas Thorn signaled his party on its way. As the seven riders took up the trot across the immense and aged hand of the plain, the buildings of
Ojos Azules
dwindling in dust behind them, mournful bugle notes called reproach.

Chapter Seven

THUS
on the eighteenth of April, 1916, they went out into the highest places of
Chihuahua
in Mexico, north, towards a town called
Cordura
.

After they had traversed the plain and entered among the nippled peaks Major Thorn established a march formation. Sergeant Chawk he placed as a point, a hundred yards in advance of his main body, which consisted of Lieutenant Fowler and Privates Hetherington, Trubee and Renziehausen. Riding with them for a time while the Geary woman lagged behind, he put them under Lieutenant Fowler and told them that her status was that of a military prisoner, and as such she was to be watched at all times while mounted; dismounted she might move freely, even out of sight to perform the necessities, for there would be no possibility of escape afoot. Conversation with her he ordered kept to a minimum. Then stopping, he let them pass on, and the woman, and took position twenty yards to her rear. From here he could keep an eye on his formation in open country and close it up when he could not.

An hour passed. In this high country so near were they to the sky that the small white clouds, puffed like smoke between the peaks as though from the lips of gods, ballooned by the heads of the riders. The party was eight thousand feet up, Thorn guessed, or more. The thin air was insufficient to the needs of the lungs. Some of the men would suffer from altitude. Unstirruping his left leg he laid it forward along the dampening side of Sheep to listen. The chestnut’s heart battered at his ribs. He would hate to have to run a horse at this height. They would keep to the walk, he decided, until lower land. Two days to the Tex—Mex, three days to base. Suddenly someone broke into ballad.

          
“I lay at the foot of a green maguey,

          
My treacherous love ran away with another;

          
To the song of the lark I awoke,

          
O what a hang-over and the bar-keep won’t trust me!”

It was Sergeant Chawk out on the point. It was not so much a song as a bellowing in bad Spanish. Thorn’s command reflex was to ride forward and stop it, but he checked himself. If a man could sing in this country, especially a man with a partial concussion, let him. So enormous was the figure of the sergeant that the animal under him seemed burro-like; his campaign hat perched atop a head swollen with bandages, he rode roaring.

          
“0 God, free me of this illness,

          
I feel as if I am going to die;

          
The Virgin of pulque and tequila must save me,

          
O what a hang-over, and nothing to drink!”

The Geary woman pulled up and waited for the officer to come abreast.

“You are the officer in charge?”

“Yes. I am Major Thorn.”

“I am a military prisoner. Is that right?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Thorn found much masculine about her. Her seat on the Arab mare was boneless and easy, like that of a
vaquero.
Her hands, wrists and face were tanned as dark as a
Yaqui’s
, and at the corners of her eyes, which were sea-blue and steady, the sun had drawn many fine squint-lines. He guessed she would be a sure shot with a rifle. Her age he placed near that of his.

“Then I expect to be told what this is all about. You ride in, shoot up my ranch, put me under arrest and take me somewhere to face some kind of charge. I’m not Mexican, I’m American, and I have a right to know.”

“I agree,” Thorn said politely. “I’ll tell you what I know, but that is very little. My orders are to escort you to base under guard.” He explained that according to the Loss of Nationality Act, he had been told by Colonel Rogers, who had ordered her arrest, an American who knowingly aided the armed forces of another country engaged against United States troops could be deprived of citizenship. “You did quarter Villistas,” he said, “and you must have known American cavalry was operating in this area.”

She looked at him scornfully. “Major, for the last five years, if you lived in this country you quartered anybody who came along or they quartered themselves. Be realistic. I’ve had to be. That ranch has been the only home I’ve had since my father died eight years ago. I’ve done what I had to do to save it. Villistas, Federales, red flaggers—I’ve let them in and rationed them and thanked God when they were gone. As a result,
Ojos
is the only ranch in Chihuahua State still in the original owner’s hands. Do you mean to say an American has no right to protect his own property?”

Thorn did not reply. Tethered in front of her, the toucan or macaw distracted him. Upon the eye its colors, violent in sunlight, had a hypnotic effect. The high horn of her Mexican saddle was inset with a small mirror, for decoration, and on this horn the bird rode backward, head down, turning from side to side its pure white beak and peering over its claws at its reflection, fascinated by itself. Unconsciously Major Thorn rubbed his finger.

“Well, Major?”

“In this case, though, American troops were involved,” he said. “You must have heard about Columbus.”

“I did.”

“You must have known we were after Villa.”

“I heard about ten thousand of you were galloping around playing hide-and-seek. You won’t find him, of course, but I suppose it’s good training for you.’’

Her sarcasm annoyed him. “We certainly won’t if our own countrymen help him.”

“You certainly won’t if your object is arresting American women,” she countered. “I ought to be flattered. I’m so dangerous the army needs two officers and four enlisted men to take me in. Will you all be decorated when you do?”

Thorn kept silent. He did not intend to tell her about the temporary detail and he did not intend to be put on the defensive by a prisoner. He had been ordered to take her to base and he would obey, but her presence would be about as helpful as that of an animal too lame to ride and too valuable to shoot. He looked ahead to his party winding north in file among the nippled peaks, now in shadow cast by the low clouds, now in the glaring sun, the backs of their shirts splotched with sweat. The song of Sergeant Chawk had ceased. There was little talking among the main body. The Major ran over the names once more to himself: Fowler, Chawk, Hetherington, Trubee, Renziehausen. It occurred to him that he had, even in this small detail, a complete command structure, senior officer, junior, non-com, enlisted men. His field headquarters would be his notebook. The Geary woman was studying him. What she saw did not impress her. His shoulders and chest were too like a barrel for a man of medium height. His horse was only an army nag. He wore glasses. Behind them he kept his round face expressionless, she decided, to conceal an average or less than average intelligence. Plodding, unimaginative, he would be the kind of officer unable to operate outside the covers of a command manual, content to grind out the years until retirement in such menial duty as guard detail or equipment supply. Her best course, it seemed to her, was so thoroughly to confuse him by argument that he would free her to save himself embarrassment. She pushed up the brim of her hat.

“Major, let’s be sensible. You say there is a Loss of Nationality Act which applies to Americans who knowingly aid the enemy.”

“That is what I was told.”

“Then it would have to be proved that I knew you were after Arreaga, wouldn’t it?”

“I suppose so.”

“Which would be impossible. Also it would have to be proved I had an alternative, that I could have kept three or four hundred armed Mexicans off my place if I had wanted to. Isn’t that right?”

BOOK: They Came To Cordura
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