Bierce & Pancho Villa, 1914


Bierce and Pancho Villa
by Don Swaim

Pancho Villa & Seven Seas

Ojinaga was a town of such treeless desolation that it made Presidio, its American cousin across the Rio Grande, seem prosperous. The place was composed of square, adobe houses and white, dusty streets. Few houses had roofs, most had walls that had been fractured by cannon blasts. Chickens, children, and dogs used the gaping holes in the walls like doors.

The warring sides had exchanged Ojinaga six times during the revolution. Maybe it was seven. No one was sure. For the moment, it was in the hands of General Salvador Mercado, survivor of a deadly one-hundred-fifty mile retreat across the desert from his denouement at Tierra Blanca. Mercado had begun his campaign with an army of fifteen-thousand men. By the time he reached Ojinaga he had just three-thousand-five-hundred, including eleven generals, twenty-one colonels, and forty-five majors.

Villa's strategy against Mercado was direct. After an artillery pounding it was a head on assault. Villa, wearing two crisscrossed bandoleers and a sombrero, was astride his favorite horse, a stallion named Seven Leagues. He'd owned many horses and he gave them all the same name. A white silk scarf flowed from the bandido's neck. He wore buckskin trousers and jodhpur boots and big-rawled Mexican spurs. Not far behind him was the old gringo with a white mustache. Bierce, dressed in his usual black, rode his white mare, his Colt .45 at his side, a Winchester cradled in his arms.

"Sure you're up to this, old man?" Pancho shouted.

"I can still pull a trigger," Bierce shouted back.

"You're about to get your chance, senor."

The sun flashed on the menacing sight of field guns protecting Ojinaga. But the guerrilleros knew that the Huertistas were low on shells and ammunition, that they were exhausted, depleted, starving, terrified, and weary of fight.

"Viva la Revolucion!" Villa yelled to his cavalry, waving his rifle over his head.

Viva Villa!

Viva Villa!

Viva Villa!

A crater from a cannon blast erupted not seventy-five feet from the old man, scaring his horse, who rose on her hind legs. But Bierce was steady at the reins and urged her onward. The federales had dug trenches in which to position themselves. They'd stacked sandbags. They'd overturned cars and had piled debris to use as cover from the invaders. But they had no will.
Col 1

Pancho Villa leading his dorodos into battle.

The guerrilleros swarmed through the makeshift positions, slaughtering the wretched defenders. The survivors retreated in backward steps, then started to run. Villa galloped down the main street, firing indiscriminately. But as he neared an old windowless church, with three huge Spanish bells hanging on a rack outside, Seven Leagues stumbled on a discarded automobile tire and the general was thrown to the ground, his gun skittering away. Two of the escaping federales, on foot, saw their chance to become heroes. They raised their Mausers and started to open fire on the fallen general. Bierce's horse galloped past Villa. The old man pulled on the reins sharply and turned the mare. He raised his Winchester and fired two shots, each bullet reaching its target. The federales fell, the gringo's bullets lodged in their brains, their blood contrasting red with the gray of the street. Villa got up and brushed the dust from his clothes.


"Not bad shooting for an old gringo."

"I learned my skills in the Ninth Indiana Infantry Regiment, General."

Bullets whistled over their heads. Villa, running pigeon-toed, found his horse and grabbed the bridle. The desperate Huertistas, firing over their shoulders, splashed across the shallow water of the Rio Grande. They were greeted by unfriendly American soldiers led by Colonel John Pershing and herded into a great, unsanitary corral like cattle. Later, the Mexicans were moved to Fort Bliss, where they were crowded into a stockade enclosed by barbed wire until the Americans could figure out what the hell to do with them. That night, Ojinaga was tranquil except for the odor of smoke and rubber and death. Exhausted soldiers slept, buzzed by mosquitos. Near a campfire a soldier strummed a guitar and sang "The Morning Song to Francisco Villa." It would be a long time before the smell of the battle went away.

Villa said to Bierce, "You saved my life."

"My compliments, sir."

"Senor, you're a foolhardy man."

"That's usually a man who's unlucky in the execution of a courageous act, General."

"Because you saved my life, that don't mean I'm going to let you live. You've still got to play The Game."

"I wouldn't have it any other way, sir. You're a man who has it in his power to abate in me the ravages of senility and reduce the chances of being drowned."

Villa took out a cigar and put it in his mouth. He heard a dog bark. Already the animals had emerged from their hiding places to sniff at the bodies of the dead.

© 1996 by Don Swaim

Ambrose Bierce in the News
Ambrose Bierce on the Notion of God
Ambrose Bierce on Terrorism
Ambrose Bierce on Politics
Ambrose Bierce & Pancho Villa
The Wickedest Man in San Francisco, 1870
Love & Kisses: Bierce & Wilde
Bierce Duels with H.L. Mencken
Bierce & Jack London
Ambrose Bierce Resources on the Web

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