Bullets, Bottles, and Gardenias

Author: Timothy G. Turner  | Date: 1935

Show Summary
Timothy G. Turner Dallas, Texas 1935

Revolution on a Shoestring


Finally, in early May of 1911, Madero’s army was assembled about Juárez and the attack was imminent. I left Juárez and was stationed at Madero’s headquarters where I had so many friends and where I found the scene much to my liking.

Madero and his staff had their headquarters in a little adobe house of one large room near the river bank just opposite the dam west of El Paso. There was a telephone near by on the American side and, as the crossing was not difficult, I could get over and send my matter without much loss of time.

About this headquarters every day gathered the leaders of the revolution to confer with Madero, to advise him, mostly to urge him to attack at once. He was temporizing after his fashion, making up and changing his mind every few hours.

There was a tall, bearded man who was subsecretary of war in Madero’s cabinet. He was Venustiano Carranza of Coahuila with whom I was destined to be associated many years later. There was Garibaldi, the Italian, and Benjamin Viljoen, a general of the Boer army in the war with the British who, like so many other Boers, came to the American Southwest after the peace.

One day in a little canyon near the adobe house I saw a small group of horsemen, a rough-looking lot, and at their head a man in semi-charro dress, a fellow of medium size, a fairly light mestizo but with the large, coarse, northern Mexican Indian mouth. They told me he was Francisco Villa, and that he had been a bandit.

I managed to get acquainted with Villa, but it was difficult. He was then self-conscious at being associated with such grand people, very diffident, almost shy, and had that suspicion of strangers of the mountaineer more than the plainsman.

Nobody then knew much about Villa, nor did they ever find out much, despite the many cocksure stories about his past. It is fairly sure, however, that he came from Durango. He was like many another bandit chieftain in Mexico in the days of the dictatorship.

While Villa did not amount to much in this first campaign of the revolution, he later proved to have rare abilities in Mexican warfare.

The military organization was of the loosest kind, the most informal possible grouping of troops. Garibaldi, who had filibustered in Central America, was familiar with this sort of organization. These loose bodies of troops he referred to as "groups." Viljoen called them "commandos." The Mexicans merely used the word "gente,"—people, or in this sense rather, folk. It was "la gente de Orozco," or "la gente de Villa."

Exactly how many there were in each group nobody knew, nor cared. The total number of the attacking forces I never heard estimated so that it convinced me, and neither did I know how many federals were in Juárez, the announced figures being palpable lies. In Mexico you are never sure of anything. But there was going to be a fight between several thousand men in a sizable adobe town and that was all anyone cared.

* * *

I was fascinated with the variety of life around this humble little adobe hut out there in the hills.

One day I saw a strange-looking Indian, a fine, strapping fellow with long hair and a little pack strapped on his back. I was told that he was a dispatch runner, one of the Tarahumare, of that southern Chihuahua tribe famous as long distance runners.

This Tarahumare spoke English which he had learned while working on American-owned ranches and he insisted on talking to me in my own language.

Curious about the reported Indian’s sense of smell, and since I was blessed or afflicted with a good nose myself, I asked him about the things his nose told him. When I remarked that I had something of a dog’s nose myself, he was much interested. How, he asked, did Indians smell to me? It came to me then and there, an exact illustration—Indians to me, I told him, had a spicy smell, midway between chili pepper and cinnamon.

The Indian smiled broadly and was much flattered that his people should have such a fine odor to alien noses.

"Do you know how the white men smell to us Indian fellows?" he said. "Well, mister, we all say they smell like coffee," and then he added, by way of a courteous aside, "and you Americans from the United States smell pretty damn good, le’me tell you, mister."

I have always wished to talk to a dog about these matters.

* * *

Madero, I think, was too kindhearted (some might say chicken-hearted) to order a clash of these armed forces; too thoroughgoing a sentimentalist. His hesitation, however, was not at all from fear, as some of the vulgar assumed. One of his misgivings about the attack was that the fire would kill Americans on the El Paso side and that this might lead to intervention by the United States troops.

The hills to the west of Juárez were now filled with insurrectos and they had brought up the long gun they had made in the machine shop at Madera and the little brass cannon they had stolen from the city hall park in El Paso.

But still Madero vacillated; still, they said, he conferred with the spirits of Napoleon and Socrates, Benito Juárez and Cagliostro, without arriving in his troubled brain at any definite course in all this terrible rumpus his eloquent oratory had stirred up.

But Madero was by no means a ridiculous figure. In some ways he was a very noble figure.

* * *

At last, I think, his own leaders conspired against him.

One day Madero had just told me that there would be no attack, that he wanted to "confer" with the enemy, but when I telephoned this my office told me that the insurrectos had moved up an irrigation canal along the river, and could be seen from the tallest buildings in El Paso, that there had been some rifle fire between them and the federals. When I told this to Madero he lost all self-control.

There was a scattered rifle fire through that afternoon, and when night set in I learned that all of the insurrectos were moving into the town. I think finally Madero gave the order to attack, but it already had been carried out.

I decided to remain on the rebel side, because I had a telephone I could reach. Through the night we heard occasional rifle fire.

With Garibaldi, who had a small group of filibusters, I moved into the outskirts of the town. We crept along crouched, running across the street intersections, but walking slowly as we hugged the walls of the houses which, as is common in even the smallest Mexican towns, were set directly adjoining one another like houses in our great cities. But all were single-story adobe structures.

We went along for a block or two until there was the rattle of a machine gun, very close, and the men ahead of us fell back, one of them wounded in the arm. That was too hot. Garibaldi’s men broke into a home, got onto the roof and began preparations for proper Latin-American warfare.

The front wails of Mexican houses extend a little higher than the front level of the roofs, which tilt slightly forward so that the rain will not run into the patios at the rear. To remove this water from the fronts of the roofs there are drains, usually square troughs of wood, set in the adobe through the front wall and extending a little way over the sidewalks. These theoretically throw the water into the streets, but actually down the necks of pedestrians on the sidewalks.

Now Garibaldi’s men, when they were on the roofs, took the butts of their rifles and knocked off the wooden spouts and then laid down on their faces on the roof and thrust their rifles through the holes where the drains had been. In this way they were invisible from the front, because Of the wall extension, or from the rear because of the upward tilt of the roof in that direction, and they had a ready-made hole to shoot through.

Garibaldi told me that he was suspicious because there had been no federals in the outlying houses. He thought that they wanted the insurrectos to occupy them.

"We will catch hell at daybreak," he said.

It was three o’clock and I decided that it was no place for me unless I wanted to lie on the floor of a house for several hours and see nothing, and maybe get killed. So I worked my way back and got out into the hills again and met Raoul Madero, younger brother of Francisco, who had charge of the big home-made gun which had been set on a hillock near the road that led out along the river from Juárez. He said this hill commanded a good view of the town, but we could see little, for there was not a light in Juárez, which was just a blue-black mass against the sky. There was little going on in the town, very occasional rifle shots and still rarer spurts of machine gun fire.

We sat up there on the hill and saw the river road swarming with insurrectos moving into Juárez. They moved in no formation whatsover, just an irregular stream of them, silhouettes of men and rifles.

Thus they were to move in and to move out along that road throughout the battle. They would fight awhile and then come back to rest, sleep and eat, returning, refreshed, to the front.

The European-trained soldiers raved at this, tried to turn them back, to make everybody fight at one time. But that was not the way of these chaps from Chihuahua. They knew their business, and they knew it well.

That casual way of fighting, I think, more than any other one thing, took Juárez. For by it the insurrectos were always fresh, with high spirits, while the little brown federals with no sleep and little food or water, with their officers behind them ready with their pistols to kill quitters, soon lost their morale.

* * *

For the first time I examined the home-made cannon, whose merits were explained to me by the gunner, an American of French extraction named Carpentier, an almost dainty little chap who wore a pair of new kid gloves, I recall. He was as proud as Punch of this curious cannon.

It was an extraordinary long piece with a very small bore, of naval gun proportions. It had a smooth bore, for rifling could not be accomplished with the machinery at Madera. It was breechloading, though, and had homemade shells that threw a solid ball. It was, in short, a sort of mammoth early American squirrel rifle mounted on a pair of small locomotive wheels.

The little antique brass cannon, Carpentier told me, had proved to have a surprisingly short range, but had been found, on tests, to do excellently at throwing nails, scrap iron and stones. So "the boys" had dragged it into the outskirts of Juárez.

* * *

It was a gorgeous dawn that broke over Juárez and truly, as the Argentine gaucho song begins, "Linda está la mañanita al ver venir la madrugada."

The air had that clean, sweet smell it only seems to have at daybreak. And never was there a dawn more quiet; not a single sound around us or from the town. No more peaceful scene could be fancied, the rolling brown hills framing the Mexican city with its bright stuccoed walls dominated by the tower of the old church. Surely there must have been a mistake, somehow, about a battle.

But the light had no sooner become strong enough to see clearly, and just as soon as we had what might be called "a day," when there was a shot, just one rifle shot, and then the most terrific racket, the crash of the big guns and their exploding shrapnel shells, the blasts, like dynamite charges, of the mountain cannon bombs, the mechanical rattle of the machine guns, all against a background of intermittent rifle fire by the rebels and volley rifle firing by the federals. I could imagine what those chaps that I had left on the roofs of the adobe houses were doing, and I was glad that I had not stayed behind.

Then I heard a crash in my ear which startled me more than the firing in town. It was the home-made cannon that had gone off, and little Carpentier was dancing about getting in s new shell.

That first shot from the Maderistas’ only piece of artillery missed Ciudad Juárez altogether. There is no record to show that it hit anywhere, but judging by the length of the piece in ratio to its bore I should not be surprised if the shot landed in the desert out near Fabens, forty miles away.

But Carpentier and his Mexican helpers had now lowered the muzzle of the long gun and the second time it spoke we felt sure something had happened. It had. Later we learned what it was.

Most of the federals were fortified in the town cuartel, an adobe fortification built around a large patio, used as a drill yard. In the center of that patio there was a water tank, elevated on a framework, and it was plumb through the wooden sides of this tank that the second shaft of solid metal from the rebel gun had gone, making a clean hole as it passed through, and no doubt, continuing on into the desert. But this lucky hit had something to do with the fall of the town. The poor little federals were showered with the only drinking water they had, which contributed greatly to their suffering as the day went on.

* * *

Then we saw a cloud of dust on the river road, and somebody yelled that the cavalry was coming out our way. We scampered up into the hills and got behind boulders, while the insurrectos, moving to the attack down the road, deployed themselves similarly, lying down and removing their big hats, which is the first thing to do because there is no more obvious target.

But it was not a federal sortie that kicked up this dust along the river road. It was dogs, a cavalcade of dogs, a bevy of dogs, dogs male, dogs female, and flocks of puppy dogs bringing up the rear, running for all they were worth. Sometimes they would slow up and look back, but when the noise would increase they would continue on with their tongues out, their ears flapping and their tails held low or curled coyly between their legs. There are many dogs in any Mexican town, and it seemed that this represented the Juárez dog population from the whole western part of the town, for all streets from that section gave onto this river road.

Dogs, as everybody knows who has observed them on a Fourth of July, of all things fear noise and smell of powder.

The boys from behind the rocks got up laughing and put on their big hats and, climbing down to the road, started trudging along toward Juárez.

Then Carpentier tried another shot with his big gun. But the sound of it was not the same. Even with my untrained ear I knew that something was amiss. Carpentier started running back up the slope and, leaning over, he started to pull something out of the earth. He returned, lugging what proved to be the breech-block of the cannon. Examining it he shook his head dolorously and, sitting down on a large rock, wept bitter tears of grief and exasperation.

That is the true and authentic record of the big home-made gun of the Maderistas in the battle of Juárez.

* * *

There was nothing for me there, so I moved down the river and, at some exposure to myself not much enjoyed, I managed to make the irrigation ditch that the attacking party from this direction was using as a thoroughfare into the town. But just then it was being swept by the mountain cannon, which had a shrewd way of dropping things onto you out of the sky, and I had to retreat along with a half dozen insurrectos who seemed equally eager to find a more congenial road.

We found one behind a little rise in ground where a few isolated houses had been built, and soon I was in a street, solid with adobe construction, occasionally sprinkled by machine gun fire, which came, apparently, from a considerable distance.

There I saw the rifle barrels sprouting out of the holes where the drain pipes had been and out of windows and from behind adobe walls. Hugging the houses, I moved carefully along until the fire became entirely too hot.

I heard somebody calling me and in a doorway was an insurrecto officer I knew, an erstwhile school-teacher from the state capital, and I ran to where he was and entered the house. He was with some men who carried axes and crowbars in their hands, with their rifles swung onto their backs, and I saw what they were up to. They were cutting their way from one house to another, chopping through the adobe walls dividing the structures. Thus one could walk a whole block without ever going outside a house.

This made a fairly safe way of moving toward the center of the town, except of course when one had to run across street intersections to the next block of buildings. Nobody was in any hurry.

Adobe walls usually stop rifle fire, at worst discourage the bullets so that when they hit they sometimes leave only a bruise. But there were windows and doors in the houses, and always a chance that a shell would drop in on one.

* * *

As I moved forward some of the houses were swarming with insurrectos. One of them had found an accordion and, although he could not play it, he learned to make a noise and, throwing his rifle aside, he sat there working at the thing and grinning whenever it squeaked.

We met wounded going to the rear and perfectly sound men going back to take their siesta, for they had been in town all night. How could anybody sleep under such circumstances, I wondered? I then did not know that remarkable calm of the Indian mind, a calm that has kept their life miserable and yet has supplied its own antidote to pain.

The noise became terrific. When the insurrectos would shoot and think they had made a hit they would yell Indian yells. Some were singing at their work. Such a jolly lot of fellows, I thought. But once I looked across the street where one of the federal fire bombs had exploded in a Chinese grocery on the corner, and lying in the street just outside and hanging out of the windows were corpses with the clothes burned half off, and I saw that it was not a picnic that we had come to. This sight infuriated the insurrectos and, for the first time, their good nature left them. They seemed to consider that unethical warfare.

The insurrectos, I saw, were often firing through the windows and doors but, peeping out, I could see nothing they were firing at. I had learned Juárez well during my year as a reporter there but I had no idea now what part of town we were in, and to this day I do not know.

I stayed in one house a long, long time, so heavy was the fire in the street outside. A few of the residents had been caught at home and here was an old woman and a little child, a boy. The insurrectos treated them kindly, giving them some water, for they did not have a drop to drink.

As the insurrectos went along they had picked up what they fancied. Sometimes they carried great sacks of loot, mostly useless things not worth carrying off, evidently treasures to them. But they took nothing, I noted, from this house where the little boy and the old woman were. A sentimental lot of kind-hearted thieves they were.

One of them had one of these little sewing machines that must be run with a hand crank. He held it under his left arm like a baby while he carried his rifle with his right. When he shot he would put down his burden, using great care with it, in a safe corner. Before he disappeared through the jagged hole in a wall I learned that he was keeping this prize for his woman, who, he said, had been left at the ranch at Villa Ahumada. A practical sort of souvenir, he thought it was, and he said he was sure she would be delighted. He greatly marveled at the mechanism of the thing, turning the crank and laughing with delight when the little bar for the needle bobbed up and down.

* * *

To my astonishment I saw that it was dusk. Time had never moved so fast before. It had been for all the world like one act of a play, and it had taken from dawn to sunset. The fire was now steady and I felt that the fight would last into the next day at least.

So I began to move back over my route. Soon the fire slackened with the fall of night so that I had little trouble in getting out safely and making the American side by way of the dam. I wanted no more of that.

* * *

On the American side I found excitement feverish. The population of H Paso was attending the battle, perched on buildings, where several had been wounded, and blocking the streets where the troopers from Fort Bliss had roped them off.

El Paso and Juárez would be one town but for the Rio Grande, although the-business sections of the two towns are a considerable distance apart.

I wrote my story as best I could in all the excitement. It sometimes takes years for a thing to sink in, before you can write it even though you are trained to write the day’s news.

I thought it was best for me to reënter the Mexican town from the El Paso side, so I got an hour’s sleep and was down at the American end of the international bridge just before daybreak.

There I found groups of refugees and from these I managed to get apparently reliable detail of what had happened, so I could piece together things that were Mot cleat to the men in the Herald office who were writing a running story of the fight.

I saw many strange things. Soon after my arrival there came running over the bridge, alone and in a terrific hurry, the one-eyed bullfighter.

"Shame!" I cared to him, "a brave toreador like you running away like that."

"Señor mio," he said as he tamed to me with that comic gravity only the Spanish have, "there are only two things in the world I am afraid of, bullets and work" (balazos y trabajo).

* * *

When it became apparent that the federals had been driven from the section of Juárez near the international bridge I decided to try to work my way into the town again. But I soon found that the fire in the streets, although most of it was stray projectiles from the other part of town, was dangerous enough and got worse as I went forward.

I did not fancy the sound of it. In Spanish they have a good imitative word for the noise that a bullet makes—"sas!" pronounced, of course, with a broad "a."

When I came to the jefatura de armas, in the other end of town from the cuartel, I saw that the federals had been driven out of there with much loss. The street was strewn with bodies, mostly of little "pelones" in their coarse blue uniforms and sandaled feet and little round-clipped heads, which latter gave them their nickname.

There, hanging out of the window of the comandante’s office, I saw something that gave me a start. It was the body of Colonel Tamborel himself, the head blown half off and the torso riddled. I noted that his hands had been tied behind his back and it was dear what had happened. Not far away lay the body of the young captain with whom I had been in the irrigation ditch at Bauche with the Dutch doctor. He still held in his hands that Mouser pistol with the wooden holster-stock.

* * *

Now I was at Calle Comercio. The street was strewn with little pieces of telephone wire. The windows of all the stores had been broken, merchandise strewn around and rebels still nosing about looking for valuables, with their pockets already stuffed.

Many were trying on clothes, I noted, as I passed the department store, "Los Tres B." Some had found a box of colored silk shirts and were in ecstasies. Several were pawing over hundreds of shoes strewn about on the floor and cursing because they could find no two shoes that were mates.

At the railway crossing I found the fire too hot and, caught by a burst of it, I lay on my face for a long time behind a post of the aduana yards, a slender post that gave me more moral than actual support. But soon it let up and I went on. In that section were many saloons and I heard the sounds of revelry as I passed. What a happy, casual sort of warfare, full of enjoyable surprises it all was!

I met General Viljoen, the Boer, who gave me correct military details of what had taken place. Another Boer soldier was with him, a Captain Milan. Viljoen said the federals had been driven from the church, which I was glad to hear because I had had my personal warning about the federal volunteers. But the enemy apparently still held the long row of municipal buildings. Soon, however, he thought they would be driven back to the barracks in the southwest part of town where they probably would make a last stand.

Also, I met Garibaldi moving along with his men and another group that had been fighting around the racetrack in the extreme southeast part of town. The Italian filibuster was a jaunty looking fellow in his tan riding suit and his green velour hat with its brim worn down on all sides to protect the face from the sun. As we chatted he expounded to me the merits of velour hats in campaigns; no other material would shed water and sun so well, he said, and hold up so well through a campaign. A soldier of fortune can be an individual about his dress as well as in his own particular ideas about fighting.

* * *

When I reached the plaza I found that a large building on the north side had been blown up, that the white wails of the old church were well spotted with bullets. How like smallpox marks on the human skin it looked! The jail had been emptied of its prisoners.

Lying in the plaza were few bodies; everybody had given that space a wide berth. However, I saw the bodies of three Chinese and several dogs. Evidently the federal volunteers in the church tower had been having their little jokes.

* * *

Orozco and his men began to move forward again, and soon I had made my way up to the cuartel, where the last stand of the federals had been made. When I arrived there was a big pile of rifles and pistols and federal soldiers still waiting in line to drop their weapons onto it. Several of the little pelones had tears running down their cheeks, tears of relief and joy.

There stood General Navarro. The old man was still stiff as a ramrod but there was a sad, an infinitely pathetic look, in his eyes. Orozco, with his pistol in his hand, was standing there facing him and in his eyes was a look of infinite hate.

Navarro, I learned, was credited with having given the order that prisoners should be bayoneted in a preliminary fight down west of Chihuahua City, and the insurrectos had it in for him.

Garibaldi soon came up and knew what to do. He raised his hat and, in his Italianized Spanish, politely introduced himself and asked General Navarro for his sword.

The old federal commander seemed relieved that somebody had arrived who knew the courtesies of war. He readily handed his sword to Garibaldi, who explained that he took it in the name of Señor Madero.

The Maderistas had taken Juárez.

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Chicago: Timothy G. Turner, Bullets, Bottles, and Gardenias, ed. Timothy G. Turner in History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, ed. Louis Leo Snyder and Richard B. Morris (Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Co., 1951), Original Sources, accessed June 19, 2024, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=EV86I8LQMXMQMCD.

MLA: Turner, Timothy G. Bullets, Bottles, and Gardenias, edited by Timothy G. Turner, in History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, edited by Louis Leo Snyder and Richard B. Morris, Harrisburg, Pa., Stackpole Co., 1951, Original Sources. 19 Jun. 2024. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=EV86I8LQMXMQMCD.

Harvard: Turner, TG, Bullets, Bottles, and Gardenias, ed. . cited in 1951, History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, ed. , Stackpole Co., Harrisburg, Pa.. Original Sources, retrieved 19 June 2024, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=EV86I8LQMXMQMCD.