With his debut novel on legendary Texas outlaw John Wesley Hardin, The Pistoleer , James Carlos Blake demonstrated a rare talent for western and historical fiction. His second book, The Friends of Pancho Villa, now back in print, further proved his mastery in the genre, taking on an even mightier figure of North American legendthe most memorable leader of the Mexican Revolution.
Violently waged from 1910 to 1920, the revolution profoundly transformed Mexican government and culture. And Pancho Villa was its “incarnation and its eagle of a soul”so says Rodolfo Fierro, the novel’s narrator, an ex-con, train robber, and Villa’s loyal friend. Killers of men and lovers of life, the revolutionaries fought for freedom, for a new Mexico, for Villa. And in return, they shared victory and death with their country’s most powerful hero. The Friends of Pancho Villa is a masterpiece of ferocious loyalty, bloody revolution, and legends that live forever.
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About the Author
James Carlos Blake is the author of twelve novels. He is a member of the Texas Institute of Letters and a recipient of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for In the Rogue Blood. He was born in Mexico, raised in Texas, and now lives in Arizona.
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In 1910 I killed a policeman and went to prison for two years. The details don't matter except to say the bastard had it coming. After I'd been in the joint two weeks, nobody — guards or inmates — gave me any more trouble. Some of the political prisoners could pay me to protect them from the brutes, so I always ate well and I never lacked a woman on days of conjugal visits. Most of the politicos were overeducated fools, but a few had served in the government and some of those were sometimes interesting to listen to. All in all, I did my time without too much discomfort. When I got out, I drifted back to my old job as a mechanic for the railroad. By then the country had been at war with itself for almost as long as I'd been behind bars, but I wasn't about to join anybody's army just to take orders from assholes and get blown up into buzzard food. Late one night a federal press-gang jumped me when I came out of a cantina. I broke one's neck and scattered the rest like yelping dogs. Nobody tried to grab me again after that.
In those days my sense of injustice transcended fury. I was in a constant rage at the imbalance of the rightful order of things. There I was — a man of my intelligence, my caliber — laboring like some donkey under the authority of ignorant loudmouth fools who answered meekly to men in silk suits, men whose arrogance was made of money, men with soft hands and gross bellies who rode in plush railcars and ate off glass plates. My wrath defied intelligible expression. It dug and twisted in my soul like a knife. There were days when I wanted to howl, nights when I did.
One day a new foreman began cursing me for a slacker as I stood watching a passenger train pull out of the railyard. Its windows framed one infuriating vision after another: cuff-linked men in high collars, sipping from brandy glasses and puffing big cigars, laughing and shaking hands, patting one another's backs; and powdered women in lace dresses, unreachably beautiful, smiling at one another over teacups and utterly indifferent to the passing world, to me. My blood pounded. I knocked the foreman down and beat his head on a rail until it felt like a bag of broken tile under my hand.
None of the witnesses was a lawman, but one was a scar-faced railroad boss who wanted to know my name and if I knew how to use a gun. I told him to hand me his revolver and I'd show him how I could shoot. He had balls, I'll say that: I was still heaving with the thrill of smashing that skull, and it must have crossed his mind that I might as easily shoot him as the two empty bottles he pointed out in the cinders about twenty yards down the track. I blew them apart, then shattered the headlamp on a locomotive steaming on a siding another ten yards farther on, then yelled for the frightened engineer to hold his cap out. I shot it from his hand — then made it jump twice more along the ground. The boss man was all smiles. He wrote my name in a little notebook, and before the foreman's blood was dry on my hands I'd been promoted to freight guard.
* * *
A few months later Tomás Urbina and his boys stopped a train I was guarding. They swarmed into the cars shouting &'grave;Viva la revolución!" and shooting every man in uniform or in the clothes of the rich. Passengers jumped from the car windows and tried to run for it. Women were shrieking.
I made my decision on the spot: I put the shotgun aside and left my pistol in its holster, shoved the freight car door wide open and yelled, "Help yourselves, boys! Viva la revolución!"
I went forward to the locomotive, where the engineer was sprawled dead beside the tracks and Urbina was arguing with some of his boys about the proper operation of the huffing engine. It was an ancient French model that had undergone dozens of makeshift modifications to keep it running all those years. None of its gauges was accurate. It took an expert to get it under way and keep it rolling along.
Urbina noticed me listening to them with amusement and said, "Who the fuck are you?"
"The guy who can run this thing," I said.
By nightfall I was engineering that pile of iron onto a siding a hundred miles away, in Urbina's main camp. He stood beside me in the cab for the whole trip and told me one story after another about his love life, including a recent affair which had ended sadly.
"My God, what an ass that one had!" he said, and kissed his fingertips. Then one afternoon her husband — who happened to be the local police chief — caught them in bed and grabbed for his gun. But Urbina was prepared for this possibility and had his own ready gun under the pillow.
"Imagine this fool!" he said. "What the hell was he so jealous about? Fucking a general of the Revolution isn't cheating, for Christ's sake — it's a woman's patriotic duty!" Whatever the case, the wife thought her husband was a lousy brute and didn't mind at all that Urbina killed him.
"But I couldn't enjoy her after that," Tomás said. "I mean, she was such a happy widow. Smiling, laughing, making jokes. She gave me the creeps. I suddenly felt like I was fucking Mother Death. I had to stop seeing her. But I tell you, hombre, I miss that sweet ass."
Urbina was short, dark, and red-eyed, and usually wore several days' whiskers. He couldn't read, and so he always "signed" his name with a little drawing of a heart. He was drunk as often as he wasn't. But he was cunning as a coyote and an absolutely fearless leader, and his men would follow him straight to hell. They called him the Lion of Durango.
He and his boys had just won a big fight with a federal detachment near Durango City, and they were still in high spirits about it. For good measure Urbina had robbed the Durango branch of the Bank of London of more than a quarter million pesos. "For the cause, of course," he said with a grin. Now he was getting his troops ready to join with Pancho Villa's army in Jimenez for an advance against the federals at Torreón.
He had been close friends with Villa since their boyhood, and he loved to tell stories of their bandit days and their run-ins with the Guardia Rural — the rurales, the suede-and-silver uniformed national mounted police force that patrolled the countryside and was infamous for its brutal efficiency. I learned that Pancho's real name was Doroteo Arrango, but at age seventeen, after killing the landowner who raped his sister and escaping to the high country, he joined Ignacio Parra's notorious outlaw gang and took the name of a famous old-time bandit named Francisco Villa. Eventually he and Urbina formed their own gang, and for years they did well for themselves, rustling cattle from the great herds of the Terrazas family and robbing payroll wagons and outland mining companies.
Yet always the Guardia Rural was on the hunt for them. Most rurales had been bandits themselves — before being captured and given the choice of jail or joining the police — and they knew the sierra wildlands as well as most of the outlaws they pursued. There were shoot-outs and plenty of close calls. Over the years, many of Pancho's gang were caught or killed. And all those years of hiding in the mountains gave Urbina a chronic case of rheumatism which he claimed was the main reason he drank so much — to ease the pain in his joints.
* * *
Just before we joined Villa at Jimenez, I made the discovery of my life.
One of Urbina's bunch was a captain named Fausto Borunda. He was called El Matador because he always shot his prisoners. "Be careful of that one," I was warned by several of the boys. "He kills just to make himself smile." But the first time I got up close to him I sensed the secret truth. His hard lying eyes could fool others but they didn't fool me. I knew he was not the true killer his compañeros believed him to be — but he was greatly afraid not to be thought so. I understood completely: few things can hide a man's fear of death as well as a killer's reputation. My understanding, however, in no way softened my outrage. A coward who kills is the worst sort of fake. I watched him for a week and I knew I was right.
One evening I roughly shoved up against him at the bar of a cantina and made him spill his drink. He whirled on me, his face clenched like a fist. "Hey, prick!" he said. "You tired of living?" I looked him dead in the eyes and laughed. In that instant he knew he had been found out. His grab for his gun was an act of panic — but I caught his wrist and drove my knee into his balls. As he sagged to the floor, I twisted his arm to turn him away from my boots just before he puked. When he looked up again, the bore of my pistol was inches from his wide red eye. "Say hello to the truth, you phony fuck," I said, and squeezed the trigger.
After that, nobody called him Matador anymore. All they called him was dead. I was the true Matador. El Carnicero, they would come to call me — the Butcher. El Señor Muerte: Mr. Death. I, Fierro.
Goddamned right.CHAPTER 2
The Revolution had been coming for a long time, and it wasn't hard to understand why. Anybody with brains, with a sharp eye and good ears and a nose that knew the difference between fact and bullshit, could fill you in fairly well.
For more than thirty years Porfirio Díaz ran the country like it was his personal estate. The enemies he didn't kill he bought off with hacienda grants, political office, or generalships in the army. The only choice Díaz ever gave anybody was his bread in their mouth or his club on their head. He personally appointed the governor of every state, and any problems the governors and their henchmen couldn't handle, Don Porfirio's rurales or his army sure could. Army generals lived like lords, and the rich landowners — the hacendados — had the power of God over the peons who slaved on their land. The hacendados loved Porfirio Díaz. So did the foreign businessmen — the Brits and the Yankees, especially — who got such friendly and profitable deals from him on grazing land, mining rights, oil leases, shipping ports, railroad rights-of-way — anything they wanted.
What the hell, I would have loved Don Porfirio too if I'd been in their shoes. But of course I wasn't.
Thirty years Díaz ran things. Most Mexicans didn't live that long. The only thing to beat the old bastard was age. He was eighty before things finally started to slip away from him — and then they slipped away fast.
Francisco Madero led the movement against him. He was barely five-foot-three, with a melon head, a goatee, and a squeaky voice. At first the Porfiristas treated him like a joke. But he came from a wealthy family, so he had the means to make himself heard. (I always thought it interesting that so many fervent liberals happen to be rich. Are rich liberals too stupid to know where their own interests lie — or just too damn guilty to care? In either case, I never could respect a man who sided against his own kind.)
Madero had been to school in Europe and the U.S., and he came back to Mexico with his big head full of democratic notions. They say he meant well, but his own loyal brother Gustavo once called him the only foolish dreamer in the family, and their family was very large. When he ran for the presidency against Díaz on an anti-reelection platform, old Don Porfirio ridiculed him, calling him "the runt" and "the little madman." But when Díaz saw how popular the mad runt was becoming and how much he was stirring folks up, he figured enough was enough. He sent Madero running for his life across the Rio Bravo into Texas and then announced himself reelected by a landslide once again.
But up in San Antonio, Madero declared himself the provisional president and called for all freedom-loving Mexicans to take arms against the Porfiriato. He began to assemble an army, and the Revolution was on.
Abraham Gonzalez recruited Villa in Chihuahua. I never knew Gonzalez, but Urbina described him as a serious, courtly man who spoke with great eloquence and conviction about the ideals of the Revolution. "Pancho was always a fool for talkers like Don Abraham," Tomás said. "But hell, I didn't waste any time joining up, either — not when I heard we'd get full pardons for all our crimes if we did. Don Abraham said Madero understood that men like us had been driven to rob and steal by the cruelties of the dictatorship." Urbina grinned at me and winked. "Such great understanding is a rare thing, no? One has to admire it."
Six months later the Maderista rebels defeated the federal forces in a three-day battle at Ciudad Juárez and Díaz was finished. He resigned the presidency and shipped out for Europe from Veracruz. The old bull would spend the next four years living in Parisian luxury and then die in bed under silk sheets.
* * * It was during the victory celebration at Juárez that Villa became one of Madero's most devoted disciples. Urbina was there, and the way he told the story to me, the whole thing happened because Pascual Orozco demanded the execution of the captured federal commander, an old warhorse named Navarro who was given to bayoneting rebel prisoners. Orozco had been a Chihuahua mule driver before joining the Revolution and forming his own army called the Colorados. They'd fought well for the Maderistas, and Orozco naturally thought Madero owed him a few rewards for his service — including the small right to shoot a captured enemy officer. But Madero insisted that Navarro's rights as a prisoner of war had to be respected, and rather than risk having him killed against his orders, he arranged for the general to be spirited to the river and allowed to escape to the U.S.
When Orozco heard about it, he was enraged. Villa had also been in favor of shooting Navarro, and he was swayed by Orozco's fury. "That little shrimp don't know shit about running an army," Orozco told him. "I say we take over."
They went to Madero's headquarters with a hundred armed men behind them. Orozco rushed through the door, grabbed Madero by the collar, and demanded his resignation at gunpoint. But Gustavo Madero, who had plenty of guts for a man with a glass eye, jumped on him and pulled him off his brother. Madero managed to push his way through the melee and get outside, then clambered up on the hood of a motorcar and started making a speech to Orozco's men at the top of his little voice.
The shouting Orozquistas gradually began to listen as he praised them for their victory over the federal army and the great blow they had struck for Mexican liberty. Orozco, he told them, was a fine man and a superior general who was simply feeling an excess of revolutionary spirit. "But you make the choice," he said to the soldiers — and he stretched out his arms like Christ on the cross. "Kill me if you wish! You decide whether I or General Orozco shall be your president!"
For a moment there was stunned silence. Then someone shouted, "Viva Madero!" In an instant the cry was taken up and chanted again and again, louder and louder. Madero smiled widely, then reached out his hand to Orozco.
"Well hell," Urbina said, "with his own men shouting 'Viva Madero!' all around him, what could Orozco do but put up his pistol and accept his hand? He sure as hell couldn't match words with him. But he was plenty pissed off, you could see it in his face."
Villa, on the other hand, was moved to tears by Madero's speech. He shoved through the crowd around the car and clutched at Madero's sleeve with one hand and tried to give him his pistol with the other. "Shoot me — shoot me, señor!" he cried. "Punish me for my treachery!" Madero's readiness to die right then and there for his revolutionary ideals had impressed Pancho more than anything he'd ever seen in his life.
Madero smiled and patted him on the shoulder. "Kill you," he said, "the most valiant of my good men? I would sooner cut out my own heart. No, Colonel Villa, there will be no killing among this band of brothers. We are all bound by loyalty to the Revolution. Go now, and prepare your brave boys to finish up our work."
From that day on, Urbina said, Villa regarded Madero as nothing less than one of heaven's own saints. That was true. How many times in the next couple of years would I hear Pancho blab on and on about the infinite goodness of Señor Madero! Listen, I saw Madero in Monterrey, I heard him speak, and I never did understand the pipsqueak's pull on people — though I never said so to Villa, not in so many words. I'd argue with Pancho about almost anything, but I never wasted my breath arguing with him about Madero. He couldn't be reasonable on the subject, so why bother? As far as Pancho was concerned, Madero's only imperfection was his tendency to trust untrustworthy men — like Orozco, whom Villa would hate forevermore for having gulled him into mutiny against the little saint.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Friends of Pancho Villa"
Copyright © 1996 James Carlos Blake.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Blake does a good job in relating historical fact into a fictional account that keeps the novel interesting. This novel is obviously filled with a bit of Mexican history interrelated with some US history as well.