The Ambrose Bierce Site


My Hunt For Ambrose Bierce
by Leon Day

Desert Searching in Mexico

I began to think it was about time to do some traveling. The diplomats and reporters had been asked back in 1930. But possible witnesses had been neglected, except for the fumblings of Gaston De Prida, who inspired little confidence. Why not go to Sierra Mojada and look through the graveyard and the local records?

I knew I couldn't do it by myself. My Spanish is about the same as Bierce's -- good enough to order booze, food, and lodging, perhaps; okay for reading street signs, and I can decode a Mexican newspaper pretty well. But if I need to form a useful sentence and actually say it, it may take a couple of blundering minutes. So I found help.

Dick Reavis is an important writer on Mexican and Texican affairs. He consults me on military matters, and I ask him when I'm puzzled by Mexican politics. When I told him about O'Reilly's story and the curious fact that nobody checked it out, he offered to go down with me and snoop around. That and a little luck made the difference.

We met halfway, in El Paso, moved across to Juarez, got our papers, and hopped a bus to Chihuahua City. Reavis knew everything about the Waco mess, and I paid him back with the low-down on some lurid California cases. It was a good session, exactly the sort of thing that happens between friends who have been separated by miles and wires for too long.

Like any good reporter, Reavis had a lot of questions. "Is O'Reilly reliable?"

I said, "There are mistakes in his book, but I haven't found any outright lies. For example, he thought his commander, Toribio Ortega, died from pneumonia shortly after Torreon. Other accounts say he was killed at Zacatecas, a couple of months later. Somebody has to be wrong."

"Who was Toribio Ortega?"

"About the toughest and most honest of the Constitutionalist generals. His nickname was 'El Honorado.' Nobody ever caught him stealing on his own behalf. He had the same reputation when he fought for Madero. He's easy to spot in the photos -- the one with the lean and hungry look, in the black overcoat. Villa always put his brigade out front."

"An honest Mexican general? Nobody will believe that."

"But Ortega had TB -- since he knew he was going to die, maybe graft struck him as just a waste of time. Anyway, he had a great reputation, and died without spoiling it."

"That's easier to swallow. But why the Gonzalez-Ortega Brigade? Who was Gonzalez?"

"Abraham Gonzalez was the Maderista governor of Chihuahua. He started a land reform that scared Madero to death. Its basic element was the confiscation of the big estates that prospered under Diaz. These he parceled out to revolutionary veterans, who were too tough for the haciendados to scare away. Villa worshiped the guy. After the Huerta coup, Gonzalez went underground. By and by, he was captured, and on the way to his trial in Mexico City, by some mishap he fell under the wheels of the train and was killed."

"Was he alive or dead when he "fell?" Reavis asked.

"Nobody knows. When Villa took Chihuahua City, he made a great funeral for Gonzalez, but the remains fit into a child's coffin, with room left over. Coyotes along the tracks probably got the rest. So his name, as an honor, was attached to Villa's best brigade."

"What was O'Reilly doing for this outfit?"

"Running the machine guns and buying munitions, working for the AP on the side. And maybe working for the US government, too. On several occasions, it looks like O'Reilly left Villa when the Army wanted him for a civilian scout-- his book gets a little vague right after the fall of Torreon. This is exactly when many American mercs were hired to work for the expedition that seized Veracruz. Maybe O'Reilly was one of them."

"What about Bierce himself? Suppose the Federals were right about him being a spy?"

"They could have been right. O'Reilly reports that Bierce tried to get in touch with him personally, twice. Why not just knock on any door at Villa's HQ? Maybe someone back at Ft. Sam Houston had specified Tex as Bierce's contact."

"What would a seventy year old have to offer as a spy? It's not the James Bond part of your life, even if you're pretty tough--"

"Bierce could make maps. All through the Mexican Revolution the Army knew they might be ordered to invade at any moment. They actually did it in 1914 at Veracruz and Tampico, and again two years later with the Punitive Expedition. Every time, they suffered from poor maps and had to rely on locally hired guides to explain what was over the next ridge. Sierra Mojada is a great place for a map-maker -- you can see all the way to the Central Railway, which had to be the axis of any serious invasion, just as it was for Villa's advance to Mexico City. If he wasn't a spy, O'Reilly sure puts him in the right place for one."

"If Bierce was part of some mapping program, there must have been others. What happened to them?"

"Maybe they got their chores done safely. Or maybe if they got into trouble, they had no friends in the press to make a fuss about it. In his last letter to Josephine McCrackin, 13 Sept 1913, Bierce said:

But sometime, somewhere, I hope to hear from you again. Yes, I shall go into Mexico with a pretty definite purpose... not at present disclosable.

To some folks, this sounds like an admission of suicidal intent. Why can't it mean he has a side job in his Mexican adventure?"

So the talk went as we rode the bus down to Chihuahua City, through country just like West Texas, but drier. Except in the narrow valley of the Conchos, there was little sign of working agriculture -- just cattle, goats, and not many of those. All the trade treaties you can devise will not make it rain.

At Chihuahua City we made our only important mistake -- we took the car the rental agency wanted to give us. We wanted a big, tough, pickup -- they didn't have one. Second choice was a Volkswagen bug, since two people can push one out of almost anything. They didn't have that, either. What they had was a marvelous example of suburban streamlined technology -- front-wheel drive, auto transmission, power everything. It was a beautiful car, and it served us well when we had hard asphalt under the wheels. But when we got to Escalon and had to push over Mexican dirt roads to Sierra Mojada, we began to notice some deficiencies.

To lessen air resistance and improve mileage, this fine machine was slung pretty close to the ground. I had looked at the Mexican Government maps -- which Pershing would have killed for -- and noticed that the road to Sierra Mojada was described as "brecha." This I took to mean "gravel," and I thought of the neatly graded, oiled and drained roads of my Arkansas childhood, kept passable in all seasons by cheerful chain-gang labor. But we had not gone far east from Escalon before a secondary meaning for "brecha" showed itself -- it also means "trail broken by vehicles." While the road showed occasional signs of government attention, it showed no signs at all.

Well, we did see a cryptic warning that we were entering the "Zone of Silence," where in mystic theory, radio transmissions are impossible. But when the road branched every mile or so, there was nothing to show the main route except relative depth of ruts. Since these were worn by wide track, high ground clearance trucks. we had to keep one set of wheels on the center ridge and the other on the edge of the road.

We started from Escalon about 2:00 PM, and somewhat later were passed by the daily train that pushes up to Estacion El Oro, maybe ten miles from where we needed to be. I began to envy the folks on that train, who didn't have to choose ruts by the sincere but not very detailed advice we got in Escalon. I had brought only the topo maps from El Oro west to Sierra Mojada -- a mistake. Copying the whole route from Escalon would have saved lots of wondering.

The "brecha" wound on, sometimes north of the tracks, sometimes south, often out of sight. We passed little ranchos manned by the hardworking people Mexican soap operas never show, folks not consulted in the NAFTA debates. And they may not care much about such things, being preoccupied with important details like the health of the goats and whether it will rain this year.

Sometimes we passed a ruined hacienda -- nostalgic reminders of the Diaz days when big owners felt obliged to return to their property perhaps a month out of the year. While they were playing in Europe, the business affairs of the estate were usually managed by a Spanish overseer, who took all the blame for the nasty things done in the owner's absence -- by the owner's instructions. When the haciendado returned, he would play liberator to his peons, rescinding for a while the manager's strictures.

From this comes the intense prejudice of Pancho Villa against Spaniards. Where he took power, he expelled them to the border on threat of death. They filled the same social slot in Northern Mexico as Jews in the Ukraine, but there was no pogrom. The State Department arranged with Villa their shelter in America. In fact, at the time the States might have noticed Bierce's progress in Chihuahua City, they were busy arranging the evacuation of the Spanish.

Crossing the tracks for maybe the third time, we faced a simple choice -- turning left would take us along them on a road that showed some government attention. We knew the railroad went up to intersect the line linking Sierra Mojada and Quatro Cienegas. But our informants had told us, "Just go straight." So we did, moving off somewhat east and south of the railway. As the sun lowered, the road turned to a cowpath under our wheels. The brush that had scraped only the right of the car closed in on the left. We could see lights in the distance, but had no clue which community claimed them.

Then we saw buildings. The cows knew something, after all. We found ourselves in Ejido Providencia, one of the tiny rural co-ops that struggles through on good luck and the occasional subsidy from the Institutional Revolutionary Party. A tiny store sold us Cokes and peanuts. The owner explained that we were pretty close to Sierra Mojada, but the road was dangerous at night because of highway work between La Esmeralda and Quatro Cienegas. Now "dangerous at night" sometimes refers to road conditions. But in these parts, it can also mean "You won't meet anybody except dope runners, rustlers, and bandits."

So we settled in and slept in the car. But we learned something that paid for the delay. The shop-keeper said we should get in touch with Padre Jaime Lienert [the Rev. James Leinert, American priest serving in Mexico], in La Esmeralda, who not only spoke English, but knew everything about everybody, forever.

At dawn, we found the store-keeper was right -- the washouts and sand dunes we saw on the way up were not much compared to the rocks and ridges thrown up by the road-builders. We reached La Esmeralda church without trouble. And here we met Father Jaime.

We were lucky to catch him. He is in sole charge of the Spiritual Kingdom for about 200 miles around, and will usually be found at the edge of this turf, doing confessions, Last Rites, baptisms, and sometimes even marriages. Jaime Lienert is a man who interests himself in everything and works hard on everybody's behalf. He shouldn't have had time for us, but he found it.

When he read O'Reilly's account, he remembered that before his time -- back in the 1960's -- someone had come down from Texas and so annoyed the Deacon then in charge with demands for info about Bierce's grave that the harried official delivered a bag of assorted bones to make the questioner go away. Human bones are always easily come by in Mexico because cemetery space is continually reused. Each new burial brings up the relics of some previous interment, and they are not treated with any special reverence but just placed on top of the new coffin. The idea that a dead man is entitled to eighteen square feet of real estate forever is an American conceit, humored in few other nations.

Some years later, another investigator followed the first, looking for the Deacon. What he discovered Father Jaime did not know.

I pointed out to the padre that O'Reilly specified that Bierce was buried outside the cemetery wall. On this trip, we had no special hope of finding a primitive marker like O'Reilly said he put up, but we did want to look at the death records for early 1914 to see if any foreigner, or any unidentified person at all, was killed then. If we could find such a record, that would make O'Reilly's story worth another look, and if we found nothing, that would lead to the presumption that it was just another tall tale.

So Father Jaime, reassured that we didn't expect to go back to El Paso with Bierce's head in an ice chest, decided to help us. We went to the City Hall, and they said they had no records that old. We talked to the oldest man in Sierra Mojada, who remembered nothing to match O'Reilly's story.

Finally, we looked at the church burial records without finding any John Does for the first four months of 1914. We went to the cemetery and found a charming, spooky Mexican graveyard like thousands of others. These are places that set you thinking about your own life, and distract you a little from the mysteries of the missing.

We drew a blank, and went back through the desert wondering if O'Reilly could still be right.

"This merc never said he was an eyewitness. Suppose somebody just told him a tale?"

"I can't think of a reason -- unless maybe Bierce was killed by some local citizen under circumstances everyone approved."

"When the Villistas showed up and asked about him, it would be easiest to say the departed Federals did it. And once O'Reilly was out of sight, anybody could pull up his marker and dump it. We haven't settled anything -- all we started with was what O'Reilly said the locals told him. It doesn't have to be true."

"So all this was for nothing?"

"Not exactly. We know other folks checked out Sierra Mojada. The Texan was probably Haldeen Braddy, an El Paso English professor. The later visitor might have been the most recent Bierce biographer, Richard O'Connor. He worked with Braddy on the disappearance."

"Yeah. Or both these guys could be scroungers from the Skull and Bones Club at Yale. They're supposed to have Pancho Villa's head."

"Okay, so we didn't find out much. It's still worth the trip to meet somebody like Father Jaime."

We got back to Escalon after some mishaps and phoned home to explain that late didn't mean dead. (Phones haven't reached Sierra Mojada yet...) While we ate, local folks flushed out the rental car so well that nobody at the agency noticed the brush marks on each side. We got another magnificent Mexican bus, ran up to Juarez, and parted, Reavis to Dallas to work on the Waco mess, me back to the libraries to look for something to confirm O'Reilly's tale, or sink it forever.

That's where things sat when I got a curious letter from Father Jaime.

...After the mass in Sierra Mojada on Christmas Day I stopped to wish Don Chuy a Merry Christmas. He is the man, Jesus Benitez, that we stopped to see when you were here. He told me that on the spur of the moment when we were asking him, he could not remember anything... but later on he got to thinking about it, and did remember that such an incident took place when he was about ten years old. Don Chuy said that as a chavalo he was somewhat a vago, and hung around the soldiers...

One morning he was in their yard (corral) when a soldier came up to an officer and told him: "We have him and everything is ready." With that the officer took along a few other soldiers and headed for the cemetery. A minute later Chuy's pal, Crisostomo De Anda, son of the Police Chief, came running up to him saying: "Come on, let's go, they're going to shoot somebody!" Chuy, Crisostomo, and a small crowd of people followed the soldiers, but were kept a good distance from the execution. The man who was already there under guard, was stood against the adobe wall of the cemetery and shot. The man was buried at the spot...

Don Chuy remembers the man wore a beard. He had not known the man before, but the people were saying he was a Ruso (Ambrose?), and that he was called El Pompeo. (pomposo?) Here, almost without exception, all males, even small boys, have their nickname, quite often because of some characteristic. As Don Chuy remembers, this took place around spring.

Father Jaime then related how Don Chuy had pointed out the burial site, plus or minus a couple of yards.

Even amateur historians like me are prejudiced in favor of documents. We always hope we can find the right archive and dig in it to the proper depth, finding something that with a little applied logic, will yield the truth. We're delighted if we find somebody's grandfather's trunk full of letters and memoirs and diaries, but even here we show a preference for what's written down. We forget that it's only eyewitness testimony one step removed. We forget that the best witness may have written nothing. And if we find him we're not sure what to do.

If the truth is under a thin layer of dust, rather than yards-deep in lies, where's the glory?

It was hard to pick holes in Don Chuy's memory -- maybe he was talking about some other Gringo's death, but foreigners didn't get killed in Sierra Mojada every day. The nicknames fit Bierce pretty well. As a blond, he might have been thought a Russian. The "Pompous" wouldn't get many arguments from his friends back in the states. Don Chuy remembered something a little more formal than O'Reilly reports, but not much. Was this really Bierce, or just some random yank that O'Reilly heard about and tagged with the missing writer's name?

Unless somebody could say Bierce died somewhere else, Don Chuy's incident had to be investigated. And I am ill qualified to dig up bodies and put names on them.

But I had heard of somebody who was good at it -- Dr. Clyde Snow.

I wondered if I could approach him. The guy isn't on bubble-gum cards yet, but he ought to be. He's the top medical examiner for Oklahoma, and a world-class forensic anthropologist. He's good at sticking names on skeletons. When he isn't catching American crooks, he goes off to Argentina and Guatemala, picking through the trash that death squads leave.

I had no claim on Snow's attention. He was busy with more modern problems than a missing persons case eighty years stale. But I wrote it up anyway and sent it off, thinking he might at least pass it on to some medic who might help.

When he responded, he brought to the problem important experience with forensic expeditions.

What I do is pretty simple. I snoop, discover something new, I write it up and send it to a magazine. Maybe the editor says no, or asks for more material, or wants a re-write. But I've never had to dig anybody up.

A scientific exhumation, even with volunteer experts anxious to help history along, is likely to cost some serious bucks. It leads to things like "grants," "advances," "documentary rights," and other bewildering trivia. I was out of my depth, but Snow had a rope.

My partner Mary began to suspect that this particular mystery was building to unusual proportions. Generally, my articles concern pretty narrow military or scientific questions.

This one had me dredging up obscure points of Mexican history, consulting dozens of books instead of four or five, looking up wills and death certificates and tracking the modern relatives of the folks who might have known something.

"What I want to know," she said, "is just how these things get started. Are there any warning signs I should watch for? Can medication help?"

"Well, maybe if I didn't read any books I'd never meet any mysteries. That thing about the Battle of Adobe Walls started with me reading the first good biography of Bat Masterson. It turned out that Masterson is more important as a boxing promoter than as a gunfighter, and his major claim to a part in the legend of the West is getting caught poaching buffalo in the Texas Panhandle by about 600 Plains Indians -- whom the 28 poachers defeated. It's not my fault that conventional historians bewildered each other about the details of that fight -- I only showed how they fooled themselves."

"Nobody can keep you from reading books. So how did this one start?"

"I was looking into something very different -- the Oak Island mystery -- and I read an article by Joe Nickell about Masonic fables. It was good, but in the same book was another piece endorsing Neale's theory that Bierce just snuck off to the Grand Canyon and killed himself. That story was so bad in its understanding of the Division of the North that I had to go back and survey the other disappearance tales. I don't do this on purpose -- but when the professionals leave a hole, I try to fill it in."

"Then if you hadn't been distracted by the Bierce case -- which is only eighty years old -- you might be messing over the Oak Island treasure, which has been puzzling people since 1795?"

"Well, yeah, probably..."

"I'll go back and count my blessings, such as they are."

Reavis was shipped back to Mexico to cover the 1994 elections, which interested US newspapers more than usual after the insurrection in Chiapas and the NAFTA debate. He had some fine offers to cover any ensuing chaos and rebellion, but none of it happened. The Institutional Revolutionary Party stayed in power with a slight majority, not surprising when you consider that the whole nation is organized the same way Huey Long rigged Louisiana back in the 1930s.

This left Reavis some time to visit the Coahuila State Archives in Saltillo. Here he discovered that the documents of Sierra Mojada were safely preserved -- in Sierra Mojada.

The state authorities, having no funds to index them, had simply given the city a couple of lockers to store them in until that happy day. It was State property, technically, but available at the discretion of the Mayor.

We passed this on to Father Jaime, who put it to the Mayor, who had no objection. On inspection, it appeared that the records for 1913-1914 weren't classified in any way -- they were just a bale of papers. The Mayor didn't want to mess with them unless somebody from the State Archives was present. So our documentary search is still stalled.

Though Father Jaime does not expect much from searching the records, I'm more optimistic. First, we are still so ignorant that any information at all -- like the exact date when the Villistas arrived, or the name of the Huerta unit that ran away, would help in looking through other records. Second, if we found a record of some gringo-killing that matched Don Chuy's story but was in some other time-frame, or where the foreigner was clearly not Bierce, it really wouldn't be right to dig up the whole world.

Strangers didn't get killed in Sierra Mojada every day. I thought when one did some local personage would note the event, if only to say it wasn't his idea. And I didn't want to mount a major expedition to this small town just to exhume the body of Gates or some other hapless yank who ran into Mateo Sanchez when he was in a bad mood.

Clyde Snow said only an exhumation could test Don Chuy's story. But Don Chuy would be right if any corpse was found where he pointed. I was looking only for Bierce, checking not just Don Chuy, but O'Reilly, too. I had some worries. What if we found two dead gringo stories, one matching Don Chuy but clearly not Bierce, another matching O'Reilly but without any detail about where the body was?

Modern ground-penetrating radar is pretty good at finding buried bullets, but I thought the Mayor might draw the line at digging up every gunshot victim in their peaceful boneyard.

Without screening the records, we couldn't be sure of the scope of our problem.

So I went back to some handier books...


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