Sleepy Columbus, New Mexico 1916
Villa on the move.
March 5, 1916
She ran toward the glass encased office through a haze of cigarettes and cigars, past desks with sweating men in white shirts bent over typewriters. She clutched a page from the NY Times, convinced it would change her life.
It was a story about Pancho Villa. In the photo he wore a big sombrero, bandoliers crisscrossed his chest, and his teeth clenched a cigarette in a reckless smile. The Revolution was big news.
Callie Masterson meant to make it bigger.
Breathlessly, she arrived in the small office and placed the article right under the nose of Mr. Shaughnessy, a tall slender man, with shaggy gray hair and bushy eyebrows, who was was putting a match to his pipe. As editor, he called the shots at the Houston Chronicle.
“Mr. Shaughnessy, look at this. Pancho Villa is furious at President Wilson for withdrawing his support. They say that he is bound to take revenge by attacking the United States. “
He examined the paper while puffing fragrant clouds of smoke into the air, gazing up at Callie a few times.
“What are you so fired up about, dearie? It’s just a matter of time before they get him. It’s a ragtag bunch. Why, it says right here they’re in dire need of arms, boots, ammunition, and the like.”
“Something is going to happen down there. He feels betrayed, and a man like Villa will exact a reprisal. He’ll do it in the easiest place he can find-some sleepy, defenseless border town.”
“You think so, huh?”
“Yes sir, I do, and I want to be there when it happens.” She had both hands on his desk and leaned forward. Agitated, she pushed away a strand of hair that hung limply in her face. The Houston heat made short work of her curls.
“Now, you all alone near the Mexican border might be a very dangerous assignment, young lady. I think-”
“If we could get a scoop on this, be there when he strikes, why our circulation will skyrocket. Don’t you see, Mr. Shaughnessy? It’s a natural. Get the jump on the Times even,” she said, shaking the venerable paper in front of him.
She paced around the office, hands behind her back, her head spinning with ideas, articles with sensational headlines already taking form in her head. She always bit her lip when she was fired up. Callie had played Ophelia in a school production of Hamlet to favorable reviews and was prone to dramatics.
“He’s the Mexican Robin Hood, Mr. Shaughnessy.”
“Yes, but he often murders those who don’t agree with him,” countered Shaughnessy.
“He’s a warrior, a desperado, and the odds are against him…he‘s unpredictable and that makes the government nervous.” She paused and tapped her finger on Villa’s photograph. “And the people love him! It‘s pure drama, Mr. Shaughnessy, pure drama.”
Callie’s dark eyes blazed with the fierce determination that had served her well during labor unrest and racial confrontations in the streets of Houston. The editor ran his fingers through his hair like an exasperated father. “Callie, do you realize what might happen if you were caught in an attack down there? If, God forbid, you were taken prisoner by those Mexicans? A young, attractive American woman of-how old are you now?”
“I’m twenty-four, sir, and I am tough, you know that. Remember, I grew up in Comanche Springs, around cow herders, Indians and drifters. My daddy taught me to shoot a gun and ride a horse as good as any man. I have found that if I am honest and hold my ground and look people square in the eye, things work out. And, I can speak passable Spanish. I am the one for this assignment, sir! You know that”
“I would hold myself responsible if anything happened to you. Let me think about it. Let me think.”
Callie kept up the pressure. A day didn’t go by when she wasn’t bringing the latest events of the Revolution to Shaughnessy’s attention. Motion picture companies had sent crews down to film actual battles with the Federales. She had never felt so strongly about covering a story. It consumed her, for this was a revolution in her own hemisphere and it needed a voice, a woman’s voice that would get to the heart of the struggle, in human terms.
Villa was a leader for the young century, reckless and daring. But there was more-she yearned for intensity in her life, away from the city, where she could break out, ride a horse in the big open spaces like she used to, see something of the world, and maybe watch history being made.
A week later Villistas attacked a train bearing eighteen American mining employees in Chihuahua. They robbed, stripped, and shot all of them in cold blood, shouting “Viva Villa!” Congress debated whether to invade. President Wilson’s policy of “watchful waiting” was being sorely tested. Villa denied he gave any orders to kill.
Callie flew into Shaughnessy’s office with the news. “Sir, events are escalating at an alarming pace!”
“It does seem to be getting more serious.”
Callie was beside herself. “Serious? Why it’s blatant. They are attacking Americans with apparent impunity. I tell you, Mr. Shaughnessy, it’s only a matter of days before they cross the border. We cannot afford to miss this opportunity. And, it has to be an eyewitness account. How can we not do it?”
Callie was on a train for Fort Bliss the next week.