Authors: Brian Garfield
Sixty miles south of the Arizona line, on the Rio de la Conception in northwest Mexico, a forgotten church stands crumbling on the outskirts of the old town of Caborca. The remains of its walls are pocked with the tracks of bullets. Flood waters have eaten away much of the structure, even to the dome, and those parts that have been rebuilt in the last decade seem awkward and cheap beside the older, more artful work of the eighteenth-century padres who originally built the church. The religious life of the town has moved to a new central plaza a mile away, where an ungainly new church stands in pale imitation of the old structure.
The church was built by Franciscan priests on the ruins of a mission established by Padre Eusebio Francisco Kino, S.J., probably in the 1690s. Roundabout grow the palms of Caborca, tall trees; for the age of a town in that isolated desert country is measured by the height of its palms. Some of them today reach upward more than a hundred feet. Their fruit is used year-round; their leaves make thatch, their trunks timbers.
On the church is a bronze plaque, erected April 6, 1926, to commemorate an event that took place seventy years earlier.
Humbly we pay grateful homage to
the army of Mexico and the men of
Caborca, who on April 6, 1857, made
this temple stand as a bulwark for
the defenders of the fatherland by
inflicting defeat on the North
When Mexico wrenched its independence from Spain, the northwestern state of Sonora was crippled. Its wealthy dons, loyal to the Spanish crown, closed the rich mines of Sonora and destroyed all their equipment before they fled. Sonora, once a flourishing frontier province, suffered abrupt privation. Apache marauders from the north swept through the district in brutal raids, butchering the inhabitants; in self-defense, the Mexicans hired ruthless scalp hunters and offered two hundred dollars' bounty for the scalp of every male warrior brought in by the contract hunters. These huntersâmen like James “Don Santiago” Kirker and John Joel Glantonâsoon discovered that it was easy enough to pawn off the scalp of a peaceful Mexican citizen as Apache, and thus collect their bounty without endangering themselves. At the same time, parties of North Americans on their way to the California gold fields trooped through northern Sonora, treating the natives with contemptuous cruelty.
It is no wonder, then, that by the late 1850s North Americans had earned a bad name in Sonora.
The state itself, effectively cut off geographically from the rest of Mexico by the menacing ramparts of the Sierra Madres, was an isolated community, ripe for the ambitions of a dictator. Such a man was JesÃºs Gandara, who bought and held by force of arms the governorship of Sonora. By bribery and threats, Gandara secured an alliance with the local commander of federal troops, General YaÃ±ez, and with the chief of the Yaqui Indians, El Indio Tanori. Even today in Mexico the mountain Yaquis are considered a dangerous threat. They are the only Indian tribe who have never signed a treaty with either the United States or Mexico; technically they remain at war with the whites. As late as 1929 a skirmish took place at Nogales between Mexican Rurales and a Yaqui band.
With such fierce allies, Gandara held Sonora firmly.
A revolution was brewing against him in the mid-1850s, led by a resolute colonel of militia, Ignacio Pesquiera. To aid his cause, Pesquiera enlisted the help of Henry Alexander Crabb, a California State Senator and Pesquiera's relative by marriage.
Thus it was that one of the most daring of the nineteenth-century filibustering expeditions was organized. The strange tale of Crabb's filibuster begins in Sonora, California, and ends in Sonora, Mexico. It is the story of ninety men who marched across the burning desert Camino del Diablo (Devil's Road) of Arizona toward a rendezvous with death at the bullet-scarred church of Caborca.
As a historical note, the story here told is a true story. All the important events are related with as much accuracy as possible in the light of the varying versions of the affair that have come down to us.
Theoretically a novelist has a vaguely defined area of license into which he can incorporate his fictions. An attempt has been made to minimize that area in this novel: all characters are real except for a man named Cassio and three or four women; few liberties have been taken with facts, and none at all with significant events or dates. Of course dialogue, description of many details, personalities of most characters, and other minor matters are products of the author's imagination, just as the meaning of the story must be a product of the reader's.
Documented historical sources for this story, while not widely known in the popular sense, are plentiful and easily available. It seems needless to list them here, but of course the author retains a complete bibliography.
It remains only to be said that my indebtedness is very great to Jesus Y. Ainsa, to the library of the University of Arizona, to Dr. Robert H. Forbes, and, as always, to the Arizona Pioneers Historical Society, which houses Dr. Forbes' massive collection of materials dealing with the Crabb Filibuster Expedition. I am indebted as well to my friend Henri L. Castricum of Tucson.
B. W. G.
Charley Evans stood on the half-rotted boardwalk in a driving rain and watched the Abbott-Downing stagecoach lean away from the depot and pitch toward the head of the street, its seventy-five dollar mules straining in the mud. Rain battered his hatless head and glued the shirt to his back.
If the present was dismal gray and the future a probable black, and the past a kind of dusty sad yellow, then Charley would choose the pale past, bleak as it might have been. The sun rose and set; life until today had been a matter of mornings beginning darkly before dawn, and evenings chiefly remembered for exhaustion. If most youths of sixteen had the mirage of a vast shining future luring them on, such visions had faded for Charley Evans. For the most part the pleasantest part of the day had been the few minutes he could steal away from swamping in the Triple Ace Saloon to be with his careworn memories. There was a girl over the mountains in Stockton; her name was Maria and he thought a good deal about her. But that had been last summer, and by now she was probably fat.
Charley had worn a polish on these memories while he pushed his mop and avoided the insults and malicious slaps of Bill, the bartender. His eyes had grown gray and wise.
In the east, solemn gray became lackluster pink. This told him he was late for work, and he turned and took his tattered carpetbag along the walk toward the Triple Ace, forgetting for the moment that he did not intend to go to work today. He had the old carpetbag with him because he intended this to be his last day in the Triple Ace, or for that matter in this gray patternless town of Sonora. Recently, looking around him, he had decided that he had seen enough of the wonders of the California hills. Today or tomorrow he would go away on a trek, eastward. All he had to do was find someone headed that way. Today's future grew brighter in hue than yesterday's; he had a vision of great cities, wealth, opulent women.
A loose board gave way under his heel. It almost upset him. He cursed mildly and went on, turning his eyes along the street with the wise glance of a father. There was a strange thing in the skyâin the east the dawn was wide and pink, but in the west where the sky was still dark, the moon seen through haze was a sharp-rimmed disc of pale white. Overhead pendulant thunder-heads concentrated above the center of the valley. Raindrops made him blink. He came along the muddy walk to Jim Woods's saloon and intended to go by the place, but the friendly Woods came out as far as the awning's shelter and stopped him with an amiable inquiry: “All packed, I see. Going somewhere, Charley?”
“You're doing the Triple Ace out of a chore boy, then.”
“They'll find another one.”
“I reckon.” Woods squinted toward the sky. “Funny-looking moon, all by itself,” he observed, and tilted himself so that his shoulder rested against the weatherbeaten post that supported the awning. Rain pelted it overhead and Charley tarried under the shelter. Woods' eyes were overhung by thick gray brows; he had an idle air. “Tired of the job, Charley?”
“You might say.”
Woods smiled absently. His skin seemed as raddled as old leather; his muscles were hard. Charley wondered how old he was. Woods asked, “Got money for the trip?”
“I'll work my passage.”
“That's a hard row,” Woods said conversationally. “Ever done much wagoning?”
“I've done most everything, one time or another.”
“Cross country ain't the same,” Woods warned him. “It's hard luck, boy. A lot of bones bleaching on that trail.”
“All right,” Charley said, “then I'll learn something new.”
“I guess you will,” Woods said. Charley had him marked as a friendly harmless man. “Good luck to you, then, Charley.”
“Thanks,” he said, and went on up the street with his carpetbag, a solid youth, five and a half feet high and thick-chested. The shirt clung to his back; he owned no coat. The carpetbag weighed little. He bounced it by the handle in his fist, and swung up along the glistening brown ribbon of the street, past crowded buildings and corrals, and paused again under a long sagging balcony at the next intersection. The Triple Ace was a drab building across the brown, limpid trough of the street, its faded sign flapping on rusty chains in the rain. In the doorway stood the thickset bear-shape of Bill Randolph, the bartender. Bill was a sadistic soul. Without noticing Charley, he turned back inside and the door slammed. Charley stood where he was. A businessman came waddling along the walk, loose coat flapping, beaver hat dripping. The eastern sky was turning sickly yellow. Charley pinched his lips, thereby giving his face a waspish expression, and stepped down into the ankle-deep mud. It was red-brown in color, and clung to his boots, restraining him. He tramped struggling across to the gray face of the saloon, and stopped outside; and then impulse turned his steps away, and he went quickly back the way he had come, going into Jim Woods's saloon.
The room was heavy, musty, full of odors of stale whisky and dead tobacco smoke. The wood-framed clock behind the bar ticked loudly. Lamps flickered dimly along the walls. He found it no brighter than it had been outside in the bleak dawn. Rain dappled the high roof with sound. He stood just inside the door, the threadbare carpetbag dangling from his grip, and ran fingers back through his long ash-colored hair, splashing water down the back of his neck so it wouldn't drip in his eyes.
Woods was nowhere in sight; there were no customers. The saloon was a big silent cavern until the front door squeaked open. Charley stepped aside and saw a long-fingered man in the doorway removing an oilskin slicker. The man doffed his hat, batted water from it, and went up to lay his slicker across the bar. He wore a black coat, and underneath that a yellow pinstriped shirt. There was a big revolver in his waistband. The gleam of his eye-surfaces matched the hue of the shirt, and now those yellow eyes flicked coldly past Charley.