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We were sitting in a backroom of a cantina on the outskirts of Ciudad Juarez, three drinks in, when Bill Wade reached into the dusty duffel bag he had tucked under our table and plunked down the Mexican general's head.

The skull was wrapped in a Navajo rug. A few patches of mummified flesh clung to the ivory- and caramel-colored bone. Some moustache hair was stubbornly hanging in there. Could have been any Indian's/Mexican's skull—but for that too-recognizable, too-prognathic jawbone. That famous underbite trumped any of my doubts.

I took a swig of bad tequila, winced, and reached across the table, flipping the corners of the Indian rug up and over the severed head.

"For Christ's sake," said Bud Fiske, the too-young poet sent to interview me, "stow that thing, won't you?"

Wade glanced at Fiske and then back at me. I nodded and said, "Bud is right. Get the head the hell back in that bag, you crazy bastard."

Old Wade frowned and bundled up the bandit's skull. He shoved the head back into the duffel bag, then took a shot of whiskey. He shook his own head, pouting. "Jesus Christ, Hector," he said, "I could use your help with this thing. There's real money to be had here. Thought you'd understand if anyone would."

Long memories and thick wallets: Oh, I understand 'em.

"I get it, Wade," I said. "But I also know you don't sit on this side of the border, flaunting the stolen skull of General Francisco fucking Villa—even behind closed doors."

Wade—color him one reckless, wall-eyed cocksucker.

The bandit had been dead for decades. It was something like thirty years since Villa was gunned down leaving a wedding. Yet you could impale Pancho Villa's rotting skull on a pike and drive through El Paso, or, especially, through Columbus, New Mexico and find yourself cheered as a hero.

But dare to display that skull on the south side of the borderlands? Well, that was something akin to suicide.

South of the border, they crucified people on still-standing telegraph poles.

They'd slice off the bottoms of your feet and set you out a few miles in the desert.

Or, in the rainy season, maybe they'd just stake you out over a spiky maguey plant. Those suckers are hard and sharp and they grow several inches in the night. There is no other term for it but "dusk-to-dawn impalement."

But now the bandit's skull sat under our table between the feet of Eskin "Bud" Fiske, aspiring, myopic poet and my latest would-be interviewer; Bill Wade, drunkard, soldier-of-fortune and con man ... and me, Hector Lassiter, pulp writer-turned-crime writer, turned-lately screenwriter.

Bud Fiske, this jug-eared, scrawny kid, had been flown down to New Mexico by True to profile me. For four days or thereabouts, he had dogged my heels as drinking companion, sometimes driver, coat-holder and maybe half-assed worthy Boswell.

Wade was a twenty-year fugitive up north. Wade heard word I'd crossed the bridge again. He knew all of my favorite hotels and bordellos on the south side of the border. He found me easily enough.

Wade had this proposition.

So I bit—mostly just to give young Bud something for his article other than samples of my lavish boozing, brawling and whoring.

I never saw Pancho's head coming, though.

The waitress brought Wade another watered-down whiskey—he was rationing himself. She frowned at me. I'd known her for maybe thirty years. She used to be something to look at. In her prime, she inspired at least half-a-dozen folk songs, cowboy ballads and corridos. But in the last fifteen years every vaquero and fruit picker in a fifty-mile radius had had her at least twice. Her black hair was streaked with gray and she was missing an important tooth. Faleena banged down Wade's drink and limped out, slamming the door behind her, closing out the music from the bar—"Volver, Volver" I think. I shook my head at the waitress' exit, then glared at Wade. If she'd come in when that severed head was sitting on our table...

Through the back window, I heard low moans; cries of feral cats screwing in the dark; the grita of some old Mexican woman, chilled by something.

I heard something else, too—something that sounded a bit like a shotgun being prepped.

Or maybe not.

It was outside, anyway.

Wade slammed his shot of whiskey. He belched, then said, "Prescott still wants the skull, Hector."

"Prescott" would be Prescott Bush, current United States Senator and the bastard alleged to have engineered the theft of Pancho Villa's head.

Here's a capsule history from your hack writer:

1878: Doroteo Arango was born in Durango, Mexico.

1895: Doroteo's sister was raped. Her brother killed her attacker and became a fugitive.

Five or six years later, Arango rechristened himself "Pancho Villa" and became a Robin Hood-like hero to the Mexican poor, and an eventual revolutionary.

To this day, Villa remains a kind of hero of mine.

Indeed: "General" Villa was an American media darling ... for a time.

In 1913, Black Jack Pershing was sent down south to take Pancho's measure. There's a famous photo of the two standing together at Fort Bliss, beaming. Over one of Villa's shoulders, you get a glimpse of Rodolfo Fierro—one world-class sociopath and first-rate cocksucker. He hastened Pancho's fall from grace.

But I get ahead of myself.

The Wilson administration, for reasons that at best remain stupefying, eventually elected to piss all over Villa. (The bastards had already executed Emiliano Zapata. "It is better," Zapata said, "to die on your feet than to live on your knees.")

In 1915, Woodrow Wilson and Company crawled in bed with Venustiano Carranza.

I'm a crime writer, so please trust me on this: you do not want to do business with any man who wears blue-tinted lenses and answers to the name "Venustiano."

Villa famously took his American rejection very badly.

Pancho was right to do so.

But just how badly he took that rejection remains a mystery that shapes history to this day.

Maybe—just maybe—Pancho shrugged it off.

But the so-called "nattering nabobs of negativity" will try to convince you otherwise. They'll make a case that Pancho Villa made the first and only successful foreign military attack against the United States mainland.

I could never make myself believe that Francisco Villa personally raided New Mexico in March of 1916 and killed all those folks in Columbus.

But the slaughter of all those American civilians by whomever?

Well, that triggered the "Punitive Expedition," which I was, shamefacedly, a party to—a callow kid who caught a growth spurt and lied about his age. They sent Jack Pershing back into Mexico within days of the attack on Columbus, this time to take Villa, "dead or alive."

Okay: Yeah, sure—I rode behind Black Jack Pershing.

f: I reluctantly chased Pancho's shadow through the Mexican desert for nearly a year before that pinched-faced politician Woodrow Wilson shut down the show in February 1917 and shipped us over to Europe to be cannon fodder and trench filler.

Here's the thing—crusades change.

The year was 1923: Long retired and gone to fat, Pancho Villa was gunned down by unknown assassins. Just his continued living, even peacefully, was a presumed threat to someone. Many claim President Warren G. Harding sent a hired gun down to Mexico to take Villa out. Something about oil and American business holdings. Rings true.

Pancho Villa's last recorded words: "Don't let it end like this ... tell them I said something."

But that was all that the poor bastard said.

In February 1926, Pancho's grave was robbed and his head was chopped off.

A fabled unfound treasure of Villa's and his missing head became linked in folklore and Tex-Mex myth.

Some claim a map was hidden inside Pancho's stolen skull. Others claim that maybe a map was tattooed on Villa's rotting scalp.

In theory, hell, either could be true.

But there were other myths attached to Pancho's head.

They actually arrested two men for stealing the general's never-recovered skull—Emil Holmdahl and a fella name of Alberto Corral. Holmdahl told the federales the skull was already on its way back to Columbus, New Mexico ... maybe as some kind of morbid recompense.

I vaguely knew Holmdahl way back then. He was an alleged spy, a mercenary, a fleeting captain in Villa's army. But Holmdahl was a turncoat flavor of cocksucker and he'd soon enough flipped sides to serve as a paid guide for Black Jack and the rest of us in our 1916 hunt for Villa.

Men shouldn't turn on men that way. Fight alongside a man and then take money to hunt him? That notion goes down hard and thick with me.

Lean and prematurely white-haired, Emil was more than a little reminiscent of that pussy-whipped communist Dash Hammett, my equally treacherous old Black Mask Magazine stablemate.

Holmdahl allegedly stole the skull for Prescott Bush, who purportedly wanted the head to use for dark rituals undertaken by Yale's Skull and Bones Society. They say that many years before, Prescott personally stole Geronimo's skull for more of the Skull and Bones' satanic shenanigans.

Senator Bush was said to have paid evil Emil twenty-five grand to pillage Pancho's grave in Panteon de Dolores.

True or not, Villa's head remained, at least officially, lost.

"Inflation being what it is, he'll now pay eighty-grand for the skull," Wade said. "I'll give you half. All you have to do is take it back across the border with you. Bush will have train tickets waiting. First class. You just take the skull on up to Connecticut and personally turn it over to Senator Bush. 'Cause, you know, I can't go back ... if the bastards ever got their hands on me..."

Heh. Very tempting. It would likely be a lark.

And, if Bud Fiske could be persuaded not to get too detailed in terms of the eventual recipient of the skull—and the skull's true identity? Well, what a hell of a profile True would have from young Bud. His resulting article could enhance my already bloated legend as a hell-raising hack writer.

But I played coy ... just trying to keep myself interested. It was a harder task every year, as—as a wise man said—"the ground pulled harder" at me.

I sat back in my chair and laced my fingers across my chest. I contemplated the bullfighter's cape and crossed picador's sharp-ended banderillas mounted on the wall between flanking castorenos.

"Hell, I dunno." As I said this, I glanced over at young Bud. My kid poet was sitting there breathless—half-fascinated, half-sickened by what he might become a party to—this dark deal threatening to enfold him. "Me and Bud, we've gotta get ourselves out to California, Wade. I have a meeting with Orson Welles about a script gig. I'm already running behind schedule. And getting that rotting sucker across the border, Wade? Well, 'half' seems hardly fair. Hardly seems commensurate to the risk."

Bill Wade leaned across the table, face and ears red. "Jesus, Hector, why don't you pull that famous old Peacemaker of yours and just rob me outright, you son of a bitch."

I smiled and tipped my chair down on all four legs. I slapped his beefy arm (poor bastard was running to middle-aged flab). "Naw, Wade. Half is actually more than generous. I was just having some sport. How did poor Prescott lose Pancho's head first time around? I thought—"


The door slammed open—suddenly hanging half off its hinges. Four federales crowded through. Each of the soldiers was toting a shotgun. Pretty clearly, they aimed—really aimed—to shoot first. Shotgun slaughter.

Wade was an old campaigner—a seasoned soldier of fortune who could take care of himself. So I reached out to push young Fiske to the floor. But Bud, bless him, was already moving. I tipped over our table, crouched low behind it and whipped out my Colt '73 Peacemaker.

The first shotgun blast vaporized roughly half my cover—splinters of wood peppered my legs and left arm.

Sometimes, in the fog of attack, you don't have the luxury of decision: you're hit, and you swing back—half-blind and enraged. Sometimes, in that white rage, you don't swing wisely.

I fired twice. The tunic of one of the federales blossomed red. He collapsed, falling back against one of his partners, fouling that fucker's shot. Christ. Found myself another axiom: When you murder a federale, you know you're fully committed.

Wade broke his chair across the face of another of the feds. The chair was hewn from mesquite wood—really tough stuff—maybe more than enough to kill the bastard. Wade was reaching for his piece when one of the two federales still standing raised his shotgun and rendered poor Wade every bit as headless as Pancho Villa.

I slew Wade's slayer with a single shot between the eyes.

The last of the federales was drawing a bead on me. It was looking like lights-out time for Hector Mason Lassiter.

But then the Mexican's arms flew back, spastic-like. The shotgun flew as the federale fell to the floor. Bud Fiske, my poet/Boswell, had grabbed one of the picador's spikes from the wall and driven that wicked stick into the Mexican officer's right eye—straight on through and right out the back.

I patted down what was left of Wade. I grabbed car keys, wallet, a small notebook and Wade's chrome-plated .45. I scooped up the duffel bag and said, "Follow me, kid."

We crashed through the back window, duffel bag first to take the dusty glass. Bud was hard on my heels, toting the impaled federale's shotgun. I sent him back in for my half-empty tequila bottle.

© Craig McDonald