ELMO KNOT AND THE ARM OF OBREGON
Mexico, 1915. Elmo Knot, adopted son of a British vice consul, is assigned to help an unlikely assassin kill a popular general of the Revolution. He is then ordered to recover the stolen arm of General Obregon, lost in battle and iconic to the side that has it. The young agent is soon caught in a web of intrigue that mixes Mexican politics with the European war.
It’s past noon and the lion sun has hunted everyone into the shade. Except this character with his soiled light-coloured suit and steaming motor car.
“The language of Shakespeare. Yes, senor.” And his ridiculous straw hat.
“That much, huh?”
The youth sitting with his back against a heap of grain sacks squints at the plump man at the wheel of what looks like an Owens Tourer. The back half is a van body with SARONY & BRIGHTWELL PHOTOGRAPHIC STUDIO MONTREAL painted on it. There is a bicycle strapped on the roof. The car’s bonnet emits worrying clouds of steam and rattling noises.
“Your motor is too hot, I think.”
“Mechanic, are you?” His accent is American. “What do you know about taking pictures?”
“You press the button and someone else does the rest. Senor.”
“Want a job?”
“One must eat, I suppose.” The youth is about fifteen but looks younger because his clothes don’t fit. He stands up, stretches and picks up a knapsack and blanket roll and two bandoliers which are mostly empty. For the rest, he wears sandals, jacket, trousers, collarless shirt and a peaked cap of the Federal Army two sizes too big. As he gets onto the passenger running board the driver wrestles with the shift lever and the car lurches away. The youth tosses his gear into the open cab and climbs over the door. For at least two miles after they leave the town no further word is spoken between them, until the light-suited man pulls off the track and into a scrubby arroyo which funnels to a culvert under the railway. As the car sweats and ticks, its occupants take to the shade of the arch and drink warm water from their canteens.
“We should be careful, senor,” says the youth. “The Free and Sovereign State of Durango is famous for its scorpions.”
And not just scorpions. This is Mexico, 1915. Mexico is in flames. For four and a half years the Revolution has thrown up leaders and armies uniting, separating, fighting; one after the other making promises and never keeping them. But promises are cheap, because the interests of foreigners make sure the dust is never allowed to settle. The dictator whose overthrow started all this trouble said one true thing in his life: poor Mexico; so far from God, so close to the United States. Porfirio Diaz ruled for thirty years, so he should know.
The older man quickly looks around him, grunts and pulls a Webley revolver from an inside pocket, laying it sideways on his knee with the barrel pointing directly at his companion.
“Son, call me old-fashoned but I ain't entirely sure about you. Speak English? "
The youth stiffens but has enough sense to catch the man's drift.
"Er, the language of Shakespeare?"
"That much, huh? What do you know about taking pictures?"
The reply comes slowly. "You press the button and someone else . ."
"Who? Dammit, I'm just the man to blow your damn brains out. "
"Got it. Now put your piece away. We do the rest. Yes?"
The portly man is sweating now in the warm shade "It’s Kodak for Christ’s sake. Now listen, son. In this business you get every word right. You could've been some lunk from the other side with a dozen reasons for lousing it up." He puts the pistol away.
"Incidentally, what the hell happened to your face? Smallpox?“
“Doesn't matter. Now you're happy can we do the polite bits? Are you Sarony or Brightwell?” The youth takes a few deep breaths and studies the man's jowly bespectacled face. This is serious business, right enough.
The man removes his round wire spectacles and wipes them. “Damn dust. Neither. Etienne Plon, at your service. Canadian. You?”
“My name is Knot. Elmo Knot.”
Etienne Plon laughs. “You’re not Elmo Knot. So who are you?”
Elmo doesn't answer. The man in the soiled suit examines the ground around him.
“Okay. How much have you been told?”
"My instructions were to make contact with you at Ciudad Otero and render you such assistance as you might require.”
“And before that?”
“To get back there and observe closely the arrival of General Ordonez and his army. Couldn’t do it. You saw the place just now. Too small to lose yourself in. It’d be nice to be told these things when they send you out. So, soon as I set eyes on it I had to find a place up on the heights and do my best with a pair of opera glasses.”
Plon breathes out slowly. “You’re damn right. Sometimes I think . . . hell, never mind. You must have come in by night.”
“Yeah. Lucky, eh? It was damn cold and I couldn’t show a fire. After sunrise I watched it all for three hours before the trains left again. Then I came down, made up a tale about missing my rifle and not catching them leaving. They believed me. Half of Ordonez’ bunch of rag-tags don’t have weapons. So according to my little lie some light-fingered caballero now has my rifle to shoulder arms with. They’re not much good for anything else.”
“No more than three thousand. A hundred horses maybe. No cannon; a couple of Hotchkiss machine guns. It’s not much of a show.”
“Don't be too sure, son. Observing means more than seeing. Our friend General Pancho Villa should be glad of ‘em. His old buddy Alvaro Obregon has been teaching him a few lessons in how to fight a proper modern war. Obregon switching sides was the worst thing that ever happened to Francisco Villa, so now he’s getting whipped and he ain’t used to it. Reinforcements from anywhere is what he’s counting on. Not that it’ll do him any good."
“So what’s the plan, Plon?”
“Yeah. Very good. We find Ordonez at his next headquarters and take his picture.”
“Well, that’s dandy. Our people can breathe easy after that.”
Plon ignores his new associate. He’s still finding it hard to accept that His Britannic Majesty’s government is reduced to employing field agents just out of short pants.
“Then we follow him to Rioseco and take a motion picture of him riding into town at the head of his army.”
“And then we kill him.”
Elmo Knot does not show any emotion. “What is we?”
The tubby agent removes his straw boater and wipes the sweatband with his handkerchief.
This time it’s harder to maintain composure, but Elmo has the comfort of firm legal ground.
“Mister Plon, I’ve agreed to work for the government in London on the secure understanding that I don’t have to kill anyone.”
Plon lets out a whoop and punches his companion in the shoulder. “Bully! Bully for you, son! They told me you were a cool son of a bitch. Okay. I’ll level with you. Just needed to see how you’d rise to it. The idea is that it’ll only seem like it was you killed him. See?”
Composure goes out the window. “Seem? What the hell does that mean? You do the dirty and I take the rap? Are you crazy?” Elmo takes a swig from his bottle, stands up and dusts off the seat of his trousers. “I’m getting back to Aguascalientes if I have to hop on one foot. You go and kill who you like. On your own.”
“Sit down, for pity’s sake. You ain’t going to get caught. D’you think the plan is that cockeyed? Listen up, will you?”
“This really had better be good, Plon, because I’m pretty sure the terms I agreed to don’t include seeming to kill anyone either.”
Light-suit gets up slowly. “We’ll drive on further. Anyone could be walking along the track. The automobile’s a mark for every kind of thieving wetback but I can’t ride the trains. Too much gear and some of it’d still walk. Geez, you won’t believe how much these peon armies load themselves with other people’s junk.”
“Really? Where d’you think I got these bandoliers and this cap? Kids in the ranks aren’t issued, mister. Our quartermasters are the dead, the too badly wounded to stop us, or anyone who’s looking the other way.” Elmo removes his headwear and turns it in his hand. “The Federale who wore this had been dead a week. It was full of hair and brains and bits of bone. And big hungry ants. Looks better now. I do all this for the King, who is far away and doesn’t give a shit.”
Plon sighs and heaves himself up. “Mexico was always a crazy hole, but now Europe’s a hell of a way crazier. What we’re doing here is all a part of it. Let’s drive.”
They drive. It’s not easy jouncing across the landscape away from the railroad track but there’s a steady trickle of humanity following it on foot in both directions. Imperceptibly the Canadian steers the van further and further into the desolate reaches of Durango.
“If anyone asks,” he says, as the wheel jerks in his hands, “tell ‘em we’re taking pictures of the back country. Folks back home want to see what kind of real estate these generals are fighting over. Vistas. Get me?”
“So why has this particular general got to die? You haven’t said.”
“Reasons of state.”
Elmo Knot lets out a loud theatrical sigh and waits. He has to wait a long time.
“Raison d’etat. The French had a word for it, naturally. Means the reason is bigger than you think - or are meant to know.”
“Right. It’s about the war in Europe. The Germans and their friends want to keep it that way. They don’t want the States joining in. That’s it.”
“I thought President Wilson had no intention of joining in. He keeps saying so, doesn’t he?”
“Doesn’t mean they won’t lose patience some time. The Huns are hard to like. Look. Our General Ordonez happens to be very good at war. He’s studied how the fighting in Europe is going and how General Obregon has done the same. It’s why every time Pancho Villa comes up against Obregon he gets whipped. Villa started out winning with massed charges on horseback, but that goes nowhere against barbed wire and Maxim guns. Now, when Ordonez joins up with Villa all that’s going to change. He’ll persuade him to start playing Alvaro Obregon at his own game.”
“So this crazy war will go on. Perhaps bog down like it has over there. And while this damn country is in turmoil the eyes of the U.S of A will stay on Mexico. Which will suit the Kaiser just fine. Now, if the Revolution gets sorted out; Villa and his allies disposed of and peace descends, then Uncle Sam can stop worrying and take the US Army away from the Rio Grande. And start worrying about the Germans and their submarines and all the rest of it.”
“The whole army’s on the frontier?”
“Apart from a few troopers keeping the Apache on their reservations.”
Okay. But why doesn’t he just turn up at Villa’s headquarters in person? Why does he need three thousand half-armed rag-tags behind him?”
The van shakes as it crosses a shallow arroyo. “Ah, well. Welcome to Mexico. That’s me saying it to you. Because, dear boy, you ain’t no general in this country unless you have an army. And don’t be fooled. The half of his army that does have weapons know how to use ‘em. He’s spent a personal fortune on buying barbed wire and shovels from the Yanks. He’s serious.”
Plon brings the van to a halt. There’s a lot of steam coming from under the bonnet. He gets out, wraps a rag round his hand and eases the radiator cap off. It flies out of his hand in a whoosh of vapour.
“Damn! Well, we’re stuck here for a half-hour. There’s a water can strapped to the running board. Get it, will you?”
The engines hisses quietly as they stand looking out at empty country.
“You seen pictures of your President, son?”
“Well, actually I’m a British subject. And Carranza isn’t the Pres yet. Yes, Senor Venustiano Carranza. Now safely waiting in Vera Cruz while his pet general Alvaro Obregon puts all the old revolutionaries to flight. What about him?”
“Looks like some short-sighted school teacher with his thick glasses and his little beard, don’t he? But he has an army of his own, don’t he? Led it out of Coahuila all by himself. Ever see anyone look less like a general?”
“What’s your point?”
"He’s a shrewd operator. For my money when he gets into Mexico City he’ll be President. And he’s a big landowner. Doesn’t even pretend to be a man of the people; which is why he hasn’t said he’s gonna give an acre of land to the peasants. Because he knows promises like that are bullshit.”
“Zapata and Pancho Villa don’t think it’s bullshit.”
“Because for all their wind they ain’t smart operators. It’s about the big picture. The Yanks like the old go-as-you-please Mexico and Carranza’s going to give it to them. Which brings us back to General Ordonez. He’s got to go because he’s part of a bigger picture than he realises.”
“Reasons of state.”
“You got it, brother.”
The motor seems ready for another stage in its foray. A quick turn of the crank handle and they’re away. With each mile Plon edges the Owens Tourer away from the railroad.
As the distance slowly opens out Elmo leans forward and points ahead to where the track makes a wide leftward curve. A group of horsemen is coming towards them, bobbing up and down in the saddle at an easy canter. They have the unhurried, unsettling look of people who know that they, at least, have a right to be where they are.
Plon catches the mood and brings the van to a slow, steady halt. Elmo Knot removes his cap and stuffs it under his seat along with the bandoliers. The rest of his pack remains resting at his feet.
There are five of them. Three have the usual appearance of bandoleros. The other two appear unarmed and could almost be businessmen out for a ride, although one looks more like a peon dressed for his own wedding. He is not the one in charge.
There’s a bit of theatrical horsemanship before the jingling and snorting stops, followed by a few seconds of silence. The one in a grey suit and soft hat speaks in English and with a level of politeness that makes Elmo uneasy.
“Good afternoon, sirs. You will oblige me by descending from your automobile.”
His companions watch with passionless expressions.
“Good afternoon,” Plon replies. “And how else may we assist you?”
Elmo thinks quickly. They’ve got to maintain an attitude somewhere between appearing anxious not to offend and being too breezily confident. He decides to put on an act. But it might have to change at any moment depending on how Plon answers the tall, greying man with the little moustache and neat tie who looks so different from the ruffians around him. Without getting off his horse their leader begins his questioning. As he does so, the others dismount and start to examine the outside of the van. Elmo stands by his side of the cab and smiles feebly.
“Who are you and what is your business?”
A voice calls out from behind him. “He is a fotografico. It is painted on the side.” Elmo suddenly wonders whether the rest of the men understand what their chief is saying. Immediately his question is answered.
“Do you speak Spanish, senor?”
“Not enough. I understand some. I’m a Canadian citizen. My assistant here is Mexican.”
“Canada. Where they live in houses made from snow?”
“Our Indios do. Some of them. In Canada there is much interest in General Villa. We are to make a photographic record of the events and the people.”
It still doesn’t feel right. Civil wars, revolutions; they make everyone cruel in a capricious yet oddly focussed way because you can all feel the true depth of the hatred and the insults. Elmo Knot has seen enough to know how quickly a mood can change. Foreign enemies may get knocked about a little, but in a family quarrel it’s fun to toy with well-understood emotions, to scratch your victims’ sores. If he’s not careful they’ll turn their attention away from the inoffensive foreigner to a youth already old enough to have been a Porfirista, a Maderista, a Huertista, a Carranzista or a Villista; and almost certainly more than one.
The prying bandoleros are distracting Elmo from the conversation between the two men. He hasn’t noticed when grey-suit got off his horse and now he and Etienne Plon have moved away to where he can’t hear them. A sudden squeaky-rusty sound tells him the rear door of the van has been pulled open.
“No! No, senor!” he shouts, pushing the door back. “Senor Plon! They are attacking the truck!”
The men stop talking and turn. “Please refrain,” Plon calls out. “There are chemicals and delicate mechanisms in there.” This has no effect, but when the intruder sees that there is no room to stand he slams the door, which swings back and catches him on the shoulder. No-one laughs.
Elmo is suddenly pulled back by a hand on his own shoulder. The cap and bandoliers are held up to his face, then dropped to the ground. All five of the men surround him, closing out his colleague.
“You will explain, muchacho.”
Elmo Knot widens his goofy smile.
“Excellency, I was with Commandante Villa when he took Torreon.”
“That was a very hard battle for someone as young as you look.”
“Younger than I am now, Excellency.”
This time there is some laughter; except from the questioner.