By Eric Cyr
Again, Don Pedro held council with Emmanuel and Father Juan José to decide their next move. The modest successes of their first two strikes and the relatively few losses they had suffered gave them courage. After spending a fortnight in and around the mountain, gathering what arms and ammunition they could, they decided to target the nearby State-controlled town of Tecalitlán in Jalisco. They planned to take hold of the town hall and church and ring the bells of victory from the high tower.
After four days of steady but unhurried travel, they spent one night hidden just beyond the town as they prepared to attack. As with their two previous uprisings, they chose to open fire on the federales in the early morning before sunrise. In the growing darkness of evening on September 8, Father Juan José heard a long string of nervous confessions and prayed a quiet mass with the rebellious, silent militia.
With the first glow of dawn intimating the coming day, ninety-seven cristeros approached the town from three sides in three battalions. Don Pedro in his bursting charro suit, Emmanuel with his baggy tunic hung dingily over his slender shoulders, and Father Juan José with his faded priest’s collar sticking out from beneath his sun-bleached poncho each led a third of the soldiers silently toward the town. As the first gallos began to crow in the new day, the cristeros’ Mausers and .44’s joined their morning call. Black clouds gathered menacingly above their heads as rounds of shots rang out, and they could hear the callistas inside the buildings rushing throughout the rooms and halls preparing their counter attack.
Emmanuel’s men were well armed and prepared for a long fight. They settled into their guarded positions and exchanged fitful volleys with the garrisoned tan soldiers. Billowing clouds of smoke from the opposing militias mixed together and reflected shimmering streaks of the rising sun.
As the sun rose on the same September day ninety kilometers to the northeast, General Humberto Villa led his battalion of men past the banana and mango trees that lined the road into San José de Gracia. He continued to grow his reputation as a feared and efficient leader, driving his men harder than most and never failing in a military operation he headed.
Word had spread quickly throughout the region that a band of cristeros had ridden through San José and chimed the church bells unquestioned, unchallenged, and even encouraged. It seemed also that many of those men were San José’s own—men who perhaps had families who inhabited the village and failed to comply with Calles Law. General Villa set out for the village to ensure that no one there would ever again support or join the cristero cause.
Adán Puente saw the tan cavalry riding past the rows of fruit trees as he conversed in the not yet hot morning with Jorge Rivera, an old, perennially scowling merchant. It was unusual for any federales to bother with San José. He could not remember the last time he had seen any in the village, so it caught his attention at once. Old Jorge shook his head as the two men watched them ride toward the town, their eyes fixed upon the shining gold eagle strutting out from the general’s cap.
As that eagle preceded its wearer into the town square, the general sent out men to round up all of the citizens of the village, whom he knew would already be watching them from behind closed windows and doors. The soldiers barked sharp orders at shuttered windows that haphazardly guarded old men and women, children groggy with morning tiredness, and fearful parents.
“Come out to the plaza! Don’t waste time grabbing any of your belongings. Anyone left behind will be burned to the ground with this city!”
They rode down street after street, calling out the same instructions as terrified villagers grabbed their children and what small, precious items they could gather quickly. The streets slowly filled with fear-stricken faces all making their way to the village center.
In the plaza, the general rode through the throng of villagers looking for anyone who might be a priest, or anyone who might be guarding a priest. His long rifle lay across his lap threateningly, bobbing up and down as the horse weaved throughout the crowd. Now and then he stopped to question a trembling man or a whimpering child, apparently receiving satisfactory answers, for he would eventually kick his heel into his horse and move on along the row.
As soon as he had seen the soldiers entering the town, Adán had mounted his horse and spurred him out of the village along one of the opposite roads. Once out of town, he left the road and cut across the plains and streams that he knew so well. He wasted no time getting back to his family on the ranch.
“We must go, now, quickly.” He didn’t even wait to get fully through the front door before he began giving instructions to his wife. “Federales in the village, led by a fierce general. They carried bright torches and many guns, forcing everyone out into the streets.”
Eva looked at him and then wildly around the room, searching for her children. “But if they are in the village, we will be safe here, no? They won’t come out and burn every ranch. Will they?”
“I don’t know what they will do, my dear, but I don’t intend to wait here with the girls and José Miguel to find out. We will load up the carriage and head up into the mountains. We won’t wait here to die.” With that he ran out of the house to team up the horses as Eva and her daughters began to grab what essential things they could. Estella Rosa followed behind them clutching José Miguel, now two and a half years old, close to her young breast. She tried to calm him as confused cries filled his lungs in the commotion.
Back in the village, General Villa had no luck in his search for hidden clergy. That was only a secondary concern, though, so he turned back to the primary.
“This village has recklessly supported the cristeros and opposed our beloved nation for too long. Anyone who has not cleared out in the next hour will be consumed by the fire that my men will set here. I am not a heartless man, and I do not wish to hear your screams or see you die, but your town must be punished for its support of this rebellion. Go now. The town will burn in one hour.”
In chaos the villagers returned to their homes and grabbed what they most valued before fleeing as quickly as they could. Those who had horses and carriages got out first, a few kind souls helping the old and infirm ride out in wagons. They fled to the mountains, to neighboring villages, to the near or distant homes of relatives. Most didn’t waste time considering their destinations, they only fled their homes with bitter tears blurring their vision.
Once they had gained enough distance to feel safe, some turned to see their village one last time. As they fled, already the flames spit high into the sky, curling and engulfing brick walls and thatched roofs, the waves of heat swirling and obscuring the blue horizon.
As Adán led his family into the mountains above the village, he saw the bell tower of the church of San José surrounded by flames and thought of his son ringing those bells less than a month before. In the quiet distance, the orange glow of the town looked calm and almost peaceful, like the harmless, comforting warmth of a friendly hearth.
Eric Cyr currently teaches at Stella Maris Academy in Duluth, MN, where he lives with his wife and two children. After college, he spent two years teaching Creative Writing, Trivium, and Religion in Benque Viejo, Belize, before returning to Minnesota. He spends his extra time writing songs and stories, performing on the trombone and guitar, and changing poopy diapers.