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PAST TMES: Hostage in the foothills Part Three – the escape

T.G. MacKenzie of River John with some of his kidnappers just before the nine-week journey through the Mexican sierra desert.
T.G. MacKenzie of River John with some of his kidnappers just before the nine-week journey through the Mexican sierra desert. - Contributed

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third part in a series about River John native T.G. MacKenzie who was captured by a Mexican bandit.

READ PART 2 here.

For the next nine weeks, Mexican bandit prisoner T.G. MacKenzie of River John, would endure unbelievable hardships and was challenged to use every survival skill he had learned, could think of and use.

Growing up in small Pictou County community, T.G. would learn from hands-on experience discussing, observing and working around the family’s shipbuilding business, started by his grandfather Alexander, in the 1840s. But now these practical abilities would be put to the test to save his own life after being abducted by the Mexican bandit Hipolito Villa, especially for his daring escape.

T.G. did see his wife Ethel standing motionless on the Las Adargas Mine Camp adobe verandas. He waved an assured gesture that things would be okay, for now! The kidnappers and T.G. rode silently away from the mine camp “without a word being exchanged.” When conversation did accrue it was with short abrupt orders, respectful but persuasive.

During the last few days food had been very scarce, especially at the mine camp and the captured Canadian’s stomach was not good at the best of times. After many miles of endless saddle bouncing, T.G was handed a cold tortilla. “I gratefully accepted and thanked” my captor for his courtesy. This meal was the beginning of an assemblage of mostly wild cooked and raw sierra cuisine that the roving troupe dined on for almost two and a half months. However, sometimes one of my four abductors “would disappear and go to a cache where he would come back with fresh beef and some corn tortillas.

Regularly the group would run out of food and would improvise. If a Mexican farmer’s field or garden was sighted, the bandits would help themselves, with no questions asked. Corn was the “staff of life” and treated like a delicacy when sustenance disappeared. On a few occasions, range or wild cattle were butchered, which was described as a “feast day and we ate first the heart, liver and then the ribs roasted over the open fire.” From that time on we subsisted mainly on tough beef, mostly dried.” Tea was served at the morning and evening meals usually made from “local bark of a mesquite tree or brewed from miniature evergreen shrub called salva vida or “life saver.” The Mexican captors were excellent shots and very often, while in the saddle, they would shoot quale, rabbits and just about any edible creature that crossed their path.

Travelling and sleeping arrangements for T.G. were not much better. The entire kidnapping episode was under the blistering Mexican sun during the day and frosty temperatures at night. The River Johner describes the bedding arrangements.

“Where tall grass was available, as it usually was, this was pulled up by hand and laid down thickly as a mattress, on this our saddle blanket was placed. The saddle itself was used as our pillow. We all slept fully clothed and my captors always had their trusty rifles beside them. We kept on the move and it was a bit difficult to get a bath or shave out there in the open. The Villistas saw that their horses were always well feed for that meant they could make an escape from the enemy, many times we had to go without a fire for fear of Federal troops in the area.”

The horse T.G. was given he called “a shabby mount” and the saddle was homemade and very uncomfortable. He had not “done any horseback riding for some time and quite weary from the unaccustomed exertion.” The captured Canadian was an executive who usually took the train or an automobile travelling throughout Mexico. He was also dressed in “store bought clothes,” not ideal protection for the rugged Mexican terrain and weather. “Once we were off the narrow desert trail, we plunged into the trackless wilderness, where we rode through arroyos (steep-sided gully) and up and down hillocks, where we continually warded of spiny branches of the large bushes. The guards fared much better then I, they all wore long leather leggings called chaparreras, made especially for riding through the shrubs and thorny bushes.”

He had worn his trousers through to the skin at both knees riding through the thorny brush and his backside was full of galls (saddle sores) and the “underclothing firmly glued to his rear end.” Eventually his cloths became rags clinging onto his unwashed body and as each day passed, cooties (body lice) were “becoming really troublesome.” Nightly cootie hunts became the rituals for all the troupe as they gathered around the fire.

The escape plan was always in the back of T.G’s mind. Since the kidnapping from the Las Adargas mine camp, he would observe the daily and nightly rituals of his captures, of which he recorded in his journal for current and future references. Although rigid on guarding the abducted Canadian, over the next nine weeks, liberties became less ridged. Even when T.G. needed a bowel movement, one of the gun carrying abductors went with him, but as time went on this routine became a solo effort, which eventually would lead to his daring escape.

Back in Parral, Mexico, the captured Canadian’s wife Ethel had been in constant communication with T.G.’s head office in Toronto, other family members in Nova Scotia, American Consulate in Washington and the British D’affaires in Mexico. Fred Pearson, Ethel’s brother, journeyed to Ottawa urgently encouraging negotiations to begin with Mexican bandits for the release of Thomas George MacKenzie. Letters, telegrams and face-to-face discussions ensued, a negotiator was sent to Mexico, but time dragged on. Ethel Maude became very discouraged; however, she would get tidbits of information from the local Parralian people regarding her spouse, “he was healthy and well liked by his captors.” T.G. even sent his wife a letter explaining his predicament and “asked for smokes and a change of clothing.” Ethel had a comforting feeling, someday she would see her husband again.

It was on one of those liberty occasions that T.G decided to make his escape. Just before dusk, T.G would go through his usual routine, “donned my valour hat and heavy corduroy coat” and started slowly walking toward the bushes. “It looked to me very much like a case of now or never.” He edged closer to a gully where he was completely out of site of the camp: “I quickly climbed to the opposite bank, tiptoed behind a row of trees and then broke into a fast run aiming to reach the thick brush before dark.”

Thus, began a night walking, running and hiding journey, through 50 miles of rough and rugged Mexican terrain. T.G. would not eat for days, wear out his shoes and have deep scratches over his unshaven face, arms and legs. He would persevere. Finally, after days of hard travel, T.G. walked quietly into his own home near Parral, there sat his wife, the glow of the wood fire flickering on her beautiful face. He startled her. Ethel looked up she “saw standing just inside the door a bearded, shoeless man with a scratched face, it was my husband.”

Part 1, 2 and 3 articles are just a small portion of T.G. MacKenzie’s interesting and exciting life.

Historical research

Viva Chihuahua-My sojourn in Northern Mexico from 1911-1929-T.G. MacKenzie

Impect of the Mexican Revolution on foreign investment in Chihuahua and Coahuila, 1910 -1920-D. Hatcher.

In Plain Sight: Felix A. Sommerfeld, Spymaster in Mexico, 1908 to 1914By Heribert von Feilitzsch

The Mexican Revolution, 1910–1946 Jürgen Buchenau

Dr. Alan Knight, professor and researcher of Latin American history, Oxford University, England

Dalhousie University Archives-Dianne Landry

Julie Windebank – Grand Niece of T.G. MacKenzie

The River John Reader – Janice Murray Gill

River John and Area Historical Society

Beulah Wright

Mary Beth Sutherland

Pictou Antigonish Regional Library

Pictou Advocate, April 14, 1924,

Washington Evening Star Feb. 24, 1924, Feb. 2, 1924

Houston Post Feb. 10, 1924

www. mexonline.com

John Ashton is a self-employed historical author and visual/graphic artist and lives in Bridgeville, Pictou County. He may be reached at ashtondesign@seasidehighspeed.com

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