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SOLDIER OF FORTUNE -- ADVENTURING IN LATIN AMERICA AND MEXICO WITH EMIL LEWIS HOLMDAHL

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Chapter 13: Drifting

Better to see your cheek grown sallow And your hair grown gray, so soon, so soon, Than to forget to follow, follow After the sound of a silver horn.
-- Elinor Wylie

Captain Holmdahl remained at Camp Leach until early July, 1919, when he was assigned to a government surplus sales department. Possibly because of his language skills and his knowledge of railway equipment, he sailed to France on July 17. In addition to disposing of railroad tracks, engines, flatcars, and bridging equipment left behind after the departure of the A.E.F., Holmdahl was authorized to sell various components of artillery shells and small arms ammunition piled up in warehouses both in France and the United States.

After a month in Paris, Holmdahl traveled to Madrid to arrange sales of surplus locomotives and railroad supplies to the Spanish government. [1] In September, his work completed, he returned to the states, where he commanded a desk at the Purchase, Storage and Traffic Division at the Office of the Director of Sales for the War Department. It was a job that had dubious appeal to a man of Holmdahl's temperament. He submitted his resignation effective June 1, 1920, and was soon off again on further Mexican adventures. [2]

After his discharge from the army, Holmdahl, finding himself adrift, headed south to El Paso, where he became involved in a shooting scrape. As he tells the story, he and a friend were searching for a place in which to enjoy a Sunday lunch, when they were attracted by guitar music coming from a restaurant.

After entering the restaurant, a deputy constable named WC. Boyle burst through the door and screamed, "Put up your hands!" Holmdahl spun around as Boyle fired a shot from his revolver which struck a man named W.E. Davis, apparently an innocent bystander. Holmdahl shouted, "Don't do that," grabbed the constable's hand and twisted the pistol out of his grasp.

The badly wounded Davis, with a bullet lodged in his side, was taken to a nearby hospital by Holmdahl and Boyle. The Constable suddenly disappeared when Holmdahl called the police, and Boyle was later arrested and charged with assault to kill. The constable later stated he had intended to arrest a felon in the restaurant, but his revolver went off and hit Davis by accident.

Police officials said Boyle had a habit of staging "wild west stunts" and this one had gone badly awry. Davis survived; Boyle went to jail nursing a sprained thumb as a result of Holmdahl's twisting the gun out of his hand. Holmdahl and friend returned to their deferred lunch to the strains of guitar music. Even for Holmdahl, it was not an uneventful Sunday luncheon. [3]

According to a newspaper account written by William C, Stewart, a Los Angeles Times staff writer who knew Holmdahl, at about this time, the veteran soldier launched a treasure hunting expedition into Mexico. According to Stewart,

Holmdahl began thinking of Villa's treasure buried by Urbina and he set out to try and find it.  He was accompanied by the reformed train robber and later movie actor, Al Jennings, who had transferred his activities from Oklahoma to  to Los Angeles.

Al Jennings billed himself as "The Last of the Great Train Robbers" in his religious revival speeches. More realistically, he should have been billed the most inept of the great train robbers. As the leader of the Jennings Gang, he fumbled a series of Oklahoma train and bank robberies from 1897 to 1898 before he and his band were captured and thrown into the territorial prison.

At one time a county attorney in El Reno, Oklahoma, Jennings was addicted to the bottle and the gaming tables. He often told fictional accounts of his facing down notorious gunmen in _____ confrontations. Temple Houston, the quick-shooting son of Sam Houston, killed his brother Ed Jennings and wounded another brother in a barroom shootout while feuding with the Jennings clan.

Along with his two remaining brothers and another pair of misfits, Jennings decided to make a reputation by robbing trains and banks. In their first "Great Train Robbery," they leaped aboard a Santa Fe train that was stopped for water, held up the engineer and broke into the express car. This escapade netted only a few hundred dollars, so two weeks later they attempted another train robbery near Muskogee, Oklahoma Territory.

They picked a spot where the railroad stacked spare road ties and grunting and sweating under a hot sun, they piled the ties across the track. Waving their guns ferociously, they signaled an approaching train to stop. The engineer, however, pushed his throttle wide open. At great speed the cowcatcher slammed into the ties, sending them flying into the air and nearly decapitating several of the Jennings gang. As the train chugged off to Muskogee, the outflung arm of the engineer signaled his opinion of Al Jennings and his band.

After several more fiascos, they robbed a Wells Fargo office, stealing several thousand dollars. The brothers Jennings fled to Galveston and boarded a tramp steamer bound for Honduras where they met a drunk named William Sydney Porter. Porter, who was later known as the great short-story author, O. Henry, was hiding out from a bank embezzlement charge in Austin, Texas. They probably met Lee Christmas and some of his hard cases and decided Honduras was not for them, After returning to Oklahoma, on October 1,1897, they flagged down a Rock Island train a few miles from Chickasha, Oklahoma Territory.

Holding the crew at gunpoint, they broke into the baggage car, which contained two large safes. Planting four sticks of dynamite alongside them, they lit the fuses. There followed a mighty explosion which blew the baggage car to smithereens. The safes, however, remained intact and invulnerable. Frustrated, the bandits went through the passenger cars at gunpoint stealing watches and money from the passengers.

A few months later, a lone deputy located the gang, arrested them, and brought them to the jail at Checotah. Following his trial, Al Jennings was sentenced to life imprisonment at the Federal Penitentiary at Columbus, Ohio. There he was reunited with Porter, who had given himself up.

After five years, Jennings was pardoned. He wrote several books grossly exaggerating his career as a robber and gunman, and then began a more successful stint as a evangelical preacher and lecturer. He also played a number of small parts in Hollywood Westerns. [4]

How he met Holmdahl is not known, but it was, indeed, a strange pairing. About the expedition into Durango, Stewart wrote, "They collected a motley group of Mexicans for a bodyguard and set out for Urbina's old ranch. Before they could reach the spot a group of Mexican laborers stumbled on the fabled cache." Then the local police invited the treasure hunters to leave, pronto. [5]

With Jennings' luck, Holmdahl was probably lucky to get out of Mexico alive, much less find the buried gold of Tomas Urbina. The buried treasure business was to crop up on a number of occasions in later years. Did Holmdahl really believe he could find Villa's or Urbina's treasure? Was he running a confidence game with Jennings? Or was he using the "treasure hunt" as a cover for other, more secretive, activities? The answer is anyone's guess.

Perhaps some inferences as to Holmdahl's activities can be gleaned from the newspaper clippings he kept. One such story found in his effects was from the San Francisco Examiner, headlined,

Gun-running Plot Exposed. Adventurer Blamed in Conspiracy. Federal Officials Seek 'Master Mind' Attempting to Send Munitions to Insurrectos.

The story asserted federal police officers in San Francisco and Los Angeles were "close on the trail" of the man who was behind a plot to smuggle contraband rifles and ammunition to Central American rebels. According to police, the guns were received at San Francisco, trucked to Los Angeles, and then loaded onto fishing boats. The newspaper reported,

While a dozen or more men may be involved in the asserted plot, most of them are merely paid employees.  The Federal officers here are said to be primarily concerned with capturing an American adventurer who is believed to have engineered the purchase of  the contraband weapons. [6]

Among other adventures, Holmdahl cruised Mexican and Latin American Pacific coastal waters in a large yacht named Paxinosa. The craft, pictured in a Los Angeles newspaper, was described as a two-masted ketch of twenty-one tons equipped with an auxiliary gasoline engine. The story naming the owner and guests listed one "E.L. Humdahl [sic.] formerly a colonel of the Maderista forces in Mexico" as a passenger. The story headlined, "Craft Paxinosa Veers Southward For Cruise In Deep Waters," and reported they were "completely equipped and provisioned for deep sea cruising ... around Lower California and west coast ports and other places of interest." [7]

It is, of course, possible that Holmdahl was relaxing on a pleasure cruise in southern waters; or perhaps he was reconnoitering. Perhaps the Examiner story did not pertain to Holmdahl. It is curious, however, that he would keep such a newspaper story for more than forty years.

The Urbina treasure fiasco apparently didn't satiate Al Jennings' desire to associate with Holmdahl. In early February 1926, the two and a Los Angeles businessman, Fred T. Hughes, bought 32,400 acres of land on a hacienda named "Corral de Piedra," ("Rock Corral"). [8] Located at Rosario, sixty miles south of Parral, it was aptly named. The land was supposed to contain two placer mines and one hard-rock mine, with deposits of gold, silver, and copper. Jennings, from his revival tent in Lawton, Oklahoma, in a newspaper interview, piously announced he was quitting the pulpit and that he "would no longer pilot sinners down the sawdust trail to God." After a failed campaign for the Democratic Party's nomination for governor of Oklahoma (he finished third), Jennings went into California real estate. He said he told the Lawton police chief, "My conscience is clear ... I told the chief the truth about California real estate ... I've quit highway robbery jobs." [9] It is unclear how the mine worked out, but apparently the partnership was soon dissolved. It was only a few weeks later that Holmdahl was back in Durango on an adventure that nearly cost him his life.

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