Chapter XXVII THE WILD COW ARTILLERY

Jack Van Ryder drawing of artillery unit encampment

IT was during one of the revolution scares common to the Mexican border in 1916.

A long heavy cloud of dust stretched out over the trail which led down to the junction of Viego creek and the Rio Grande. It marked the route down which a squadron of United States Cavalry and a battery of light field artillery were making their way through the scrub mesquite to a campsite for the night.

South of the river itself a small detachment of Mexican troops sprawled in loose comfort, their horses grazing in the brush, their cooking fires sending up lazy spirals of smoke. Some of the Mexicans watching the hanging dust cloud moved toward the river to see the arrival of the American troops.

An hour later the scene was changed. In accurate lines the pup tents of the cavalry and its tight-drawn picket lines marked off its camp while slightly above the artillery outfit had staked out its lines for the night. Limbers and guns were parked, live stock groomed and fed and the troopers and the artillerymen were clattering mess-kits as they moved into lines toward the field kitchen for their evening meal. Tanned of face, with clothing grayed by the alkali dust of the trail, they chatted and smoked as they prepared to eat.

Darkness came with the startling abruptness of the desert. The guards had been posted and already the passing of an occasional sentry could be noted as his horse walked by the fires. Soon the murmur of voices died away and the camp was quiet. The jingle of halter rings as a feeding horse shook his head or the quick angry squeal as one was nipped by his neighbor on the picket line were the only sounds that disturbed the night.

The Kid was tired. He sat easily in his saddle as his horse walked steadily along the path of Post No. 2. This post extended beyond the extreme tip of the artillery camp into the mesquite toward the river. It was difficult to keep awake and the motion of the walking horse was a lulling, soothing cradle to the tired gunner. This revolution business was all right but a man had to sleep some time, the Kid reasoned as for the tenth time he jerked himself awake.

Then in an effort to keep his eyes open he began recalling the stories told by the older men of the battery regarding raids by Mexican bandits. He remembered the recent raid at Childress and the one at Bates' ranch and sat more erect in the saddle as a sudden noise in the brush startled him. Every shadow became a potential raider.

The horse plodded on and the Kid dropped back into the reverie from which he had been aroused. All of the stories of the bandit raiders and their methods of treating prisoners trooped through his mind and his nerves, weary after the long day, became more and more tightly strung as the hours wore on. The wall of a coyote caused him to jerk back so suddenly on the reins that his horse came to a full stop. The Kid had become spooked there was no doubt about that.

Nowhere does the usual take on such fantastic dress as in the desert night. Instead of being a wide empty expanse the desert becomes a hive of activity. The little animals of the sand wastes are all abroad and the hunter and the hunted among them are active. These noises increased the anxiety of the weary boy in the saddle as his trained artillery horse, head down, walked slowly along. Soon the Kid was wondering if the relief would ever come, if the corporal had forgotten to make the change in the guard, if those Mexicans across the river were really federal troops or Mexican irregulars who might dash across at any minute in an effort to replenish their always low supply of riding stock.

It was then that it happened.

Back in the mesquite a bunch of steers had drifted toward the camp. The smell of the oats shaken around the picket lines by the feeding horses had overcome their natural nervousness and they warily had edged their way forward in the dark. It was just before moonrise and a slight breeze had covered the noise of their approach.

As the Kid reached the farthest point on his post he had passed the bunch of cattle, thus placing the steers between him and the artillery camp. A straggler from the herd coming out of the brush walked directly in front of the Kid's horse, then with a wild bawl dashed into the mesquite to rejoin his fellows. That bawl was the detonator that set off all the pent-up nervousness in the guard.

With a loud cry of "Raiders!" he jerked his pistol from the holster and fired several shots in the direction taken by the fleeing steer.

This was all that was needed for it takes very little to spook the wild cattle of bosques along the Rio Grande. The shots of the guard and the shouts that followed did a real job of it. Tails up and eyes staring, about fifty head of rangy crossbreds  dashed away from the sound and into the picket lines of the artillery battery.

The battery horses broke back from the advancing herd, pulled the pins of their picket lines and raced away in a mad stampede of their own. Pup tents were torn down and startled troopers, still half asleep, were swept from their feet as they tried to get out to see what was happening.

The mad tide of cattle, horses and mules swept clear through and over the artillery but missed the cavalry squadron camp as it tore off into the brush toward Viego creek. The shouts of guards and aroused troopers added to the confusion as the cavalrymen in turn sprang from their blankets to aid in repelling the "raiders."

Hours afterward the artillery unit was shamefacedly patching up the damage done to camp equipment, wincing the while as sundry bruises and scratches caused them pain. The horses of the battery, with few exceptions, were recovered and once more were feeding quietly. But the accurate rows of pup tents were no more. Piles of torn equipment, broken saddles and harness lay about, while in many instances artillerymen were hatless and shirtless with clothing that had been badly torn in the wild dash through the brush.

Once more the two outfits lined up to move toward the field kitchens. Laughter marked the progress of the cavalry line as A Troop nearest the artillery unit chattered about the happenings of the night. But in the artillery lines nothing except gloom prevailed.

As the banter of the cavalrymen became more and more personal the remarks about spooky artillerymen took on more and more of a sting. Several times incipient riots were subdued but from a trooper in the cavalry line there came the final insult.  As he neared the artillery kitchen he placed his thumbs in his ears and with widespread fingers waggling on either side of his head emitted a doleful and long-drawn "M-o-o-o."

It was too much for human nature to stand. With a clatter that made the row of the night before sound tame the battle was on. Flying messkits and swinging fists filled the air. Even though it never went down into history it was a first-class engagement while it lasted.

And its echoes have not died away. Never since have a certain cavalry regiment and a certain regiment  of field artillery billeted in the same garrison, and to this day a really good scrap can be started by any one wearing a yellow hat-cord if he picks out an artilleryman of that regiment and greets him with even a minor "M-o-o-o."

Continue with Chapter XXVIII THE SWEETHEART OF MONETTI