CAPTAIN JUAN was in a tough spot.
In charge of the little rebel garrison at Sasabe, port of entry on the Sonora border, the dapper little officer, former member of the rurales, looked toward the morrow with foreboding of disaster. For Sasabe, garrisoned as it was by only forty men, was the objective of the march of three hundred federal cavalry!
The revolution which had flared up under the leadership of General Escobar had drawn into its ranks those hardy sons of Sonora who for years had gained for that state the nickname of The Cockpit of the North. Sonorans, led by the Topete, espoused the cause of the revolt without question, ever ready for an opportunity to strike at a central government.
The customs house at Nogales fell to Colonel Manuel Aguirre and Captain Juan with his little force was dispatched to take over the port at Sasabe. So he had done and now with no aid in sight he received the disturbing word of the superior federal force being sent against him. General Rodriguez was sending men from San Miguel.
No coward, Captain Juan knew grief when he saw it and years of border service had taught him discretion.
The little adobe town of Sasabe drowsed under the warm rays of the winter sun. A few children and a pig or two played in the dirt streets between the buildings. On the corner in front of the house where Captain Juan had taken up his quarters a sentry leaned against the adobe wall. Several of his companions, red armbands denoting their membership in the rebel forces, chatted or dozed on the sunny side of the house while a more officious one darted in and out of the building on unknown business.
Cheerfully unconcerned were these soldiers of the revolt. When asked their reasons for joining the rebels the opinion of the group was expressed in the words of one: "El Capitan revolt so we do too," he answered, shrugging his shoulders with a vague "Quien sabe?" when pressed for further reason. Evidently there was none.
The arms and equipment of the forty men varied. Their rifles ranged from the high-powered Savage hunting rifle of one of the guards through the list of obsolete military arms to two new Enfield model Remingtons. Ammunition supplies were equally varied, one young soldier carrying a bandolier of .30 '06 hulls while he gaily shouldered a worn Mauser for which he had only three cartridges that would fit.
Captain Juan had reason to worry.
A small sedan with an Arizona license drew up at the garita in answer to the challenge of the guard. Two Americans, their broad hats and tanned faces marking them as border men, answered his questions and drove on into Sasabe where they stopped at the headquarters of the rebel commander.
"Hello, Juan," the driver called as he crawled from under the wheel. "How goes the war?”
"' Sta Bien," replied the grinning captain. "How are you, Mac? Come inside, amigos. I'll show you my headquarters. Besides, it's the only place in Sasabe today where you can get a bottle of beer. I have ordered the cantínas closed."
"Gosh!" said Mac. "War is sure tough when you close the bars. How's a man to fight without a drink?"
'It is better perhaps that my Yaquis do not have too much to drink," smiled Captain Juan. "Sometimes when the mescal is strong they forget on which side they are supposed to fight."
Inside the little room which he used as an office the captain grew serious. "From which way did you come?" he asked gravely.
"From San Miguel," said one of the Americans. "And Juan, if I were in your boots I'd move out now. There are too many federals for you. They should be here sometime to-morrow. Take this bunch of boys and duck for Nogales. General Manzo has so many men there that it won't be bothered for a while. You'll just get bumped off if you stay here."
"I can't do that, Jim," the captain explained. "My orders are to hold Sasabe."
"To hell with the orders, Juanito!" burst out his friend. "They won't help you if that cavalry from San Miguel gets here and catches you with this handful of men. How in blazes can you hold Sasabe then!"
"Well, we'll have to try, that's all," replied the Mexican as he rolled a cigarette. "If luck is good it may be all right. If not -- poof!" He accented the phrase by blowing out the match which he had just held to the tip of the maize quirly.
"Cross the line then and surrender to the customs on the American side," advised Jim. "That'll be better than to be stacked up against a wall at sunset tomorrow. Come on, Juan, show some sense.
"No, Jim, my job it is here. Gracias, but I think I stay put. Come on, let us go outside and see the town. It's pretty quiet though."
The three men walked down the quiet streets of the little border village past groups of Mexican and Yaqui soldiers who smiled as the little captain passed. These were Captain Juan's men. If he told them to stay, stay they would.
At the edge of the town one of the Americans looked at a long slope studded with rocks and facing slightly east.
"Listen, Juan," he said. "If you're so darned set on staying here why don't you move your outfit up there where you can do yourself some good! If you stay down in that hollow they'll shoot you sitting down. You won't have a chance."
"How do you mean, Mac?" asked Captain Juan.
"Look here," said Mac as he knelt down in the sandy wash where they stood. "This isn't my war but I don't want to see you killed without a chance. It's like this."
Then as the Mexican watched, the American drew a map in the sand. With swift strokes of his finger he pictured Sasabe. Little humps of sand became the hills about it, a smoother, larger hump of sand the slope he had indicated, little holes poked in the side of the hump the positions.
"There you are," he finished. "Make 'em come to you. You'll lose but you'll last longer."
Captain Juan nodded.
Early the following morning the federal cavalry struck. But Captain Juan, his little force neatly tucked away on the slope, fought back with unsuspectedly effective fury.
The first charge of the mounted men was made without much preparation. The federales knew to a man what was the strength of the Sasabe garrison. They scouted the idea that a mere forty men, poorly equipped at that, would resist. Practically in column they rode on toward the flank of the little desert town. Nearer and nearer they came, not a shot or a shout breaking the silence that greeted them. A slight twist in the trail brought the first half of the column broadside to the slope within five hundred yards of the position of the concealed rebels. With a crash the battle opened!
At the command to fire forty rifles spoke and empty saddles showed that they had not all held high. The wild Yaqui yell of the Sonorans shrilled above the sound of the guns and bullets hummed like bees among the men and horses of the federal troops.
The unsuspected blast of the first volley threw the cavalry into confusion. Officers called to their men, whistles shrilled and riders cursed and shouted as the horses milled wildly. Not once did the rebel fire slacken. From behind rocks and from hastily dug rifle pits the men of Captain Juan sniped away at the entangled ranks, counting many coups before the cavalry withdrew out of range.
During the breathing spell that followed Captain Juan checked up his men. Three were hurt, one seriously.
"Manuel!" he called, "to the pueblo with him. See that he is safe, then return with water. Quickly!" With the badly wounded man on his way, Captain Juan aided in bandaging the others.
"Now back to your places, chicos; they will come again. You are but scratched, eh, hombres? Hold low. You are not shooting at the sopalitos."
As he stepped here and there along the ragged line a ripple of excited chatter and laughter followed him. The little officer smiled encouragement here and there, took from one a poor rifle to replace it with a better one used by the wounded man and showed another a better place to cover the slope in front of him. In the meantime the federal cavalry reformed. This time under the whipping voices of the officers the horsemen were being prepared to drive home their charge. The first shock of the surprise was gone. It would not be repeated.
"El Capitan they come, they come!" called a watching rebel rifleman.
"Viva Juanito!" cheered the ragged rebel line as the little officer ran back to his place. With a smile he waved his rifle over his head and then turned to face the advancing federal line.
The cavalry advanced at a sharp trot. At the foot of the slope, instead of once more braving the direct fire from its top, the command split, one group swinging to the left, the other pushing forward toward the rebel front.
Captain Juan turned to his aide. "Take the front, Manuel. We will cover your flank. Quick now and shoot low."
Manuel nodded and slipped into the place vacated by his commander. Captain Juan with five picked men moved quickly to cover the exposed right of the rebel line. In a moment the attack thrust home.
Once more the rebels, hard to see, much less to hit in their rocky position, dropped shot after shot into the advancing line. Once more the cavalry dashed half-way up the slope, wavered, broke, and rolled back. The hot and well-directed fire of Captain Juan and his five men cleared the flanking patrol and again the little garrison counted the cost.
They had not escaped punishment. Four of the little band had died behind their rocky breast-works. Two more were wounded and had to be removed to the little village. But the cost to the federal troops had been greater. Captain Juan suspected that the cavalry had found the hill a costly prize.
The federals withdrew down the valley to reform. This time a longer wait ensued and except for desultory firing which did no damage to the defenders of the little hill all was silent. Captain Juan saw that his men were supplied with water, checked on their ammunition and chatted with the laughing groups who in colorful and profane language described the plight of the federals. To pass the time they lied about their marksmanship.
Two more attacks had failed. Nearly ten hours had passed and still the little rebel garrison held the hill above Sasabe. Seven of the forty men had died; thirteen others were out of action, housed in a little adobe room in town. Captain Juan and the remaining twenty were tired, the hot sun beating down on their weary bodies. The little officer moved from group to group checking the dwindling ammunition supply. At most there were but five rounds left to a man.
"That is the end, chicos. We can do no more," he told his men. "Now listen, Manuel. This is an order. Before they charge again you must leave. Take all of the men and go to the American line. There, and this you must remember, lay down all your guns, no rifle, no pistol must be kept, then surrender to the Americanos.
"Now and quickly! Adiós, Manuel."
At first protesting, then accepting his orders with a shrug, Manuel gathered the twenty from the little ridge. Swiftly and carefully they slid back from the slope, that no movement might be seen from the valley in front. Then from behind the hill Manuel explained the order to them and reluctantly they went.
Just as they were turning toward the near-by border Captain Juan appeared on the edge of the hill running toward them. From the adobe shed in which it had been kept during the battle he led out his horse, mounted and trotted up to the little column.
"Hurry, Manuel. They come again," he called. "Adiós, my little ones. Hasta la Vista!"
The men broke into a trot at Manuel's command, tossing aside their rifles and pistols as they neared the line. Just at the border, where from the other side Jim and Mae with heavy field glasses had been watching the action throughout the day, Captain Juan rode down to bid them a last farewell. Then as the first of the federal horsemen appeared on the slope at the edge of the town he waved to his friends on the American side and called out:
"Be good to them, amigos. They are brave hombres. Some day in Nogales I'll buy the drinks."
As the first shots from the advancing line began to spatter near him the little officer whirled his horse and to the sound of ringing "Viva's" from his little force dashed down along the border and turned south. Sasabe had fallen but Juanito, caballero, was off again to the wars!