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XV


At midnight Demetrio Macias ordered the march to
be resumed. The town was five or six miles away; the best
plan was to take the soldiers by surprise, before reveille.

The sky was cloudy, with here and there a star shining.
From time to time a flash of lightning crossed the sky
with a red dart, illumining the far horizon.

Luis Cervantes asked Demetrio whether the success of
the attack might not be better served by procuring a guide
or leastways by ascertaining the topographic conditions of
the town and the precise location of the soldiers' quar-
ters.

"No," Demetrio answered, accompanying his smile with
a disdainful gesture, "we'll simply fall on them when they
least expect it; that's all there is to it, see? We've done it
before all right, lots of times! Haven't you ever seen the
squirrels stick their heads out of their holes when you
poured in water? Well, that's how these lousy soldiers are
going to feel. Do you see? They'll be frightened out of
their wits the moment they hear our first shot. Then they'll
slink out and stand as targets for us."

"Suppose the old man we met yesterday lied to us.
Suppose there are fifty soldiers instead of twenty. Who
knows but he's a spy sent out by the Federals!"

"Ha, Tenderfoot, frightened already, eh?" Anastasio
Montanez mocked.

"Sure! Handling a rifle and messing about with band-
ages are two different things," Pancracio observed.

"Well, that's enough talk, I guess," said Meco. "All we
have to do is fight a dozen frightened rats."

"This fight won't convince our mothers that they gave
birth to men or whatever the hell you like. . . ." Manteca
added.

When they reached the outskirts of the town, Venancio
walked ahead and knocked at the door of a hut.

"Where's the soldiers' barracks?" he inquired of a man
who came out barefoot, a ragged serape covering his
body.

"Right there, just beyond the Plaza," he answered.

Since nobody knew where the city square was, Venan-
cio made him walk ahead to show the way. Trembling
with fear, the poor devil told them they were doing him
a terrible wrong.

"I'm just a poor day laborer, sir; I've got a wife and a
lot of kids."

"What the hell do you think I have, dogs?" Demetrio
scowled. "I've got kids too, see?"

Then he commanded:

"You men keep quiet. Not a sound out of you! And
walk down the middle of the street, single file."

The rectangular church cupola rose above the small
houses.

"Here, gentlemen; there's the Plaza beyond the church.
Just walk a bit further and there's the barracks."

He knelt down, then, imploring them to let him go, but
Pancracio, without pausing to reply, struck him across
the chest with his rifle and ordered him to proceed.

"How many soldiers are there?" Luis Cervantes asked.

"I don't want to lie to you, boss, but to tell you the
truth, yes, sir, to tell you God's truth, there's a lot of
them, a whole lot of 'em."

Luis Cervantes turned around to stare at Demetrio,
who feigned momentary deafness.

They were soon in the city square.

A loud volley of rifle shots rang out, deafening them.
Demetrio's horse reared, staggered on its hind legs, bent
its forelegs, and fell to the ground, kicking. The Owl
uttered a piercing cry and fell from his horse which
rushed madly to the center of the square.

Another volley: the guide threw up his arms and fell
on his back without a sound.

With all haste, Anastasio Montanez helped Demetrio
up behind him on his horse; the others retreated, seek-
ing shelter along the walls of the houses.

"Hey, men," said a workman sticking his head out of a
large door, "go for 'em through the back of the chapel.
They're all in there. Cut back through this street, then
turn to the left; you'll reach an alley. Keep on going ahead
until you hit the chapel."

As he spoke a fresh volley of pistol shots, directed
from the neighboring roofs, fell like a rain about them.

"By God," the man said, "those ain't poisonous spiders;
they're only townsmen scared of their own shadow. Come
in here until they stop."

"How many of them are there?" asked Demetrio.

"There were only twelve of them. But last night they
were scared out of their wits so they wired to the town
beyond for help. I don't know how many of them there
are now. Even if there are a hell of a lot of them, it
doesn't cut any ice! Most of them aren't soldiers, you
know, but drafted men; if just one of them starts mu-
tinying, the rest will follow like sheep. My brother was
drafted; they've got him there. I'll go along with you
and signal to him; all of them will desert and follow you.
Then we'll only have the officers to deal with! If you want
to give me a gun or something. . . ."

"No more rifles left, brother. But I guess you can
put these to some use," Anastasio Montanez said, passing
him two hand grenades.

The officer in command of the Federals was a young
coxcomb of a captain with a waxed mustache and blond
hair. As long as he felt uncertain about the strength of the
assailants, he had remained extremely quiet and prudent;
but now that they had driven the rebels back without al-
lowing them a chance to fire a single shot, he waxed bold
and brave. While the soldiers did not dare put out their
heads beyond the pillars of the building, his own shadow
stood against the pale clear dawn, exhibiting his well-built
slender body and his officer's cape bellying in the breeze.

"Ha, I remember our coup d'etat!"

His military career had consisted of the single adven-
ture when, together with other students of the Officers'
School, he was involved in the treacherous revolt of
Feliz Diaz and Huerta against President Madero. When-
ever the slightest insubordination arose, he invariably re-
called his feat at the Ciudadela.

"Lieutenant Campos," he ordered emphatically, "take
a dozen men and wipe out the bandits hiding there! The
curs! They're only brave when it comes to guzzling meat
and robbing a hencoop!"

A workingman appeared at the small door of the spiral
staircase, announcing that the assailants were hidden in
a corral where they might easily be captured. This mes-
sage came from the citizens keeping watch on housetops.

"I'll go myself and get it over with!" the officer de-
clared impetuously.

But he soon changed his mind. Before he had reached
the door, he retraced his steps.

"Very likely they are waiting for more men and, of
course, it would be wrong for me to abandon my post.
Lieutenant Campos, go there yourself and capture them
dead or alive. We'll shoot them at noon when every-
body's coming out of church. Those bandits will see the
example I'll set around here. But if you can't capture
them, Lieutenant, kill them all. Don't leave a man of
them alive, do you understand?"

In high good humor, he began pacing up and down
the room, formulating the official despatch he would send
off no later than today.


To His Honor the Minister for War,
General A. Blanquet,
Mexico City.

Sir:
I have the honor to inform your Excellency that on the
morning of . . . a rebel army, five hundred strong, com-
manded by . . . attacked this town, which I am charged
to defend. With such speed as the gravity of the situation
called for, I fortified my post in the town. The battle
lasted two hours. Despite the superiority of the enemy in
men and equipment, I was able to defeat and rout them.
Their casualties were twenty killed and a far greater num-
ber of wounded, judging from the trails of blood they left
behind them as they retreated. I am pleased to state there
was no casualty on our side. I have the honor to con-
gratulate Your Excellency upon this new triumph for the
Federal arms. Viva Presidente Huerta! Viva Mexico!


"Well," the young captain mused, "I'll be promoted to
major." He clasped his hands together, jubilant. At this
precise moment, a detonation rang out. His ears buzzed, he--





The Underdogs by Mariano Azuela
Category:
General Fiction

Mexico - History - 1910-1946
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