Mexican revolution spreads to South Texas

In the running war with Mexican bandits, six U.S. Army cavalrymen fought a brief battle with hit-and-run raiders on Aug. 10, 1915 twenty-five miles on the Texas side of the Rio Grande.

It was only a matter of time before the violent convulsions wracking Mexico would spill over the border.  In the summer of 1915, halfway through the revolution that eventually took two million lives and drove hundreds of thousands into exile, Texans living in the Valley suddenly became targets in a shooting war.

On Aug. 6, a dozen bandits rode into Sebastian 35 miles north of Brownsville.  The proprietor of the general store in the sleepy hamlet turned to greet the always welcome customers and found himself staring down the barrels of two rifles.  The robbers helped themselves to his sparse shelves before moving onto the next business.

That was the corn shelter run by Al B. Austin and his son Charlie.  When both defiantly refused to raise their hands, the bandits shot them dead.

Leaving the Austins where they fell, the raiders robbed the third and last establishment in the tiny town — the post office.  Satisfied there was nothing left in Sebastian worth taking, they saddled up and galloped off.

Adjutant General Henry Hutchings, the governor appointee in charge of the state’s military, caught the next southbound train out of Austin.  With the help of the Cameron County sheriff and Ranger Capt. Henry Ranson, he organized a 20-man posse and took off in pursuit of the killers.

At half-past ten the next night, the lawmen located three members of the gang in a house five miles from the scene of the crime.  Two bandits caught napping on the back porch opened fire on the posse and died an instant later in a hail of bullets.  The third tried to run for it but lost the life-and-death footrace a few yards from the house.

In an official statement, the Adjutant General tried to calm the panic-stricken public.  Although Hutchings believed the Rangers and local law enforcement could handle the situation, he did not rule out asking the governor to send the National Guard.

James B. Ferguson answered his military attaché at a press conference in Corpus Christi, where he expressed the dubious opinion that “the trouble in valley is of a local nature” and had nothing to do with the chaos south of the border.  Rather than call out the Guard, the governor announced the hiring of 20 “special” Rangers, which he described as adequate reinforcements.

The Houston Chronicle concurred with a comment typical of the times.  “A Mexican has a wholesome fear of Texas Rangers, and this concentration may mean the end of (the) difficulties.”

Two days later on Aug. 9, a special train carrying 17 Rangers and eight Army troopers arrived at Norrias in Willacy County.  The soldiers stayed behind at a nearby ranch house with a group of eight civilians, while the Rangers set out on horseback for a waterhole, a rumored bandit campsite 12 miles away.

Early that evening, the soldiers saw figures in the twilight which they presumed to be the returning Rangers.  Minutes later, the unsuspecting Americans came under attack from an unusually large band of 60 raiders.

The fighting raged for an hour and half with the badly outnumbered defenders managing to keep the bandits at bay.  But they were down to their last bullets and praying for a Ranger rescue.

Lucky for them, the waterhole had been a wild goose chase.  The familiar sound of gunfire caused the returning Rangers to quicken their pace, and they arrived just in the nick of time.

The bandits disappeared in the darkness leaving five dead for the Texans to bury.  The soldiers and their plainclothes comrades-in-arms suffered nothing worse than minor wounds, and all of them lived to tell about their harrowing experience.

Fear gripped the Valley in the aftermath of the Norrias incident.  The sheriff of Kleberg County appealed for guns and ammunition in order to give Kingsville a fighting chance in the event of an attack.

The Aug. 11 edition of newspapers across the state reported that Mexican army troops loyal to President Venustiano Carranza had been coming across the border 30 or 40 at a time in recent days. Texans worried that Carranza, snubbed by President Woodrow Wilson since seizing power eight months earlier, just might be mad enough at Washington to make such a crazy move.

Texans in the Valley and elsewhere along the Rio Grande lived on pins and needles for the next five years.  Following Pancho Villa’s March 1916 raid on Columbus, New Mexico, more than 35,000 U.S. troops were stationed on the Texas-Mexico border.

There would be no peace in the Valley until the Mexican Revolution finally petered out in 1920.

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