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Thursday, November 4, 2010

A Knife Duel in Mexico

General J.O. Shelby

At the end of the Civil War, General J.O. Shelby, CSA, refused to surrender and instead led his army into Mexico. His story was told in Noted Guerrillas, or, The Warfare of the Border (1877), by John N. Edwards.

While Shelby's army was camped outside Lampasas, three of his men went to a fandango in town. One of the men, Crockett Ralston, a veteran of Quantrill's guerrillas, created an incident when he tried to snatch a kiss from a Mexican girl. Reaching for her face, he grabbed her sebosa, a garment which covers the head and upper body, and in pulling it off he exposed her bare breasts. This provoked a mob attack on the Americans, two of whom were wounded, though Crockett made it back to the camp unscathed.

The brother of the girl walked to the camp, approached Shelby, and pointed at Crockett. He said, "That man has outraged my sister. I could have killed him, but 1 did not. You Americans are brave, I know; will you be generous as well, and give me satisfaction?"
Shelby looked at Crockett, whose bronzed face, made sterner in the moonlight, had upon it a look of curiosity. He at least did not understand what was coming. "Does the Mexican speak the truth, Crockett?" was the question asked by the commander of his soldier.

"Partly; but I meant no harm to the woman. I am incapable of that. Drunk, I know I was, and reckless, but not willfully guilty, General."

Shelby regarded him coldly. His voice was so stern when he spoke again that the brave soldier hung his head:

"What business had you to lay your hands upon her at all? How often must I repeat to you that the man who does these things is no follower of mine ? Will you give her brother satisfaction?"

He drew his revolver almost joyfully and stood proudly up, facing his accuser. "No! no! not the pistol!" cried the Mexican; "I do not understand the pistol. The knife, Senor General; is the American afraid of the knife?"

He displayed as he spoke a keen, glittering knife, and held it up in the moonlight. It was white, and lithe, and shone in contrast with the dusky hand which grasped it.

Not a muscle of Crockett's face moved. He spoke almost gently as he turned to his General: "The knife, oh! well, so be it. Will some of you give me a knife?"

A knife was handed to him and a ring was made. About four hundred soldiers formed the outside circle of this ring. These, bearing torches in their hands, cast a red glare of light upon the arena, already flooded with the softer beaming of the moon. The ground under foot was as velvet. The moon not yet full, and the sky without a cloud, rose over all, calm and peaceful in the summer night. A hush as of expectancy fell upon the camp. Those who were asleep slept on; those who were awake seemed as under the influence of an intangible dream. Shelby did not forbid the fight. He knew it was a duel to the death, and some of the desperate spirit of the combatants passed into his own. He merely spoke to an aide: "Go for [Doctor] Tisdale. When the steel has finished, the surgeon may begin."

Both men stepped fearlessly into the arena. A third form was there, unseen, invisible, and even in his presence the traits of the two nations were uppermost. The Mexican made the sign of the cross, the American tightened his sabre belt. Both may have prayed, neither, however, audibly.

They had no seconds—perhaps none were needed. The Mexican took his stand about midway of the arena, and waited. Crockett grasped his knife firmly and advanced upon him. Of the two, he was taller by a head and physically the strongest. Constant familiarity with danger for four years had given him a confidence the Mexican may not have felt. He had been wounded three times, one of which wounds was scarcely healed. This took none of his manhood from him, however.

Neither spoke. The torches flared a little in the night wind, now beginning to rise, and the long grass rustled curtly under foot. Afterwards its green had become crimson.

Between them some twelve inches of space now intervened, the men had fallen back upon the right and the left for their commander to see, and he stood looking fixedly at the two as he would upon a line of battle. Never before had he gazed upon so strange a sight. That great circle of bronzed faces, eager and fierce in the flare of torches, had something monstrous yet grotesque about it. The civilization of the century had been rolled back, and they were in a Roman circus, looking down upon the arena, crowded with gladiators and jubilant with that strangest of war-cries: Morituri te salutant!

The attack was as the lightning's flash. The Mexican lowered his head, set his teeth hard, and struck fairly at Crockett's breast. The American made a half-face to the right, threw his left arm forward as a shield, gathered the deadly steel in his shoulder to the hilt and struck home. How pitiful! A great stream of blood spurted in his face. The tense form of the Mexican bent as a willow wand in the wind, swayed helplessly, and fell backward lifeless, the knife rising up as a terrible protest above the corpse. The man's heart was found.

Cover him up from sight! No need of Dr. Tisdale here. There was a wail of women on the still night air, a shudder of regret among the soldiers, a dead man on the grass, a sister broken-hearted and alone forevermore, and a freed spirit somewhere out in eternity with the unknown and the infinite.

Crockett was afterwards killed in a desperate night attack upon a hacienda. . . 

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