The sun was low in the sky when they came over a rise to see the town of Cactus Junction below them. It wasn’t much to look at; a few structures laid out in a small rectangle, with two dusty intersecting roads serving as the main streets. As they got closer, it was even less to look at.
The two streets were rutted from wagon tracks, and would be a sea of mud after the rare rains. Most of the buildings were wood frame, although a couple were constructed of irregular stones. A two-story wooden building at the intersection of the roads dominated the area; the town saloon and hotel. On the left of the saloon was a stone structure that looked from the distance like a store. A few people could be seen walking on the grassy paths that served as sidewalks.
When the detachment rode into the town on the road coming from the east, they were at first ignored, but as people got a closer look, they began to stare, and soon, there was a crowd on the grassy sidewalks, walking along pointing and murmuring. Ben quietly ordered his men to keep their eyes front and pay the crowd no mind. He rode with his shoulders back and his spine straight.
Their destination was a small stone building at the end of the east-west road. Ben could see the crudely lettered sign over the wooden door in the center, ‘Sheriff’s Office and Jail.’ He’d been ordered to report to the Sheriff of Cactus Junction, a man named Angus Woodman.
He called the detachment to a halt in front of the building, and ordered them to dismount. They tied their horses and the three mules carrying their equipment and supplies to the two hitching rails. Ben walked up to the door. He debated knocking, but decided that since it was a public building, there should be no need. He pushed the door open.
A tall, broad shouldered man, with snow white hair and piercing blue eyes was reaching for the door as Ben pushed it open. He looked up and for a moment his eyes widened.
“I heard the commotion out here,” he said. “I was just comin’ to take a gander and see what was up. I reckon I see now what caused the stir.”
“Are you Sheriff Woodman?” Ben asked.
“That I am, son; and, who might you be?”
“I’m First Sergeant Ben Carter. My detachment was sent here in response to your request for help.”
“Well now, don’t that beat all,” Woodman said. “I’d heard they was takin’ colored men in the army, but you the first one I seen. Sorry, forgot my manners.” He stuck out a gnarled, sun browned hand. “Welcome to Cactus Junction, sergeant.”
Ben had long since become accustomed to the first response of most white people to the sight of a black man armed and in the uniform of the cavalry. He grasped the man’s hand. He had a firm grip.
“If you’d tell me where I can put my men and supplies, sheriff,” he said. “Then, I’d appreciate knowin’ just what we’re up against here.”
“Sure thing, son. The livery stable’s just behind the jail here. Got a bunkhouse out back, too, oughta be big enough for you fellas.”
Ben turned and relayed the information to Toussaint.
“Now, sheriff,” he said. “Just what is the problem?”
“You get right down to business, sergeant. I like that in a man; ain’t got time for all that small talk myself. Come on in and set down and I’ll tell you.”
Ben followed the man into the small, crowded office, not much larger than the two barred enclosures to the right of his battered wooden desk. Wanted posters were nailed to the wall behind the desk. The cells were empty. Woodman motioned Ben to a rickety looking chair in front of the desk, and went behind it and sat in a wooden armed chair that looked like it might collapse under his weight.
“I’d offer you somethin’ to drink,” Woodman said. “But, ain’t had time to go to the saloon and refill my water jug. Don’t drink no hard stuff. Would you like a bite to eat?”
“That’s fine, sheriff,” Ben said. “We ate on the trail.”
“Okay, here’s the situation. We ain’t got too many people ‘round here. ‘Bout a hundred live in town; rest live on ranches scattered all over. Got some folk working a silver mine up in the hills. They come into town now and then to get supplies or get lickered up. I don’t usually have much to do; now and then, somebody gets a little too much whisky in his system and starts a fight, and I have to lock ‘im up so he can sober up. Lately, though, been a gang of outlaws rustling cattle and horses from some of the more isolated ranches. Ain’t kilt nobody yet, but I figure it’s just a matter of time. Folks gettin’ real spooked ‘bout it, and demand somethin’ be done. I’m just one man, and I ain’t gettin’ no younger; so, I sent a request for the cavalry.”
“I was told this gang’s about ten men,” Ben said. “Do you have any idea who they are?”
“Yup, looks to be ‘bout ten; maybe twelve; but, ain’t nobody seen ‘em up close. Couldn’t tell you if they was white or Mexican. We ain’t that far from the border; so, it could be a bunch from Mexico. You think you boys can handle ‘em?”
“We’ve faced worse,” Ben said. “I’ll need a list of the places that have been hit. Then, we’ll start patrolling first thing in the morning. You have any maps of the area?”
“I got an old survey map, but, it’s out of date.”
“Well, I reckon we’ll just have to make do. I’d appreciate it if you could give me that list in the morning.”
“I’ll do that, son,” Woodman said. “There’s just one more thing I got to tell you, and I hope you’ll take it in the spirit it’s meant. Like I said, I heard they had colored men in the army. Don’t bother me none; I figure a man’s known by what he can do, not the color of his skin, but, there’s a few folk here in Cactus Junction might feel different. We ain’t never had no colored folk here, and a lot of people here come west from slave states durin’ the war. They was all poor farmers what didn’t own no slaves, but I reckon they might still have pretty strong feelings about your people, you understand?”
Ben understood all too well. They were charged with protecting people who often refused to accord the status of human to them. It rankled, but he’d taken an oath and would stand by it.
“I understand, sheriff,” he said. “We get that back in the towns around Fort Davis, and they got lots of black people there; Indians and Mexicans, too. Can’t control how people think, but I can assure you, me and my men won’t make any trouble. We’re here to help you with your rustling problem. We’ll be out on patrol most of the time, and when we’re in town, I reckon we’ll just stay to ourselves.”
“That might be best, at least at first. Give folks time to get used to you. Mind, not everybody’s likely to be hostile, but better to be cautious.”
Ben thanked the sheriff and took his leave. He mounted his horse and pulled the reins, heading around the jail toward the livery stable and bunkhouse. He ignored the silent, sullen looking group of men and women standing across the street from the jail.