Sunday, September 9, 2012

Work in Progress - Buffalo Soldier: Incident at Cactus Junction

I've started number three in the Buffalo Soldier series. The working title is Incident at Cactus Junction.  Following is chapter one.  Reader comments are welcome.


1.

 

     “I told you that cinch wasn’t tight enough,” Ben Carter said to the corporal who was struggling to hold a reluctant mule still while he put the bag of provisions across its back.  The corporal, George Toussaint, Ben’s second in command of the detachment, wasn’t amused.

     “It seemed tight ‘nuff back at the fort; musta worked loose during the trip.  You wanta give me a hand, or you just gone stand there and criticize?”

     Ben walked over and picked up a small bag, handing it to the corporal.

     “Make sure it’s good and tight this time,” he said.  “It’s a day’s ride to Cactus Junction, but if we have to keep stopping and picking up stuff your mule drops, we’ll be another week getting there.”

     “Yes, First Sergeant,” Toussaint said, smiling wryly.  “I swear, ever since they done promoted you, Ben Carter, you been gettin’ bossier ever day.”

     Ben looked down at the left sleeve of his blue uniform jacket.  The little diamond sitting in the valley of the three stripes seemed strange.  He’d been promoted just before his troop commander informed him of their current mission.

     “I’m still the same as I always was,” he said.  “You’ll be putting on an extra stripe pretty soon yourself, so you got no call to be ragging on me.”

     “Ain’t raggin’ you; just pointin’ out the truth.  You one bossy man, you know that?”

     They both laughed.  Ben hadn’t gotten along with Toussaint when they first met, but over time, they had become friends.  He trusted the tall, dark-skinned man; had on more than one occasion trusted him with his life.  Their banter was merely a part of their friendship.

     The rest of the detachment waited for them atop the slight rise.  Ben had ordered them to stand fast; no sense spooking the poor mule further.  It had shied when a sidewinder had crossed its path, throwing its load around; and was just beginning to calm down as Toussaint alternated between knotting the rope around its middle and rubbing it behind the ears.  The man had a way with animals.

     “You just keep that danged mule under control,” Ben said.  “Folks in Cactus Junction will be expecting us, and the colonel won’t like it if we show up late.”

     Cactus Junction was a little town in the foothills of the plateau that the border town of El Paso was on, at the Mexican border.  The residents, mostly ranchers with spreads on the arid plains, had sent a request to the cavalry at Fort Davis for assistance to deal with a band of rustlers that had been raiding some of the more remote ranches.  The Ninth Cavalry was the closest army unit that had troops available, so Ben and his detachment were dispatched to provide security to the town.  The colonel felt that a small gang of thieves; and the request for aid had said that there was only about ten men in the gang; would be no trouble for Ben and his men.

     After Toussaint had the load secured, he and Ben remounted their horses and joined the rest.

     Ben had been in command of this small special detachment ever since he’d been dispatched to take charge when the white lieutenant and the sergeant in charge had fallen ill while they were on patrol to locate a marauding band of Comanche warriors in Sandy Gulch.  He’d had a rocky start at first, but during the encounter with Scarred Nose and his warriors, he’d proven himself and they’d grown as close as a group of men could.  They trusted his judgment and followed his commands without hesitation, and he’d learned to trust them.

     “Hey, George, you done got that mule to cooperate?” Hezekiah Layton said with a laugh as they rode up.

     Despite Ben’s best efforts, Layton still managed to have something wrong with his uniform, just as he had when they first met.  Now, his tunic was partially drooping over his belt.

     “Hezekiah,” he said. “Why can’t you ever keep your uniform on right?  Tuck that shirt in.”

     Layton’s dark brown face flushed with embarrassment as he hastily tucked the tunic into his trousers.  It still looked rumpled, but Ben thought it was the best he could expect.

     “Hell, Hezekiah,” Toussaint said.  “You one to be talkin’, you can’t even put yo clothes on right less’n you got help.”

     The men laughed; good natured banter that was the mainstay of their time on patrol.  Layton wasn’t the sharpest dresser in the detachment, but he was reliable in a fight.

     They all were, Ben thought.  There was Malachi Davis; just turned twenty, he was the youngest; a shy kid from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, he had a tendency to stutter, but in a fire fight, he was a crack shot.  Lucas Hall, the oldest in the group, had been a riverboat gambler before the war, working in the Creole gambling houses in New Orleans until he’d stabbed a man in an argument over cards, and had joined the cavalry to stay out of jail.  Marcus Scott, a corporal like Toussaint, had been a grocery store stock clerk in Shreveport.  Nat Tatum had worked gulf shrimp boats.  Charles Buckley had worked on a ranch near Fort Worth, Texas.  Samuel Hightower had been born on a ranch in New Mexico; he and his mother had been captured by Apaches and taken to the badlands of West Texas. Tom Holman came from a family that had been owned by a German brewer who operated a brewery near Austin.  Journeyman Kellum, the only northerner in the detachment, was originally from Delaware.  He’d come south after the war because he’d heard that a man could get rich there.

     Each of them had a different story, but in many ways, were much the same; rootless after the Civil War, and shut out of society in the north as well as the former rebel states, they’d joined the army, seeing it as the only way a black man could hold his head up with pride – not to mention get a regular salary – they were out here on the western frontier, making it a safe place for people to live and prosper.

     Ben got them into formation, taking the lead himself, with Toussaint just behind him, and gave the signal to move out at a canter.  Cactus Junction had problems, and it was up to them to sort them out.