Thursday, August 29, 2013

WIP: Chapter 3 of 'Buffalo Soldier: Escort Duty'


     After a quick breakfast in the dark, Ben had the camp fire doused and got the convoy back on the road. The path wound upwards, with the southern end of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains on their right and the flat tops of Glorieta Mesa on their left.

     The orange sun from their rear cast long shadows on the trail ahead. They passed through Pecos Canyon just before topping the final rise leading into the territorial capital. Smaller than Las Vegas, Santa Fe had been the capital of the area since it was under Spanish control. Beds of cactus lined the road in places, knee-high round green leafed plants with long, sharp spines, and in others waist-high grass undulated in the breeze. Now and then wagon tracks or a single trail broke off the main trail leading to homesteads hidden in distant groves of hardwood trees. As they got closer to the outskirts of town, they saw houses nearer the trail. Some were the fine haciendas of wealthy ranchers. Others were humble adobe huts belonging to those who worked the land for others.

     They came into town from the south, passing the San Miguel Mission at the south side of town, and the Governor’s Palace, which had served as the town’s administrative center since Spanish days, before coming to the rail depot. The depot was small for a territorial capital, but the mountainous terrain around the city had caused the railroad to decide to serve it via a trunk line rather than try and cut the main line through the precipitous terrain.

     A rat-faced clerk, who seemed put out at having to stay a few minutes late to receive the army mail, took possession of the Fort Union mail bags, locking them in a large room in the back of the depot, and giving Ben a receipt.

     After putting the horses and wagons up at a livery stable near the depot, they walked to a nearby hotel and were lucky enough to be able to get rooms for the entire group. After settling their gear, they split up to enjoy an evening on the town. Ben and George Toussaint walked along the dusty sidewalk to a saloon near the hotel.

     The place wasn’t crowded. Most of the patrons looked to be cowboys from ranches in the area with a few townspeople sprinkled in among them. A skinny man wearing a top hat and black coat with tails, sat at a piano in the corner playing one discordant song after another, which the patrons ignored.

     “You want a table or is the bar okay?” Toussaint asked.

     There were only a few cowboys at the bar, standing at one end drinking. The empty tables, though, were all near someone, and Ben preferred solitude.

     “End of the bar looks empty,” he said. “Let’s go there.”

     The bored looking bartended, a pale, short man with a paunch under his apron like a small melon, took their order of pork chops, biscuits and beer. He brought the beers right away. Ben took a sip.

     “Danged if they don’t let anybody come in here,” a voice behind him said.

     Ben turned to see one of the cowboys from the other end of the bar, a tall, gangly man with a pockmarked face and a wispy mustache, standing near him with a scowl on his sun-browned face. He sensed Toussaint’s body tensing next to him.

     “I’m sorry,” Ben said. “Were you talkin’ to me?”

     The man laughed. A trail of brown spittle snaked from the side of his mouth.

     “Naw, boy, I’se talkin’ ‘bout you.” He turned to the bartender. “Charlie, you jest let anything wander in off the street, don’t you. Next you be servin’ dogs ‘n Injuns.”

     “Now, come on, Billy Ray,” the bartender said. “Let’s not start no trouble.”

    “Aw, Charlie, you know me,” the cowboy said. “I don’t cause no trouble. I jest wants to know how come a white man can’t have a peaceful drink with his friends without all the riff-raff comin’ in.”

     “These soldiers ain’t botherin’ you and your friends, Billy Ray.”

     “Them jest bein’ here bothers me.” He turned back to Ben. “Now, boy, why don’t you and your friend jest haul your black carcasses on outa here?”

     Toussaint stood away from the bar, loosening the flap of his holster. Ben laid a hand on his arm, shaking his head.

     “We’ll leave as soon as we’ve eaten our meal,” he said to the cowboy.

     “I think you gone be leavin’ right now, boy.” The cowboy turned to his three companions. “What say, boys? We gone show these two darkies the door?”

     The three men, almost too drunk to walk straight, shoved away from the bar and started staggering toward their friend.

     “I think maybe you boys oughta find somethin’ else to amuse you,” a deep voice said.

     The three men stopped still. The man who’d been taunting Ben and Toussaint paled and his eyes went wide.

     Ben hadn’t noticed the man in black when he entered the saloon. He’d been sitting alone in a corner table in shadow. Now, he stood next to Ben and Toussaint.

     He was tall, well over six feet, with broad shoulders and a narrow waist. He had a narrow face with high cheekbones of leathery, sun-bronzed skin. His eyes were ice blue under dark brown brows that feathered out at the side. A sharp nose swooped straight down to a thin mustache over thin lips which regarded the four drunken cowboys without humor. He was dressed entirely in black; a black hat set squarely on his head, black shirt and black pants. His holster was black leather, and was worn low and strapped to his leg. The butt of his revolver was also black.

     “We jest tryin’ to keep this a place where decent white men can come to drink,” the cowboy said.  “It ain’t no place for colored folk; ‘specially these blue belly soldiers.”

     “If you wanted to keep it decent,” the man in black said; his voice as icy as his blue eyes. “You and your friends would leave. You roughnecks from Texas come here to Santa Fe and bring your filthy habits with you. The only color that counts here is the color of a man’s money, and we measure a man by whether or not he’s decent. By that standard, you four don’t measure up.”

     “Y-you sidin’ with them?”

     “What do you think?”

     The cowboy, only slightly less drunk than his friends, eyed the gun on the man’s hip, and the cold look in his eyes. His friends stood behind him a good distance, waiting to see what he would say. They were just drunk enough, Ben thought, to do something foolish like make a move on the stranger. The way the man wore his gun, the way he stood, the way he talked, all this told Ben that he was no stranger to gunfights, and that if the cowboys did something stupid like attempt to draw on him, it would probably be the last mistake they ever made.

     Ben watched as the bravado brought on by too much whisky drained out of the man. He turned to his friends.

     “Come on, fellas,” he said. “This here pig pen ain’t no place for a decent white man. Let’s find ourselves another place to drink.”

     The drunken men gave the man in black a wide berth as they slunk out of the saloon.

     Ben turned to the man.

     “Thank you, mister,” he said. “Mighty kind of you to side with us like that.”

     The man touched a finger to the brim of his hat.

     “No thanks necessary, sergeant,” he said. “My name’s Palladin, Joshua Palladin; and you might say I was just payin’ off a debt I owe.”

     “I’m Ben Carter, and this is my friend Sergeant George Toussaint,” Ben said. “And, I don’t know of any debt you owe either of us.”

     “Oh, not you specific, but I owe you Buffalo Soldiers my life.”

     “We’re cavalrymen,” Toussaint said. “Not buffalo hunters.”

     “Not hunters, soldiers, Buffalo Soldiers” Palladin said. “Didn’t you know that’s what the Indians out here call you man ‘cause of your wooly hair, and they pure dee respect your fightin’ ability.”

     “I didn’t know that,” Ben said, but his chest swelled with pride at the thought. “How’d the cavalry save your life?”

     Palladin walked up to the bar and ordered whisky. After the bartender had poured three fingers of the amber liquor into a glass, he knocked back half before telling his story.

     “I’m a bounty hunter by trade,” he said. “Work mostly ‘round the territory and up north, goin’ after horse thieves and bank robbers.” He took another sip of whisky. “I was trailin’ this gang of stage coach robbers what had been hittin’ coaches on the Santa Fe Trail regular like. I thought there was just three of ‘em, and that I had ‘em cornered up in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Only, it turned out there were six, and while I was chasin’ three, the other three circled ‘round behind me.”

     “You got ambushed?” Toussaint asked.

     “That I did, as sweet as you please. They had me pinned down and caught in a cross fire. Only reason they didn’t kill me outright is they were lousy shots, and they started shootin’ too early. Gave me a chance to hunker down behind some boulders with a rocky wall to my back. I was runnin’ low on ammunition though, and they’d of kilt me for sure if these four cavalry troopers who’d been out lookin’ for renegade Indians hadn’t come ‘long when they did. They attacked the three who’d come at me from behind, and the other three lost stomach for the fight and lit out. I’m standin’ here today because of black troopers from the Ninth Cavalry; same outfit as you. Far as I’m concerned, that debt ain’t even half paid, and if I can ever do anything for you fellas, you can be sure I will.”

     Ben thanked Palladin for coming to their aid, and offered to buy him another drink.

     “Sergeant, your money’s no good in this saloon long’s I’m around. Charlie, put their food and drink on my tab.”

     He touched his right index finger to the brim of his hat again, turned and walked away.

     The bartender was putting their food on the bar as the saloon doors swung closed behind Palladin’s broad shoulders.

     “Dang,” Toussaint said, just before diving into his food. “I guess all white folk ain’t all that bad.”

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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

I Still Believe in the Dream

Martin Luther King, Jr.
Martin Luther King, Jr. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today is the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous I Have a Dream speech, delivered August 28, 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. I’d planned to do a special blog about the significance of that event, but ‘the best laid plans of mice and men,’ and all that interfered. This is, in fact, the first day in a couple of weeks that I’ve been able to sit comfortably at my keyboard long enough to write more than a paragraph or delete a few dozen emails. Since the day is here, and I’ve not had time to think about what I wanted to write, I will refer readers to my reminiscence of that day on Yahoo! Voices, ‘Living King’s Dream in a Most Unlikely Place.’ Instead of my planned blog, I will regale you with my adventures over the past two months, and maybe show how it relates.

On July 4, I fell prey to a situation that is all too common to people of my age, a fall. And, yes, I broke something – a very critical bone in my hip. Unfortunately, the fracture was small and didn’t show up on the x-rays in the ER when I went for treatment. It was only in August, when it still hurt more than the bruise we suspected it to be should hurt, that they did an MRI (on Aug. 14) and found the break. My primary doctor referred me to an orthopedist – that took a few days – who immediately scheduled me for surgery.

I checked into the hospital on Aug. 22 and the following day they put three screws in my hip to close the fracture and hold the bones in place until they heal. There followed three more days in the hospital; being awakened every three hours to take my pulse and blood pressure, or give me pain medication, changing dressings, checking the catheter, etc.  The day after surgery, physical therapy started. How to walk with crutches or a walker, how to stand, how to sit, exercises to keep the leg muscles from becoming flaccid and prevent blood clots, and all the other things I need to do over the next two to three months to be fully healed.

A trip to the hospital is, I’m sure, a traumatic experience for everyone. For me, it was compounded by the fact that I’d reached my 68th year without ever spending a night in a hospital since being born in one, so I didn’t know what to expect. I think I was just learning hospital protocol when my doctor decided it was safe to send me home and had me discharged.  I’ve never been happier getting kicked out of a place.

So, on this day, as we look back 50 years at Dr. King’s historic speech, how does my stay in the hospital relate? To start with, had this happened in 1963, the delays in getting treatment in the little East Texas town from whence I come wouldn’t have been administrative or technical – I might have actually been denied admission to some of the local medical establishments in my area. And, with all due respect to the Hippocratic Oath, the treatment I would have received from the country doctors in that era would have, in most cases, been limited to only what was legally necessary.

We still have a long way to go in this country before we’ve fully realized King’s ‘Dream,’ but we’ve also come a long way. I’ll spend this day thinking about the progress that has been made, and what I can do to help make more.

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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

"The Last Gunfighters" Free for Kindle, Sep. 1 - 5!

The wild west is becoming less wild, and bounty hunters Esau Brown and Jacob Hardin are caught right in the middle of the change. To complicate matters, they also find themselves in the middle of a war between ranchers and farmers near the town of Briscoe, New Mexico, when all they want to do is collect their bounty and head back to the mountains. Follow along with Esau and Jacob's adventures for free on your Kindle. The Last Gunfighters is free for Kindle readers and Kindle apps, September 1 - 5 only. It would be greatly appreciated if those downloading this free offer would provide feedback or reviews of the work. Enjoy.


The_Last_Gunfighters_Cover_for_Kindle
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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

WIP: Chapter 2 of "Buffalo Soldier: Escort Duty"


     The best plan in the world falls apart if you fail to consider every factor that has an impact on it. Ben had failed to take into account that sound, especially drumbeats, the wail of a harmonica, and several voices raised in song, traveled a long way, and he’d not taken Toussaint far enough away from the camp site to be out of range of the music and singing. It came through clearly to where they sat with their backs against a boulder, eating the dried beef and hard biscuits that constituted their mid-day meal.

     When the first notes of music drifted in on the air, Ben tensed and watched his friend out of the corner of his eye. Toussaint’s eyes narrowed, and a muscle in his dark cheek started twitching, but he said nothing.

     I gone lay down my burden, down by the rivuh side, down by the rivuh side, way down by the rivuh side.”

     The words came clearly, with one particularly deep bass voice prominent over the mournful sound of the harmonica. As Ben watched Toussaint, in addition to the anger, he saw sadness in the man’s eyes. He could understand that. Both he and Toussaint had been mere children when the Civil War ended, ending the peculiar institution of slavery, but he still remembered.

     He remembered the stories, whispered to him late at night by his father and mother, about the slaves and their desire to escape to freedom, and their resentment at being treated on a par with the livestock, or in some cases even less. Songs were used to signal escape plans or routes for those who wanted to take their freedom into their own hands. Often their desire would be reflected in the songs they sang, using cryptic words and phrases to avoid punishment by their masters.

     Unlike slaves in other southern states, who sought freedom in the northern states and Canada, most slaves in Texas sought the friendly environment of Mexico to the south, where the government honored their rights as human beings and welcomed them. Some sought refuge with the East Texas Indian tribes where, even though they weren’t treated as equals, they attained a degree of freedom and dignity. Those who went south, went through the Coastal Bend, braving lakes infested with alligators, and into the Nueces Desert, where they endured intense heat, poisonous snakes, and lack of water. Throughout their journey they had to dodge gangs of slave hunters and along the Rio Grande, bands of cannibalistic Karankawa Indians.

     As a child, Ben could never understand how people who endured the indignity and suffering of slavery could sing and dance, but as he grew older, he realized that this was their way of coping, and easing their burdens.

     George Toussaint, he reckoned, had not come to that realization. He still seemed to hold a deep resentment of anything that reminded him of the dark period of slavery.

     Ben let him stew in silence. He noticed that when the kindling and tools were loaded on the wagons and the work party headed back to the fort, Toussaint rode far out ahead, avoiding eye contact with everyone.

     He and his detachment separated from the work party when they arrived at Fort Union, leaving the recruits to take the kindling to the wood storage area, while they went directly to the stables to take care of their horses and gear.

     After taking care of his horse, Ben reported to the adjutant who confirmed that their duty the next day would be to escort the mail wagon to Santa Fe and back. He breathed a sigh of relief.

     The evening meal was quiet, or as quiet as a crowd of hungry soldiers can ever be. Ben and his men sat apart from the others; they’d taken to doing that after their second mission. The other troopers recognized them as special, and didn’t seem to mind, and truth be told, most of them were skittish around Toussaint and Corporals Lucas Hall and Charles Buckley anyway.

     When they finished eating, they all went back to the barracks for single soldiers, which they shared with ten other troopers who mostly ignored them, but who were out in the quadrangle formed by the barracks, quarters for married troopers and laundry sheds singing, talking, and playing cards. Excited at the prospect of going to Santa Fe, Ben and his men were preparing their gear, shining leather and polishing metal to a high sheen.

     “Can’t have troopers from the Ninth ridin’ into Santa Fe lookin’ sloppy,” Corporal Journeyman Keller said as he slapped beeswax on his boots and began rubbing it in.

     “We’d better get to sleep early tonight,” Ben said. “Mail wagon driver likes to head out right after breakfast, so we need to get our horses and gear ready before we eat in the mornin’.”

     The sun hadn’t yet risen when Ben got up the next morning and quietly roused his detachment. Most of the men were already awake. They were excited about going to Santa Fe. After getting their horses, weapons, and gear settled, they ate a quick breakfast, mounted and rode toward the main gate where they were to meet the mail wagon.

     At the gate, they found not one, but two, wagons. Each had two passengers, a driver and an armed trooper riding shotgun, and was pulled by a team of four horses. The first wagon was driven by a Mexican who introduced himself as Cesar Ortega, one of the fort’s civilian drovers. The shotgun was a lanky, dark skinned corporal named Peter Collier. The cargo consisted of several canvas bags securely fastened. This, Ben knew was the outgoing mail, personal letters and official dispatches. The second wagon, with two armed troopers, Private Moses Lake and Corporal Robert Alexander, was empty.

     “Why the extra wagon?” Ben asked Collier as he rode up at the head of the detachment.

     “Cap’n say we might have a extra heavy load to bring back,” the corporal answered. “Ain’t that right, Cesar?”

     “Si,” the Mexican drover answered. “El Capitan, he say, one wagon not enough.”

     Ben shrugged. It would mean stretching out the detachment over a wider distance to cover both wagons. Some of the territory they had to traverse consisted of narrow canyons, which would make this a risky formation. But, if the officer in charge had ordered it, there was little he could do but make the best of it.

     “Okay,” he said. “Keep about twenty yards between wagons so the ones behind don’t have to eat too much dust.” He turned to his detachment. “Samuel, you and Malachi ride point. George, you ride just in front of the lead wagon. Nat and Marcus, ride trail, about twenty, thirty yards back. Rest of you, split up and ride flank.  I’ll be moving back and forth to keep an eye on things.”

     “Is that really necessary, sergeant?” Collier asked. “I mean, I been doin’ the mail run for two month now, and ain’t never had no trouble.”

     “If we’re ready, won’t be trouble this time either,” Ben said. “All right, everyone take your positions.”

     Hightower and Davis rode up and stationed themselves about twenty yards in front of the lead wagon. Toussaint eased his horse just in front of and off to the side. Tatum and Scott fell in behind the second wagon. The rest moved to the flanks, two to the left and three to the right. Ben decided he would ride to the left to balance the flank on that side.

     “Okay, let’s move out,” he said.

     With the wagons creaking and rumbling, the convoy moved past the main gate of Fort Union and headed southwest toward the capital.  With the wagons, especially the one loaded down with mail bags, Ben knew they’d be lucky to make 45 miles per day, taking them two days to travel the 95 miles from Fort Union to Santa Fe. His plan was to follow the trail south through the town of Las Vegas, and stop for a night camp about 20 miles southeast of town. Starting the next morning at dawn, they could make Santa Fe before dark, while the railroad depot was still open.

     They passed through Las Vegas just after three in the afternoon. Founded in 1835 by settlers who’d received a land grant from Mexico, it was one of the largest towns in the territory. It was laid out in traditional Spanish colonial style, with a broad central plaza surrounded by buildings that served as fortifications in the event of Indian attack. One of the main stops on the Santa Fe Trail, Las Vegas had attracted businessmen as well as outlaws. With the construction of a rail line and station underway, it was sure to attract even more. Already, Ben and his men observed as their convoy passed through the center of town, there were a few Victorian-style mansions indicating the presence of someone of wealth. The opulence of the mansions contrasted sharply with the adobe dwellings of the majority of the town’s less prosperous residents.

     The streets were crowded with people, most of whom paid little attention to the wagons and their cavalry escort, which suited Ben well. He’d never become accustomed to the hostility some of the territory’s settlers had toward the black men of the Ninth, even though the cavalry was there to protect them.

     By the time they arrived at Bernal Springs, where the trail cut west and northwest, the sun was low in the sky and casting long shadows, and the mountain range was purple in the distance.

     Ben raised his hand for a halt, and called the point riders back.

     “Okay, we’ll stop here for the night,” he said. “If we start out as sunup tomorrow, we ought to be in Santa Fe by mid-afternoon.”

     “Fine by me,” Toussaint said, as he rode up to Ben. “My backside could use a rest.”

     Ben laughed. He knew all the men were probably a bit saddle sore. It had been a while since they’d had to spend so much time in the saddle. As the men rode up and dismounted, and the wagon drivers jumped down from the seats, he explained how he wanted the camp laid out.

     He had the two wagons placed back-in, perpendicular to each other, forming two sides of a square, or a ‘V’ shape. The horses were tethered at the open end, and he assigned the Mexican drover the duty of watching out for them. A few feet beyond the tethered beasts he directed a camp fire be built, and directed the men to arrange their sleeping rolls in a staggered row between the fire and wagons.

     Two of the troopers who’d been riding the wagons grumbled at having to undergo such ritual just for a one-night camp.

     “Do it anyway,” Ben said. “This way, when we’re on the way back, you can do it without having to think about it. Set up like this, if we’re attacked, we can quickly move and use the wagons for cover on one side and the horses on the other.”

     “And, if you don’t do it,” Toussaint said with a growl. “I just might make you wish the Apaches attacked us.”

     With wide eyes, the two men rushed to comply with Ben’s instructions.

     “Not exactly the way I would have handled it,” Ben said wryly.

     “I know,” Toussaint said. “But, I figured you didn’t want to have to spend half the night convincin’ ‘em to do the right thing.”

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flickspire - Israel and Iran: A Love Story?

flickspire - Israel and Iran: A Love Story?

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Danger of Jumping to Conclusions

Judging a person or event by initial appearances, or jumping to a conclusion without sufficient evidence might be good exercise, but it can lead to disaster - or at best, embarrassment. I was thinking about that today and it brought to mind a post I did on May 8, 2012, 'Things Are Not Always What they Seem" which I repost here for your edification and consideration:

I had an interesting encounter yesterday that illustrated the danger in making snap judgments about things or people based on tags and labels.
As I was standing in front of one of Harare’s public buildings waiting for my driver to arrive, a gentleman approached me and asked if I was a preacher.  I noticed that he had a ‘Zimbabwe Chief’ badge on his coat, but didn’t remark on it at first because I was taken aback that he would assume me a man of the cloth.  Perhaps it was the dark suit, or the gray hair; or maybe even the stern look on my face, which was only there because my eyes are extremely light-sensitive and I often squint with brow furrowed when outside in bright light.
At any rate, I assured him that I was not a preacher, which led to an interesting discussion of the various theologies in the world.  I told him that I didn’t follow any particular faith other than Buddhism as a way of living, because I found something to agree with in almost all of them, and had made a personal decision to ‘take the best and leave the rest.’  A devout person himself, he said, he held to strong beliefs in his own faith, but conceded that I made a good point about the others.
At this point, I gave him my name card, and something interesting happened. As he looked at it, he said, “If I’d known who you were, I would probably have walked away without speaking to you.”  He then said, “Because you represent the country that has caused more destruction on earth than any other.”  He said this in such a mild, matter-of-fact manner; I wasn’t insulted, but intrigued; so I decided to engage him on this.  I pointed out that, while the U.S. is not without its blemishes, such a sweeping statement was not supported by historical fact.  I mentioned some of the more egregious acts of violence in world history.  He thought about that for a while, and conceded that I had a valid point.  He then said that this is what he’d always heard, so he believed it.  This, I said, is an example of how little people really know about the world because they’re subjected to propaganda and inaccurate or unbalanced news coverage; people in other countries often know as little about the U.S. as Americans know about the rest of the world, and for the same reasons.
Our conversation went on for some twenty minutes, and while lively, it was fascinating, and we found that we both made points that the other found agreement with.  As my car arrived, I said my farewells and thanked him for the conversation.  He, in turn, thanked me, and invited me to visit his chiefdom.  We shook hands and embraced; two people who’d spent a pleasant morning chatting on a street corner about all manner of things.  We disagreed on some, but agreed on more; and all without once becoming disagreeable.
Things, people, are never what they seem at first glance; that’s the lesson I learned, and it’s one that we could all benefit from.
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Saturday, August 17, 2013

Work in Progress: "Buffalo Soldier: Escort Duty"


     “You mind tellin’ me just how this is a reward?” Sergeant Rene Toussaint said as he approached Ben Carter. His dark face was twisted in frustration and the beginning of anger. “I ain’t had to do work like this since I was a kid and had to tend my grandma’s chickens.”

     It wasn’t the first time since sunup that Toussaint had approached Ben to complain. And, Ben knew that the others in the detachment felt the same; they only let Toussaint voice their complaints.

     They were only in the third hour of an assignment to escort a work detail that was in a forested area north of Fort Union cutting kindling to be used by the cooks and laundresses. The ten of them and fifteen recruits who were under the supervision of an old sergeant who spent his time napping in the back of one of the two wagons they’d brought along to haul the kindling.

     Ben had to admit that it was boring duty, but duty was duty.

     “We’re just doing this today,” he said. “The way they’re cutting we should be on the way back to the fort just after noon.”

     He pointed to the fifteen men who had cut down several medium sized trees, and were in the process of chopping them into smaller chunks. The cut wood was stacked in piles which would then be put on the two wagons.

     “I don’t see why we have to watch over them,” Toussaint said. “Why can’t they take care of themselves? They’s cavalrymen just like us.”

     “It’s not for us to be questioning orders.”

 

     And, the order had come from the Troop commander, Major Joshua Wainwright, the day before. He’d approached Ben in the stable as he was brushing his horse.

     “Sergeant Carter,” Wainwright said. “I was hoping I’d catch you here.”

     Ben stopped what he was doing and stood to attention.

     “Yes sir, major,” he said. “What can I do for you?”

     “Actually, sergeant, it’s what I can do for you.”

     “Do for me, sir? I don’t understand. I don’t really need anything.”

     Wainwright laughed and clapped Ben on the shoulder.

     “The colonel and I were discussing you, and that’s what he said you’d say. But, son, you do need something.”

     “What’s that, sir?”

     “You and that detachment of yours have been deployed to the field almost continuously since we moved here. You men have seen more action than almost anyone else in the regiment, and the colonel feels you need a break. And, frankly I agree.”

     “Most of the men just had leave, sir,” Ben said. “And, I don’t really need any time off right now.”

     “Oh, we weren’t thinking about giving you vacation time, sergeant. No, the colonel had lighter duty in mind for you. Get you out of the field for a few weeks.”

     The image of garrison duty flashed through Ben’s mind. It wasn’t exactly what he considered light duty, and he doubted if the men of the detachment would be too happy being stuck at the fort running errands for officers or doing household chores.

     “I appreciate that, sir,” he said. “But, we like being in the field. I don’t think we’d be too good at garrison duty.”

     “We weren’t exactly thinking of normal garrison duty, sergeant,” Wainwright said. “You might call it modified field duty. It was the colonel’s idea, really, but I totally agree.”

     “I’m afraid you got me confused, major. How can it be light duty out of the field, but not be garrison duty?”

     “Of course, you’ve been in the field so much, you wouldn’t know what’s been happening around here. Some of our work details have been harassed by locals, mostly drunk cowboys, and our supply wagons have been attacked by robbers on occasion. The colonel had the idea of having armed escorts with them to prevent that, and with the combat experience you and your men have had, you’re the perfect unit to do it.”

     “You want us to do escort duty?”

     “That’s right, Sergeant Carter. As of tomorrow, your detachment is the official escort for work details and supply convoys leaving Fort Union. You can report to the adjutant for the particulars.”

     Wainwright then spun on his heels and walked away, leaving Ben standing in the stable with his mouth open. When the officer was out of sight, Ben shook himself. He thought about this new job he’d been assigned. It was unusual, but it made a kind of sense. And, maybe it wouldn’t be too bad. They wouldn’t have to be getting shot at all the time; and they wouldn’t be stuck in the fort doing menial labor. He was sure the men would like it.

     In that he was completely wrong. Just hours into their first escort mission, and the men hated it.

 

     “So, what they gone have us doin’ next?” Toussaint asked.

     “I’m not sure,” Ben replied. “The adjutant said we might have to escort the mail wagon to Santa Fe tomorrow, but I’ll have to check with him when we get back to the fort to be sure.”

     “Well now, that wouldn’t be too bad. I wouldn’t mind goin’ up to Santa Fe.”

     “Wouldn’t be much time to do more than drop off the mail, pick up whatever they got for the fort and head back.”

     “Surely there’d be time for a good steak dinner? You wouldn’t begrudge a man a good steak dinner, would you?”

     Ben laughed. “No, I reckon I could allow time for that,” he said.

     Heck, he thought, wouldn’t mind a nice juicy steak myself. The cooks at Fort Union ain’t bad, but they can’t cook steak worth a nickel.

     Placated at the thought of a trip to the territorial capital, Toussaint rode off to share the news with the others. Ben found himself hoping the adjutant wouldn’t change his mind and send them on another wood cutting detail. He’d never hear the last of it.

     Ben urged his horse forward, in the direction of three recruits who were chipping branches into manageable sized kindling. As he approached, the men stopped working and looked up at him, broad smiles on their dark faces.

     “Hey, sergeant,” one man said. “You want to git a little exercise? We sho could use some hep with this here kindlin’.”

     “No,” Ben replied. “I have to keep watch so no outlaws or Indians sneak up on you while you’re workin’. ‘Sides, looks like you’re about done.”

     “Yeah, we’se gone be stoppin’ for vittles soon, and it won’t be soon enough for me. I’se so hungry, my stomach’s gnawin’ at my rib cage.”

     “I’m hungry too,” another soldier said. “And, I got me a feelin’ for some music after eatin’.”

     “Then, you in luck,” the first soldier said. “I done brought my mouth organ wit me today. We kin have a little shindig after we eats.”

     “Sho nuff?  Now, that sound like a mighty fine idea,” the third soldier said. I saw a holler log what would make a good drum. I kin play ‘long wit you.”

     “Then, we gone have us a shindig and a fine meal. Now, that be livin’.”

     Ben winced as they spoke. While it wasn’t uncommon for the troopers of the cavalry to stage impromptu entertainment, often for the amusement for their white officers, but mostly for their own diversion, the men of his detachment, especially Rene Toussaint, cringed every time it happened. Toussaint was reminded of his time on the riverboats, when he’d often be forced to buck dance for the white patrons who would throw pennies at him, and whenever the men in the fort would start playing, he would go off by himself to avoid seeing it. Ben feared that if the work detail started singing and dancing, even though there were no whites around to see, it would set Toussaint off. The big sergeant had been known to grab harmonicas or fiddles from troopers and smash them, precipitating free-for-alls that had to be broken up sometimes by nearly breaking a few heads. An incident on their first assignment was the last thing Ben wanted or needed. If this current assignment was to be successfully concluded, he would have to go the extra mile to avoid any kind of confrontation. That meant ensuring that Toussaint was nowhere near the mess area.

     He rode away from the three soldiers who were now talking excitedly about their planned entertainment, in the direction he’d seen Toussaint go. He would suggest that he and the sergeant stand sentry duty out to the east of the work area, the direction that trouble was most likely to come from, eating in the saddle.

     Dang if it’s not easier to command men when you’re getting shot at, Ben thought as he rode. This easy duty’s about as easy as pushing a rope up a hill.
 

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