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.”