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.”