“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.