Once at the fort, Ben accompanied the surgeon and wagon directly to the hospital, where orderlies gingerly removed Holman from the wagon and took him to an examination room. Ben wasn’t allowed in. The surgeon told him he would be informed as soon as the examination was complete. He went off to the stables to take care of his horse and gear and see to the rest of the detachment.
He found Samuel Hightower in the stable brushing down his horse.
“How’s Tom?” the lanky corporal asked as Ben approached.
“Doc said he’d let me know soon’s they finished examining him.”
Hightower shook his head. “That was a mean lookin’ break.”
Ben had no medical training, but after nearly ten years in the cavalry he’d seen a lot of wounds, and he had to agree that Holman’s injury looked serious. Even if the doctors were able to reset the bones properly, he would be many months healing, during which time he’d be unable to sit a horse, or even walk without crutches.
“Yeah, pretty mean.”
“You think he’ll be laid up a while?”
They both knew the answer to that question. Ben just shrugged, and changed the subject. “We need to start getting ready for the next mission. The surveyors from Washington are due here any day now.”
Ben looked around the stable, visually assessing the animals stalled there, and going over in his mind what he would need in terms of pack animals and equipment for what he knew was likely to be a three to four month mission.
He started out, heading for the quartermaster sergeant to start the process of wheedling the necessary extra supplies out of the man, when he bumped into Major Joshua Wainwright, the troop commander.
“Sergeant Carter,” Wainwright said. “I was just looking for you.”
“Yes, sir,” Ben said, coming to attention. “I was just about to start putting the gear together for the trip back to California.”
“That’s good. I know I don’t have to tell you how important this mission is. Colonel Hatch is depending on us . . . on you and your men . . . to see that it’s successful.”
“I’ll do my best, sir.”
“I know you will, sergeant,” Wainwright said. “That’s why I picked you to do it. Of course, I didn’t come here to talk to you about that.”
“What is it, sir?” Ben asked. The worried look on the major’s face concerned Ben.
“It’s about Corporal Holman.”
Ben stopped breathing. He looked at the major with a shocked expression, afraid of what he might be about to say.
“H-he’s okay, isn’t he? It was just a broken leg.”
Wainwright laid a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t worry. He’ll live. It’s just that the leg was pretty badly broken, and he won’t be able to walk for several weeks, and the doctor said he shouldn’t sit a saddle for at least six months.
Ben breathed a sigh of relief. He hadn’t lost a man yet. The thought of losing anyone was bad enough, but to a stupid accident – it didn’t bear thinking about.
“He’ll be reassigned to light duty here at the fort as soon as he’s released from the hospital,” Wainwright continued. “In the meantime, I’m assigning a replacement to your detachment.”
Ben wanted to object – to say that he didn’t need anyone to replace one of his men because they couldn’t be replaced. He wanted to say that, the one time he’d been given a bunch of new troopers, he’d almost lost a man. He wasn’t a training sergeant. At that thought, he pulled himself up. He had in fact been a trainer. When he’d been put in charge of the detachment at Sandy Gulch in West Texas after the lieutenant and sergeant who had been in charge both fell ill, he’d had to whip them into shape. He smiled at the memory. They’d been ten of the raggediest-looking soldiers he’d ever seen, but they’d come out on top in skirmishes against the renegade Comanche Scarred Nose. Since that encounter, they’d proven themselves again and again, whether fighting hostile Indians or dealing with the prejudice of the white settlers they’d been assigned to the frontier to protect. In a few years, though, they had transformed into the toughest cavalry troopers in the entire United States Army in Ben’s opinion. They couldn’t be replaced. But, he was a sergeant of cavalry, and the major was his commander. He hadn’t asked Ben’s permission to assign a new man – he didn’t need to. Nine years earlier Ben might have questioned him. But, with years of command under his own belt, he had matured beyond such foolish behavior. His was not to question, but to make whatever the officers decided work. He squared his shoulders and looked expressionless at Wainwright.
“Yes, sir,” he said. “Who is the replacement?”
“You met him,” Wainwright said. “Corporal Kincaid – he’s the driver that brought the doctor out to pick up your injured trooper.”
Ben wanted to scream, ‘No’ at the top of his lungs. He remembered the trooper. The one who’d brought the doctor out to the field and had forgotten to bring extra supplies or a tent. At least the recruits he’d been assigned before had the excuse of inexperience. Kincaid, on the other hand, was a corporal. That meant he’d been in the cavalry at least four or five years. No trooper with a year or more experience ever left the fort without rations and equipment for a possible overnight stay in the field, and to take an officer out without the required gear was unthinkable. He’d been asked to take on difficult tasks before, but now he felt he was being asked the impossible. But, there was nothing to do about it but square his shoulders and give it his best.
“Okay, sir, I’ll brief him on the mission tonight.”
“Good, good. Oh, and the regimental commander will be arriving around mid-morning tomorrow from Las Vegas. He’s here to officially brief us on the mission, and welcome the survey party when they arrive day after tomorrow. I want you and your men – including Kincaid – in parade uniforms for the arrival ceremony.” Ben snapped to attention and saluted. “Yes, sir.”