|Fort Union, New Mexico - today Fort Union National Monument, Drawing from around 1855 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
After returning to Fort Union from their assignment in the town of Maxwell, Ben Carter and his men were allowed a few days to rest and regroup.
First, though, before they could even think about resting, they had to get all their gear and equipment in good order. As sergeant in charge of the detachment, Ben insisted on that. This meant cleaning their carbines and revolvers to make sure no grit or moisture was inside to cause the metal to rust or seize up, their tenting, belts, ropes, and mess gear had to be thoroughly scoured, and their boots and uniforms cleaned. Ben didn’t make the men shine their boots when they were in the field, but insisted that the leather shine like glass when they were in garrison.
But, Fort Union was the regimental headquarters, so it wouldn’t to have his detachment looking anything but their best. The largest army post in New Mexico Territory, it looked from a distance like anything but what it was. Without stockades or breastworks, the open arrangement of adobe structures consisting of company and officers’ quarters, stables, machine shops, hospital, and other buildings, looked more like a small village than a military installation.
Ben’s detachment had been assigned to company quarters in the complex on the southwest side of the fort, west of the hospital. To the northwest was the mechanics corral and quarters where the men who maintained the regiment’s equipment stayed. Northeast of the barracks were the quarters for the married enlisted men, rooms in which the forts’ laundresses worked, and each company’s stables where their horses were kept. To the west were the houses in which the regiment’s white officers lived, arranged in a neat row, with the commander’s house, a large structure, in the center. Further northwest were additional officers’ quarters, the regimental headquarters building, the quartermaster office, commissary office and an office for the regimental clerks. Due north from their barracks was the transportation corral, with more horses and the wagons used to carry the supplies needed by the regiment.
Because most of the companies of the Ninth were stationed further west in the territory so they would be closer to the Apache tribes that they were supposed to keep on the reservations, Fort Union was almost deserted. Even the ‘entertainment’ tents that were often located just outside the fort proper, were less populated than Ben remembered they’d been when he’d first been assigned there; no doubt they’d moved to where the largest concentration of troops were.
Never mind that, he thought; that meant fewer distractions for his men as they worked to get their gear in order.
After two days of cleaning, scrubbing, and grumbling, he was finally satisfied that they were still the best looking unit at Fort Union – notwithstanding that they were nearly the only unit at the fort at present; when he announced that fact, the barracks to which they’d been assigned vibrated with the roaring cheer they gave him. Ben, Sam Hightower, Marcus Scott, and Malachi Davis decided to spend their few days of rest at the fort, ‘resting and reading,’ as Davis said, while the remaining six men of the detachment, with a month’s pay, as meager as it was, burning holes in their pockets, chose to explore the surrounding countryside – which Ben knew meant, with the depopulation of the entertainment district just outside the fort, the nearest saloon in the nearest town, and he tried not to think of what they’d be doing until they ran out of money.
For the first three days after they left, Ben would get up each day, clean his barrack’s area, and spend a good part of the day talking to one of the others. But, after a while, they ran out of things to talk about. Now, he would walk around the fort; not a lot to see after doing it twice; or sit in the barracks reading or cleaning and re-cleaning his gear.
On the morning of the fourth day, or maybe it was the fifth or sixth; he’d lost track; Ben was sitting on the edge of his bunk, rubbing beeswax into the leather of his boots for the sixth or seventh time, when Lieutenant Colin Montgomery walked in. Ben hadn’t seen the young officer but once or twice since their return from Maxwell. He’d developed respect for him during the mission, feeling that Montgomery would make a fine cavalry officer. He thought he’d been sent out to his new unit.
Ben stood to attention as Montgomery, clad sensibly now in trousers and tunic more appropriate for field duty instead of his full uniform, as he’d been when they first met, came near.
“Stand easy, sergeant,” Montgomery said in a mild voice. “Sit down. I came to say my goodbyes. I’m off to Fort Staunton this afternoon. I’ll be adjutant of the unit up there.”
Ben resumed his seat on the end of the bunk. Montgomery sat next to him. While he was as neat as always, he had at least let his mustache grow out and become a bit ragged at the ends. Ben smiled at his efforts to look more like someone who belonged on the frontier rather than some plantation mansion drawing room.
“Congratulations, sir,” Ben said. “I never been to Fort Staunton, but I hear it’s right pretty up that way.”
“Yes, I’ve heard that as well.” Montgomery played with the ends of his mustache. “Of course, I doubt I’ll get much chance to do any sightseeing. I understand the commander there’s in a bit of trouble with the locals and with army headquarters. I imagine I’ll be busy just doing my job.”
“I’m sure you’ll do well, sir.” Ben noticed that the young lieutenant beamed. Dang, he thought, I don’t know why my opinion matters to him. “I wish you well.”
“Thank you, Sergeant Carter. That means a lot to me. I- I just wanted to say, too . . . well, - - oh hell, look, sergeant, I just want you to know that, working with you, I learned more about leading men than I did the whole four years I was at West Point. I appreciate what you did for me, and I just want you to know that.”
“No need thanking me, sir,” Ben said, ducking his head. “I was just doing what any good sergeant should do.”
Montgomery smiled, one side of his mouth going higher than the other. He then made a chuckling sound deep in his throat. “That, I think, is one of the greatest lessons you taught; there’s no need to trumpet your abilities, just quietly do your duty. Well, Ben Carter, you did your duty, and from what I saw, you do it better than any other man in this army.”
Montgomery stood and stuck out his hand.
“I’m proud to have known you, and hope that one day I’ll get a chance to serve with you again.”
Ben stood and took the outstretched hand. “Same here, sir,” he said.
When Montgomery released his grip, he placed a hand on Ben’s shoulder. He let it rest there a few moments, looking into the young sergeant’s brown face. Then, he nodded, removed his hand, turned on his heels and, with his shoulders straight, marched out of the barracks.
Ben looked at his retreating back. He could still feel the pressure of the man’s hand on his shoulder. He smiled.
Just as he sat and resumed waxing his boots, Malachi Davis rushed into the room, almost colliding into Ben’s bunk in his haste.
“Whoa, Malachi,” Ben said. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost. What’s the matter?”
Davis stood there, gulping in air. His eyes were big round orbs in his dark brown face.
“B-ben,” he said between gasps for air. “I d-done run all the way here from regimental headquarters. The c-colonel he done sent me to fetch you. D-done said it important and you to c-come right away.”
Ben noticed that Davis’s stuttering, which went away when he was in the field, especially when he was in battle, came back whenever they were in the fort.
“Did he say what it was about?”
“N-naw, and I ain’t been askin’ him neither. The c-colonel say git Sergeant Carter to m-my office, I do what he say.”
Ben shrugged. “Okay, let’s go.” He pulled on his boots, which he could now see his reflection in, and stood. Clapping the young private on the shoulder, he motioned him toward the door.
As they made their way from the barracks toward the headquarters building, which sat near the middle of the fort, Ben noticed a number of new recruits, who were housed in the company quarters north of his, also making their way toward the headquarters.