The encounter with the drunken cowboys and the bounty hunter Palladin was all but forgotten by the following morning. He roused his crew just before sunup, talked the hotel cook into cooking breakfast early for them, retrieved horses and wagons from the livery stable, and was at the railroad depot when the doors opened.
As the men were loading mailbags onto the wagons under the watchful eye of the rat-faced clerk from the previous day, a balding, paunchy clerk with florid cheeks and watery blue eyes summoned Ben into a tiny office in the back of the mail storage room. When Ben entered the man closed the door.
“I got some special cargo, sergeant,” the man said. “I can only tell you as the person in charge, and you might want to keep what I tell you to yourself until you get back to Fort Union.”
Ben regarded the man with a suspicious glance.
“Special cargo? What kind of special cargo? They didn’t say anything about that back at the fort.”
“That’s ‘cause they probably didn’t know. It just came in the day before you arrived. I sent a telegram to the fort and they wired back for me to give it to you to deliver. The cargo is cash; two bags of it; for your payroll and such.”
Ben had an empty feeling in the pit of his stomach at this news as the man hauled two canvas bags slightly larger than saddle bags from the safe behind the desk that took up most of the space in the room. He put the bags on the desk and picked up a sheet of paper.
“I’m gonna need your signature showin’ you received it,” he said.
When Ben saw the amount he was signing for, seventy-five thousand dollars, the empty feeling turned to hot lava. He felt as if his breakfast might come back up. It was one thing to be escorting mail, but if word got out somehow that the detachment was escorting this much money every outlaw within a hundred miles would be dogging them. When his hand stopped shaking, he took the pen the man offered and scrawled his signature at the bottom of the document.
The man picked up the bags and handed them to him.
“It’s all yours now, sergeant, good luck.”
He didn’t sound as if he really meant it though.
Ben went back outside where the loading of the regular mail was completed. He pulled Toussaint aside.
“George,” he said. “We got these two special bags to carry back to the fort. I’ll carry one, and I want you to carry the other, and whatever you do, don’t let it get out of your sight.”
“What’s in it?” Toussaint asked as he took the bag and hefted it over his shoulder. “Too light to be gold.”
“Important papers for the regiment,” Ben said, regretting having to deceive his friend. “They have to get to the adjutant.”
Toussaint nodded and went back to supervising getting the men and wagons lined up for departure. Ben vowed he’d make up for the deception somehow when they got back to Fort Union.
The men were ready to leave, but as Ben was about to mount, a slightly built man wearing a threadbare gray coat and a battered gray Stetson walked up to him.
“Excuse me, s-sergeant,” the man said. “C-could I speak with you a moment?”
“Yes sir, what can I do for you?”
“Well, I heared you was takin’ a mail wagon back to Fort Union. My name’s Danford, Robert Danford, and I got a little spread over near Las Vegas. I raise horses. I been up here in Santa Fe sellin’ some of my stock, and I’m on my way back home with the money and some presents for my little girls. I got two girls, age six and ten, and this’ll be the first time I been able to buy ‘em somethin’ nice, see. Anyway, I was kinda hopin’ I could ride ‘long with you soldiers as far as my place. Been some robberies ‘long that stretch of road, and I don’t feel comfortable ridin’ it alone.”
Ben’s first reaction was to say no. He’d have enough just keeping the mail and payroll safe. But, protecting the settlers was one of the cavalry’s missions, and if he let the man ride alone and something bad happened, he’d never forgive himself.
“It’s a two day ride to Las Vegas,” Ben said. He noticed that the man, unlike most men in the region, didn’t wear a sidearm. “If you ride with us, you’ll have to pull your own weight. Do you have a weapon?”
“I got a Winchester rifle, and I’m a pretty fair shot.”
“Okay, you can tag along. Pull your wagon in behind the second one, and when we move out, you listen to what I tell you and do it right away.” The man nodded, smiling weakly. “You have to bring your own grub, too. I only got enough for my men.”
“That won’t be a problem,” the man said. The relief in his voice was plain. “I got ‘nough, I can share with you fellas.”
When Danford’s wagon was in place, Ben had the detachment line up, half in front of the lead wagon under his control, the rest behind the last wagon under Toussaint. He patted the bag of money which he’d attached to his saddle, and gave the order to move out.
The group, the three wagons making loud creaking noises, moved through town to the south with everyone in close formation. Ben kept it this way until he could no longer see the spire of the cathedral when he looked over his shoulder. He signaled a stop. He then sent Hightower and Holman forward with instructions to scout the trail ahead about half a mile for any signs of ambush. He sent Tatum and Hall to the rear to do the same. He then had the wagons move so there was about thirty feet between each, placing the rest of the detachment to either side of the first and last wagon and gave the signal to move out.
He then rode to the center of the group and over the noise of the wagons, described how he wanted the wagons handled if he called an alert. He could have stopped the formation to do it more easily, but didn’t want to spend any more time on the trail than necessary. At any event, he was able to make himself heard.
His instructions were simple; if he called for an emergency stop, the first wagon would stop where it was; the second would pull to its right and pull alongside, about a wagon’s length away. Danford, in the third wagon, would swing around and pull his wagon across behind the other two, forming a three-sided enclosure. The drivers would set the wagon brakes and immediately unhitch the teams, placing them in the open end of the enclosure, securing the animals to the wagon tongues. In the meantime, the cavalrymen would be making firing positions by placing saddle bags and other gear on the ground inside the enclosure.
When he was satisfied that everyone understood his instructions, Ben yelled, “Emergency stop!”
There was momentary confusion as the second wagon started to go left before the driver realized his mistake and pulled the reins hard right. Danford was a bit slow getting his wagon pulled in behind the other two, but with a little pushing and shoving, within five minutes, they had a relatively good little redoubt established. Ben was proud of how well they’d done, having only just heard his instructions, but he scowled at them.
“If we were under attack, some of us would be dead,” he said. “We have to do it a lot faster than that. Get the horses hitched back up. Next time, I expect us to be set up in no more than a minute.”
The men on the cavalry wagons grumbled, and Danford looked confused. As they set out again, he looked over at Ben. The look on his face made it clear that he was having second thoughts about the wisdom of traveling with the army, at least with that part of it being led by this crazy sergeant.
His feeling was confirmed half an hour later when Ben called another emergency stop, but as Ben had expected, having done it once, it was easier the second time. It only took a bit over a minute. He was satisfied they could do it, but when they set out again, he said nothing. Nor did he answer a question from one of the cavalry drivers who wanted to know how many more times they would have to do his ‘stupid’ exercise.
Ben had no intentions of doing it again for practice, and hoped circumstances wouldn’t make it necessary to do it for real. To keep them ready, though, he said nothing. Best they think he was a bit touched in the head, or crazy with the power of being in command, he thought. If they focused on being mad at him, should they be attacked, they might not panic. The men of his detachment, he knew, would acquit themselves well in a fight, but he was unfamiliar with the other soldiers, and Danford was a civilian who looked as if he’d never seen a shot fired in anger.
Worry gnawed at Ben’s gut.
It was like the time when the regiment had still been stationed in Texas, and he’d been sent out to take command of the detachment that had been assigned the task of stopping a band of Comanche warriors who had been terrorizing ranches in the area, or recently when he’d been assigned to lead a group of raw recruits in pursuit of some Apache who had fled the reservation, only worse. In the first case, his worry was that he wouldn’t be able to get the men to accept his authority. But, they were at least battle-hardened and experienced. In the second, he worried that the recruits, with their lack of experience, wouldn’t be able to handle themselves. But, they at least had the benefit of some military training.
The current situation was far worse in his mind. He now had the responsibility for a civilian with no military training. He couldn’t be sure the man would know what to do if they came under attack, and that worried him, because, in addition to fighting off the attack, he would have to keep an eye on him.
He was so worried, when they stopped for the mid-day meal, he only picked at his food, and the coffee he drank only increased the uncomfortable feeling in his stomach.
His problem was compounded by having to conceal his doubts from everyone. It wouldn’t do to demoralize the men by having them see that he was beset with self-doubt. He kept his expression stony, his commands crisp, and his shoulders square as they set out after finishing the meal.s