As the convoy approached Pecos Canyon, Ben’s worry was replaced by a feeling of unease. He couldn’t quite pinpoint the source of the unease, but it was definite and strong; an itchy feeling at the nape of his neck, as if thousands of gnats were buzzing around him.
As he scanned the surrounding terrain, he saw nothing to account for the sensation. The sky was bright blue with wispy trails of clouds. The air was warm; a hint of a breeze rolled in from the east keeping it from becoming stifling hot. The jagged walls of the canyon rose on his left, red clay and gray rock mixed in garish combinations, with the occasional splash of green where either cactus or scrub pushed its way up through to the surface. The ground fell off gently to the right, reddish brown earth covered in cactus and scrub. Off in the distance, Ben could see a lone coyote loping along, its nose close to the ground. A hawk made lazy circles above the convoy.
Everything Ben could see and hear made it look like the most peaceful of days; a day when he should enjoy being on the trail; but, he could feel menace in the air, the smell of trouble in his nostrils. It was like the feeling he’d had in the past just before going into combat; but then, he’d known who and where the enemy was. Now, though, he only had the uneasy feeling.
So strong had been that feeling, when they set out after eating, he’d instructed the outriders front and rear to station themselves where they could see the convoy and be seen. He didn’t explain why he did this, and his men, accustomed to following his instructions without question, and trusting his instincts, asked for none.
Just as Ben was thinking he might be a touch paranoid, he looked back over his shoulder.
Tatum and Hall, riding abreast, were heading toward them, and they had their horses running flat out. So much for paranoia, Ben thought.
“Convoy, halt,” he yelled.
The two corporals pulled their horses up as they neared Ben.
“What’s the matter?” Ben asked.
Tatum was the first to catch his breath.
“Riders comin’ up behind us,” he said. “Was eight at first, but when we started up this last slope, three of ‘em must of split off, ‘cause I only saw five just now, and they’s ridin’ this way hard.”
That, Ben knew, meant no good.
“Pull the wagons into the emergency stop formation,” he ordered.
The drivers, Danford included, immediately began the drill Ben had had them rehearse. The wagons were positioned, brakes locked, and horses tethered to the tongues of the two lead wagons in slightly over a minute. The troopers dismounted, securing their own horses and removed their pack rolls to create barricades and firing platforms.
Hightower and Holman had been looking back from time to time to make sure they stayed in sight of the convoy, and when they saw the wagons begin to move into the defensive formation, wheeled their horses around and rushed back to join the rest.
Everyone was lying on the ground, weapons ready, when the first rider appeared over a little rise in the trail. At first, they only saw his head, but soon rider and horse were silhouetted against the sky, and he was quickly joined by four others. They stopped, just out of carbine range.
“What d-do you t-think they’ll do?” Danford asked. He was prone on the dirt next to Ben.
“They’ll probably wait until their friends can get around behind us,” he said. He wasn’t sure, but in their place, it’s what he would have done. “Keep a sharp eye out behind us, and let me know if you see anything.” That last he directed at George Toussaint, who was guarding the trail to their front with three troopers lying beside him. “Don’t shoot, though, until I give the order.”
“Got you,” was all Toussaint said.
Ben patted the bag of currency he’d put on the ground beside him. Looking back he noticed that Toussaint had put the other bag beside him along with his ammunition pouches.
The five riders sat motionless, appearing to be deep in conversation. Then, they wheeled their horses around and disappeared over the rise.
“Get ready,” Ben said. “I think they might be about to make a move.”
Just like that, the peaceful scene had been transformed to a battle in the making. Fifteen men, tense and alert, lay on the ground in the makeshift fortress made from the three wagons, their weapons at the ready. The horses, as if sensing the impending peril, whinnied nervously and pawed at the ground.
Ben was no longer worried. As always, just before going into battle, his mind became calm, his breathing steady.
As he watched the point from which the men had disappeared, he noticed a glint, probably the sun flashing off a rifle barrel. They were on the move. He took a deep breath and eased his Springfield over the large pack behind which he lay, looking down the barrel as he aimed it at the rise.
The sound of the bullet smacking into the side of the wagon above him came a second before he heard the sharp crack. He looked quickly from side to side and was rewarded with the sight of a wisp of smoke indicating the shooter’s position.
“Hold your fire,” he said quietly.
He could sense tension in Danford and the troopers from the wagons. This was probably new to them. His men, though, had been in similar or worse situations many times. He knew he could count on them.
“What do you see back there, George?” he asked.
“Thought I saw a movement ‘bout two, three hundred yards back,” Toussaint answered.
A geyser of dirt erupted in the cactus field simultaneously with the crack of the shot. The men trying to circle around to cut them off were closer, and therefore more dangerous.
“Shoot back if you have a target,” Ben said.
Toussaint made a grunting sound as if to say he already knew to do that.
Ben meanwhile was scanning the ground to his front, looking for any sign of movement, any kind of target, while at the same time watching the civilian who lay next to him, his face ashen with fear.
There was a long moment of silence, which was broken by a ragged volley of fire from the vicinity of the five concealed gunmen. Some of the rounds hit the wagons making a dull thudding sound, while some knocked up dirt and rock around them.
Out of the corner of his eye Ben saw one of the soldiers, the one who’d been on the wagon with the Mexican driver, raise up, his shoulders above the line of packs, aiming his weapon.
“Get down -” Ben started to yell, but there was a sharp crack and the man grabbed his shoulder, rolling over against the soldier beside him.
“Ow, I been hit,” the man moaned, clutching at the widening dark spot on his shoulder.
“All of you stay down,” Ben said with as much force as he could muster.
He scooted over and look at the man’s bleeding shoulder. He could from the hole in the back of his tunic, where blood was already spreading, that the bullet had gone completely through.
“Keep down and see if you can stop the bleeding,” he said to the wide-eyed Mexican. He put a hand on the wounded man’s knee. “It went clean through. When he stops the bleeding you’ll be okay.”
Ben eased back into his position as the man’s jacket was removed, a difficult task with them all lying down. The man gritted his teeth against the pain.
“We just lay here,” George Toussaint said. “They gone keep shootin’ and pick us off one by one.”
Ben was all too aware of that. He had no answer for Toussaint, though. His mind worked feverishly to think of a plan to get them out of the trap the robbers had sprung.
As if to underscore their predicament, there was a volley of shots from the road ahead of them where the other three gunmen were concealed. The robbers’ strategy was clear to Ben now; they would alternate shooting from each position. Those not shooting would move forward while Ben and his men were distracted by the shooting, moving ever closer. It was just a matter of time until one group or the other was in a position to get clear shots them.
He couldn’t maintain the position for long.
“You’re right, George,” he said. “We need to take the fight to them somehow.”
Toussaint’s dark face lit up in a smile. The man relished a good fight.
“What you got in mind?” he asked.
Ben explained what he thought the robbers were doing, and suggested using a variant of it themselves. The three men who’d circled around them were closest, and therefore, the most dangerous. His plan was relatively simple. While the rest of the group would lay down a volley of heavy fire at both groups of robbers, four troopers, Davis, Tatum, Hightower, and Buckley, the best shots besides Ben and Toussaint, would slip out of the barricade and work downslope through the scrub and make their way up the trail toward the three, who, if things worked, would have their heads down to keep out of range of the withering fire.
“It might work,” Hightower said. The other three nodded agreement.
As the four men eased to the side, preparing to crawl underneath the wagon and into the brush, Ben repositioned the remainder of the group to have an equal number of weapons firing in each direction.
“Get ready,” he said quietly. He looked at Hightower, who would be the first to go. Hightower nodded. “Fire,” Ben yelled.
The crash of eleven rifles firing almost simultaneously was deafening. A cloud of gun smoke hung over the wagons, causing Ben and the others to cough. But, between coughs, he ordered them to continue firing.
It worked; no return fire came from either direction.
While part of his mind focused on reloading and firing his carbine, another part was counting off seconds since the four troopers had slipped from the relative safety of the wagons. Ben knew that Hightower, with the skills he’d learned when he and his mother had lived with the Indians that had kidnapped them, would be able to move quickly and quietly through the brush. The others wouldn’t be as quick or quiet, but each had experience in the field and would follow Hightower’s lead.
“Cease fire,” he said, when he felt the four men had had enough time to get well away.
The sudden quiet was as deafening as the gunfire had been.
“Think we hit anybody?” Danford asked.
“Probably not,” Ben replied. “But, the idea was just to keep their heads down, and we did that.”
“What do we do now?”
Ben gave the man a sympathetic look.
“We wait a few more minutes to see what they do next.”
The crestfallen look on Danford’s face told Ben that this wasn’t what he’d been expecting, wanting to hear, but it would have to do. He looked over at the wounded trooper who seemed to be okay. His tunic had been removed and his shirt torn away so that a bandage could be wound around his shoulder. The bandage was bloodstained, but there was no sign of seepage, indicating that the bleeding had stopped. One less thing to worry about, Ben thought.
“You feeling better?” He asked the man.
“It hurt like the devil,” the man said, wincing. “But, I think I gone live.”
“Next time, stay down.”
“That for sure.” The wounded soldier smiled weakly.
The sound of gunfire caused Ben’s head to whip around. It came from the direction of the three gunmen. He recognized the unmistakable crack of the Springfield carbine along with what he suspected was a Winchester repeater; Hightower and the others had encountered the outlaws.
The fire kept up for about two minutes and then as quickly as it had started it stopped.
For Ben, the next few minutes were the longest of his life. Had Hightower and the others been able to prevail, or had he sent four men to their deaths? This was one aspect of command he’d never learned to view dispassionately, this possibility that his decisions could cause the death of his friends. Just when he thought he couldn’t take the waiting any longer, a figure appeared on the trail. He could see that the man coming over the curve of the slight hill wore a cavalry uniform, so he began to breathe easier. Then, he recognized Hightower’s lanky form when he raised his carbine high above his head and waved it. The mission had been a success.
Ben crawled toward the opening between the two wagons and began waving toward Hightower. First he pointed to his rear, and then he made a sweeping motion to the left. Hightower waved and disappeared over the hill.
“So, you gone use they trick right back at ‘em, huh?”
“What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, my pa always says.”
Ben rearranged the men, leaving only two to cover the east side, while moving the rest to aim west toward the remaining five outlaws.
“W-what are you planning to do, sergeant?” Danford asked when Ben returned to his position under the settler’s wagon.
Ben moved to a position on his back, with his shoulders against the packs, so that he could see everyone.
“Marcus, Hezekiah, Tom, and Lucas are coming with me,” he said. “We’ll ease out front here, grab our horses and ride off toward the southeast to get out of range. Then we’ll turn around and head back along the bottom of that ridgeline south of us until we’ve flanked the outlaws. That way, we’ll have ‘em in a crossfire from Samuel and the others. If you fellas down here see one of ‘em pop his head up, take a shot as well.”
The four men Ben had named to accompany him nodded, slight smiles creasing their faces. Toussaint, however, frowned deeply.
“Shouldn’t I be the one to lead this, Ben?” he asked quietly. “You in charge of the whole shebang, so you oughta stay here where you can watch everything, you know.”
Ben and George Toussaint hadn’t exactly hit it off when they first met, but over the many months they’d served together, had developed a close friendship. He also knew that it would have been tactically sound to put his second in command in charge of the little foray he was planning, but he had to occasionally demonstrate to the men that he wasn’t sending them out to do anything he wasn’t prepared to do himself.
“I’m tired of layin’ here on my backside,” Ben said. “I’m leaving you in charge here and getting out to stretch my legs.” He smiled broadly. He lifted the canvas bag and tossed it to Toussaint. “Keep hold of that until I get back.”
He didn’t have to say, “and, if I don’t get back, it’s your responsibility to get these two bags to the adjutant;” the look in his friend’s eyes told him the message was received and understood.
“Okay,” Toussaint said. “We’ll provide cover fire when you ready to slip out.”
Ben and the others checked their weapons and ammunition.
“You ready?” he asked them. They nodded. “Okay then, let’s move out.”
As they wormed their way to the horses, dragging their saddles, Toussaint and the others took aim at the rise to the west and began firing methodically. There was no return fire.
They kept as low as possible as they saddled their horses. When they were done, they took the reins and moved east along the trail a ways and then to the south into the tall scrub. Once they were about a hundred yards deep into the grass, they mounted and began moving at a trot southwest to make their way to a point somewhat south of where they figured the outlaws were.
The firing from their position kept up. Ben knew that Toussaint understood what he was trying to do, and was doing what he could to keep the outlaws distracted.
When they’d reached a point that Ben estimated was directly south of the top of the rise, Ben had them ride a bit further west in hopes they would come out behind the outlaws. At they swung north, he heard the crack of rifle fire from somewhere to his front; Hightower and the others must have arrived and engaged the outlaws, he thought. He spurred his horse to a gallop and pulled his carbine from the scabbard. The other four followed suit.
As they burst from the tall grass onto the trail, he saw that they had indeed worked their way past the outlaws who were now moving toward their horses, firing as they ran. He could hear the crack of carbines and see puffs of smoke from a clump of trees to the northeast.
“Let ‘em have it, fellas,” he yelled as he brought his carbine to his shoulder and fired one-handed.
Taking fire from two sides, the five outlaws panicked. They were now scrambling madly toward their horses. The animals, picking up the fear from their owners, were bucking and shying, trying to pull free from the small bushes they’d been tethered to. The outlaws were firing back over their shoulders as they ran, but their shots went wild.
Ben, on the other hand, was calmly aiming, and as the carbine bucked against his shoulder, one of the outlaws threw his hands in the air and pitched forward. He twitched once and was still, face down in the dirt. Another screamed and dropped to his knees, grabbing at his right leg, where a large dark stain was spreading along his trouser leg.
The three outlaws in front, ignoring their comrade’s cries for help, leapt for their horses, ripping the reins from the bushes. Lying low across the horses’ shoulders, they kicked them into action, all attempts to fire back at the cavalrymen forgotten in their desire to get as far away from them as possible.
Hightower got to the wounded outlaw just before Ben did. The man was sitting on the ground, his hands clasped around his thigh, moaning as he rocked back and forth.
“Ow, it hurt,” he cried. He looked up at Hightower, fear in his eyes. “Please don’t shoot me.”
Both Hightower and Ben regarded him impassively. Ben walked over and kicked the man’s rifle away. He then reached down and removed the pistol from the man’s holster.
“Patch him up as best you can, Samuel,” Ben said. “Then tie him up and put him in one of the wagons. We’ll take him back to the fort and let the colonel decide what to do with him.”
“What about the dead ones?” Hightower asked. “This one here and the three at the other end of the trail.”
Ben took a deep breath and shrugged.
“Guess we ought to bury ‘em.”