Monday, March 24, 2014

Sneak Preview - Buffalo Soldier: Battle at Dead Man's Gulch

Just finished the latest in the Buffalo Soldier series, which will soon be available in paperback and Kindle version. For fans, here's an advance look at the first two chapters.


     Chasing renegade Apache warriors who had left the reservation was one of the least liked duties of the cavalry troopers at Fort Union in New Mexico Territory.
     Days, even weeks sometimes, in the saddle, through some of the most forbidding terrain in the world, by day baking in the heat of the desert sun, at night freezing on some mountain ridge, bone weary and ever concerned with attacks from the renegades they were chasing. They constantly had to worry about snake or scorpion bites or coyotes sneaking into their encampments at night to get into the food supplies. The only thing a cavalry trooper hated worse than chasing renegades was doing work detail escort duty. The first could get you scalped, while the second just bored you to death.
     For ten days, First Sergeant Ben Carter and his detachment had been chasing five renegades from the Chiricahua Apaches who had broken away from the Ojo Caliente Reservation, and had yet to get within a two-day ride of them. He and his men were bone weary and ready to go home.
     One of the Apache chieftains, Victorio, who had been part of Geronimo’s band, was again leading warriors off the reservation and committing crimes against settlers in the territory. The Ninth Cavalry had been ordered to track them down and return them to the reservation. Ben and his men were after a smaller group that had broken away from Victorio’s larger band and headed west toward Arizona Territory. Victorio, who had been a warrior under the Apache chief Geronimo, was considered one of the most dangerous of the Chiricahua chiefs. He had objected to being moved from traditional hunting grounds to the less arable confines of the reservation, and had sworn that he would rather die in battle than starve on the reservation. Periodically, he would gather a band of warriors, and sometimes women and children, and leave the reservation. After a few weeks of killing settlers and running battles with the cavalry, he would surrender and allow himself to again be confined to the reservation.
     Unfortunately, the situation with the Indian tribes of New Mexico Territory was only getting worse. More and more settlers were crowding into the territory and there was only a limited amount of arable land. Miners were finding precious metals in the hills. The problem was that much of the land was already occupied by one of the several tribes who inhabited the territory, and white settlers were pressing the government to move them from the desirable land. Some of the tribes, like the Apache, had taken advantage of the Civil War and the army’s preoccupation with the rebels to try and take back their land from the intruders. Now, with most of the federal army west of the Mississippi for the express purpose of controlling the Indians, they were being pressured more and more to move to barren acreage, where hunting was scarce and little would grow – forced to rely upon supplies from the government’s Indian agents, supplies that often were either substandard or didn’t arrive on time.
     From time to time, the frustration level rose high enough to cause some of the warriors to leave the reservations that they were forced to move to.
     So far, not only had they been unable to catch up with the ones they were chasing, but Victorio had been able to evade the rest of the regiment.
     Ben and his men had started out with the rest of the troop, but just south of Santa Fe, when they were told that the Apache were splitting up into smaller groups, the troop commander had ordered them to go after a particularly vicious group that was thought to be heading west toward the Mogollon Mountains. This group was suspected in the murder and mutilation of two mail carriers south of Santa Fe, and Ben’s orders were to consider them hostile – which meant they were to be attacked on sight. No efforts would be made to parley with them to convince them to return to the reservation.
     Ben, along with Samuel Hightower and a Navajo scout, Manuel Chaves, was riding out in front of the rest of the detachment. The two scouts kept their eyes on the ground in front of their horses. Ben looked down, but saw nothing indicating that the five renegades had come this way.
     “You know, Sam,” Ben said. “I’m beginning to think we’ve been sent on the wrong trail.”
     Hightower regarded Ben with an impassive expression on his dark brown face. Raised by Apache Indians after he and his mother were captured during a raid on the farm where they lived when he was just an infant, he was more Indian than many of the Indians Ben had encountered. Ben knew that if there was a trail to be found, Hightower would find it, probably even before the Navajo Chaves.
     “It’s too early to know,” he said. “Land ‘round here’s pretty hard. Don’t show tracks all that well.”
     “Yeah, but shouldn’t we have seen some sign by now?”
     Hightower chuckled drily. “Oh, we’ll see signs when they want us to see signs.”
     “The corporal is right,” Chaves said. “Victorio and the main band will keep going south to Mexico to be beyond the soldiers’ reach. I think this group was meant to lead the soldiers away to give them a chance to escape.”
     “Well, that didn’t work, now did it?” Ben said. He chuckled.
     That would be a trick the wily old Chiricahua chief would pull. Send a bunch of real blood thirsty braves in one direction with instructions to kill and maim any non-Indian they encountered. That would get everyone’s attention, and draw a lot of the fighting forces off after the dangerous group, while Victorio and the main group kept pressing toward the safety of Mexico. It might have worked with a unit with less experience fighting hostile tribes, but not with the Ninth Cavalry. The Ninth, since its creation in Louisiana shortly after the end of the Civil War, had been in almost constant contact with one or another of the tribes that had used the distraction of the great war among the whites in the east to try and drive the white man from their lands in the west.
     Ben looked ahead at the hills in the distance. He fully understood what Hightower and Chaves meant. The Apache had the ability to move across the land like the wind, leaving little trace of his passage until he chose to do so. It made sense that Victorio would try to mislead the cavalry who were pursuing him. The main band included women and children and the wily chief would want to avoid confrontation until they could reach safety. Ben was only hoping that his friend and the scout who had been assigned to help them would be able to detect some small sign of the renegades’ presence before they had the chance to mount an ambush. There might be only five against Ben’s ten, but they could do a lot of damage from an ambush.
     Ben knew that if there was one thing the Apache were good at, it was mounting surprise ambushes. Thanks to the comanchero, who traded in arms with the tribes in the territory, Victorio’s warriors were armed with the latest weapons, including Springfield, Winchester and Sharps rifles and carbines, and Colt revolvers. With more than a hundred warriors in the main group, it would be a bloody battle if the cavalry caught up with them. Ben assumed that the band he was chasing was similarly armed. More than one man in the Ninth Cavalry had been killed or seriously injured when a group of renegades had attacked without warning. He was determined that it wouldn’t happen to any of the men under his command.
     He hadn’t been too worried about it during the early days of the patrol. When the detachment left Fort Union, it carried 40 days of rations, and 200 rounds of ammunition for each soldier. The land through which they rode was fairly open, with small settlements or ranches every few miles. But, as they neared the border with Arizona, settled areas were farther apart, and the land was hilly, with hundreds of arroyos and hidden canyons from which an attack could be launched.
     Ben was scanning the horizon, looking for any signs of hiding places ahead and to the sides. He didn’t notice Hightower stopping, until the corporal made a hissing sound. He pulled on the reins, halting his horse, and turned around in the saddle. He signaled for the rest of the detachment to halt in place.
     “Yeah, Sam, what is it?”
     “I see signs of the group we’re after,” Hightower said, pointing down at the scrub-covered earth.
     Ben looked in the direction he was pointing. All he saw was the dun-colored earth and the dusty-green of the low growing tufts of scrub.
     “You can see where unshod hooves have scuffed the scrub,” Chaves said. Hightower nodded in agreement. “Looks to be about a day or two old at most, and headin’ toward the mountains.”
     The foothills of the Mogollon Mountains were about a half day’s ride away. Heading into the mountains posed the risk that the band would double back and set up an ambush. But, it was a risk Ben felt he had to take.
     “Well,” Ben said. “Let’s go after ‘em.”


     Ben warned everyone to be especially alert. He then ordered Hightower and Chaves to position themselves farther in front of the main unit. He wanted as much warning of an ambush as possible. When the two scouts were about a quarter mile ahead, Ben gave the others the order to move out.    
     He had them move slowly. No sense, he thought, rushing into things.
     Up ahead, he noticed that Hightower and Chaves had put some space between themselves. It made sense, and Ben was glad they’d done it. That way, it would be hard for an ambusher to take them both out at the same time. Ben considered having the detachment spread out as well. It would make it difficult for anyone firing from ambush to hit more than one or two of them before the others could get to cover, but would also make it hard to concentrate return fire. Being able to direct a large volume of fire upon a target often made the difference. He decided to leave them the way they were, hoping that the two scouting out front would detect any ambush before it could be sprung.
     As they got closer to the mountains the terrain became rougher. Waist high bushes – in actuality trees that were gnarled by the effect of the wind and stunted from lack of water – dotted the ground. Rocks, some as big as a man’s head, others pea-sized gravel, made cracking sounds under the horses’ hooves. Colorful lizards, startled by the sounds, darted from beneath the shade of the bushes, kicking up little rooster tails of dust as they scurried for the next patch of shade. Higher up, Ben could see the larger trees that dotted the mountain side almost to the peak. Too many places an attacker could hide, he thought.
     The sun, a round orange globe against the dull gray of the desert sky, hung about halfway down, casting dark shadows on the earth. The mountains, their saw tooth peaks purple against the sky, were like a crouching beast waiting to spring upon unwary passersby.
     Sergeant George Toussaint, Ben’s second in command, rode up alongside him.
     “You lookin’ worried, Ben,” the big sergeant said. “Did Sam and Manuel see signs of somethin’ up ahead?”
     “Yeah, they found signs the renegades we’re after are up in the hills.”
     Toussaint’s forehead creased as he looked up at the mountains.
     “And, we gone go up there chasin’ ‘em?”
     “That’s the general idea.”
     “Ben, you know the Apaches just love to have us come ridin’ up these blind trails so they can fill us full of lead, right?” Toussaint shook his head and frowned.
     “We can’t be sure they plan to ambush us,” Ben said.
     Toussaint laughed gruffly. “Only reason they won’t ambush us is they ain’t up there.”
     “Oh, I think Sam and Manuel will spot any ambush they try to set up.” Ben hoped he sounded more certain than he felt.

     “Yeah, and if they don’t, we just have to shoot our way out of it,” Toussaint said wryly. “Like we always do.”