The sun was no more than a sliver on the horizon, a dull orange against a light blue and pink sky. The air was already getting warm, but none of that warmth had transferred itself to the narrow stream.
First Sergeant Ben Carter shivered as he splashed the cold water over his nut brown face, arms and chest. He rubbed briskly, removing excess water. The air quickly dried him. Kneeling, he took a twig from his bag. One end was smooth and one was frayed. He dipped the frayed end in the stream and used the twig to brush his teeth. When he’d finished, he cupped his hands and lifted water to his mouth to rinse it out. His morning routine completed, he pulled on his faded blue tunic, tucking it neatly into his trousers, and stood.
As he walked back up the incline toward the camp, the rest of his detachment was just beginning to stir. Corporal Reuben Kincaid, who’d had the last night watch, nodded at Ben as he walked toward the stream to wash up. Private Malachi Davis was kneeling in front of his tent, stoking the cook fire. He’d been assigned mess duty, and would prepare the morning meal of bacon, beans and hardtack.
Ben stopped next to him, looking down at the young soldier. Davis looked up, a broad smile on his dark face.
“Mornin’, Ben,” he said. “You up mighty early.”
“Yeah, I like to get an early start,” Ben said. “Why don’t you go down to the stream and wash up. I’ll get the fire going. You can cook breakfast after you get yourself cleaned up.”
Davis’s head bobbed up and down, and his smile became wider. Standing, he brushed at his trousers and started toward the stream. Ben knelt beside the smoldering fire and began stirring at it with a stick from the kindling that was stacked nearby. When flames started to flicker on the partially burned chunks of wood from the evening fire he placed fresh wood on top, which quickly caught flame. Pretty soon, he had a good fire going. A beat up coffee pot sat on the ground next to the kindling. Looking, Ben could see that Davis had already filled it with water and coffee grounds. He took the pot and hung it on the crosspiece above the fire. After washing up, the first Ben wanted was a cup of hot coffee. Trail coffee wasn’t his favorite, but it was better than nothing. With luck, the stuff would be brewed before Davis got back from the stream.
Ben crouched down near the fire, watching the coffee pot as bubbles began to rise up from the bottom. He took deep breaths, taking in the fresh morning air and the increasingly strong aroma of brewing coffee. When the strength of the odor coming from the bubbling pot told him the coffee was probably ready to drink, he got up and walked to his tent. Crawling inside, he retrieved his coffee cup from his saddle bag. He went back to the cook fire and poured himself a cup of the steaming, dark brown liquid. Davis came back just as he lifted the cup to his lips.
“Thanks for fixin’ the coffee, Ben,” Davis said.
The hot liquid burned his tongue, and it tasted a bit like the grease the farriers put on the wagon axles, but he ignored the pain of the burn and swallowed without gagging.
“I need my first morning cup,” Ben said, making a wry face. “You really like to make a strong pot, don’t you?”
“That’s how my pa done taught me how to make it.” Davis shrugged. “I’ll start the bacon and beans now. We got a few potatoes still – you want me to fry a mess of them too?”
“No, save the potatoes for lunch.” Davis tried, but he wasn’t the best cook in the outfit. He could manage with bacon and beans, and the hardtack was already cooked, but Ben didn’t want him messing up the last of the potatoes. Sam Hightower had the midday mess duty, and he was a good cook. “We’ll be getting back to Fort Union late the day after tomorrow, so it’s a good idea to have a big lunch every day – get our bellies used to it.”
“Yeah, and everybody’s tired of eatin’ trail food too – ‘specially when I cook it,” Davis said. The shy smile on his face said clearly that he understood.
Ben felt a flush of embarrassment on his face. Davis was a top notch soldier. It wasn’t his fault that his mother had died when he was little and his pa couldn’t boil water, so he’d never been taught how to cook properly.
They’d been on the trail for a total of ten days, delivering a wagon load of ammunition and supplies to the cavalry company stationed at Fort Bayard in the southwestern part of the New Mexico Territory – eight days from Fort Union, and now two days on the return trip. Except for the one night at Bayard, when they’d eaten supper prepared by the company cook, they’d subsisted on trail rations cooked by one of the men working in rotation. Ben knew that every man in the detachment was wishing he was back at Fort Union – he knew for sure that he did.
That was why as soon as they’d delivered the wagon and the two men driving it – they’d come up from Bayard in the empty wagon, but Major Wainwright, the Fort Union commander had insisted they travel back under escort – they had a good warm meal, a night’s sleep, and set out early the next morning to go back home. They’d traveled south from Fort Bayard, down toward the mining town of Deming, and just north of Deming had cut north, following a trail that ran parallel to the Rio Grande between the Black Range and the San Andres Mountains. They’d camped for the night on the banks of a stream that flowed east down toward the Rio Grande, in the shadows of the hump-backed peaks of the Black Range. Without the loaded wagon to slow them down, Ben figured they could make Fort Union in two more days riding – three tops. Once they were back where they could have hot meals and comfortable bunks instead of gritty food prepared over a cook fire and sleeping in tents everyone would feel better. Well, almost everyone.
Ben hadn’t felt quite right since the incident at Dead Man’s Gulch when his friend Journeyman Keller took a bullet to the lungs and choked to death on his own blood before they could get him to a doctor.
In more than ten years in the Ninth Cavalry – ever since he’d walked from his home in East Texas to New Orleans to enlist – Ben hadn’t lost a man until Keller. He’d come close when Tom Holman had been thrown from his horse and broke his hip. But, Holman had survived. He’d been reassigned duty as a quartermaster clerk and been transferred to Fort Stanton to replace the clerk there who had decided not to reenlist when his term of service expired. Ben missed Holman, but it wasn’t the same as Keller’s loss. Major Joshua Wainwright, commander of F Company, had recognized Ben’s turmoil, and after assigning a man to replace Keller – Private Isaac Harris – had placed the entire detachment on garrison duty to allow time for the men to come to terms with their loss. This trip to Fort Bayard had been their first assignment that took them more than five miles from the fort, and it had made Ben realize that he missed real field duty – even though he felt doubt about his ability to command men in combat. He wondered if Wainwright had sensed this doubt. That could be, he thought, the reason the major had consigned them to escort duty again, so soon after they’d already spent a goodly bit of time just months earlier riding herd on work details and mail wagons. When he got back to the fort he’d have to talk to Wainwright about his future with the detachment.
The smell of bacon and beans interrupted Ben’s thoughts. Davis wasn’t the best cook in the cavalry, but he was one of the fastest. Despite his disdain for food cooked on the trail, Ben’s mouth watered.
“Chow’s ready,” Davis yelled.
The men, who had been tending their horses, finished up and, grabbing their mess gear, assembled around the smiling Davis. Ben stood by, waiting until everyone else had been served, before presenting his own plate for a mound of beans, a couple of pieces of hardtack, and three thick slices of bacon. The bacon was brown and shiny with grease. Ben preferred thinner slices that were crispy – the way the base cook did them at Fort Union – but he would never say anything to avoid hurting Davis’s feelings. He walked over near his tent and sat down on the hard packed earth, placing his plate on his knee.
Sergeant George Toussaint, second in command of the detachment, walked over and squatted next to him.
“Mind if I join you?” he asked.
“Make yourself at home,” Ben said, smiling at the tall, muscular soldier.
For several minutes they ate in relative silence – broken only by the sound of forks scraping against the tin plates, and the fading sound of the crickets as they sought shady resting places to get out of the scorching sunlight that would soon bathe the land. Ben sensed, though, that Toussaint was watching him, a puzzled look on his broad brown face.
Finally, Toussaint put his plate down and turned to face Ben.
“What’s eatin’ at you, Ben?” he asked.
Ben stopped eating and locked gaze with his friend.
“What do you mean? Nothing’s bothering me.”
“Come on,” Toussaint said. “You and me been ridin’ together for a long time now, and I think I know you. You ain’t a man of a lot of words, but I can tell something’s botherin’ you.”
Ben considered George Toussaint a friend. They hadn’t hit it off too well when they first met. Ben had been assigned to take over the detachment when Toussaint had figured the job should have gone to him. But, over time, the big sergeant had come to respect Ben’s ability, and that respect had grown into friendship. It was mutual. Toussaint was one of the toughest, bravest men Ben had ever known – just the man to have at your side in a fight. Nevertheless, there were still some things he felt he just couldn’t share with him. Doubts about his ability to lead the detachment headed that list.
“Truly, George,” he said. “There’s nothing bothering me. I guess I’m just anxious to get back to the fort.”
Toussaint shook his head and ran a big hand through his wooly hair.
“If that’s the way you wanta play it, okay,” he said. “But, you been actin’ strange for a bit now – not just on this trip. You ain’t been yourself since we come back from Dead Man’s Gulch. You still frettin’ ‘bout Journeyman gettin’ hisself kilt, ain’t you?”
Ben should have known he couldn’t hide anything from the wily sergeant. Toussaint didn’t have a lot of formal education, but he was a good judge of men. Very little stayed concealed from him for long. Ben sighed. At least, talking about Keller’s death might divert Toussaint from what was really eating at him.
“Yeah, I guess I am,” he said. “Journeyman was the first man I was responsible for who died. It takes a lot of getting used to.”
Toussaint laid a hand on Ben’s shoulder.
“I know how you feel, Ben. You ride beside a man for a long time, him gettin’ kilt hit hard. But, this here’s dangerous work we do. Enough time goes by, and somebody gone get hurt. Ain’t nothin’ but pay your respects and move on, though. Can’t let it eat at your insides ‘till you plumb crazy.”
“I suppose you’re right.” Ben shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. “I can’t help wondering, though, if I could’ve done something different and maybe he wouldn’t have had to die.”
“Hey, it ain’t your fault,” Toussaint said. “You did what you had to do. If you hadn’t, a lot more men would’ve died that day.”
Ben rubbed at his eyes and shook his head again.
“Reckon you’re right,” he said. “What’s done is done, I suppose.” He stood and dusted off his trousers. “Okay, let’s get camp struck and get on the road.”