Death, when it finally came, would be savage and swift. But the waiting seemed eternal. For more than two hours Lieutenant David Buckalew had huddled with his nineteen tired and ragged men in this vulnerable hilltop redoubt and had wondered when the Indians would come shrieking up that barren slope to take them.
What in the hell were they waiting for?
A chilly wind swept across the low circle of hastily piled rocks. Buckalew fastened the three remaining buttons of his gray coat, the only remnant of a uniform that had been new and proud a few months ago in Texas. The wind searched its way through a long rent beneath his right arm. He held the arm against his body and shivered. He wondered if April was really that cold or if the chill came from within.
This, he thought bitterly, was an unfitting place for twenty men from Texas to die, and an unfitting way. They had come to an unfamiliar land to fight a just and honorable war against the Union Army, not to be cut to ribbons by a band of Indians with whom they had no quarrel, whose tribe they didn't even know.
The hard-used Texans had come upon the warriors while working their way along the fringe of scrub pine timber, moving southward through the mountains of eastern New Mexico. The confrontation had surprised the Indians as much as the Texans. The Indians had brought their horses to a sudden halt and gazed uncertainly at the white men across the space of perhaps a hundred yards. There had been at least thirty of them, and probably nearer forty. The number had been growing since. Buckalew had seen additional warriors trailing in.
Perhaps that indicated a respect of sorts. He hadn't seen much respect lately. Since he had been assigned to this unit against his will and theirs, he had encountered difficulty in getting the men to obey his orders, or even listen to him. But when they faced the Indians e had merely pointed toward the top of this hill. He had had to put spurs to his big brown horse to keep from being left behind. There had been stragglers earlier along the trail, but there were none on this hurried climb. The Indians had followed along, shouting challenges but firing no shots.
At the top of the hill the men had quickly, and without directions, set about building what fortification they could. They stacked rocks into a rough circular wall as a shield.
That the Indians could sweep up that hillside and wipe them out, David Buckalew had no doubt. But it wouldn't be done cheaply or easily.
The men had tried to dig down behind the crude wall but made to headway in the stony ground, for they had no real tools for the job. For the twentieth time he expanded his spyglass to full length with cold-sweaty hands and took a long sweeping look downhill. For some time he had watched Indians working in and out of a narrow pass. Now he saw little movement.
If they'd caught us in there, we'd be dead already, he thought, shivering. Weighing heavily upon him was the hard realization that he had almost led the men into that pass. He hadn't given Indians a thought at the time--he had seen no seed to--and he had been reasonably sure no Yankee pursuit had passed them to set up an ambush. But solid old Sergeant Noley Mitchell had saved him from that fatal mistake. He had suggested they climb up over the rough side of the hill. David had seen no need for it, but the men started to follow Mitchell's suggestion anyway. There had been nothing left for the lieutenant to do but make it an order and salvage whatever dignity be might from a situation already out of his hands.
It had been clear from the start that although David Buckalew had the commission, Noley Mitchell had the men.
Mitchell had evidenced no malice that David could see as he watched the men climbing the hill. He said simply, "Call it a notion, Davey."
That was the way it had been since he had been assigned to this unit in Albuquerque: Davey. Not Lieutenant, not Sir, but just Davey to Noley Mitchell, as if David were some kid, not a man already in his twenties. It was little wonder the rest of the men didn't respect his rank.
Mitchell had said as they started bringing up the rear, "I just don't like gettin' caught in tight, narrow places. Goes back to ridin' a rough horse through a narrow gate when I was a boy and crushin' my leg against the post. I never forgot it, though it was a long time ago." It had indeed been a long time, because Noley Mitchell was twice David's age, and perhaps a bit more. In deference to that age, David gave him the benefit of many nagging doubts.
Now that Mitchell had been proven right about their not going through the pass, David knew the men were thinking and perhaps even saying among themselves that it was the old sergeant--not the young lieutenant--who had saved them from dying in it. Of course it had been only a temporary reprieve, for it looked very likely that they would die on the hilltop instead.
He could clearly see both ends of the pass. When the Indians came against them it would probably be from the south end. He kept bringing the spyglass to his eye and searching in that direction. Eventually he caught a flutter of movement of the north. He blinked and looked again. Because of the distance, the image jumped and danced. He knelt to brace the telescope against a boulder and very slowly swung the end around until he could focus on what he had seen.
"Yankees!" he said aloud and in surprise. "A bunch of them, ridin' straight into the pass."
He knew suddenly why the Indians hadn't yet bothered the little Texas group huddled behind their miserable pile of rocks. They had easier prey to trap, and more of them.
Sergeant Mitchell, kneeling down carefully on stiff knees, could see little with his naked eyes. David judged that he probably needed spectacles. "Let me have the glass a minute, Davey."
David grunted. Rank meant no more to Mitchell--or to the rest of these men--than it meant to a packmule. Mentally they were civilians, and they would never be anything else. So, for that matter, was David. But at least he tried to be a soldier. Lately he felt he was the only one left who did.
Mitchell growled about his difficulty he bringing the glass to bear on the target. He rubbed a ham-sized fist over his eye and tried again. "Yep, it's bluebellies."
David said, "They've taken the pressure off of us for now. Might be a good time for us to clear out."
Mitchell ran stubby fingers through a gray-salted two-inch tangle of beard coarse as porcupine quills and shook his head. "They'd just come after us later, if they're of a mind to. Where they caught us might not be half as good as the place we've got right here, button."
Mitchell had a Texan's way of referring to any young person as button, no matter how much military rank he might carry. Texans stood in awe of few things, and certainly not the gold bars of a second lieutenant. David understood that Mitchell had served many years as sheriff in some county south of Austin. Nothing fazed him much.
The men had heard Mitchell's comment. If David ordered them to go, mot would probably stay here anyway. He saved himself the humiliation.
The chilly wind kept finding its way through the split seams of the gray coat his mother had made for him. The piping, stitched with great hopes by loving hands, hung loose and useless. The left sleeve showed a dark stain, and a hole that had been carelessly darned by male hands unused to needle and thread. David let his mind run back to a time when it was new, to that grand marshaling day in San Antonio, a fine day of fiery speeches and patriotism. With the stirring words still echoing in their minds, an intrepid band of Texas Confederates had started westward on a march meant to carry them all the way to the Pacific.
This was the Territory of New Mexico in April of 1862. The Civil War had pitted white man against white man, and red men against them all. It had been less than a year since flamboyant Captain John R. Baylor, famed for his exploits as a Texas Ranger, had recruited his Second Texas Mounted Rifles in San Antonio and had led them across the desert to begin the conquest of the Western territories for the greater glory of the Confederacy. It had seemed a splendid idea at the time, and to David it still did. The Union forts in New Mexico and Arizona were poorly defended. A preponderance of their officers and a fair percentage of their enlisted men had been Southerners who had resigned at the outset of the war. They had returned to their homes to help raise an army for the Confederacy, leaving their former posts short on men and shorter on leadership. Moreover, because these forts were so far from the East and adjoined on one side by Confederate Texas, they were virtually isolated. They were considered beyond help if any concerted effort were made against them.
Behind Baylor's fast-moving cavalry had moved the huge but slower brigade or Henry Hopkins Sibley, late of the Union Army post in Santa Fe, now a general for Jefferson Davis. He knew the western military installations by virtue of his service there; he knew the weak points of every one. The Texans had first taken Fort Bliss at Paso del Norte without bloodshed. Poorly equipped from the standpoint of arms, and mostly dressed in civilian clothes because nobody had the time or the material to supply proper uniforms, the Texas force had overcome distance and heat and cold and hunger through eight hard months on alien ground. They had marched from one victory to another, plucking Union apples from the tree…Fort Fillmore, San Augustine Springs, Valverde. They had raised the Texas flag over Albuquerque and ancient Santa Fe.
Total victory had seemed in easy reach, for the Arizona side of the Territory presented no challenge. Tucson was in Confederate hands. Beyond Arizona lay California, ripe for the taking. Its goldfields would finance the Confederacy's armed might. Its great open seacoast would provide an outlet to the world, and outlet so huge no Union blockade could seal it.
With all that in Confederate hands, how long could the gangling Abe Lincoln and his upstart Yankee Congress continue to deny the Southern states their right to secede from the Union, their right to govern themselves in a new and sovereign nation?
It had been a daring plan, conceived in the first flush of Texan euphoria at the outbreak of the war and sustained by the ease of victory over one weakened Union post after another.
But the Texans had considered New Mexico isolated because it was so far from the Union East. They had not taken into account that help might come from the west and north. They had only dimly known about the column of Union volunteers who had marched out of California to challenge the great desert, and of another which had ventured across the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and down through the San Luis Valley.
Disaster had come suddenly. On the twenty-seventh day of March the Confederate volunteers and the Union volunteers had slammed together at Glorieta. Badly overextended, sustaining themselves in a hostile land by supply lines which stretched hundreds of miles back into Texas, the Confederates were vulnerable to any interruption in these supplies. "Preacher" Chivington's Colorado men caught a vital ammunition train in the middle of Apache Canyon and destroyed it without mercy.
That great column of black smoke had cast a fatal shadow across the Confederate dream of Western conquest. The taste of victory turned to ashes in Texans' mouths. Splintered into dozens of disorganized and almost leaderless groups scattered over half of New Mexico and all of hell, short on ammunition and shorter on food, they had little choice except to retreat south under the pressure of determined Union pursuit, to try to reach Texas and hope the Californians and the Coloradans wouldn't hound them all the way back to San Antonio.
On the map, if David had had one, Texas lay a relatively few miles directly to the eat. But that part was as hostile as New Mexico, for it was still firmly in Indian hands. The maps left the Panhandle region of Texas almost a total blank, marked only as "unknown Indian land." Beyond the cap rock stretched the great staked plains, familiar only to Comanche and Kiowa and to a relative handful of Indian traders operating out of eastern New Mexico. No white men known to the Texans had ever traversed it, had ever seen its hidden watering places or traced out its rivers and streams, had over traveled the dim trails stretching across that cast and markless tableland of grass.
To David Buckalew and his men, and to other scattered units like them, the real Texas lay to the south. If they could ever reach Fort Bliss, they could then strike eastward along the military, immigrant and stagecoach road which would lead them to the Pecos, to the Conchos, and eventually to the safe and settled lands just west of San Antonio.
But it was a long way to Bliss, and Union scouting parties had been doing their best to seek them out and cut them to pieces. To the Yankees this was insurance against the Texans' ever again trying to carry the war across the Western territories. David's group was a remnant of many which had been ordered to lag behind and fight a rearguard action, to delay Union pursuit long enough so that the larger bodies of men, particularly the walking infantry, could have a long head start.
David watched the mirror flashes as the Indians talked to each other across the near end of the pass. He could no longer see the Union troops; they had moved into the trap. The gunfire started, echoing off the ragged mountain walls. David shivered. He was to far away to hear the shouts and the screams with his ears, but he heard them in his mind. Through the glass he saw riderless horses galloping out of the pass, some on this side, some going back through the far end. He saw two men spurring desperately and watched the mounted pursuit that inevitably caught up. He saw the men fall, and the Indians jump down around them.
He had seen much of death in New Mexico, but the had never managed to harden himself against the coldness that settled in the bottom of his stomach. The gunfire became scattered. Finally it stopped altogether. He licked his dry and wind-chapped lips as he trained the spyglass on the near opening of the defile. At last he saw Indians begin to spill out of it. He could count at least fifty; there might have been more. Many led extra horses that he knew carried cavalry saddles.
The Indians moved toward the hill where the Texans crouched or lay waiting in dread, gripping their rifles. A young soldier who ha never shaved out of necessity recited the Lord's Prayer over and over.
At length a dark-stubbled, hawk-featured man said irritably, "Richey, I wisht you'd shut up."
Pete Richey glanced at Luther Lusk with stricken eyes. "Luther, I'm just askin' the Lord to help us."
"If He didn't hear you the first time, ain't listenin'. You're makin' me almighty nervous."
David said, "Let him alone. A little Prayin' a long time ago mightn't of hurt you any."
"He'd do better to save his breath for the fight."
David looked at the boy, a seventeen-year-old farm lad who had lied about his age to get into the volunteers, and lately had had ample cause to regret it. "You go on with it, Richey, if you want to."
Pete Richey gave David a grateful look, then glanced uneasily at Luther Lusk. For a moment David thought he might finally have made a friend. But Richey was overawed by the frontiersman Lusk, too much to challenge him. He turned back to his rifle. His lips moved again, but his prayer was silent.
David frowned a Lusk, a thick-set man wearing a fancy Mexican-style coat over a tattered homespun cotton shirt. Lusk had appropriated the coat out of a store after beating up the Mexican storekeeper, a man burly enough to present him a challenge. He had defended himself on the grounds that the man had a Union flag draped on the wall, and besides that, his father had probably fought in the battle of the Alamo. If he hadn't, he probably was friends with somebody who had. Nothing came of the incident except an admonishment from higher officers. From what David had seen, Lusk was something of a wild man. Admonishing a wild man was like using a willow switch against a bear.
"Sergeant," David said to Noley Mitchell, "you'd better give Lusk his rifle. He'll need it directly."
He had taken the trooper's rifle after a set-to three days ago. David's orders had been to retreat gradually, harassing the Union troops wherever it was practical without undue risk to his men, slowing down the Union advance. He had orders not to take suicidal risks, but to get his small command back to Texas intact and safe if he possibly could. He had been hitting small Union details from ambush, then running before they had time to react.
The had sighted a Union force much too large for them. Luther Lusk had wanted to charge it anyway and "get in one more good lick against them damnyankee bastards before we turn tail and run." David had seen it as a clear case of suicide and had forbidden it.
"I'll go by myself, by God!" Lusk had shouted angrily. "If there's any man here with sand, he'll go with me."
David had seen fit to club Lusk over the head with the barrel of a pistol and tie him to his saddle. He reasoned that he had saved not only Lusk's life but those of the other men.
The troop as a whole was not keen on following Lusk into a moment of glory and an eternity of sleep. Nevertheless, their sympathies were clearly with him. David had made no friends by his rough but effective method of stopping Luther Lusk. He kept telling himself he shouldn't worry about it. These were not the men with whom he had campaigned through most of his time in New Mexico; he had recently been assigned to them against their will and his own. His original outfit had been badly shot to pieces, David himself falling among the wounded. These volunteers had lost their lieutenant, elected by them back home and willingly followed by them until his death. Instead of allowing them to elect another of their own choice, the higher-ups had chosen to impose upon them this stranger, a green young officer from the old and peaceful Stephen F. Austin colony way back in what was now considered East Texas. What could a young upstart like that know of battle? There hadn't been anything bigger than a crossroads fistfight down in that section for at least twenty years.
Lusk grasped the rifle as Mitchell extended it to him. He jerked it roughly from the sergeant's hands and said caustically to David, "Thank you, Lieutenant, for all your generosity. I thought you was fixin' to make me throw rocks at them."
"When this is over," David said evenly, "that rifle goes back to Sergeant Mitchell."
"When this is over," Lusk replied in a cold voice "this rifle will go to some redskin. You know it and I know it."
One Indian rode out in advance of the others. He stopped a hundred yards short of the hilltop. He was in easy range, but nobody shot at him. The warrior waved a rifle and began to yell. The wind was blowing the wrong direction for David and the others to hear him. They would not have understood the words anyway.
Lusk said bitterly, "Go out there and arrest him, Buckalew."
Several more Indians moved up even with the first one. They waved muskets and some newly captured Yankee rifles. Fresh scalps dangled from the firearms. David knew little of sign language, but he understood the more graphic gestures.
Suddenly the Indians wheeled their horses around and rode away, shouting victory to the mountains, carrying their trophies with them.
David watched in disbelief. After a minute he stood up, his mouth hanging open. He studied the mountains with he spyglass, hunting for a sign of other Indians lying in wait.
Young Richey prayed again, this time giving thanks.
David knew little about Indians. He had been a boy when the last raid occurred in Hopeful Valley. He had heard many stories and doubted half of them. He distrusted people who claimed to know all about Indians, because his father said such people were all talk. He glanced a Mitchell, who had never made such a claim. "What do you make of it, Sergeant?"
Mitchell replied in a gravel-voiced drawl. "I fought Indians down home in the wild old days. All I ever learned for sure was that you never do know. They hunt people for sport, the way me and you would hunt a deer when we wasn't really hungry. When they've satisfied their appetite they're ready to go off and celebrate. Maybe tomorrow they'll get the notion to come lookin' for us. But today it looks like they've had glory enough."
Luther Lusk pushed to his feet and headed for his horse. "Well, I come here to fight Yankees; I ain't lost no Indians."
"Lusk!" David shouted. "You halt right there. You give that rifle back to Sergeant Mitchell."
Lusk turned on his heel. For a long moment the big man's hawk eyes glared at the officer, challenging him. The muzzle was pointed vaguely in David's direction. The temptation showed strongly in his face.
"What if I choose to do otherwise?"
David said tensely, "Then I'll kill you!" It was an empty statement, for he knew he wouldn't. But he stood and bluffed because he had already lost too much ground with these men.
Lusk had all the advantage, if he chose to use it. Chances were small that he would ever be prosecuted back in Texas for something done here in the mountains of New Mexico. But in a moment he handed the rifle to Mitchell. "Hell, let some Indian kill him; then nobody'll stretch my neck."
David said, "Don't anybody rush. We'll leave here with order."
"Order?" Lusk was incredulous. "What does order mean to an Indian? If we want to live to fight more Yankees, we'd better forget about order and get the hell away from this place."
David's back was rigid. "You seem to've forgotten how it was the day we all rode out of San Antonio. Like as not you were drunk. But I remember. We rode out of there proud. Well, we've been beaten, but we're not whipped. We won't go back to Texas lookin' whipped." He knew most of the men just wanted to leave there. He would not have admitted it, but his own britches were burning him. "Mount up."
That was another order he had to give but once. The men began edging their horses south, but David motioned for them to follow him. He moved down the east side of the hill toward the pass.
Noley Mitchell spurred up beside him. "I don't mean to question your judgment, button, but Texas is yonderway."
"Those Yankees might've brought somethin' we can use."
"Davey, you can bet them Indians picked up every gun, every knife, every cartridge."
"But maybe not all the rations. Indian tastes don't run to military issue. And maybe we'll find some canteens. For what's ahead of us, we can use very water container we can find."
Mitchell would have argued further, but David showed no disposition to listen. His eyes were set firmly on the pass, and the old lawman took that sign for what it was. He rode quietly, glancing over his broad shoulder to be sure everybody was coming.
David wanted to look back but feared that could be taken as a sign of doubt. He held the lead, sitting straight in the saddle the way his father had taught him. Joshua Buckalew had been one of the early "Texians," those who came before the revolution. He emigrated from Tennessee in 1830, taking up up land in Austin's colony, fighting in the revolt against Santa Anna and Mexico. He had been a survivor of the massacre at Goliad and had found his way to Sam Houston's army in time for the final victory at San Jacinto.
Jushua Buckalew had been a solider, a hard man for a son to follow in the eyes of the people in Hopeful Valley, and those elsewhere who had ever known Joshua.
David's father had never expressed pride in the battles he had fought; on the contrary, he hated even to talk about them. But other people talked, and exaggerated. Joshua Buckalew was a reluctant hero in the land where he had chosen to live out his life. People expected much from his son. That was why David had been elected lieutenant of the Hopeful Valley volunteers…not for himself but because of his father.
Up to now, David had to consider himself a failure. It was a hard thing to be a son of Joshua Buckalew and still be a failure.
Joshua hadn't said much as David had prepared to ride away to San Antonio with the valley's other recruits. "There's a lot you ain't seen yet, and you've got a lot to learn about life," be had cautioned, his eyes glazed. "You'll find a lot of it ain't the way you expect it to be, and sure not like people say. You'll find a lot that ain't just and fair. But set yourself straight and ride always in the service of the Lord. You'll owe no man an apology if you do the best that's in you."
The Lord had precious little to do with this war, David thought with some bitterness. There had been a certain amount of public praying at the muster in San Antonio, and calls upon the Deity for His guidance in the righteous campaign. But it had not taken David long to decide that the Lord had no great leaning to either side. He had let both suffer horribly, and the suffering was far from over.
The speeches and the music had been fine, and the flags had waved gallantly as they had set out upon the first long mach. But shortly after coming into New Mexico he had watched a man die screaming, trying to hold his shattered guts in place.
There had been no music then.
Now David was increasingly certain that all this suffering had been for nothing. Wasted were all those hard miles they had fought, all those days they had ridden until their tailbones were numb and their dry tongues stuck to the roofs of their mouths. All those men who had died, all those men who had gone home maimed for the rest of their lives…they had done it for nothing. The campaign was lost.
It hadn't been what he had expected. It was hell being a soldier.
A dull ache worked through his shoulder, a reminder of the price he himself had paid. The wound had never completely healed; he was not sure it ever would. They had pulled him out of the makeshift military hospital in Albuquerque too soon, for they had badly needed officers. It had been his doubly bad luck that he was assigned to this outfit which didn't want him. Had the men been allowed an election, David did not doubt that they would have chosen Noley Mitchell, and he would be the one leading them back to Texas.
The irony was that he knew he old lawman would probably do a better job of it.
Leadership had been an easy thing in those early months of the war. All the Hopeful Valley men were his friends, and all knew what needed to be done. He didn't have to give orders. Being an officer was more an honor than a responsibility. It was no great challenge to lead when they were winning, and winning easily.
The crisis of leadership came now, when they were losing. This was the true test. Ever since he had been with this outfit, David Buckalew had fallen short.
God, for one more chance!
Before riding down into the pass he sent Noley Mitchell up on one side of it and a Mexican trooper named Fermin Hernandez up on the other to scout for Indians. David had never been comfortable about the Mexican; it was an old ingrained prejudice from his part of the country, where Anglos and Mexicans had fought two official wars and many unofficial ones. Yet he had found that Hernandez possessed the best eyesight of any man in the outfit. The Mexican could not read words written on a page, but he could read tracks on the ground and describe in considerable detail the circumstances of their making. He could see riders a mile away and tell if they were soldiers or Indians or what. He was useful as an interpreter, too, for David's knowledge of Spanish was rudimentary at best, geared to the limited vocabulary he had needed in his chosen trade, the buying, training and selling of horses and mules.
Hernandez gave the "clear" sign, and a moment later Mitchell did likewise. David left half the men posted in the mouth of the pass to stand guard. He took the others in to look over the battleground.
Battleground was not exactly the word for it. It had been more slaughter than battle. The blueclad troops had had little chance to fight back. The Indians had been well hidden in the rocks on either side and presented little target. The Union soldiers lay scattered along the pass, heaped like bloody rag dolls, scalped and mutilated. David's stomach started to turn, and he shut his eyes for a moment until the feeling passed.
At a glance he knew the Indians had taken all guns and ammunition; he had expected that. He came upon a dead packmule. The Indians had ripped the pack off, looking for anything they would use. David motioned to the youth Richey to go through what was left. He saw a dead horse with the saddle still on, and a canteen tied to it.
He glanced behind him at a farm lad named Ivy, who had always been eager but was considered by the others as a bit slow in his thinking. "Ivy, you been needin' a better saddle. Get somebody to help you take that one."
Ivy was dubious. "There's blood on it, Lieutenant."
"It'll wear off."
David turned away, then stopped abruptly. Staring up toward him with sightless eyes was a man wearing captain's bars on a bullet-torn, faded-blue uniform. David dismounted. Kneeling, he shuddered a little as his fingers lightly touched the man's face and closed the dulled eyes. He began going through the pockets. There might be papers.
Inside the coat he found an envelope, its corner stained a sticky red. As he opened it he heard a noise behind him. A frontier trapper named Jake Calvin was going through the pockets of the Union soldiers nearby.
Calvin looked up, startled. "You say somethin', Buckalew?" He had made his living with a skinning knife. Dead things brought him no dread.
"Don't you draw the line at robbin' bodies?"
Who's robbin'? I'm just salvagin', same as you."
"I'm lookin' for dispatches, orders…nothin' else."
"And I'm just lookin' for tobacco and such. Them must of been tradin' post Indians, because they ain't Them must of been tradin' post Indians, because they ain't left a two-bit piece in the whole damned bunch, far as I can find out."
"They were soldiers. They probably didn't have two bits. Gets back on your horse."
Calvin showed some disposition to argue, then shrugged it off. "Wasn't findin' nothin' noway."
David read the letter through. His first reaction was surprise. He had taken it for granted that this was a Union detail out simply to harass straggling Confederates. It was more than that. The letter, addressed to Captain Tad Smith, was an order for Smith to take a detail to the Owen Townsend ranch west of the Pecos River. There he was to prepare for immediate shipment a store of rifles, ammunition and powder which had been cached by Union troops as they fled northward the year before. They had not wanted it falling into Confederate hands out had not wished to destroy it, either. Now, the letter said, they had use for it in the pursuit and chastisement of the Texan invaders.
* * *
A train of ten wagons will be dispatched from this point on the 10th instant, and should reach the Townsend rancho within two days after your arrival. Townsend and his household have already left here and should be returned to their place of residence before you reach it.
They are loyal tot he Union; therefore you will render all possible service and show utmost courtesy. Townsend was a valued scout for General Kearney's incursion into the Territory fifteen years ago, and the family has been of material aid to us in the current difficulties. You may place fullest reliance in the word and advice of my friend Owen Townsend.
I need not remind you how badly this cache of munitions is needed for the continuation of our successful campaign to push the rebellious Texans from our borders and to pursue them into own lair.
David looked around him at the dead men. They would never finish that mission now, or any other. When those wagon people got to the cache, they would probably wonder why the escort never showed up.
The young trooper Richey rode up to David. He was visibly shaking. His eyes apprehensively searched the rocky sides of the pass. "We done picked up everything we think would be of any use, Lieutenant. We've found some tinned rations, a few canteens and such. If you're waitin' on us, there ain't no use you wastin' any more of your time."
David nodded. "Nothin' is keepin' us here."
Richey glanced at one of the bodies and turned his face quickly away. "We goin' to leave them layin' here thisaway?"
"You want us to take time to bury them?" "Anywhere else it would seem like the Christian thing. But this ain't no Christian place."
"No, it sure isn't." David made a signal and led the men out of the pass, heading south. Hernandez came down from his post on the west rim and looked at David. David signaled for him to go ahead and take the point. Hernandez hunched a little and went on. Sergeant Mitchell rode off of the east rim and fell in beside David as they proceeded in a stiff trot, putting the pass as far behind them as they could without overtaxing the horses.
Mitchell said, "I spotted a packmule out yonder a ways. He must've stampeded out of the pass, and the Indians either didn't catch him or forgot about him."
"We'll pick him up." David was only half listening His mind dwelt on those Yankees back there. He still held the letter in his hand, crumpled. He unfolded it and glanced over it again. Gradually he realized something that he had passed over lightly the first time: a detail of wagons was on its way to collect the cache. Unless good fortune should strike twice and the Indians should eliminate the wagon train too, the mission probably would still be accomplished, even without the captain and his men.
David reflected on the potential destructive power in ten wagons of munitions. If those Yankees recovered the cache they would use it to guarantee that some Texans never saw home again.
Sergeant Mitchell was talking, but David only nodded, agreeing to comments he didn't really hear. He noticed some lines on the back of the letter. They were a crude map, directions for finding the Townsend place. They were probably enough for someone who knew this part of the country, but to David they were a little vague.
His pulse began to beat with an excitement different from the kind he had felt facing those Indians. He looked up, his eyes widening. Sergeant Mitchell continued to talk, and David had not heard a word he said. He studied Mitchell now, still not hearing. He had never been comfortable in the sergeant's presence, but he feeling was of a personal nature, a realization that he was in a position that morally belonged to Mitchell, and some doubt whether he was worthy of it. It had nothing to do with Mitchell's ability as a soldier. If he had nineteen men like Noley Mitchell, he could turn around and give the damnyankees a whipping right here and now, and make them yearn for Colorado and California.
He frowned, wondering what Mitchell would think about the idea that was beginning to build in his mind.
He turned and looked back at the other men. He saw Gene Ivy, gazing worriedly toward the hills where the Indians had disappeared. The lad meant well and could perform if told exactly what to do, but he seemed unable to initiate anything on his own.
Pete Richey. Willing also, but young, green, perhaps of less potential even than Ivy. The two boys, he had been told, had come from neighboring farms, had ridden together to the appointed marshaling place for recruits, had listened to the same patriotic speeches, and had told the same lie about their ages to join.
T. E. Storey, who rode almost sideways now, looking back toward the pass they had left. From what Mitchell had said the day David had been assigned to this unit, Storey had been a town policeman. That, in David's view, should have been a good background for a solider. But Mitchell had been disparaging. "When they can't make it anywhere else, they become city policemen," the ex-sheriff had said. David was vaguely aware of the traditional rivalry between county and city officials. He tended to regard Mitchell's judgment as colored by prejudice. Storey, David thought, should be a man he could rely on in a pinch.
Aaron Bender, from whom David had not heard a dozen words. Maybe quiet men were the best soldiers. Certainly the loud ones usually were not.
Jake Calvin, David had already decided, was not one to count on in time of trouble. In a couple of skirmishes with Union details Calvin had hung back, staying low and out of the line of fire as much as he could. He became fierce after the battle, but only in his talk.
He was still in doubt about Homer Gilman, a miller by trade, a tall, gaunt man who had little to say but all ways stuck close by Noley Mitchell. He was very plainly a Mitchell partisan.
There were Patrick O'Shea and Otto Hufstedler, an unlikely pair to be close friends. O'Shea was fairly freshly arrived from the old sod. Hufstedler had come to Texas with a tide of German immigrants in the 1850s, the young men like himself trying to avoid conscription into a German Army they hated. Now he found himself in an army anyway, a volunteer fighting for a cause he probably did not understand, struggling with a language still difficult for him. He and O'Shea seemed always to be together. The only common bond David could see was that both were immigrants. Perhaps that was it, that they felt shut out to some degree from other company. That was a feeling David understood very well.
Fermin Hernandez. Accounts indicated he had been an oxcart freighter on the road between San Antonio and the Rio Grande by way of rowdy Helena and points south, no place for a weak or timid man. It was said that Hernandez had done some smuggling when it came handy. That was against the law but was hardly considered a moral offense in that time and place; everybody beyond the age of seven did some of it. They saw no way a government could be harmed by a bit of trading between people of two neighboring countries and regarded the customs laws as principally designed to provide wages to lazy government employees who should have been lending their minds and muscle to honest endeavor. Hernandez never volunteered to talk about himself, and David hadn't asked. A Mexican's affairs were his own business so long as they did not encroach on those of the Anglo. That was the code of the times.
Luther Lusk. David's face pinched as he gazed at the man. From fragments he had heard, he gathered that Lusk had had some disagreements with the law back home, represented by Noley Mitchell, but that they had come together willingly against a common enemy. It was said they had been enemies once, but here they were friends, and David had sensed a bond of sorts between them, a respect that honest enemies sometimes develop for one another. Exactly what Lusk had done for a living was unclear. David had heard or seen indications that he had some experience at freighting, as had Hernandez, and at scouting on the Indian frontier for the Ranger service. If the latter were true, David doubted that it had lasted long. Lusk showed little inclination to follow orders from anybody, and the Rangers were a quasi-military organization. They could not have depended upon a man of such independent mind for very long, David reasoned. Certainly he knew that he could not depend upon him.
The other men were of varied stripe and hue. David had not come to know them much in his limited time with the outfit. They were still little more than names to him, names and faces but not personalities. They showed little interest in becoming anything more, at least for him.
Sergeant Mitchell stood in his stirrups periodically and searched the hills with his eyes. He took off his threadbare him. He rubbed a shirtsleeve across his sweaty forehead. "How long you figure now to Fort Bliss, Davey?"
David was paying so little attention that Mitchell had to ask him twice. David said, "I don't know." He was still crumpling the letter in his hand. He frowned, glancing back once more at the men behind him.
They could do it. Hell, yes, they could do it, if they put their minds to it and had the will.
"Sergeant, I wish you'd read this and tell me what you think."
Mitchell held the letter out at arm's length, squinting. When he had read it, he turned it over and examined the map. He traced with his finger and pointed to a spot. "I'd say we're somewhere along here, wouldn't you?"
David didn't care to let it be known, but he had more faith in Mitchel's sense of time and position. "I would imagine so."
"And…"--Mitchell traced the map on down toward the bottom--"there is the Townsend place. Some east of our present line of travel, wouldn't you say?"
"d say so,", David agreed, leaning again on Mitchell's judgement.
I believe I know what you're thinkin', Davey."
l;That we could stop those munitions from fallin' back into Union hands. That we could keep them from bein' used against Texas."
Mitchell pondered. "Some of these old boys might not like it much, us goin' out of our way. They can already smell Texas in the wind."
"That's why I'd rather not tell I have to." Mitchell's heavy eyebrows knitted. It was clear that he did not relish being a partner in any conspiracy. "They may not take it kindly."
"They haven't taken kindly to anything else I've done. It's a solider's place to carry out orders, not to ask questions."
"That's when you're winnin'. But when you're losin', man starts watchin' out for his own hide."
"So we tell them when we have to, and not before."
"You're the officer. I just ain't sure it's totin' fair."
"If we told them, how many would we lose?"
'A few might take and leave us. But they'll have to know sooner or later.You can't fool them all the way."
"Maybe I can fool them to a point that they have no choice."
"They've always got a choice, Davey. Anytime it gets dark, they have a choice."
David glanced back at the men trailing him and felt a moment of quiet envy. All they had to do was follow. They didn't have to take responsibility or make decisions. They didn't have to take the blame for an officer's mistakes, if they could live through them. Times like this he wished he were back in Texas trading horses and mules, able to fall back on the comfort and security of his father's name.
But it was a long way to Texas.
Copyright © 1976 by Elmer Kelton