Chapter One 1864 Ben rinsed his tin plate with the last sip of his coffee and stepped back inside. The ragged tent did little to keep out the winter winds. He longed for another hot cup of brew but his ration was low and the troop’s supplies had not yet made it through the fighting. What he had left would better serve him in the morning. His breath fogged the air in front of him as he searched his pack for his last sheet of precious paper. He carefully set out his ink and pen before lighting the nub of a candle he had left. In one hand, he held the pen, in the other his most prize possession a photograph of his wife and young son. He gazed at the images for a moment before he began to write. My dearest Ellen, I wish I could say the war goes well, but it just seems to go on. They say battles have been won but all I can see anymore are the bodies of men. Young and old scattered like torn paper across the fields. It is cold here tonight. I am grateful for the bit of shelter the tent offers against the climate. Though I would much rather be resting in front of our fireplace watching you work your quilt. He sighed softly as his thumb caressed the frame of the photo. That spot worn smooth by the times he’d sat and looked at them, and reminisced of home. It was where he longed to be, teaching his son to keep his heels down as he rode his pony. If he survived tomorrow, he would be another day closer to home. I am lonesome for home and my family. Perhaps soon this bloodshed will end and I can come home to you, my wife. I must end this letter and try to rest for tomorrow we take to our arms again. It may be some time before I can write another note. Remind Henry to keep his heels down when he rides. Tell him his father is proud of him. Know that you and our son are ever in my thoughts and always in my heart. Yours, Ben He glanced back at the noise of his men playing poker for matchsticks. Money had become more precious than it was that night years ago in New Mexico. He was young, full of whiskey and spit when he almost lost all he had to a gambler. He’d been saved by pure luck that night. He gazed at all his money piled in front of his opponent. Ben had to win it back or he would need the spade to dig his grave. Too much whiskey had expanded his ego into the belief he was good at poker.
His opponent had noticed Ben’s distress or at least the sweat that rolled from his brow. The older man took a long drag off his cigar. It was one of the expensive kinds, which have a spice smell, softening the stout tobacco odors. He tapped his cards on the table, closed them, and then fanned them back open again. With a curt nod, he pulled two cards from his hand and slid them face down over the green felt toward the dealer. The dealer lifted the cards and made note of them, as if they held the key to Ben’s fate. With a practiced flick of thumb, the card sharp tossed out two cards. He inclined his head toward Ben. “Mr. Mason, your bet.” Ben glanced down at the cards in his hand. The edges were warn and yellowed from the many hands that had held them. They gave no help in the crucial decision he must now make. One card could make a difference in his pockets filled richly or remaining empty. He settled his hat further forward on his brow to keep the nervous sweat out of view of his competition. Ben felt in his gut that the man had a sure hand. Ben knocked back his last shot of whiskey and pulled three cards from his hand. He placed them face down next to the dealer. Too late did he realize he had given away one of his threes. The only pair he held, though it be a weak one, the same as his knees in that moment. The dealer thumbed out his three replacements. Before Ben could pick them up and survey the damage, his opponent had an ego ruling moment of his own. With a smirk at the corner of his handle bar mustache, the man pushed all of the money he had taken from the young cattleman into the center of the table. “Winner takes all, rancher.” Ben pushed in the last of his wealth to join the pile of paper and coin. There was no reason to keep his concern hidden now. The gambler knew he had Ben in a tight spot. His hand on the three cards, Ben exhaled and set them into his hand. He couldn’t bear to look as the dealer called the hand and bid them to show their cards. A few of the saloon patrons had taken a leisurely interest in the game as players began to drop away from the high stakes table. Now the bystanders moved in closer for the reveal. Ben felt the heat of the room as his pulse beat in his ears. The gambler laid out first, his cards fanned out as they left his fingers. The dealer examined them. “Pair of Queens.” Ben sighed sure his hand would have nothing of value after he fumbled and gave away half of his only pair. His eyes gazed at the gambler leaning back with a sated expression
as he puffed on his spiced cigar. Ben had a moment of deep hate for the man as he placed his cards to the felt with much less flair. The gambler’s expression changed as he looked over. Ben turned his eyes down to the cards as the dealer spoke the verdict. “Two pair, Mr. Mason wins the pot.” Relief filled every cell in his body. Ben made a silent pact between him and God not to let ‘o be joyful’ get to his head like this again. Luck had been at his side that night or his fate might have been different.