Friday, 30 September 2011

Fort Defiance - Chapter 9

The air was thin and cold. Ned could taste the light touch of dew in each breath and feel it settling on his hands and face. He was tireder than he’d ever been, but the horses kept on walking and Ben kept on picking out a path through the canyons, mile after mile. He had felt the night grow and wane around him and now his eyes were hot and his throat was dry and the need to sleep hung through every part of his body. Once he found himself slipping unawares into a soft, warm place with enticing thoughts and drifting softness – and then he jerked upright, shock rippling through him as he realised he’d fell asleep and almost fell right off the back of the horse.

‘It dawn yet, Ben?’ he asked, trying to keep the need to yawn from his voice. His hands were stiff on the reins and he flexed his fingers. They didn’t feel too different to the senseless leather they were holding.

‘Plumb on,’ Ben said, reining his horse in to a slower pace. ‘You tired, Ned?’

‘Yeah,’ he said honestly. ‘Too tired to sleep maybe, but I’m tired enough to drop.’

‘Can you feel that sun behind us?’

Ned shook his head. He couldn’t feel anything but damp and cold and exhaustion.

‘Well, it’s coming up dead behind us at the east end of the canyon. Might start to warm up our backs a little.’

‘Yeah, maybe,’ Ned smiled. It seemed like wishful thinking that it would get warmer, but the thought of the sun there, molten and awake on the horizon, was a warming thought.

‘It’s gonna get real bright soon,’ Ben said. ‘There’s a good spot for us to bed down during the day. We’ll start again as soon as it gets dark.’

The horses wound their way down a small slope, hooves slipping in the loose dirt. Ned could hear trees rustling softly in the light wind.

‘We’ll hitch the horses here,’ Ben said, getting down from his horse with a light thud.

Ned slipped onto the ground and stood holding on to Doggone’s reins, his legs straight and stiff under him. Leaves were moving overhead, and he could feel the sun now in a patch on the side of his face when there was a lull in the breeze. Ben took the reins from him and secured the horse with his own, and then took hold of Ned’s arm.

‘Come on. Let’s get us some rest.’

Ned looped his arm through Ben’s, too tired to do more than stumble behind him as Ben led him to the spot he had chosen. He slipped down a little dip in the ground and Ben said, ‘There y’are, Ned. Settle down.’

It was a narrow space like a dried up gully. The wind cut overhead but didn’t reach down into the sheltered space. Ned sat with a rock at his back and his legs stretched out over the soft dirt, and waited for sleep to overcome him like it had on Doggone’s back.

He closed his eyes and rested his head back on the rock, but his mind wouldn’t stop working. He saw Johnny standing there, cutting a swell, dressed for impressing the girls and showing the men that he was the best in town. He saw him with his gun belt buckled around his lean middle, a revolver snug in each holster, and his hat pushed back on his head. He had always felt safe when Johnny was around.

He remembered sitting at a table in Dave Parker’s saloon, drinking whiskey that Johnny had bought, drinking it down and drinking more down, getting drunker than Johnny was. Johnny could drink all night and hardly show any difference for it, but Ned got silly and laughed and lay back in his chair and wanted to welcome the whole world into his arms.

He could barely remember what it was Johnny had said any more – something about the Parkers, about Billy or John, in a too-loud voice – and Ned had laughed, and then suddenly everything had changed. There was a smash as Billy Parker struck a bottle into the hard edge of the bar and then he was coming at him, fast and ugly, the bottle held out before him like a knife – and then Johnny’s hand cutting across in front of him, taking the impact of that bottle before it hit Ned, and the blood suddenly welling and dripping down onto the table in big, spreading drops like an unexpected rain. Even through that pain and that welling of blood Johnny had drawn his guns, steady as ever, and everything had gone quiet. No one wanted to set Johnny off when he had his guns in his hands, least of all the Parker boys.

Ned frowned, trying to picture what had happened next. Johnny sitting at the table with his hand dripping blood and someone – Ned couldn’t remember who – tying a cloth around the wound while Johnny kept his guns steadily on the Parkers and ready to turn on anyone else who tried anything.

‘You don’t set on my brother,’ he had said, as steady as if he had been drinking nothing but water. ‘No one sets on my brother.’

Dave Parker’s mouth had been closed in a tight line. He had stayed behind the bar while his brothers had come at Ned and Johnny, and he was still there, polishing the fingermarks off a glass and watching Johnny like a snake. Sobriety had come over Ned like a cold drench and he remembered saying to Johnny, ‘Let’s go home. No sense in hanging around here.’ But Johnny had shook his head and said, ‘I paid for these drinks. We’re going to sit here and drink them, Ned.’ When Ned had shook his head and made as if to get up Johnny’s voice changed and he said, ‘Sit down, Ned,’ as if he were ordering a dog to stay. That had been a long, long night…

‘We gotta get some rest, Ned,’ Ben said, cutting into his memory and bringing him back to this dry, cold gully in the ground. ‘We’ve got another tough move ahead of us tonight.’

‘Ahh, can’t sleep,’ Ned said tiredly, sitting up away from the rock. ‘Thinking about Johnny.’

‘Forget it,’ Ben said instantly, shifting round to sit beside him. ‘He’s dead.’

‘Yeah,’ Ned said, resting back again. ‘Better he is. But he was my brother, Ben. Keep thinking about the time in that saloon when the Parker boys come at me, one of ’em with a broken bottle in his hand. Johnny stuck out his bare fist, took that big scar across the back of it.’

He rubbed his fingers over the back of his own hand, thinking of the feel of that ragged scar on Johnny.

‘Is that when you lost your sight?’ Ben asked quietly.

He nodded. ‘Later that night. Got dry gulched. Never did know who it was for sure.’

That memory was short and brutal – walking back toward the horses, none too steady on his feet, and Johnny saying something about taking a piss and disappearing behind the feed store. Ned reaching to loosen the reins from the hitch rail. And then a crack about the back of his head and pain exploding through his body, and falling hard and helpless onto the ground. Very little noise but the strange dampened thuds of fists and boots on his flesh as he lay on the dirt, and the grunts forced from his mouth. He couldn’t remember how it had gone from then, or how long he had lain before Johnny had come back. He couldn’t remember anything from that time until he had woken in his bed at home, immobile with pain, and blind.

‘Oh, I was sick for months from that beating,’ he said. Just the memory of it brought a knot into his stomach. But a noise caught his ears and took him away from those thoughts. ‘Hey. Someone’s coming,’ he said, sitting up again. He could hear a horse picking slowly over the soft ground.

Ben darted up and jogged away from him, quiet on quick feet.

‘Who is it?’ Ned called, rising to his knees and then hovering there, caught between standing up and huddling low, out of sight.

‘Stranger,’ Ben said shortly. ‘Stay here, Ned, and don’t move. I’m going out there.’

Ned sat back on his heels and waited, listening hard. He heard Ben move away, but it was hard to make sense of the sounds after that. There were footsteps on the dirt and talking, and then another horse and a new voice. He could hear them shuffling about. There was quiet and then voices again for a good while. And then the sound of fighting, tumbling about and fists hitting bone. Ned sat up straight, fighting with himself to stay where he was. He knew that if he lost Ben he would have no chance out here, but if it were one of the Parker gang out there he would have no chance anyway.

He heard coughing like someone had caught a fist to the stomach, and then more blows. Then someone shouted and the fighting stopped and everyone moved together. There were Indian ponies somewhere in the distance, and much closer than them there were people walking towards him, their boots striking the dirt and the horses walking alongside them.

‘Ben?’ he asked nervously as they came down into the gully.

‘It’s me, Ned,’ Ben said quickly. ‘I’m all right.’

He exhaled a long breath of relief. ‘I heard Indian ponies.’

‘They didn’t spot us,’ Ben assured him.

Ned sat still and listened. It was obvious Ben wasn’t alone but he couldn’t tell how many men were there.

‘Who’s with you?’ he asked.

‘Couple of strangers travelling the same way we are,’ Ben told him easily.

Ned relaxed a little. Anyone who wasn’t out to kill him could only be a help. It didn’t explain the fight he had heard, but if Ben didn’t want to mention it then Ned had the sense to stay quiet about it too.

‘My name’s Ned,’ he said. ‘Howdy, strangers.’

He waited for a moment for a response, but there was none. He was used to that. Some folks were struck strange when they noticed he was blind, as if they didn’t know what to say. But then he heard the ponies again, closer and coming in their direction.

‘Riders coming this way,’ he said quickly. ‘Ain’t white men. Them horses got no shoes.’

One of the strangers was running before he’d even finished speaking.

‘Come on, Ned,’ Ben said urgently, grabbing him under the arm and hauling him to his feet.

One of the horses set up a whinnying under the trees. The two strangers were running and calling out in short, sharp sentences as Ned followed Ben out of the gully, stumbling up the dusty slope.

‘Get hold of that horse’s muzzle, Ned,’ Ben said, thrusting him towards the hindquarters of the whinnying horse and then pounding off in another direction.

Ned felt along the horse to its head, glad to be holding the animal if only so that he could mount it and ride away if need be. He hated himself for it, but he had no other defence but running or hiding. The horse lifted its head and neighed again and he tried to pull it down to put his hands about its soft nose.

‘Keep that horse quiet!’ someone shouted, running over to him and jerking the horse’s head down roughly a moment before Ned could get his own hands around it. ‘That ought to hold the sound in you.’

The man’s voice was eerily familiar. Ned moved his hands down the horse’s head to replace that man’s grip on its muzzle with his own. His fingers moved over the back of the man’s hands, and over a thick scar that snaked across his skin. It was a scar he had never seen, but only felt.

‘Johnny?’ he asked in amazement. ‘It’s you, ain’t it?’

‘Yeah, I’m back, Neddy boy,’ Johnny said dryly.

Anger welled up in him suddenly like boiling water. All that time waiting for Johnny to come back, the ranch falling apart around them, and then the grief of hearing Johnny was dead, and poor Uncle Charlie giving up his life for what Johnny had done. If Johnny had been alive all that time he should have been there, there to draw his guns quick as lightning and see to Dave Parker and send him to his grave. Ned was too mad to think, almost too mad to speak, at all that pain and hardship that had come just through Johnny.

‘Why?’ he grated in fury. ‘Why d’you come back?’

‘For you,’ Johnny said, as if he were surprised that Ned would ask.

Three shots rang out one after the other and Johnny pulled away from him urgently.

‘We’ll talk about it later.’

Ned grabbed at his cuff and followed him, taking hold of him by his arm and yanking him to a standstill.

‘Did you give yourself up on the ridge, Johnny?’ he snapped. ‘Did you? Did you?’

‘Yeah,’ Johnny said, beginning to move away again. ‘Now let me go, will you?’

Ned pulled him back viciously and grabbed him harder. ‘You’re supposed to be dead. You shoulda stayed dead.’

Ben was shouting from a distance, desperation in his voice, but Ned kept hold of Johnny, stopping him from running off. If he let go of him now he might never see him again, never get a chance to hear those answers he desperately needed.

‘Why did you give yourself up on the ridge, Johnny?’ Ned persisted.

He took hold of Johnny by his coat lapels and shook him, the anger hazing out his awareness of anything else around them. He wanted to punch Johnny, to beat him for what he had done. He wanted to be fifteen and able to see, and to roll about on the dirt fighting him until all the fight had left him. Johnny would beat him, he knew that, but he would feel better for it all the same.

‘Why?’ he snapped, his hands tight on the cloth of Johnny’s coat.

‘Look, Ned, this ain’t the time to talk!’

Ned shook him again. ‘I want to know why – now tell me!’

Johnny kept trying to pull away, trying to knock Ned’s hands from his coat. ‘Ned, would you let go of me – ’

‘Tell me!’

‘Ned, you’re making – ’

The gunshots were thickening. Johnny gave up arguing abruptly and the shock of his fist slammed into the side of Ned’s face. Ned staggered backwards, falling onto the ground, half senseless from the blow. Dimly he heard Johnny running, but his ears were ringing, the blood pulsing in his temples. He rolled over, and lay still.

Sighing Laments

Seeing as this is a forum for venting fannish angst, I thought I could vent about the gorgeousness and beauty of Peter Graves, and the fact that I know no one who shares my appreciation of him. I have a friend who is reminded by him of Captain Kirk. I have a husband who admires Peter Graves as an actor but understandably doesn't harbour a burning desire for him. I have a sister who doesn't even know who Peter Graves is. In that case I'll vent to the empty sounding board of the internet.

Fort Yuma (1955)

In case you don't know who Peter Graves is, let me encapsulate him. Long, lean legs, taut thighs. Strong arms, broad shoulders. Hair that ranged from gold to silver through his life. Eyes so blue you could fall into them and float forever. The kind of man who would walk into a room and make you go weak at the knees. The unattainably perfect man that you could never aspire to. Left-handed, clarinet playing, with the kind of voice you would follow blindly into hell.

The Naked Street (1955), I believe

Nope. I can't do it. SpockJones does it so much better here -

I'll just leave you with a few more images...(I'd like to add in some Whiplash - the best series ever - and some more Mission: Impossible, but I'm on the wrong computer...)

Bayou (1957)

Directing Gunsmoke

Wolf Larsen (1958)

Mission: Impossible, I believe

Fort Defiance (1951)

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Fort Defiance - Chapter 8

Doggone wasn’t as fast as Ben’s horse. He kept falling behind and Ned kept urging him on, hearing the thundering of Ben’s horse in front of him and the hooves of the men behind, chasing, made faint by distance. The dust rose up until it was thick in his lungs and the air was cold against his face and hands and pressed through his coat until he was chilled deep down inside. They were galloping over a wide flatness, somewhere along the bottom of a valley. The hooves clattered on hard packed ground and the dust kept whipping up. Ned had no idea in which direction they were going and there was no chance to ask.

The ground began to creep upwards and then Doggone slowed in response to Ben’s horse slowing. Ned heard Ben dismount and Doggone flinched as Ben grabbed at his bridle.

‘You all right, Ned?’ Ben asked briefly.

He nodded, ‘Uhuh.’

He was out of breath just from the effort of keeping Doggone going, his heart thudding hard under his ribs.

‘It’ll be easier on the horses if we lead ’em over this hill,’ Ben said breathlessly, and Ned slipped from his mount, feeling his way down Doggone’s panting sides until he found his tail and grabbed it with both hands.

‘Go ahead,’ he said. Doggone would guide him up the hill.

The horse lurched forwards and he followed the tug of the tail, stumbling over small, scrubby plants and loose earth that crumbled under his feet and made him slip. His legs were shaking from the riding and Doggone was high above him, always pulling, kicking up dust in Ned’s face. It would have half killed the horse to be ridden up a hill this steep after the run he had just had.

‘What is it, Ben?’ he called ahead, now that it was quiet enough for talking. ‘What did Dave Parker want with me?’

Ben was silent,and Ned wondered if he hadn’t heard. But then Ben called down in a voice that was slow and laden with guilt, ‘It’s my fault, Ned. I wrote a letter to Jane, but I never sent it. Told her what your brother Johnny did at Tennessee Ridge. That was when I meant to go home. But I changed my mind. Couldn’t leave you and your Uncle Charlie like that after everything. I wanted us to be partners, Ned.’

‘Uhuh,’ Ned said breathlessly. The effort of following Doggone’s twisting path up the hill didn’t leave a lot of room for speech. The air was cold and dust-filled in his lungs and every breath was a pant.

‘I screwed that letter up and threw it on the table in the saloon,’ Ben said. ‘One of Dave Parker’s men must’ve picked it up. Dave Parker came down to the ranch with that letter in his hand saying he wanted there to be no Tallon brothers alive on account of his own brothers being killed at Tennessee Ridge.’

‘Dave Parker had reason enough to hate Johnny before that,’ Ned called up from behind the horse. The thought of Parker saying that in his hard, dry voice with the intent to string Ned up sent chills through him. His neck felt bare and vulnerable against that thought. ‘I guess that letter gave him even more.’

‘Yeah,’ Ben said succinctly. ‘I’m sorry, Ned.’

‘It ain’t your fault, Ben,’ Ned said. ‘God damn it!’ he cursed as the ground disappeared beneath him and he almost fell.

‘You all right?’ Ben called back.

‘Yeah,’ Ned said tersely, pulling himself up again by the horse’s tail. Doggone was winding sideways along the hill and the ground kept dropping away and bumping up again beneath Ned’s feet. He could hear the pounding of the horses following them, coming closer fast. ‘We almost at the top?’

‘Yeah. And they’re at the bottom,’ Ben said grimly. ‘Get up on that horse. We’ll maybe get away from them on the other side.’

Ned nodded swiftly, finding his way back to the horse’s side and pulling himself up onto his back. Doggone followed Ben’s horse again in a stomach-lurching plunge down the slope on the other side. Ned hadn’t heard the men chasing them dismount. They’d be slower up the hill than he and Ben had been because the horses would have to pick an easier path. This was their chance to get away.

The ground levelled out again and they pressed their horses on to a gallop. Ned leaned forward, the wind whipping at his face, letting the thoughts of what had happened crystallise in his mind. Ben was risking everything for him – every beat of his heart and every drop of blood in his veins. He could have stood with Dave Parker after what Johnny had done, but he hadn’t. He knew then that Ben wouldn’t leave him. He had fought against the Parker gang for him. He had risked his life shooting at them to keep them from Ned. And Uncle Charlie… Uncle Charlie had stayed to hold them off, him alone against a gang of men. Uncle Charlie would not be there when they got back, and now Ben was the only help he had in the world, with no ties but friendship to keep him there.


Eventually they slowed and stopped again. Even while they were still Ned seemed to feeling the swaying of the horse and hear the ringing of hoof-falls in his ears. He was tired out with riding but there was still panic at his back, urging him to carry on for as long as he could. He trusted to Ben’s sense though, steadying Doggone and holding his breath to listen.

There was wind blowing against close canyon walls and the calling of birds and the soft sound of dirt blowing about stalks and leaves, but he couldn’t hear horses anywhere.

‘I don’t hear nothing, Ben,’ he said.

‘I reckon Parker won’t follow us in here,’ Ben said decisively.

‘In where?’ Ned asked with a sense of apprehension. There didn’t seem to be many places that Parker wouldn’t go to exact revenge.

‘Navajo Canyons.’

Ned raised his eyebrows, blowing air out through his lips. ‘I reckon not.’

Riding into Navajo Canyons with the Indians riled up as they were was a kind of calculated suicide.

‘Let’s get off and rest a while,’ Ben said.

Ned nodded, slipping from the horse and finding that his legs were almost too stiff and too cold to stand on. He moved round to Doggone’s head and crouched down, holding the reins and trying to catch his breath until his chest was heaving more slowly.

‘We’ve got to find a spot to take cover and get some rest for the horses,’ Ben said, crouching down beside him. ‘We’ve got a couple of hours of daylight left. Better to travel these parts at night.’

‘Where we travelling to?’ Ned asked.

‘The west end of the canyon. That’ll take us a good distance away from Fort Defiance. But if we go back the same way we come in Parker’s liable to be waiting.’

‘He’ll be waiting at Fort Defiance too,’ Ned said with a dry laugh. Fort Defiance practically smelt of Dave Parker. He had his hand controlling everything.

‘Yeah, I know, but we’ll have the protection of the law there,’ Ben told him. ‘Besides, you ain’t done nothing, Ned.’

Ned smiled. He knew he’d never done nothing, but that had never stopped the Parker gang before. If they thought they had a reason, they carried through on their intent. While Dave Parker was alive he would not feel safe, law or no law.

‘You got your own makings?’

Ned brushed his hand over his pocket. ‘Yeah,’ he said, taking out his pouch.

‘Maybe Uncle Charlie’ll join us soon,’ Ben said, taking out his own pouch and pulling out a rustling paper.

‘He ain’t going to join us,’ Ned said flatly.

He knew, somehow, that Charlie was dead. Charlie wouldn’t have let that gang get away from the house except by giving up his life.

He spread out a tobacco paper in his hand and held it curved while he poured a fine line of leaf along it, touching it softly with a finger to judge the amount.

‘It ain’t right for you to have the bother of me, Ben,’ he said quietly.

‘T’ain’t no bother. We’re partners, ain’t we?’ Ben said in a cheering voice. ‘Besides, I’m sure the Lord’s looking out for you, Ned.’

‘Might be,’ Ned laughed, ‘but supposing he ain’t looking out for you?’

He pulled the drawstring on his pouch with his teeth, holding the paper with the loose tobacco carefully cupped in his hand so the leaves wouldn’t blow away on the wind.

‘I still got my rifle,’ Ben said. ‘Ain’t nothing gonna happen to me before I see Jane.’

Ned laughed again as he rolled the cigarette. A wife seemed to be a good thing to have if it made a man so blamed determined to stay alive.

‘I ain’t scared with a partner like you, Ben,’ he said. He lifted the tobacco paper to his mouth and licked it to seal it, then held it between his lips.

‘I guess it’s up to me to say I ain’t scared either. So I’m saying it.’ Ben paused, and then he reached out and put a hand on Ned’s shoulder, touching him with firm warmth. ‘You and me both know we’re lying, don’t we, Ned?’

Ned smiled with his cigarette clamped between his lips. He was scared to the very depths of his being, crouching out here between the walls of Navajo Canyon with a posse of men out to find him and put a rope around his neck or to shoot him before he could run any further. The fear felt like another skin around him, like the blood in his veins and the beating of his heart. Ben was the only thing between him and death, and thank the Lord he knew he could trust him.

‘Well. Let’s get going,’ Ben said.

Ned stood up by the horse. He heard Ben strike a match on his horse’s tack and he reached up to cup Ben’s hands as he lit his cigarette for him. He breathed in deep and let the hot, fresh smoke billow into his lungs and instantly a little of the tightness of fear was softened.

He mounted Doggone and the horse stirred restlessly. He was tired of being forced to gallop across this hard land.

‘It’s all right,’ Ned murmured, patting the horse’s neck. ‘You can walk for a while. We all of us are dog tired.’

The warmth from the smoke in his lungs was about the only warmth there was as they rode. The horses kept on at a slow walk, tired out from galloping so long and so hard. Ned was tired out too. He rode with his eyes closed and his hands loose on the reins, his hat pressed down as far as possible to keep the cold out. He smoked, and spoke little, and Ben spoke even less. They reached a wet place where a small spring trickled out from the rocks and after the horses had their turn Ned knelt by the water and cupped it in his hands, drinking his fill.

‘All right,’ Ben said as Ned sat back on his haunches. ‘We’ll settle here til it gets dark. The trees make good cover.’

‘You seen any sight of Indians?’ Ned asked, wiping his hands dry on his coat.

‘Not a thing – but Indians are mighty good at not being seen. You heard anything?’

Ned shook his head. He hadn’t heard anything since they entered the canyons but the calls of wild animals and birds.

‘You’d better settle down, then,’ Ben said. ‘Gonna to be hard going through the night.’


Somehow Ned slept, bedded down in the soft, dusty earth with his coat tightly buttoned around him. The sunlight didn’t bother him, at least. That was a small mercy.

When he woke he lay for a while, disoriented, trying to judge by the temperature and the birdsong if it were dark. It felt like night, but his time sense was muddled by sleeping at such an odd time. He opened his eyes wide and stared at the sky, but he could not tell if the soft, fluctuating moments of light were sunlight or moon.

He lay back and put his arms behind his head. Ben was beside him, asleep still, the only warm thing within reach. His breathing was slow and soft. Not far away the horses stood patient and quiet, their reins looped about the branch of a tree. Ned wished he could eat the grass and leaves as they did. His stomach was clenching on emptiness.

An owl called and that settled the question of the darkness. It must be at least getting in to night. Sleepiness was still resting in his eyes and making his body heavy. If it were warmer he would have been able to settle back onto the dirt and sleep for hours more. The tiredness was stiff and aching in his bones. But it was hard to sleep in the face of cold.

He lay still, thinking of the house and of Uncle Charlie. Maybe Uncle Charlie was sitting at home with the lamp lit and the stove fired up, but he didn’t think that could be true. There was an image in his head of Uncle Charlie lying sprawled on the ground behind the well, the dust clotted and dark with his blood, his body stiff with death rather than cold. In his mind the house door stood open, the feeble wind moving in through one door and out through the other, rustling that Christmas tree with a sound of pine needles and foil paper. In his mind the house was a more lonely place than this hollow under the trees where he lay with the warm, steady presence of Ben beside him and the horses softly moving their feet and snorting air through their nostrils. There was life here, and hope, instead of a wall peppered with bullet marks and the body of Uncle Charlie and that Christmas tree whispering to itself in the dark.

He turned over, reaching out to Ben, and touched the thick wool weave of his coat. He shook him lightly, saying, ‘Ben? Ben, I think it’s dark.’

Ben started up as though he’d been bitten and Ned heard the metallic sound of him drawing his gun.

‘God damn it, Ned, what did you – ’ he began – and then he settled back again and Ned heard him holster his gun. ‘Sorry, Ned,’ he said. ‘Guess I’m a mite jumpy.’

He was silent for a moment, then he said, ‘Darn it, why didn’t you wake me before? The moon’s halfway across the sky!’

‘I ain’t been awake long myself,’ Ned said, taking Ben’s peevishness as the natural result of fear and tiredness. ‘Besides, I weren’t even sure it were dark until I heard an owl call.’

‘Yeah, sorry, Ned,’ Ben said again. ‘Well, we needed it and the horses needed it. We’d better push on. We got a long way to travel before daybreak.’

‘Ben, you ain’t got no food with you?’ Ned asked hopefully as his stomach cramped and grumbled again.

‘Why, sure, I’ll just go out back to the pantry,’ Ben said with a laugh. But then he sat up straight with an intake of breath, and then stood and went to the horses. Ned heard rustling and then Ben returned and thrust a paper-wrapped packet into his hand.

‘I forgot what I had in my saddlebag,’ he said. ‘Packed it for the trip back to Jane.’

‘What is it?’ Ned asked, unwrapping the paper carefully and bringing the food to his nose.

‘Hoecakes,’ Ben said, and then added with half a laugh in his voice, ‘Johnnycakes, my grandma used to call ’em – but she were from Massachussets.’

Ned smiled darkly at that as he peeled one of the thin, flat cakes from the stack in the paper. Johnny, Charlie, both gone, and nothing left but Ben and his aptly named cornbread.

‘That’s half of what I got, we’re eating,’  Ben warned him. ‘I got another two packets and a little jerky for chewing. No more.’

‘Best meal I’ve ever tasted,’ Ned said with a grin. After a little food and a little sleep the prospect of riding through the night was not so daunting. ‘You got a canteen too?’

‘Yeah,’ Ben said. ‘Here. Drink up. I’ll fill it before we go.’

Ned took the canteen and drank cold, clean water, then gave it back to Ben. He ate the last of the hoecake and tossed the paper into the wind. He could hear Ben at the spring, pressing the canteen under the water so that air bubbled out of it.

‘Do you really believe we’re going to make it out of here, Ben?’ he asked as he got to his feet. The horses moved nervously, sensing that their rest was about to end.

‘With you as a partner?’ Ben asked. ‘Sure I do. Come on. Let’s move out. See how far we can get before dawn.’

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Fort Defiance - Chapter 7

It was time to pack up and move out. There was nothing more to be done. There was no more hanging on and waiting for Johnny and hoping for a better future. All of the soft stuff was bundled up and waiting to go into the wagon, wrapped around delicate and fragile things like the clock and the old Bible and the little china trinkets that had belonged to Ned’s ma. The beds and the table and chairs would stay. The stove would have to stay. Maybe Charlie could come back for some of the big things once they knew where they would be settled, but it didn’t seem likely to Ned. All he knew was taken apart and folded up and lying in strange places about the floor and he sat in the chair by the stove, waiting while Charlie cleared a path for him to walk through.

He had been born in this house. He knew what it looked like, knew the views of the cliffs and hills around and the sights of desert willows clustered along dry creek bottoms. He knew what it felt and smelt like too, knew the feel of each stone in the wall at hand-height about the house and the places where the wood of the fences was smooth and where it was rough. He knew how to walk from the house to the outhouse without being a step wrong and just where the corral gate was by the way the dirt was worn to a little dip in front of it. He knew that if he wasn’t blind they would not be leaving, and Charlie would not feel bound to take care of him.

‘There you go, Ned,’ Charlie said, lifting something with a grunt of effort. ‘I got things out of your way. You can help carry things out now. There’s a box of pots just by your bed. You manage that?’

Ned nodded and stood, feeling out for the box and hefting it in his arms.

‘Where’re we going, Uncle Charlie?’ he asked as he made for the door.

‘Fort Defiance. And then – I don’t know yet,’ Charlie said honestly, following behind with his own load. ‘Wagon’s just there,’ he said as Ned stepped out of the door. ‘About four paces in front of you.’

Ned reached the wagon and rested his load on the side while he passed a hand over the floor of the wagon box. He slipped the box down and turned, listening as Charlie put his own load down.

‘What are we going to do, Uncle Charlie?’ he asked, leaning against the wood and folding his arms.

‘I don’t know,’ Charlie said again. ‘But we can’t stay here. We ain’t got nothing to farm with and we’re too far from town if anything – well – ’

‘Yeah,’ Ned said, knowing what Charlie meant. If anything happened to Charlie, Ned would be alone out here, and he couldn’t manage alone.

‘We’ll go to Fort Defiance first, and we’ll move on until we can find something to do,’ Charlie said. ‘Someone will want a ranch hand somewhere.’

‘Will someone want me?’ Ned asked realistically.

Charlie cleared his throat. Then he said, ‘Well, I ain’t going nowhere that won’t take you, Ned.’

Ned smiled and nodded, and went inside silently to find more boxes to carry. He felt more burdensome than he had in a long time, especially after that light, fun time when Ben was here. Wherever he was, following on behind Uncle Charlie, holding on to his coat arm, men would look at them and shake their heads and move them on. No one wanted a handicapped man on their payroll. Ned wanted to stay at the ranch, but that wasn’t possible – and he didn’t know where in the world would take them, one man old and one blind. The future filled him with a cold fear.

They carried on packing, carrying out bundles and slotting them into spaces in the wagon. Then they laid the emptied straw ticks and the quilts and blankets over the top, carefully protecting the possessions beneath.

‘Forgot this one box, Ned,’ Charlie said, hurrying out of the house with a clanking load in his arms.

Ned walked back to the open doorway and stood there, listening. Empty, the house sounded different. When he walked inside his footsteps echoed on the floor. Outside he heard Charlie hitching up the horses. He went back into the fresh air. There was nothing to hang on to inside any more.

‘Want me to tie Doggone and Red to the back?’ he asked from the doorway.

‘Already done, Ned,’ Charlie said from between the horses as he finished hitching them up. ‘And your saddle’s lashed on the back. Why don’t you get up front and we’ll haul out?’

Ned pressed his hand hard onto the stone of the wall for one last time. This house had been a friend to him. Then he let go and walked over to the wagon and clambered up onto the seat as Charlie flung one last thing on top of the load piled up back. He put his hand on the load and felt a saddle blanket under his fingers. Wherever they went, he sure hoped he got the chance to go out riding sometimes. It was one of the few times when he felt truly free.

He caught the sound of hooves echoing somewhere up the hill and his head jerked up.

‘Someone’s coming.’

Charlie was silent as the pounding of the horse grew louder, and then he said in wonderment, ‘Why, it’s Ben! Ben Shelby!’

Ned sat up a little straighter on the wagon seat. Ben? He had thought he would never see Ben again. It couldn’t be he’d forgotten something – Charlie would have found it when they were packing up their things.

The horse cantered right down to the wagon and pulled up alongside and Ben’s voice rang out. Until then Ned had not quite believed it.

‘Where’re you heading for?’

‘Fort Defiance,’ Charlie said with a tone of finality. ‘No sense in hanging around here any more.’

‘You looking for a partner?’

‘In what?’ Charlie asked suspiciously.

‘Ranching,’ Ben said brightly. ‘You got a lot of good grazing land, corral, and some equipment. I got myself a bill of sale for two hundred and fifty head of cattle I bought me.’

Ned moved across the wagon seat as if moving closer would make the conversation more real. All his life was bundled up in the wagon behind him. He couldn’t believe that they were going to stay put after all.

‘You ain’t just funning with me, are you, Ben?’ Charlie asked, still suspicious.

‘No, sir,’ Ben said firmly. He sounded light and easy, as if he were smiling through the words.

‘What about your wife?’

‘I sent her a letter asking her to catch the next stage. She should be here soon.’

The joy burst out in Ned’s heart and he whooped out loud. No man would bring his wife all that way on a stagecoach if he didn’t mean to stay.

‘Well, I still don’t see any sense in bringing cattle in here for the Indians to come around and pick them up,’ Charlie said doubtfully.

‘Well, we got word from the Fort the army’s going to take care of all this Indian trouble.’

‘That’s right,’ Ned said. He wouldn’t let anything dampen the joy that he felt.

‘Come on, Ned,’ Ben said buoyantly. ‘Let’s go get a tree for Jane.’

Ned clambered back down to the ground, wondering what Ben’s wife wanted with a tree. The dirt had never felt so solid and so good beneath his feet as it did now he knew he was staying here. He’d get a whole forest for Jane if it meant he could stay here.

‘A tree?’ Charlie asked, voicing Ned’s puzzlement.

‘Yeah. Christmas tree,’ Ben said, moving to untie Doggone from the wagon.

Ned came round behind the wagon and felt for the horse’s back. He thought he’d heard the soft flap of Ben laying the saddle blanket down and he felt it under his hand, smoothed out over Doggone’s pelt and ready for the saddle.

‘Huh?’ Ned asked as he grabbed the saddle from the back of the wagon. ‘What’s that?’

‘Well, it’s a pine you dress up real pretty like,’ Ben said, helping Ned strap the saddle into place. ‘A fellow from Europe from my outfit told me about it. Something they do in the old country. He fixed us one last year for Christmas. Jane’d sure like it.’

‘You really staying, Ben?’ Ned asked, a moment of uncertainty overtaking him as he tightened the girth about the horse’s body.

‘Sure I’m staying,’ Ben said firmly. ‘I ain’t going to go chop down no tree to take on the trail.’

‘Maybe it’s the Lord’s way of giving each of you both back your brother,’ Charlie said in a softer voice.

Ned thought on that. Johnny had been everything to him – but it didn’t seem the Johnny he was thinking of had ever been a real person. A little steel of betrayal and resentment rose in the centre of his body when he thought of Johnny now. He remembered Johnny’s roughness and his quick mouth and his way of making near everyone mad at him with his flippancy and disrespect. Ben wasn’t like that. Ben would be a good brother to have.

‘Maybe,’ Ben said simply, but he sounded glad with that one word. ‘Come on, Ned. Mount up.’

‘Now, hurry back, now!’ Charlie called as Ned swung himself up onto the horse. Ben was already riding away and he urged Doggone to a trot to catch up.

‘You seen any pine trees about?’ Ned called as he reached the sound of Ben’s horse. ‘There used to some up above Elbow Creek.’

‘Well, I guess that’s where we’ll look first,’ Ben said, turning his horse towards the west.

‘Got your hatchet?’

Ben laughed. ‘I ain’t going to chop it down with my hands. You can hold it steady while I cut it.’

‘What do you dress it up with, Ben?’ Ned asked, spurring his horse on to come level with the other. The hoof-falls echoed out into the hills as they made their way across the land towards the creek.

‘Well, Georg said stars and little ornaments and candles,’ Ben said. ‘But I guess we’ll have to make do. We used popcorn strings and ribbons and apples that time. You got any popcorn?’

‘I don’t reckon so,’ Ned smiled. ‘Maybe there’ll be some pinecones about. They’d look nice, wouldn’t they?’

‘I’ll keep a lookout,’ Ben promised. ‘And maybe if we take our time your Uncle Charlie’ll have everything back in the house by the time we get there.’


The tree was a little shorter than Ned’s height. It was wide and the bristles were soft and sharp when he brushed his hands over it, and it gave the house a fresh, green scent that covered over the stale smells of tobacco and wood smoke. Ben set it up near the table, out of Ned’s way but where he could smell it as he sat to eat or work. Ben had already cut a star from a piece of board and covered it with foil tobacco paper so that it would shine and glisten on the top of the tree

The table was covered scraps of tobacco paper, and with pine cones. Some of the cones Ben had rolled in mud and set to dry so that they were white and dusted as if by snow. Some of them were left natural, and Ned visualised them brown and green amongst the white ones. It would look real pretty, he was sure, when they were all hung up, and he was glad of the joy it would bring to Jane even if he couldn’t see it. Just the fresh smell inside the house was novelty enough.

He kept on cutting out shapes from the tobacco papers, cutting slowly and carefully with a sharp knife the shapes of stars and hearts and circles and then threading string through holes pierced in the tops so that Ben could hang them on the boughs. The pine cones were easy to put loops on just by tying some cotton about them, but getting the thread through the holes in the foil paper was a whole new level of skill. He put the string aside for a moment and tried at cutting out an angel instead, with sweeping wings and a long gown.

‘Does this look like an angel, Ben?’ he asked finally, holding up the newly cut shape on its thread.

Ben took it, and laughed. ‘Sure it does. I mean, it ain’t quite like any angel I imagined in heaven, but it’s good enough for our tree.’

Ned laughed at that, pressing his fingers lightly over the other cut papers and wondering if they were enough like stars and circles and hearts.

‘Ah, they’re fine, Ned,’ Ben said, clapping him on the shoulder. He moved around the tree, brushing the branches and making them whisper softly and release a whole new burst of scent into the air. ‘Give me some pine cones, would you?’

Ned picked up a couple and held them out and Ben took them to hang on the tree.

‘Well, I don’t know,’ Ben murmured. ‘I ain’t never decorated one of these by myself before and I can’t ask you how it looks.’

Ned laughed again. He was so light with joy that he didn’t care about not being able to see the tree.

‘Hand me one of them silver tobacco papers you’ve been cutting on,’ Ben said, and Ned felt for one that he had already threaded and handed it over. ‘This is sure a lot of bother, but it’ll be a big surprise for Jane.’

‘She ain’t never seen a Christmas tree neither, huh?’ Ned asked, breaking off more thread from the reel with a sharp snap.


‘Think your wife’s going to like it here?’ Ned asked. These dry and empty canyons weren’t the kind of place everyone took to.

‘I think so,’ Ben said, reaching in front of him and picking up another foil shape.

‘Is your wife pretty, Ben?’

Ben laughed. ‘What do you expect a man to say about his own wife?’

‘Ah, some day I’m going to find me a gal,’ Ned said, leaning on his elbows on the table and thinking about how that might be. ‘I can do my share running a ranch.’

‘Sure, else why’d I be setting up for us to be partners?’ Ben said firmly. ‘Jane’s bringing the money we saved from selling the place. We’re going to buy us some extra stock.’

‘Ah, it’s going to be the best darn ranch around here,’ Ned grinned, thinking of those milling cattle and the money they’d bring in and how nice it would be to stop scraping together the last few pennies every time they went into town to buy provisions.

‘Yeah, and the biggest,’ Ben said. ‘We’re gonna spread out. You know, all through the fighting I kept dreaming how some day it would end and we could start ranching again, me and Jane, and how we could be together with my brother.’

That struck a chord in Ned, thinking of Ben’s lost brother and of Johnny and all the promises that had fallen apart and disappeared as if they had never been. Ben had hated Johnny even if he had never met him, and with good reason too. A needle of uncertainty made itself felt in Ned’s mind every time he thought of his own brother and what had happened to Ben’s because of him. Ben would be justified in hating Ned too, in hating his whole family…

‘Ben?’ Ned asked.


‘You sure you maybe won’t change your mind?’

The thought of the answer terrified him momentarily, but he had to know. He had to know that Ben would not disappear again and leave him without help and without a future.

‘I can’t,’ Ben said, and the lightness of his voice blew away Ned’s concerns. ‘Already got it set in my mind how we’re going to build them ranch houses. One for me and Jane, and one for Uncle Charlie and you – and a real pretty wife.’

Ned laughed at that thought. Ben was maybe the most optimistic person he knew, despite all the troubles and the buried anger somewhere inside him.

‘How am I sure she’s gonna be pretty?’ he asked.

‘Well, you’ll have to take my word for it.’

Ned sighed at the thought of that woman. No matter what she looked like, the thought of having someone to hold close in the night and to share warmth with was a dream he had close on given up achieving.

‘How about me going into Fort Defiance with you tomorrow?’ he asked. He couldn’t find himself a wife if he never left the ranch.

Ben moved away from the Christmas tree with slow steps, as if something were revolving in his mind.

‘Well, I kinda figured maybe Jane and I’d stay in town for a couple of days,’ he said slowly.

‘Hmm?’ Ned asked, wondering why on earth Ben should want to stay in that place when he was sure of a good bed and good food here. And then the realisation dawned and a flush of awkwardness came over him. ‘Oh!’ he said, trying not to laugh like a schoolboy at the thought of what Ben would be doing. ‘Oh, sure, yeah…’

He trailed off, with no idea what to say next. Ben was buckling on his gun belt by the door, preparing to go outside, and Ned thought perhaps he’d last until he went through the door before he let the laughter loose.

‘I reckon we won’t be getting no more pine cones today,’ Ben said with a great degree of self-consciousness in his voice. He knew what Ned was thinking about. ‘I’ll unsaddle the horses.’

A noise outside cut into Ned’s attention and the laughter dissolved away. He could hear horses’ hooves – lots of them.

‘Ben,’ he said. ‘Riders…’

The door opened and Ned asked quickly, ‘Uncle Charlie, who’s coming?’

‘I don’t know, er…’ Charlie said awkwardly, and Ned sat straighter, aware that his uncle was hiding something. He was signing something to Ben, he was sure. He could hear the awkward movements of his body and the little metallic noises as he picked up his rifle. There was a thick, unusual silence and then Ben followed Charlie outside almost at a run, closing the door sharply behind him.

Ned stood slowly, listening hard. The horses’ hooves came to a stop near the house and he heard voices, at first quiet, and then Charlie’s raised in challenge. Ned moved over to the door and found his coat and hat and slipped them on, but he didn’t open the door. Instead he stood with his ear against the crack where it met the frame, listening. He still couldn’t make out any words, but he could hear the sharp, brittle tones of anger in what was being said. There were only two strangers talking, but there had been more horses than that – maybe six, maybe ten. He couldn’t tell, but he knew there had been enough that Ben and Uncle Charlie would stand little chance if a fight broke out.

The voices carried on, never raised to a shout but full of menace all the same. He wanted to open the door and stand with Ben and Uncle Charlie but he knew that would be a fool thing to do. He could only get in the way. So he stood silently, and listened.

When the first shout came it was Uncle Charlie. Ned started back instinctively, and it was just in time because the door slammed open without warning. The shooting started almost simultaneously.

‘Ben?’ he asked quickly. ‘Uncle Charlie?’

‘It’s me,’ Ben said shortly, grabbing at Ned’s arm none too gently. ‘Come on, Ned.’

‘Come on?’ Ned echoed.

He had the sense not to resist as Ben tugged him across the room, but he was torn with the need to get Uncle Charlie. The shots were ringing out in all directions. He could hear bullets thudding into the stone walls of the house. Uncle Charlie would have nothing but the well to hide behind.

‘What is it, Ben?’ he asked. ‘Who is it?’

‘Save it, Ned,’ Ben snapped. ‘We need to get to the horses. Good thing we left them saddles on.’

Ned stumbled and almost fell as the floor dropped away and he tripped down the back steps out of the house.

‘Come on,’ Ben urged him.

Ned ran, clinging to Ben’s arm, saving questions for later. Shots were still snapping through the air on the other side of the house and they pounded across the ground to the corral.

‘Mount up,’ Ben said, thrusting him at his horse, and Ned swung himself up onto Doggone faster than he ever had in his life. He kicked Doggone into action and then Ben came alongside on his own horse and hit at his arm with a hand to urge him forward. Ned leant forward over the saddle and drove Doggone on with all his might.

‘We ought to help Uncle Charlie,’ Ned shouted over the thudding noise of the horses as they galloped up the rough slopes away from the house.

‘They want to string you up, Ned,’ Ben yelled back, his voice lurching with the movement of the horse. ‘What you gonna do? As soon as you rode in there they’d rope you up and drag you all the way to the lynching tree.’

A white silence had expanded in Ned’s mind, making the pounding and panting of the horses fade away into muffled nothings. A moment ago he had been sitting in the house with the stove burning and the smell of that pine tree and a Christmas feeling growing all around. Why would anyone want to string him up?

‘What happened, Ben?’ he asked in bewilderment. ‘What is it?’

Ben urged his horse on further. ‘I can’t talk riding like this,’ he called out. His horse was creeping ahead and Ned kicked Doggone hard in the sides to make him go faster. ‘It’s Dave Parker’s lot. Half dozen at least. I’ll explain later. They’re giving chase.’

Ned turned his head back, listening hard. The shooting had stopped and there was the sound of a bunch of horses somewhere behind them. He could think of only one reason why Charlie would stop shooting. He leaned back over the horse’s neck, urging him faster. He had never felt so exposed. All he could do was trust Ben and ride.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Fort Defiance - Chapter 6

The house was quiet. Uncle Charlie had gone to Fort Defiance for news and provisions. Ben was somewhere in the canyons. With the cattle gone there wasn’t much to do about the ranch – hadn’t been for two weeks – but Ben rode out occasionally hunting, and to see if by chance any of the cattle had wandered back.

Ned could not help him with that apart from being a companionable presence on the rides so he stayed home and kept the stove burning rather than freezing outside just for the sake of conversation. If he took care he could chop the wood that Charlie hauled from the land about. He could cook too, mixing up cornbread and frying salt pork and boiling up beans so that when Charlie and Ben came in chilled and hungry there was something warm for them to eat. Uncle Charlie didn’t like Ned cooking because of the danger of the stove, but he was always happy with the hot food at the end of a long day.

Ned opened the glass front of the clock and touched the hands lightly. It was about three. There was no point in cooking yet and the stove was blazing, a big pile of wood stacked by the side. His time was his own.

He knelt by his bed and pulled out his workbox from underneath. He had been working on the leather in there off and on for days, making a belt for Johnny with Charlie’s old tools. Uncle Charlie had picked out a nice stamp with interweaving lines like growing vines and Ned had pressed it into the surface, straight and neat, most of the way along the length. He had found a buckle from an old broken belt and polished it clean and sewn it on with tough, thick thread. All that was left to do was to pierce holes in the other end of the belt and it would be ready for Johnny’s Christmas present.

He poured himself another cup of coffee and sat down at the table with his mallet and awl. The leather was soft and supple under his hands as he smoothed it over the table. He had already greased and polished it until it felt soft as live skin. Johnny would be proud to wear a belt like that, maybe, that his brother had made. Maybe his face would light with a smile like the ones Ned remembered from years ago, and Uncle Charlie would tell him how happy he looked, and Johnny would clap an arm around Ned’s back and give him one of those quick hugs that squeezed so tight it hurt.

He felt in his box, wondering if he had enough leather to make a belt for Ben too. Ben had seemed caught up in his own thoughts recently, as if he were trying to draw himself away from the companionship of Ned and Charlie. Maybe he was missing his wife, feeling the distance between them as Christmas drew closer. It sure would be nice to give him a present too. He wouldn’t be expecting that.

He let the lengths of leather trail under his fingers. There was enough for Ben. He could get started on that belt just as soon as he finished Johnny’s. He put the scraps back in the box and set the length he was working on straight again. He carefully positioned the awl and made a dent, then felt for the mallet. A few sharp blows and the sharp awl pierced a hole through the leather. He measured a space with his two fingers pressed together, and made another hole.

A noise outside took him by surprise. He snatched the belt and tools beneath the table like a child caught stealing from the candy barrel.

‘Ben? Is that you?’ he asked as the door opened and a cold draught was sucked into the room.

‘Yeah,’ Ben said, stepping in through the door and closing it tight.

Ned brought the leather out again and spread it out on the table. ‘Sure can’t tell. Thought it might be Johnny.’

‘Your Uncle Charlie ain’t back yet?’

He shook his head, feeling for his place on the leather again.

‘Ben, what do you figure on doing after Johnny gets here?’ he asked as Ben walked over towards the stove to warm up.

‘I don’t know.’

‘I been talking to Uncle Charlie about you...’

Ben stopped. The soles of his boots rasped on the floor as he turned. ‘What about me?’

Ned felt out another space on the belt and began to pound the sharp awl again.

‘Well, you being a friend of Johnny’s, maybe when he gets back we could build this place up, spread out,’ he said hopefully. ‘Be partners.’

‘I don’t know if that’s possible,’ Ben said. Ned could hear him pouring coffee by the stove. The smell of it swirled into the air.

‘Well maybe you’d like to be on your own,’ he shrugged. It was reasonable enough that a married man would want some space. ‘We’d pitch in and help you build a place. We’d be neighbours, Ben.’

‘I wouldn’t count on it,’ Ben said. He sounded closed off to Ned, as if there were something in his mind that he didn’t want to talk about.

‘Why not?’ Ned pressed, leaning back in his chair. ‘Ain’t no sense in your going around being a ranch hand, knocking around from ranch to ranch.’

‘Ain’t no sense you making plans about the future, either,’ Ben said darkly.

‘Why?’ Ned asked in surprise. Ben had been the one trying to keep him positive all this time. ‘This here’s good grazing land. When Johnny gets back he’ll buy cattle.’

‘Johnny!’ Ben snorted. ‘What’s he going to do? Chase out all the Indians by himself?’

Ned sat up straight again, puzzled by the tone of Ben’s voice.

‘You sore at me or something, Ben?’ he asked.

‘Why’d I be sore at you? I don’t hardly know you.’

The words were as surprising as a slap to Ned. He found himself on his feet by the table, anger and hurt muddled together in his chest. Ben had gone out that morning quiet but cheerful, but it seemed like a storm had been building in him in the time he had been alone.

‘Well, that ain’t true!’ Ned exclaimed. ‘We worked lots of hours together on the range. Sometimes I got a feeling you don’t want to know us. You don’t want us to know you.’

‘Well, it ain’t that,’ Ben said in a more deferential tone.

‘Well, it’s something,’ Ned insisted, anger hardening his voice. ‘Just cause I can’t see with my eyes don’t mean I can’t see. Something’s eating you, Ben. What is it? I’d like to know.’

The clatter of the wagon outside cut through the tension that hung in the air and someone stomped towards the door.

‘It’s me, Ned,’ Uncle Charlie said brightly as he opened the door and cold air flooded in.

‘Any news of Johnny?’ Ned asked eagerly.

‘Well, I guess I found out why the Indians took all our cattle,’ Charlie said, coming into the room and putting a box down near the stove. He came back to hang up his coat and hat by the door. ‘There’s a lot of rumours at Fort Defiance. Government’s going to move all the Indians to a reservation, far away. The Indians are mad about it too. They’re preparing to make their own moves. Starting to raid stages and ranches and everything.’

‘Did you hear any word from Johnny at Fort Defiance?’ Ben asked as soon as Charlie was quiet.

There was an odd hitch in Uncle Charlie’s breathing, and the soft noise of him fiddling with his coat where he had hung it on the door.

‘Well, did you?’ Ned urged him impatiently.

‘Er-erm, yes,’ he said awkwardly.

‘A letter?’

‘No, not a letter.’

‘Well, what then?’ Ned pressed him. He wished he’d gone with Charlie to Fort Defiance just so that he’d know instead of being forced to ask.

‘Well, I got to tell you this, Ned,’ Charlie said quietly. ‘We can’t stay here waiting for him. I heard he was dead.’

‘Dead?’ The strength seemed to drain out of his legs and he sat without thinking about the movement. The chair was hard and still beneath him but he felt as if the ground were moving. ‘He can’t be, Uncle Charlie. He can’t be dead.’

‘He was shot down robbing a bank in New Mexico.’

The shock multiplied into a blank white haze. This made no sense. It made no sense at all.

‘Johnny wasn’t no robber,’ he said fiercely. Dead, robbing a bank… Johnny had always been wild but this – this couldn’t be true. It couldn’t.

‘I knew it all the time, Ned, but I didn’t want to tell you,’ Charlie said, coming closer to him as if to comfort him – but he didn’t reach out to touch him. ‘Ever since he got out of the army he’s been robbing and murdering.’

‘Why didn’t you never tell me before?’ Ned asked, standing up, ready to run or – no. He didn’t know what he needed to do. He hardly knew what he was thinking.

‘Because I couldn’t bring myself to it, Ned,’ Charlie said with a great tiredness in his voice. ‘I’m an old man, and you ain’t got much future with me here, trying to scratch out a living.’

Ned felt as tired as Charlie sounded. He felt empty and bereft, as if he needed to turn somewhere for something to cling to but had no idea which way to turn. Each outward breath hollowed his abdomen as if he had been punched.

‘You shouldn’t have let me go on thinking like I did about Johnny, that he was coming back and we was going to be together again,’ he said to Uncle Charlie. How could he believe what was around him any more? How could he believe anything?

‘You’re right,’ Charlie said softly.

‘I’m sorry for your hurt, Ned,’ Ben said in his quiet, expressionless way.

Ned listened. Ben had walked over to the door and was putting on his coat. He was putting on his coat and preparing to leave. And suddenly Ned realised what it was that had been bothering Ben all this time, and why sometimes he had seemed as if there were another side to him hiding inside. Perhaps he really was blind, had been blind, all this time.

‘You come here after Johnny, didn’t you?’ he asked tersely.

‘I ain’t going to lie to you,’ Ben said. ‘Yeah.’


‘Don’t matter now,’ Ben said, as flat-voiced as ever.

Ned clenched his fists. He was unfolding pages about Johnny that he had never known existed and perhaps it would be better to stop there – but he had to know. Ben had become his friend. He had to know what Johnny had done to make a fellow like Ben want so badly to kill him.

‘Matters to me,’ he said.

‘Why bring up something that ain’t got nothing to do with you?’ Ben said.

He was turning to the door again. He was going to walk out and never come back, and Ned’s control snapped. He was tired of people trying to protect him like a child from the truth. He lurched at Ben and grabbed him by the arm.

‘Does it seem like too much to tell me why you come to my house to kill my brother?’ he grated.

Ben stayed calm.  He began to turn away as if he thought Ned’s hands would just slip from his arm.

‘Let me go, Ned.’

Ned wrenched him back, shook him hard. ‘You’re gonna tell me before I do.’

He felt Ben’s acquiescence before he spoke. The fight melted out of his muscles and out of the set of his arm under Ned’s hands.

‘All right,’ Ben said slowly. ‘I was with one of the companies of the Arizona Volunteers.’

‘So was Johnny,’ Ned nodded, loosening his hands slowly from Ben’s sleeve. ‘Lots of men from this part of Arizona and New Mexico.’

‘Yeah,’ Ben said. ‘My company was wiped out in the battle at Tennessee Ridge, three weeks before the war ended. My brother was killed there, all on account of John Tallon.’

‘That ain’t true!’ Ned said hotly. It couldn’t be true. Johnny had been given a medal, had shook Lincoln’s hand. It couldn’t be true…

Ben’s voice was flat and prosaic. ‘He was sent by Headquarters to tell Company B that we were about to be outflanked, to pull back or we’d be trapped. He never got there.’

‘Maybe he was stopped by the Confederates,’ Charlie said, moving close again.

‘He give himself up,’ Ben said. ‘Only me and one other man got out alive, and he died in a couple of days.’

‘It don’t seem right,’ Charlie protested. ‘Johnny weren’t no coward. You ought to know that about Johnny.’

‘I never did know Johnny Tallon,’ Ben said flatly. ‘He was with Headquarters.’

‘Then how could you know that he was the one?’ Ned asked quickly.

‘I was taken prisoner by the same greys that got Johnny. The captain of that rebel outfit said Johnny gave himself up.’ Ben hesitated, his breath slow and stilted, and then said more softly, ‘I’m sorry I had to tell you that, Ned.’

He was silent again, awkward. It felt as if there were too many people in the room, too many people in the world. Ned didn’t know what to say. Every truth he had known about Johnny and about Ben seemed to have been knocked down, one by one. Reality was slipping through his fingers.

‘Well, I’d better be going,’ Ben said.

He moved through the door quickly as if he were afraid that Ned would grab at him again – but Ned didn’t move. He didn’t know what to do. He was empty and reeling from loss. Johnny would never be back. Ben was gone too. There was nothing he could do to bring either of them back.

He moved back to the table in a daze and sat on his chair. The belt was under his hands. He had one more hole to make for it to be finished. Mechanically he felt for the mallet and awl again. He pressed his two fingers onto the leather to measure the space, and positioned the awl, and beat out another hole. Then he swept his hands over the length, feeling for roughness or mistakes. There were none.

He rolled the belt up like a snail shell and held it in his two hands. He wouldn’t have to make a second belt for Ben now.

‘Uncle Charlie?’ he said quietly.

‘What is it, Ned?’ Charlie asked in that soft voice that people reserved for sickness or death.

He held the belt up. ‘Give this to Ben, would you? Johnny don’t need it now. I’d like Ben to have it.’

‘You’re sure, Ned?’ Charlie asked him.

He nodded. ‘Yeah, I’m sure. Ben never meant us no harm. He only wanted to get even for the bad that Johnny did.’

‘Well, all right,’ Charlie said, taking the coiled leather from him. ‘I’m sure he’ll appreciate that.’

‘You’d better go on out,’ Ned said. ‘It won’t take him long to saddle up.’

He sat and waited for Uncle Charlie to go out through the door. He could hear the small noises from outside as Ben dealt with the horse. He had no stomach for going out and taking leave of him himself.

He ran his hands over the table, gathering up the leather scraps and tools and putting them back in the box. Mechanically he stood and carried the box to his bed and slid it underneath. He put his hand to the chair by the stove and made to sit in it, and almost sat on Uncle Charlie’s box of provisions from Fort Defiance. He passed his hands over the anonymous packets but he didn’t move the box out of the chair. Instead he went to the back door of the house and opened it, and stepped down onto the dirt. He could hear Charlie and Ben talking out front, but he couldn’t catch the words. He stood and waited, listening as the sound of hooves began to wind up the hill.

He walked in the opposite direction, towards the corral where the horses stood. He didn’t have the heart to go riding but he went into the corral instead and stood there by the rough fence. One of the horses ambled over to him and nuzzled its nose against his side and he touched his hand to the coat, recognising the feel of Doggone’s thick, slick pelt. The horse whickered and curved its neck against his head. The cold pressed through his shirt at his back and the wind teased at his hair but his front was warm against the horse’s side.

There was an aching in his chest and he didn’t know what to do with it except for crying, but he held his lips tight and didn’t cry. Johnny was with his ma and pa now, and whatever wrongs he had done Ned didn’t have to face him with the knowledge of what he had become. He wouldn’t have to talk to him knowing that he had killed and stole and caused the deaths of all those men by running scared into the hands of the greys. Johnny was his big brother. He didn’t want to think of him like that. He didn’t want to see him small and tarnished.

‘You’re a good old horse,’ he murmured, combing his fingers through Doggone’s mane and scratching the hide underneath. There were no cattle and Ben was gone and Johnny had dropped out of life, but the horses were here at least, and Uncle Charlie was probably inside starting to cook up something for dinner. The ground was hard under his feet and the smell of dust was in the air and the noise of the wind buffeted from the high cliffs hereabout. The future felt like an open sea and he didn’t know where he was going to turn, but there were some certainties left to him.

Fort Defiance - Chapter 5

Ned stood still on the ground, listening to the sounds of the cattle and the Indians crying out around them. The noises grew fainter as they moved away behind the undulating land. All the cattle… They lost a cow now and then through theft or illness. Sometimes they gave one away. But all the cattle… That was their livelihood being herded away. Money was always scarce as it was, but what could they do without cattle?

Ben slipped off his horse and came to stand beside him, putting one hand on his arm in a wordless gesture of sympathy. Right now Ned didn’t know how to accept it. He wanted to be alone. He wanted to be right on top of one of the cliffs screaming at the sky with no one to see him or stop him.

He turned around, hiding his face against Doggone’s side, helplessness building into a wave inside him. He knew it would be no different even if he could see. He couldn’t take on twenty-five Indians with a gun. But in that moment he wanted to see so badly that the wanting burned through him and made his head giddy with need. The helplessness turned into anger and anger spurred him to movement.

He kept his hand tight about Doggone’s reins and with the other hand he flailed at Ben’s horse and shouted a wordless noise of anger. He heard the horse start away in fright and heard Ben’s shout of surprise and as Ben turned to go after his horse Ned mounted his own and kicked his heels into its flanks and shouted, ‘Hi-ya!’ with all the fury that he would not put into the kick.

Doggone skipped against the unaccustomed anger, and then he galloped. Ned tipped his head back and let his face catch the wind until his eyes were streaming with it. The pounding of Doggone’s hooves resounded up through the horse’s bones and body and into Ned’s body, jarring every inch of him with firm, ceaseless jolts.

Somewhere behind he heard Ben shouting, but he didn’t listen. He kicked the horse on again, faster, and let him run where he wanted, not knowing or caring where he was going. This pure, blessed freedom was all he wanted, with nothing but endless, invisible sky above him and dust whirling through the air and the sound of the pounding hooves sometimes echoing from rocks and sometimes travelling so far there was nothing to echo from. He let all thought jolt out of his mind and all anger jolt out of his body until his chest was an empty place that heaved with the movement of air.

Eventually the horse tired and slowed, and finally stopped. Ned let himself slump forward so he was bent over the animal’s mane, his arms about its neck. There was sweat streaking down its short, soft pelt. He could feel Doggone’s blood pulsing, slower than his own but fast for the horse. His own heart was beating against his ribs and against his clothes and through into the horse’s body, and suddenly the void made by the burnt away anger was filled again with a swelling helplessness.

He would not cry. Tallon men didn’t do that. He hadn’t even cried when he had woken from that beating by the Parker boys and found his clear sight turned to a dark and darkening mess.

He patted Doggone softly on the neck and murmured praise into his ear. He was a good horse.

‘Go on home, Doggone,’ he said gently. He felt as if all of the strength had been taken out of his lungs. He couldn’t muster a shout if he wanted to.


He rode back with his body still hugged over the horse’s neck and his arms clasped about it. He felt so tired he could not move. His bones ached under their shroud of flesh and clothes. Doggone walked slowly and quietly, but did not hesitate in his movements. He knew where he was going.

Finally the horse stopped and Ned sat for a while, eyes closed, listening. There was the wind hitting something solid nearby and cutting through the rails of a fence. They were the sounds of home. He slipped off Doggone’s back and cast about with his hand, keeping one hand on the reins to be sure the horse would not wander away. The back of his fingers hit wood with a sting and he ran his hand over it. The contours of the bar were as familiar as a face to him.

‘I’ll be darned if you haven’t taken me right back to the hitch rail,’ he murmured, looping the horse’s reins about the bar. He laid his arms over the wood and rested there. There was a tiredness in him that had nothing to do with riding.

‘Ned, you’re a goddamn fool sometimes.’

His head jerked up. Uncle Charlie was there behind him. He hadn’t even heard him come out. There was a clatter as Charlie moved as if he were carrying something metal.

‘I guess I can ride if I want to,’ Ned said, tilting his hat back straight on his head.

‘I guess you can, but you’re blind, Ned.’ There was a tremble of anger and spent fear in Charlie’s voice. ‘Ben’s been out two hours looking for you. He thought you’d gone after those Indians. What if that horse had thrown you?’

‘Doggone’s never thrown no one,’ Ned said, patting the horse’s neck. ‘And I wouldn’t have gone after the Indians. I’m not that much of a fool.’

He went to the well and hauled up a bucket of water to bring to the horse. Doggone dipped his head and drank as if he had been thirsty for days.

Charlie sighed. Then he clapped an arm around Ned’s shoulders and squeezed briefly but firmly. The scent of sweat and woodsmoke and tobacco rose up from his coat.

‘We’ll be all right, Ned,’ he said. ‘We’ll work it out. We’ve lost cattle before.’

‘The whole herd, Uncle Charlie,’ Ned said desperately.

‘Might be we get them back,’ Charlie said. ‘The army might – ’

Ned began to loosen the straps on Doggone’s saddle. The least he could do was give him a proper rub down after such a ride.

‘The army ain’t going to go out looking for our cattle,’ he said. ‘If we can just hold out until Johnny comes home, maybe we can buy some new stock, but – ’

He trailed off. The fear was growing in him day by day that Johnny didn’t want to come home, but he would not voice it aloud. That would make it real.

‘All right, Ned,’ Charlie said briskly, taking the saddle from him as he lifted it off Doggone’s sweat-chilled back. ‘Take care of that horse. I’ll try to let Ben know you’re back.’

He wandered away from the house and set up a banging of metal on metal. It sounded as if he were beating on the skillet with a ladle.

‘Ben!’ he shouted at the top of his lungs. ‘Ben Shelby!’

Ned turned back to the horse. He was ashamed for the worry he’d caused but he felt better for the long, pounding ride out alone with no one else to see his face. He felt better for the danger of it, and for coming home safely. He felt sometimes as if they were living on a cliff edge, always in danger of falling. It was good to remind himself of the certainty of his beating heart and his red blood and his solid bones.

He patted Doggone briefly and went to fetch the old pail of grooming equipment. As he stroked the stiff brush over the horse’s flanks the remnants of his anger and helplessness began to dissolve away. He smiled briefly to himself. Maybe if they couldn’t make money at anything else he could find a job somewhere grooming horses. He could tend to a horse just as well as any man with sight and he loved to be around the creatures.

‘Ben coming yet, Uncle Charlie?’ he asked, pausing in his brushing. Charlie had stopped banging the skillet.

‘Yeah, he’s just working down the slope,’ Charlie said. ‘I’ll – er – go and set the water boiling. You’ll both be parched.’

Ned stood still, listening, only his hand moving as he stroked Doggone’s sides in smooth, soft movements. He began to hear the noises of Ben’s horse and he waited in silence as he came weaving down the slope to the house.

Ben dismounted and stood without speaking for a moment at the hitch rail. Then he said, ‘What d’you do that for, Ned? Scare my horse away so I couldn’t go after you?’

Ned breathed out slowly, his hand on Doggone’s side, feeling the movements of his gut under the solid tent of his hide.

‘I guess I wanted to be alone,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry, Ben.’

‘Did you want to break your neck and die alone?’ Ben asked with the remnants of anger in his voice.

‘I didn’t think of dying,’ Ned said. ‘I wanted to feel like I was living.’

Ben clapped a hand onto his back and left it there. ‘You’re a fool, Ned,’ he said.

‘Uncle Charlie already told me that.’

‘Maybe you need telling twice.’

Ned pressed his hand over the horse’s pelt. It was smooth and glossy with brushing. There wasn’t much more he could do for him except put him in the corral and let him rest. He untied the reins from the hitch rail and began to lead the horse towards the corral – or the horse led him. Doggone knew where he was going well enough.

Ben walked alongside him, close enough to bump against his arm. The air was cold around them but Ben’s coat was colder and it smelt of sagebrush and tobacco, of his horse and of fresh, dusty air.

‘You want to talk it out, Ned?’ he asked.

‘There ain’t much to talk about,’ Ned said.

‘There’s something,’ Ben said. ‘A man don’t go off like that unless he’s got something churning inside.’

‘All our cattle are gone,’ Ned said bitterly. ‘Ain’t that enough?’’

‘You’ll get more cattle. It’s not just that.’

‘Maybe… A feller gets scared, Ben,’ he admitted, turning to the corral gate and running his hands over the latch. He didn’t want Ben watching his face. He let Doggone into the corral and let him run loose.

‘All men get scared.’

Ned smiled dryly, and nodded, but the fear was still tight inside him.

‘All this time the Indians’ve been our friends,’ he said. ‘Now they hate us just like any other white men. They’d as soon kill us. What if Johnny don’t come home and Uncle Charlie gets killed out on the range? Who’d take on the burden of a fellow like me? I ain’t no use to no one.’

‘That ain’t true, Ned,’ Ben said quickly. ‘You’re plenty of use on the ranch.’

‘I can’t ranch on my own.’

‘That don’t mean nothing. No man runs a ranch without help sometimes.’

‘Yeah,’ Ned said slowly. It was easy for Ben to say that, but Uncle Charlie was getting old, and the Indians were mad at all white men, and what if Johnny didn’t come home?

‘Come inside, Ned, and stop dwelling on what can’t be changed,’ Ben told him, catching at his arm as he turned from the corral gate. ‘You still got the hog and you’ve got a sack of cornmeal and you’ve got some money in your pocket. You’ll last until you can get more cattle, and I reckon Uncle Charlie’s going to outlive the both of us – specially if you keep on riding like that.’

‘Maybe so,’ Ned said with a short laugh, trying to turn his mind round to the positives. He stood in the quiet open space with Ben’s hand on his arm and tilted his head upwards towards the sky. The wind brushed at his face in the way that it did when the temperature changed with nightfall. ‘Is it dark yet, Ben?’

‘Not yet. Getting that way – getting kinda purple about the edges.’

Ned laughed again. ‘I know what you mean,’ he said, beginning to walk on again.

He didn’t have to think about where he was walking because Ben’s hand was on his arm, and he didn’t have to worry about the burden of most of the chores on Uncle Charlie because Ben helped out. The last few weeks with Ben here had been more fun than all the time since Johnny had left for the war. Ben had been a boon to the ranch. And Johnny would come home before Christmas, and Johnny would buy cattle.


Night crept around the house like a soft, loving thing, settling silence over the land, sending the birds to their roosts and animals back to their shelters. The stove ticked and pumped heat out into the air in the house, and tobacco smoke curled in and out of Ned’s lungs with each breath. But there was a difference in the land outside the house. The Indians were no longer friends. There was a silent menace somewhere in the quiet depths of the night.

‘Ned, how about some music?’ Charlie said, breaking the silence. ‘You ain’t brought out that fiddle lately.’

‘You play the fiddle, Ned?’ Ben asked in surprise, his chair creaking as he turned to look at him.

‘Some,’ Ned said, shaking his head. He felt under his bed and drew out the polished wooden case. ‘It was my pa’s. He taught me some, but he died before I could learn it all.’

‘He’s better than he thinks,’ Charlie said in a low voice, leaning close to Ben. ‘Go on, Ned. It’s a good skill. You ought to practice.’

Ned ran his tongue over his lips, reading the unspoken addendum to that statement. His fiddle playing could be useful if he was left alone with no other means of earning money. But Charlie was right. He took the instrument out of the box and touched the strings lightly. It needed tuning, but that was no surprise. He rubbed rosin onto the bow and tuned it and then lifted it again to his chin and began to play. Charlie’s accordion wailed and then came in to partner his playing, and the music drove out the silence outside.

‘Don’t bow it so hard,’ Charlie said above the music, and Ned relaxed his grip on the bow. He was letting tension spill over into his playing.

‘Better, Uncle Charlie?’ he asked.

‘Your pa’d be proud of you,’ Charlie smiled.

Ned smiled silently.

‘Uncle Charlie, do you think we’ll get them cattle back?’ he asked finally, setting the fiddle back down.

‘Not those ones, Ned, no,’ Charlie said honestly. ‘But we’ll be all right. Your pa and me started out from nothing when we first came here, built this house with our own hands right here on the ground, built up the herd from a handful of heifers. We can do that again.’

Ned nodded. He packed the fiddle back into its case and slipped it back under the bed.

‘I’m bone tired,’ he said. ‘You mind if I bed down for the night?’

‘Go ahead, Ned,’ Charlie nodded. ‘I’ll see to the horses.’

Ned stripped down to his long underwear and buried himself under the blankets and the nine-patch quilt. The ropes creaked under the straw tick as he moved and he settled himself down into the softness. But he couldn’t sleep. He lay turned toward the wall, listening to Ben and Uncle Charlie moving quietly about the place. After a few minutes the door banged and then he heard the soft snickering of the horses as Ben or Charlie gave them their feed and saw that the corral was secure. And then they came back in again, talking quietly. Ned lay still with his eyes closed and his hand under his cheek, listening.

‘He’ll be all right,’ Ben was saying as he walked across the room. He sat down and started to unlace his boots. The laces made a slipping noise as he pulled them loose and the ends tapped on the floor. ‘He don’t think, sometimes, but I’ve never known anyone as strong or stubborn.’

‘Yeah, maybe,’ Uncle Charlie said. ‘But I’m an old man, Ben, and Ned can’t see. There ain’t no future for him out here without help. Soon as Johnny comes home he’ll sort this place out, but – ’

‘You really believe Johnny’s coming home?’ Ben asked.

Charlie was silent. Then he sighed and sat down and said, ‘I don’t know, Ben. I don’t know if he is. And I don’t know what Ned’s gonna do if he don’t.’

Ned clenched his fists under the blankets where Ben and Charlie couldn’t see the movement. Johnny would come home. Sure, Johnny had always been restless. He’d always been in some trouble or other. But Johnny had promised him before he left for the war that he’d come through alive and come home. He’d promised that they’d live on the ranch together and build this place up until it was the best in the country. Johnny didn’t promise things that he couldn’t do. He never did.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Fort Defiance - Chapter 4

‘Oh man…’

Ned rolled over and pulled his blanket over his head. The cloth caught awkwardly on something and he fumbled with his hand to feel his hat still pressed down on his head. He pushed it off blearily. His skin felt tight over his forehead and cheekbones, his skull throbbing with a headache that seemed to reach all the way down into his spine and shoulders.

There was a clattering nearby of a pan on the stove top and the smell of pork fat and pancakes and coffee was thick in the air. It was all he could do to not be sick.

A hand touched his shoulder through the blanket and shook him with gentle firmness.

‘Wake up, Ned.’

‘Is it morning, Ben?’ he asked, finally pushing the blanket away and sitting up, stiff in his coat and clothes. Someone had taken his boots off, but otherwise he was dressed just as he had been when he had fallen into bed.

‘Near as damn it afternoon,’ Ben said, moving away and rattling the pan on the stove again. ‘Your Uncle Charlie’s gone back to the Fort to pick up that stuff we forgot. I think he’s sore at me for getting you so drunk.’

‘Ah, it weren’t your fault, Ben. I’m a grown man,’ Ned said, swinging his legs over the side of the bed and then stopping with a grimace as his head throbbed. His tongue felt like a dead thing in his mouth.

‘Some coffee help?’ Ben asked, clattering the coffee pot against a mug as he poured.

‘Yeah, thanks,’ Ned said, taking the mug and letting the hot, rich drink soak into the insides of his mouth and throat. ‘Oh, man, it’s been a while since I felt this bad.’

He sat silent for a while, just drinking and listening to the ticking of the stove and the quiet all around and letting the pulsing of blood through his temples calm to a dull throb. He winced and pressed his lips together as Ben clattered the pan on the stove again, humming cheerfully as if he had done no more last night than sit and smoke tobacco.

‘How come you ain’t feeling it?’ Ned asked him, rubbing the scratching grit of sleep out of his eyes with his hand.

‘I’ve been up longer than you. I felt it, believe me, specially when your Uncle Charlie was banging about the place getting ready to go out. Thought for a minute you might be dead, the way you slept through it.’

Ned laughed quietly. ‘You get used to Uncle Charlie’s racket after a while. He says I’d sleep clear through a tornado.’

‘You got any appetite yet?’

‘Not yet. Maybe in a while.’

‘You feel clear enough to get out on the range later?’

‘Yeah, I will,’ he nodded. ‘Soon as I get enough coffee in me.’

‘Good. Charlie thought he saw a heifer limping out there yesterday but he couldn’t get a rope on her. I want to see she’s all right, and I may be better with the lasso than you, but you’re mighty good at calming a scared cow.’

‘Ah, I just talk to them, is all,’ Ned said dismissively. ‘They know not to be scared if you talk real gentle.’

‘Some folks ain’t so good at talking.’

Ned set his coffee down just under the edge of the bed and stood unsteadily.

‘You all right, Ned?’ Ben asked, catching his arm.

‘Yeah,’ he said.

He went to the back door and opened it. The air was biting cold on his face, making his scalp tighten again in a sharp, all over ache. Fall was turning steadily into winter and these dry, clear skies and the leafless land did nothing to preserve the warmth. The dirt was soft and stinging cold under his bare feet as he stepped down onto the ground.

He stepped along the wall a little way with his hand on the stones and then peed on the ground, feeling a glorious creeping relief as he emptied his bladder. Heat and an animal scent rose up from the dirt.

He walked around the house then to the well and drew up a bucket of water, cold and fresh from deep in the earth. He drank and sluiced his face in it and then took off his coat and shirt and splashed the water over his chest and back. It was biting cold but it felt good and fresh after sleeping in his clothes. He raised his face to the sky and let cold water drip from his hair onto his back, happy despite the headache. This was a good, clean place, so much better than the crowded town with its fleeting pleasures. He held a map of this place in his head and could visualise the jumbled stone walls and the crooked fences and the lines of the cliffs against the sky. Nothing ever changed here.

The door opened behind him and Ben called, ‘Ned, you ready to eat?’

He used his shirt to rub some of the cold water from his hair and face and turned back to the house.

‘Yeah, I’m ready.’

‘Ain’t nothing better than coffee and cold water after drinking that much whiskey,’ Ben said as Ned came back into the warmth inside. ‘I put your coffee on the table. There’s a heap of pancakes on there too. You’d better get eating. We’ve got work to do.’


It was a little warmer outside after noon, but not much. Ned’s fingers were cold and fumbling and he was looking forward to being able to slip them into Doggone’s mane as he rode to share some of the horse’s heat. Old Doggone stood patiently by the hitch rail as Ned felt for the saddle blanket.

‘Ah, this Doggone sure is a good horse,’ he said, feeling his way along the horse’s neck to his smooth, wide back. ‘Don’t need no lead rope with him.’

He spread out the saddle blanket, smoothing out the rucks with his palms.

‘I wonder why you ain’t got no word from Johnny,’ Ben said slowly, starting to saddle up his own horse. ‘It’s way past the time you’re supposed to be hearing it.’

‘Yeah. I wonder what’s holding him,’ Ned mused. Sometimes it seemed like Johnny didn’t want to come home. He’d been free to come back for months now and he still hadn’t managed to find the time. ‘He sure will be grateful to you when he gets here though, Ben.’

‘Can’t tell,’ Ben said shortly.

‘For sure he will,’ Ned insisted, grabbing the saddle in both hands and slipping it onto Doggone’s back. ‘You know Johnny. He’d be glad to see a friend of his.’

‘I reckon he will,’ Ben said, but he still sounded pensive and distracted.

Ned had a vague memory of Ben last night wanting to talk more about the lack of a letter from Johnny than the letter he had got from his wife, but most of last night was such a blur to him that he couldn’t recall clearly what had been said. Maybe it was just the lingering sickness from the whiskey that was dampening Ben’s mood. Ned felt bright and fresh now after almost a pint of coffee and a belly full of pancakes, but Ben had been up longer and maybe it was catching up with him again.

‘Uncle Charlie says for the first time in months we ain’t had nothing whittled off our herd. Says you been a big help, Ben,’ Ned said, hoping to boost Ben’s mood.

‘Well, it ain’t me,’ Ben said diffidently. ‘It’s the gun that helps.’

Ned laughed. ‘It’s the way you sling that gun. Uncle Charlie says you may be near as fast as Johnny is.’

‘Could be.’

‘Course, I ain’t never seen you draw, but, oh man, I can remember Johnny,’ Ned said, filling up with nostalgia. ‘Them guns’d come out of their holsters faster than a snake’s forked tongue. Twice as nasty.’

He remembered the sunlight glinting on Johnny’s guns as he slipped them up from his hip and readied them for firing. Johnny always seemed taller than him in memory and Ned always seemed to be looking upwards at what he was doing. He’d never been able to draw as slickly as Johnny had, no matter how long Johnny had spent teaching him.

He could hear Johnny’s voice in his head. Draw and shoot, draw and shoot, Ned. Do it real smooth. Aim in your mind before you even get em out the holster. That way you won’t have to wait before you kill the bastards.

Johnny was the best sharp shooter in this part of Arizona. No wonder he had come through the war alive and with all those honours he’d written home about.

Ned rested his arms on the saddle a moment, moving his fingers over the smooth contours of the stirrup.

‘Ben, was you there when General Sheridan gave him all them medals, made that speech saying how proud he was to have Johnny in his command?’ he asked. He felt fleetingly envious of all that time Ben must have spent with Johnny while Ned had been back here on the ranch.

‘I reckon I was somewhere about,’ Ben murmured.

‘Were you there when Mr Lincoln shook his hand?’

‘I don’t think so.’

‘You got any brothers, Ben?’ Ned asked curiously as Ben walked his horse over toward him.

‘Did have one.’

‘Did have?’ He paused momentarily with his hands on the straps. ‘Younger or older?’


‘What happened to your brother?’

‘Got killed in the war,’ Ben said simply.

‘Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,’ Ned said, sobered by that statement.

No matter how far away Johnny was, at least he was alive. He had come through the war and was free to roam about the country wherever he liked. Ben’s brother was cold and still, maybe buried somewhere far away, maybe never even found to be buried. Thank God, Johnny was alive…

He finished tacking up the horse in silence. It was hard to know what to say to Ben after that. He remembered Dan Walker yesterday, and how Ben had said that some folks were eaten up by war. He couldn’t imagine the things that Ben must have seen and the way he must have felt, and the things that all those thousands of young men across the country had seen and felt. No wonder Ben was happy to be stopping here, away from all of that horror and fighting and anything associated with it.

He slipped his foot into the stirrup and mounted Doggone in one swift movement.

‘Oh, man, I sure wish Johnny was here.’

Ben mounted his own horse. ‘So do I,’ he said, kicking his horse to a slow walk.

Doggone followed with almost no prompting, and finally Ned pushed a hand under the horse’s mane, letting his fingers warm while the ground was steady and predictable. Johnny may not be here, but having Ben was just as good, or maybe more so. He hadn’t ridden out on the range so much, and with so much useful purpose, in years, but Ben was always willing and eager to have him ride alongside. He felt needed, and being needed was a wonderful thing.


Cows smelt different to horses. Less clean, somehow. They were a deal more stupid, too. Ned stood with his hands on the rough rope halter that Ben had made of his lasso as the cow snorted and mooed gently in a soft, scared way. He rubbed his hand over the animal’s muzzle and felt the wet slime of its nose under his palm. The cow jerked its head and he murmured to it, scratching his fingers now into the hair above its eyes, digging hard against the thick, resilient skull in the rough way cows liked so much. Ben was at the back end of it, and the last thing he wanted was for the heifer to panic and kick.

‘You see anything, Ben?’ he asked, raising his voice.

‘Not much,’ Ben said shortly. Ned could hear him scraping at the cow’s hoof with a pick. ‘Nothing up in the hoof. Maybe she twisted it. She don’t seem so bad now. Think we should let her loose and see how she goes.’

‘Just let me know when,’ Ned said, digging his fingers under the halter to loosen it a little.

‘Yeah, go on, Ned,’ Ben said, straightening up. ‘I’m out of the way.’

Ned loosed the rope and heard Ben slap the heifer firmly on the behind. She shifted nervously, and then began to run.

‘Yeah, she’ll be fine,’ Ben said, coming to stand beside Ned as the heifer lolloped back over the rocky ground to the rest of the herd. ‘Still limping some, but I don’t reckon it’s bothering her much. She can run just fine.’

Ned stood and listened. He could barely tell that the cow was limping – there was just the slightest falter in the sound of her hooves on the dirt. As she reached the herd some of the other cows lowed and she echoed their greeting back at them.

‘That’s a grateful cow,’ Ned grinned.

‘Grateful we let her go,’ Ben said. ‘She’s too stupid to be grateful we caught her and checked her over.’

‘Yeah, there ain’t too much brains between them,’ Ned nodded.

‘You all right there for a minute, Ned?’ Ben asked. ‘I’ll ride up onto the ridge a moment where I can see the herd better. I want to count ’em – be sure we’re not losing any of your Uncle Charlie’s stock.’

‘Oh, sure,’ Ned nodded.

Ben caught his coat sleeve and walked with him back to the horses.

‘There’s your horse, Ned. I won’t be long.’

Ned took the thin leather of the reins as Ben handed them to him and felt his way up to Doggone’s muzzle. The horse snickered and blew hot breath into his palms.

Ned stood still and listened to his surroundings. Ben had said that the herd was down in a shallow valley and he could hear the way their lowing was constrained by the hills and rocks around. Some of the cliffs around here rose for what seemed like miles into the sky, making hard, sheer faces for the sounds to echo from. He remembered looking up at them in awe when he was younger, his head tilting back until he almost fell over. They looked like the old cathedrals he saw in books at school, only bigger and somehow more sacred because they were made by God out of one huge stone instead of by many stones and men’s hands. Creation was such a powerful and beautiful thing and the work of men could hardly approach it in wonder.

He shuffled his feet just to make some noise that was closer to him than those cows and the echoes of their noise. The world was very big and far away from his hands, the cliffs too huge to grasp and the sky too wide above him. If he were alone out here he wouldn’t know where to turn to get home. Doggone was staid and quiet and seemed insignificant against the open space, but the horse’s eyes were invaluable to him out here.

Somewhere above him he could hear the coarse, guttural cry of a condor in flight. And then, louder than the bird but faint behind the noise of the cattle he heard the clattering sound of horses’ hooves.

‘Ben?’ he called. ‘Oh, Ben?’

He heard the shuffle of a horse turning and the light musical sound of the metal in the bridle as Ben rode his horse back down the slope.

‘There’s a bunch of riders coming this way,’ he said as Ben stopped beside him.

‘Yeah,’ Ben said after a moment. ‘Indians.’

‘How many of ’em are there?’ Ned asked tensely. The sound was of hoof-falls overlaying hoof-falls, too many for him to separate.

Ben was quiet for a moment, counting. ‘Looks like about twenty five.’

‘I wonder why so many.’

‘They’re rounding up the cattle,’ Ben said in surprise. ‘Looks like they’re gonna take the whole herd.’

Ned frowned in confusion. It didn’t sound right.

‘We always gave them a few cattle for nothing, just to stay friendly,’ he said. He couldn’t imagine a reason for the Indians rounding up the cattle but to take them away, and he couldn’t think of a reason for the Indians to take them away.

He heard the click of Ben’s gun as he slid it out of the holster and he snapped quickly, ‘Hey, don’t do it, Ben! I know them, they know me. Let me handle it.’

One of the horses separated from the others and cantered closer and Ned exhaled in relief as he heard Ben slip his gun away. Ben was a good shot, but he couldn’t take on twenty-five Indians with rifles.

The horse slewed to a halt in front of them and the rider spoke clear and loud above the sound of the cattle.

‘Because you are with him, we did not kill you. But you move with gun again, we will.’

‘Brave Bear?’ Ned asked, almost certain of that deep, solid voice.

‘It is Brave Bear who speaks.’

Ned relaxed a small amount. He had spoken with Brave Bear many times – even sat with him outside the house once smoking and talking about cattle as if he were just another one of the ranchers hereabout. He had no quarrel with Brave Bear.

‘Brave Bear, this man is my good friend,’ he said, gesturing towards Ben. ‘He’s my brother’s good friend. Now, I give you my word he won’t harm any Indians. What is it you want?’

‘We want all cattle,’ Brave Bear said in a loud, firm voice.

All?’ Ned echoed, puzzlement washing over him. ‘We’ve always given the Indians cattle when they needed it. We’ve always been good friends. To take all my cattle is not the act of a friend.’

‘Indian can have no white friends,’ Brave Bear said with a ring of finality.

‘Why? We’ve proved we were!’

‘We will take all your cattle, because we need them. Do not try to stop us, because you will be killed.’

Ned held himself very still. He didn’t know what to think. Those cattle were their livelihood. But there was nothing he could do. Even if he had perfect sight and a gun at his hip, he and Ben would have no chance of stopping so many men from taking the cattle. He listened to the sound as Brave Bear pulled his horse about and cantered away and then as the rest of the Indians gathered about the herd, whooping and crying to move the cattle on. The cattle lowed in protest, but he could hear them beginning to run like the horses.

‘Ben?’ Ned asked quietly.

‘Yeah, Ned.’

‘They didn’t do it, did they, Ben?’ he asked in disbelief. ‘Brave Bear’s English ain’t so good. Maybe he meant – ’

‘He meant all the cattle,’ Ben said in a hard voice. ‘They’ve taken the herd, Ned, every last one of them.’