Thursday, 8 September 2011
Fort Defiance - Chapter 2
Ben grew to be a comfortable presence in the house with remarkable swiftness. There was something right about sitting by the stove in the evening with Ben there a few feet away and Uncle Charlie sitting nearby darning a worn-through sock or mending some piece of tack or whittling at a piece of wood. It reminded Ned of the evenings before Johnny had gone to war. Ben was quieter, perhaps, than Johnny. He was less restless – but then Ben had a wife. Ned couldn’t imagine Johnny ever coming home with a wife. He enjoyed being a bachelor too much. The Arizona Tallons would maybe end with him and Johnny.
Ned thought about that as he sat in the shallow wash tub before the heat of the stove, a blanket strung up between him and the rest of the room, swiftly scooping the water over his limbs and torso. The Tallons didn’t get to a lot of praying on Sundays like they had when Ned’s ma was still around, but they did still take their baths on Saturdays, religiously, so to speak. Ben had been here for almost two weeks and he’d settled right in, even down to taking his turn in the wash tub on Saturday night and then sitting afterwards, drying off and smoking, just like Johnny used to do.
Ned could smell Ben’s tobacco smoke drifting through the air, pulled by the draught of the stove. Ben smoked a different brand to him and Uncle Charlie, and the smells mingled together as they drifted past him, the familiar and the new entwined. It gave Ned a moment’s feeling of being in the saloon in Fort Defiance, where at least five different tobacco blends always hung in the air – but that was always mixed up with the smell of liquor and sweat and men’s boots. Here it was just mixed with the fading scent of salt pork and sour dough and the smoke from the stove.
Ned always scrubbed hard in the tub because he couldn’t see the dirt that must be on him after a week of working and riding. Back when he could see, the water had always had a faint red hue after his bathing from the red dirt that settled on him whenever a horse’s hooves stirred up the ground. He used to sit in the shallow water, fascinated at the change in colour, watching the droplets glinting in the lamplight as they ran down his body. Uncle Charlie had always hassled him for taking too long. He couldn’t see the droplets of water any more, but he still sat too long in the tub, thinking, and Charlie still hassled him to hurry up.
‘You almost done, Ned?’ Uncle Charlie called, close by the screen.
He scooped the water over his head and felt his hair flatten to his scalp. Johnny had told him that somewhere in between the gold strands of his hair was the thin white scar from the Parker boys’ beating. He couldn’t feel it at all, even when his hair was dry and light on his head. There were no scars on him but that one, Johnny had told him – that one, and whatever scar or damage had been left inside his eyes after the blow that had left him out cold for days.
‘Yeah,’ he said, feeling on the chair beside the tub for the towel.
He stood up tall in the fire’s heat, rubbing the water out of his hair and letting the stove do the rest of the drying.
‘Good, cause my water’d be boiling over if you sat there much longer,’ Charlie complained amiably. ‘Give me that towel, Ned – I’ll hang it up to dry.’
Ned handed over the towel and felt on the chair for his long underwear, taking good care as always not to brush the stove with his naked flank as he reached over. He had gained enough small, agonising burns in the first months of his blindness to teach him to always be respectful of the stove’s power.
‘I’ll throw out your water. You go’n have a good jaw with Shelby,’ Charlie instructed Ned firmly as he pulled on the knit underwear. ‘I’d sure like to think you two have got more to do than listen to an old man scrub his – Well…’
‘Come on, Ned,’ Ben said, thrusting cloth into his hands. Ned felt over it, and recognised it was his pants and shirt. ‘Get those on, and let’s go check on the cattle. I thought I heard a wolf howling before.’
‘Ah, that was a long ways off,’ Ned shrugged. The evening heat was rising around him and the air felt thick and comforting. He didn’t feel like going out into the fall cold, but he started to sort out the bundled clothes in his hands anyway. ‘Ain’t it dark out, Ben?’
‘Yeah, just about,’ Ben told him. ‘But it don’t bother you. Don’t see why it should bother me, either. Tell you what – I’ll finish up oiling my gun and I’ll roll us some cigarettes. You saddle up the horses. May as well each do what we’re good at.’
‘All right, Ben,’ Ned nodded, pushing the small buttons through the eyeholes of his shirt one by one.
There was something about Ben. Ned didn’t like to think bad of Johnny, but Ben always let him play to his strengths. He trusted Ned to be able to do what he needed to do. Johnny always took things out of Ned’s hands and did them himself, like he was impatient or untrusting of Ned’s ability, while Ben stood back and talked slow and waited for Ned to finish each task on his own.
He pulled on his coat and opened the door. The air outside was cold in his still-damp hair. He reached and took his hat from the peg, and then went to fetch the saddles, first his, and then Ben’s. Ben’s horse wasn’t as staid as old Doggone but he still stood patiently enough while Ned hefted the saddle onto his back and started to sort out the stirrups and the girth. His body was warm and solid against Ned’s hand, and he could hear the rumblings of digestion going on inside. Maybe the horse had been expecting a quiet night munching on hay and standing about the corral. But Ben was right – there was a wolf somewhere howling, closer than it had been before. It was a good idea to go check on the stock.
The canyons were quiet at first with that night time stillness that seemed to press down over the land. The sound of the horses' hooves echoed from the hard cliffs, coming back clear through the dry, still air. Even the creaking of the saddles sounded loud against the wordless night. It seemed to Ned like the only things alive in the world were the men and their horses, and that wolf somewhere, crying to the sky.
‘It’s cold,’ Ned said.
‘It’s close on cloudless,’ Ben said in reply. ‘Moon looks like a silver dollar balancing on top of them cliffs. Looks so close I could touch it.’
‘I ain’t seen a silver dollar in a long time,’ Ned laughed. ‘I can picture it, though.’
‘It’s light as day, almost,’ Ben said as the horses picked their way forward over the rough ground. ‘I guess Jane’s maybe looking up at that same moon,’ he added after a spell of silence.
‘I guess so,’ Ned smiled. ‘You miss her, Ben?’
‘Of course I miss her,’ Ben said gruffly. ‘A man starts to depend on having a woman around. Half us were half crazy when we was fighting, all them men corralled together and in the mood for killing, and not a woman around to ease their troubles.’
‘Johnny wrote there was public women about the camps like flies on a wound,’ Ned said, feeling the horse shift and shift back again as it rounded one of the outcrops of rock that littered the ground hereabouts. A smell of sagebrush rose into the air as the horse pushed past a bush.
‘Yeah, there was women enough of that kind,’ Ben said darkly. ‘I went with one once.’
‘Yeah? Oh, man…’ Ned half laughed. He wasn’t sure what else to say. He felt suddenly hot and awkward despite the cold night around him. ‘Was she nice?’ he asked finally.
‘Nah, she was sharp as flint and rough as a bar room floor, and stank of liquor too,’ Ben said shortly, kicking the horse on to a trot for a moment as if he wanted to shake the thought out of his mind. ‘I ain’t never doing that again. T’ain’t worth the bother.’
‘Maybe them kinda women are different, but I never thought of girls as bother,’ Ned said with a distracted smile. ‘I don’t know – I like just the smell of them, the sound of their skirts brushing on the floor.’
‘You even been with a woman, Ned?’ Shelby asked curiously.
‘Yeah, once,’ Ned said with a soft smile, remembering that time. ‘Been going with Nellie Carlton for a while and we went out in her pa’s barn when her ma and pa was away. I was so scared I thought I wasn’t going to be able to do it… She said if anything came of it I’d have to marry her, but nothing did and then I lost my sight. She – didn’t talk to me after that.’
‘Johnny said she was a deal too pretty for me,’ he laughed quietly. ‘She had ringlets looked like fresh wood shavings – you know that gold you get when you plane down pine?’
‘Yeah, I know,’ Ben nodded.
‘Funny thing is, I don’t remember so much about how she looked then. I just remember the smell of her. She had a real pretty smell, and the hay all about her. I can’t smell hay without thinking about that time.’
They rode on for a while through the cold, quiet land. A kind of barking howl set off to the left of them as the horses walked down another slope and Ned heard Ben hefting the rifle he had borrowed from Uncle Charlie.
‘Coyote,’ Ned said, shaking his head. ‘I bet you can’t get a sight on it, anyhow. It’s behind something.’
‘You’re right,’ Ben said slowly, letting the horse move cautiously sideways towards the noise. ‘Think it’s in them bluffs over there. Was that what we heard before?’
‘No, that was a wolf,’ Ned said decisively. ‘Listen, Ben.’
There was a howl much closer to them then, different in timbre to the coyote’s sound.
‘That’s a wolf,’ Ned said as his horse moved nervously sideways. ‘Can you see the cattle?’
‘Yeah, they’re down there, huddled together,’ Ben said. He hefted the rifle again, and this time he did not lower it. ‘There more than one, you think?’
‘Could be. I don’t know,’ Ned said honestly.
A shot rang out somewhere ahead and Ned’s grip tightened on the reins. He sat motionless on the horse’s back, listening keenly as another horse somewhere moved forward at a trot.
‘Indian pony,’ he murmured. ‘An Indian shot that wolf.’
‘An Indian protecting your cattle?’ Ben asked with some surprise.
Ned shrugged. ‘Maybe. We’ve always shared some stock with the Indians. Maybe he’s protecting his own people. He’s gonna take that wolf for the fur.’ He laughed. ‘I sure wish I could get my hands on it. I’d like to have me a wolf skin for my bed over winter.’
‘Well,’ Ben murmured. ‘Maybe I can shoot you another for a blanket – or would you prefer a hat and slippers?’
Ned laughed, but then he shook his head. ‘No – they’ll move on. Wolves ain’t stupid.’
There was an uneasy silence in the air, broken only by the small, restless movements of the cattle and the sound of the un-shod Indian pony being ridden up out of the canyon. Ned listened, but he heard no other signs either of wolves or Indians.
‘We may as well get on home, Ned,’ Ben said finally. ‘There’s nothing else we can do here.’
Uncle Charlie was sitting in the heat of the fire when they got back, the wash tub emptied out and the blanket taken down. He was playing a slow tune on the accordion his pa had brought over from the old country and the music filled the house like something sweet and mournful all mingled together. Ned took his place in his chair and let the words of each verse drift out as Charlie played, until the song was finished and Charlie set the instrument down.
‘I guess you didn’t get that wolf?’ he asked.
Ned shook his head. ‘Nah. Ben would have, but an Indian got it first.’
‘Those Indians are pretty busy these days, ain’t they?’ Charlie commented, and Ned laughed.
‘I guess it’s their land too. I ain’t going to fight with them if they don’t want to fight with me. And there ain’t no wolf bothering our cattle now.’
Some of the ranchers hereabout liked to pick fights with the Indians and drive them out of their land and take shots at them for sport. Ned saw no sense in that. It was better to be friendly and to share what they could. It was no fun having things taken away from you, and he sure didn’t feel any need to keep going and taking things away from the Indians that had lived here since time began.
‘I guess so,’ Charlie said slowly. He didn’t take so easily to Indians on his land – but then, Ned had grown up alongside the Indians, and Charlie hadn’t.
‘Besides, Brave Bear’s a good man,’ Ned shrugged. He felt in his pocket for his pouch and papers and began to roll himself a cigarette. ‘He’s never done us any harm. Helped us out a few times, too.’
‘Things are changing,’ Ben murmured from his seat opposite Ned. He was rolling his own cigarette. ‘Let me light that for you, Ned,’ he said.
‘I been hearing rumours that the Indians are going to be moved on pretty soon,’ Ben said as he lit the cigarette on the stove and handed it back to Ned.
Ned drew the hot, rich smoke into his lungs, and exhaled slowly.
‘Ah, they’re fine long as you don’t bother them,’ he said. ‘There’s no call for moving them on.’
‘It not up to us. It’s up to the good folks in Washington,’ Ben pointed out. ‘I was thinking of going into Fort Defiance on Monday, see if there’s a letter from Jane. Might hear more about the Indians then. You want to come, Ned?’
‘Sure,’ Ned grinned, straightening up in the chair. ‘Uncle Charlie won’t go less we’re scraping the bottom of the salt barrel or the coffee’s down to a handful of beans.’
‘Ah, I don’t like nattering with strangers like you do, Ned,’ Charlie said dismissively. ‘I’d rather be out on the range than hemmed in by town-folk.’
‘Maybe there’ll be a letter from Johnny,’ Ned said brightly, full of anticipation. ‘He said he’d write soon.’
‘Soon for Johnny’s never so soon as it is for other folk,’ Charlie said laconically. ‘He’ll write when he writes.’
‘You’d tell me if there was news, wouldn’t you, Uncle Charlie?’ Ned asked with a sudden upsurge of uncertainty. All of his news of Johnny was filtered through Charlie, and although Ned trusted him he also knew that Charlie was protective of him. Sometimes when he read the letters Ned heard the smallest of pauses, as if Charlie was figuring what to say and what to leave out.
‘Yeah, I’d tell you, Ned,’ Charlie said firmly. ‘He just ain’t bothered to pick up a pen – that’s all.’
‘I guess so,’ Ned nodded.
He stretched out his legs toward the fire, feeling the heat creeping into the cloth of his pants. It was quiet now outside. Even the coyotes had stopped their noise. The smell of tobacco and wood smoke wreathed through the air, and just for now the world felt perfect, even with Johnny gone.