Thursday, 15 September 2011

Fort Defiance - Chapter 3

[A.N. Drunk Ned is fun. *titter*]

The Fort was always a place of hubbub after the predictable and natural sounds of the canyons about the Tallon ranch. Ned saw it in his mind as it had been four years ago, but there was no doubt it had changed some in that time. He heard the sounds of the place growing bigger most times he visited – nails being pounded into lumber as board houses went up, new and varied accents on Main Street. Time had been that everyone knew him, for good or for bad, in Fort Defiance. These days there were more new folks than old as everyone pushed west in search of more room or more money or just the sight of new land.

The old post office felt the same as always, though. Same scent of aged wood and dust and paper, same sounds, same voices behind the counter even if some of the men asking for letters were strangers.

‘No, there’s no letter from Johnny, I’m sorry,’ Mr Laughton said, putting his hands down flat on the counter with a soft sound. ‘Nothing at all for you Tallons.’

‘Fine, Mr Laughton. Thanks,’ Ned said with a slow nod, trying not to let the disappointment crowd out his good mood at being in town. ‘Next time, maybe.’

‘Maybe,’ Laughton nodded, but the doubt in his voice was quite obvious. ‘How have you been, young Edward?’ he asked, beginning to shuffle papers on the counter while he talked. ‘Mrs Laughton was asking after you. Don’t see you in town often these days.’

Mrs Laughton had been the school teacher, back when she was still Miss Olson. Ned remembered her as always kind, despite the fact that when she tried to teach him he sat with his eyes roaming about the classroom, looking at anything but his slate and books. She had told him once that his inquisitive mind made up in some part for his lack of application. He closed his hands instinctively as he remembered all the times she had had to switch him for not learning his lessons.

‘I’m doing just fine, Mr Laughton,’ he smiled. ‘Ranch keeps me busy, is all.’

‘Sure it does, Ned,’ Mr Laughton said in a quiet voice.

The silence swelled and filled the room – and then Ben broke it by saying, ‘Don’t suppose there’s a letter for me there? Name’s Shelby.’

‘Ah, yes, Mr Shelby,’ Mr Laughton said, turning away from the counter towards the high ranks of pigeon holes that covered the back wall. ‘Something came in for you Friday, I’m certain of it. Yes, here it is.’

‘Is it from Jane, Ben?’ Ned asked with a flash of joy. Ben had been waiting on this letter with such eagerness.

‘Yeah, it’s from Jane,’ he said. There was a rustle of paper as he slipped the letter into his pocket. ‘You excuse me for a moment, Ned?’

‘Oh, sure,’ he nodded. He turned back to the counter as Ben wandered away. ‘They putting up more houses behind Main Street?’ he asked Mr Laughton.

‘Yes, one or five,’ Laughton said with a short laugh. ‘The lumber mill’s never done such good business. This place won’t be a fort much longer if they keep going – they’ll have to start building outside the stockade.’

‘I guess people ain’t so scared of the Indians no more.’

‘Oh, the Indians will be moved on soon enough,’ Laughton shrugged. ‘Folks know that, and they’re coming in beforehand to get their claims set up.’

‘The Indians have been here forever,’ Ned murmured. It was odd to think of the wide, steep canyons and the dusty ground without Indian ponies and Indian noises echoing off the land.

‘This is a settler’s land,’ Laughton said with conviction. ‘The Indians don’t use it. They don’t farm, barely even raise cattle. No, it’s best they move on, let folks that can make something of the place work the land without the fear of being scalped in their sleep.’

Ned rotated his hat in his hands, feeling the felt brim between his fingers, soft and greasy with wear. He didn’t know what to say to Mr Laughton. He didn’t like to contradict him, but he didn’t agree with what he said.

‘Ben?’ he asked, turning about and listening.

‘Your friend went out onto the sidewalk,’ Laughton said. ‘Who is he, anyway? Friend of Charlie’s?’

Ned shook his head. ‘Friend of Johnny’s. Ben served with him down in Tennessee.’

‘Oh,’ Mr Laughton said, with just an edge of surprise in his voice. ‘He’s waiting for Johnny to come home, is he?’

‘Yeah, helping out on the ranch while he does.’

‘Well,’ Laughton said. He was silent for a moment, then said with some reluctance, ‘Ned, when Johnny does get back, you take care, won’t you? Some folks here aren’t so fond of Johnny. Take care you don’t catch the worst edge of the storms that get stirred up when he’s about. Here, let me give you a hand,’ he added, coming round the counter and taking Ned’s arm as he turned toward the door.

‘Thanks, Mr Laughton,’ Ned nodded. ‘Remember me to Miss Olson – I mean, to Mrs Laughton – won’t you?’

‘I sure will, Ned.’

The sun struck Ned’s face as they walked out onto the board sidewalk, not hot, but warmer than the shade in the post office. He put his hat back on and turned his head, listening for Ben. There were horses nearby, probably tied to a hitching post – he could hear their small movements and the metallic chinks of their tack as they stood patiently waiting. He and Ben had come with the wagon and tied up outside the store across the road and there was no way of discerning their horses from the others at that distance.

‘Mr Shelby,’ Laughton said, and Ben’s boots thumped on the boards as he came over to them.

‘Sorry, Ned. Got caught up in reading.’

‘Ah, that’s fine, Ben,’ Ned grinned. ‘Thanks, Mr Laughton,’ he said as the older man patted his arm gruffly and moved away. ‘Ben, what do you say we go over to the saloon before we get them things in the store? I ain’t been inside of that place since last spring.’

‘Sure. I could use a drink.’

Ben touched Ned’s arm and Ned slipped his hand behind Ben’s elbow, letting his fingers touch the roughness of his coat sleeve lightly. It was only a few yards down the sidewalk to the saloon. Everything on Main Street was bunched together in the centre as if it were huddling against an attack, as far away from the fort walls as possible.

The saloon doors swung open with a clatter, swinging back against Ned’s arm as he pushed through them. The conversation inside died to a soft murmur as he and Ben stepped inside.

‘You sure this place is a good idea?’ Ben asked in an undertone. ‘Folks don’t seem overwhelmed at us being in here.’

‘Who’s behind the bar?’ Ned asked.

‘Dark-haired lady in a plaid dress, and a blond guy.’

‘Don’t sound like Dave Parker’s in,’ Ned murmured. ‘We’ll be fine. Dave don’t like Johnny any, but they’ve got no reason to quarrel with me. Besides, this is the only saloon in town.’

‘Well, I guess it is,’ Ben laughed. The conversation was already beginning to pick up again, perhaps as the patrons realised it was not Johnny but a stranger that Ned had come in with. ‘What’re you drinking, Ned?’

‘Whiskey, and I’m buying,’ Ned said firmly, jangling the coins in his pocket. ‘Just point me at the bar.’

‘Ned, I don’t want to be taking your money,’ Ben said awkwardly.

‘You’re not,’ Ned said firmly. ‘If Johnny was here first thing he’d do would be buy you a drink.’

‘Maybe,’ Ben said. ‘But Johnny ain’t here.’

‘No, he ain’t,’ Ned said, turning to the bar without waiting for Ben’s help. ‘That’s why I’m buying.’ He rapped his knuckles briefly on the wooden surface. ‘Can I get two whiskeys?’

‘Sure thing, Ned.’

The bartender was closer than he thought, and he recognised his voice, too.

‘Dan?’ he asked. ‘Dan Walker? That you?’

Dan had sat at the next desk to his in the school where Miss Olson taught, slyly pulling the ribbons undone on the girls’ braids and writing fool rhymes on his slate and then rubbing them away before Miss Olson saw them, but not before Ned was almost bursting with giggles that he had to keep in.

‘Yeah, that’s me, Ned,’ Dan said, putting two glasses down on the counter with sharp taps. The scent of whiskey sharpened the air as he poured out the measures.

‘You’re working in the saloon now, Dan? Thought you’d been away?’

‘Yeah, I’d been off in the army like most everyone else, but I’m back now. That’s a dime, Ned.’

‘Oh, yeah.’

He felt in his pocket and drew out a handful of coins, slipping his fingertip over their faces. He didn’t often have cause to use money since Uncle Charlie usually handled the buying of goods. All those little metal discs felt the same.

‘You need a little help, Ned?’ Dan asked. There was an odd tone to his voice then, as if he seemed glad of Ned’s difficulty.

‘There’s your dime,’ Ben said shortly, coming up beside Ned and picking a couple of cents and three cent nickels out of his palm. ‘Thanks for the drink, Ned. I’ll carry them to the table.’

‘Dan sounded strange,’ Ned said in a low voice as he followed Ben to the table. ‘Like there was something eating him up…’

‘Being away at war eats some folks up,’ Ben said softly as they sat. ‘Some folks get to thinking that those that stayed at home got it easy, no matter why they stayed.’

Ned closed his fingers about the hard sides of the shot glass and then drank the whiskey in one swift swallow. He would have gone off to war with Johnny if he could have. He’d been well into conscription age when the war started up, but he would have volunteered anyway. He would have stood alongside Johnny in his uniform and hefted a rifle and fought the Confederates and brought his brother home safe at the end of it instead of waiting at the ranch while Johnny did God knew what somewhere out in the wide world. Everything would have been different, if only –

‘I didn’t choose this,’ was all he said as he put the glass back down.

‘No one’s saying you did, Ned.’ Ben picked up the empty glasses and stood. ‘I’ll get the next one,’ he said. ‘Hell, no, I’ll get us a bottle. I reckon you could do with getting rip-roaring drunk, Ned. What d’you say?’

Ned laughed. ‘Long as you can drive home at the end of it, cause I won’t be no use to you.’


The wagon was like a boat, shifting and sloping across a rough sea. The sound of the horses and the rolling wheels and the creaking of the woodwork could be the sounds of a sailboat, maybe. Ned had never been in a boat. Never even seen one. But the floor of the wagon box against his back was like the rolling of a boat over the ocean.

‘I never seen the stars look that bright,’ Ben said in an awed voice beside him. Ben was lying on the floor of the wagon too. ‘Look like they’re bout ready to fall down outta the sky on us. Ned, you ever seen stars look that bright?’

Ned lay and squinted, turning his head this way and that.

‘I can’t see no stars, Ben,’ he said finally. ‘I’m blind, you fool.’

‘Oh. Yeah, that’s right,’ Ben murmured. ‘Well, I never seen them that bright. Look like fires in the heavens. White hot fires waiting to fall down on us.’

‘We didn’t get none of them things in the store,’ Ned said suddenly, moving his hand over the planks over the wagon box and feeling the emptiness beside him. He moved his other hand out and felt the softness of Ben’s coat over his warm body, but no store goods anywhere. ‘Ben, who’s driving the wagon?’

Ben sat up with a lurching awkwardness, and then lay down again with a thump.

‘I guess the horses are, cause I ain’t, and you ain’t, Ned.’

‘Where are we?’

Ben sat up again. ‘Well, I’ll be darned. We’re bout a hundred yards from the house. Them horses have pulled us all the way home. Your Uncle Charlie’s in the door with a lamp. Looks kinda mad…’

Ned laughed, and then he couldn’t stop laughing. His laughter rang out against the bare hills and echoed back at him, loud but insignificant against the largeness of the world. In the corral a horse whinnied, and one of the horses hitched to the wagon responded, and Uncle Charlie shouted something across the wide open space between the house and the wagon.

‘Oh, I ain’t been this drunk in a long time,’ Ned said finally. His ribs and throat were aching with the laughter but he tried to look sober as the horses came to a halt near the house and Uncle Charlie hauled him none too gently out of the wagon.

‘I’ve been waiting on that cornmeal all day,’ Charlie said irritably, letting go of Ned’s arm and stomping back to the wagon. ‘Where’s the cornmeal, Ned?’

Ned swayed. The ground didn’t seem too level under his feet. Then he collapsed to the ground, pressing his forehead against the cold dirt and laughing fit to burst.

‘We ain’t got no cornmeal,’ he wheezed, his mouth close to the ground. ‘And we ain’t got no new hatchet blade, and we ain’t got no pound of nails neither. We forgot it, Uncle Charlie. I’m sorry, Uncle Charlie…’

If Charlie replied he didn’t hear him. There was a hand under his arm, hauling him to his feet and he was staggering through the darkness into the house and then falling into his bed, clothes and all. His bed felt so soft after the hard, lurching wagon boards. His hat was still jammed on his head, but he didn’t care. His chest felt empty and aching after the laughter. His eyes were wet with tears. He slept, and dreamt about Ben and Johnny and the faces of men in Fort Defiance, and about the feeling of Nellie Carlton all around him in her pa’s barn.

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