Monday, 19 September 2011
Fort Defiance - Chapter 4
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.’
‘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.
‘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.’