Friday, 23 September 2011

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.

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