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.

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