Sunday, 25 September 2011

Fort Defiance - Chapter 7

It was time to pack up and move out. There was nothing more to be done. There was no more hanging on and waiting for Johnny and hoping for a better future. All of the soft stuff was bundled up and waiting to go into the wagon, wrapped around delicate and fragile things like the clock and the old Bible and the little china trinkets that had belonged to Ned’s ma. The beds and the table and chairs would stay. The stove would have to stay. Maybe Charlie could come back for some of the big things once they knew where they would be settled, but it didn’t seem likely to Ned. All he knew was taken apart and folded up and lying in strange places about the floor and he sat in the chair by the stove, waiting while Charlie cleared a path for him to walk through.

He had been born in this house. He knew what it looked like, knew the views of the cliffs and hills around and the sights of desert willows clustered along dry creek bottoms. He knew what it felt and smelt like too, knew the feel of each stone in the wall at hand-height about the house and the places where the wood of the fences was smooth and where it was rough. He knew how to walk from the house to the outhouse without being a step wrong and just where the corral gate was by the way the dirt was worn to a little dip in front of it. He knew that if he wasn’t blind they would not be leaving, and Charlie would not feel bound to take care of him.

‘There you go, Ned,’ Charlie said, lifting something with a grunt of effort. ‘I got things out of your way. You can help carry things out now. There’s a box of pots just by your bed. You manage that?’

Ned nodded and stood, feeling out for the box and hefting it in his arms.

‘Where’re we going, Uncle Charlie?’ he asked as he made for the door.

‘Fort Defiance. And then – I don’t know yet,’ Charlie said honestly, following behind with his own load. ‘Wagon’s just there,’ he said as Ned stepped out of the door. ‘About four paces in front of you.’

Ned reached the wagon and rested his load on the side while he passed a hand over the floor of the wagon box. He slipped the box down and turned, listening as Charlie put his own load down.

‘What are we going to do, Uncle Charlie?’ he asked, leaning against the wood and folding his arms.

‘I don’t know,’ Charlie said again. ‘But we can’t stay here. We ain’t got nothing to farm with and we’re too far from town if anything – well – ’

‘Yeah,’ Ned said, knowing what Charlie meant. If anything happened to Charlie, Ned would be alone out here, and he couldn’t manage alone.

‘We’ll go to Fort Defiance first, and we’ll move on until we can find something to do,’ Charlie said. ‘Someone will want a ranch hand somewhere.’

‘Will someone want me?’ Ned asked realistically.

Charlie cleared his throat. Then he said, ‘Well, I ain’t going nowhere that won’t take you, Ned.’

Ned smiled and nodded, and went inside silently to find more boxes to carry. He felt more burdensome than he had in a long time, especially after that light, fun time when Ben was here. Wherever he was, following on behind Uncle Charlie, holding on to his coat arm, men would look at them and shake their heads and move them on. No one wanted a handicapped man on their payroll. Ned wanted to stay at the ranch, but that wasn’t possible – and he didn’t know where in the world would take them, one man old and one blind. The future filled him with a cold fear.

They carried on packing, carrying out bundles and slotting them into spaces in the wagon. Then they laid the emptied straw ticks and the quilts and blankets over the top, carefully protecting the possessions beneath.

‘Forgot this one box, Ned,’ Charlie said, hurrying out of the house with a clanking load in his arms.

Ned walked back to the open doorway and stood there, listening. Empty, the house sounded different. When he walked inside his footsteps echoed on the floor. Outside he heard Charlie hitching up the horses. He went back into the fresh air. There was nothing to hang on to inside any more.

‘Want me to tie Doggone and Red to the back?’ he asked from the doorway.

‘Already done, Ned,’ Charlie said from between the horses as he finished hitching them up. ‘And your saddle’s lashed on the back. Why don’t you get up front and we’ll haul out?’

Ned pressed his hand hard onto the stone of the wall for one last time. This house had been a friend to him. Then he let go and walked over to the wagon and clambered up onto the seat as Charlie flung one last thing on top of the load piled up back. He put his hand on the load and felt a saddle blanket under his fingers. Wherever they went, he sure hoped he got the chance to go out riding sometimes. It was one of the few times when he felt truly free.

He caught the sound of hooves echoing somewhere up the hill and his head jerked up.

‘Someone’s coming.’

Charlie was silent as the pounding of the horse grew louder, and then he said in wonderment, ‘Why, it’s Ben! Ben Shelby!’

Ned sat up a little straighter on the wagon seat. Ben? He had thought he would never see Ben again. It couldn’t be he’d forgotten something – Charlie would have found it when they were packing up their things.

The horse cantered right down to the wagon and pulled up alongside and Ben’s voice rang out. Until then Ned had not quite believed it.

‘Where’re you heading for?’

‘Fort Defiance,’ Charlie said with a tone of finality. ‘No sense in hanging around here any more.’

‘You looking for a partner?’

‘In what?’ Charlie asked suspiciously.

‘Ranching,’ Ben said brightly. ‘You got a lot of good grazing land, corral, and some equipment. I got myself a bill of sale for two hundred and fifty head of cattle I bought me.’

Ned moved across the wagon seat as if moving closer would make the conversation more real. All his life was bundled up in the wagon behind him. He couldn’t believe that they were going to stay put after all.

‘You ain’t just funning with me, are you, Ben?’ Charlie asked, still suspicious.

‘No, sir,’ Ben said firmly. He sounded light and easy, as if he were smiling through the words.

‘What about your wife?’

‘I sent her a letter asking her to catch the next stage. She should be here soon.’

The joy burst out in Ned’s heart and he whooped out loud. No man would bring his wife all that way on a stagecoach if he didn’t mean to stay.

‘Well, I still don’t see any sense in bringing cattle in here for the Indians to come around and pick them up,’ Charlie said doubtfully.

‘Well, we got word from the Fort the army’s going to take care of all this Indian trouble.’

‘That’s right,’ Ned said. He wouldn’t let anything dampen the joy that he felt.

‘Come on, Ned,’ Ben said buoyantly. ‘Let’s go get a tree for Jane.’

Ned clambered back down to the ground, wondering what Ben’s wife wanted with a tree. The dirt had never felt so solid and so good beneath his feet as it did now he knew he was staying here. He’d get a whole forest for Jane if it meant he could stay here.

‘A tree?’ Charlie asked, voicing Ned’s puzzlement.

‘Yeah. Christmas tree,’ Ben said, moving to untie Doggone from the wagon.

Ned came round behind the wagon and felt for the horse’s back. He thought he’d heard the soft flap of Ben laying the saddle blanket down and he felt it under his hand, smoothed out over Doggone’s pelt and ready for the saddle.

‘Huh?’ Ned asked as he grabbed the saddle from the back of the wagon. ‘What’s that?’

‘Well, it’s a pine you dress up real pretty like,’ Ben said, helping Ned strap the saddle into place. ‘A fellow from Europe from my outfit told me about it. Something they do in the old country. He fixed us one last year for Christmas. Jane’d sure like it.’

‘You really staying, Ben?’ Ned asked, a moment of uncertainty overtaking him as he tightened the girth about the horse’s body.

‘Sure I’m staying,’ Ben said firmly. ‘I ain’t going to go chop down no tree to take on the trail.’

‘Maybe it’s the Lord’s way of giving each of you both back your brother,’ Charlie said in a softer voice.

Ned thought on that. Johnny had been everything to him – but it didn’t seem the Johnny he was thinking of had ever been a real person. A little steel of betrayal and resentment rose in the centre of his body when he thought of Johnny now. He remembered Johnny’s roughness and his quick mouth and his way of making near everyone mad at him with his flippancy and disrespect. Ben wasn’t like that. Ben would be a good brother to have.

‘Maybe,’ Ben said simply, but he sounded glad with that one word. ‘Come on, Ned. Mount up.’

‘Now, hurry back, now!’ Charlie called as Ned swung himself up onto the horse. Ben was already riding away and he urged Doggone to a trot to catch up.

‘You seen any pine trees about?’ Ned called as he reached the sound of Ben’s horse. ‘There used to some up above Elbow Creek.’

‘Well, I guess that’s where we’ll look first,’ Ben said, turning his horse towards the west.

‘Got your hatchet?’

Ben laughed. ‘I ain’t going to chop it down with my hands. You can hold it steady while I cut it.’

‘What do you dress it up with, Ben?’ Ned asked, spurring his horse on to come level with the other. The hoof-falls echoed out into the hills as they made their way across the land towards the creek.

‘Well, Georg said stars and little ornaments and candles,’ Ben said. ‘But I guess we’ll have to make do. We used popcorn strings and ribbons and apples that time. You got any popcorn?’

‘I don’t reckon so,’ Ned smiled. ‘Maybe there’ll be some pinecones about. They’d look nice, wouldn’t they?’

‘I’ll keep a lookout,’ Ben promised. ‘And maybe if we take our time your Uncle Charlie’ll have everything back in the house by the time we get there.’


The tree was a little shorter than Ned’s height. It was wide and the bristles were soft and sharp when he brushed his hands over it, and it gave the house a fresh, green scent that covered over the stale smells of tobacco and wood smoke. Ben set it up near the table, out of Ned’s way but where he could smell it as he sat to eat or work. Ben had already cut a star from a piece of board and covered it with foil tobacco paper so that it would shine and glisten on the top of the tree

The table was covered scraps of tobacco paper, and with pine cones. Some of the cones Ben had rolled in mud and set to dry so that they were white and dusted as if by snow. Some of them were left natural, and Ned visualised them brown and green amongst the white ones. It would look real pretty, he was sure, when they were all hung up, and he was glad of the joy it would bring to Jane even if he couldn’t see it. Just the fresh smell inside the house was novelty enough.

He kept on cutting out shapes from the tobacco papers, cutting slowly and carefully with a sharp knife the shapes of stars and hearts and circles and then threading string through holes pierced in the tops so that Ben could hang them on the boughs. The pine cones were easy to put loops on just by tying some cotton about them, but getting the thread through the holes in the foil paper was a whole new level of skill. He put the string aside for a moment and tried at cutting out an angel instead, with sweeping wings and a long gown.

‘Does this look like an angel, Ben?’ he asked finally, holding up the newly cut shape on its thread.

Ben took it, and laughed. ‘Sure it does. I mean, it ain’t quite like any angel I imagined in heaven, but it’s good enough for our tree.’

Ned laughed at that, pressing his fingers lightly over the other cut papers and wondering if they were enough like stars and circles and hearts.

‘Ah, they’re fine, Ned,’ Ben said, clapping him on the shoulder. He moved around the tree, brushing the branches and making them whisper softly and release a whole new burst of scent into the air. ‘Give me some pine cones, would you?’

Ned picked up a couple and held them out and Ben took them to hang on the tree.

‘Well, I don’t know,’ Ben murmured. ‘I ain’t never decorated one of these by myself before and I can’t ask you how it looks.’

Ned laughed again. He was so light with joy that he didn’t care about not being able to see the tree.

‘Hand me one of them silver tobacco papers you’ve been cutting on,’ Ben said, and Ned felt for one that he had already threaded and handed it over. ‘This is sure a lot of bother, but it’ll be a big surprise for Jane.’

‘She ain’t never seen a Christmas tree neither, huh?’ Ned asked, breaking off more thread from the reel with a sharp snap.


‘Think your wife’s going to like it here?’ Ned asked. These dry and empty canyons weren’t the kind of place everyone took to.

‘I think so,’ Ben said, reaching in front of him and picking up another foil shape.

‘Is your wife pretty, Ben?’

Ben laughed. ‘What do you expect a man to say about his own wife?’

‘Ah, some day I’m going to find me a gal,’ Ned said, leaning on his elbows on the table and thinking about how that might be. ‘I can do my share running a ranch.’

‘Sure, else why’d I be setting up for us to be partners?’ Ben said firmly. ‘Jane’s bringing the money we saved from selling the place. We’re going to buy us some extra stock.’

‘Ah, it’s going to be the best darn ranch around here,’ Ned grinned, thinking of those milling cattle and the money they’d bring in and how nice it would be to stop scraping together the last few pennies every time they went into town to buy provisions.

‘Yeah, and the biggest,’ Ben said. ‘We’re gonna spread out. You know, all through the fighting I kept dreaming how some day it would end and we could start ranching again, me and Jane, and how we could be together with my brother.’

That struck a chord in Ned, thinking of Ben’s lost brother and of Johnny and all the promises that had fallen apart and disappeared as if they had never been. Ben had hated Johnny even if he had never met him, and with good reason too. A needle of uncertainty made itself felt in Ned’s mind every time he thought of his own brother and what had happened to Ben’s because of him. Ben would be justified in hating Ned too, in hating his whole family…

‘Ben?’ Ned asked.


‘You sure you maybe won’t change your mind?’

The thought of the answer terrified him momentarily, but he had to know. He had to know that Ben would not disappear again and leave him without help and without a future.

‘I can’t,’ Ben said, and the lightness of his voice blew away Ned’s concerns. ‘Already got it set in my mind how we’re going to build them ranch houses. One for me and Jane, and one for Uncle Charlie and you – and a real pretty wife.’

Ned laughed at that thought. Ben was maybe the most optimistic person he knew, despite all the troubles and the buried anger somewhere inside him.

‘How am I sure she’s gonna be pretty?’ he asked.

‘Well, you’ll have to take my word for it.’

Ned sighed at the thought of that woman. No matter what she looked like, the thought of having someone to hold close in the night and to share warmth with was a dream he had close on given up achieving.

‘How about me going into Fort Defiance with you tomorrow?’ he asked. He couldn’t find himself a wife if he never left the ranch.

Ben moved away from the Christmas tree with slow steps, as if something were revolving in his mind.

‘Well, I kinda figured maybe Jane and I’d stay in town for a couple of days,’ he said slowly.

‘Hmm?’ Ned asked, wondering why on earth Ben should want to stay in that place when he was sure of a good bed and good food here. And then the realisation dawned and a flush of awkwardness came over him. ‘Oh!’ he said, trying not to laugh like a schoolboy at the thought of what Ben would be doing. ‘Oh, sure, yeah…’

He trailed off, with no idea what to say next. Ben was buckling on his gun belt by the door, preparing to go outside, and Ned thought perhaps he’d last until he went through the door before he let the laughter loose.

‘I reckon we won’t be getting no more pine cones today,’ Ben said with a great degree of self-consciousness in his voice. He knew what Ned was thinking about. ‘I’ll unsaddle the horses.’

A noise outside cut into Ned’s attention and the laughter dissolved away. He could hear horses’ hooves – lots of them.

‘Ben,’ he said. ‘Riders…’

The door opened and Ned asked quickly, ‘Uncle Charlie, who’s coming?’

‘I don’t know, er…’ Charlie said awkwardly, and Ned sat straighter, aware that his uncle was hiding something. He was signing something to Ben, he was sure. He could hear the awkward movements of his body and the little metallic noises as he picked up his rifle. There was a thick, unusual silence and then Ben followed Charlie outside almost at a run, closing the door sharply behind him.

Ned stood slowly, listening hard. The horses’ hooves came to a stop near the house and he heard voices, at first quiet, and then Charlie’s raised in challenge. Ned moved over to the door and found his coat and hat and slipped them on, but he didn’t open the door. Instead he stood with his ear against the crack where it met the frame, listening. He still couldn’t make out any words, but he could hear the sharp, brittle tones of anger in what was being said. There were only two strangers talking, but there had been more horses than that – maybe six, maybe ten. He couldn’t tell, but he knew there had been enough that Ben and Uncle Charlie would stand little chance if a fight broke out.

The voices carried on, never raised to a shout but full of menace all the same. He wanted to open the door and stand with Ben and Uncle Charlie but he knew that would be a fool thing to do. He could only get in the way. So he stood silently, and listened.

When the first shout came it was Uncle Charlie. Ned started back instinctively, and it was just in time because the door slammed open without warning. The shooting started almost simultaneously.

‘Ben?’ he asked quickly. ‘Uncle Charlie?’

‘It’s me,’ Ben said shortly, grabbing at Ned’s arm none too gently. ‘Come on, Ned.’

‘Come on?’ Ned echoed.

He had the sense not to resist as Ben tugged him across the room, but he was torn with the need to get Uncle Charlie. The shots were ringing out in all directions. He could hear bullets thudding into the stone walls of the house. Uncle Charlie would have nothing but the well to hide behind.

‘What is it, Ben?’ he asked. ‘Who is it?’

‘Save it, Ned,’ Ben snapped. ‘We need to get to the horses. Good thing we left them saddles on.’

Ned stumbled and almost fell as the floor dropped away and he tripped down the back steps out of the house.

‘Come on,’ Ben urged him.

Ned ran, clinging to Ben’s arm, saving questions for later. Shots were still snapping through the air on the other side of the house and they pounded across the ground to the corral.

‘Mount up,’ Ben said, thrusting him at his horse, and Ned swung himself up onto Doggone faster than he ever had in his life. He kicked Doggone into action and then Ben came alongside on his own horse and hit at his arm with a hand to urge him forward. Ned leant forward over the saddle and drove Doggone on with all his might.

‘We ought to help Uncle Charlie,’ Ned shouted over the thudding noise of the horses as they galloped up the rough slopes away from the house.

‘They want to string you up, Ned,’ Ben yelled back, his voice lurching with the movement of the horse. ‘What you gonna do? As soon as you rode in there they’d rope you up and drag you all the way to the lynching tree.’

A white silence had expanded in Ned’s mind, making the pounding and panting of the horses fade away into muffled nothings. A moment ago he had been sitting in the house with the stove burning and the smell of that pine tree and a Christmas feeling growing all around. Why would anyone want to string him up?

‘What happened, Ben?’ he asked in bewilderment. ‘What is it?’

Ben urged his horse on further. ‘I can’t talk riding like this,’ he called out. His horse was creeping ahead and Ned kicked Doggone hard in the sides to make him go faster. ‘It’s Dave Parker’s lot. Half dozen at least. I’ll explain later. They’re giving chase.’

Ned turned his head back, listening hard. The shooting had stopped and there was the sound of a bunch of horses somewhere behind them. He could think of only one reason why Charlie would stop shooting. He leaned back over the horse’s neck, urging him faster. He had never felt so exposed. All he could do was trust Ben and ride.

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