Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Fort Defiance - Chapter 8

Doggone wasn’t as fast as Ben’s horse. He kept falling behind and Ned kept urging him on, hearing the thundering of Ben’s horse in front of him and the hooves of the men behind, chasing, made faint by distance. The dust rose up until it was thick in his lungs and the air was cold against his face and hands and pressed through his coat until he was chilled deep down inside. They were galloping over a wide flatness, somewhere along the bottom of a valley. The hooves clattered on hard packed ground and the dust kept whipping up. Ned had no idea in which direction they were going and there was no chance to ask.

The ground began to creep upwards and then Doggone slowed in response to Ben’s horse slowing. Ned heard Ben dismount and Doggone flinched as Ben grabbed at his bridle.

‘You all right, Ned?’ Ben asked briefly.

He nodded, ‘Uhuh.’

He was out of breath just from the effort of keeping Doggone going, his heart thudding hard under his ribs.

‘It’ll be easier on the horses if we lead ’em over this hill,’ Ben said breathlessly, and Ned slipped from his mount, feeling his way down Doggone’s panting sides until he found his tail and grabbed it with both hands.

‘Go ahead,’ he said. Doggone would guide him up the hill.

The horse lurched forwards and he followed the tug of the tail, stumbling over small, scrubby plants and loose earth that crumbled under his feet and made him slip. His legs were shaking from the riding and Doggone was high above him, always pulling, kicking up dust in Ned’s face. It would have half killed the horse to be ridden up a hill this steep after the run he had just had.

‘What is it, Ben?’ he called ahead, now that it was quiet enough for talking. ‘What did Dave Parker want with me?’

Ben was silent,and Ned wondered if he hadn’t heard. But then Ben called down in a voice that was slow and laden with guilt, ‘It’s my fault, Ned. I wrote a letter to Jane, but I never sent it. Told her what your brother Johnny did at Tennessee Ridge. That was when I meant to go home. But I changed my mind. Couldn’t leave you and your Uncle Charlie like that after everything. I wanted us to be partners, Ned.’

‘Uhuh,’ Ned said breathlessly. The effort of following Doggone’s twisting path up the hill didn’t leave a lot of room for speech. The air was cold and dust-filled in his lungs and every breath was a pant.

‘I screwed that letter up and threw it on the table in the saloon,’ Ben said. ‘One of Dave Parker’s men must’ve picked it up. Dave Parker came down to the ranch with that letter in his hand saying he wanted there to be no Tallon brothers alive on account of his own brothers being killed at Tennessee Ridge.’

‘Dave Parker had reason enough to hate Johnny before that,’ Ned called up from behind the horse. The thought of Parker saying that in his hard, dry voice with the intent to string Ned up sent chills through him. His neck felt bare and vulnerable against that thought. ‘I guess that letter gave him even more.’

‘Yeah,’ Ben said succinctly. ‘I’m sorry, Ned.’

‘It ain’t your fault, Ben,’ Ned said. ‘God damn it!’ he cursed as the ground disappeared beneath him and he almost fell.

‘You all right?’ Ben called back.

‘Yeah,’ Ned said tersely, pulling himself up again by the horse’s tail. Doggone was winding sideways along the hill and the ground kept dropping away and bumping up again beneath Ned’s feet. He could hear the pounding of the horses following them, coming closer fast. ‘We almost at the top?’

‘Yeah. And they’re at the bottom,’ Ben said grimly. ‘Get up on that horse. We’ll maybe get away from them on the other side.’

Ned nodded swiftly, finding his way back to the horse’s side and pulling himself up onto his back. Doggone followed Ben’s horse again in a stomach-lurching plunge down the slope on the other side. Ned hadn’t heard the men chasing them dismount. They’d be slower up the hill than he and Ben had been because the horses would have to pick an easier path. This was their chance to get away.

The ground levelled out again and they pressed their horses on to a gallop. Ned leaned forward, the wind whipping at his face, letting the thoughts of what had happened crystallise in his mind. Ben was risking everything for him – every beat of his heart and every drop of blood in his veins. He could have stood with Dave Parker after what Johnny had done, but he hadn’t. He knew then that Ben wouldn’t leave him. He had fought against the Parker gang for him. He had risked his life shooting at them to keep them from Ned. And Uncle Charlie… Uncle Charlie had stayed to hold them off, him alone against a gang of men. Uncle Charlie would not be there when they got back, and now Ben was the only help he had in the world, with no ties but friendship to keep him there.


Eventually they slowed and stopped again. Even while they were still Ned seemed to feeling the swaying of the horse and hear the ringing of hoof-falls in his ears. He was tired out with riding but there was still panic at his back, urging him to carry on for as long as he could. He trusted to Ben’s sense though, steadying Doggone and holding his breath to listen.

There was wind blowing against close canyon walls and the calling of birds and the soft sound of dirt blowing about stalks and leaves, but he couldn’t hear horses anywhere.

‘I don’t hear nothing, Ben,’ he said.

‘I reckon Parker won’t follow us in here,’ Ben said decisively.

‘In where?’ Ned asked with a sense of apprehension. There didn’t seem to be many places that Parker wouldn’t go to exact revenge.

‘Navajo Canyons.’

Ned raised his eyebrows, blowing air out through his lips. ‘I reckon not.’

Riding into Navajo Canyons with the Indians riled up as they were was a kind of calculated suicide.

‘Let’s get off and rest a while,’ Ben said.

Ned nodded, slipping from the horse and finding that his legs were almost too stiff and too cold to stand on. He moved round to Doggone’s head and crouched down, holding the reins and trying to catch his breath until his chest was heaving more slowly.

‘We’ve got to find a spot to take cover and get some rest for the horses,’ Ben said, crouching down beside him. ‘We’ve got a couple of hours of daylight left. Better to travel these parts at night.’

‘Where we travelling to?’ Ned asked.

‘The west end of the canyon. That’ll take us a good distance away from Fort Defiance. But if we go back the same way we come in Parker’s liable to be waiting.’

‘He’ll be waiting at Fort Defiance too,’ Ned said with a dry laugh. Fort Defiance practically smelt of Dave Parker. He had his hand controlling everything.

‘Yeah, I know, but we’ll have the protection of the law there,’ Ben told him. ‘Besides, you ain’t done nothing, Ned.’

Ned smiled. He knew he’d never done nothing, but that had never stopped the Parker gang before. If they thought they had a reason, they carried through on their intent. While Dave Parker was alive he would not feel safe, law or no law.

‘You got your own makings?’

Ned brushed his hand over his pocket. ‘Yeah,’ he said, taking out his pouch.

‘Maybe Uncle Charlie’ll join us soon,’ Ben said, taking out his own pouch and pulling out a rustling paper.

‘He ain’t going to join us,’ Ned said flatly.

He knew, somehow, that Charlie was dead. Charlie wouldn’t have let that gang get away from the house except by giving up his life.

He spread out a tobacco paper in his hand and held it curved while he poured a fine line of leaf along it, touching it softly with a finger to judge the amount.

‘It ain’t right for you to have the bother of me, Ben,’ he said quietly.

‘T’ain’t no bother. We’re partners, ain’t we?’ Ben said in a cheering voice. ‘Besides, I’m sure the Lord’s looking out for you, Ned.’

‘Might be,’ Ned laughed, ‘but supposing he ain’t looking out for you?’

He pulled the drawstring on his pouch with his teeth, holding the paper with the loose tobacco carefully cupped in his hand so the leaves wouldn’t blow away on the wind.

‘I still got my rifle,’ Ben said. ‘Ain’t nothing gonna happen to me before I see Jane.’

Ned laughed again as he rolled the cigarette. A wife seemed to be a good thing to have if it made a man so blamed determined to stay alive.

‘I ain’t scared with a partner like you, Ben,’ he said. He lifted the tobacco paper to his mouth and licked it to seal it, then held it between his lips.

‘I guess it’s up to me to say I ain’t scared either. So I’m saying it.’ Ben paused, and then he reached out and put a hand on Ned’s shoulder, touching him with firm warmth. ‘You and me both know we’re lying, don’t we, Ned?’

Ned smiled with his cigarette clamped between his lips. He was scared to the very depths of his being, crouching out here between the walls of Navajo Canyon with a posse of men out to find him and put a rope around his neck or to shoot him before he could run any further. The fear felt like another skin around him, like the blood in his veins and the beating of his heart. Ben was the only thing between him and death, and thank the Lord he knew he could trust him.

‘Well. Let’s get going,’ Ben said.

Ned stood up by the horse. He heard Ben strike a match on his horse’s tack and he reached up to cup Ben’s hands as he lit his cigarette for him. He breathed in deep and let the hot, fresh smoke billow into his lungs and instantly a little of the tightness of fear was softened.

He mounted Doggone and the horse stirred restlessly. He was tired of being forced to gallop across this hard land.

‘It’s all right,’ Ned murmured, patting the horse’s neck. ‘You can walk for a while. We all of us are dog tired.’

The warmth from the smoke in his lungs was about the only warmth there was as they rode. The horses kept on at a slow walk, tired out from galloping so long and so hard. Ned was tired out too. He rode with his eyes closed and his hands loose on the reins, his hat pressed down as far as possible to keep the cold out. He smoked, and spoke little, and Ben spoke even less. They reached a wet place where a small spring trickled out from the rocks and after the horses had their turn Ned knelt by the water and cupped it in his hands, drinking his fill.

‘All right,’ Ben said as Ned sat back on his haunches. ‘We’ll settle here til it gets dark. The trees make good cover.’

‘You seen any sight of Indians?’ Ned asked, wiping his hands dry on his coat.

‘Not a thing – but Indians are mighty good at not being seen. You heard anything?’

Ned shook his head. He hadn’t heard anything since they entered the canyons but the calls of wild animals and birds.

‘You’d better settle down, then,’ Ben said. ‘Gonna to be hard going through the night.’


Somehow Ned slept, bedded down in the soft, dusty earth with his coat tightly buttoned around him. The sunlight didn’t bother him, at least. That was a small mercy.

When he woke he lay for a while, disoriented, trying to judge by the temperature and the birdsong if it were dark. It felt like night, but his time sense was muddled by sleeping at such an odd time. He opened his eyes wide and stared at the sky, but he could not tell if the soft, fluctuating moments of light were sunlight or moon.

He lay back and put his arms behind his head. Ben was beside him, asleep still, the only warm thing within reach. His breathing was slow and soft. Not far away the horses stood patient and quiet, their reins looped about the branch of a tree. Ned wished he could eat the grass and leaves as they did. His stomach was clenching on emptiness.

An owl called and that settled the question of the darkness. It must be at least getting in to night. Sleepiness was still resting in his eyes and making his body heavy. If it were warmer he would have been able to settle back onto the dirt and sleep for hours more. The tiredness was stiff and aching in his bones. But it was hard to sleep in the face of cold.

He lay still, thinking of the house and of Uncle Charlie. Maybe Uncle Charlie was sitting at home with the lamp lit and the stove fired up, but he didn’t think that could be true. There was an image in his head of Uncle Charlie lying sprawled on the ground behind the well, the dust clotted and dark with his blood, his body stiff with death rather than cold. In his mind the house door stood open, the feeble wind moving in through one door and out through the other, rustling that Christmas tree with a sound of pine needles and foil paper. In his mind the house was a more lonely place than this hollow under the trees where he lay with the warm, steady presence of Ben beside him and the horses softly moving their feet and snorting air through their nostrils. There was life here, and hope, instead of a wall peppered with bullet marks and the body of Uncle Charlie and that Christmas tree whispering to itself in the dark.

He turned over, reaching out to Ben, and touched the thick wool weave of his coat. He shook him lightly, saying, ‘Ben? Ben, I think it’s dark.’

Ben started up as though he’d been bitten and Ned heard the metallic sound of him drawing his gun.

‘God damn it, Ned, what did you – ’ he began – and then he settled back again and Ned heard him holster his gun. ‘Sorry, Ned,’ he said. ‘Guess I’m a mite jumpy.’

He was silent for a moment, then he said, ‘Darn it, why didn’t you wake me before? The moon’s halfway across the sky!’

‘I ain’t been awake long myself,’ Ned said, taking Ben’s peevishness as the natural result of fear and tiredness. ‘Besides, I weren’t even sure it were dark until I heard an owl call.’

‘Yeah, sorry, Ned,’ Ben said again. ‘Well, we needed it and the horses needed it. We’d better push on. We got a long way to travel before daybreak.’

‘Ben, you ain’t got no food with you?’ Ned asked hopefully as his stomach cramped and grumbled again.

‘Why, sure, I’ll just go out back to the pantry,’ Ben said with a laugh. But then he sat up straight with an intake of breath, and then stood and went to the horses. Ned heard rustling and then Ben returned and thrust a paper-wrapped packet into his hand.

‘I forgot what I had in my saddlebag,’ he said. ‘Packed it for the trip back to Jane.’

‘What is it?’ Ned asked, unwrapping the paper carefully and bringing the food to his nose.

‘Hoecakes,’ Ben said, and then added with half a laugh in his voice, ‘Johnnycakes, my grandma used to call ’em – but she were from Massachussets.’

Ned smiled darkly at that as he peeled one of the thin, flat cakes from the stack in the paper. Johnny, Charlie, both gone, and nothing left but Ben and his aptly named cornbread.

‘That’s half of what I got, we’re eating,’  Ben warned him. ‘I got another two packets and a little jerky for chewing. No more.’

‘Best meal I’ve ever tasted,’ Ned said with a grin. After a little food and a little sleep the prospect of riding through the night was not so daunting. ‘You got a canteen too?’

‘Yeah,’ Ben said. ‘Here. Drink up. I’ll fill it before we go.’

Ned took the canteen and drank cold, clean water, then gave it back to Ben. He ate the last of the hoecake and tossed the paper into the wind. He could hear Ben at the spring, pressing the canteen under the water so that air bubbled out of it.

‘Do you really believe we’re going to make it out of here, Ben?’ he asked as he got to his feet. The horses moved nervously, sensing that their rest was about to end.

‘With you as a partner?’ Ben asked. ‘Sure I do. Come on. Let’s move out. See how far we can get before dawn.’

No comments:

Post a Comment