Friday, 30 September 2011

Fort Defiance - Chapter 9

The air was thin and cold. Ned could taste the light touch of dew in each breath and feel it settling on his hands and face. He was tireder than he’d ever been, but the horses kept on walking and Ben kept on picking out a path through the canyons, mile after mile. He had felt the night grow and wane around him and now his eyes were hot and his throat was dry and the need to sleep hung through every part of his body. Once he found himself slipping unawares into a soft, warm place with enticing thoughts and drifting softness – and then he jerked upright, shock rippling through him as he realised he’d fell asleep and almost fell right off the back of the horse.

‘It dawn yet, Ben?’ he asked, trying to keep the need to yawn from his voice. His hands were stiff on the reins and he flexed his fingers. They didn’t feel too different to the senseless leather they were holding.

‘Plumb on,’ Ben said, reining his horse in to a slower pace. ‘You tired, Ned?’

‘Yeah,’ he said honestly. ‘Too tired to sleep maybe, but I’m tired enough to drop.’

‘Can you feel that sun behind us?’

Ned shook his head. He couldn’t feel anything but damp and cold and exhaustion.

‘Well, it’s coming up dead behind us at the east end of the canyon. Might start to warm up our backs a little.’

‘Yeah, maybe,’ Ned smiled. It seemed like wishful thinking that it would get warmer, but the thought of the sun there, molten and awake on the horizon, was a warming thought.

‘It’s gonna get real bright soon,’ Ben said. ‘There’s a good spot for us to bed down during the day. We’ll start again as soon as it gets dark.’

The horses wound their way down a small slope, hooves slipping in the loose dirt. Ned could hear trees rustling softly in the light wind.

‘We’ll hitch the horses here,’ Ben said, getting down from his horse with a light thud.

Ned slipped onto the ground and stood holding on to Doggone’s reins, his legs straight and stiff under him. Leaves were moving overhead, and he could feel the sun now in a patch on the side of his face when there was a lull in the breeze. Ben took the reins from him and secured the horse with his own, and then took hold of Ned’s arm.

‘Come on. Let’s get us some rest.’

Ned looped his arm through Ben’s, too tired to do more than stumble behind him as Ben led him to the spot he had chosen. He slipped down a little dip in the ground and Ben said, ‘There y’are, Ned. Settle down.’

It was a narrow space like a dried up gully. The wind cut overhead but didn’t reach down into the sheltered space. Ned sat with a rock at his back and his legs stretched out over the soft dirt, and waited for sleep to overcome him like it had on Doggone’s back.

He closed his eyes and rested his head back on the rock, but his mind wouldn’t stop working. He saw Johnny standing there, cutting a swell, dressed for impressing the girls and showing the men that he was the best in town. He saw him with his gun belt buckled around his lean middle, a revolver snug in each holster, and his hat pushed back on his head. He had always felt safe when Johnny was around.

He remembered sitting at a table in Dave Parker’s saloon, drinking whiskey that Johnny had bought, drinking it down and drinking more down, getting drunker than Johnny was. Johnny could drink all night and hardly show any difference for it, but Ned got silly and laughed and lay back in his chair and wanted to welcome the whole world into his arms.

He could barely remember what it was Johnny had said any more – something about the Parkers, about Billy or John, in a too-loud voice – and Ned had laughed, and then suddenly everything had changed. There was a smash as Billy Parker struck a bottle into the hard edge of the bar and then he was coming at him, fast and ugly, the bottle held out before him like a knife – and then Johnny’s hand cutting across in front of him, taking the impact of that bottle before it hit Ned, and the blood suddenly welling and dripping down onto the table in big, spreading drops like an unexpected rain. Even through that pain and that welling of blood Johnny had drawn his guns, steady as ever, and everything had gone quiet. No one wanted to set Johnny off when he had his guns in his hands, least of all the Parker boys.

Ned frowned, trying to picture what had happened next. Johnny sitting at the table with his hand dripping blood and someone – Ned couldn’t remember who – tying a cloth around the wound while Johnny kept his guns steadily on the Parkers and ready to turn on anyone else who tried anything.

‘You don’t set on my brother,’ he had said, as steady as if he had been drinking nothing but water. ‘No one sets on my brother.’

Dave Parker’s mouth had been closed in a tight line. He had stayed behind the bar while his brothers had come at Ned and Johnny, and he was still there, polishing the fingermarks off a glass and watching Johnny like a snake. Sobriety had come over Ned like a cold drench and he remembered saying to Johnny, ‘Let’s go home. No sense in hanging around here.’ But Johnny had shook his head and said, ‘I paid for these drinks. We’re going to sit here and drink them, Ned.’ When Ned had shook his head and made as if to get up Johnny’s voice changed and he said, ‘Sit down, Ned,’ as if he were ordering a dog to stay. That had been a long, long night…

‘We gotta get some rest, Ned,’ Ben said, cutting into his memory and bringing him back to this dry, cold gully in the ground. ‘We’ve got another tough move ahead of us tonight.’

‘Ahh, can’t sleep,’ Ned said tiredly, sitting up away from the rock. ‘Thinking about Johnny.’

‘Forget it,’ Ben said instantly, shifting round to sit beside him. ‘He’s dead.’

‘Yeah,’ Ned said, resting back again. ‘Better he is. But he was my brother, Ben. Keep thinking about the time in that saloon when the Parker boys come at me, one of ’em with a broken bottle in his hand. Johnny stuck out his bare fist, took that big scar across the back of it.’

He rubbed his fingers over the back of his own hand, thinking of the feel of that ragged scar on Johnny.

‘Is that when you lost your sight?’ Ben asked quietly.

He nodded. ‘Later that night. Got dry gulched. Never did know who it was for sure.’

That memory was short and brutal – walking back toward the horses, none too steady on his feet, and Johnny saying something about taking a piss and disappearing behind the feed store. Ned reaching to loosen the reins from the hitch rail. And then a crack about the back of his head and pain exploding through his body, and falling hard and helpless onto the ground. Very little noise but the strange dampened thuds of fists and boots on his flesh as he lay on the dirt, and the grunts forced from his mouth. He couldn’t remember how it had gone from then, or how long he had lain before Johnny had come back. He couldn’t remember anything from that time until he had woken in his bed at home, immobile with pain, and blind.

‘Oh, I was sick for months from that beating,’ he said. Just the memory of it brought a knot into his stomach. But a noise caught his ears and took him away from those thoughts. ‘Hey. Someone’s coming,’ he said, sitting up again. He could hear a horse picking slowly over the soft ground.

Ben darted up and jogged away from him, quiet on quick feet.

‘Who is it?’ Ned called, rising to his knees and then hovering there, caught between standing up and huddling low, out of sight.

‘Stranger,’ Ben said shortly. ‘Stay here, Ned, and don’t move. I’m going out there.’

Ned sat back on his heels and waited, listening hard. He heard Ben move away, but it was hard to make sense of the sounds after that. There were footsteps on the dirt and talking, and then another horse and a new voice. He could hear them shuffling about. There was quiet and then voices again for a good while. And then the sound of fighting, tumbling about and fists hitting bone. Ned sat up straight, fighting with himself to stay where he was. He knew that if he lost Ben he would have no chance out here, but if it were one of the Parker gang out there he would have no chance anyway.

He heard coughing like someone had caught a fist to the stomach, and then more blows. Then someone shouted and the fighting stopped and everyone moved together. There were Indian ponies somewhere in the distance, and much closer than them there were people walking towards him, their boots striking the dirt and the horses walking alongside them.

‘Ben?’ he asked nervously as they came down into the gully.

‘It’s me, Ned,’ Ben said quickly. ‘I’m all right.’

He exhaled a long breath of relief. ‘I heard Indian ponies.’

‘They didn’t spot us,’ Ben assured him.

Ned sat still and listened. It was obvious Ben wasn’t alone but he couldn’t tell how many men were there.

‘Who’s with you?’ he asked.

‘Couple of strangers travelling the same way we are,’ Ben told him easily.

Ned relaxed a little. Anyone who wasn’t out to kill him could only be a help. It didn’t explain the fight he had heard, but if Ben didn’t want to mention it then Ned had the sense to stay quiet about it too.

‘My name’s Ned,’ he said. ‘Howdy, strangers.’

He waited for a moment for a response, but there was none. He was used to that. Some folks were struck strange when they noticed he was blind, as if they didn’t know what to say. But then he heard the ponies again, closer and coming in their direction.

‘Riders coming this way,’ he said quickly. ‘Ain’t white men. Them horses got no shoes.’

One of the strangers was running before he’d even finished speaking.

‘Come on, Ned,’ Ben said urgently, grabbing him under the arm and hauling him to his feet.

One of the horses set up a whinnying under the trees. The two strangers were running and calling out in short, sharp sentences as Ned followed Ben out of the gully, stumbling up the dusty slope.

‘Get hold of that horse’s muzzle, Ned,’ Ben said, thrusting him towards the hindquarters of the whinnying horse and then pounding off in another direction.

Ned felt along the horse to its head, glad to be holding the animal if only so that he could mount it and ride away if need be. He hated himself for it, but he had no other defence but running or hiding. The horse lifted its head and neighed again and he tried to pull it down to put his hands about its soft nose.

‘Keep that horse quiet!’ someone shouted, running over to him and jerking the horse’s head down roughly a moment before Ned could get his own hands around it. ‘That ought to hold the sound in you.’

The man’s voice was eerily familiar. Ned moved his hands down the horse’s head to replace that man’s grip on its muzzle with his own. His fingers moved over the back of the man’s hands, and over a thick scar that snaked across his skin. It was a scar he had never seen, but only felt.

‘Johnny?’ he asked in amazement. ‘It’s you, ain’t it?’

‘Yeah, I’m back, Neddy boy,’ Johnny said dryly.

Anger welled up in him suddenly like boiling water. All that time waiting for Johnny to come back, the ranch falling apart around them, and then the grief of hearing Johnny was dead, and poor Uncle Charlie giving up his life for what Johnny had done. If Johnny had been alive all that time he should have been there, there to draw his guns quick as lightning and see to Dave Parker and send him to his grave. Ned was too mad to think, almost too mad to speak, at all that pain and hardship that had come just through Johnny.

‘Why?’ he grated in fury. ‘Why d’you come back?’

‘For you,’ Johnny said, as if he were surprised that Ned would ask.

Three shots rang out one after the other and Johnny pulled away from him urgently.

‘We’ll talk about it later.’

Ned grabbed at his cuff and followed him, taking hold of him by his arm and yanking him to a standstill.

‘Did you give yourself up on the ridge, Johnny?’ he snapped. ‘Did you? Did you?’

‘Yeah,’ Johnny said, beginning to move away again. ‘Now let me go, will you?’

Ned pulled him back viciously and grabbed him harder. ‘You’re supposed to be dead. You shoulda stayed dead.’

Ben was shouting from a distance, desperation in his voice, but Ned kept hold of Johnny, stopping him from running off. If he let go of him now he might never see him again, never get a chance to hear those answers he desperately needed.

‘Why did you give yourself up on the ridge, Johnny?’ Ned persisted.

He took hold of Johnny by his coat lapels and shook him, the anger hazing out his awareness of anything else around them. He wanted to punch Johnny, to beat him for what he had done. He wanted to be fifteen and able to see, and to roll about on the dirt fighting him until all the fight had left him. Johnny would beat him, he knew that, but he would feel better for it all the same.

‘Why?’ he snapped, his hands tight on the cloth of Johnny’s coat.

‘Look, Ned, this ain’t the time to talk!’

Ned shook him again. ‘I want to know why – now tell me!’

Johnny kept trying to pull away, trying to knock Ned’s hands from his coat. ‘Ned, would you let go of me – ’

‘Tell me!’

‘Ned, you’re making – ’

The gunshots were thickening. Johnny gave up arguing abruptly and the shock of his fist slammed into the side of Ned’s face. Ned staggered backwards, falling onto the ground, half senseless from the blow. Dimly he heard Johnny running, but his ears were ringing, the blood pulsing in his temples. He rolled over, and lay still.


  1. This. Is. Wonderful! I read this before I noticed it was chapter 9. Excellent writing. Lyrical and descriptive but not a wasted word. I fell right into the story. I'm off to find the rest!