Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Fort Defiance - Chapter 10

He came to with his face in the dirt, breathing dry dust into his mouth and nose. The horses were stirring nearby, the trees rustling above his head. He pressed a hand slowly to his bruised cheek. Johnny had hit him. Johnny…

Shots were firing somewhere, echoing like thunder from the canyon walls. Panic clenched at him as a realisation crept into his head. Ben wanted to kill Johnny. That meant that Johnny would mean to kill Ben first. That fist fighting he had heard when Johnny first arrived made sense now. It would be so easy for Johnny to shoot Ben and say that the Indians got him.

‘Ben?’ he called out, staggering to his feet.

There was no answer. Nothing but the sound of gunshots cracking and echoing somewhere away in front of him.

‘Ben?’ he called again, his voice cracking with fear. ‘Ben!’

He ran towards the noise and tripped as the ground rose up, falling face forward again onto the ground. He was running and falling, running and falling, calling out for Ben, but Ben didn’t answer. The dust billowed up around him every time he fell and filled the inside of his mouth and his lungs. There was nothing under his hands but dry, sandy earth that slipped through his fingers. With all the echoing from the cliffs he couldn’t work out where the shots were coming from and he was running across a wilderness with bullets flying, no idea if Ben were dead or alive. He had been stupid to even move, but it was too late now. He was caught in the open and had no clue which way to go.

Footsteps thudded behind him and someone barrelled onto him and pushed him to the ground, half dragging him over the dirt until he hit against the shelter of tree roots exposed and roughened by the wind. The smell of sweat and stale tobacco smoke was strong around him, coming from that man who had hold of him. He didn’t want it to be Johnny.

‘Ben?’ he asked, something close to a sob in his voice now. ‘That you, Ben?’

‘It’s me, Ned,’ Ben said, his voice tense but reassuring. ‘Keep down!’

Ned huddled down, waves of relief pouring through his body. Ben’s arm was solid over his back, holding him pressed down to the ground. The shooting was right overhead. There was an Indian so close to him he could hear his breathing. He could smell sweat mixed up with his deerskin clothes. He heard running again and Johnny giving a kind of war cry, and then both Johnny’s guns fired simultaneously and Ned heard bodies thud to the ground just a few feet away from where he was.

Quiet settled around them. It was still and silent for a long few seconds. Then Johnny moved, his footsteps muffled in the dust. Ben sat up and let go of Ned with a rough parting shake.

‘You fool! You darn crazy fool!’ he told Ned, his voice strained with anger and spent fear.

Ned sat up, still breathing hard from the running and the fear. He pressed his hands onto the dry dirt, feeling the angle of the slope beneath him.

‘Don’t be in such a rush to get killed,’ Johnny said tersely nearby. ‘It might come to you soon enough.’

Ned had to keep himself from lurching at Johnny. He knew that Johnny had just saved his life with those two simultaneous shots over his head, but he was still so mad at him that he could have hit him.

‘Why d’you give yourself up on the ridge, Johnny?’ Ned asked him. He wanted Johnny to say something that would redeem him for all he had done, that would give Ned a reason to forgive him. ‘You ain’t a coward. Why?’

‘Because I wasn’t going to get my head blowed off knowing the war was ending,’ Johnny said sharply. ‘Some general sitting on his big fat headquarters trying to make a show for himself. Besides, the Parker boys was in that outfit. I didn’t bleed none for them.’

‘There was my brother and me,’ Ben reminded him in a level voice, ‘and other men.’

‘Ain’t that funny?’ Johnny said, his voice rich with sarcasm. ‘I was thinking about my brother, and me.’

‘It was your duty,’ Ned snapped.

It hurt to have Johnny mention him like that, as if he were trying to draw Ned into what he’d done. He didn’t want to think that any consideration of him had been pulling at Johnny’s thoughts when he made the decision to bail out and give himself up, and leave Ben’s brother and all those other men to certain death. The thought of that made his chest tighten.

‘A man that gets killed doing his duty ain’t any more alive than a man that just gets plain killed,’ Johnny retorted. ‘Course, I ain’t never had an opinion from anyone it’s ever happened to,’ he added acerbically.

‘Don’t make me your excuse, Johnny,’ Ned said in disgust.

‘I ain’t,’ Johnny said, striding towards Ned in his anger. ‘You asked me – I’m telling you why. Three years of fighting, wounded five times. I saw the end in sight. I wasn’t going to get killed for nothing.’

Johnny fell silent, but Ned could feel the anger still in him. He was pacing about as if things were moving in his mind, his footsteps thickening the air with dust. Ned barely moved. He was pinned to the dirt with tiredness and a misery so deep it was about to break him apart. He tried to think of what it had been like for Johnny in the middle of all that fighting, seeing so much death – but he couldn’t imagine allowing all those men to die just to save his own hide.

‘We’re going to take that coach out of Fort Defiance for San Francisco,’ Johnny said finally, turning back to him.

Ned sat still, speechless. He never had been able to fight against Johnny, least of all now when he couldn’t see and Johnny was his only family left. But the idea of going away with Johnny made him sick with fear. He didn’t want to live with him, to be reliant on him for everything. He wanted to stay here, where he belonged, in the house and the land that he knew. He would rather stay sitting right here, out in the canyon in the dirt, than go with Johnny to San Francisco.

‘You ain’t going to get on that coach if I can help it,’ Ben said with a threat in his voice, starting forward towards Johnny.

‘Don’t do it, Ben,’ Ned said brokenly. ‘He’s fast. He’s too fast.’

‘Yeah, I know,’ Ben said. ‘Like a snake.’

‘And twice as nasty,’ Johnny completed as if reciting a trademark. ‘So stop making a pest out of yourself, Mister Only Survivor. I’m already more than beholden to you for what you’ve done for Ned.’ He turned away from Ben and moved back to Ned, leaning forward to put himself level with his brother. ‘Now, look. Let’s be practical. I got five thousand dollars to get your eyes fixed.’

Ned shook his head. Five thousand dollars was an amount of money he couldn’t imagine. It was the kind of money that came in dreams – but he didn’t even have to think his reply through.

‘I don’t want any of it.’

‘Where’d that rotten money come from?’ Ben asked derisively.

‘Listen, mister, you’re talking about the stuff I love,’ Johnny drawled in reply. ‘Where does anyone go for money? To a bank.’

‘Look out!’

Ned had almost forgotten about Johnny’s companion, the quiet man that he hadn’t yet spoken to or even heard speak. But at the stranger’s shout he threw himself to the dirt, hearing slow, creeping footsteps somewhere nearby. A shot rang out from behind him, and then another in the other direction, and bodies fell.

‘Ben?’ he called quickly, no idea who had been shot or how bad they were hurt. ‘Ben?’

‘Uhuh, I’m all right,’ Ben said calmly from nearby.

‘Appears to me you’re more worried about him than your own brother,’ Johnny said tightly.

Ned didn’t reply. He didn’t have it in him to tell Johnny, Yes, Ben’s been more of a brother to me than you have in a long time. Yes, I’d rather lose you than him. He let those thoughts run in his head and kept his mouth tight shut. But if it wasn’t Ben or Johnny who had fallen then it must have been the other man, and it must have been one last Indian who had taken that first shot.

‘Hankey was a good man,’ Johnny said slowly. ‘He didn’t have any feelings about anything. All he had was loyalty.’

Ned pressed his lips together hard, feeling sick. He hadn’t even learnt the man’s name until now. He sat very still, knowing that less than a few yards away was the dead body of a man who would not have been dead if Johnny had not rode out here after his brother. All around them were the dead bodies of Indians who were mad at having their land taken away from them. Maybe there was even Brave Bear, who had been something of a friend to Ned.

Johnny seemed to leave trails of death behind him, and all in the name of helping his brother. Perhaps Ned had more feelings than Johnny thought he ought. Perhaps Ned was not loyal enough to him any more – but he did not want any more blood let out on his account.

‘It’s still daylight, but we’d better get out of here,’ Johnny said, unstrapping the dead man’s gun belt. ‘There’ll be other Indians looking after these. Now, we can’t get out of the east or the west end of the canyon. There’s Indians growing out of the rocks at those passes.’

‘Then where?’ Ben asked.

‘Well, there’s a pass to the north that few knows about.’

‘And now will you give me a gun?’ Ben asked.

Ned stiffened. He hadn’t realised that all this time Johnny had left Ben defenceless. All that time it had just been Johnny and his friend shooting, and Ben had run out after Ned with no weapon in his hand.

‘We might need all the shooting can be done to get out of here,’ Ben persisted. ‘I ain’t never shot a man in the back. Don’t reckon I could. Not even you.’

There was silence. And then Ned heard Ben catching the gun and holster that Johnny tossed it to him. He felt a whole degree safer with Ben armed.

Ben buckled the belt on, then asked easily, ‘Do you mind if I heft it?’

‘Go ahead,’ Johnny said, but as he spoke there was the slick sound of him snapping his own guns out and levelling them on Ben. ‘Please. Don’t do nothing that’ll make me have to kill you,’ Johnny added in deadly earnest.

Ned sat and waited. He heard Ben throwing the gun up and catching it as if to test its weight in his hand. Johnny’s guns made no sound at all. And then Ben slid his weapon back into its holster, and a moment later Johnny did the same. Ned’s shoulders relaxed slowly. He felt as if he were sitting on dynamite, but he was almost certain he could trust Ben not to set it off.

‘Guess we should get a move on,’ Johnny said after a moment. ‘Come on, Ned.’

‘What about him?’ Ben asked, and Ned lifted his head, wondering if Ben was referring to him.

‘We haven’t got time for Christian burials,’ Johnny said crisply, and Ned realised that Ben was thinking of the body of Hankey, lying unburied on the dirt. ‘He’d understand that as well as I do.’

‘Well, I’d as soon not leave him for the coyotes,’ Ben said firmly.

Ned stood up, dusting off his pants and jacket and hitching up his belt. ‘Ben’s right. We can’t leave him out on the ground. It ain’t right.’

‘Ned, are you going to spend this whole time fighting with me?’ Johnny began in a warning voice, taking a few steps closer to him.

Ned moved backwards instinctively and a tree branch caught at his hat, reminding him of what was behind him.

‘I ain’t a kid any more, Johnny,’ he said, straightening his hat again.

‘No, you ain’t,’ Johnny said. ‘But I’m all the family you got left in this world, Neddy boy, and it’s my job to take care of you. You ain’t a kid, but you’re blind on my account.’

‘Then Uncle Charlie is dead,’ Ned said slowly, pushing his hands into his pockets and turning away.

‘Yeah,’ Johnny said economically. ‘Came across three of Dave Parker’s lot putting him in the ground. I sent two of them after him, only I didn’t stick around to put them in the ground too. I’m happy to let the coyotes get ’em.’

‘That’s as may be, but Hankey was your man,’ Ben reminded him.

‘Yeah,’ Johnny said. ‘And I ain’t going to get Ned killed by staying around here burying him.’ He caught at Ned’s coat arm and pulled. ‘Come on, Ned. We need to make that pass before all them Indians’ pals try to join the party.’

Ned stood still. It didn’t seem right to leave Hankey. Even the Parker gang had the decency to bury poor Uncle Charlie. But he knew that Johnny was right. They didn’t have the equipment to dig a hole for Hankey and they didn’t have time even to cover him in stones.

He pulled his sleeve away from Johnny’s hand and turned deliberately towards Ben.

‘Ben?’ he asked. ‘Would you give me a hand back to the horses?’

A difficult silence fell. Ned could feel the unspoken tension moving between Ben and Johnny. And then Ben moved over to him and said, ‘Sure, Ned. I’m here.’

Ned slipped his fingers about Ben’s arm. Perhaps he did have to go with Johnny, but he didn’t have to be in tow to Johnny. He didn’t want to touch Johnny right now. He wanted to have everyone be silent and to pretend that Johnny’s footfalls were just the echoes of Ben’s.

Poor Uncle Charlie… Ned had been sure that he was dead, but now he knew, and the knowing was far worse than the supposition. He felt as if something had fallen from his chest, just under his lungs, making every breath a long and hard fight against gravity. Uncle Charlie had been there forever, and had taken care of Ned in his blindness for four years. Sure he had been overprotective at times, but he had never let Ned down, never left him without help. Ned didn’t know which way to turn at the thought of there being no Uncle Charlie left in the world.

‘Y’all right, Ned?’ Ben asked in a low voice as Ned stumbled over a rough piece of ground. Johnny was walking ahead, impatient to get out of here, kicking up dust in his wake.

‘Yeah,’ Ned said shortly. He knew that Ben could tell he was not all right, and why. There was no need to say anything else.

‘You want to go to San Francisco with your brother?’

Ned stiffened. ‘I ain’t going to San Francisco,’ he said. ‘I don’t reckon even five thousand dollars could fix my eyes. They’re too far gone. Johnny always thinks he can fix things. He can’t fix this.’

‘No, I don’t reckon he can,’ Ben said slowly.

‘You ain’t going to leave me with Johnny, Ben?’ Ned asked uncertainly.

‘Why’d I leave you with a man I intend to kill first chance I get?’ Ben said with deadly seriousness. ‘Besides. You know we’re partners.’

‘Yeah, I know,’ Ned said.

He had never felt such a gulf between him and Johnny as he did now, especially with Ben standing there as a kind of yardstick to hold Johnny up against. Even when he thought Johnny was dead he hadn’t felt such a distance between them. When he had heard how Johnny had lived by robbing and murdering after the war ended it seemed like a painted, smiling, china Johnny had been smashed in his mind. That Johnny had been gilt and perfect, and had never really existed. He had put those shards to rest and moved on. But now Johnny was here again, solid and real, trying to take the money he had stolen and press it on to Ned, to tarnish him too. He didn’t know Johnny any more and he didn’t know what to do with him. He kept hold of Ben’s arm and prayed that what Uncle Charlie had said was true, that God had given him Ben as a brother in place of Johnny. It was a trade that he would stick to any day.

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