Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Fort Defiance - Chapter 11

Ned felt like the last few days were split from the rest of his life like a broken bough that had fallen from a tree. This time had been an endless circle of hunger, riding, stumbling over loose ground, and hiding from a nation of people who wanted to kill him for someone else’s sin. He was sore with riding and walking and the side of his face ached where Johnny had hit him. If someone had offered him a bed he would have lain down in it and slept without even taking his boots off, no matter who owned that bed.

They were walking up a hill, trying to make the climb out of the north side of the canyon towards the pass that Johnny knew of. There were rocks like chevaux de frise all up the slope, hard and unyielding every time Ned’s boots slipped on them. He could hear Johnny leading his horse up ahead, Ben behind Johnny with his own horse. Ned was holding on to Doggone’s tail, walking in the wake of the scent of leather tack and the horses and the dung they dropped. He was so tired he didn’t care about that when he felt it soft underfoot.

The ground flattened out and Doggone stopped walking as the other horses halted in front of him. Ned stumbled over a rock and caught up with the horse, thankful at last to be on level ground.

‘You tired, Ned?’ Ben asked from just ahead.

‘No more tired than anybody else,’ Ned said quickly, stumbling forward as the horse shifted position. He patted Doggone’s flank gently with one hand, keeping hold of the tail with the other.

‘Well, we’ll rest up on top here for a while,’ Johnny said. ‘But we gotta get out of these canyons.’

Johnny didn’t sound tired at all, but he was able to see through Ned’s bravado. Ned was exhausted. The horses moved on and Ned followed, his legs moving like wood, the ground a layer of soft over hardness beneath the soles of his boots. There seemed to be no more rocks now the ground was flat, thank the Lord – nothing but the occasional stubborn hump of plants with dust driven into their roots. But there was a wind up here that hadn’t been so strong on the canyon floor. The air was colder and dust scudded over the ground with a soft sound.

The horses stopped again and Ben tied them off. Ned stood holding onto Doggone’s tail stupidly for a moment, and then he dropped his hand and took a step forward, away from the horse.

‘Come on, Ned,’ Johnny said, closing a hand around his arm with a firm gentleness. ‘I’ll find somewhere for you to set down.’

Ned followed him. It was odd to be so close to Johnny after he had been gone for so long. He felt strange and familiar all at once. His coat felt different to Ben’s, and different to the coat he remembered Johnny having all that time ago. It was a finer weave, softer and more slick with the grease of wear than Ben’s. But his smell was the same – the smell of his tobacco thick in the fabric of his clothes and the smell of his sweat a family smell, not that of a stranger. He smelt something like Uncle Charlie – they had always smoked the same blend. Ned felt a rising of sorrow for Uncle Charlie, and sorrow for what Johnny wasn’t. He wanted his family.

‘Ned, you don’t know what it’s like, being at war,’ Johnny said abruptly, breaking the thick silence.

‘You gonna give me more excuses, Johnny?’ Ned asked, turning his face away.

‘I ain’t giving you excuses. I don’t have to excuse myself to you, Ned,’ Johnny retorted quickly. ‘I’m your brother. It’s my duty to take care of you, and I’m going to. I’ve seen men split apart by cannon, nothing left but blood and brains and splintered bone. There ain’t no glory in that. There ain’t no immortal soul. There’s just meat, trodden into the mud under other men’s boots. I wasn’t going to be one of those men. I needed to be alive so I could come home and take care of you.’

‘They why d’you stay away?’ Ned asked fiercely. ‘It’s been five months nearly since the war ended. It don’t take five months to get from Tennessee to Arizona.’

‘It don’t take two weeks, neither.’

‘I guess it takes longer when you stop to rob a bank or murder some folks,’ Ned said darkly.

Johnny stopped abruptly, jerking at Ned’s coat angrily to turn him about.

‘Now look here, Ned. I didn’t go robbing no banks for the fun of it. How am I gonna take care of you without money? How am I gonna get your eyes fixed? You think a charitable surgeon’s gonna offer to fix you for nothing?’

‘I ain’t going to San Francisco and I ain’t seeing no doctors with that dirty money,’ Ned growled, pulling his arm away from Johnny’s hand. ‘Doc Walters told me when it happened that there weren’t no fixing could be done. Said that blow had clean ripped the insides of my eyes apart.’

‘Doc Walters,’ Johnny said scornfully. ‘He ain’t no eye doctor. He ain’t no city surgeon. It’s my fault you’ve got this handicap, Ned. I’m going to see you right, and I don’t care how many men I have to knock out of the way to do it.’

Ned pressed his mouth closed. He didn’t want Johnny to knock anyone else out of the way on his account, but he knew there was no use in talking. Johnny had never listened to anyone else. He had always gone his own way, trailing fire and thunder in his wake.

‘We at a place we can rest yet?’ he asked. He had the feeling they had been walking in circles, just so that Johnny could talk. The horses didn’t sound far away and he could hear Ben walking across the dry dirt to them.

‘Yeah,’ Johnny said shortly. ‘Yeah, we are.’

‘There any cover? It’s cold.’

‘No,’ said Johnny, ‘but it’s a good vantage point. We’ll be able to see any of those red devils before they see us.’

‘Bunk down, Ned,’ Ben said, coming to stand on his other side and putting a hand on his arm. ‘Get some rest.’

‘You gonna get some rest too, Ben?’ Ned asked him. He was concerned for Ben to rest himself, but he was also worried about what might happen to Ben if he slept. He couldn’t trust Johnny.

‘Yeah,’ Ben said slowly, but there was doubt thick in his voice.

‘Sure he is,’ Johnny said. ‘I’ll keep watch.’

‘I just bet you will,’ Ben murmured.

‘Well, I ain’t going to let you kill me in my sleep,’ Johnny retorted. ‘Ned, get some rest,’ he said, striking Ned’s arm softly. ‘We ain’t got too much time to waste.’

Ned lay down on the ground right where he was, brushing his hand over the dust and then settling on his side. The ground was cold underneath him and the air was cold above him and the wind cut past him quietly, blowing right through his clothes, it seemed, and reaching straight to his skin. He could feel the movement of Doggone’s back under him, as if he were still riding. He was so tired that the cold and the dizzy feeling of riding didn’t matter. He tipped his hat down over his face and slept.


He dreamt he was lying on a bed made of stone, the cold creeping through beneath him and falling down above him in tiny crystals of frost. Johnny was watching him, his guns held loosely in relaxed hands. Ned knew he couldn’t move without Johnny. He knew that if he tried to walk away those hands would tighten and the guns would point at him. Johnny was like a snake in the sun, waiting to strike. Johnny hated himself for holding the guns on Ned, but he wouldn’t let them drop…

The cold was cutting through everything. Ned wasn’t tired enough to sleep through it any more. He moved restlessly, clutching at covers in his sleep that didn’t exist. And then he dreamed that Uncle Charlie was tucking a blanket over his shoulders and some of the cold was softened, and he slept on.

Time folded and stretched inside his mind, dreams threading through his sleep. He heard noises. There were noises of fighting, of scuffling on the dirt. There were the grunts of men locked together and fighting like dogs, quiet and intense. Ned woke abruptly and twisted towards the noises, calling out, ‘Ben? Ben?’

The sound cut off instantly and Johnny shouted from a distance away, ‘Nothing, Ned. Horses stirring. They’re cold too.’

He sounded out of breath. Johnny and Ben walked back towards him making sounds of brushing dust from their clothes and catching their breath. The horses were making no noise at all.

Ned touched his hand to his hat to straighten it, then made to lie back down. He felt something heavy on his body and brushed his fingers over what had been laid over him. It was Ben’s coat.

‘Thanks, Ben,’ he said gratefully. That explained the dream of Uncle Charlie and the blanket. That warmth had allowed him to stay asleep. Ben must be freezing in nothing but his shirt.

He laid his head back on the ground, holding his hat down with his hand. As he did a second coat was laid over his legs, and Johnny said, ‘Here y’are, Ned.’

‘Thanks,’ Ned said uncertainly.

He rested his head back down, but there was little chance of slipping back into sleep now. He could hear horses moving in the canyon bottom. It sounded like a multitude moving, the voices of men rising up indistinct and blown by the wind. Ben whispered something from somewhere near the edge of the plateau and Johnny walked over to him quickly. Ned lay still, gathering warmth under the coats, listening but catching no clear words. Ben and Johnny were talking low and turned away from him. And then after a while Johnny rose up and his voice was louder.

‘…trying to figure out how to fix Dave Parker and get Ned out of Fort Defiance,’ he said, his feet moving about on the ground and his voice moving closer and further away. ‘Now I’ve gotta figure out how to try to keep you from coming up against me so I won’t have to kill you, and if that wasn’t enough of a puzzlement, on top of that I’ve got the whole darn Indian nation to contend with, and on top of that it’s colder than a tinhorn gambler’s heart.’

Ned couldn’t help but smile quietly under his hat. For just a moment he felt sorry for Johnny. He felt sorry for Johnny, and he felt a tiny, uncharitable spear of gladness too. If Johnny hadn’t stayed away so long and done so much wrong he wouldn’t be coming up against these difficulties now.

There was quiet, and then Johnny said, ‘Well. Let’s get started. If we keep moving we’ll be out of here by sundown.’

Both men moved then, coming over to Ned. The coats were lifted from him, letting the cold in again.

‘Ned,’ Johnny said shortly, taking hold of his elbow and hauling him up.

Ned stood, shaking off sleep, and followed Johnny’s pull back to the horses. Somewhere below he could still hear the sound as of hundreds of hooves moving on the earth.

‘What is that, Ben?’ he asked. ‘Indians?’

‘Yeah,’ Ben said. ‘Must be close on a hundred of them down in the bottoms. They’re making a move out of the canyon.’

‘Sure am glad we’re up here,’ Ned smiled.

The horses walked on, and in the valley below the sound of the Indians swelled and faded with the wind and the terrain. For a while they were almost inaudible as their paths diverged, and then Ned could hear them again, louder than ever.

‘We’ll be out on the plains before the sun’s gone,’ Johnny said, bringing his horse to a halt for a moment.

Ned sat on Doggone, flanked by Ben and Johnny, listening to the world about him. He could smell the dust that was being raised into the air by all of those moving feet down below. As he listened he realised that he could hear horses running now, and rising above that the whooping of the Indians. They didn’t sound like they were just travelling steadily any more. Shots began to sound, echoing like swift thunderbolts. And then Ben said urgently, ‘Hey, look there!’

‘I can hear a wagon,’ Ned said, turning his head.

‘It’s not a wagon, it’s a stagecoach,’ Johnny snapped. ‘And the Indians got them running hell for leather. Come on!’

Ned spurred his horse on as he heard Johnny taking off. They were riding back down that hill, back down into the canyon bottoms that they had spent so long climbing out of. The sounds of whooping and shooting and horses running grew louder. They were riding straight towards that creaking, rattling noise of the stagecoach being driven at speed over rough land.

The stage had stopped as they drew up to it, but the noise of the Indians was still whirling and gathering about, shots still snapping through the air. And then a strange silence fell. They were still there – Ned was sure of that – but the Indians had stopped chasing.

‘They’re lining up, getting ready for an attack,’ Ben called across to him as the horses skewed to a standstill. ‘Come on, Ned. Hunker down behind the coach here,’

Ned swung to the ground and ran with Ben gripping at his arm. His outstretched hand hit the arc of the coach wheel with a slap and he dropped to his knees, ducking his head and cursing himself for his uselessness. He could have been another gun to fend off the Indians, and instead he was kneeling here, hiding like a jackrabbit in a scrape in the ground.

‘Any spare guns?’ Johnny was shouting as he ran.

A stranger, a man with a rough voice, called, ‘Yeah, there’s guns and shells in the coach.’

Ned sat back on his heels. A hand touched his back for a moment. Someone was crouching beside him. Then there was the thud as something was dumped onto the ground in front of him and he reached out and felt the thin wood of an ammunition box.

‘Load those guns – make yourself useful,’ Johnny shouted.

The Indians were starting their whooping again. Someone thrust a rifle into Ned’s hands and he slipped his fingers over it. It was a long time since he had loaded a rifle but he could remember well enough how to do it. He slipped cartridge after cartridge into the chamber. When it was full someone snatched it from him and pushed another into his hands.

‘Now, hold your fire until I tell you,’ Johnny shouted.

The Indians were rushing closer, closer, the horses’ hooves thudding onto the ground, their cries rising high above every other noise. Johnny waited until the first shot was fired by the attackers, and then shouted, ‘Now!’

Ned kept on loading the guns. The Indians charged and retreated in waves. He kept plunging his hand into the box of cartridges and slipping them into the weapons he was given.

The person beside him was a woman, he realised. The small sounds she made as she worked at loading guns beside him were a woman’s sounds, and when their hands clashed in the ammunition box he could feel the smallness of her fingers. Once something soft brushed against his face as if she had flung a shawl impatiently back over her shoulder and it had blown out and touched him. He had never expected to run across a woman in circumstances like this.

He listened keenly as he worked, noting the occasional thuds as one of the Indians fell from his horse and hit the ground. He didn’t hear any sounds of injury or death in his own party. He kept listening for Johnny’s voice and for Ben’s voice and he kept hearing them, snapping out orders or muttering quick curses. They must, slowly, be evening the odds. And then, eventually, the noise of the Indians receded and kept receding. They were riding away.

Ned held his breath, waiting to hear what would happen.

‘Wonder what they’re going to do now,’ Johnny said nervously.

‘Gone to get others,’ one of the strangers said – the man Ned had heard before. ‘Sun’ll be gone in a couple of minutes, and I don’t believe they’ll attack at night.’

‘If they don’t, there’ll be a swarm of them when day breaks,’ Johnny said grimly.

‘I knew this would happen when we left Willerton,’ the man said fatalistically.


‘Yup. We’re the first stage out in a week.’

‘That’s where my wife’s coming from,’ Ben said in concern, starting forward.

‘Well, there was a couple of passengers, but they decided not to buy tickets with this Indian showdown coming on,’ the man told him. ‘Now, if your wife happened to be one of those she can probably get out on the next stage. That is, if it’s possible.’

‘How come she bought a ticket?’ Johnny asked in a low voice.

Ned listened closely. The woman who had been beside him had barely spoken to him. She had just carried on loading and passing on the rifles as fast and efficient as any man. Now she had moved away and was standing somewhere near the horses.

‘She didn’t buy no ticket,’ the man said, his voice equally quiet. ‘A committee in the town bought one for her. She wasn’t bothering no one. They shouldn’t’ve done it to her – leastways, not this time.’

Ned frowned. He couldn’t imagine what would make a town of people send a woman out on a stage at a time like this.

‘What made you go?’ Johnny asked.

‘Mail contracts,’ the man said with resigned fatality. ‘Gotta show good deliveries or you lose ’em, and you can’t operate a stage on just passengers.’

The man unscrewed a lid and drank from a bottle that sounded near empty. The scent of cheap liquor drifted to Ned on the wind.

‘Sure wished I could’ve had a drink of that real Eastern whiskey they was going to have at the Fort for Christmas,’ the man lamented quietly.

Ned huddled down by the wagon wheel. All thought of Christmas had been driven from his mind until now. He had forgotten that Christmas tree waiting for Ben’s wife and the thought of settling down and eating well and being thankful for one long, quiet day. And that man thought they were going to die here. After all these hours riding and running they were going to die by this stagecoach out in the bottom of the canyon, shot down by Indians. But they had Johnny and Ben here. Johnny had been the best rifleman in his unit. Ned didn’t know what to believe about Johnny any more, but he did believe that.

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