Thursday, 6 October 2011

Fort Defiance - Chapter 12

Night had come, soft and thin with cold. There were drums somewhere in the hills making a low, steady, menacing beat. They were faster than a heartbeat and seemed to be part of the rocks and the earth as much as the wind that moved the dust and the animals that crept behind stands of grass.

Ned sat huddled against the wheel of the stagecoach, his arms about his knees, waiting. He wasn’t sure what it was he was waiting for – for time to slip past, for the Indians to come out of the hills and attack, for the dawn to come with chill dew and quiet. Ben had said that the dark was starred with fires, like beacons, in the hills. There were hundreds of Navajo out there, striking their drums and letting the folks by the stagecoach know that they were gathering. Ned felt small and defenceless. All he could do to stay alive was keep down and pray hard.

The men were talking, but Ned had no part in that. They were talking about the best places to shoot from and where the Indians might come from and how many bullets they had left. All Ned could do when the time came was load rifles and pass them on. There were Ben and Johnny and three others. The rough-voiced man with his bottle of nearly empty liquor was the coach driver. There was another man – a hired gun – and a boy with a voice not-long broken and a nervous impatience that made him never sit still for more than five minutes. That made five folks that could shoot, but with the amount of Indians gathering it would be like trying to shelter from the rainfall under a single leaf.

The woman was beside him, sitting on the dirt like him. She was as close as she could be without touching him. She smelt clean and fresh, unlike the men clustered about. Tobacco scent drifted through the air from the men, but she smelt of nothing but her clothes and cleanness.

It took him a long time to gather the nerve to speak to her. She seemed closed in on herself, afraid of more than just the Indians. She stayed close to him for warmth, because it would not do for her to stride about and see to the horses and smoke like the men were, but she said nothing.

He turned toward her, opened his mouth, and shut it again. He adjusted his hat and stretched one leg at a time, and then turned to her again. Finally he said to her, ‘My name’s Edward, ma’am. Ned, that is.’

‘Oh,’ she said softly, as if he had startled her from a dream. ‘Julie. I’m Julie.’

‘I’m real pleased to meet you,’ Ned said with a quick smile. Those words were easy, but he didn’t know what to say next.

‘Yeah,’ she said, as if she were caught up in that dream again. ‘Pleased to meet you.’

‘Er – Have you come far, ma’am?’ Ned asked, fiddling with the brim of his hat.

‘Just from Willerton,’ she said. ‘My – er – my folks had a ranch outside of Willerton,’ she said in a sudden rush.

Ned nodded, suddenly self-conscious with the memory of the coach driver saying how the town committee had bought her a ticket. He couldn’t think why they would spend all that money on a ticket just to send her away. Her accent was Arizona, like his, but she didn’t sound like she had been brought up rough and unfinished like him. She sounded like a lady from town, not like a girl that had grown up away from other folks and living half wild on a ranch.

‘It’s – Well, I heard it’s good grazing land outside of Willerton,’ Ned said.

‘Yeah,’ she said.

‘Where are you heading, ma’am?’ Ned asked.

‘Well, I was hoping to – ’

She broke off as the sound of the drums intensified. Ned turned his head, listening, his entire attention caught up in that rhythm. He seemed to be transported to the hills, imagining the fires burning and the men standing round, maybe dancing, maybe just beating those drums. The fire would flicker over their faces and show them in bronzed glimpses. Those men owned the hills. They owned the land. They knew how to live out here.

He drew himself back to the cold and the feel of the coachwheel against his back and the great emptiness before him. His hands were chilled and he rubbed them together and thrust them into the armpits of his coat.

‘Er – you – you were saying, ma’am?’ he asked, turning back towards the woman.

‘Yeah, well…’ she said, as distracted by the drums as he was. ‘I’m on my way to San Francisco.’

‘Mmm,’ he nodded. ‘You got folks there?’

‘No, I – I’m hoping to start a business,’ she said awkwardly. Her dress rustled as she shuffled on the ground and Ned wondered for a fleeting moment what that fabric looked like, and if it were pretty.

‘Business?’ he asked curiously. ‘What kind of business?’

She moved again awkwardly. He could hear the soft noise of skin slipping over skin as she stroked her hand up her arm, rubbing warmth into her flesh.

‘Well, I’m – I’m not really sure.’

‘Well, what kind of business were you in before, ma’am?’ he prompted her.

‘Umm… Well, I’m hoping to start a new business,’ she said quickly. ‘Maybe sewing.’

She was growing more awkward the more he pressed her. He thought again about what the coach driver had said, and wondered again what she was leaving behind her.

‘Did you – you say your name was Julie, ma’am?’ he asked her, as the only way he could think of to change the subject.

‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘Julie Morse.’

‘Julie,’ Ned repeated, feeling the shape of it on his tongue. ‘That’s a real pretty name.’

The coach shook as someone jumped down suddenly from the back, and Ned’s head jerked up.

‘I’m gettin’ tired of that same old song.’

It was the boy, his impatience and fear finally overcoming him.

‘I’m gettin’ out of here,’ he said, pacing up and down on the ground. Ned could hear the rifle he carried as he passed and passed again.

‘Now, look, sonny,’ the coach driver reasoned. ‘Don’t get smart just cause you’ve killed your first Indian. You ain’t got a chance out there.’

‘Well there ain’t no chance waitin’ for the dawn, either,’ the boy said, desperation threading into his voice. He was only a moment away from breaking. ‘Anyone else want to try with me? You?’

There was silence. Ned sat still and waited. He heard the boy mount a horse and canter away. His first thought was, I hope he didn’t take Doggone…

‘He’s gonna be dead before he knows what’s happened, the darn fool,’ Ben said in a low voice.

‘Yeah,’ Johnny said concisely.

Ned closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the wagon wheel. He thought of the Lord up in heaven and tried to ask Him to spare the boy. But he couldn’t believe in what he was asking. He wanted the Lord to spare them all. He wanted Him to spare the Indians from the troubles that were being laid upon them. He wanted Him to take Johnny aside and make him lead a good, quiet life somewhere else. He wanted Him to let him and Ben and Ben’s wife live in peace and quiet, with the sound of cattle lowing somewhere in the bluffs and invisible condors passing over with their wide, spreading wings and their guttural cawing calls, and the fire burning in the stove when it was winter and cold water in the well when it was summer. That boy was a fool. He hadn’t a chance of making it out of the canyon.

The drums kept on beating. They were so constant that sometimes they caught him and he almost tapped his foot to their rhythm. And then he remembered what they meant and held his foot still before it could move on the dirt. He sat still then for a long time. He might have drifted into sleep but he couldn’t be sure. If he did, the drums were in his dreams too.

‘Ned?’ Julie said from beside him.

Ned turned his head in surprise. It was the first time she had used his name.

‘What is it, Miss Julie?’ he asked, then caught himself. ‘You ain’t married, ma’am?’ he asked carefully.

‘No,’ she said simply. ‘That boy’s going to die. Isn’t he?’

Ned bit his lip into his mouth and then nodded slowly. ‘Yeah, I guess he is.’

‘He’s sixteen,’ she said in a hollow, half-desperate voice. ‘I heard him say he was just sixteen a few weeks back. Isn’t that too young to die?’

Ned swallowed. His throat felt curiously full and hard.

‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘It is.’

The dark felt close and solid around him even though he could not see it. He could hear it in the way the drumbeats travelled and feel it in the stillness of the air. It was as if a blanket had been laid down over the world.

‘Those fires must be warm,’ Julie said into the stillness after a while.

‘Are there many of ’em?’ Ned asked, imagining how the hot wellings of light must look against the velvet darkness.

‘Too many.’ Julie said. ‘I sure wish there was brush about here to burn.’

‘There ain’t nothing, huh?’ Ned asked.

‘Nothing worth burning,’ she said.

There was a long pause of the kind Ned was used to, when someone was looking at him and knowing he could not see them looking. He knew she was working up the courage to ask him about his eyes.

‘I can’t see nothing,’ he said, forestalling her question. ‘Least, nothing worth mentioning.’

‘How long have you been blind?’ she asked, then said quickly, ‘You mind me asking that?’

He shook his head. ‘Been close on four years now. I was going on twenty-one when I lost my sight.’

‘Oh. I’m sorry,’ she said, her voice thick with awkwardness.

‘Ain’t nothing can be done about it,’ Ned said, moving his foot in the dust. ‘Johnny – that is, my brother Johnny – thinks there’s doctors in San Francisco could help me, but I don’t put no store in that. I don’t want to go there…’

‘Supposed to be all sorts of good things in San Francisco,’ Julie said.

‘I don’t want to find out about them,’ Ned said stubbornly.

‘No,’ she said after a long moment of silence. ‘I don’t think I do either.’

She stood up suddenly and walked away. Ned sat for a while, listening to her skirts swinging as she walked. She was as restless as the rest of them. She was full of something that she didn’t want to let loose, something that she needed to let loose. Ned had a sudden thought that he would not be surprised if she leapt onto a horse and rode out to certain death too.

Someone came over with slow, easy steps. It was Ben. Ned could pick out the sounds of him by now.

‘Ben?’ he called out quietly.

‘Yeah,’ Ben said from beside the wheel.

Ned stood up, running his hands over the cold iron tyre of the coach wheel to the top. His legs were stiff as he straightened them. He had been sitting down for too long.

‘Are you cold, Ned?’ Ben asked him.

Ned nodded, drawing his coat more tightly across his chest. He had been cold for so long that it had started to feel like a natural state.

‘Well, there’s a couple more hours til daylight,’ Ben told him in a quiet, reflective voice.

Ned leaned back against the solid panels of the coach. He touched his hand back to the cold of the iron tyre, moving his fingers over the metal nervously. He had the woman’s voice in his mind and the sound of her skirts brushing against themselves as she moved.

‘Ben?’ he asked. ‘Is she pretty?’

‘I reckon you’d say that,’ Ben said slowly, shifting his gun in his arms.

‘She’s nice,’ Ned said quietly, with a carefully restrained eagerness. ‘How old is she?’

‘Bout the same age you are,’ Ben told him in a level voice. He sounded as if he were concentrating on something deep inside or far away.

‘Found out she ain’t married.’

‘No, I reckon not.’

Ned wondered about the darkness in his voice, but abruptly the coach driver called out, ‘Somebody’s coming!’

The men set off running. Ned started forward but didn’t move away from the coach wheel. He could hear a horse walking at a slow pace, but it sounded like a riderless horse. It had the half-aimless tread of a horse that was being led with a load rather than ridden by a man.

‘Go get him,’ the coach driver said, and someone ran to meet that horse.

Ned leaned forward, listening, one hand on the coach wheel.

‘We’d better take it behind the ledge,’ the driver said in a sober voice.

Ned leaned back again, an odd sick feeling settling in his core. It was the boy. It must be. He had known that he would be killed, but he hadn’t expected him to be sent back, slung across the horse like a warning.

There was a sudden shriek and a whoop from far away, and chanting started up, loud and strong. Perhaps the Indians had been watching and waiting for that horse to come back to the others, to deliver their message. The chanting was in a wide arc somewhere behind the coach. It sounded like the hills were full of Indians just waiting for the moment to attack again. Ned turned his head, listening, fear and sick anticipation sparking through his body.

‘Well, Mr Only Survivor,’ he heard Johnny say to Ben somewhere in front of the coach. ‘I guess you won’t have that distinction by the time the sun’s high.’

‘No, I reckon everything’s gonna be taken care of for us,’ Ben replied flatly.

One of them walked back to the coach. Julie was there – Ned could hear her standing by the side of the coach, small noises like suppressed sobs coming from her.

‘Pretty music, huh?’ Johnny asked. ‘Can I have the next dance?’

Ned tensed. Julie’s almost inaudible sobs had turned into something louder and more real. Ned moved to Johnny and grabbed him by the shoulder, yanking him away from the woman.

‘Let her alone, will you, Johnny?’ he growled.

Johnny sighed and began to move away. Ned moved his hand from Johnny’s coat with a last shake, and stepped forward towards Julie. His hand touched the softness of her shawl first, feeling a loose-knit wool that covered her shoulders. He moved his hand cautiously towards where he thought hers might be, and felt her fingers slip into his. Her hand almost disappeared under his.

‘What is it, Miss Julie?’ he asked.

‘I’m all right,’ she said shakily, taking deep gasps of air to calm herself.

Ned patted her hand softly and then gripped it tight. He wanted to do more than that. He wanted to be prowling about the coach with a gun – but this was all he could do.

He could feel the warmth between the lengths of their bodies, standing this close. Her hands were cold but her breath was warm when it brushed his face and he could smell the clean scent of her hair very near to him. Her heartbeat pulsed through her fingertips where they were pressed against his hands. There was a strength in her hands. She wasn’t gripping on to him, but he could feel her strength.

A great fear overcame him, not of the Indians in the hills or the guns that they carried, but of dying as he was about to without ever once saying exactly what he wanted to to a woman like this.

‘Miss Julie,’ he said, keeping the fear closed inside.

‘Yeah?’ she asked. She was so scared her voice sounded choked and sick. The singing of the Indians was rising and falling, filling the air all around them and pressing out everything else.

‘There’s something I’ve been wanting to ask you,’ he said, trying to tune out that singing and hear only her breathing.

‘Sure,’ she said.

‘You being a girl, maybe you could tell me,’ he continued. He was prevaricating, but what he was getting to scared him more than the Indians.

‘W-what is it?’

‘Well – well, if a girl’d get to know me, and if she – ’ He faltered, his breath catching, trying to work out the right words and to get them to come to his tongue. ‘Well – do you think it’s possible that a pretty young girl could ever consider a man like me?’ he asked, finally managing to put words to the thought.

‘Well, if she loved him, sure,’ she said without hesitation, her face turned up towards his.

‘Could she love a fella with my kind of handicap?’

‘Why not?’ she said softly.

He swallowed. His heart was racing beneath his ribs. The Indians were just a background noise behind the rushing in his ears.

‘The thing that scares a fella like me is maybe he ain’t wanted,’ he said quickly.

‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘That scares a lot of people.’

‘And – being scared that way – well – you figure m-maybe it’s better never to find out,’ he carried on in a rush. ‘You sorta feel maybe it’s better to go on being scared, instead of finding out for sure that you’re not wanted.’

A whooping scream rose above the chanting and Julie threw herself forward at his chest, burying her face against him. She did not allow herself to cry out loud, but he could feel the shaking of noiseless sobs inside her. This cold dawn was going to be their last. The vital, red, blood-filled reality of him and of her against him was going to be ended and left in something still and cold and drained on the dirt.

He closed his mind again to the Indian singing and concentrated on the reality of this narrow space where they stood. Her hair was against his chin. He could smell the clean scent of it every time he breathed. He raised his hand to the back of her head and laid it on her hair, feeling the smoothness of its mass and the warmth of her scalp beneath it. He wondered what colour her hair was – but that didn’t matter. Ben had said she was pretty, but that didn’t matter either. The reality of her and her head against his chest and the fluttering feel of her terrified heartbeat through every place he touched was beautiful enough in itself. He let his head sink down against hers, her hair against his cheek, and he stood there, waiting.

No comments:

Post a Comment