Saturday, 8 October 2011

Fort Defiance - Chapter 13

There was a silence like the quiet before a thunderstorm breaks. The drums had stopped. The wild singing and whooping had stopped. The wind had dropped with dawn and there was no dust shushing across the ground. Ned could not even hear birds calling. They had been silenced or scared away by the men in the hills. Only the horses moved restlessly by the stagecoach. They had been standing tethered all night, but they would not be given the chance to run now.

Ned stood by the stage wheel, glad of the protective solidity of all that wooden coachwork behind his back. Everyone was separate and waiting, standing on the dirt. Ned could hear small noises as the men moved their rifles from hand to hand, impatient for something to happen. He turned his head, listening keenly, wondering where Julie had gone. She had pulled away from him after a while, bothered and embarrassed by the clinch, and they had been standing apart since.

He could not hear her moving about. He guessed she was sitting somewhere but he didn’t try to find her. No one seemed to want to walk or speak, and Ned would not break in to that funereal stillness. He could feel the pall of it on himself. They were all waiting to die.

Ned had never been shot. He wondered how it would feel as a piece of lead travelling faster than sight tore through soft flesh and lodged inside. There would be pain before death, he was sure. He remembered the first time he had shot a jackrabbit – the way he had shot clumsily and missed the head and struck it through the belly instead. It had been dying slowly, its eyes misted with panic and pain, and he had stood and stared, indecisive. It had taken Johnny to push past him and smash its head with the butt of his gun.

‘Never let it suffer like that, Ned,’ he had said with a strange anger in his voice. ‘It’s dying for you. Don’t make the dying harder than it has to be.’

He wondered what it had been like for Johnny during the war, seeing all that dying, seeing it happen slowly and with great pain, and to men, not to jackrabbits. Had he stepped in and put men out of their agony like he had that rabbit? He must have seen death again and again. It must have put a terrible fear of dying in him.

But Johnny had let Ben’s brother die, and all those other men… Johnny, who would fight like a dog and shoot without hesitation, but would not let a jackrabbit linger in pain. He didn’t know what to think of that.

‘They’ve stopped serenading us,’ the coach driver said from a few yards away.

‘That’s the noisiest hunk of silence I ever did hear,’ Johnny replied, and Ned could hear the fear in his voice, disguised with flippancy.

Johnny’s feet made a quiet sound on the dust as he walked and then crouched. Ned heard the rustle of Julie’s skirts as she moved. She was sitting there, where Johnny had gone.

‘Here,’ Johnny said in a low voice, almost too quiet for Ned to hear. ‘Take it.’ And then louder, ‘Take it! If anything happens to us, don’t hesitate. It’s for Ned and you.’

Ned turned his head, wondering.

‘You saw what happened to him,’ Johnny said.

He was talking about the boy who was lying dead somewhere nearby. He had that tone in his voice that people had when they spoke of dead people, as if they were afraid that speaking of the dead would invoke death itself.

There was a whoop from far out beyond the stage, and then a hundred other voices took up the call. It was starting. Horses’ hooves pounded, thundering closer and closer, bringing that whooping closer like a rushing storm.

‘We got visitors, and they ain’t being polite,’ Johnny shouted. ‘Here they come!’

Ned dropped back to the dirt, kneeling behind the coach and waiting for someone to start feeding him empty guns. Julie was beside him again and she grabbed at his wrist, guiding his hand to the ammunition box.

‘What’d Johnny give you?’ he asked her urgently. ‘He give you that money?’

‘He gave me a six-gun,’ she said. She sounded breathless with panic.

Ned relaxed for just a second. He had hated to think of Johnny pushing that dirty money on Julie. Then a rifle was slammed against his hands and he took it and started loading the cartridges again with urgent speed.

The Indians were circling them like wolves about a herd, the horses pounding past, dust clouding up into the air and filling Ned’s lungs. He could hear bodies dropping again, horses squealing with fear and suddenly running aimless and loose. And then he heard a choking sound of fear and pain closer than that as someone fell near the coach.

‘Julie, who was that?’ he asked urgently, his hands stopping still. ‘Who was shot?’

She was silent a moment, then said, ‘Harris. The protection the driver hired. He’s dead.’

‘He die quick?’ Ned asked, thinking again of that jackrabbit.

‘Yeah,’ she said, sounding sick. ‘Yeah, he died real quick.’

Ned nodded. He licked dust from his dry lips and began loading the guns again. There was just Ben, Johnny and the stage driver shooting now, against the Lord knew how many Indians. It was only a matter of time before they were each picked off. He didn’t know if the Indians would shoot a woman. He didn’t know if they would shoot him if they saw him unarmed and incapable. In some way he hoped that they would. He didn’t want to be left out here with Ben and Johnny dead.

‘Can you shoot, Julie?’ he asked. ‘You ever shot with a rifle?’

‘My pa wouldn’t let me touch his rifle,’ she said briskly, popping cartridges in with a rhythmic, metallic sound. ‘But I guess I could try.’

‘I could show you,’ Ned began. ‘I mayn’t be able to aim, but I can show you how to shoot it.’

And then a bugle call sounded! It was clear and musical and rising above the jarring sounds of whooping and and shooting and horses running. Ned’s head jerked around towards the noise. There were a deal more horses coming, and that bugle call sounding out loud amid the noise of their hooves. Somewhere amongst the circling Indians a voice called out in a high, yipping shriek, and the sound of the Indians changed. They were breaking from the circle. They were riding away!

The others were standing and moving, perhaps looking out to catch a first glimpse of the army troops that Ned could hear galloping in. Ned stayed crouched. There were still some shots being fired and he would not raise his head and risk his life now.

‘Yippee!’ the coach driver whooped in joy. ‘Looks like I’m gonna get a drink of that real Eastern whiskey after all!’

Ned turned his head, listening. The Indians were riding out in a thunder of hooves. The shots were tailing off, and that bugle kept blowing. It was the most beautiful music he had ever heard. Finally he got up, standing up tall on the dirt and turning about, listening to the horses moving away. A sense of relief fell down through him, making his arms and legs feel weak.

‘Ben?’ he called, taking a step. ‘Ben, are they gone?’

‘They’re gone, Ned,’ Ben said with a grin in his voice, stepping over to him and slapping him on the arm. ‘Those troops are chasing them clear out of the canyon.’

Ned blew air out of his cheeks in a long breath, and then grinned himself. ‘I didn’t think we’d make it,’ he said.

‘Well, with you and the lady loading them guns so fast, we never had to stop shooting,’ Ben said.

Ned smiled again. He knew it had been Ben’s and Johnny’s shooting that had kept them alive for so long, but he wasn’t going to argue with Ben’s praise. The world was beautiful, and he was alive in it.

‘Well, Mr Only Survivor,’ Johnny said, striding on over. ‘Looks like you’re a charm, don’t it?’

‘If you thought I was would you go away and leave Ned to me?’ Ben asked.

A darkness seemed to fall over Ned. He had almost forgotten about Johnny’s intention to take him off to San Francisco and make him live there. He had almost forgotten that Ben wanted to kill Johnny. He stood very still and listened, and Johnny said, ‘There ain’t nothing that’s going to make me go away and leave Ned to you.’

Ben breathed a long breath and clapped his hand on Ned’s arm again.

‘Well, I’m going to check over those horses, be sure they didn’t get no injuries during the shooting,’ he said, his voice a little over-loud as if he were papering over the words between him and Johnny.

‘Will you check Doggone for me?’ Ned asked, turning his back on Johnny and stepping closer to Ben.

‘Yeah, I’ll check him first,’ Ben promised.

Johnny was silent, and then he walked away from Ned. Ned heard him saying to the coach driver, ‘Let’s do something with those bodies. Try to give them a decent cover with those rocks over there.’

Ned moved back to the stage and leaned against the wheel. He felt hemmed in and useless again. There was no help he could give to Ben with the horses, or to Johnny and the driver with burying those bodies. And there was no way he could fight against Johnny and Johnny’s intentions.

‘Miss Julie?’ he called out.

‘Yeah,’ she said, walking across to the coach.

‘Are you all right, Miss Julie?’ he asked her. ‘You’re awful quiet.’

‘Yeah, Ned, I’m fine,’ she said, coming a little closer and touching his sleeve lightly. Her voice was shaking with the remains of her fear. Then she said, ‘I thought we were going to die. I didn’t want to die. I – guess that makes me a coward.’

‘No one wants to die,’ Ned said with a smile.

‘I know, but – ’

Her voice broke up and he realised that she was trying to hold back tears. He reached out and put his hand to her shoulder, stroking his fingers over the thick wool knots of her shawl.

‘Don’t take on,’ he said softly. ‘Don’t take on, Miss Julie.’

She gave a kind of laughing sob.

‘We weren’t never going to die,’ Ned told her firmly. ‘I been running for two days from men that want to kill me just for being Johnny Tallon’s brother. I wasn’t going to let the Indians kill me, and I wasn’t going to let them kill you neither.’

She laughed again, a wet, gasping laugh that was very close to crying and very close to a joyful hysteria, and Ned smiled. He knew his words made no sense, but he felt the truth of them deep inside now they were safe and alive. He wouldn’t have let himself die there on the dusty ground.

‘Why would someone kill you for being Johnny Tallon’s brother?’ she asked him wonderingly, pushing the need to cry away in her curiosity at his words.

Ned sighed. He kept his voice low. He could hear Johnny and the coach driver moving rocks somewhere a hundred yards away and Ben talking quietly to the horses just behind the coach.

‘Johnny’s done a lot of wrong,’ he said. ‘He’s killed folks. He’s let other folks die on his account. He did wrong to the man that blinded me, and now they want to kill me.’

‘Well, I guess he’s trying real hard at making it right,’ Julie said slowly. ‘Taking you to San Francisco to see that doctor.’

Ned was quiet, thinking about how Johnny had ridden out into Navajo Canyon to find him despite the Indians being madder than a nest of hornets. But Johnny wasn’t trying to make it right. He was trying to force Ned to go along with his plans, just as he had always done. Johnny had set on going to San Francisco and they would go there, no matter what Ned wanted. Johnny would always be the king of his castle.

Ned shook his head. ‘He ain’t doing it for me. He’s past caring about anyone but himself.’

She stood silently for a minute, her breathing soft and steady. Her shoulder was still under his hand, moving only with each breath.

‘I’ve seen a lot of men, Ned,’ she said finally, as if she were admitting a great shame. ‘Some of them pretend to care and they’re thinking about how many bushels of wheat they should buy at the store tomorrow, or if their tobacco pouch is getting empty. Some of them look like they don’t care, and inside they’re as like to a stone as they are outside. Then some of them – just some – well, they talk rough and act rough, and they have a kind of hardness over their eyes, but they don’t realise how their eyes look when they don’t know you’re watching. They’re the kind that care so much it tears them up inside.’

‘You think Johnny’s one of those men?’ Ned asked with a short laugh.

‘I see him looking at you when the others aren’t watching. He wants to make it right for you.’

Ned shook his head. ‘Whether I want him to or not,’ he said harshly.

‘Yeah,’ she said after a pause. ‘Whether you want him to or not. He’s the kind that gets his way. If he didn’t get his way it’d eat at him and eat at him until he went crazy.’

‘Sometimes I think I hate him,’ Ned said darkly, rubbing the heel of his boot into the ground. ‘He can’t let me be. I want him to leave me alone.’

There was the sound Johnny and the coach driver walking back towards them, and Julie stepped away from him as if she had been caught breaking the law.

‘Well, we got ’em covered up, anyway,’ Johnny said as he approached. ‘It’s as decent as we can get them.’

Ned heard horses cantering back towards them then, and his head snapped up. There were horseshoes ringing on the ground. They were the army horses, not Indian ponies. Ben came back from checking on their own horses then, and touched Ned’s arm.

‘Doggone’s fine,’ he said. ‘There’s a graze on one of the stage horses, but it’s nothing.’

Ned nodded. ‘Thanks, Ben,’ he murmured.

He was listening out as the army horses approached, the tightness of anticipation coming over him again. They were moving closer to the time when he would either have to go with Johnny, or fight him.

‘It’s safe for you to go on now,’ a voice rang out from atop one of those horses as it reached them.

‘Is this really the big round up of the Indians?’ the coach driver asked as if he could barely believe the truth of it.

‘Started yesterday, as soon as our reinforcements arrived,’ the soldier said. ‘We’re closing in through every tributary in the canyon, hemming ’em in. They’ll soon realise it’s hopeless.’

Ned stood still, leaning against the coach wheel with his hands interlaced in front of him, his mouth pressed closed. He knew about hopeless. Even after everything he felt pity for the Indians in every living part of his body. This was their home, and they were being rounded up and sent away to somewhere they didn’t want to go.

A strange silence fell. Ben came and stood close to him, and then Johnny strode over. They were still for a moment, and then Johnny said brusquely, ‘All right, Ned, we’re on our way to San Francisco, where there’s doctors that’ll tell you whether you can get back your sight.’

‘Rather than take that money I’ll stay the way I am,’ Ned said flatly.

‘You’re just saying that cause you want to get back at me,’ Johnny dismissed him.

Anger flared in Ned. This wasn’t a childish argument and it maddened him that Johnny could treat it like that. He was a grown man, blind or not, and he didn’t have to let Johnny tell him what to do.

‘I’m telling you now, Johnny,’ he said, standing up straight. ‘Go away. I don’t want no part of you.’

‘If you do, I’m willing to forget everything,’ Ben put it quickly. ‘Me and Ned’ll be partners.’

‘If I did, the Parkers never would,’ Johnny reminded him.

‘Well, we’ll have the protection of the law there,’ Ben said confidently.

‘Ain’t you got sense enough to understand that that’s hardly enough guarantee of safety for someone like me?’ Johnny snapped. ‘It’s my fault Ned lost his sight and I’m gonna see to it he has no worries for the rest of his life.’

‘Yes or no?’ Ben persisted.

‘I can’t leave Ned with a mush-head like you,’ Johnny said, almost regretfully. ‘No.’

There was the whip of something moving through the air. Instinctively Ned flinched away. He heard the sick sound of something solid hitting flesh and bone, and Ben dropped.

‘Johnny, what’d you do to him?’ Ned asked urgently, starting forward. Ben was silent. He wasn’t moving.

‘What’s the idea?’ the coach driver asked in surprise.

‘I’m Johnny Tallon,’ Johnny said in a flat, dangerous voice. ‘You want to make something of it?’

‘Uh uh,’ he said quickly, backing off.

Ned heard the click of Johnny holstering his gun and he started forward, grabbing out towards the noise of him.

‘Where is he, Johnny?’

He tripped and fell face down on the dirt with a thud that drove the air out of his lungs. Still Ben was quiet, and he didn’t know where he had fallen.

‘Ben?’ he called, disoriented, feeling over the ground. ‘Ben? Ben?’

He clambered up, reaching out for Johnny now. Someone grabbed at his arm and he pushed them away roughly. It was Julie. He had felt her shawl and the smoothness of her arm against his hand. But he needed her to be out of the way. He needed to get to Johnny.

‘What did you do, Johnny?’ he snapped. ‘What did you do to Ben? I’ll kill you!’

‘Just fixed it so he wouldn’t get killed,’ Johnny said in a disinterested tone, catching at Ned’s arm and trying to make him walk. ‘Come on.’

Ned stood firm, jerking his arm back. ‘I won’t leave here without Ben.’

Johnny grabbed his arm with both hands this time and yanked at it. ‘Come on, will – ’

Ned snatched himself free and stepped backwards, raising his fists to fight. Fury was pounding through every inch of him. He could feel his pulse in his hands and hear it in his ears. He wanted to grab Johnny and beat his head against something.

‘What’s the matter with you?’ Johnny said, walking after him. ‘Will you come – ?’

Ned struck out. His fist hit the side of Johnny’s face with a crack. Johnny grunted and took a step back, and then he launched himself at Ned, throwing his arms around him and toppling him to the ground.

‘Ben?’ Ned shouted, the weight of Johnny holding him down as he tried to get free. ‘Ben? Where are you, Ben? Answer me!’

Johnny was astride him, pinning him down, pushing Ned’s arms down under his own. He heard Julie crying out, ‘Why don’t you leave him alone, you – ?’ but she was cut off as Johnny flung her away with a sweep of his arm. His hands clenched on Ned’s collar, pressing him hard into the ground, shaking him relentlessly.

‘You get in that coach and stay put or I’ll kill him,’ Johnny said with cold fury.

Ned froze. He could hear Johnny panting above him, could smell the breath that came in billows over his face. Johnny’s knuckles were tucked around the fabric of his coat, pressing into his collarbones, holding him tight against the earth. The fight fell out of him, and Johnny felt it. His hands relaxed. Ned breathed out, and began to sit up. Johnny took hold of his forearm and pulled him up. Ned stood there, breathing hard, pulling his belt back straight, and Johnny began to swat the dust off his coat like a fussing mother.

Ned straightened his hat, and then Johnny grabbed at his arm again and yanked him forward, pulling him in jerks towards the stagecoach. He opened the door, and Ned climbed slowly inside.

There was a moment of quiet and then the door opened again and Julie climbed in, her skirts rustling against the coachwork. She sat down beside him, but did not speak. Ned sat very still, silent. If he had been alone he might have cried – if Tallons cried. Instead he sat up straight, facing straight ahead, drawing in slow, deep breaths. Johnny had him held to ransom. He had to sit in that coach and stay quiet until Johnny was safely away from Ben. It was the only thing he could do to keep Ben alive.

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