Sunday, 9 October 2011

Fort Defiance - Chapter 14

Ned sat inside the coach, feeling like he was shaking somewhere inside. His hands were perfectly steady but his core seemed to be one big vibration of tight anger and hatred. Outside the wind was blowing and something on the outside of the stage was flapping against the woodwork. The horses were quiet and still. It sounded like a regular winter day, and he was just sitting in a coach waiting for the journey to start. But it was wrong. It was all wrong.

He listened to Johnny with the attention of a guard dog.

‘Tie all the horses to the coach except one,’ Johnny called from outside.

The coach driver asked in a puzzled tone, ‘Except one?’ and Ned leaned forward and listened harder.

‘Yeah,’ Johnny said. ‘I’m leaving you with him. Two of you on one horse won’t get to the Fort so fast. Give me time to complete my business and get out before he shows up.’

That was one good thing at least. Johnny wasn’t leaving Ben out here alone with no horse and no help. He never would have made it out of the canyon without food and without a horse to ride on. Ned still felt sick and helpless at the idea of leaving him but he felt a little better that there would be someone here to watch him.

‘Well, what about the stage?’ the driver asked.

‘I’ll take it,’ Johnny said flatly.

‘But, wait a minute, I – ’

‘It’ll be safe with me,’ Johnny said with rising impatience and anger. ‘I won’t make off with it. Now do as I tell you!’

Ned knew that tone. It sent chills through him. It reminded him of his pa when his patience had been worn too thin and he was ready to tan Ned’s or Johnny’s hide for being impertinent once too often. If Johnny didn’t get his way someone was going to get hurt.

He listened as two sets of feet moved away from the coach door. They were going to get the horses ready. A hard and steady fury settled through Ned’s mind, taking over his thoughts. He would be calm and he would be quiet for as long as he needed to be, but he would not let Johnny take him to San Francisco.

‘Julie, you got that gun?’ he asked in a dark, level voice.

‘Yeah,’ she said apprehensively.

‘Give it to me,’ Ned said.

‘What are you going to do with it?’ she asked him, moving away a little on the narrow seat.

‘Give it to me, will you?’ he said with flat desperation. ‘Just give it to me.’

He put his hand out, expecting her to obey. If she didn’t he would just have to take it from her. He was breathing hard, each breath steadying him but not swaying his resolve. He would not be pushed around by Johnny any more. He couldn’t persuade him with words and he couldn’t beat him in a straight fight, but Johnny would not expect the gun from him.

He felt Julie moving, heard the soft noise of her shawl as she reached underneath. Slowly she put the gun in his hand and he closed his fingers around it. The metal was blood warm from being held against her body.

He tucked it inside his coat and closed the coat tightly over it. It sat against his chest, and felt like a layer of protection over his heart.

The coach rocked as Johnny climbed up onto the driver’s seat. Ned heard him yelling at the horses, geeing them up. He didn’t whip them – just shook the reins and hollered until they began to ran. The coach lumbered behind, lurching over the rough ground. Behind that Ned could hear the other horses running, tethered to the rear boot.

He ran a hand over the door, briefly thinking of opening it and leaping out. That thought only lasted a second. It would be like committing suicide to jump from a speeding stage into the wild, empty canyon, especially with those horses behind that could trample him as they passed.

‘Ned,’ Julie said in a low voice, seeing his hand on the catch.

‘I ain’t jumping out,’ he said, taking his hand from the door and pressing it back against the gun under his coat.

‘You sure looked like you were going to.’

‘Well, I ain’t,’ he repeated.

‘What are you going to do with that gun?’ she asked him again.

Ned leaned back against the seat, feeling the solidity of the gun under his hand. ‘I don’t know’ he said honestly. ‘But I ain’t going to San Francisco.’

He closed his eyes. The noise of the coach pushed away every other small, natural noise. The jiggling and vibration ran up through his bones and his skull and dust drifted in through the window, kicked up by the horses’ running feet. Exhaustion came over him. He had not eaten in almost a full day, and even then it had only been the remnants of Ben’s hoecakes. The last proper meal he had eaten was some thick slices of bread after he and Ben had brought back the Christmas tree.

He tilted his hat forward and rested his head on the back panel of the coach. He couldn’t do anything until they reached Fort Defiance, anyway. Maybe there he could find someone who would side with him against Johnny – or maybe the Parker gang would be there, he remembered with grim humour. Maybe they would do for Johnny and him together.

The coach kept rocking. His eyes became hot and heavy. He was tired enough to sleep standing up, and this seat was softer than the rocks and hard ground that had been chairs and bed for him recently. He kept his hand tucked under his coat, resting on the gun, and slowly his thoughts began to dissolve away.

He woke with a panicked start, feeling a hand slipping under his, under his coat. He gripped at the hand reflexively and twisted it away, and then he heard Julie half sob in pain.

‘What were you doing?’ he growled at her, anger sparking up again and pushing away sleepiness. ‘Were you trying to take that gun?’

‘I’m afraid for you, Ned,’ she said in a small voice. ‘I’m afraid for what you’ll do with it.’

He let go of her hand and pushed the gun back securely under the coat.

‘I coulda hurt you,’ he said quietly. ‘I thought it was Johnny. Don’t do that again, Miss Julie. I need to trust you.’

‘I won’t touch it again,’ she promised.

Ned half smiled, and reached out to her. She touched her hand to his and he stroked his fingers across the back of hers lightly. Her hand was cold and felt very small under his.

‘What were you doing, coming from Willerton to Fort Defiance at a time like this?’ he asked her. ‘Why’d them folks buy you a ticket and make you leave town?’

‘You don’t know me, Ned,’ she said after a pause. He could hear that her face was turned away. She was looking out of the window instead of at him.

‘I don’t know all about you, but I know you, Miss Julie,’ he said. ‘You’ve got a fine soul. What were they doing running you out of town?’

‘Ned, I can’t,’ she said brokenly. Then she said as if she were excusing something that she couldn’t tell him about, ‘My ma and pa died, Ned. They died when I was seventeen years old. I couldn’t live out on the ranch on my own. I had to come into town and make a living.’

‘Everyone has to make a living,’ Ned nodded. ‘There ain’t no sin in that.’

‘Yeah,’ she said slowly. She was looking out of the window again. ‘I think this is it, Ned,’ she said. ‘I can see the stockade.’

Ned’s hand tightened on the gun, and then very slowly he let go. He drew his hand out empty from under the coat and laid it on his lap. The horses trotted on, the sound of their footfalls changing as they entered the hard-packed town street. The noises began to echo from flat-faced buildings. He heard Johnny shouting, ‘Whoa,’ and the stage rolled to a halt. As Johnny jumped down someone called out a question about the driver and the others.

‘Indians got ’em,’ Johnny said quickly, coming round to the door. ‘The driver’s just hurt. The army boys are taking care of him.’

Ned ducked his head and began to get out of the stage under his own steam. He would not have Johnny haul him out like a child in front of all the folks in town. Johnny took hold of his arm and helped him down onto the board sidewalk and he heard Julie jump down beside him.

‘How soon can this stage start for San Francisco?’ Johnny asked, leading Ned across the boards.

‘Well, soon as we get fresh horses and a driver,’ the man replied, and Ned recognised the voice of Mr Abbott who ran the stage office. ‘About an hour.’

Ned’s shoulder knocked into a post and Johnny jerked him sideways. They must be right outside the stage office. He remembered those wooden posts from when he could see, supporting a veranda – but he had never been inside the office before. Johnny took him through the door and let go of his arm. He stood still, smelling the scent of dust and old wood and the hot scent of a stove somewhere. It was a hollow, empty room with nothing but hard things in it to send back echoes. Julie touched his arm and murmured to him, ‘Sit down, Ned. There’s a bench right behind you.’

Ned felt out behind him and sat down on the slatted wooden bench. Julie sat beside him, quiet and tense. He knew she was waiting to see what he intended with the gun, but he didn’t know himself yet.

Johnny walked across the room, his boots tapping on the hard floor.

‘Ain’t you Johnny Tallon?’ Mr Abbott asked in sudden surprise.

‘Yeah,’ Johnny said.

‘But I thought you were – ’

‘I know. You heard I was dead,’ Johnny said impatiently. ‘And it was the Indians that got your boys.’

‘Well, no offence…’

‘Thinking of running and telling Dave Parker I’m here?’ Johnny asked acerbically.

‘What I know of Parker he’s capable of finding out himself,’ Mr Abbott said with dry humour.

‘I’ll let him know,’ Johnny said. Then he said in a quick, low voice, ‘Two tickets for San Francisco.’

‘Yes, sir,’ Abbott said quickly.

Ned stood up quickly, determined anger burning like a flame inside him

‘For the last time, Johnny, go away and leave me be,’ he snapped, his hands clenched at his sides, his arms filled with the urge to strike.

Johnny turned to him. ‘Are you out of your mind?’ He turned back to the counter and continued easily. ‘Like I said, two tickets.’

‘Yes, sir,’ Abbott said again.

In the end there was no premeditation in Ned. His body moved before his mind. He reached into his coat and snatched out the gun. Julie’s hand curved over his wrist but she didn’t try to hold him back. He stepped forward, making for Johnny’s voice. If he could come right up to him with the gun he could be sure of not harming anyone else.

Then there was a panicked movement and Johnny’s hand closed around his wrist so tight it felt like his bones were breaking. Johnny wrestled with him, pushing him back against the bench until he was sitting again, pressed against the wall with Johnny’s hand on his chest. Johnny squeezed on his wrist until pain shot up his arm, and the gun fell to the floor. Ned sank back, beaten.

Slowly the pressure of Johnny’s hands relaxed, and he stepped away. There was a strange, loaded silence that seemed to fill the room and drive away any lingering normality. Ned felt as if he were going to be sick in that sudden, horrific silence.

‘Were you going to gun me down?’ Johnny asked eventually. His voice was full of something like sorrow.

Ned felt fractured inside. He had come so close to pulling the trigger, but he couldn’t do it, any more than he had been able to club that jackrabbit to death. He couldn’t have killed Johnny, Johnny who had always been there between him and the world, before he had gone away to war.

He didn’t stand up again. He shook his head slowly. He could feel his face pinching up as emotion welled through him.

‘Would you really kill me, Ned?’ Johnny asked him. He sounded like he had been betrayed by his dearest friend.

‘I don’t know,’ Ned said brokenly, his voice shaking. ‘Don’t make me go with you, Johnny.’

‘You wanna stay with Ben that bad, huh?’ Johnny said quietly.

Ned nodded. He didn’t trust himself to speak any more without crying. He needed to do something to control that weakness inside him. Johnny was silent too. He walked across the room, slowly, with measured steps. Then he turned round and walked back again.

Finally he turned back to Ned and said, ‘If I gave you some money would – ’ He hesitated as if he were about to voice something that was anathema to him, and then continued, ‘Would you and Ben go someplace else and settle?’

‘We don’t want your money,’ Ned said tiredly. He had been over and over this with Johnny. He didn’t have the strength to continue for much longer.

‘But you can’t stay in this part of the country any more on account of me, and how can you start someplace else without any money?’ Johnny asked him desperately.

‘We don’t want yours!’ Ned almost shouted, lurching forward at him on the bench.

‘All right, all right!’ Johnny snapped back angrily, and then half-whispered, ‘All right.’

He sounded beaten too. Ned could hear him breathing slow and hard, his feet moving on the floor as if he didn’t know which way to turn.

‘Ned,’ he said finally. ‘You and Ben can be partners.’

Ned turned towards him, frowning. ‘Y-you mean that, Johnny?’ he asked hesitantly. He couldn’t believe it after all that had happened, but he wanted to believe it, desperately.

Johnny was silent again, then he said, ‘Yeah.’ He took off his coat and flung it aside. ‘Stay here,’ he said, striding to the door. ‘I’m gonna go make a sale – and heaven help the man that don’t want to buy.’

He opened the door and left, slamming it behind him so that the walls rattled. Ned sat frozen on the bench, wondering and afraid. Dave Parker was somewhere out in that town. All of a sudden he didn’t want Johnny to die, no matter what he had done.

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