Monday, 10 October 2011

Fort Defiance - Chapter 15

The stage office was quiet and still. Ned didn't know where Mr Abbott had gone but he didn't hear him around the office any more. He guessed he had slipped out as soon as he realised that there was trouble building and he was not going to sell any tickets to San Francisco that day.

He heard Julie walking about quietly, opening the door of the stove and feeding more fuel into it, and blowing lightly on the flames to encourage them into life. She walked to the street door and opened it briefly. The street outside seemed quiet too. Then she came back to the bench and sat beside Ned.

‘You see where he went?’ Ned asked her.

‘No, I can’t see him,’ she said quietly. ‘I guess we’ll just have to wait and find out.’

‘I guess so,’ Ned nodded. But then he smiled. ‘It’s going to be all right, Julie. It’s all going to be just fine.’

‘Yeah, it is,’ she said with warmth in her voice. ‘You and Ben can ranch together, and – did you say Ben has a wife?’

‘Yeah,’ Ned grinned. ‘She’ll be coming here real soon.’

‘I’m glad you’ll have someone to see to you,’ Julie said. ‘To cook and keep the house and all.’

Ned nodded slowly. He felt a rising of nervousness in him at what he wanted to say, at what he had to say before the chance slipped by. He opened and closed his hands, and then felt his hat brim, making sure his hat was straight on his head.

‘Miss Julie?’ he asked eventually.


‘Would you consider maybe – not going to San Francisco?’ he asked.

He waited, feeling as if he could not breathe, feeling as if a few seconds had become hours long.

‘Oh, Ned,’ she said sadly. ‘You – you don’t know where I come from, what I am...’

She was sitting just inches from him, the warmth of her body touching his like an aura, her breathing just audible and coming in short, unsteady breaths. He could smell the scent of her clothes and her hair. He had spent a night with her in that wide, open canyon with the Indians drumming and singing and waiting to kill them and he had spoken to her and comforted her and softened her fear while she had softened his own. He had seen how she could set aside her fear and work ceaselessly at reloading those guns and reach out a hand to help him as soon as he needed it, with never a word of complaint and never giving up hope. She was steady and patient and trusting, and he felt like together they leant on each other and made an arch that would never fall.

‘There may be a lot of things I don’t know, but I know what you are,’ Ned said in a low, sure voice.

‘No, you don’t,’ she said, standing up and moving away in her distress. ‘Look, Ned, I – I’ve worked in dance halls, in saloons.’

Ned remembered what Julie had said in the stage. Her ma and pa had died when she was seventeen. She had to come to town to live. And she was ashamed. She had been too ashamed to tell him all this time. He thought of her there in dance halls, talking and dancing with men for money, being beautiful, being flattering, being anything she could be to make enough money to eat. It did not make him despise her. It made his heart ache for her.

‘You were scared to find out like me,’ he said quickly. ‘We’re two of a kind, Julie.’

She sat down beside him, closer than she was before. Her hands slipped about his arm, firm and needful, and he wanted to turn and take her in his arms and soothe away every doubt she had in her mind. But she said sadly, ‘No, Ned. It wouldn’t be fair…’

‘It ain’t fair for nobody to live without being wanted,’ he told her with a ripple of desperation in his voice. He was so close to this, so close to someone wanting him instead of seeing him as the useless spare part that served no purpose. He could make a life with Julie. He was happy to just sit with her in silence, and when she did speak her thoughts chimed in with his. She was strong and soft-voiced and she understood ranch-living and doing whatever it took to keep going.

She was sitting so close, and so quiet. Her face was just inches away from his. He could feel the warmth of her breath against his cheek. The silence draped around them. And then he heard boots storming along the wooden sidewalk outside and the door banged open.

‘Johnny?’ he asked.

‘It’s me, Ned!’ And Ben walked into the room, bringing with him the scent of horses and the dust of riding. ‘Where is he?’

Ned jumped to his feet, gladness filling his heart as if the sun had come out inside him.

‘Ben! Ben, you’re all right!’

‘Yeah,’ Ben said briefly. ‘Where is he?’

‘I don’t know, but it’s going to be all right!’ Ned said in a rush. ‘He - he’s going away, Ben.’

‘Did he say that?’

‘Yeah,’ Ned said, unable to restrain a grin that made his cheeks ache. Everything was going to be just fine. ‘And he said you and me could be partners.’

‘Yeah, I heard him say it,’ Julie said, her hands closing about Ned’s arm.

‘And your wife’ll be here soon, Ben,’ Ned hurried on. ‘Then we can get started.’

The door banged open again just long enough to admit someone running, slamming closed again almost as soon as he had entered the room. And then the man slowed, and Ned heard Johnny say with slow surprise, ‘Mr Only Survivor…’

‘Is it true what Ned says about your going away?’ Ben asked suspiciously.

‘Yeah,’ Johnny said, and he sounded content in that one word.

The sound of horses running clattered down the street and Ned jerked his head towards the door. It sounded like a whole gang of men, pulling their horses up outside the stage office and jumping to the ground.

‘Whoever’s in there,’ a voice shouted from outside. ‘I want Johnny and Ned Tallon, and anybody else has got two minutes to get out.’

It was Dave Parker. Ned was too familiar with that voice now, even filtered through the walls of the stage office. It all seemed to be beginning again, like he was standing at home behind the door with the pine smell of the Christmas tree in the air and only Ben and Uncle Charlie between him and Dave Parker and his gun. Surely he hadn’t been through all that he had just to be gunned down by Dave Parker in Fort Defiance?

‘All right, Julie,’ Johnny said tersely. ‘Get out.’

Julie didn’t move. She stood by Ned, her breathing steady and her feet still on the floor.

‘If you don’t mind I’d just as soon stay.’

‘Julie, ain’t no reason for you – ’ Ned began.

‘I got a reason,’ she cut across him, her voice flat and hard.

‘What you just said’s enough,’ Ned said, the smallest hint of a smile touching the corner of his mouth. Suddenly he felt a deal less alone.

Julie walked around him, paper rustling in her hand. ‘Well, reckon I won’t need this ticket the committee gave me for San Francisco,’ she said, putting her hands around his arm and holding it tight. ‘I’d rather live for just a few minutes, being wanted.’

Ned put his hand over hers, feeling the strength and solidity of her slim fingers as they curved about his arm. It felt right. He felt like he had been walking as half a person for all this time, and now he was complete.

‘And how about you, Mr Only Survivor?’ Johnny asked. There was something in his voice that Ned couldn’t quite pin down. He sounded resigned, scared, but almost happy.

‘I ain’t running out on a partner,’ Ben said firmly.

There was silence. And then Johnny went to the door and leaned up close to it. The handle rattled and Ned tensed, but Johnny didn’t open it.

‘This is Johnny Tallon, Dave,’ he called. ‘I’ll make a deal with you. Let Ned go and I’ll give myself up.’

There was no reply from outside. Ned stood still, listening, his heart beginning to race.

‘Think of all the fun you’ll have stringing me up,’ Johnny called.

The breath caught in Ned’s chest. For a moment he was glad he couldn’t see. He didn’t want to be forced to see that.

‘I ain’t making no bargains,’ Parker shouted from outside. ‘I’ll see you both dead.’

Johnny moved away from the door in silence. Ned clenched his hand tightly, wishing he had that gun still. There seemed to be no way out from here.

‘Well, Mr Only Survivor,’ Johnny said.

‘The name’s Shelby,’ Ben began, ‘And I’m getting tired – ’

‘Don’t be a pest about petty details,’ Johnny cut across him. He took something out of his pocket that rustled like paper. ‘Now, look. Here’s two and a half thousand, legitimate. Bill of sale and receipts signed and all.’

‘What are you talking about?’ Ben asked, bewildered.

‘Well, somebody’s gotta see that a couple of mushheads like you have some money,’ Johnny said with the verve back in his voice. ‘You wouldn’t take mine cause it was rotten. Well, Parker drove us off the ranch so I got payment. Here.’

Ned stood, stunned. Johnny had sold the ranch to Dave Parker? He thought of little low house and the towering cliffs that surrounded it, that he had had only seen in imagination for four years. He thought of the contours of the ground under his feet all about the house and how he could walk almost anywhere within fifty feet of the place and still know exactly where he was. Then he thought of Uncle Charlie dead and a grave somewhere near the house, and how everything was changed. Ben held the money for a new life in his hand, and the choice of where that would be was Ned’s and not Johnny’s. He loved where he lived, but the thought of shaking off everything that tarnished his life and finding somewhere new to start again sent excitement shivering through him.

Johnny came back across the room. He took something from Julie and tore it up. Ned heard the scatter of small pieces of paper on the floor. He had torn up her stage ticket.

‘Take care of him,’ Johnny said quietly and earnestly.

‘All right,’ Julie said, almost soundlessly.

Johnny moved towards the door.

‘Johnny,’ Ned said quickly.

‘Yep,’ Johnny said tersely, all emotion pushed deliberately from his voice.

‘It’s true Mr Lincoln shook your hand, isn’t it?’ Ned asked.

Johnny was silent. Then he said in a warm, smiling voice, ‘Yeah, it’s true, Ned.’

Ned nodded, smiling in return. There was something hard in his throat behind the smile, something that felt very close to tears, very close to making him lurch after Johnny and grab his arm and make him stay here, safe in this room. He heard Johnny swallow hard, even with the space between them.

‘Mr Shelby,’ Johnny said, putting emphasis on his proper use of Ben’s name. ‘Would you get to the door and when I say open it, open it fast?’

Ben walked over to the door and stood there. Ned could feel it building. It was all happening. There was no way of turning anything back. Johnny was going to walk out of that room and die.

‘Johnny!’ he called suddenly, desperately. He heard his brother turn. ‘Johnny,’ he said in a whisper. His mouth worked then, but no sound came out. There were so many things he had to say that he couldn’t think of a single one to utter.

‘You made your choice, Ned,’ Johnny said quietly and kindly. ‘Don’t apologise for it. I never did for mine.’

‘You’ve got fifteen seconds, whoever wants to come out,’ Dave Parker called from outside.

Ned stood still, his hand clenched tight over Julie’s. If he was hurting her, she didn’t say. There was nothing he could do. There was no way he could stop Johnny from going out there, no way he could shield him from the Parker gang. He wasn’t even sure that he wouldn’t follow Johnny where he was going in just a few minutes. He didn’t know how many men were out there, but there were plenty enough to shoot Ben and take Ned and string him up.

‘Open it,’ Johnny said in a quick, urgent voice.

The sounds overlaid one another – the door opening, Johnny’s guns sliding slick from their holsters, and then bullets exploding into the air from just outside. That was Johnny shooting, and Ned heard the reports of other pistols from further away, and the thud of bullets into the walls that sheltered him. The walls felt very thin, but he did not move. He stood still, listening. Horses whinnied, their hooves thudding back to the ground after panicked movements. The shots grew more sporadic. More than one body had fallen to the ground. Whether Johnny was going down or not, he had taken plenty of other men before him.

Ned heard horses moving away, then shots again from just outside the door. That was Johnny still, he was sure. And then someone fell very close to the building, knocking into the door and then the wall. It was almost entirely quiet outside, and Ned listened with all his focus. There were boots on the sidewalk again, someone falling again. Ned closed his eyes, his heart swelling into his throat. In his head he could see Johnny, bleeding, struggling to stand, falling again. Ned’s hand was about Julie’s wrist, holding it tight. He could feel her pulse under his fingers, beating almost as fast as his. If it hadn’t been for her standing next to him he would have ran to the door.

There was one more shot from the sidewalk outside. One more shot from Johnny, he was certain. It was close, and it sounded like Johnny’s gun. And then the silence stretched out almost unbearably. Ned heard small movements, someone moving with great difficulty over a tiny space. And then a single shot, from somewhere out in the street.

This time the silence seemed final. Ben seemed to think so too. He crept towards the door, and Julie pushed Ned backwards towards the far wall. Ben opened the door and stepped out. Ned counted six shots and he couldn’t tell where from. He stood silent, his fingers flexing, Julie’s hand over his. Footsteps tracked back towards the door, and the door opened and closed. And then Ben said,  ‘Well, I guess Parker won’t bother us any more.’

Ned had not realised he was holding his breath, but it all came out at once in a long sigh. Ben was alive… Thank God, Ben was alive…

Julie squeezed his hand. He could feel the joy in her, but his own joy and relief was cut through with grief.

‘Come on out, Ned,’ Ben said.

Julie led him towards the door, holding both of his hands still in hers.

‘It’s safe, Ned,’ Ben urged him as he hesitated on the threshold. ‘Come on outside.’

Ned stepped onto the board sidewalk, letting go of Julie’s hands. Outside the smell of gunpowder and smoke was settling through the air. There was fresh horse dung too, and dust, and all the usual scents of town behind that smell of shooting – but there was an unnatural silence that made the town feel as if it were not really there.

‘What about Johnny?’ Ned asked quietly.

‘Dave Parker got him,’ Ben said economically. ‘I got Dave Parker.’

Ned closed his eyes. He wanted to reach out and hold onto something, but he stood still. He felt as if there were miles of space between him and everything else in the world.

‘He went down fighting,’ Ned said, more a statement than a question. He had heard the evidence of those shots.

‘He sure did,’ Ben said with admiration in his voice. ‘He must’ve killed six men before Parker got him.’

Ned smiled a strange smile that papered over the urge to cry. He crouched down on the sidewalk. His legs didn’t feel like they could hold him any more.

‘You all right, Ned?’ Ben asked him quietly, taking a step closer.

‘Yeah,’ he said.

He could smell Johnny somewhere nearby. He could smell the tobacco interlaced with the weave of his coat. He could smell blood. He stood up and walked, carefully and alone, off the low edge of the sidewalk onto the dirt road. Ben and Julie stayed where they were, silent and waiting. He moved toward that scent until the toe of his boot touched something, and then he knelt and reached out until his hands touched the thin cotton of Johnny’s shirt and the solidity of his body beneath.

Johnny was warm, but he was still. There was nothing there. Ned had never thought hard about a man’s soul, but he knew that there was no soul there any more. Johnny was gone.

He laid his hand flat on Johnny’s chest and felt the curious stillness beneath his ribs. Then he moved his hands down to Johnny’s waist and after a moment of hesitation he unbuckled his gun belt. He felt along Johnny’s arms to his hands but his hands were empty. He swept his hand over the dirt, feeling close to Johnny’s body, and his fingers struck one of those guns.

He knelt still a moment, then said in a voice that felt like a thin layer of normality over something deep and unexplored, ‘Ben, where is it?’

Ben was silent. He moved back and forth on the sidewalk, his boots making a hollow noise on the wood. Then he stopped and picked something up, and came to Ned. He crouched down beside him and said, ‘Here you are, Ned.’

Ned took the weapon silently from Ben’s hand. He buckled the gun belt around his own waist and holstered the guns. He could not use them, but he could carry them, and think of Johnny – and after all that had happened it felt good to have those guns at his side.

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