Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Fort Defiance - Chapter 16

Ned stood up and turned around and walked back to the sidewalk, away from where Johnny lay. As he stepped up onto the boards Julie’s hand slipped into his and squeezed it softly. He felt as if he were stepping from a cliff as the land sheered away and fell, and Julie was pulling him safe onto solid ground. He was losing everything that he knew, but he was gaining a new world at the same time.

‘Well, I guess we should go sort out the particulars,’ Ben said, clapping a hand onto Ned’s back.

‘Yeah,’ Ned said slowly. ‘We’ve got money. We – can have him buried real nice, and – ’

His voice broke up, and he bit his mouth closed.

‘I’ll take care of it all, Ned,’ Ben promised him. ‘I would have killed Johnny with my own hands – you know that – but he did good in the end. I guess he weren’t no coward.’

Ned smiled thinly. He didn’t trust himself to speak all the way down Main Street as they walked. He swallowed and kept swallowing on the grief that was rising inside him. He held on to Julie’s arm and walked steadily and with his head held up, glad that he could not see the town and the townsfolk about him.

He was grateful that Ben was there to speak to men and explain what had happened and to talk quietly with the undertaker. He felt numbed and cut off from the world around him, and quite incapable of explaining all that had happened. He had a lingering fear that he would be held somehow to account for all those deaths, or that Ben would be taken in for killing Dave Parker – but none of his fears were realised. Dave Parker would have been hung for killing Uncle Charlie anyway, if it could have been proved, and he had been seen threatening to kill Ned and Johnny and then shooting Johnny down.

‘That whole posse of men are better off out of the world than in it, Mr Shelby,’ the sheriff had said. ‘They ran this town like it was their own. The Fort might be a cleaner place from now on.’

When they finally stepped out into the street again it was crawling towards evening. The chill was settling into a harder cold in the street and the only sounds came from the saloon.

‘Well, I don’t know what you want to do now, Ned,’ Ben said. ‘We could put up in the hotel for the night.’

‘I want to go back to the ranch,’ Ned said. He wanted the familiarity of home around him.

‘Johnny sold the ranch to Dave Parker,’ Ben reminded him.

‘Dave Parker’s dead,’ Ned said. ‘He ain’t got no family. I guess that ranch is still ours.’

Ben laughed shortly. ‘I guess it is, at least until the dust settles. But what about Julie?’

‘Well, there’s beds enough,’ Ned said innocently.

‘No, Ned,’ Julie said quickly. ‘I won’t come and stay at the ranch until we’re married. I won’t have that kind of talk going on about me in this town.’

Ned felt a flush rising to his cheeks. He had not even considered what it would mean for a single woman going out to the ranch with two men. But he was afraid, irrationally afraid, of leaving Julie here to go back to the ranch and never finding her again.

‘Julie, is there any sense in waiting?’ he asked suddenly, taking hold of both her hands. ‘I mean – you ain’t going to change your mind?’

Julie hesitated, and then Ben said self-consciously, ‘Well, I – guess I’ll go see to those horses. They must’ve got taken off to the corral with the coach horses. Best I get ’em back before Abbott starts to think he owns them.’

‘Thanks, Ben,’ Ned said quietly. He waited until Ben’s footsteps faded down the street, and then turned back to Julie. ‘What do you say, Julie? You ain’t going to think better of it? I mean, of marrying a feller with this handicap?’

‘Oh, Ned,’ Julie said slowly. ‘I’m not worrying about you being blind. I’m worrying about me being – well – being what I am.’

‘You ain’t nothing but yourself,’ Ned said firmly. ‘And you weren’t – You never – Well, you wasn’t a public woman, Julie,’ he finished in a rush.

‘No, I never did do that,’ she said quietly. ‘Those old dev-’ She broke off abruptly. ‘I mean to say, the ladies in Willerton thought maybe I did, but I didn’t sink that far.’

‘Then all you ever did was dance with men and make nice with them,’ Ned reasoned. ‘Why, there’s plenty of women do that for nothing. Julie, I ain’t going to hold nothing against you. But do you think you can stick with a husband that can’t see? I can pull my weight, but I can’t do all the things most folks can. I’ll need Ben to help on the ranch, and I’ll need you to help me with most everything else I have difficulties with. It ain’t an easy burden I’m putting on you.’

‘I’m happy to take that burden,’ Julie said softly. ‘It won’t be a burden, Ned. It’ll be a pleasure to be alongside you.’

Ned smiled. He reached a hand up to her face, touching her there for the first time. Her skin was smooth under his palm. He could feel her cheekbone under his fingertips and then the softness of her cheek and small wisps of hair that bordered her face.

‘Julie,’ he said, stepping closer. ‘Would you maybe – ’

He felt so much less certain than he had when he was younger and courting Nellie Carlton. Perhaps it was that this felt so much more special, so much more real. He didn’t feel a dizzy, stomach-churning yearning for Julie, or a fire that seemed to take away his mind and make only his body act. He wanted to sit and spend long evenings together with Julie, to lie beside her in bed at night and to wake up to the feel of her body and the sound of her breathing in the morning. If he had leaned his lips towards Nellie Carlton and she had laughed and flounced away the pain would have been a short-lived thing. If Julie did the same he would feel bereft.

‘Julie,’ he said again, tracing his fingers down her cheek to the underneath of her chin and tilting her head up. She was small and he was over six feet tall. Her head only reached just about to his shoulder. He half smiled and then laughed at the difficulty, and then she laughed too. It was the first time he had heard her laugh and it was a beautiful sound.

Something seemed to fall loose in both of them and it all became easy. He could feel her breath close to his face and then her lips touched his, soft and intimate. He stood with his eyes closed, his hand laid across her back, holding her steady, and time seemed to slow to nothing. He thought that maybe her lips felt like roses, but they were warm and roses were not.

‘Julie,’ he said in a low voice, the space between them a mere sliver of distance. ‘Let’s get married as soon as Ben’s wife gets here. Then we can all start anew. Would you like that?’

‘I’d like that, Ned,’ she said, the looseness and easiness filling her voice. ‘I’d like that a lot.’

‘We’ll put up at the hotel like Ben said,’ he told her. ‘That way you’ll be right nearby, but all legitimate. Ben’s wife should be here in the next few days – maybe tomorrow, even. I’ll talk to the Reverend, and then – we can be married.’


Ned stood at the window in his hotel room with the sash pushed up. He had never stayed in a town overnight. The sounds of the place were not many, but they were new and different. Mostly he heard piano music from the saloon, and the occasional swell of men’s voices. Dave Parker and his gang were dead, but that had not stopped the saloon from entertaining those that needed it. He shivered as he listened to those noises, thinking of Julie in a room just down the hall, and of how different they must sound to her.

He was so tired that his whole face ached, the palms of his hands ached, the span of his shoulders ached. His eyes felt wide and hot and dry. He had eaten, at least. They had all eaten in the hotel dining room and Ned had had to hold himself back from asking Ben to fill his plate again and again after almost three days of near starving. But sleep was something he was not quite ready to approach. There seemed something wrong in sleeping and ending the day in which Johnny had died.

‘Ned, if you don’t shut that window and go to bed soon I’m going to find myself a new room where all the heat from the fire don’t get sucked out into the street,’ Ben threatened eventually.

Ned drew his head back in from the cold night air and slid the window down. The sounds faded behind the glass panes and he turned back to face the room.

‘You give me a hand, Ben?’ he asked.

‘Sure thing,’ Ben said. His own bed creaked as he stood up and came to Ned. ‘You want to wash up first?’

‘I think I’ll just sleep,’ Ned said.

Away from the window, he suddenly wanted no more than to fall into his bed and close his eyes. He took Ben’s arm and Ben led him across the room to his bed.

‘I’ll damp down the fire and turn out the lamp,’ Ben told him. ‘You bed down and sleep, Ned. It’s been a long day.’

‘Yeah,’ Ned smiled wryly.

His hand was on the bedstead. They weren’t wooden beds here – they had cast iron frames made of loops and swirls and textured discs that were a swooping pleasure to his fingers. He could have run his fingers over those lines for a long time, trying to decipher the shapes and patterns in them.

‘You know, Ned, in some places they have institutions to teach the blind,’ Ben said suddenly. He must have been watching Ned in his exploration of that iron maze. ‘Can even teach you to read writing you feel with your fingers. With that money from the ranch – ’

Ned laughed briefly.

 ‘I never was much of one for reading and writing,’ he said, unbuttoning his shirt and laying it over the iron frame. ‘Maybe I spent too much time with the teacher trying to make me write right handed when I wanted to use my left. I don’t miss it any. Johnny got us that money so we could farm with it, and that’s what I’m going to do.’

‘You ever heard of the Homestead Act, Ned?’ Ben asked.

Ned paused in his undressing. ‘No, I ain’t.’

‘Well, it ain’t been around long. Government says you can take a hundred sixty acres of land west of the Mississippi, and if you can farm it for five years, you can keep it. We can go north, file adjoining claims. That’s three hundred twenty acres of land for the taking. It’s good land up there, Ned – wide and green and full of everything you want. You can do just about anything on it. Raise cattle, grow wheat. We can farm the land together. Once you have sons and I have sons they’ll inherit that land and help us out.

Sons… The thought of that made Ned’s mind blank for a moment. He could not imagine having sons… He thought of Julie with a baby in her arms. He still didn’t know what colour her hair was but he gave her a face in his mind and dark hair around it. There would be a house built just how they wanted it, and horses in the barn, and acres of land spreading out around them that was theirs and no one else’s. There would be no feuds or resentments shadowing him. He could walk out into that land without the fear of a man with a gun wanting to take his life.

‘We could go somewhere no one’s ever been bothered by Johnny,’ he said slowly. ‘My ma’s folks come from Minnesota. She always said it was good land up there, but pa wanted to live where the winters weren’t so hard...’

‘Well, it’s something to think on,’ Ben said. ‘With that money Johnny got you for the ranch you could set up real nice. You’d have a head start right there.’

‘I guess I’ve got cousins up there still,’ Ned said. ‘I’ll write them tomorrow – I mean, if you’ll write for me, Ben – and find out what they say about the place. Maybe we could be farming by next spring…’

‘Yeah, I’ll write for you,’ Ben promised. ‘Now get into bed, Ned. I’m tired and you’re tireder, and I want to sleep some time before midnight.’

Ned slung his dirt-roughened pants on top of the shirt. This hotel was so clean and fancy he felt ashamed of his worn and travel-soiled clothes. He barely thought about the state of his clothes when he was at home, but it was different here in town.

Somewhere downstairs he heard a clock chime out ten o’clock. He hadn’t realised it was so late. He folded back the covers and got into bed, and felt like he had lain down on a cloud. The mattress was feather. There was no straw smell and he sank into the softness as if he were falling into quicksand. He didn’t know if he liked it or not.

He thought of Johnny, lying at the undertakers with nothing but pine beneath his back and pine over his face. Johnny had been ten years older than him, always big, always strong, always knowing what to do. It didn’t make sense that he was dead. It didn’t make sense that Ned had learnt to hate him and be glad that he was gone from the world, and then found him to be alive, and then just as he had learnt to see him for what he was he had gone again.

He thought of how Johnny had worked on nothing but guilt and responsibility for years. He had felt responsible for Ned since their parents died, and he had run wild to give himself some measure of freedom against the day-to-day aching work of running the ranch with Uncle Charlie and keeping Ned in school and keeping just enough money coming in to feed him. He had felt responsible for Ned when Ned had been beaten almost to death on account of him and had woken up blind. He had been there every day for months, helping him and nursing him, and when he hadn’t been there he had been out trying to earn money to pay for the doctor’s bills. Maybe he had resented Ned for being left dependent on him, but he had not left him until he had gone to war, and perhaps, perhaps, Ned could understand a little of the reasons why Johnny had taken so long to come home.

As for Tennessee Ridge… Ned sighed, turning onto his side and cupping his hand under his head. Maybe he could understand that… Maybe he could understand that Johnny would not let himself die until he could be sure that Ned was set for life without him. Maybe he could understand Johnny’s fear of dying – he had had enough fear of dying put into his own soul over the last days to understand something of that. It was not an easy thing to give up your own life to save others.

‘Ben,’ Ned said slowly. Ben had got into his own bed now. He could hear him turning on the mattress.

‘Yeah, Ned,’ Ben said.

‘Ben, your brother – ’ he began. He didn’t quite know what he wanted to say.

There was a soft puff as Ben blew out the lamp.

‘Yeah,’ Ben said again.

‘I don’t know, Ben,’ he said. Then he said, ‘I’m sorry for what Johnny did. I’m sorry you lost him. I know ain’t nothing going to bring him back, but – ’

‘Ned, you remember what Uncle Charlie said,’ Ben cut across him. ‘I got a brother now. So do you. Ain’t nothing can change what happened on account of Johnny, but he did right in the end.’

‘Yeah,’ Ned said, resting his head back on the pillow again.

The silence filled the room. He could hear Ben breathing softly nearby. He closed his eyes and tried to pull sleep into his mind.

‘Ned,’ Ben said after a space of time.

‘Yeah,’ he said.

‘Ned, I wept for my brother. Ain’t no shame in you doing the same for Johnny.’

Ned half smiled, and nodded. He let the side of his face hide against the softness of the pillow and pulled the covers up tight to his neck. He felt the aching hollow in his chest that Uncle Charlie and Johnny had left. No amount of soft coverings around him could soften that ache.

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