The horse was nervous in the safety of the corral. It wasn’t the high, dusty land that bothered him, or the wide open skies, or the threat of the loose rocks and canyon sides. Peppy loved to gallop wherever he was given free rein. It was being penned up that bothered him, being hemmed in by rough planks and having to depend on the kindness of those around him for his existence. It was a feeling that Ned Tallon had understood for close on four years now.
The horse whinnied and protested, flinching away from Ned’s hand as he tried to calm him. He could feel the nervousness vibrating through his muscles and skin, everything coiled up and waiting to release. When the horse moved his head toward him his breath was hot and moist against Ned’s cheek, a welcome moment of heat in the chill October air, but the head moved close and then away again as if the horse were searching for some way of escape.
‘Easy there, Peppy. Easy.’
He kept his voice calm and steady. He had saddled plenty of horses and he could saddle Peppy just as long as he could keep him calm, and he could ride him too. Old Doggone was a good horse but there was something free and spirited in riding a horse like Peppy out in this rough country.
‘Easy,’ he said again as the horse jittered. ‘Easy, Peppy.’
A noise caught his attention. It caught Peppy’s attention too. The horse felt suddenly focussed and alert through the leather looped about its neck, and through the muscle at its shoulder.
‘Uncle Charlie?’ Ned asked. He was expecting his uncle back from checking the cattle any time now.
‘Is your name Tallon?’
Ned turned in surprise at the unfamiliar voice. Strangers were not exactly a novelty these days, but still sometimes it was days or weeks between their passing. There was an edge to this man’s voice, but maybe he was tired out with the riding and wary of coming to strangers. It wasn’t in Ned’s nature to be suspicious and ornery just for the sake of it.
‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘Ned Tallon.’
‘What’s your kinship to John Tallon?’ the man asked. He sounded like the men who came from the east – an Okie, maybe.
‘Well, I’m Johnny’s brother,’ Ned said, standing a little straighter. He was proud that he could claim such a kinship.
‘Where is Johnny?’
Ned put a hand on the horse’s neck again to steady it, feeling its tension stuttering through the leather strap.
‘Who are ya?’ he asked the stranger curiously.
Folks who knew Johnny were always going to fall on one side or the other of the line. He was proud of Johnny for being able to turn his hand to most anything and talk his way out of everything else and draw his guns faster than a lightning strike when his fast-talk failed, but some people hated him for it.
‘Friend of Johnny’s,’ the man said economically. ‘Where is he?’
Ned relaxed inside. Having a friend of Johnny’s here was maybe almost as good as Johnny himself. It was too long since he had seen his brother or heard any word but through the few letters that Uncle Charlie read out in his slow, analytical way.
The horse seemed to sense his feelings and calmed a little too. Ned rubbed at his face, thinking of what he had last heard from Johnny. He seemed to spend most his time travelling, going by his infrequent correspondence.
‘I reckon he must be somewhere on his way here by now.’
‘Don’t rightly know,’ he admitted. ‘I ain’t seen Johnny since before the war.’
‘Well, how do you know he’s coming here?’ the man asked, with that edge creeping back into his voice.
‘Got a letter from him a while back, ’bout the time the war ended. Said he’d be home by the month before Christmas.’
‘About four or five weeks then, you reckon?’
‘Yeah, ’bout.’ This was starting to feel like some kind of interrogation. Whoever this man was, he sure was keen to see his brother. ‘Where d’you know Johnny from, the army?’
The man’s voice was full of something with that word. What was it? Doubt, regret? For all of his profession of friendship there was tension crackling in the air again. Peppy felt it too. Abruptly the horse snickered and whinnied, and then lurched up away from Ned’s hand.
The stranger’s voice was like a shot in the clear air.
A horse in panic was a powerful thing, all muscle and heat unleashed in mindless fury. It made the ground shiver as it bucked and came down hard, raising dust that filled the air and powdered the inside of his nose and mouth. Ned stumbled backwards and fell onto the ground.
‘Get out of there!’
Ned didn’t even try. Peppy would chase you if he saw you running, and Ned had never yet been able to master running blind. He could hear and feel the horse above him like a fury and knew if he raised himself up it would like as not knock his head off with its flailing hooves. He rolled onto his front, holding his hat down hard over his head as the only protection he had. It was hard to hear the stranger through Peppy’s whinnying and the clashing of his hooves, but somewhere behind it there was the whip of a rope through the air and the panicked lunges of the horse slowly subsided.
Ned pushed himself up off the ground and stood, tilting his hat back straight and steadying himself. His heart was hammering, the blood still surging through his veins after those long, fleeting moments of panic. The stranger came back to him and he had the same signs of shock in his voice that Ned was feeling.
‘Why didn’t you get out when you had the chance?’
‘I can’t see.’
It was always a bitter admission to make. Better to get through the banter with these wayfarers without them ever knowing, ever pitying.
There was that familiar pause, and the hand before his face. They thought he couldn’t sense them doing that, but he could feel it somehow, like a pressure close to his skin.
‘You mean you got no sight at all?’
He shook his head. There was a flicker sometimes, like the light moving behind a thick curtain, but that could not be called sight. It told him nothing more than whether it was night or day, and he could tell that from other things.
‘Well, what d’you want to try to saddle a horse like that for?’
The anger welled up in him quickly. It came sometimes like one of those geysers in Yellowstone, quick and steaming. His ma had always said there was no one this side of the Colorado as glad-hearted as Ned, but his anger was a sharp thing somewhere deep inside, and it came and went like a small storm.
‘Why not?’ he asked hotly. ‘I wasn’t always blind.’
He had a fleeting thought of dawns when the light cut sharp across the dusty land, the horses standing patient in the corral. The smell of leather and saddle oil and that glint of the sunlight on the horses’ flanks. Saddling up any one he chose and riding out into the hard, open country, with the air clear around him and the shadows long and solid on the ground…
It did no good to think of those things, but still, he let himself sometimes. There was nothing to compare with the beauty of dawn light on the red dust and on those cliffs that stood so straight and tall it looked like the Lord Himself had raised them up from the ground yesterday.
Hooves sounded on the dirt, and he turned. Likely it was Charlie this time, but it was busy these days with all the fortune-hunters passing through and you could never be sure who was going to turn up at the door, friend or foe. And then there was Fort Defiance. Johnny had left plenty behind in Fort Defiance to count as enemies.
‘Uncle Charlie?’ he asked.
The voice was familiar and reassuring, and he relaxed a few inches as his uncle came into the corral.
‘Look here, mister,’ Charlie began, the Irish pushing through into his voice as it always did when he was readying for a confrontation. ‘I ain’t hostile to veterans, but the best you can get here is feed and water for yer horse and a hunk of bacon for the trail, and don’t let any of our herd attach themselves to yer on the way out.’
Ned could picture him squaring up to the stranger, moving from foot to foot as if he were getting ready for a fight. His rifle was probably somewhere near about. Uncle Charlie wasn’t as quick as Johnny, but his aim had always been sure.
‘Uncle Charlie, this here’s a friend of Johnny’s,’ Ned said quickly, before his uncle’s hackles rose any further.
‘A friend of Johnny’s?’ Charlie asked, disbelief thick in his voice. ‘Mr – er – ?’
‘Ben,’ the stranger said. ‘Ben Shelby.’
‘Oh,’ Charlie said slowly. ‘What happened to you?’ he asked of Ned.
The dust must have been powdering over his coat and perhaps his hands and knees. A little river of nervous laughter welled up in him. Charlie would be sore at him for trying to take Peppy out alone.
‘I was saddling Peppy,’ he said, straightening his coat and his belt with his hands. ‘If it wasn’t for Shelby here he – mighta got me.’
As he expected, Uncle Charlie exploded.
‘Didn’t I tell you never to try to saddle Peppy ’less I was around?’ Charlie scolded him hotly.
He was fond of Ned and took care of him the best he could, letting him do what he could and trying to protect him from the rest. That was why sometimes Ned waited until he was out from under Uncle Charlie’s eye to try what he thought he could do.
‘Ah, you was around,’ Ned said carelessly.
‘I know, but in the corral. You want to ride, take old Doggone.’ Charlie turned to Shelby and said with real gratitude, ‘Thanks, mister.’
The sound of hooves again was a new relief, stopping Ned’s uncle from launching into what was sure to be a lecture on what was safe and what was not. Two horses it was this time, both cantering over the dusty ground to reach the corral. Ned heard one man dismount and he touched his hand to Shelby’s coat for guidance as they moved over toward the newcomer.
‘Howdy,’ the man called as he came into the corral.
‘Howdy, strangers,’ Uncle Charlie responded easily.
‘Who owns this place here?’
The man was looking about as he said that, trying to figure which of the men to speak to. Coming into the corral like that, standing so close to Charlie, looking them all over – he wanted something. Ned could tell.
‘I do,’ Uncle Charlie said.
‘Well, we were just riding through and spotted some of your cattle out there.’
Charlie tried to change the tack of the conversation, asking, ‘Where ya heading for? California?’
There had been enough people through here already who casually mentioned the cattle before offering up deals to take them away.
‘Yeah,’ the man said shortly. He had no interest in small talk.
‘Gold fields, huh?’ Charlie asked.
‘That’s right, pop.’
‘Yeah, most of you veterans are. Well, you just keep heading that direction,’ Uncle Charlie said, still trying to move them on with his words. He liked it best when it was him and Ned here, and no one else. He didn’t have to watch anyone for trouble, then. ‘If you’re shoving off, Shelby, you can throw in with them.’
‘Like to buy some of your cattle,’ the man persisted. ‘Bout fifty head.’
‘What was you figuring on paying?’ Charlie asked, a dangerous softness entering his voice.
‘Fifty cents a head.’
‘Well! If you could get it for that price, be cheaper than stealing them, wouldn’t it?’ Charlie’s voice suddenly became hard again. ‘I tell you what you do, son. You just keep heading in that direction. Maybe you’ll find some idiot that’ll do that.’
‘Be nice, pop,’ the man snapped, moving forward with his words.
‘You heard him,’ Ned snapped, feeling the tension racking up. ‘There ain’t nothing for sale here.’
There was silence – and then the sudden noise of a boot against metal and Shelby snapped, ‘Lay down,’ in a short, urgent voice.
Ned threw himself to the ground, trusting Shelby on instinct. He had already saved his hide once today. As he dropped a shot rang out, exploding close to him. There was a pained grunt and thud as a body collapsed to the dirt. Shelby had fired – he was sure of that – but he couldn’t be sure if there had been another shot, or just the echo of Shelby’s from the cliffs about the house. Only one body had dropped, he was certain.
‘Well, I guess that’s all, innit boys?’ Shelby drawled calmly, and Ned got to his knees, hearing the felled man clambering upright. He couldn’t be badly hurt, if he was standing.
A kind of silence hung in the air as the man left the corral and mounted his horse. The only sound then was the thudding of hooves as the men cantered away. Ned waited until they were a distance away before standing up. Guns unnerved him when he couldn’t see where they were pointing.
‘You all right, Ned?’ Charlie asked him, his voice subdued.
‘Yeah,’ he grunted as he straightened up. ‘I’m all right.’
‘The way you handled that gun, you must be a friend of Johnny’s,’ Charlie began in a buoyant tone.
Ned knew that without Shelby it would have been a fine line between their standing here now and lying on the dirt bleeding to death while their cattle were herded out by those strangers. When Johnny came home it would all be different, but there was little hope for one old man and one blind one to hold the ranch together for long. Johnny needed to come back. He needed to…
‘There never was much law here before the war. Even less now,’ Charlie mused as he recovered his rifle and dusted it off. ‘Men keep coming through, don’t know where they’re going or no notion of what they’re gonna do. Got so used to killing that killing’s the only thing they’re sure of.’
‘Ah, Johnny’d put a stop to that,’ Ned said with certainty. ‘When d’you see him last, Shelby – ?’
‘If you’re shoving off, Shelby,’ Charlie cut across him, ‘I reckon we can spare you a fresh horse.’
‘Kinda figured maybe I’d stick around and wait for Johnny,’ Shelby drawled.
‘And what did you figure on doing while you was waiting?’ Charlie asked him acerbically.
‘You could use a hand, couldn’t you?’
‘Well, if you wanna work for grub and scarcely no wages, that’s the only kind we can afford,’ Charlie offered lightly.
That would have most people moving on without a moment’s hesitation, but Shelby said firmly, ‘I’ll take it.’
‘Where’s your horse?’
‘Tied to the hitch rack.’
‘All right. Come on,’ Charlie said to Ned, touching a hand to his shoulder. Ned took the offered arm and followed the men out of the corral over to the house.
‘I’ll fix some coffee while you take care of the horses,’ Ned offered, letting loose his hold on Charlie’s sleeve and stepping toward the house.
‘You take care of the stove, won’t you, Ned?’ Charlie called after him.
‘Yeah, I always do, Uncle Charlie.’
He trailed his hand along the rough wall of the house, feeling each stone catching and loosing beneath his fingers until they turned the sharp corner into the doorway. He ducked into the windless inside of the house, where there was no more dust in the air and the warmth of the stove was a beacon at the end of the room. He hung his jacket on the peg by the door and went to find the pitcher of water.
The stove was pouring heat into the room as he carefully put the kettle down on the hot plate, and the water spat its fury as a small spill touched the iron. Ned dropped a handful of coffee beans into the grinder and sat down in the rocking chair, turning the grinder handle and letting the scent of coffee rise about him as the water began to hiss its way toward boiling. He didn’t know yet who Ben Shelby might turn out to be, but it sure would break the monotony of life to have an extra body in the house for a while.