“I'm a supporter of gay rights. And not a closet supporter either. From the time I was a kid, I have never been able to understand attacks upon the gay community. There are so many qualities that make up a human being... by the time I get through with all the things that I really admire about people, what they do with their private parts is probably so low on the list that it is irrelevant.”
I've always been a fan of Paul Newman. Maybe it's because he was my mom's favorite actor (and who could blame her) and the Long Hot Summer is her favorite movie. Maybe it's because of those beautiful baby blues that never dimmed even in his 80s. Maybe it was because he was one of the first to use his celebrity to help others on a large scale. Maybe it was because he fell in love and stayed there for 50 years. Maybe it's quotes like the one above. But the fact is, even though he hadn't been in a movie for years, he was still one of my favorites and I will miss him.
I've been thinking for the past few days about how I could give a little tribute to him through a fic... a kind of homage to one of my favorite movies of his. My all time favorite is The Sting (Henry Gondorff touching a finger to his nose with that twinkle in his eye just makes me smile), followed closely by his other collaboration with Robert Redford, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I remembered I already wrote my tribute to The Sting when I wrote The Confidence Game, so I started thinking about Butch and Sundance. That's when it dawned on me.... I'm writing a western right now! The thing is, I'm about 16,000 words in and maybe half done, so I have a little more work to do. But I decided I would post the first several pages as a sneak peek and a very humble tribute to Paul Newman who made such an indelible mark on the western genre.
The Battle of Canaan’s Bluff
The bluff runs north to south for almost a mile, a scar of gray limestone that puckers up from the scrub brush and junipers lining the stream a hundred feet below us like the healed pink flesh of the wound that runs down the length of my leg. The bluff marks the western boundary of my land. On paper, the land belongs to Teyla as her Pa’s sole survivor following an Indian massacre when she wasn’t yet a grown woman. But she says what’s hers is mine, despite the fact she bore me a son and still won’t consent to marry me no matter how many times I ask, and if we work the land together, then we can claim it together. It was Teyla who named this ridge for me. Canaan’s Bluff, she called it because it had held firm against all the time and wind and rain that had come before, it refused to crumble and break no matter what God threw at it.
The trek up the cliff weren’t an easy climb for me by any means given that my leg don’t always cooperate the way it should, but it is well worth the effort. From here we can see the riders coming from miles away, the dust drummed up by their horses signaling their approach long before we would have ever seen them from the homestead. And if all goes as planned, Cowen’s men won’t get within spitting distance of where Teyla is hiding with the baby and the others.
I know Teyla would rather be here than in the root cellar; the woman is pure stubbornness walking the Earth. But, like I told her when she started arguing she was as good a shot as me, if not better− that may be God’s honest truth, and I may be just as good as her at changing diapers, but I ain’t going to sprout a teat and start suckling a baby no time soon. So, if she wanted to keep our son fed, she best just hush up and go hide in the cellar like she was told. Fortunately, Sheppard and the others agreed, else she’d, no doubt, be lying on her belly with a gun in one hand and Torrin in the other as we watched the approaching dust cloud filled with horses and armed men grow larger. But for now she’s safe, and I plan to do everything in my power to keep her that way. My woman, my son, and my land… the three most important things in my life and ain’t none of them going to end up lost to a dirty, no-good, land-grabbing cattleman like Cowen.
It might not seem like much to most, only thirty acres of Kansas dirt built with a four-room cabin and barn, but the land is fertile and the water sweet and the wheat and corn will grow when we get it planted in the spring. This ain’t the first patch of land I’ve worked, but one way or another, it will be my last. My Pa lost his farm in 1862 when the Yankees retook Franklin and conscripted half the land and all the men of fighting age in Tennessee with it. That’s how I found myself fighting a war I didn’t rightly care one way or another about. My family weren’t rich, we didn’t own no slaves, all we had was the land we worked and what hadn’t been pillaged by the Confederate forces was taken by the Union to support their troops. So, truth be told, I can’t rightly say who I hoped would win and decided to concentrate on keeping myself alive instead.
I’d managed to do that, but just barely. I’d ended up in a Confederate prison camp with a bayonet slice that had opened up my right leg and owing my life to an odd assortment of men… a Scottish doctor, a Union cavalry officer, a gun maker, and a tracker. I not only owed them my life, I owed them my family, and if this cockamamie plan worked, I was going to owe them even more.
Sheppard sights down his Henry rifle where he sprawls atop the bluff beside me, rechecking the approaching gang of men. "Canaan, you hold tight until I give the word. Is that clear?"
Canaan, a name my Ma gave me with her last breath while I was mewling in my Pa’s arms and her lifeblood flowed out on the sheets of my birthbed that turned into her deathbed a few minutes later. According to Pa, she was a high class lady, educated and refined, born to a wealthy Nashville family and disowned for running off with a hired hand meant to deflower tobacco, not the boss man’s daughter. What little my Pa knew how to read and write came from her teaching, so for most of my life, I spelled my name with a K like Pa first taught me. Not until I was being tended by that Scottish doctor did I learn the Biblical spelling was with a C, like my Ma intended, and the birthright that came with a name like Canaan. Cursed. The name was cursed by Noah himself. Why in tarnation a man would curse his grandson because the boy’s father saw the grandpappy naked is beyond me. But that is just what Noah did. Got himself drunk and made a durn fool of himself and he cursed his grandson and all his descendents to a life of slavery for it. More than that, the Canaan in the Bible spent his life fighting for his land. Makes me think maybe my Ma was blessed with the sight in her last minutes here on Earth when she gave me that name.
But I intend to break that curse and make sure my boy lives free on land of his own that I leave him. So, I nod my understanding to Sheppard, put my sights on the men trying to drive me off that land, and wait for the signal from across the way.
* * * *
"Hold up, Halling," I say, wiping an arm across my brow to sop up the sweat running into my eyes. "I could use some water right about now."
The afternoon is warm for late October, despite the coating of frost we had this morning, not that the work of rebuilding the corral for the horses isn’t enough to work up a sweat. It’s more than enough to have my leg aching, that’s for dang sure. But we need to fix the pen so we can move to the barn repairs next, the latest victim of Cowen’s men and their attempts to run us off our land. We were lucky this time; the fire didn’t take a firm hold before we had time to put it out, so that we only lost the door and part of a wall and not the whole building and the feed stored inside to help get the livestock through the winter.
Halling nods his agreement as he breathes heavily and puts down the next plank he was preparing to hold while I hammer it into place and follows me toward the front of the house. Even though Halling is getting up there in years, he’s still a good hand. If it hadn’t been for him and Charin, I don’t think Teyla would have been able to run the farm as long as she did on her own.
The farm hand can’t help but notice my worsening limp as we walk. "Is that leg bothering you again?"
"When don’t it?" I snort. I suppose the good thing about having a scar from my thigh to my calf is that the Rebel son of a bitch who was the cause missed stabbing me in the belly like he was trying before he went down.
"I’ll mix up some more salve tonight," he offers as he steps up onto the porch. When I wince at the thought of the rancid smell of turpentine and lard, he shakes his head. "If you can survive the wound, you can survive the medicine."
My grin at his reasoning fades as I see dust rising in the distance. "Riders coming," I warn, taking up the rifle leaning against the stoop. "Get the womenfolk to the cellar."
Cowen’s men haven’t come after us directly and they’ve never come in broad daylight before, but their leader, Acastus, is meaner than a snake and as heartless as one could ever hope to be. And I know it’s just a matter of time before he tries something of the like. Halling heads inside and a few seconds later Teyla comes to join me on the porch with the baby in her arms.
"Woman, for once, will you do as I say and get yourself hidden?"
As I suspect, she ignores me, instead staring out at the approaching horsemen and patting the baby’s back when he starts to fuss. "Hush up," she says and I’m not sure if she’s speaking to me or Torrin. "Family’s a comin’."
"Family?" I ask in confusion before I can make out that there are only three riders, and I finally understand who she means. "Why did you send word to them?"
"Because we can use the help if we mean to keep what is our as ours," she tells me with a look that dares me to challenge her.
"You owe your life to them, Canaan, as do I."
And I do, the good Lord knows that ain’t no lie. But that don’t make me none too happy to see them.
"Well, hell, I know that." I sigh, lowering my gun as the galloping horses slow to a trot as they approach the house and I can make out the riders. "It’s just that the only thing they have more than luck is trouble."
Teyla shoots me a look that says I’m the one who’s going to have trouble if I say anything to insult the men she’s adopted as kin before stepping forward to greet them.
The lead rider is dressed in a black duster and hat, onyx-handled revolvers in the holster he wears on his hips, and a Henry rifle on his saddle. "Teyla," he greets with a sly grin as he tips his hat.
Gun slingers. I ain’t never had any use for them and don’t reckon I ever will, no matter what they were when they started out in life.
"John," Teyla smiles up at him in return. "It is so good to see you again."
"When you wrote and said there was trouble, I had no idea you meant a baby."
Teyla rolls her eyes and shakes her head at the comment. "As much trouble as this little one is, even I can handle a youngin’."
John Sheppard had been a Lieutenant Colonel in the 7th U.S. Cavalry when I first met him in that prison camp in Virginia. He’d been schooled at West Point then served nine years in the Indian territories, tracking down the bands of Comanche warriors who were attacking white settlements across the plains. When the war broke out, his division was transferred to fight along the Potomac and he’d been captures three months before me during a skirmish along the James River. Sheppard was a known trouble maker among the guards and spent most of the five months we was prisoners together with a fresh set of bruises for sassing the Rebs. Truth be known, sometimes I thought he was trying to get hisself killed. And if it hadn’t been for the man who was sitting on the horse next to his, I think he might have let them do it.
"Where did you get a baby?"
"I found him under a cabbage leaf in the garden." Teyla looks at Rodney McKay like he’s an idiot child and not one of the smartest, most book-learned men I ever met. "Did your momma never teach you where babies come from, Rodney?"
"Don’t mind him," John tells her. "I reckon he had a nose stuck in a book instead of taking a more hands on approach to his education."
Rodney McKay was a gun maker. To hear him tell it, he practically built the Gatling gun all by his lonesome. He had worked with the 7th Cavalry for almost as many years as John Sheppard had been a member, making the trip from the crowded cities in the east to the open expanses of the western territories several times a year to field test new guns and ammunition from the Colt Company. It was while he was training a regiment on the Petersburg Front on the latest new fangled model that he and Sheppard were captured and imprisoned.
I never could tell which one was to blame for the two men being captured; depending on the circumstances the stories would change. One minute Sheppard would say it was all McKay’s fault for stomping through the underbrush like a one man heard of buffalo and drawing the attention of the Confederate infantry, the next John would claim he owed Rodney his life for keeping him alive long enough for Doc Beckett to stitch him back up. McKay’s stories weren’t all that different. By Rodney’s account, if Sheppard hadn’t tried to rescue him, the colonel wouldn’t have been captured in the first place, so it was really his own damn fault he ended up nearly starving to death in that Confederate hellhole. And if John had hightailed it back to Union territory after he managed to release Rodney, instead of trying to blow the ammo stores in the Southern camp, they would have made it back from behind the enemy lines and Sheppard never would have ended up shot like he had.
Rodney raises his chin so high his bowler hat nearly falls off his head. "I’m just saying I didn’t even know she was in a family way."
The third man, the one with a beard and buckskins, leans back in his saddle and rests his forearm on the top of the tomahawk on his belt. When he speaks, it stops Sheppard and McKay from bickering like an old married couple like they are want to do. "So does this mean you’re a Mrs. then?
Teyla’s tongue is as sharp as one of the many knives I know Ronon has hidden on his person. "A woman can take a man into her bed, Ronon Dex, without taking his name as well."
I’ve heard that same argument more times than I can count, but it don’t stop Ronon from treading into dangerous territory.
"She does if he’s the pa to her baby."
"Why is that? He had the easy part in the baby making. I was the one who had to birth this child out. If anything, Canaan should be taking my name and be proud to have it."
Ronon Dex was a tracker with Sheppard’s Cavalry division back in the Indian territories and then went back east with them when the War broke out. Once upon a time, he had been a fur trapper and married to a Sioux woman, but her entire village had been wiped out by a Comanche tribe and that’s why he took up with the Cavalry in the first place. Sheppard had told me it was downright spooky to see the smile that would come across Ronon’s face when he found a Comanche band and the large man always led the charge when they attacked. He was the one who eventually found Sheppard in the prison camp and busted him out, refusing to believe the Army’s claim that Lt. Colonel John Sheppard was dead. Of course, Sheppard wouldn’t leave the prison without McKay and the Doc had convinced McKay he needed to take me if I had any chance of living.
John shakes his head at Teyla reasoning. "I swear you are as bullheaded as the day I met you."
That day had been over ten years earlier when Sheppard’s regimen had come across the burned remains of the cabin that stood on the exact spot as the one I call home now stands. John, just the rank of major then, was the one who found Teyla, seventeen years old, shivering in the root cellar, with nothing more than her father’s hunting knife clutched in her hands. The Comanche had attacked while Halling and Charin had gone for supplies in Athos, a day’s trip away by wagon. They had killed her parents and taken her younger sister then burned the house and barn to the ground, never knowing Teyla was even there.
Sheppard and McKay had volunteered to stay with her until the hired hands came back after Teyla refused to desert her father’s land and go with the soldiers back to Fort Leavenworth. Ronon managed to track the band that had attacked the Emmagan family and the 7th Cavalry’s punishment was swift and as vengeful as Teyla could have hoped. Still, all he could do was bring back her sister’s body to bury with the rest of the family in the plot that sat a stone’s throw from our back porch. Over the years, John had made a point of checking in on the young woman he had found, even helping rebuild the house and see that she had the supplies she needed. When we had escaped from the prison camp, Teyla was the first person that came to his mind to nurse me back to health. The Army had declared Sheppard dead, so there was nothing for him to rush back to. Besides, war can change a man, more than that, it can break a man. Just snap him like a dry twig and kindling can’t stick itself back on the tree no matter how much it might want to. The truth be told, I don’t think John Sheppard much wanted to go back to the life he’d had before. And the funny thing is, a dead man can make a new life for himself easier than a living one any day.
The day we rode up to the house, it was early December, a dusting of white coated the winter-hardened ground, and the horses’ breath lighted slow and icy in air that felt heavy with threatening snow. I was burning up with the fever so I rode behind Sheppard wrapped in an Army-issue blanket since I couldn’t sit a horse of my own. Still, even as sick as I was, I remember seeing Teyla standing there under that gunmetal gray sky, wearing britches and suspenders, her hair pulled back under a wide-brimmed hat, and her arms full of firewood, and I thought, even dressed like a boy, she was the most beautiful woman I had ever set eyes on in my life.
And she said the same thing that winter day nearly two years ago that she says now to Sheppard and the others. "Come down off of those horses and let me have a look at you."