Heart of the Countryby Greg Matthews
A dying Indian woman gives birth to a white man’s son under a pitch-black prairie sky. In the basement of a Kansas brothel, a husband tends the furnace while his wife services the clientele upstairs. A preacher’s mute daughter chases after/b>/i>
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“A big sprawling novel of the West as it really was.” —The Denver Post
A dying Indian woman gives birth to a white man’s son under a pitch-black prairie sky. In the basement of a Kansas brothel, a husband tends the furnace while his wife services the clientele upstairs. A preacher’s mute daughter chases after a broken kite, paying no heed to the dangers lurking underfoot. An Englishman and his humpbacked guide track a phantom white buffalo from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains and back again.
A saga as rich and complex as the history of the American West, Heart of the Country bursts at the seams with unforgettable characters and stunning imagery. Tracing the epic journey of Joe Cobden, a half-breed hunchback born on the side of a stagecoach road and raised in the genteel home of a St. Louis doctor, across the vast and unforgiving landscape of the Great Plains, author Greg Matthews exposes the savage truth behind the frontier myth and captures what it was really like to live and die in the Old West.
An enthralling adventure story that combines the poignant realism of Larry McMurtry with the gothic imagination of Stephen King, Heart of the Country is a masterpiece of historical fiction.
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Heart of the Country
By Greg Matthews
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1995 Greg Matthews
All rights reserved.
In Kansas there is a town called Valley Forge.
Its origins are obscure. It is generally believed that in 1854 a lone farmer en route to California by ox-drawn wagon lost heart for the journey in this place, dug a shallow pit for shelter against the wind, roofed it with planks torn from his vehicle and declared himself the first citizen of what he believed would surely become a thriving township. It is also said the man had a supply of whiskey with him, and on his first night inside the pit, alone with a howling westerly and his bottles, he declared himself mayor in perpetuity. In the slowly unwinding hours before dawn it occurred to the mayor that his projected community should bear a name, and in the whiskey-grip of patriotism he emerged from his hole in the ground to the open and uncaring prairie.
Raising his hands, one still in possession of a near-empty bottle, he turned clumsily until he faced the east with its first flush of light. Intoning the name of George Washington, continuing with a stumbling eulogy to that father of the nation, he conferred upon the featureless grassland the name it would retain until such times as the sun cease to climb into the heavens and water cease to flow and American hearts turn from God. His declaration was borne away on the wind, but remained echoing grandly in his fuddled brain. Vastly pleased with his work, the founder of Valley Forge drained the last mouthful from his bottle and flung it away into the dark with a yell of exultation. Thrown off balance by his impulsive gesture he fell, and returned on hands and knees to his home. There, huddled in blankets against a wall of soil, he slept the deep sleep of accomplishment.
With the return of sobriety some twelve hours later, the mayor gave consideration to his future and that of his creation. That the two were inextricably linked he had no doubt. Emerging for the second time from his dugout he was greeted by the dull bellowing of his oxen; beset by thirst, they awaited relief. The mayor scouted the locality and discovered a creek with a meagre trickle of water meandering nearby. While his oxen drank he scanned the horizon. To eyes now undimmed by whiskey the landscape was drear indeed. Not one tree, not so much as a stunted bush presented itself. The land rolled away with the monotonous dip and swell of a languid ocean. Turning slowly, the mayor experienced a momentary lapse of euphoria as the emptiness, the sheer absence of feature impressed itself upon him. Completing a three-quarter circle, he noted with gratitude a low ridge to the northwest, perhaps two or three miles distant, its welcome, if barely perceptible, prominence graced with the unmistakable darkness of foliage.
Leaving his team to graze, the mayor walked to the ridge, his spirits considerably revived. Here was that rare commodity of the prairie — timber. The ridge ran north to south for almost a mile and was at least forty feet high along its spine. The eastern slope, protected from the prevailing winds, provided shelter for blackjack, elm, ash, cottonwood and box elder — a small cornucopia of lumber with which to build a town. The mayor rubbed his hands in anticipation; God had directed him to the right place. He briefly considered relocating his home in the lee of the ridge, then decided against it. His choice of settlement had been arbitrary, made at dusk when the ridge was an indefinable smudge on the horizon, beyond recognition as natural shelter; if the Lord had wanted him to abandon his trek to California close by the ridge He would have revealed it while daylight allowed. No, it was divine will that had determined the location of the dugout, and as such it was not to be contravened. The ridge was close enough; Valley Forge would expand to enfold it in due time. The mayor was content.
For several days he laboured harder than ever before in his life. A dugout is an inappropriate domicile for one elected to high office; the mayor therefore carefully spaded up blocks of prairie earth and built for himself a pioneer home of sod, raising the walls layer by layer until he could build them no higher without the aid of a stool or ladder. He drove his oxen to the ridge and returned with several choice timbers for use as roof beams; the trimmed branches he wove between the beams in a rough lattice. He removed the canvas from his wagon and tied it into place, a gently billowing ceiling, then covered this with more sod, grass side up, to form a living roof.
The mayor surveyed his home with pride. A log cabin of more substantial mien would follow, but for the moment the dictates of the season required that a crop be sown with all haste. He had come equipped with two sacks of seed, one wheat and one rye, and a plough. With these rudiments of agricultural enterprise the mayor began to farm. The task was arduous and drove him to his earthen bed at night numbed with exhaustion. Before his eyes closed he repeated the name "Valley Forge" to himself several times, and drew strength and succour from its talismanic intonation.
One morning the mayor awoke to the sound of muted thunder, yet the sky was clear. The invisible storm seemed to originate from the direction of the ridge. Having heard improbable tales of freakish weather in the west, the mayor decided to witness this meteorological marvel, if such it was, for himself. Climbing through the trees to the top of the ridge he found his expectations both rewarded and confounded. Below him, from the base of the ridge there stretched a violently undulating sea of buffalo. The mayor recognised the creatures from newspaper illustrations, yet was awed by their numbers. The earth beneath his boots quaked at the pounding of their million hoofs, the air choked him with the dust of their passing. Their massive tufted humps and domed heads bobbed with frantic, almost comical haste as they thundered by, the furthest reaches of the herd lost along a horizon shrouded in dust and distance. Recovering his senses, the mayor's first thoughts were for his home. Moving along the ridge to its southernmost point, in which direction the buffalo were travelling with such urgency, he saw that Valley Forge and its environs were to be spared destruction; beyond the ridge's extremity lay a hitherto unnoticed feature of the landscape, a subsidence of the plain flanked on its eastern boundary by a sloping crescent or secondary ridge which served to channel the edges of the herd away to the south-west. The mayor breathed a hasty prayer of thanks; God surely was looking after His chosen place.
The mayor estimated the herd at tens of thousands. After watching it pass with unabated speed and volume for half an hour he revised this figure to hundreds of thousands. He awaited the end of the herd. When it had not arrived after another half hour he abandoned estimates in favour of practical action; he ran to the sod house, checked the load in his cap and ball rifle and staggered back to the ridge, lungs afire with the effort, legs trembling. He need not have hurried; the herd continued to slide past as before. Surely, he thought, they exist in their millions! He aimed, fired, but no buffalo fell. He reloaded, took careful aim, squeezed the trigger in the approved manner. The detonation of cap and powder was lost in the general tumult, and so, it seemed, was the ball, for the target merely swerved fractionally and kept on. Realising his small bore weapon was useless against adult animals, he chose for his third attempt a gangling calf, and succeeded in bringing it down. It lay in a splay-legged heap at the base of the ridge, occasionally trampled upon by its seniors. While he waited patiently to collect his supper the mayor pondered on the possible causes of this titanic stampede — wolves, perhaps, or some thunderstorm too far away to be seen or heard from Valley Forge. No lesser thing could have served to frighten so great a number; there were enough buffalo to encircle the globe.
Around noon the herd dwindled and died away to a scant few beasts, footsore and dazed, rag-tag tail-enders limping forlornly after their speedier fellows. While the mayor descended from the ridge and sank his knife inexpertly into the calf's belly, the answer to his idle question was some fifteen miles away, performing the same task with considerably greater skill.
That night the mayor feasted royally. He celebrated his acquisition of fresh meat with the broaching of a bottle, his first since the founding of the community. He slept soundly, belly rumbling with contentment, the interior of the sod house gradually succumbing to an effluvium of flatus.
In the morning he opened his door to be confronted by a dozen or so Indians. The illustrated newspapers had prepared the mayor for such an encounter, but the raw physicality of their presence sent an uncomfortable flutter through his already strained bowels. Their hair was so long and black, their skin so brown, so greasy, their seminakedness so utterly alien to anything the mayor had known in the east. They squatted before him like idols, their ponies grazing unconcernedly behind. He matched their basilisk stares, knowing that to reveal fear would bring them to their feet in an instant, hatchets poised to crush his skull. The mayor stood his ground and considered his chances. Should he step backwards into the sod house and return with rifle in hand? Perhaps he should simply close the door and wait for them to depart.
One of the Indians stood. The mayor's bowels churned with alarm. He knew the choice that lay before him: to die with clean breeches or to die befouled. A God-fearing man could not present himself to St. Peter bow-legged and beshat. He strode away from his home, away from the Indians, head high, buttocks clenched. The Indians watched with interest as the mayor unhitched his suspenders, squatted and found instant relief. His action provoked a brief conversation among them. He returned and presented himself at arm's reach from the standing Indian, hands on hips, chest thrust forward defiantly. Now they could kill him; purged of supper and self doubt, the mayor awaited his tragic yet manly demise. The Indian raised a hand, his fingers curved. He threw back his head and produced a gargling sound. This was not the bloodcurdling war cry the mayor had read of. The Indian repeated his action and the mayor understood at last. Whiskey! His guests wanted whiskey! He hastened to satisfy their need. Presented with a bottle, the Indian grasped it without a smile and tipped a prodigious quantity into his throat. His companions rose and accepted the liquor in turn. The mayor noticed for the first time that three of their number were women, and felt overwhelming embarrassment at having defecated within sight of them. He consoled himself with the thought that among these children of nature the bodily functions were perhaps not surrounded by the conventions of privacy. The women did not drink. The emptied bottle dropped to the prairie with a forlorn thud. The Indians waited patiently for another. Divining their need, the mayor provided.
Halfway through this second bottle the drinkers began to reel and utter hearty whoops of approval. Their leader clasped his benefactor warmly by the shoulders in a gesture of appreciation and friendship before sliding gently to the ground, where several of the others had already taken their ease. The squaws sat stoically by their ponies. One gave suck to an infant. When the third bottle was broached the mayor became uneasy. Who knew what crimes Indians under the influence might commit? They would almost certainly develop violent tendencies. He strolled into the sod house, loaded his rifle in readiness then hid it under a blanket. He returned to the drinkers and wished them gone; his land required attention and already much of the morning had been wasted. The Indians continued to drink, then fell asleep, snoring without restraint. The mayor sat by his doorway and smoked his pipe, damning the intrusion. He dared not leave them, for he had heard Indians were notorious thieves. The squaws shared dried meat from a buckskin bag among themselves. None was offered to the mayor.
The slanting rays of a westering sun revived the men. Their leader demanded yet more whiskey. The mayor handed over his last two bottles and retired for the night. A mayor ought not to be a drinking man anyway; it eroded public confidence in his ability. He watched between the planks of his door as the Indians built a fire and became raucously drunk all over again. He sat facing the door with the loaded rifle across his knees, waiting for the inevitable attack. Fear kept him awake until the small hours before dawn, when the threat of aggression seemed unlikely; communal snoring came to him on the night air, soothing as a lullaby.
Awakened in mid morning by the rifle sliding from his lap, the mayor stepped cautiously outside. Indians and ponies, all were gone. Five empty bottles and a pile of cold ashes graced what he liked to imagine was his front yard. He rounded a corner of the sod house to ensure his oxen had not been stolen or butchered. They stared back at him with bovine placidity, chewing their everlasting cud. A squaw sat with her back to the sod wall, watching him. He looked around for her pony. There was none. Had they abandoned her? This new development was disquieting. The mayor wanted no involvement with redskins, yet here was one squatting by his home with no apparent intention of leaving. His hospitality had been sorely abused by Indian overindulgence, and now this squaw had been left behind to plague him! The mayor swore, surprising himself with profanity he would not normally have used before men, let alone a woman. He pointed emphatically at the horizon and told her to be gone. The squaw ignored him. He came closer and inspected her. He did not find her attractive. The nature of Indian gratitude slowly wormed its way behind his anger, and the mayor's jaw dropped with comprehension. Whiskey had bought him a wife! He stared at the sky and wondered how best to cope with the gift that had been so unexpectedly thrust upon him.
While he pondered, he ploughed. Perhaps if he paid her no attention the squaw would wander off. He went nowhere near the house all day. In the evening, his irritation fuelled by hunger, he returned to find her cooking remnants of buffalo calf over a fire of dried buffalo dung. He ate in silence. The squaw waited until he had finished before feeding herself. The mayor lit an oil lamp and studied her. She was plump, with no discernible waist. Her face was without expression or pleasing contour, a flat face with black, unblinking eyes. She stared back. He would have preferred that she lower her gaze to indicate maidenly modesty, but the concept was apparently foreign to her.
The mayor lit his pipe. A woman to tend his needs was not an unappealing prospect. True, she was not the girl of his dreams, but she appeared to be young. He squinted through the dim lamplight at her shapeless deerhide smock; her breasts appeared to be full and the mayor cheered up somewhat. He was not a man of wide experience with women, but was sufficiently acquainted with the delights to be had from the female body to regard this interloper with a less jaundiced eye than before. His loins reacted to this train of thought, causing him to shift and squirm uncomfortably. He smiled for the first time at his new-found companion and bedfellow. The smile was not returned, but the mayor was by now in a state of pleasant anticipation and took no offence. He introduced himself, pointing to his chest, then pointed to the squaw. She tapped herself between the breasts and spoke a name unintelligible to the mayor's ears. This would not do; her name henceforth would be Millie. He impressed this fact upon her by repetition. She mastered the word with surprising ease, despite a tendency to stress the second syllable. The mayor congratulated himself on his ability to instruct a simple heathen. He regarded her with the benevolence a man would bestow upon a favourite hound, pride of ownership reflected in his smile.CHAPTER 2
In time other settlers joined the mayor at Valley Forge. Timber was taken from the ridge, homes built, farms established. Sensing the imminent fruition of his plans, the mayor took it upon himself to survey a townsite. With infinite care he set aside an area of land as yet unclaimed by the ploughs of his neighbours and laid out a grid ten blocks square with streets wide enough to turn a wagon. His ready tongue convinced all that Valley Forge should be the name of this yet-to-be-realised community. The mayor was looked upon with some indulgence. Respect was owed him as the first man to set down roots in the area but he was, after all, a squaw-man. Behind his back they called him "the King of Nowhere County" and "the Mayor of Mudville", and smiled.
They allowed him to pace off the town blocks and knock stakes into the soil; someone had to do it, and he performed his self-appointed task well. He raised the first building on a street in Valley Forge and declared it a general store, then rode to the nearest town, some seventy miles distant, to place an order for supplies. Four months later, in the bitter cold of winter, the goods arrived. By now the town boasted a blacksmith, a livery stable and a saloon, and was included in not one, but two stage routes. The mayor began to feel he lived at the hub of the earth. He applied to the territorial government for permission to open a post office at the store. Permission was granted, one more step taken toward the realisation of his dream of elected office.
Excerpted from Heart of the Country by Greg Matthews. Copyright © 1995 Greg Matthews. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Greg Matthews is the author of eleven books, including The Further Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, heralded by the Christian Science Monitor as “the true sequel to Twain’s masterpiece,” and two acclaimed sagas of the Old West, Heart of the Country and Power in the Blood. He has published three books—Callisto, The Dolphin People, and The Secret Book of Sacred Things—under the nom de plume Torsten Krol. The author describes himself as “a guy in a room, writing, writing.”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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This is a wonderful book. A guy handed it to my wife on a plane and based on the cover it sat in our house for a year not read. One night I had nothing else to read and picked it up. About 7am I had to put it down to go to work. I have told many people about this book and not one has said they did not love it. A great read.
When I finished this book I felt as if I had lost a lifelong friend. I have read this three times over the years and it always surprises me with material I missed the previous reading. Do yourself a favor and add this to your library. The books primary character, Joe Cobden, is a sad figure who begins life with more obsticles than we can imagine. Yet, he works hard to carve a life for himself from the rough land full of rougher people. I believe everyone will love this book!!