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One week after Morgan and Dorothy ran off to get married, they returned to Thirty Four Corners. It was obvious, as they drove down Central Street, which was the main street of the town, that they were the center of attention.
"Hey, Poindexter, after what you done to a good man, why did you bother to come back to Thirty Four Corners?" someone shouted from the front of Sikes's hardware store.
"Don't let Hancock get to you, Poindexter," someone called from the front of White's Apothecary, which was just across the street. "It ain't like you run off with another man's wife.... They wasn't married yet. You 'n' your new missus had ever' right to get married if you wanted to."
For the entire drive down Central Street, Morgan and Dorothy were assailed by such calls, some accusatory and some supportive. They stopped in front of the Homestead Hotel.
"I'm going to get you checked in here," Morgan said. "Then I'm going out to the ranch and make things right with Ben."
"Oh, Morgan, do be careful," Dorothy said, laying her hand on Morgan's arm.
"Don't you worry about it, darlin'," Morgan replied, patting her hand. "Ben and I have been best friends from the day we were born. We'll get things patched up, all right."
"I can't believe you would have the nerve to come out here," Ben said angrily.
"Ben, what can I say? I'm sorry it happened like this. It isn't something that Dorothy or I planned. We fell in love. You didn't love her—you know you didn't. She never was anything more than a mail-order bride to you, and that's all she ever would be. Hell, you can order another bride." Morgan laughed, trying to lighten the situation. "I'll even pay for it."
"I have already sent for another mail-order bride," Ben replied. "I don't want you to pay for it. In fact, Morgan, I don't want anything at all from you. I don't want anything to do with you ever again."
"That's going to be sort of hard to do, isn't it?" Morgan replied. "We are equal partners in this ranch. How are we going to work together, if you never want anything to do with me again?"
"I've already spoken to a lawyer," Ben said. "He has drawn up a plan that will divide the ranch into two separate ranches. You can have everything north of Bacas Ridge, I'll stay south."
"But my house is here, not more than a hundred yards from this house."
"I'll be buying your house, and your interest in all the other structures. That will give you enough money to build your own place."
"I don't want to do that, Ben. Why can't we just keep things the way they were, as partners and friends? I'll live in my house just the way I have been doing, and you can live in yours. You said yourself you've already sent for another mail-order bride. I'm sure she and Dorothy will be as good a friends as you and I have been for all these years."
"Please meet me in Lawyer Norton's office tomorrow afternoon," Ben said.
Dan Norton had thinning hair that had once been red and a face with freckles that had faded over time. He sat behind his desk and looked at the paperwork that lay before him, three matching documents, one for Ben Ross, one for Morgan Poindexter, and one for the county files.
"You have both read the documents," Norton said. "Do you have any questions?"
"Yes," Ben said. "What is this right here, this hatch-marked piece of land?"
"That is fifteen thousand acres that was not claimed in the original land grant," Norton said.
"So, file on it, and we'll divide it."
Norton shook his head. "I can't file on it," he said. "It has already been claimed."
"Claimed?" Ben replied. He looked at Morgan with an angry expression on his face. "Morgan! You son of a bitch!"
"Mr. Poindexter isn't the one who filed on it," Norton replied, quickly.
"Well, who did?"
"Kyle Stallings," Norton said.
"Stallings? Impossible," Ben said. "He rides for me."
"Not anymore," Norton said. "I understand he is starting his own ranch now."
"Ha! You can't have much of a ranch with only fifteen thousand acres," Ben said.
"As I understand it, he just wants enough land to be able to survive. And, because his ranch is situated between the two of you, he also hopes it will keep the peace between you. He says that he likes both of you, and doesn't want to be put into the position of taking sides."
"His land doesn't completely divide us," Morgan said. "It comes to a point up here. From here, all the way out to the Navajo Range, our two properties are adjacent."
"I propose one last partnership enterprise between us," Ben said.
"What would that be?" Morgan asked.
"That we build, and share in the cost of, a five-mile-long barbed wire fence."
"All right," Morgan agreed.
The papers Norton had drawn up for the two men divided not only the land, but the cattle. The cowboys who had worked on the ranch were also divided as to which of the two erstwhile friends and partners they would work for. About half of them chose the one they wanted to work for; the others, with no particular preference, were divided by lot. What had been the R&P Ranch, became two ranches. Ben Ross owned the BR Ranch. Morgan named his ranch the Tumbling P.
Shortly after the division of the property was made, and even before Morgan had managed to build his new house and outbuildings, Ben Ross's new mail-order bride arrived. Her name was Nancy Malone, and she came from Georgia, ironically from Chickamauga, the place where Morgan had saved Ben's life.
Morgan had hoped that getting a new wife would mellow Ben to the point that they could make up and resume their friendship. In order to accomplish that, he and Dorothy went to the church on the day of Ben's wedding, but they were met by some of Ben's riders, all of whom were armed.
"Sorry, Mr. Poindexter, but you can't go into the church."
"Dean, what are you saying?" Morgan asked. Dean Kelly was Ben Ross's foreman, a man that Morgan had known since he and Ben had started the ranch.
"Like I said, you can't go in. Mr. Ross, he's done give me orders to keep you out."
"Would you shoot me, and my wife, to keep us from going into a church?"
"I wouldn't want to," Kelly said. "But Mr. Ross, he's real serious about you not comin' in to spoil his weddin'. And you know me, Mr. Poindexter. I'm loyal to whoever I'm workin' for."
"I had hoped that we could end this silly disagreement," Morgan said. Then he sighed, and put his hand on Kelly's shoulder. "But I'm not going to force the issue. You're right. You are a good and loyal man."
"I'm sorry, Mr. Poindexter."
Morgan nodded, then turned to his wife. "Come on, Dorothy," he said. "Let's go out and see how the builders are doing with our house."
Within a year after they were married, Dorothy gave Morgan a son, who he named Nate. Six months later, Ben was blessed with a son, who he named Rex. One year later, Morgan and Dorothy had a daughter whom they named Sylvia.
Then, when Sylvia was twelve years old, Dorothy died, and Morgan sent his daughter back to Illinois to live with his sister.
"Please, Papa, I don't want to go back," Sylvia begged. "I want to stay here with you and my brother."
"You're going to be a woman someday," Morgan said. "And I intend to see to it that you have a woman's touch while you're growin' up. I loved your mama more than I can say, and I wouldn't feel right raisin' a tomboy."
Despite her protestations, Sylvia went east.
Over the next several years, animosity grew, not only between Ben Ross and Morgan Poindexter, but also between those who supported one side or the other.
The Lewis Ranch, Freemont County, Colorado
Fourteen-year-old Claire Lewis was standing in a kitchen that was redolent with the aroma of the biscuits her mother had baking in the oven. Claire was holding a hand mirror, extending her hand, then bringing it up for a closer examination, turning her head one way, and then another. She was also holding her lips in various ways, smiling, and puckering.
"Mama, am I pretty?" she asked.
"Of course you are, darling. You are a beautiful girl."
"I know you are going to say that, because you are my mama. But am I really pretty?"
"Is the horse that Matt Jensen gave you pretty?" Martha asked.
"Sparkle is beautiful," Claire replied.
"Are you saying that just because he is your horse?"
"No, I'm saying it because ..." Claire stopped in midsentence. "I know what you are doing," she said.
"What am I doing?"
"You're showing me that I can say Sparkle is beautiful because he really is, and not just because he is my horse."
"And that means?"
"That means you can say that I am pretty, and not just because I'm your daughter."
"But I didn't say you were pretty," Martha said.
The smile left Claire's face.
"I said you were beautiful."
Claire laughed again.
"Go out to the barn and tell your papa to get cleaned up to eat. As soon as the biscuits come out, supper will be ready."
Claire started toward the back door, but before she reached it, it was suddenly opened, and three men came in.
"Who are you? What are you doing here?" Martha asked, fright causing her voice to rise in pitch.
"Now, is that any way to greet company?" one of the men said. He was a big man, with a bald head, a flattened nose, and an unkempt red beard.
"I'm going to call my husband," Martha said. "Jim! Jim!"
"Oh, would this be your husband?" the red bearded man asked. Reaching back out onto the porch he grabbed something, then brought it in to show to Martha.
It was Jim Lewis's severed head.
James had been decapitated, and Martha and Claire had both been slaughtered. Jim Lewis had been one of Matt Jensen's closest friends, and Matt's friends were particularly important to him, because his lifestyle of wandering from place to place limited the number of friends he had.
Matt Jensen was particularly close to the Lewis family. He had spent last Christmas with them, and he had given Claire a horse as a Christmas present. He remembered how excited the young girl had been about the horse, a handsome palomino.
"Oh! He is the most beautiful horse I have ever seen in my whole life!" Claire had said excitedly, running her hand over the horse's unblemished gold coat. "What is his name?"
"He doesn't have a name," Matt had said. "He's been waiting for you to name him."
"I'm going to call him Sparkle," Claire had said. "Because his gold coat sparkles in the sunshine."
Claire's father had laughed. "Sparkle? I hope the other horses don't start making fun of him with a name like that."
"Oh, pooh! Sparkle knows he is a beautiful horse, and he won't care what the other horses think."
Matt had been particularly stirred at having been invited by them to participate in what was, normally, a personal time for family. And since Matt had no family of his own, being included in their Christmas made him feel very welcome. When he'd learned that they had been killed—and not only killed, but killed in a way that was brutal and senseless—he had been consumed with rage. That was when he'd made up his mind to find the killers, and bring them to justice.
The three men who had done this were Rufus Draco, Muley Ferguson, and Garth Hightower. A reward of one thousand dollars had been offered for each of them, but for Matt, who lived a nomadic life and had done some bounty hunting in the past, it wasn't the money that had put him on the trail of these three men. This particular quest had become personal.
There had actually been a fourth man, Merlin Morris, who'd started out with them, when their only purpose had been to rob the Lewis ranch. But when Morris had seen the other three go into a killing and raping frenzy, he'd run away ... as much in fear of his own life as in revulsion for what he was seeing. Feeling a sense of guilt and remorse for even associating with men who could do something like that, he'd turned himself in to the law, and given the names and descriptions of the other three.
Draco, Ferguson, and Hightower were already wanted men, and for the same kind of crime they had perpetrated at the Lewis ranch, so Morris's story rang true.
"Draco and Ferguson went one way 'n' Hightower went the other," Morris said. "Hightower is mounted on a horse that he stoled from the ranch. It's a real purty palomino horse."
"Sparkle," Matt said, feeling a renewed sense of sorrow as he thought of how excited Claire had been over the gift.CHAPTER 2
Working with all the available evidence he had, Matt trailed Garth Hightower to Conejos, Colorado. Although it was in Colorado, the small settlement could well have in Mexico. It differed from most of the other towns Matt was familiar with in that the buildings were mostly adobe, and there were more signs in Spanish than in English. Matt caught a break when he saw a golden palomino tied in front of the Niña Bonita Cantina. It was the same horse he had given Claire Lewis for Christmas.
"Hello, Sparkle," Matt said quietly, as he stroked the horse on its forehead. The horse, recognizing its name and Matt, nodded its head in appreciation of the friendly and familiar contact.
"As soon as I take care of a little business, I'll get you out of here," Matt said. "I promise you."
When Matt stepped into the cantina he saw that all the customers, as well as the bartender, were Mexican. He stepped up to the bar.
"Buenos días, mi amigo. Veo que tienes tequilla. También tienes cerveza?"
"Yes, I also have beer," the bartender answered in English.
"Good, then I'll have a beer."
The bartender drew a mug of beer and set it in front of Matt. Matt paid with a dollar and when the bartender gave him his change, Matt slid it back toward him.
"There is a palomino tied up out front," Matt said. "It is being ridden by a gringo who is missing half of his ear." Matt put his hand to his left ear to demonstrate. He had gotten the description of Hightower from Merlin Morris.
"Is the gringo your amigo?" the bartender asked.
Matt hesitated for a second. If he lied and said that Hightower was a friend, would the bartender be more cooperative? He took a chance and answered truthfully.
"He is no friend," Matt replied. "He killed a friend of mine, then he murdered and raped ... asesinada y violada ... my friend's wife and young daughter." He spoke the words in Spanish to make certain that the bartender understood why he was looking for Hightower. "Has such a man been in here?"
The bartender said nothing, but he raised his head and looked toward the stairs at the back of the room.
"Gracias," Matt rumbled. He finished the drink, then looked toward the flight of wooden stairs that led upstairs to an enclosed loft.
Matt pulled his gun as he started up the stairs. The others in the saloon, seeing Matt going up the stairs with a gun in his hand and realizing that he must be going after the gringo they had seen go up earlier, stopped their conversations to watch.
When Matt reached the door, he listened for a moment, and heard sounds that made it evident what was going on in the room. Putting his hand on the doorknob, he turned it, but when he pushed against the door, he discovered that it was locked. He knocked on the door.
"Go away! We're busy in here," a gruff voice called.
"Hightower, you murdering, raping bastard, I'm taking you back to hang!" Matt shouted through the door. As soon as Matt yelled, he jumped to one side.
"The hell you are!" Matt heard the explosion of a gunshot, and a .44 caliber slug, energized by the pistol shot, punched a hole through the door.
Almost immediately after the shot, Matt heard the crash of breaking glass, and kicking the door open with a splintering smash of wood he rushed inside. A naked woman had jumped from the bed and was now standing in the corner, trying to cover her nakedness with her arms. Her eyes reflected her terror.
The window had been broken out, and Matt ran over to look outside, expecting to see someone down in the alley, but there was no one there.
"I've got you now, you son of a bitch," a gruff voice called from behind him, and Matt turned quickly to see that Hightower had set a trap for him. A broad smile spread across Hightower's face as he realized that he had the drop on the man who was coming after him.
Excerpted from Matt Jensen, the Last Mountain Man by William W. Johnstone, J. A. Johnstone. Copyright © 2014 J. A. Johnstone. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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