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MATT JENSENTHE LAST MOUNTAIN MAN
By William W. Johnstone J. A. Johnstone
PINNACLE BOOKSCopyright © 2007 William W. Johnstone
All right reserved.
Chapter OnePettis County, Missouri, May 1865
Martin Cavanaugh shifted his position on the saddle to try and find some relief from the bone-deep tired of four long years of war. Although Cavanaugh was mustered out at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis, he was still wearing the uniform of a captain of the Union Cavalry as he made the long ride back home to Kansas.
Just ahead was an old, weather-beaten building. For a moment, he thought it might be deserted; then he saw a hand-lettered sign nailed to the side.
He didn't plan to waste any of his mustering-out money on a bed, but he thought a meal might be good. Also, he could use a drink, and a little tobacco for the trail, so he rode up to the building, dismounting at the hitching rail.
There were two men sitting on the porch. Both were wearing the tattered gray and butternut uniform of the Confederate army. One had sergeant's chevrons, but the tunic was so filthy that they barely showed. He had a puffy scar, starting above his left eye, disfiguring the eye, then streaking down his cheek and jaw like a purple flash of lightning, twisting theleft side of his mouth into a sneer. The other man was wearing a bushy black beard, but the most distinctive thing about him was his left ear. Only half of it was there, the earlobe having been shot off in the war. Both men were thin, and they had the look in their eyes and faces of men who had seen a lot of the war.
Warily, Martin nodded at them as he passed by them to go inside the building. The two Rebel soldiers returned the nod, but they never took their eyes off him. One of them spat a stream of tobacco juice in the dirt, but neither of them spoke.
The interior of the inn was a study of shadow and light. Some of the light came through the door and some through windows that were nearly opaque with dirt. Most of it, however, was in the form of gleaming dust motes that hung suspended in the still air, illuminated by the bars of sunbeams that stabbed through the cracks between the boards.
Martin found a table in the back corner of the room, near the stove. Since it was warm outside, the stove wasn't being used, but the smell of burnt wood clung to it like the low-lying, early morning fog on a grassy meadow.
The proprietor of the establishment came over to his table. Picking some sort of bug from his beard, he examined it for a moment, then flicked it away.
"What can I get for you?"
"What do you have to eat?"
"Beans, bacon, biscuits."
"All right, I'll have that. Do you have beer?"
"I've got whiskey."
"A glass of whiskey and some tobacco."
"Chewin' or smokin'?"
"I've got a woman here iffen you'd like to spend a little time with her. It'll cost you six bits," the proprietor said. He nodded toward a woman who was sitting a few tables away. She smiled a toothless smile at him, and brushed an errant tendril of hair back from her forehead.
"No, thanks," Martin said. "I've got a woman of my own, and two kids, waitin' for me back home."
"Suit yourself," the proprietor said. "I'll get your vittles." He turned away from the table and walked back into what Martin assumed was a kitchen.
Even as he was giving his order to the proprietor, Martin saw the two Confederate soldiers come inside. They sat at a table near the door, but he noticed that both of them sat in such a way as to be facing him. Something about the way they were looking at him made him suspicious, so he eased his pistol out of his holster and held it under the table.
"Cap'n?" one of the men said. This was the one with sergeant's stripes. "You are a Yankee cap'n, ain't you?"
"The war's over, boys," Martin said. "I'm a civilian now, same as you two."
"Ain't quite the same," the sergeant said. "You still got your horse. The Yankees took our horses."
"I'm sorry to hear that."
"The name is Payson. Clyde Payson," the sergeant said. "This here is Garvey Laird. It's like I was tellin' Garvey, we got us a long way to go and the way things is now, 'bout the onliest way we got of gettin' there is by shank's mare."
"Well, Sergeant Payson, I feel for you, I truly do," Martin said. "I've got a long way to go myself, and I'd hate to have to make the whole trip without a horse."
"Yeah, well, here's the point," Payson continued. "Me'n Garvey here was thinkin' on maybe takin' your horse."
"What good would that do you?" Martin asked. "There are two of you, there's only one horse."
"We figure we could double up till we come up on another horse," Payson said.
"Oh, I don't think I would like that," Martin said. "And I know my horse wouldn't like it-being ridden double like that, I mean."
Garvey barked what might have been a laugh. "Well, now, that's real funny," he said. "Specially seein' as the horse ain't goin' have no say-so in the matter. And like you say, there's two of us and only one of you."
Payson and Garvey stood up from their table and made a point of turning to face Martin.
Martin moved the pistol out from under the table and pointed it at them.
The two soldiers, surprised to see that Martin was holding a gun on them, stopped in their tracks.
"Hold on, mister, we didn't mean nothin' like that," Payson said. "We was just goin' to palaver a bit, that's all."
"I'd feel a mite more comfortable if you boys weren't wearin' guns while we were palaverin'," Martin said. "How about comin' over here and droppin" em down in the stove?"
"Now why would we want to do a fool thing like that?" Garvey asked.
"Because I'll kill you if you don't," Martin said easily. He punctuated his comment by pulling back the hammer on his pistol. It made a deadly-sounding click as the sear engaged the cylinder. "I killed my share of men wearing that uniform. I wouldn't lose any sleep over killin' two more."
The two Confederate soldiers stared at him for a long moment, but did nothing.
"Use your thumb and finger to pull your guns out, then carry them over here and drop them in the stove," Martin said.
The two did as Martin ordered. "Now what?" Payson asked.
"How long has it been since you two boys had anything to eat?" Martin asked.
"We had some hardtack yesterday," Garvey said.
Both shook their heads.
"Sit down over there," Martin said, waving his pistol toward one of the tables.
The two complied.
"Innkeeper," Martin called.
"Yes, sir?" the innkeeper replied. It wasn't until then that Martin noticed the innkeeper was standing just inside the door from the kitchen, holding a plate of beans, bacon, and biscuits. He had watched the entire drama unfold.
"How about feeding these two boys?" Martin said. "On me."
"Cap'n, you'd do that for us after we was goin' to steal your horse?" Payson asked.
"Yeah, why not?" Martin answered. "And it isn't captain, it's mister now," Martin said. "Name's Cavanaugh. Like I said, the war's over. No need for us to be killin' each other anymore."
Matt Cavanaugh knocked on the door of the office of the R.D. Clayton Livery Stable.
"Come on in, Matt."
Although only nine years old, Matt was a big boy for his age and had proven to be a good worker for the owner of the livery.
"I'm all finished, Mr. Clayton," Matt said.
"Every stall is mucked out?" Clayton asked.
"Yes, sir, every one," Matt said.
Clayton was in his late sixties, a bald-headed, fat man with chin whiskers.
"Don't think I'm not going to inspect the stalls," Clayton said. "I'm paying you fifty cents a week to keep 'em clean. I don't intend to throw away good money on a bad job."
"You can check, Mr. Clayton," Matt said. "I cleaned them all."
"You wait here till I get back," Clayton said.
"Yes, sir," Matt said.
Matt picked up the newspaper and began reading it as he waited.
FREE LAND IN THE WEST
Reports have reached this city of much free land in the West. With the rebellion now put to rest, the government is anxious to see enterprising citizens occupy land in the more western extremes of the nation, thus expanding the reach of civilization and enterprise.
"Here, boy," Clayton said, returning to the office. "If you want to read the paper, you will have to pay for it the same as I did."
"I'm sorry," Matt said. "I meant no harm."
Clayton ran his hand through his hair, then sighed. "Go ahead, take it," he said. "I have finished with it." He stuck his hand in his pocket and pulled out a coin. "Here is your half-dollar. You did good work."
"Thank you," Matt replied, taking the coin.
Matt's mother, Mary, and his fourteen-year-old sister, Cassie, were hanging clothes on a line. They took in washing while Matt worked at the stables to make enough money to buy food. They were living in an old cabin that was within sight of a burned-out house and barn. The house and barn were part of what had once been a very fine ranch. It had been destroyed by Bushwhackers two years earlier.
"Here's my week's pay, Ma," Matt said, handing the half-dollar to his mother.
"Oh, Matthew," Mary said, putting her arms around her young son and pulling him to her. "You are such a help. I am so proud of you. You work so hard for the money that I just wish you could keep it for yourself."
"Someone's coming up the road, Mama," Cassie said.
"A soldier?" Mary asked.
"It looks like a soldier," Cassie replied.
"No doubt someone going home," Mary said. "We'll have to set an extra plate for supper."
"Mama, why do we have to feed all the strays?" Cassie asked.
"Child, your pa is on the road somewhere, coming home to us," Mary replied. "Wouldn't you like for someone to be feeding him, if he's hungry, or giving him a place to get out of the rain?"
"Yes, ma'am, I reckon you're right," Cassie said.
"You go set the extra plate, I'll invite him," Mary said.
"Maybe he knows something about ..." Mary stopped in mid-sentence and stared long and hard at the approaching rider. "It's him," she said in a small, quiet voice.
"Praise be to God, it's him!" Mary said, shouting loudly this time. "Children, it's your father, come safely home to us!"
Spreading her arms wide, Mary started running toward the rider. The rider spurred his mount into a gallop, then leaped down from his horse just as Mary reached him. They embraced in the middle of the road.
"Is that Pa?" Matt asked.
"Of course it is," Cassie said. "Don't you remember him?"
"Yeah," Matt said, "I remember him."
Though Matt said the words, he wasn't sure he remembered his father well enough to recognize him. Matt had been five years old when Martin Cavanaugh left home as a lieutenant in the Ninth Cavalry Regiment of Kansas. His memory was hazy, and consisted mostly of seeing a tall man, in uniform, riding away on the horse Buster.
"No, I didn't bring Buster back," Matt's father said over supper that night. "Buster was killed at a place called Pleasant Hill."
"Poor Buster," Mary said. "He was such a good horse."
"Yes, he was," Martin agreed. He got up from the table to pour himself another cup of coffee. Then he stood at the window for a long moment, looking toward the burned-out house and barn.
"When did that happen?" he asked, nodding toward the ruins.
"Three years ago," Mary said. "Bushwhackers came by, burned us out, and took what livestock we had left."
"I'm sorry," Martin said. "Here I go off to fight the war, thinking I'm protecting you, and the war comes here to you."
"It doesn't matter," Mary said. She walked over to put her arms around him. "You are home now. Everything will be fine."
"Mama, what about the bank?" Cassie asked.
"The bank? What about the bank?" Martin asked.
"It's nothing. We can discuss it later."
Martin shook his head. "It won't go away by putting it off, will it?"
Mary sighed. "No, I don't suppose it will," she said.
"What about the bank?"
"I-I'm sorry, Martin. I had no choice, I had to mortgage the place."
"And now the bank wants to foreclose?"
Mary wiped a tear away as she nodded.
"I'm so sorry," she repeated. "I know how important this place was to you."
"Nonsense," Martin said. "This is just a place. I've seen hundreds of places in the last five years. You and the children are all that's important to me now."
"Mama took in laundry and I helped," Cassie said proudly. "And Matt works down at Clayton's Livery."
"I muck out the stalls," Matt said.
"You've taken in your last laundry and you've mucked out your last stall," Martin said.
"But what are we going to do? The bank wants the money and we don't have enough, do we? Did you bring any money home with you?"
"How much do we owe the bank?"
"Five hundred dollars."
Martin shook his head. "I don't have that much. But I have enough for us to start over somewhere else."
"Start over where?" Mary asked.
"Out West!" Matt said excitedly.
"Out West?" Mary chuckled. "Matthew, wherever did you get such an idea?"
"I read about it in the paper in Mr. Clayton's office," Matt said. "There's free land out West for people who want it."
"Free land. I've never heard of such a thing," Mary said.
Martin held up his hand. "No," he said, "I've heard that. I wasn't sure whether or not it was true, but I have heard it." He looked over at Matt. "You say you read this in the paper?"
"Yes, sir, I read it today," he said.
"Free land in the West, huh?"
"Martin, what are you talking about? Surely you don't intend to just leave here, do you?"
"What is there here for us, Mary?" Martin asked. "My parents are dead, your parents are dead. Neither one of us have a brother or sister. What's keeping us here?"
"Well, nothing, I guess," Mary replied. "But how are we going to get there?"
"You let me worry about that," Martin said. "First thing I'm going to do tomorrow is find out how a person gets hold of some of this free land. Then, if I see it's somethin' we can do, I'll figure out a way to get us there."
"All right," Mary said. "Whatever you decide is fine with me."
"It's real good to see you back, Martin," C.D. Folsom said the next morning when Martin rode into town to see him. Folsom was president of the Fellsburg Bank. "Yes, sir, it's good to see all our men back home from that war."
"Not everyone made it back," Martin said.
"No, sir, they didn't and that's a fact," Folsom said. "How many did we lose?"
"Three officers, one hundred ninety-two enlisted men," Martin said.
Folsom shook his head. "Well, now, that is a shame," he said. "That is truly a shame." Folsom cleared his throat. "But I'm sure you came to discuss business, right?"
"I did," Martin said.
"Your note is for $594.60," Folsom said. "I'm sure you will want to pay that off so you can get back to running your ranch."
"Five hundred ninety-four?" Martin said, surprised by the figure.
"And sixty cents," Folsom added.
"I thought the note was for five hundred dollars."
"It was originally. But with compound interest for three years, it comes to $594.60. You do have the money, don't you?"
Martin shook his head. "No," he said. "No, I don't."
Folsom blew air through pursed lips and tapped his fingers on his desk for a moment. "I see," he said. "Uh, Mr. Cavanaugh ..."
Martin couldn't help but notice that the friendly "Martin" had changed to the more businesslike "Mr. Cavanaugh."
"I hope you weren't counting on the bank extending your note any longer. We extended it once for your wife last year. Of course, I suppose if you could pay just the interest ..."
"I don't have enough money to pay the interest either," Martin said.
"Then what exactly do you propose?"
"I would sell my ranch to the bank," Martin said. "You can give me the difference between what the ranch is worth and what I owe."
"You have to be joking."
"No, I'm very serious."
"Mr. Cavanaugh, you owe almost six hundred dollars. If the buildings had not been burned out during the war, it might be worth a thousand dollars. But with the buildings gone, it is barely worth what you owe."
"But it is worth what I owe?" Martin asked.
Martin sighed. "If I signed the ranch over to the bank, would it clear the books for me?"
"We are a bank, Mr. Cavanaugh, not a realtor."
Excerpted from MATT JENSEN by William W. Johnstone J. A. Johnstone Copyright © 2007 by William W. Johnstone. Excerpted by permission.
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