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Matt Jensen: The Last Mountain Man
By William W. Johnstone, J. A. Johnstone
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2008 William W. Johnstone
All rights reserved.
Two years later, Walkback Ranch, near Cuchara, Colorado
The single lantern put out enough light to illuminate the bunkhouse, showing not only the sleeping accommodations in four sets of double-stack bunk beds, but also the walls, which were covered with newspapers and decorated with photographs and advertising posters.
There were three men in the cabin, two sitting at a table playing cards, and a third who was cooking something in a pot that sat on top of a little wood-burning, potbellied stove.
Pete, one of the men at the table, looked over at the man who was cooking their supper. Making a face, he waved his hand in the front of his nose. "What the hell is that you're a'cookin' over there, anyhow, Dumey? It smells like skunk."
"You don't have to eat it if you don't want to," Dumey replied as he stirred the pot. "You can always rustle up your own grub."
"Hell, I didn't say I wasn't goin' to eat it," Pete said.
"There didn't nobody figure you wasn't going to eat it," Shorty said. Shorty was the other man at the table. "You bitch about the food, but when the time comes, you're always the first one there."
"Well, it's better'n starvin' to death," Pete said.
Dumey laughed. "They's a lot of ways you might die, Pete, but from the looks of you, starvin' to death ain't one of'em."
Pete and Shorty laughed at Dumey's observation.
"But it makes you wonder why Matt Jensen always finds some reason to go into town whenever it's your turn to cook," Pete said.
"He don't always go into town whenver I'm cookin'," Dumey replied.
"Really? Well, it seems like he does."
"Do you fellas know who Matt Jensen is?" Shorty asked.
"What do you mean do we know who Matt Jensen is? Are you saying he ain't Matt Jensen?" Dumey asked.
"No, that's exactly what I am tellin' you," Shorty said. "He is Matt Jensen."
"I swear, Shorty, you ain't makin' one lick of sense. First you say do we know who Matt Jensen is, then you say he is Matt Jensen," Dumey said.
"Yes," Shorty said. "He is Matt Jensen. The real Matt Jensen, the gunfighter."
Dumey laughed. "No, he ain't. He may have the same name and all, but there ain't no way he's the one that's been wrote about in them dime novels."
"Yes, he is," Shorty insisted.
"Now, you tell me why Matt Jensen, I mean the Matt Jensen, would be workin' as a ranch hand for twenty and found," Dumey said.
"I don't know," Shorty said. "I just know it's the same one, that's all."
"What the hell, Shorty. Are you goin' to gab all night, or are you going to play cards?" Pete asked. "Are you in, or out?"
"I'm in, I reckon, but I can't bet more'n one match," Shorty said. He slid a match into the little pile in the middle of the table.
"Whoa! One whole match!" Pete teased. "Well, I'll just raise you five matches."
"Damn, what are you doin', buyin' the pot?" Shorty asked, throwing in his cards.
"It's called smart poker," Pete said, taking the match and adding it to the stack of matches that were already in front of him.
"What are you plannin' on doin' with all them matches anyway?" Shorty asked.
"Hell, I thought ever'body knew that already," Pete answered. "What I aim to do is win all the matches in the whole bunkhouse so's Dumey can't cook no more. Then we won't have to worry none about being poisoned."
"Ha! Like you're worried," Shorty said. "Don't you pay him no never mind, Dumey," he said over his shoulder to the cook. "You know him. He'd eat the north end of a southbound mule while it was still walkin'."
"Well, I hope he would," Dumey said. "'Cause that's just what I'm cookin'."
Dumey's comment drew a laugh from both Pete and Shorty.
Outside the bunkhouse, a rider stopped on a little hill overlooking the ranch and ground–tied his mount, then moved about thirty yards forward to the edge of the hill. Crouching, he looked down toward the bunkhouse. He could see three men through the window, two sitting at a table and another one standing close by.
From this distance, he couldn't tell which one was Matt Jensen, but it didn't matter. He would kill them all.
The rider raised his rifle and took slow, careful aim. The targets were well illuminated by the lantern that burned brightly inside the bunkhouse.
Squeezing the trigger, he sent out the first bullet.
Shorty heard the tinkle of glass, as if something had been tossed through the window, and he looked up in surprise and curiosity. Behind him, Dumey let out a little grunt of pain, spun around once, then fell to the floor.
"What the hell you doin' Dumey?" Pete asked. "Did you taste some of your own food?" Pete laughed at what he thought was a joke.
"Boys, I been shot!" Dumey gasped.
The laughter died in Pete's throat as another bullet crashed through the glass window, smashed some crockery, then careened off the iron stove, projecting lead splinters and shards of glass like miniature bursts of shrapnel.
"My God! My God! What is it! What's happening?" Shorty shouted.
Pete rolled off his chair, dropped to the floor, then crawled over to the window while yet another bullet crashed through the little shack. When he looked out the window, he saw the muzzle flash.
"Somebody's shootin' at us!" Pete yelled, but there was no one left to hear him, for when he looked back inside, he saw that the other two were already dead.
Pete knew he had to get out of there, or he would be dead too. The walls of the bunkhouse were so thin that they couldn't stop the bullets. The only protection they could offer would be to mask Pete's movement. Using that to his advantage, Pete managed to tear out a couple of boards from the floor. As soon as the hole was big enough, he crawled through it to get to the ground below the cabin. He felt the dank coolness of the dirt, smelled its odor, and breathed a small prayer of thanks that he had come this far without being hit. Whoever was shooting at the cabin did not realize that Pete had slipped away, for the bullets continued to crash through the cabin overhead.
Lifting up his head just enough to see where he was going, Pete slithered on his belly to the back of the bunkhouse, opened the door, then rolled down into a small depression that allowed him to move, undetected, several feet away. There, he was able to let himself down into gully that was deep enough for him to stand. And standing, he started running without looking back.
Matt Jensen was on his way back to the ranch when he heard the shooting. Because of the effect of echoes, however, he couldn't be sure of the direction from which the shooting was coming. He climbed to the top of a large rock outcropping while the firing was still going on to see if he could find out. Then, far to the west, he saw the muzzle flashes. He knew that it was at the Walkback Ranch, but he didn't know who it was, or why they were shooting.
Matt remounted and started toward the ranch. Within a minute, he met Pete, who was running in the opposite direction.
"Pete, hold up! What's going on?"
"Don't go to the ranch!" Pete called back. "Some madman is shooting up the place. He's already killed Dumey and Shorty."
Matt slapped his legs against the side his horse, then urged him into a full gallop, which was dangerous on this ground and in the dark. But he knew that Spirit was an exceptionally agile horse, and he counted on the animal to negotiate the trail without incident.
By the time Matt reached the ranch, the shooting had stopped. He swung down from his horse in front of the big house.
"Mr. Kincaid!" Matt called. "Mr. Kincaid, it's Matt Jensen! Are you in there?"
"Is the shooter gone?" a voice called from the darkness of the house.
"Yes, sir, I believe he is," Matt said. "Is anyone hurt in there?"
The front door opened and a tall, thin man with white hair and beard stepped out onto the porch.
"We're all right in here," Kincaid said. "For some reason, all the shooting was directed at the bunkhouse."
Drawing his pistol, Matt moved through the shadows of the towering aspen trees, alongside the barn, and finally to the bunkhouse, which was nearly one hundred yards away from the main house.
Matt approached cautiously, dashing across the last open area, then pressing himself up against the side of the bunkhouse. The windows facing the tree line were all shot out, and there were bullet holes in the wall. Because of that, it was easy to determine that the shooting had come from the hill beyond the corral.
"Shorty, Dumey?" Matt called. "It's me, Matt. Anyone alive in there?" When Matt didn't get a response, he moved to the door, but didn't go inside. Instead, he looked through the door and saw both Shorty and Dumey lying on the floor.
The interior of the cabin was still illuminated by the lantern and, using the light thus provided, Matt was able to make a thorough inspection of the cabin, making certain no one was lying in wait for him.
After satisfying himself that that was the case. Matt stepped inside the cabin, where he moved quickly to check on the two cowboys. He knew, even before he reached them, though, that both Shorty and Dumey were dead.
To Matt's surprise both men, in addition to the wounds in their body, had very precise wounds in their forehead, as if the shooter had come into the cabin purposely to finish them off.
That was when he saw a single .50-caliber bullet on the table, in the middle of a spread of cards and a pile of matches. Wrapped around the .50-caliber bullet was a piece of paper, held in place by a strip of rawhide. Matt untied the rawhide and opened the piece of paper. The paper had a name, and a strange symbol.
Shorty Caldwell and Chris Dumey were being buried in a plot at the Walkback Ranch. Neither one of them had family that anyone knew about, and when Dwight Kincaid had asked the other cowboys what they thought about the idea of burying the two men at Walkback, they'd all agreed that Shorty and Dumey would probably appreciate being buried on the ranch where they'd worked and had friends.
Cowboys and friends of the two men had come from adjacent ranches as well as the nearest town to attend the funeral. Everyone was wearing his finest clothes for the funeral, and they all were now standing alongside the two open graves, heads bowed, hats in their hands. They were waiting for Matt and Mr. Kincaid to join them.
Matt was alone in the bunkhouse because all the others were outside. He sat on the edge of his bunk and just stared, morosely, at the floor.
At the other end of the bunkhouse, the door opened and Kincaid came in.
"Is it true you're planning on leaving us?" Kincaid asked.
"There's no need for you to do that, you know."
"Shorty and Dumey are dead because someone came after me," Matt said. "I have no right to put others in danger like that."
"You don't know that the shooter was after you," Kincaid said.
"My name was only name the shooter left."
"Do you have any idea who it might be?"
"No," Matt said.
"I'll be honest with you, Matt. When you first came here, I went into town to ask the sheriff about you. He said you have a sterling reputation — that you have never killed anyone who didn't need killin'."
"That's right," Matt said. "But it turns out that those people all seem to have brothers, or cousins, or fathers, or sons who want revenge. I have no idea who this was, but I suspect it is someone bent on revenge. And people like that don't always care who gets in the way. No, sir, I think it would be better if I moved on."
Kincaid nodded. "All right," he finally said. "I hate to see you go, but I can see your point." He reached out to shake Matt's hand. "You're a good man, Matt," he said. "As fine a man as I've ever known."
"I appreciate that, Mr. Kincaid. Now, I reckon it's time to go say good-bye to my friends, living and dead."
Kincaid nodded. Then the two men left the bunkhouse and walked back to the cemetery plot where the burial party was waiting.
After the burying, Matt said good-bye to Pete and the others. Then he mounted Spirit and rode off. He was about ready to leave the ranch anyway, though he would have preferred to leave under different circumstances.
Matt never stayed anywhere very long. He was a lone wolf who had worn a deputy's badge in Abilene, ridden shotgun for a stagecoach out of Lordsburg, scouted for the army in the McDowell Mountains of Arizona, and panned for gold in Idaho. A banker's daughter in Cheyenne once thought she could make him settle down — a soiled dove in the Territories knew that she couldn't, but took what he offered.
He was a wanderer, always wondering what was beyond the next line of hills, just over the horizon. He traveled light, with a bowie knife, a .44 double-action Colt, a Winchester. 44-40 rifle, a rain slicker, an overcoat, two blankets, and a spare shirt, spare socks, spare trousers, and spare underwear.
It had been two weeks since Matt left Walkback Ranch, and since he had no particular place to go, and no need to be there, he was enjoying going nowhere. He killed a rabbit and spitted it over an open flame to cook for his supper. Then, during supper, he realized he was being watched. Slowly, showing no sign that he even knew that anyone was out there, Matt threw sand on the fire to extinguish it. Then, with the fire out, he spread his bedroll as if he were about to go to bed, being careful to place his boots at the foot of the bedroll and his hat at the top.
Walking a few steps away from the bedroll, Matt relieved himself, then returned to the bedroll and crawled down into the blanket. He lay there for a moment, then, in the darkness, silently rolled away and slid down into a small gulley that ran nearby. Pulling his pistol, he cocked it as quietly as he could and inched back up to the top of the gulley to stare through the darkness toward the bedroll, using a technique of night vision he had learned from his mentor, Smoke Jensen.
"Don't stare right at what you are trying to see," Smoke had told him. "There's always a dark spot right in the middle of your eyes when you try to see something at night. But if you will look just to the side of it, you'll find that you can see it."
From here, and using the trick Smoke had taught him, Matt could see that with his boots and hat in position, it looked exactly as if someone were in the blankets, sound asleep. Matt was satisfied. If his campsite looked that way to him, it would look that way to whoever was dogging him.
Out on the prairie, a coyote howled.
An owl hooted.
A falling star flashed across the dark sky. A soft, evening breeze moaned through the mesquite.
And still he waited.
It was almost a full hour after Matt had "gone to bed" before the night was lit up by the great flame-pattern produced by the discharge of a shotgun. The roar of the shotgun boomed loudly, and Matt saw dust and bits of cloth fly up from his bedroll where a charge of buckshot tore into it. Had he been there, the impact debris would have been bone and flesh rather than dust and cloth, and he would be a dead man.
Instantly thereafter, Matt snapped a shot off toward the muzzle flash, though he was just guessing that was where his adversary was as he had no real target.
"Oh, you son of a bitch! You're a smart one, you are," a voice shouted, almost jovially. The voice was not near the muzzle flash, and Matt knew that his would-be assailant must have fired and moved. Whoever this was, he was no amateur and as Matt thought about it, he realized that the assailant could use the flame pattern from his own pistol as a target.
Matt threw himself to the right, just as the shotgun roared a second time. Though none of the pellets hit him, they dug into the earth where he had been but an instant earlier and sent a spray of stinging sand into his face. Matt fired again, again aiming at the muzzle blast, though by now he knew there would be no one there. A moment later, he heard the sound of retreating hoofbeats and he knew that his attacker was riding away.
Who was it? Who was after him?
Matt moved his bedroll for the remainder of the night, but the next morning he returned to his original campsite, then took a look around to see what he could find.
He found where the assailant had waited, and saw two expended twelve-gauge shotgun shells.
Then he found something that he had seen before. It was a .50-caliber bullet, around which was wrapped a piece of paper, held in place by a strip of rawhide. Opening the paper, Matt again found the symbol and his name.
Excerpted from Matt Jensen: The Last Mountain Man by William W. Johnstone, J. A. Johnstone. Copyright © 2008 William W. Johnstone. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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