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The Eyes of TexasMatt Jensen, the Last Mountain Man
By William W. Johnstone J. A. Johnstone
PINNACLE BOOKSCopyright © 2013 William W. Johnstone
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Byrd Ranch, Las Animas County, Colorado
Matt Jensen was coming back from town with gifts for Amon Byrd and his wife, Bernice. Amon Byrd was one of Matt's oldest friends, and for a while the two of them had been residents of the Soda Creek Home for Wayward Boys and Girls, an orphanage of sorts. The gifts, a decorative blue and white vase for Bernice and a sheepskin coat for Amon, were thanks for them having given Matt a place to stay for a while.
Matt Jensen was a man who wandered around, always ready to go to the next town to "see the elephant." Although he was never totally dissatisfied with where he was, or with what he was doing, he was always happiest saying good-bye, with someplace else to go.
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. He had rescued a governor's niece in Colorado, saved a ranch in Idaho, defended an editor in the Dakota Territory, rescued a young Winston Churchill in Wyoming, and taken a herd of Angus through a blizzard in Kansas.
Matt 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, two spare shirts, socks, two extra pairs of trousers, and extra underwear.
Because he was a wanderer, he often dropped in on old friends, though never without contacting them first, and never without leaving them with a gift of thanks.
Dismounting in front of the house, Matt very carefully removed the vase, then wrapped it up in the sheepskin coat and went inside both to deliver the gift and tell his friends good-bye.
"Amon," he called. "Amon, where are you?"
There was something about the voice, a strained urgency that caught Matt's attention right away.
"Amon, where are you?" Matt repeated.
"In the kitchen." Matt noticed then that not only was the voice strained, it was weak, and he pulled his pistol and went cautiously into the kitchen. The first thing he saw was the naked body of Bernice Byrd. She was lying on the floor in a pool of her own blood.
"Amon!" Matt shouted again.
Amon was on the other side of the wood-burning cooking range. He was sitting up, leaning back against the wall, holding his hands over his stomach. His hands were covered with blood, as was the front of his shirt and the top part of his pants.
"My God, Amon, what happened?" Matt asked, quickly putting away his pistol, then kneeling beside his friend to see what he could do to help him. When he pulled Amon's hand away from the wound, he saw his friend's intestines hanging out.
"Bernice?" Amon said.
Matt didn't know if he should tell him or not, but he knew that his friend wasn't going to make it, and he figured he had a right to know the truth. He shook his head.
"I'm sorry, Amon. She didn't make it," Matt said.
Amon was quiet for a moment. "I thought as much," he said. "I kept calling out to her, but she never answered. Ahh, I'll see her in a few more minutes anyway, 'cause I'm not going to make it either."
"Who did this, Amon?"
"I don't know, I never saw them before. There was two of them, rode up, said they was hungry and asked if we could give 'em anything to eat. Bernice invited them into the kitchen, was goin' to cook 'em some bacon and eggs, when one of 'em took a knife to me. I must've passed out, 'cause next thing I knew, they were gone and I couldn't get Bernice to answer me."
"You say there were two of them. Can you describe them?"
"Yeah, one of 'em was kind of short and stocky. Oh, and he had a real bad scar come down across his left eye. His eyelid was puffed up real bad. His hair was cut real short, and looked to me like the hair was kind of red. Oh, wait, I do know his name. The other fella called him Mutt. I don't know if it's his real name, or just somethin' he was called, 'cause he wasn't all that big. The other man was tall, with long dark hair, and a dark beard and moustache. I never heard his name said."
"Did you see which way they went?"
"I didn't see 'em, but I heard 'em. They was goin' south when they left here."
Matt walked out to the front of the house and saw tracks of two horses heading south. One of them was riding a horse with a tie-bar shoe. Smiling at his luck, Matt went back inside.
"We're in luck, Amon. One of them is riding a ..." Matt stopped in midsentence. His friend was dead.
"I'll find them for you, Amon. I promise you, they will not get away with this," Matt said quietly.
Matt went into the bedroom and took a sheet off the bed, then brought it back into the kitchen to spread it over Bernice's nude body. Then he rode into Trinidad, the county seat of Las Animas County, and also the nearest town to the Byrd Ranch. There, he stopped at the sheriff's office to report what happened.
"My God! Both of 'em?" Sheriff Carson asked in disbelief.
"Both of them. And I'd better warn you, Sheriff, it's not a pretty sight."
"I'll go have a look around."
"I've got a lead on who did it," Matt said. "I want you to deputize me so it'll be legal when I bring them back."
Sheriff Carson pulled a badge from his desk drawer and pinned it on Matt, then told Matt to raise his hand.
"You swear to do a good job?"
"You're deputized. I guess, from what you tell me, that I should take Tom Nunnelee with me to bring the bodies back."
"That would be a good idea," Matt said.
Mutt Crowley lay on top of a flat rock, looking back along the trail over which they had just come.
"Is he still there?" Coy Ashford asked.
"Yeah," Crowley growled. "Still there."
"Who is it that's a' trailin' us?" Ashford asked.
"How the hell am I s'posed to know? I ain't seen him close enough to identify, even if I did know him," Crowley said. He rubbed the scar on his eyelid, a habit he had acquired since he picked up the scar in a knife fight with a Mexican three years ago.
"Well, I'll say this for him," Ashford said. "Once he gets his teeth into you, he don't give up. We've tried ever' trick in the book to shake him off our tail, but he's still there."
"What are we goin' to do about that sidewinder? We can't shake him off," Crowley growled.
Ashford looked back toward the rider. "All right, let's go up through that draw," he said, pointing.
"That's a dead-end canyon," Crowley replied
"Yeah, I know it's a dead-end canyon, but it's got two or three good places in there where we can hide. All we got to do is let him follow us in there, then ambush him."
"What if he don't come in? What if he just stays back at the mouth of the canyon and waits us out?" Crowley asked.
"The way this fella has been doggin' us, I don't think he'll wait for nothin'. If he knows we're in there, he'll come after us. That gives us the edge."
"Yeah, maybe you're right," Mutt said. "Best thing to do with someone like that is to lie in ambush, then kill 'im. Let's just do it and get it over with."
"Come on, I know the perfect spot," Ashford said.
Three Dog Canyon
When Matt trailed the two men into the canyon, he pulled his long gun out of the saddle holster, then dismounted and started walking into the canyon, leading Spirit. The horse's hooves fell sharply on the stone floor and echoed loudly back from the canyon walls. The canyon made a forty-five-degree turn to the left just in front of him, so Matt stopped. Right before he got to the turn he slapped Spirit on the rump and sent him through.
The canyon exploded with the sound of gunfire as Crowley and Ashford opened up on what they thought would be their pursuer. Instead, their bullets whizzed harmlessly over the empty saddle of the riderless horse, raised sparks as they hit the rocky ground, then whined off into empty space, echoing and re-echoing in a cacophony of whines and shrieks.
From his position just around the corner from the turn, Matt was able to locate them. They were on the south side of the canyon, squeezed in between the wall itself and a rock outcropping that provided them with a natural cover.
The firing stopped and, after a few seconds of dying echoes, the canyon grew silent.
Matt studied the rock face of the wall just behind the spot where he had located them; then he began firing. His rifle boomed loudly, the thunder of the detonating cartridges picking up resonance through the canyon, then doubling and redoubling in intensity. Matt wasn't even trying to aim at the two men, but was instead firing at the rock wall behind them, knowing that even if the ricocheting bullets didn't kill them, they would make things awfully uncomfortable for them. He emptied his rifle. Then, as the echoes thundered back through the canyon, he began reloading.
"Mister!" a strained voice called. "Mister!"
"What do you want?" Matt called back.
"My pard's been kilt. I want to give up."
"All right, come on down with your hands up."
A man moved out from behind the rock and started toward him.
"Drop you gun and put both hands up," Matt shouted.
The man did as Matt ordered, then continued toward him, holding both hands over his head. From his size and the very obvious scar on his face, Matt knew that this was the one Amon had said was Mutt.
Matt, with his own pistol in hand, started toward him.
"Now, Mutt!" another voice called, and Mutt Crowley threw himself to the ground. Coy Ashford stepped out from behind the rock outcropping and fired at Matt, the bullet whizzing by so closely that Matt heard the pop as it passed by his ear.
Matt returned fire and Ashford crumpled to the ground with a bleeding hole in his chest. Matt hurried to check on Ashford; then, satisfied that the would-be ambusher was dead, he turned back toward the other man, who was still holding his hands in the air.
"What's your name?" Matt asked.
"Crowley. Mutt Crowley. Is Ashford dead?"
"If you're talking about this man, yes, he's dead."
"He's the one that done it," Crowley said. "All I wanted to do was steal a little money and go on, but Ashford, I don't know, he went crazy. First he cut the rancher's gut open, then he cut the woman's throat. He done it all. I didn't have nothin' to do with it."
Matt looked down at the body. "Where's the knife?" he said. "Or did he borrow yours?" He pointed to the hunting knife hanging from Crowley's belt.
"I ... I ain't goin' to talk no more," Crowley said.
"I don't want you to talk, I want you to run."
"What? What do you mean you want me to run?"
"I want you to run, Crowley," Matt said. "Please, try to run away from me."
"You're ... you're crazy!" Crowley said. "I ain't runnin' and I ain't fightin' back. You got to take me in alive."
"All right. I guess I'd rather see you hang anyway."
Chapter TwoTrinidad, Colorado
At Mutt Crowley's trial, Matt's testimony was damning. He told how he had found Amon and Bernice Byrd, that Amon had still been alive and had given a physical description of his killers. He told also how he had tracked the two men from the Byrd Ranch to Three Dog Canyon, where he'd engaged in a shoot-out with them, killing Coy Ashford, and placing Mutt Crowley under arrest.
Mutt Crowley did not deny being there, but he tried, unsuccessfully, to blame everything on Ashford.
It was now time for the prosecutor to wrap up the case, and he was doing so with his concluding remarks.
"There is no question but that Mutt Crowley was at the Byrd Ranch. In his dying declaration, Amon Byrd gave a vivid and accurate description of the animals who attacked him and then raped and murdered his wife. Mr. Matt Jensen, a man who is well known throughout the West for his tracking ability, honesty, and integrity, legally empowered to do so, tracked Mutt Crowley and Coy Ashford from the Byrd Ranch until he located them at Three Dog Canyon. There, in a deadly gunfight, he killed Coy Ashford and brought Crowley back to stand trial." The prosecutor turned toward Crowley, who was sitting, defiantly, at the defendant's table.
"And Crowley admits to being there!" The prosecutor boomed out those six words. "He claims that it was Ashford who killed the Byrds, even though both Mr. and Mrs. Crowley were killed with a knife, and Crowley was the only one of the two men who had a knife. Also, Crowley's clothes were covered with blood when he was brought in, but Crowley had not been wounded, and Coy Ashford suffered only the single shot that killed him. Where did the blood that was on Crowley's clothes come from?
"It's very clear that the blood that was on him came from Amon and Bernice Byrd. Despite Crowley's claim that it was Coy Ashford who did the actual killing, it is clear from the evidence presented during the course of this trial that Mutt Crowley was the murderer."
The prosecutor held up his finger to make the next point.
"But, prosecution is willing to drop that part of the assertion. We are willing to say that it might have been Ashford, and not Crowley, who wielded the knife that ended the lives of two of this county's most revered citizens."
The prosecutor looked back toward Crowley.
"Mr. Crowley, if you say you didn't do it, we will accept that."
A big grin spread across Crowley's face, and he nodded triumphantly.
The prosecutor turned his attention back to the jury. "Evidently, Mr. Crowley does not understand the law. We don't have to prove that he is the one who killed Mr. and Mrs. Byrd. All we have to do is prove that he was there. The Colorado Penal Code allows that a person can be convicted of any felony, including capital murder, 'as a party' to the offense. 'As a party' means that the person did not personally commit the elements of the crime, but is otherwise responsible for the conduct of the actual perpetrator as defined by law, to include encouraging its commission, or being present and making no effort to stop it, or, following such commission, failing to report the crime. Therefore, by association, and by his own admission, Mutt Crowley is guilty of murder, and should face the hangman's rope."
There were several in the gallery who applauded the prosecutor's summation, but the judge used his gavel to call the court to order.
At the conclusion of the summation, the judge charged the jury, then sent them back to the jury room for deliberation.
There were one hundred spectators in the gallery, and that many more standing outside the courthouse. Those who were closest to the open windows were able to carry on a running commentary of what was going on in the courtroom.
Less than fifteen minutes after the jury retired, a man who had posted himself near the open window, shouted the news to the others who had been waiting outside.
"The jury's comin' back! The jury's comin' back!
"Oyez, oyez, oyez, this here court of Las Animas County, Trinidad, Colorado, will now come to order, the Honorable Judge Tom Murchison presiding. All rise."
There was a scrape of chairs, a rustle of pants, petticoats, and skirts, as the spectators in the court-room stood.
Judge Murchison was a dominating figure with brindled hair, a square jaw, and piercing blue eyes, who, by appearance and demeanor, could immediately make his presence known. He moved quickly to the bench, then sat down.
The gallery sat, then watched as the defendant, his hands in shackles, was brought back in to the courtroom.
"Gentlemen of the jury, have you selected a foreman?" Judge Murchison asked.
"We have, Your Honor. My name is Frank Tanner, and I have been selected as foreman."
"Mr. Tanner, has the jury reached a verdict?"
"We have, Your Honor."
"Then if you would, please, publish the verdict."
"Your Honor, we, the people of this legally selected and appointed jury, find the defendant, Mutt Crowley, guilty of murder in the first degree."
"So say you one, so say you all? Let me hear from the jury, by the word aye."
"Aye!" the jury shouted.
"Are there any in opposition?" There was no response to that question.
"Very well. Mr. Defense Attorney, please bring the prisoner to stand before the bench."
"Yes, Your Honor." The prisoner was brought before the bench, and he stared defiantly at the judge.
"Do whatever you are going to do, you son of a bitch. Just don't keep me standin' here for all the peckerwoods to gawk at," Crowley said. The gallery gasped at his gall and lack of respect.
"Oh, I will, sir. Believe me, I will. Mutt Crowley," Judge Murchison began. "Tonight the sun will set, and as it so often does, it will spread the western sky in brilliant hues of scarlet and gold, until, finally, it sinks below the horizon. But you, Mutt Crowley, will not see it.
Excerpted from The Eyes of Texas by William W. Johnstone J. A. Johnstone Copyright © 2013 by William W. Johnstone . Excerpted by permission of PINNACLE BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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