When Matthew Kerney returns to his ranch in the remote, beautiful San Andres Mountains of New Mexico, honorably discharged after serving in Sicily during World War II, he must not only endeavor to recover physically and emotionally from a devastating combat injury, but he must also fight attempts by the U.S. Army to seize control of his land for expanded weapons testing. Yet keeping his land is only half the battle as he struggles with an aging father no longer able to carry his load at the ranch, an ex-convict intent on killing him, and a failing relationship with a woman he dearly loves. As Matt’s personal and family life unravels, a punishing drought pushes him to the brink of ruin, and he is forced to draw upon all his mental and physical resources to keep his world—and the people in it—from collapsing.
Spanning the era from World War II to the end of the Vietnam conflict, The Last Ranch enthralls with the deeply rich, sometimes heartbreaking Kerney family saga as it steps brilliantly into the mid-twentieth-century world of the new American West.
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Copyright © 2016 Michael McGarrity
In the pale moonlight that floated through her bedroom window, Anna Lynn Crawford studied Matthew Kerney’s face. Fortunately for both of them, tonight he slept quietly. Whenever he stayed the night at her house, he often woke with a start from bad dreams that left him shaking, and she would find him sitting silently alone on the front porch at first light. When he was restless, Anna Lynn took to curling up on the floor with a pillow and comforter in the hope her absence would have a calming effect on him. Sometimes his breathing eased and the night passed peacefully. But most mornings, she found him on the porch in her rocking chair, un- moving, his hands clutching the armrests, his face moist with sweat.
Six months earlier, Matt had returned home from the war with a patch covering his left eye, which had been destroyed in a land-mine explosion during the Allied invasion of Sicily. He only removed it at night. As he lay quietly sleeping, Anna Lynn snuggled close to examine the wound Matt insisted made him ugly.
His upper-left eyelid was missing completely, shredded during the explosion, and there were tiny, jagged shrapnel scars around the socket of the eye, which was covered in a murky film. There was a slight puffiness under the eye she hadn’t seen before. She wondered if it was causing him pain.
You’re still a handsome man, you fool, she thought to herself. You still look like you.
She’d told him that if he stopped wearing the patch, folks would soon pay the injury no mind. But Matt immediately dismissed the suggestion the two times she’d made it, the second time so vehemently that she hadn’t mentioned it since. She had to try again to persuade him to listen to reason but dreaded his reaction. He was, and he wasn’t, the man she knew before he went into the army.
What she knew about Matt’s war experience came mostly from an army press release printed in every New Mexico newspaper the week after his discharge from Fort Bliss, the army post outside of El Paso. He’d been decorated for bravery under fire for clearing a fortified enemy position above a beachhead, where troops had been pinned down and taking heavy casualties. His actions had allowed a battalion of men to move inland without suffering further serious losses. He’d been promoted to platoon sergeant on the spot and was later awarded another medal for using captured enemy horses to carry equipment through rugged, mountainous terrain, which aided the Allied advance against a large, retreating enemy force. He’d lost his eye in the final push to liberate the island and had been evacuated to a hospital ship, where he’d received the Purple Heart from a general after his surgery.
She snuggled closer and gazed at Matt’s face, remembering the only time he’d talked about those experiences. After making love early one morning, they’d sat quietly together on the veranda of his ranch house overlooking the wide expanse of the Tularosa Basin, her daughter, Ginny, sound asleep in bed and Matt’s father, Patrick, away in town. She’d broken the silence by asking Matthew to finally tell her what had happened to him in Sicily. It earned her a sad-faced grin and a loud chuckle.
“What’s so funny?”
“It was all a big frigging joke,” he answered without rancor.
“How so?” Anna Lynn asked.
Still smiling, Matt rose from his chair. “Wait here and I’ll show you.”
He returned and gave her two cartoons from the pages of an army newspaper. One showed a sergeant with a shiny medal pinned to his uniform explaining to a ragtag private that he’d been decorated for scaring the enemy away by speaking “Eye-talian” at them. The second cartoon displayed a grizzled sergeant pointing a finger at a sorrowful-looking horse, demanding to know if, as a POW, the animal would abide by the Geneva conventions.
Anna Lynn looked up from the cartoons. “I don’t see what’s so funny.”
Matt smiled at the only two memories of Sicily that brought him any pleasure to recall. “What makes them funny is they show exactly what happened to get me decorated like some kind of hero. On the beachhead, all I did was talk some Italian soldiers into not shooting at us anymore. They withdrew from their position and we were able to move inland. There was nothing heroic about it. Later on, when we were in the mountains, my platoon stumbled on a herd of abandoned enemy ponies that we commandeered for the regiment to use as pack animals in the high country. Because it helped force the Germans into a hurried retreat, I got another medal, and it wasn’t even my idea in the first place. That’s the sum total of my so-called bravery.”
Anna Lynn gazed at his face and his eye patch. “That may well be, but it doesn’t make you less of a hero. You were smart and saved lives, and besides you were gravely wounded.”
Matt’s mood shifted as he thought about the men in his platoon he’d lost. His expression turned somber. “I didn’t save enough lives. And I lost an eye for being stupid and not paying attention to what I was doing.”
The image of Pvt. Joey Cohen taking a bullet in his head, twirling around, and dropping dead at Matt’s feet replayed through his mind as it did at least once a day. He shook it off and pointed at the signature on the bottom-left corner of each cartoon. “I thought you would have noticed by now who drew these,” Matt said, trying to sound lighthearted. “They’re both signed, ‘Bill Mauldin—Sicily.’”
“Bill Mauldin!” Anna Lynn squealed in surprise. “Our very own little Billy Mauldin?”
Matt smiled and nodded. “Yep, the one and same scrawny kid who peddled his drawings and cartoons to folks up and down the west slope of the Sacramento Mountains. I still have a stack of them put away somewhere. He sends you his regards.”
“Oh, that sweet, lovely boy,” Anna Lynn said, blinking away a tear. “Is he a war correspondent?”
“Nope, he’s a soldier in the 45th Infantry Division, if he isn’t already among the dead from all the casualties we took in Italy.”
Anna Lynn’s face clouded at the mere thought of it. “Oh, please don’t let that be true.”
“I sure hope he survived,” Matt agreed. “I figure he’s gonna become rich and famous if he comes through the war alive and intact. The troops already love him.”
Matt took the cartoons from Anna Lynn’s hands. “That’s all the talking I want to do about my time in the army. I’m home now and that’s the end of it. Understand?”
Anna Lynn nodded. “If that’s what you want.”
Matt had countenanced no more talk about the war after that morning, although he diligently followed the battlefront newspaper and radio reports, especially the ones from Europe, which often threw him into a funk. As time passed, his interest waned in anything or anybody other than the war, Anna Lynn’s five-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Ginny, and the ponies on his ranch. He withdrew, turned inward and silent. His visits to her farm became less frequent, their conversations, once so engaging, became awkward; their lovemaking, always passionate, turned perfunctory at best.
The changes between them chilled Anna Lynn. Here, close to him in her bed, his warm breath against her cheek, she wondered if she’d lost Matt completely because of the terrible war. If so, it would have been far less of a heartbreak to have lost him to another woman.
The next day he was to travel to William Beaumont Army Hospital at Fort Bliss for a follow-up physical-disability examination. If he failed to keep the appointment, his monthly pension benefits might be suspended, and Anna Lynn knew he could little afford the loss of that income. She wanted to go with him, but he wouldn’t hear of it. She fell asleep hoping the army doctor might have a miracle in his pocket to restore Matt’s eyesight. If he were made whole again, at least in some psychological way, perhaps her constant fear of trying to endure an unhappy future with a man who’d once filled her heart with so much happiness and joy would vanish.
* * *
In the morning, Anna Lynn fixed steak and eggs for Matt and pancakes for Ginny, who sat next to Matt with syrup dripping down her chin as she chewed a bite and stared at Matt’s eye patch.
She reached up with sticky fingers to touch it and he yanked her hand away.
“Don’t touch,” he snapped.
“Why not?” Ginny demanded, shocked at Matt’s scolding.
Matt took a deep breath to calm his annoyance and forced a smile. “Because I look like the bogeyman without it and that would scare the dickens out of you.”
“It would not,” Ginny replied bravely, not completely sure of herself or of Matt’s warning.
“Well, it sure would scare the hell out of me,” Matt said, tousling Ginny’s hair. “Now, eat and don’t be such a pest.”
Reassured, Ginny put another big bite of pancakes into her mouth, closed her left eye, put her hand over it, and looked around the room. She saw her mother’s jars of honey she got from the bees lined up neatly on the shelves above the kitchen cabinet and sink, her mom’s reading chair next to the table with the lamp and radio, the box under the window with her toys and books that had to be put away neatly every night before bed, and the open front door with the screen gently flapping in the cooling morning breeze.
“I can see okeydokey with one eye,” she announced matter-of-factly.
“But it’s better with two eyes,” Matt countered, forking the last of his steak. “Don’t you think?” he asked after his last bite.
“Yeah,” Ginny agreed with a grin.
“We’d like to keep you company today,” Anna Lynn said casually as she cleared Matt’s plate.
“Can we?” Ginny pleaded, clapping her hands. She loved trips to town.
Matt shook his head and wiped his mouth with a napkin. “There’s no need,” he replied, ignoring Ginny’s pout. “I’ll stop by on my way home to the ranch tonight and tell you what the army doc had to say.”
Anna Lynn dipped Matt’s plate into the soapy dishpan at the sink. “You’d better,” she cautioned.
She turned her head from the sink to look at him, and he grinned at her in agreement. A forced grin, she thought, trying her best to smile in return. The left side of his face twitched involuntarily. She was sure he was in some pain. She was also sure he knew that he couldn’t hide it completely from her.
“Stop worrying about me,” Matt ordered gruffly.
“I just want you to be okay.”
“I am okay.” Matt pushed back from the plank-board kitchen table. “And I’m trying my damnedest to stay that way.”
He exchanged hugs with Ginny that left her sticky syrup fingerprints on his shirt-sleeve, kissed Anna Lynn quickly goodbye, and headed out the door. Below the small village of Mountain Park, the Tularosa Basin sat under a cloudless, brilliant blue sky with blinding sunlight that swept clean all color except for the gypsum dunes at White Sands National Monument and the foreboding dark uplift of the San Andres Mountains forty miles westward.
War had brought serious gasoline rationing to civilians, and most country folks had parked their cars and gone back to traveling by horse. In his pickup during the short drive to Alamogordo, Matt passed a dozen or so people in buggies or on horseback clip-clopping along the highway heading to town. Only two passenger cars, an army truck, and a delivery van breezed by him, traveling northbound on the two-lane concrete road that gave way to gravel shy of Three Rivers. It was as though time had reversed to the early 1920s, when horses and wagons had still dominated the mostly rutted, hard-packed dirt roads of rural New Mexico that became mud pits after a heavy rain.
At the Alamogordo train station he bought a ticket to El Paso and waited on a bench in the shade of the covered platform, watching warplanes rise up from the army airfield outside of town, grouping into formations high above to practice bombing runs at the north end of the basin.
Just about every rancher on the Tularosa had filed claims with the government to get reimbursed for livestock that had been killed by trigger-happy turret gunners eager to shoot anything on the ground that moved. Matt was still waiting on payment for two old ponies he’d found riddled with bullets and half-eaten by coyotes in a high country pasture on his San Andres ranch.
After boarding the train for the ninety-mile trip to El Paso, he fished a lapel button out of a pocket. Given to him as an afterthought by a personnel clerk at Fort Bliss the day he’d mustered out of the army, it was a small button made of brass depicting an American eagle with wings spread beyond the confines of an encircling wreath. It identified the wearer as having been honorably discharged from the armed services, and was jokingly known as the ruptured duck.
Matt attached it to the top buttonhole of his long-sleeve work shirt. Soon after the train left the station, two MPs on the train looking for AWOL soldiers entered his coach compartment. They scrutinized his eye patch and the ruptured duck and gave him a nod and a smile of acknowledgment as they passed by.
In downtown El Paso, the ruptured duck and his medical appointment letter to see Dr. S. Beckmann at William Beaumont Army Hospital got him a free ride on an army bus to the fort. Matt rubbernecked on the ride up the hill with the Franklin Mountains towering close by. Not long ago El Paso had nestled quietly along the Rio Grande across from the Mexican town of Juárez. Now the city was spreading north along newly paved streets lined with bars, diners, pawnshops, and motels that catered to the soldier boys stationed at Fort Bliss. The war economy had brought new life to the once dusty, somewhat dismal town. Matt guessed that the bars, nightclubs, and whorehouses in Juárez were also thriving during the boom times.
The bus driver dropped him off outside the old Spanish colonial brick-and-stucco hospital building now used for offices, where a clerk directed him back outside to one of the army-style barracks buildings that served as hospital wards, rehabilitation clinics, surgical theaters, and medical specialty centers. Considered temporary construction, each building was a long rectangle, two stories high, with a gable roof, horizontal wood siding, double-hung windows, and an external staircase to the second floor. Dozens of the buildings, marked with numbers and signs, stretched out in long, neat rows with the brown, barren Franklin Mountains as a backdrop. After presenting his appointment letter to a receptionist in the Ophthalmology Clinic, Matt was led to an examination room, where he was greeted by an attractive older woman with eyeglasses perched on her nose and captain’s bars on her uniform shirt. She had blond curly hair cut short; warm, brown eyes; and a small raspberry-red birthmark above her right cheek. “Take a seat, Sergeant Kerney,” she said, smiling and motioning to a stool as she looked up from a medical chart. The nameplate on her desk read Capt. Susan Beckmann, MD.
“I’m Dr. Beckmann, and I’m new to this man’s army,” she said with a hint of humor in her voice. “I’ve been told by my commanding officer, who is still instructing me in matters of military etiquette, that you must call me ma’am, Doctor, or Captain.”
Matt nodded as he sat on a gray metal stool. “I didn’t expect to be seeing a lady doctor for my exam, Captain.”
Beckmann’s smile froze as she paused to study her patient. He was tall, in his early thirties with square shoulders, a darkly tanned face, and intelligent features. “We’re a rare commodity, I’ll grant you. Do you have a problem with that, Sergeant?”
Matt touched the ruptured duck lapel button on his shirt and shook his head. “No, ma’am, and since I’m a bona fide, one-hundred-percent honorably discharged civilian, you can drop the sergeant moniker. Call me Matt, Dr. Beckmann.”
Beckmann’s smile warmed. “Fair enough, Matt.” She left her desk, sat on a stool, scooted it close to him, and said, “Now, let’s take a look at that eye.”
As she lifted his eye patch her smile faded. There was no doubt the loss of sight in the eye was permanent, but the surgery to remove the shrapnel had been neatly done. The worrisome thing now was redness and swelling around the orbital cavity that suggested the possibility of infection.
“See Doc, it just doesn’t work right,” Matt joked lamely.
“Does it cause you any discomfort?” Beckmann asked, as she slipped her hand into a sterile glove and probed gently with a finger above and below the eye.
Matt shrugged. “Not much.”
Dr. Beckmann paused and gave him a quizzical gaze. “Really?" Matt’s jaw tightened. “I do okay.”
“You aren’t a very good straight-face liar,” Beckmann scolded with a sigh. “I’ve never understood why some men have a hard time being honest with doctors. You didn’t strike me as that type.”
“What type is that?”
“The stupid type,” Beckmann explained, softening her criticism with a smile. “Let’s start over. Do you experience any pain?”
Chagrined, Matt nodded.
“Describe it to me.”
“Sometimes when I move my eye, it feels like I’ve been stabbed in the eyeball and it hurts like hell.”
Susan Beckmann nodded and continued her questioning. Matt reluctantly admitted he sometimes had severe headaches that laid him low for an hour or more. Occasionally his head tingled as if insects were crawling on his scalp, or he sensed a slight trembling of his head, almost like a palsy that was hard to control. The bad eye just ached dully much of the time, but the pain often intensified and spread to the entire left side of his face. It got worse if he had a beer or some whiskey. Taking aspirin frequently helped but it usually took a long time for the pain to lessen.
“How much do you drink?” Beckmann asked.
“Not much,” Matt allowed. “Maybe twice a week I’ll have a beer or a whiskey before supper.”
“How’s your memory?”
“I don’t have trouble remembering things.”
“Not even little things?”
Matt shook his head. “Nope. What are you getting at here, Doc?”
“The orbital cavity around your eye is inflamed and possibly infected. And I’m thinking the optic nerve behind the eye may be involved, which is partially causing your pain.”
“Yes. You received excellent surgical care for the eye injury, but you also suffered trauma to your brain when the shrapnel penetrated your eyeball. That could be causing some of your symptoms as well.”
“Can you fix it?”
Susan Beckmann paused before responding. “Yes, by removing the eyeball and fitting you with a prosthetic eye.” She didn’t mention that some patients who’d suffered the traumatic loss of sight in one eye eventually lost vision in their sighted eye. It could happen within months or it could take years and there was no way of predicting who went totally blind or when. For the time being, she wanted Matt focused solely on the immediate need for surgery and not the unknown future.
“A glass eye?” he asked.
“Yes, but you could always continue to wear the patch if you like. At this point, doing nothing is not an option. If there is an infection, I don’t want it to spread to your brain. It could kill you. If I find only inflammation, surgery is still our best option and I can treat it immediately. It should significantly reduce your episodes of pain and discomfort.”
Tired of the pain and the headaches, Matt didn’t hesitate. “When can you do it?”
Susan Beckmann returned to her desk and consulted her calendar. “Early tomorrow morning; you’ll be first up in the operating room,” she said. “I’ll arrange for you to be admitted to our pre-surgical ward this afternoon. Be back here at four o’clock. Eat a good lunch, because it will be the last food you’ll have before I operate.” She waved a finger at him. “And absolutely no alcohol.”
Matt nodded and stood. “How long will I be stuck here after you saw my bones, Doc?”
Beckmann smiled. “Two to three days, depending on what I find.”
“See you at four, Captain.”
Matt shook her hand and headed out the door for the NCO club, stopping first at the Post Exchange, where he bought postcards and stamps, and scrawled notes to his pa at the ranch and Anna Lynn in Mountain Park, writing that his doctor had ordered some tests that would hold him over for a few more days but it was just routine and there was no need to worry.
He doubted the postcards would be delivered much before he returned home, but since neither his pa nor Anna Lynn had telephones, it was the best he could do.
At the NCO club he ordered a hot turkey sandwich, mashed potatoes, green beans, and apple pie. As he sipped coffee and waited for his meal to arrive, Matt wondered why Dr. Beckmann had hesitated when he’d asked her if she could fix him. Had she given him the whole scoop or was she holding something back? He had reason to be a little wary about medicos. He’d seen too many army doctors and medics tell dying men they were going to be all right.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Love all these books. Love learning the backstory of Kevin and his family. Probably going to re read all of the original ones. Great story teller.
Excellent series, couldn't put it down and sad it's over.
Wonderful historical western series. I loved the characters. This novel includes rodeos, love, heartbreak, Vietnam, ranching, cruelty, bullying, friendships, bravery, atomic bombs, death, murder, and more. Make sure you read all of the series! Highly recommended!!! I am now definitely going to read McGarrity's crime novels. This book and series deserves an A++++