Was it justice . . . or revenge? What drove a simple farmer to set out on an impossible quest after a gang of bloodthirsty killers that raped and murdered his wife and slit his small son's throat?
Their trail led him halfway across the country and deep into Mexico. One by one he tracked them down and brought them to justice, sometimes at the end of a short rope, more often in front of his fast guns, and he didn't much care which.
THE MAN HUNTER
"IN THE BEGINNING"
The blazing sun seemed unusually hot for mid-February. It cooked into Matt Henry's bare back and caused the hundred or more deep, ugly scars that crisscrossed his broad shoulders and back to itch like crazy.
His arm muscles rippled and bulged as he leaned into the heavy double winged breaking plow and felt satisfaction as the point bit deeper into the virgin ground. He liked to watch the chocolate brown soil slide off the plow's shiny silver wings and curl onto itself like the big ocean waves he had seen one time down on the Gulf of Mexico.
"Whoa, mules," he called out and the matched team of big brown Missouri mules responded immediately.
Tugging the red bandanna from around his neck he mopped sweat from his face and glanced up through squinted eyes at the noon-high sun. Amelia and James should be coming soon. They always brought a picnic lunch when he was working in the fields. He liked it when they came out and ate together so they could see what he had done that morning.
Looking back over the line of freshly plowed rows he had laid by that morning he was pleased. He already had eighty acres under plow. This twenty acres of new ground ought to help him bring in a good corn crop this year. Maybe even enough to pay off that little loan he had at the Waldron Bank and still have enough left over to buy Amelia that cook stove she had her eyes on at the general store.
"Get up, mules," he said, rippling the long reins to pop their rumps. He would finish out this row and break for lunch.
A man can do a heap of thinking trudging along in a furrow behind a plow from can see till can't see. It gives a fellow time to think when he's working hard and Matt had done more'n his share of both in his twenty-six years, that and trouble.
He recalled his ma reading to him and pa about trouble from her good book when he was just six. She often read to them while they sat around that old pot-bellied stove. He still remembered the words.
'A man's life is of few days and full of trouble,' she had read. Strange he could still remember that after all these years. He had asked his pa about what it meant one time when they were riding along in the wagon together. He could still see his pa's face, how it got all serious, like it did every time he was about to say something worth remembering.
'Son, trouble follows a man closer than his own shadow. It can either make a man, or it can break a man. It's what's inside the man that determines which.'
Boy he sure had seen plenty of opportunities to test the truth of that advice in his lifetime.
"Whoa, mules," he called out, reaching the end of the row.
He slipped the long reins over his head, wound them around the handle, laid the plow over on its side and headed for the inviting shade of the big oak tree where he had left his rifle and water jug.
Slouching his six foot-three inch frame down against the tree, he took a long swig of the lukewarm water, rested his tired head against the tree and smiled. He always smiled when he thought about Amelia. She was the best thing that had ever happened to him. These past three years with her and his six-year-old stepson, James, had been the best years of his whole life.
The quietness was suddenly shattered by gunshots. His heart leaped into his throat as the shots rang out. One! Two! By the second shot, he had already grabbed his rifle and was racing towards the house as fast as his strong legs would carry him.
Three! Four! Five! A hot flush of fear swept through him as he raced up the small hill that separated him from the house. Topping the hill and streaking down the other side, he counted the saddled horses around the yard. Ten, twelve, fourteen, sixteen, seventeen, no, eighteen. Why would eighteen horses be at the house? From somewhere he found the strength for even greater speed. As he neared the house he levered a shell into his Henry .44 rifle.
That's when he saw James. The boy lay under the giant oak tree in the front yard, near the swing Matt had made for him. Blood still gushed from a deep gash in his throat and stained the dusty ground where he lay. His blonde, curly hair was caked and matted from the puddle of his own blood he lay in. His blue eyes were wide open and a look of terror was frozen there forever as he gazed blankly into the sky. His throat had been cut from ear to ear. He was dead.
A great sob wracked Matt's big frame and welled up in his throat, threatening to choke him. He clamped his jaws shut to stifle the scream that fought to escape his lips. A volcano of rage boiled somewhere deep inside him and surged through his whole being, erupting as a mighty explosion of energy.
One giant leap landed him on the porch. Like a charging bull he hit the partially open front door. His powerful shoulder splintered the wood, driving it inward. Someone had been standing just inside the door. The sudden force of Matt's entry sent the man flying across the room into a huddle of others, sending them sprawling.
He shot the first man he saw standing, jacked another shell into his rifle and sent another bullet square into a second man's face. Something hit him hard in his left shoulder, spinning him half around. Another sledgehammer-like blow struck his right side and a third found its mark in his lower chest, driving him backwards, slamming him against the wall.
He saw the floor rushing up to meet him. Even while falling, he strained to work the lever of his rifle but his hands refused to obey what his mind told them to do. It all seemed so strange, like another of those nightmares he still sometimes had. His mind told him he had been shot, but he hadn't even heard the sounds.
His face slammed into the floor. Something was wrong with his eyes; they were growing blurry. He squeezed them shut, trying to clear his vision, then opened them again. That's when he saw Amelia.
She lay on the wooden floor near the fireplace, her clothes torn completely off. Ugly bullet holes dotted her beautiful body. She had been shot five times.
A hot chill surged through him. His face flushed and felt numb. His body shook from the sudden coldness. The light was fading. Is this how it feels to die? It wasn't that he was afraid of death--he had come face to face with it more than once in his life. He felt no pain, but he was so tired.
What was left to live for now anyway? Everything he cared for had been taken from him. Maybe he should just close his eyes and let death take him too.
His eyes blinked wildly, trying desperately to focus. He saw a big black man standing nearby. His head was completely bald. There was a Mexican. His straw sombrero hung down his back by a neck cord. A knife scar ran from his left eye down to the corner of his cruel, smiling lips. Smiling? Why would he be smiling at a time like this? A long, bloody knife was tucked under his waist sash. Blood dripped from the knife to form little red spots on the wooden floor.
A big man with red hair and beard stared at him from one eye, the other hid by a black patch. The hard, cruel eye bored into him. Somehow, Matt sensed this man was the leader of this band of killers.
At that moment Matt knew he had to live. Somehow--like so many other times in his life--he had to find the strength to survive. Standing there before him were the reasons he had to make it through this. These men had to pay for what they had done.
If the God his ma had told him about was really real and was the God of justice like she said, then surely a God like that would allow him to live long enough to track down every last one of these killers and bring them to justice.
But he was so tired. . .
"MY FLASHING SWORD"
"When I sharpen my flashing sword and my hand grasps it in judgment, I will render vengeance upon my enemies."(Deut.32:41)
Voices, did he hear voices? They sounded so far away. Like they were coming from a deep cave. Then they faded away and darkness wrapped its soft arms around him again and he drifted back into the land of nothingness.
"He's coming around, sheriff. Shore as shootin he is. It's a slap dab miracle if you ask me. Wouldn't a give a spit in the wind for his chances of pulling through, all shot up like he was. It's just gotta be a slap dab miracle, that's all it could be."
The strange voice seemed to be getting closer. Am I dead? He strained to open his eyes. The bright light burned his eyes. Vague shapes appeared from the misty shadows and floated in front of him, gradually becoming clearer.
An old man with snow-white hair and tiny spectacles sitting on the end of his nose emerged from the foggy world and bent over Matt. Who is this guy? Matt tried to raise himself up and a thousand sharp needles of pain raced through him.
"Whoa there, young fellow," the old man said. "You best lie back real easy. You've been shot up worse than a watering trough on Saturday night."
When Matt forced his eyes open again he saw another man also. A big man sat in a straight-backed chair near the bed. His salt and pepper hair hung collar length with more salt than pepper. He had a firm-set jaw and a penetrating look about his dark eyes, like they could see right through a man. He wore a friendly smile on his wrinkled, weathered face and a star pinned on his leather vest. Matt felt he had seen him before.
"Welcome back, son," the big man said. "You've been out quite a spell. You likely won't remember me, we've met a couple of times before, but it was some time back. I'm J.C. Holderfield, the Sheriff here in Scott County. Can you remember what happened, son?"
Matt shut his eyes and fought back the painful memories that rushed through him like a raging river, churning his insides, tossing him to and fro, flooding his mind to overflowing, sweeping all other thoughts aside like so many tiny twigs, leaving only the hurt behind. Slowly, he lifted a weak hand and swiped a tear from his cheek.
"I'm real sorry to have to put you through this again, son. I know it hurts to even think about it, but I've got to know what happened out at your place. I rode out and took a look around and think I know pretty much what went on, but I need to hear it from you."
It took awhile, but the words finally came. Sometimes barely a whisper, sometimes choked back by sobs Matt couldn't swallow back down. When he finished the sheriff leaned back in his chair and pulled out an old, worn-out pipe. He produced a tobacco sack from a shirt pocket and poured the pipe full, then used a .44 shell from his gun belt to pack it down. A match struck on his britches leg put fire to it and sent a cloud of sweet-smelling aroma wafting across the room.
"If memory serves me right they call you Matt," the sheriff said, drawing deep on the old pipe. "Where you from, son? Before you married the Morgan girl, I mean."
"That's a hard question to answer, Sheriff. I always figured wherever I hung my hat was home and I've hung it in more places than I care to remember. Never had a real home, at least not since I was six.
"My family's from the boot heel of Missouri. We set out for California when I was six, didn't get far though. Apaches hit our wagon train and wiped out our whole bunch. Killed everybody except me and two other boys about my age. The Apaches raised me till I was fourteen before I managed to escape.
"I signed on with a cattle drive headed for Wichita. After that, I spent a couple of years just trailing around from here to yonder."
"Couldn't help noticing them scars you're wearing on your back," the old sheriff said. "Never seen worse on a man. Mind telling me how you got 'em?"
"Ever hear of a place called Yuma Territorial Prison in Arizona? It ain't a fit place for a man. The day I turned sixteen, a fellow in Tucson pushed me into a fight I didn't want but couldn't get out of. He drew on me and I had no choice. I shot him in self defense but his daddy was a big something or other in them parts and his money bought me five years' hard labor and a whipping once a week."
"Is that where you got them scars on your ankles, too?"
"Yes, sir. They had a contraption called the Oregon Boot. Looked like a round chunk of iron hollowed out in the middle and split in half. It had hinges on one side and an iron strap that fit under your foot. They weighed sixteen pounds apiece. They usually only put them on runners, but the day I checked in they locked one on each ankle and didn't take them off until I checked out five years later."
"Don't see how you made it, son," the big lawman said, shaking his head.
"Wouldn't have, if it hadn't been for a lifer named Duke Hatcher. Toughest man I've ever seen. He taught me a hundred ways to kill a man with your bare hands. He took a liking to me I guess, said I reminded him of his own son. That's all that kept me alive. The cons were bad, but the guards were worse."
"Sad to say but even the law's got a few bad apples."
"How'd I get here, Sheriff? Shot up like I was."
"Fellow named Hawkins brought you in; said he was out hunting along the river and heard the shooting. You know him?"
"Yeah, I met him once a while back. He's got a pretty big spread down the river a few miles. Guess I'm lucky he came along."
"Matt, when I rode out, I buried your wife and boy on that little hill behind your house. I didn't know what else to do. I put a little cross on their graves. Sure sorry about your family."
"Thanks, Sheriff. I'm beholden to you."
"While I was looking around I found your team of mules still hitched to the plow. I also found two horses I figured belonged to you. They're all down at the livery. I'm afraid that's about all that's left, though. What they didn't take, they destroyed. Good thing they didn't spot your horses or they'd be gone, too; especially that big black stallion. Can't say I ever seen a finer piece of horseflesh."
"Don't know how or when I can repay you for all you done, Sheriff. Maybe someday I can. Got any idea who done it?"
"Oh yeah, I know who done it all right. You got two of them before they got you. They rode with the Trotter outfit. Remember the one you told me about with the black patch over one eye? That's One-eyed Jack Trotter. Him and his gang have been robbing, raping and killing ever since the war ended. They usually don't leave any witnesses. Guess they didn't figure on you having so much bark on you."
"How come the law ain't caught them before now?"
"Well, fact is, son, there just ain't no law that can stay on their trail long enough to catch them. Take me for instance, I can chase them as far as the county line, but that's where my authority ends. We've got a few U.S. Marshals and the Texas Rangers, but they're both spread so thin and under funded they just can't do it all. After the war ended, so many took to the Owl Hoot Trail, there's just more than we can handle."
"Just don't seem right that they could do what they done to my family, then just ride off free as you please, with nobody that can do anything about it."
"It ain't right. Ain't nothing right about it, but that's just the way it is. Wish there was something more I could do. Trotter's pretty smart. His bunch rides around doing what they good and well please, then they just ride across the line, knowing we can't follow them. If things get too hot, they just crawl into a hole somewhere that nobody's been able to find. When things cool off, they slither out like the snakes they are."
"Soon as I'm able to fork a horse, I mean to find their hole and set things right, law or no law, either at the end of a short rope, or in front of my gun--and I don't much care which it is," Matt said bitterly.
"Can't say I wouldn't do the same, son. Oh, I meant to tell you, the two you rid the world of before you got shot? They both had fliers on them. Five hundred apiece, dead or alive and they both shore fit that description. You've got a thousand dollars waiting on you at the bank."
Their conversation was interrupted be a pretty, young girl who burst into the room. Her long, corn silk hair hung in platted pigtails down her back with a small white ribbon tied to the end of each. She had a freckled nose and a perky little smile and wore a flour-sack dress that touched her ankles.
"How is he?" she asked before realizing he was awake. "Oh, he's woke up. Daddy! Why didn't you come and tell me he was awake. You knew I wanted to be here when he come to. Is he okay? Is he hungry? Can I get him anything?"
"Whoa there, girl, just calm down a tad," the sheriff told her. "Matt, this little wildcat is my daughter, Molly. Her and Uncle Doc has set with you ever since they brought you in. She's been like a mother hen seeing after you."
"Nice to meet you, Molly. Thanks for looking out for me," Matt told the bubbly young girl.
"It's good to meet you, too," she said. "Now maybe I can call you something besides Mister."
"Well, Matt," the sheriff said, getting to his feet, "I hate to leave you alone with these two but I've got to go. If I was you, though, I'd keep a close eye, they're quite a pair."
"Thanks again, Sheriff. Sure appreciate all you've done. When I get back on my feet maybe I can square it with you some way."
The sheriff was right—Molly and the Doc were a pair sure enough. Molly spent most of every day waiting on him hand and foot. He was getting stronger every day and regaining the weight he had lost, thanks to the meals Molly brought him from the café. The weight mostly came from the fresh apple pies Molly baked him at least twice a week. The sheriff came by every day, often visiting for an hour or more.
Over the next two weeks they all became close friends. More than friends-- more like family and yet, the closer they all drew together the more scared Matt became. All through his life, it seemed like something bad always happened to everybody that he grew to care for.
Matt soon discovered what he suspected all along—J.C. Holderfield wasn't just your ordinary small town sheriff.
"Yes siree, son," Uncle Doc told him one day. "J.C. Holderfield is known in most every town west of the Mississippi as the Town Tamer. He's planted more than a few in Boot Hill with their toes pointed straight up. Folks that know say he's cleaned up more towns than most can count."
“How'd he come to be in a small town like Waldron, Arkansas?"
"Rode in about three years back, I reckon it was, just him, a sickly wife and little Molly. Said he was looking for a quiet little place to settle down. Town hired him on the spot. Elected him Sheriff the next year. His woman died right after that. He's been raising Molly by himself ever since. Doing a right good job of it, too.
"Dirty rotten shame though," he continued, "all them years doing law work, risking his life and all and he ain't got two double-eagles to rub together to show for it."
Matt learned that Molly worked part time at the general store for Mr. and Mrs. Jamieson. He asked if she would mind picking out some new clothes for him.
"Doc said he had to burn all the clothes I had on when I came in. I guess I'm gonna need everything. Pants, shirt, hat, boots and, well, everything."
"You mean long johns?"
"Well, yeah, but I didn't want to just come right out and say it."
"Silly, I wash my daddy's long johns all the time."
"Well, I ain't your daddy. More'n likely if I was I'd take a peach tree limb to you more than he does. How old are you anyway?"
"I'm twelve. Going on thirteen. Most folks say I look lots older than my age. Do I look older to you, Matt?"
"Twelve going on twenty would be more like it," he kidded her. "Some old boy's going to have his work cut out for him when it comes to throwing a loop over your head."
"I don't like boys. At least not the ones my age, they're all so silly. Besides, when the time comes for roping, I expect I'll do my own, thank you very much. I can see why daddy likes you so much."
"What makes you think your daddy likes me?"
"Probably because you're about all he's talked about for the last two weeks. He says you're like the son he always wanted and never got. Hey! That would make you my big brother wouldn't it? I always wished I had a big brother."
"Tell you what, Little Bit, if you'll make me another of those apple pies, I'll be kind of like your big brother, is it a deal?"
Molly leaped into the air, hit the floor running and hugged his neck so hard it hurt his wounded shoulder.
"Oh, Matt, would you really? It's a deal. Let's shake on it and seal the bargain. I'll be back with that pie before you can shake a stick and I'll pick out the best looking clothes in the whole store too," she hollered over her shoulder as she hurried out the door.
Finally, his coming out day arrived two days later. He must have tried on everything in the store before Molly was satisfied with both the fit and the match. He felt both relief and excitement as he slipped into his new clothes. He stomped into his black, high-heeled boots, stuffed his pants legs down into his boot tops, poked the tail of the blue shirt into his pants and tied the dark blue bandanna around his neck.
He adjusted the black flat-crowned Stetson on his head, gazed at his reflection in the mirror and adjusted it again. The silver conches on the hatband caught light filtering through the open window and sent flashes of light dancing around the room. Finally satisfied, he playfully tipped the hat, shrugged and strode from the room that had been his home for the most part of three weeks.
The single narrow street in Waldron, Arkansas still bore deep ruts from recent early rains and the passage of untold wagon wheels. The persistent winds of the last several days had dried the ground and transformed it into fine dust. Today, strong wind gusts pushed clouds of the stinging particles between the flat board buildings that lined both sides of the street.
What few hardy souls that dared venture out, bent into the wind and ducked their heads to avoid the blowing sand. Matt did the same, holding tight to his brand new Stetson.
`The door to the sheriff's office was closed as Matt stepped up onto the wooden boardwalk. Before reaching the door, however, it was jerked open by his new friend. A smile as big as all outdoors washed across the sheriff's leathered face.
"Come on in here, boy, before you get blown away. Ain't this wind something? Don't think I'll ever get use to it. Real glad to see you up and around, son. You're a mite taller standing than you are laying."
"Morning, J.C., it's good to be up. Never spent so much time in bed in my whole life. I think I about wore out my welcome at Doc's and I could tell Molly was ready to get shed of me, too. She hadn't brought me an apple pie in two days."
"What are you griping about? She's baked a half-dozen pies in the last two weeks and I ain't had the first bite of one yet. All kidding aside, Matt, helping nurse you back to health has been one of the highlights of her life. She's taking quite a liking to you. She hasn't talked about much else since you came in. Say, you want some coffee? I made it fresh just a couple of days ago."
"No thanks," Matt said, spinning a straight-backed chair and straddling it. "I ain't feeling that good just yet. I was hoping you might walk with me over to the bank and see about that reward you mentioned. I'd like to settle up with some folks before I ride out."
"Be glad to, son. You still got it in mind to go after Trotter's gang?"
"Yep. I'll be leaving this morning. I want to ride out to the farm and see the graves and all. Then I thought I ought to ride by the Hawkins place and say a thank you for hauling me in."
"Matt, I know you've thought a lot about what you're setting out to do. It's a might big job. Some would call it impossible. By your own reckoning, there's still sixteen of them. They're all out and out killers, Matt—men who live by the gun—men that think nothing about gunning down anybody that gets in their way, be it men, women, or children. How you figure to take on men like that? Sixteen to one is mighty tough odds."
"My pa always said if you wanted to move a mountain, you had to do it one rock at a time. The only thing I know, J.C., this is something I gotta. I'll stomp that snake when it rears up its head."
"There's something I want to show you." The sheriff opening a drawer of the battered old desk then lifted out something wrapped in an oily rag and handed it to Matt. “Go ahead, son, open it up."
Matt slowly peeled away the rag and gazed down at the most beautiful gun rig he had ever laid eyes upon. The holster and gun belt was of black, hand-tooled leather. Shell loops were in groups of six with sliver conches separating each group.
Glancing quickly up at J.C. with a disbelieving look, Matt saw his friend's face beaming with pride. Gently, almost reverently, Matt slid the pistol from its holster. He hefted it in his hand, turning it over and over, admiring the weapon. He laid the weapon crossways across two fingers, testing its balance and found it to be perfect. He stared in absolute awe at the blue steel revolver, amazed at its beauty. A black, striking rattler was embedded into the pearl-white handles.
"It's called The Rattler," the old lawman told him. "It's an Army model 1860 .44 caliber, but it's unlike anything you've ever seen before. Whoever the gunsmith was that rigged it up was a genius. Pull that hammer back till it locks and I'll show you what I mean."
Matt did as the sheriff instructed and heard a metallic click as the hammer locked in place.
"That there is a hair trigger, Matt. You don't pull it, all you got to do is touch it. Go ahead, son, it's empty. Touch the trigger and watch what happens."
Matt swung the nose toward the wall and nudged the trigger. The hammer slammed down then immediately sprang back to the lock position, ready to fire again. Matt's mouth dropped open. It was amazing. The sheriff was right--he had never seen anything like that before.
"Try it again, boy. This time pull the trigger several times as fast as you can."
Five times Matt touched the trigger as fast as his finger could move. Each time the hammer shot forward, then bounced back, ready to fire again.
"I don't believe it," Matt said, his eyes as wide open as his mouth. "I never even heard of something like that."
"It's rigged with a special spring mechanism. Once the hammer is pulled back and locked in full cock position, it will fire and return to that position as fast as you can pull the trigger. That eliminates the time and effort it usually takes to pull back the hammer between each shot. That pistol will get off six shots quicker than most others can fire twice. It's that fast," the big lawman explained..
"Over my years of law work, I've taken lots of guns off men that didn't need them anymore. Most I sold to help supplement the starving wages a lawman draws. A while back, I took this rig off a man down in Austin, named Ben McCaskill. He thought he was faster than he turned out to be. It's the only rig I ever hung onto. I couldn't bear to part with it, least wise, till now. It's yours, son, I want you to have it."
"I appreciate it, J.C., but I can't accept that. It's too much. No telling what it's worth. It's the most beautiful rig I've ever seen, but I can't accept it. It's too much."
"It's all settled and done with." The sheriff pushed the offered gun rig away. "Strap her on and let's see how she fits."
Reluctantly, Matt slung the belt around his waist and buckled it in place. He adjusted it for height so the butt of the pistol hung just above the natural level of his relaxed hand. He buckled the leg strap to his right leg and stood up straight. The rig fit perfectly, like it was custom made just for him.
"The truth of the matter is, son, it seems to me you've been dealt some mighty poor hands in your short life. Near as I can tell, you've done the best you could do with the hands you was dealt.
"These are might hard men you're setting out after, Matt. I wish I could go with you, but at my age, I'd be more harm than help. Thought maybe I could help by sharing a few things it took me my whole life to learn.
"Most of my life I've made my living, such as it was, dealing with the likes of Trotter and his bunch. I've been up and down the trail a time or two, son. I've seen some mighty bad men and some that just thought they was bad. More'n a few times I've faced men that were faster than me, but they're in boot hill. I'm still alive and kicking because I've learned some things.
"First thing I learned is that most gunfights are either won or lost before anybody ever pulls a pistol. What most don't know and don't live long enough to find out, is that a man's mind has more to do with winning or losing than how fast he is with a gun.
"Now don't get me wrong, son, a man's got to be quick and he's got to be able to hit what he's shooting at or he won't live long enough to learn the rest of it."
Matt stood, entranced by what the old lawman was sharing with him. He listened intently, committing every word to memory.
"Over the years," the sheriff said, "I practiced as hard on working on a man's mind as I did drawing and firing my pistol."
"I don't understand, J.C.," Matt said. "What do you mean when you talk about working on his mind?"
"Most times, a man's only as good as he thinks he is. You gotta do and say things to cause him to start to wonder if he can really beat you. You gotta plant a seed of doubt in his mind. You gotta get him to thinking he don't stand a Chinaman's chance in Dixie against you--then most likely he don't.
"Fear is a powerful emotion, Matt. One of the strongest a man can have and it's awful hard to hide. You can hear it in his voice, it will show up in his movements, but most of all, you can see it in his eyes.
"Sounds funny I guess, but a man's like a dog in a lot of ways. Take a dog when it's young, grab him around the throat with both hands and lift him high over your head. Stare him right in the eyes until he looks away. Right then and there you become his master. He's submitted to you. From then on he'll obey you.
"Practice what I call the death stare. Don't just look a man in the eyes, stare him down until he breaks eye contact by either blinking or looking away. Spend time staring without blinking your eyes. At a bush, a leaf, anything. At first it will burn your eyes. After a while, you'll be able to stare for long periods with blinking your eyes. A good gunfighter can kill you in the time it takes to blink your eyes.
"Watch your opponent for signs of fear: A quick sideways glance; A drop of sweat on his forehead; Licking his lips or wiping his hand on his britches leg. All these are signs that fear is setting in. Never take your eyes away from his. A man's eyes will tell you when he's about to draw.
"When you have to shoot a man, shoot to kill. A wounded man can still kill you, dead men don't shoot back. The only reason to draw a gun is to kill him before he kills you. Never, never, never shoot him just once. Most times one shot won't kill a man. Just look at your own experience--you were shot three times and here you are fixing to go after the ones that done it.
"When you shoot a man, hit him right here," the one they called the Town Tamer told him, pounding his chest with his fist. "Would you just listen to me, going on and on. Go ahead, son, shuck it a time or two so you can get the feel of it."
"What's the grease on the holster for?"
"That's beef tallow," the sheriff told him. "Most gunfighters grease down their holsters to cut down on the drag. The friction of the metal gun coming out of the leather holster creates a drag. Just that split second could make the difference between living and dying."
Matt spread his legs apart to a comfortable position and dropped into the familiar gunfighter's stance he had learned when he was just a kid of fourteen and which he had practiced countless hours since. Knees slightly bent, shoulders square, eyes straight ahead, his hand hanging relaxed just below the handle of the pistol.
For a moment he stood motionless, as if frozen in place. Then, in a blur of motion, faster than the eye could follow, the pistol seemed to leap from its holster into the hand that flashed by on its lightning journey upward and outward. Like the deadly rattler from which the pistol drew its name, its mouth struck at the air in front of Matt, ready to spew its deadly venom.
"Holy Christ!" the lawman shouted, his mouth wide open in awe. "I ain't believing what I just saw. Do that again, son. I've got to see that again."
Matt spun the pistol back into its holster. Once again he assumed the position and repeated the draw again and again, each time faster than the time before. J.C. stood speechless, shaking his head in disbelief.
"Son, I've seen some mighty fast guns in my time. There was a time I thought I was pretty salty myself, but I'm telling you like it is, I've never in all my born days seen a man that quick with a pistol. Either you had an awful good teacher, or you were blessed with more natural ability than any man I've ever seen. I'm guessing it's some of both. Where'd you learn to draw like that?"
"After I escaped from the Apaches when I was fourteen," Matt explained, "I signed on with a cattle drive pushing a herd of longhorns up to Wichita. The ramrod of that outfit was a man named Chance Longley. They said he was the fastest gun in Texas. I set in on him to teach me how to use a gun. I reckon he took a liking to me or something, anyway, he finally gave in and agreed. Every day for three months we rode off away from the herd and practiced. Over the years, when I could, I just kept at it."
"Well, if that don't beat all," the big sheriff said, leaning back against the old worn out desk. "That shore explains a whole lot. So happens I know Longley. He's a fellow with a lot of bark on him. I seen him take on three pretty salty hombres down in Abilene, Texas a few years back. He left all three lying in the street staring up at the sky and dying of lead poisoning. Longley's good, no doubt about it, maybe one of the best, but I'm telling you, kid, he never seen the day he could get his pistol out as quick as you. You're maybe the fastest I ever saw."
Sauntering over to an old cabinet, the sheriff pulled open a squeaky drawer and lifted out the scariest-looking contraption Matt had ever seen.
"What in tar-nation is that?" he asked.
"I call it the Widow-Maker," the lawman said proudly. Whatever you decide works for me. "I thought it up myself. Had a gunsmith friend of mine down in Brownsville make it up for me. She's a twelve gauge double barrel that's sawed off to thirteen inches. She's got an oversized pistol grip and it's special rigged with only one trigger that fires both barrels at the same time.
"It throws a twelve foot pattern at about ten yards. This baby will blow a hole in the side of a barn that you could drive a team and wagon through. It's mounted permanently by a swivel to a double thick scabbard with the front cut away. You don't even draw it. You just push down on the handle. That swings the nose of this Jessie up level. Then all you got to do is touch that trigger and hold on, because she'll shore scoot you back a step or two.
"Old Widow-Maker here has saved my bacon more'n a few times. She's got a way of evening up the odds, if you know what I mean. With what you're setting out to do, I figure she might come in handy from time to time."
"I don't hardly know what to say, J.C.," Matt strapped the weapon on his left hip. "Except thanks."
They left the sheriff's office and walked across the street to the Waldron Bank. They were greeted warmly by Mr. Wilkerson, the bank president.
"I'm very sorry to hear about your family, Mr. Henry," the banker said as they seated themselves in front of his desk. "Terrible tragedy, simply terrible. I certainly trust the authorities will be able to apprehend those responsible and bring them to justice."
Sheriff Holderfield signed the necessary paperwork for payment of the reward and the banker handed Matt an envelope. He accepted the envelope and peered inside. For a long moment he stared speechless. Slowly, he fanned his thumb across the edges of the bills. He had never even seen that much money at one time.
"Thanks, Mr. Wilkerson. I'd like to pay off that little loan we had on the farm. Two hundred-fifty dollars, I think it is."
"I believe that's correct,” the banker said, fingering through a file and pulling out a paper. "Yes, here it is, two hundred-fifty dollars. You have a nice little place down there in the valley. Have you ever considered expanding? I've made the decision to liquidate some of my holdings along the Fourche River Valley. I have some very desirable land that adjoins your place."
"Just out of curiosity, how much land are you talking about?" Matt asked.
"Oh, I'd have to check my records to be sure. At one time I held fifteen thousand acres in the valley. Of course, I've sold off a few pieces. Off hand, I'd say I still have twelve thousand acres or so, maybe more."
"I didn't know there was that much land in the Fourche Valley," the sheriff said.
"Oh, there's much more than that," the banker said. "The government is opening up another five thousand acres further down the valley for homesteading. That's one of the reasons I've decided to liquidate my holdings. It's hard to sell land when the government is giving it away."
"Well, I appreciate the offer, Mr. Wilkerson," Matt said. "But I'm afraid I wouldn't be a very good prospect for you. I've got about all I can say grace over right now. If you'll just sign the release on our mortgage."
"Certainly," the banker said, signing the paper and handing it to Matt.
"Thanks, Mr. Wilkerson," Matt stood and shook hands with the banker. "If I come into a bunch of money I might be back to see you."
"When are you leaving, Matt?" J.C. asked as he and Matt walked up the street together.
"Just as soon as I can settle up some things. I want to pay the doc and I owe the café for all my meals while I was laid up. I'm gonna try to sell my team of mules to the holster at the livery, then I've got to pick up some trail supplies and settle up with Mr. and Mrs. Jamieson down at the store. Lordy, Lordy, by the time I get out of town I'll be as broke as when I came in."
"Ain't it the truth," the sheriff said. "Seems like my money runs out before the month does. Be sure to stop by before you ride out."
"You can depend on it," Matt said over his shoulder as he headed toward Doc's house.
He paid old Doc Monroe double what Doc said he owed, then went by the livery where he sold his team of mules for a fair price and bought a packsaddle. He had it in mind to use his little pinto for a packhorse.
After settling up with the lady that owned the café, he headed for Jamieson's general store. It felt good to be up and around. His wounds were mostly healed up and no longer hurt when he moved.
"How you feeling, Mr. Henry?" Mrs. Jamieson asked cheerfully, as Matt pushed through the front door.
"I'm feeling tolerably well, thanks," Matt told the nice storekeeper's wife. "I need to settle up my bill for these clothes Molly picked up for me and I'm gonna need some trail supplies too."
"What kind of supplies will you be needing?"
"Most everything I reckon. The sheriff tells me those fellows didn't leave nothing at the house that's fit for anything. I'll need a coffeepot, a skillet and a pan for beans. I'll need a couple of tin plates and cups for coffee and something to eat with. Shucks, ma'am, you likely know more what I'll need than I do, would you mind just picking out what all I'll need and I'd be obliged."
"Sounds like you're leaving the country," Jacob Jamieson said, coming in from the back and overhearing what Matt said. "I sure hope not, we need more folks like you around these parts."
"No, sir. I'll be back. I'm just going after the ones that murdered my family."
"The sheriff said as much. Well, I sure wish you success. It was an awful thing they done. We sure are sorry."
"Thanks. What have you got in rifles?" Matt asked.
"Just got a new shipment of the latest model Henry. It's a big improvement over the older model. Let me show you."
Walking over to the wall rack, the storekeeper took down a shiny new rifle, worked the lever and handed it to Matt.
"That's the improved Henry, model .44-40," Mr. Jamieson told him. "It holds fifteen shells in the magazine and has the smoothest lever action of any gun on the market."
"How much you asking for one of these?"
"They're forty-five dollars and worth every penny."
"I'll take it and I'll need a couple boxes of shells too."
The storekeeper's wife was busy gathering up supplies and piling them in a stack on the counter. The pile was getting mighty high. He began to wonder if it had been a good idea to let her pick out what all he needed. He could make do with less.
"Mrs. Jamieson," Matt said. "I've been thinking I'd like to do something nice for Molly. She's been so good to me and all. Don't know how I could have made it the past couple of weeks without her help. I was thinking maybe you might know somebody I could hire to make her a pretty dress. Do you reckon she'd like that?"
"Oh, she would love it. I just got a brand new shipment of pretty calico, maybe you'd like to pick out something and I could sew it up for you."
"Ma'am, I'm ashamed to say, I'm not much when it comes to picking out clothes. Wonder if you'd mind picking out something you think she'd like?"
"I'd be happy to. There won't be any charge for sewing it though, I'll be glad to do it. Molly's a special young girl."
"Yes, ma'am, she sure is. I'd be obliged if you'd take care of that for me."
After he had paid his bill and told them he'd be back shortly with his packhorse, he strode down the dusty street toward the livery. The sheriff came out of his office, spotted him and hurried to meet him.
"Glad I caught you, Matt. I just got a telegram they sent out to all the county sheriffs. Trotter's gang hit the Butterfield stage down near Tyler, Texas just a couple of days ago. They shot the driver and murdered a whole family that was on board. I thought you'd want to know."
"Thanks, J.C. That will give me a place to start anyhow. Soon as I load my supplies I'll be pulling out."
"The sheriff in Tyler is named Lassiter. Come on, I'll help you load that pack."
"Where's Molly?" Matt asked, as he, J.C. and Mr. Jamieson finished loading and tying down his supplies on the pinto.
"I tried my best to get her to come and tell you good-bye, but you know how she is. She said she couldn't bear to see you go. She'll be okay though."
"That's okay, I understand." Matt said. "Well, adios, partner. Thanks again for all you've done. I won't be forgetting what I owe you."
"I ain't saying good-bye, son, just so long for awhile," the big lawman choked out.
Their big hands clasped, their eyes met and locked--and held for a long moment. Nothing more needed to be said as their looks made clear their mutual feelings for each other.
Matt gathered the lead rope for his packhorse, toed a stirrup and swung into the saddle. His black stallion pranced in place and tossed its big head, seemingly anxious to get on the trail.
J.C. leaned against a hitching rail, his gaze intent on his boot toe scraping a line in the dust. Was that a tear Matt saw the sheriff swipe from his eyes? Mr. and Mrs. Jamieson stood side by side on the boardwalk. Down the street, Matt saw the old Doc pause to wave good-bye before stepping into his little black buggy. All along the street, folks stopped what they were doing to watch the rider as he rode slowly down the street. Little puffs of dust rose from the stallion's hooves as he high-stepped sideways. The calm little pinto followed obediently along behind.
Matt rode slowly and watched closely as he passed J.C. and Molly's little house, hoping his young friend would change her mind, but understood when she didn't.
He was well past her house when he heard a door slam and footsteps running. Twisting in his saddle, he saw Molly, her long pigtails flying in the breeze as she ran down the street after him.
Reining up, he reached down and gathered the sobbing girl into his arms, lifting her up onto the saddle in front of him.
"Don't cry, Little Bit, I'll be back before you can shake a stick, then you can make me another of those apple pies."
"Please... don't... go!" she choked out. "I'm afraid if you go... I might not ever see you again... I don't want you to go."
"I know, honey." he swallowed down a big lump in his throat. "This is something I've gotta do for my wife and little boy. I want you to promise me something, okay? I want you to take good care of J.C. for me while I'm gone. I've grown mighty fond of both of you. Will you do that for me?"
"I promise," she said, moving a finger across her chest, "and cross my heart. But you've got to promise to come back to us. Is it a deal?"
"It's a deal." He kissed her freckled cheek and set her down onto the street. As he turned his horse and rode away, he could hear her beautiful, quivering voice calling out behind him.
"I love you, Matt Henry! I love you, Matt Henry! I love you, Matt Henry!"
Gradually, the tiny voice faded into the distance from his hearing, but would never fade from the memory of his heart. It would be lodged there forever. He clamped his jaw, swiped a tear away with the back of a gloved hand and set his face toward the task that lay before him.
It had been quite a spell since he had spent any time on his horse. The animal tossed its head and pulled at the reins, aching to run. Matt's mind went back to the first time he had seen the big black stallion. It was in the hills of Arizona, only days after his release from Yuma Territorial Prison. Matt had been coaxing along the broken-down nag he had bought with the ten dollars he had been given on release, going nowhere and taking his time doing it.
The sight took his breath away. Standing on the top of a butte, keeping a close eye on its herd of mares in the valley below, stood the most beautiful horse Matt had ever laid eyes upon. A stiff breeze lifted its long mane. The afternoon sun bounced off the coal black coat and set it aflame, casting a golden aura around the big stallion. He knew right then and there, he had to have that horse.
It had taken two months of hard work to capture the stallion and another month of even harder work breaking him to ride, but the reward had been well worth the effort. The big stallion was the envy of every man that saw it.
The sun was well past noon-high when he topped a pine-covered hill overlooking their little farmhouse in the distant river valley. Reigning up, he swallowed down a big lump and gazed for a long minute at the place that held so many happy memories.
Grassy pastures where horses should be grazing peacefully, lay empty. Their chimney, which should have been trailing lazy plumes of puffy smoke, sending signals of life and activity and a welcoming invitation to all, stood lifeless and silent and cold.
Matt wiped an eye with the back of a gloved hand and kneed his mount forward to a reunion with hurtful memories that flashed to the forefront of his troubled mind.
As he rode slowly sadness overwhelmed him. Except for the smashed front door, one would never have guessed the tragic things that happened here.
A soft squeaking sound drew his attention. A gentle breeze pushed an empty tree swing in the big oak tree back and forth, as if lonely for the happy little sandy-haired boy that had spent so many hours in it.
For long minutes he sat motionless in the saddle. He stared off into the sky at nothing. Midnight stood quietly, unusual for the big stallion, as if he somehow sensed his master was waging a battle within himself. A battle whether to turn and ride away, sparing himself the hurt that would surely come with going inside, or from somewhere deep within, finding the strength to go inside.
Setting his strong jaw in grim determination, he swung resolutely from the saddle, ground hitched his horse and climbed the three steps onto the porch. He hesitated for only an instant, again fighting off the urge to run away, before stepping through the open door.
An avalanche of painful memories swept over him, flooding his mind, reliving the events all over again. He staggered backwards under the weight of the hurt. His back pressed against the wall.
In his mind the room was again full of men, ugly men, evil men. A surprised look on their faces quickly turned to hatred at Matt's sudden entry. The tangled web of events had played out in mere seconds, but the results would last forever.
His gaze swept the room. What he saw was a picture of destruction. Just as J.C. had said, what they hadn't taken, they had destroyed. The table smashed, chairs in broken pieces, Amelia's china cabinet which had held her precious dishes, overturned, its contents broken and scattered about the cluttered room. Everything they had worked so hard for was gone.
The outlaws had taken everything of value, unless... unless they might have overlooked the loose rock in the fireplace behind which Amelia had squirreled away their meager savings. His gaze swung toward the fireplace, but in doing so, fell upon the spot he had purposely avoided.
A large, brownish stain still discolored the wooden floor where she had lain. A sharp pain shot through him like a bullet and found lodging in his heart. His strength drained from him as he slid down the wall until he sat on the floor, his head buried in his hands, weeping uncontrollably.
Sometime later he swiped at his face with a sleeve, wiping away the wetness left by tears stored up over a lifetime of hurt. Even with all he had been through in his life, he hadn't allowed himself to cry since he was six years old. Living with the Apache, he had learned to hold his emotions in check. In their view, crying was for squaws and babies.
He struggled to pull himself to his feet and on shaky legs, made his way over to the fireplace. Unbelievably, the thieves had somehow overlooked the loose rock. Lifting it out, he retrieved the small leather pouch. He knew without looking it contained exactly eighty-two, hard saved dollars—their life savings. Amelia had called it their emergency savings.
Turning on his heels, his eyes fixed straight ahead, he strode from the room.
As he stepped from the porch, he paused and picked two handfuls of flowers from Amelia's little flowerbed she had been so proud of. Then, like a condemned man on his way to the gallows, he made his way up the small hill behind their house.
A small wooden cross stood at the head of each grave. The loose dirt still looked fresh and rounded to a small mound. Hat in hand, he dropped to one knee and gently placed a bouquet on each grave.
His mind flooded with a thousand memories. Memories of life—and love—and laughter. Memories of happy times and quiet times and times of closeness like he had never known before. Memories of dreams shared, of plans made, of small achievements celebrated.
Kneeling there, he realized, perhaps for the first time, these were the moments he must hold on to. He must cherish the good times and live in spite of the bad. Placing one hand on each of the graves, he renewed his promise to them. He would find those responsible and see that they were brought to justice.
Rising, he jammed his hat onto his head and set his jaw in grim determination. Without looking back, he strode quickly down the hill to his waiting horses, swung into the saddle and pointed the big stallion's nose down-river.