MAJOR TAPPAN DUVARNEY rested his hands on the rail and stared toward the low sandy shore. It was not what he had expected of Texas, but whatever lay ahead represented his last chance. He had to make it here or nowhere.
He listened to the rhythmic pound and splash of the paddle wheels and looked bleakly into the future. Behind him lay the War Between the States and several years of Indian fighting with the frontier army; before him only the lonely years at some sunbaked, windswept frontier post, with nothing to look forward to but retirement.
When the war had broken out he was a young man with an assured future. Aside from the family plantation in Virginia, his father owned a shipping line trading to the West Indies and Gulf ports—four schooners and a barkentine, and good vessels all.
Tap Duvarney had made two trips before the mast on the barkentine, had taken examinations for his ticket, and had made two trips as third mate, one aboard a schooner, the other on the barkentine. His father wanted him to know the sea and its business from every aspect, and Tap liked the sea. He had taken to the rough and rowdy life in Caribbean ports as if born to it.
The war changed all that. His sympathies and those of his family were with the Union. He had gone north and joined up. Renegades had burned the plantation buildings and run off the stock; one schooner had been lost in a hurricane off this very coast, two others had been confiscated by the Confederacy and sunk by Union gunboats. The barkentine had disappeared into that mysterious triangle south of Bermuda and left nothing behind but the memory. The last schooner, beat and bedraggled, had burned alongside the dock when the war came to Charleston. Tap Duvarney returned from the war saddled with debts, his father dead, his home destroyed.
There seemed only one thing to do, and he did it. He went back to the army and a series of frontier posts. During the nine years following the war he fought Indians from the Dakotas to Arizona. He managed to keep his hair, but picked up three scars, one from a knife, two from bullet wounds.
Finally, his father's estate had been settled and he emerged from the shambles with a bit more than seven thousand dollars.
It was then he heard from Tom Kittery.
CAPTAIN WILKES STOPPED beside him now on his way to the pilot house. Duvarney knew that Wilkes was worried about him, and genuinely wished to help. The captain was a good man who had served on one of his father's ships.
"You'll find Texas a fast country, Major. Do you have friends here?"
"One . . . so far as I know. I met him during the war."
"You haven't seen him since? That's quite a while, Major. Is that the man you've gone into partnership with?"
Duvarney thought he detected a doubtful note in Wilkes's voice, and he was not surprised. He was a bit doubtful himself from time to time.
"I know the man, Captain. Whatever else he may be, he's honest . . . and he's got guts. I go along with that."
"The cattle business is good," Wilkes said. "Indianola has been the biggest cattle-shipping port in Texas for a good long time, so I've had a good deal to do with it. I may know your partner."
"Kittery . . . Tom Kittery. Old Texas family."
"Kittery, is it? Yes, he has guts, all right. There isn't a man in Texas would deny that. And he's honest. But speaking as a friend, I'd never leave the ship, if I were you. Come on back to New Orleans. You're a good man, and you know the sea. We'll find something for you there."
"What's wrong with Kittery?"
"With him? Nothing . . . nothing at all." Wilkes glanced at Duvarney. "I take it you haven't heard about the feud?"
Wilkes paused, then went on. "You're walking right into the middle of a shooting war . . . the Munson-Kittery feud. It has been going on since 1840 or thereabouts, and from the moment it is discovered that you are associated with Kittery you'll be a prime target."
"I know nothing about any feud."
"You say you knew Kittery during the war? He may have thought the feud was a thing of the past because it seemed to be over. Until the Kittery boys left for the war there hadn't been any shooting for several years.
"In the years before the war the Kittery faction numbered some of the toughest, ablest fighting men in Texas; so the Munsons laid low and played their music soft. And when the Kittery boys went off to war, the Munsons stayed home.
"Even so, they kept quiet until Ben was killed at Shiloh. That started them stirring around a bit, but it wasn't until Tom was captured—reported dead, in fact—that they began to cut loose.
"They ran off a bunch of Kittery cattle, then burned a barn. Old Alec, Tom's uncle, rode out after the Munsons and they ambushed him and killed him. After that they really cut loose. They killed two Negro hands who had worked for the Kitterys for years, and burned the old home—one of the oldest houses on the coast.
"Cattle were beginning to be worth money, and the Munsons thought they were rich on Kittery beef. Only somebody stampeded the biggest herd one night and ran them into the Big Thicket. Well, you don't know the Thicket, but finding cattle in there is like hunting ghosts. The Munsons never were much on hard work, and rousting those steers from the Thicket would be the hardest kind of work. So the steers, and a lot of other cattle, are still in there."
"Maybe those are the cattle I bought," Duvarney commented ironically. "It's my luck."
"Are you wearing a gun?" Wilkes asked.
"I have one." As a matter of fact, he had two guns. "From what you've said, I should be wearing one."
"You should." Wilkes straightened up. "I'm going up to take her in, but my advice to you is: stay on the ship. . . . If you do leave her, be ready for trouble. They laid for Johnny Lubec, and they laid for Tom. They were waiting for him when the boat docked . . . my boat."
Wilkes smiled grimly. "Tom was no fool. I told him what had happened to Johnny, so he left the ship as we were going past the island, entering the bay.
"The fog was thick that morning, and he lowered himself over the side on a raft we'd built for him, and paddled ashore. He slipped ashore on Matagorda Island, and nobody knows the island better than Tom. It's long, but so narrow you wouldn't think a man could hide there, but he managed it. Anyway, he was still alive the last time we were here, and I hope he still is."
"You mentioned Johnny Something-or-other?"
"Lubec. Johnny wasn't a Kittery, just an orphan kid they took in and treated like one of the family. Folks said that Johnny's pa was one of the Jean Lafitte pirates . . . they had a hideout on Matagorda themselves and used to careen their ships on the landward beaches.
"Anyway, Johnny grew up with the Kitterys, so when he came home the Munsons were laying for him. They shot him down and left him for dead, then went off to have a drink, and Johnny crawled away. He got to the house of an old Indian who lives on Black Jack Point, and the Indian cared for him.
"The Munsons were fit to be tied when Tom gave them the slip. If they'd known Tom was alive they would never have reopened the fight, not even with Jackson Huddy or the Harts around to help. At that, they almost got Tom."
"Tom rode over to his old home. Nobody had told him the place was burned out, and I guess he figured some of his people might be there. He rode home and the Munsons were laying for him. They heard him coming and shot him out of the saddle, put two bullets into him.
"Jim Hart and two renegade riders of the Munson crowd were there, and when Tom fell they just knew they had him. They ran in on him and he killed one of them and burned Hart a couple of times. Then he crawled to his horse, pulled himself into the saddle, and rode off.
"Tom must have figured he was dying, or he wouldn't have done what he did. He rode to the Munson place and hollered up the folks. Well, they'd no idea Tom was even alive. Word hadn't got back from Indianola yet, so old Taylor Munson, the bull of the woods, came to the door. Tom told him who he was, and shot him down. And then Tom dropped from sight."
Tap Duvarney stared gloomily toward the nearing shore. He had bought a partnership in a herd of cattle to be driven to Kansas . . . not a feud. He wanted no part of it.
"Months went by," Wilkes went on, "and nobody saw hide nor hair of Tom. The Munsons hunted him high and low, and finally they were ready to believe he was dead. Cattle had become big business, so the Munsons rounded up a herd and started for Kansas. When they were close to Doan's Store, Dale Munson rode over to pick up the mail and some tobacco, and ran right into Tom Kittery.
"First any of the Munson crowd knew of it was when Dale's horse came into camp with Dale tied over the saddle. There were two bullet holes in Dale's chest you could cover with a silver dollar."
"You mentioned a Jackson Huddy," Duvarney said.
"He's a killer. Some say he's kin to the Munsons. Anyway, he runs with them, and after old Taylor Munson was killed Huddy sort of moved into command. And I mean it is a command.
"When it looked like the fight was going their way, Munsons began showing up from all over. I'd say there were forty or more gun-packing men in the clan. And they've played it smart. Two of their kin are elected to office, a sheriff and a judge. Another one is a deputy over to Victoria."
When Wilkes had finished speaking he went to the pilot house, and Tappan Duvarney lingered by the rail.
He had no choice, he was thinking. Every cent he owned beyond what he carried in his money belt—and that was little enough—was invested with Tom Kittery, who was supposed to be buying cattle and hiring an outfit.
It was an odd friendship that had developed between the two men. Tap Duvarney, then a lowly lieutenant in the Union forces, had been sent south on a secret mission. His southern accent was perfect for it, as was his knowledge of the country. Trouble developed when he ran into Captain Tom Kittery. He captured Tom, but he was more than a hundred miles from the nearest Union outpost.
He had a choice of turning Tom loose, which would mean his own pursuit and capture, shooting him in cold blood, or trying to take him back. Tap Duvarney decided on the last.
On the way, although Tom was continually trying to outwit Tap and escape, the two developed a respect and a liking for each other. During the long hours en route, Tom talked a good deal of Texas and the cattle business, suggesting that if they came out of the war alive they should become partners. And that had been the beginning of it.
Walking back to his cabin now, Tap Duvarney dug down into his sea chest and got out a Russian .44 Smith & Wesson. The holster was worn from use, but he belted it on. He hesitated a bit over the second pistol, then thrust it into his waistband.
Pausing before the mirror, he straightened his cravat, and studied the hang on his coat to see if the pistol showed a bulge. It did not.
For a moment then, he looked at himself.
What he saw was a lean, spare-built man with a brown, quiet face and hazel eyes. His shoulders were broad, and the coat fitted admirably. He was, he thought wryly, what he had heard people say of him: "a handsome man," or "a fine figure of a man." He was also a man of thirty-three with a wealth of experience, and nothing to show for it but the scars. When most men of his age were well established in their life work, he had nothing, was nothing.
He had found it all too easy to slip into the routine of army life, but the peacetime army offered little chance for advancement, and he had been lucky to make major. He knew of many older men who had done just as much who were captains, and a few who were still lieutenants. But his early life had been geared to ambition, and he felt he must accomplish something, do something, make himself a better man, and his country a better place. This he had been taught as a child, this he still believed.
He turned from the mirror, gathered up his gear, and swung his sea chest to his shoulder with practiced ease. Then he picked up the carpetbag and walked out on deck, placing his things near the gangway.
Several passengers had come out on deck to watch the steamboat's approach to Indianola. Most of them he knew by sight, and had measured and catalogued them. All except two fell into familiar categories. One of these was a tall, wiry man in a tailored black broadcloth suit, a hawk-faced man with a saturnine expression, as if he viewed the world with wry amusement. The other was a girl.
She was young, and beautiful in the way a ranch girl is beautiful who does not know the skills or artifices of the city. She was blond, with blue eyes and a clear, fresh complexion, but she looked somewhat sullen now, and seemed to be approaching the Texas coast with no anticipation of pleasure.
Several times Duvarney had caught her eyes upon him, showing curiosity but nothing more. He lifted his hat. "Ma'am, I presume you are acquainted in Indianola?"
"Yes, I am," she answered. "My home is in Texas."
"A fine state, I've heard. I was wondering if you could tell me where I could locate Tom Kittery."
Her eyes were suddenly unfriendly. She looked at him, a hard, measuring glance. "If you are looking for Tom Kittery you will have to find him yourself. If there is anyone who knows where he is, I don't know about it."
"I see. Well, no harm done. I expect he will find me soon enough, when he knows I am here. He has enemies, I believe?"
Excerpted from Matagorda/The First Fast Draw by Louis L'Amour. Copyright © 2008 by Louis L'Amour. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.