Stamping Groundby Loren D. Estleman
Deputy U.S. Marshall Page Murdock isn't happy when Judge Blackthorne decides to send him on an assignment to north Dakota. He passed through the territory once before and is not eager to return to a land of sudden blizzards and spring floods. And to make matters worse he has been handed the nearly impossible job of apprehending the renegade Cheyenne leader Ghost… See more details below
Deputy U.S. Marshall Page Murdock isn't happy when Judge Blackthorne decides to send him on an assignment to north Dakota. He passed through the territory once before and is not eager to return to a land of sudden blizzards and spring floods. And to make matters worse he has been handed the nearly impossible job of apprehending the renegade Cheyenne leader Ghost Shirt, who is responsible for several massacres in the area.
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By Loren D. Estleman
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 1980 Loren D. Estleman
All rights reserved.
"Simmer down, Page. Northern Dakota isn't the end of the world."
As he spoke, Judge Blackthorne ran the fingers of his gavel hand through his raven chin-whiskers. I suppose he thought that made him appear wise and fatherly, but the effect was more satanic than usual. His gaunt, Lincolnesque features were set off by steady gray eyes with soaring brows and a high, shiny forehead peaked with a great mane of black hair of which he was more than a little vain, there being not a breath of silver in it. His dress when he was not on the bench was dudish: Prince Albert coats and Vanderbilt ascots tucked inside the collars of ruffled shirts and secured with a tiny golden horseshoe studded with diamond chips. His resemblance to Lucifer was heightened by a constant, tight-lipped smile. Something had gone wrong with his teeth when he was down in Mexico helping the U.S. Army show the natives their error in refusing to cede several hundred million acres of land now known as California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Wyoming to their neighbors to the north. He had a nice new set of white porcelains, but found them uncomfortable and never wore them except when eating or in the courtroom; they made a most authoritative clack when he set his jaw. The result when he smiled without them was straight out of Paradise Lost. The last time he had presented me with this particular expression was during the Panic of '73, just before he cut my salary. And now he was telling me that northern Dakota was not the end of the world.
"That's easy for you to say," I retorted. "You aren't going there."
I'd almost said, "You've never been there," but changed my mind. I was fairly certain he hadn't, but he was forever surprising me, bringing forth reminiscences I hadn't known he possessed to support his argument, and I wasn't about to blunder into that trap. If he had visited our neighboring territory, however, he knew why I objected to going there. I'd passed through Dakota on a cattle drive to Montana six years before and had seen enough of sudden blizzards, spring floods, and Mormon crickets to last a lifetime. When I'd learned at the end of the drive in Helena that the trail boss was planning to return to the ranch along the same route, I'd turned in my rope and taken the first job that was offered me, namely that of deputy U.S. marshal for the court of Judge Harlan Blackthorne in the territory of Montana, the place of my birth. Neither his nor the usurped power of President Rutherford Birchard Hayes was going to make me go back without a damned good reason.
He busied himself with the case records on his broad oaken desk. The one on top dealt with a French Canadian fur trapper who had been apprehended in Deer Lodge trying to sell a load of beaver skins bearing the mark of a small band of Blackfeet found murdered the month before near the Canadian border. But Blackthorne had sentenced the Canuck to hang earlier that week, so I knew he was stalling.
I sighed and sat down in the straight-backed wooden chair that faced his desk, hanging my hat on my knee. Daylight shone through a ragged rent in the crown where a renegade Crow had come within an inch of separating my scalp from my skull with a tomahawk before I altered his plans with three grouped shots from my English revolver in the center of his face. "All right, spill it. What's the real reason you're sending me?"
He pretended to interest himself in the case of the executed trapper a moment longer, then abandoned the pose. He had a keen sense of the absurd, which was one of the reasons I tolerated him as an employer. Our gazes locked.
"I owe a friend a favor," he said at length. "Abel Flood, the federal judge in Dakota, is an old classmate. If not for his intervention on my behalf, I would have lost the appointment in Helena back in sixty-four to a young pup from North Carolina." He drawled the name of the state exaggeratedly. His contempt for the South was equaled only by his distrust of youth in general. "He's short on marshals at the moment — they've all been gobbled up by the army for scouts, the Indian situation being what it is — and he's called in my marker. I promised him my best man. You're going to Bismarck."
"Is that supposed to be an argument on your side? I'm supposed to drop everything and go to that privy-pit because you owe somebody a good turn? I thought you knew me better than that."
"You wanted the truth. Besides, it can't be as bad there as you paint it. I understand the territory's going through the biggest land boom in its history."
"The railroads can sell manure to hog farmers."
That isn't exactly the way I said it, but a thing like that sounds better in person than it looks on the printed page. He rose. When he did that he lost a good deal of his authority. In a pair of high-heeled Texas boots he would still have had to stretch to see over a five-and-a-half-foot fence. It was his turn to sigh.
"I wish you'd be a little more co-operative about this, Page. You know how much I hate to pull rank."
"About as much as a whore hates to charge."
"You leave me no choice." He donned his courtroom scowl. "Page Murdock, I'm placing you under arrest for the murder last year of Lucas Church, the bounty hunter."
That one took me by surprise. "It won't wash," I said, after the shock had worn off. "You know as well as I do that that was a case of self- defense. He was trying to take Bear Anderson away from me for the bounty when I was bringing him in on the scalp-hunting charge. I turned in a detailed report at the time."
"It will be introduced as evidence."
"A case like that will take a week to unravel!"
"More like six. The wheels of justice grind slowly and exceedingly small."
"What will I live on in the meantime?"
"Bread and water, most likely. That's up to the jailer. Of course, I could take another look at your report and reconsider the case."
"While I'm in Dakota?" No answer. I glared at him. "Did you ever find out who your father was?"
"Be sure and pack your waterproof," he said, plainly fighting off the return of the diabolic smile. "I'm told it's wet on the Missouri Plateau this time of year."
Here I had the choice of complying or handing in my badge and being done with it. He had no case and he knew it. But I'd found my niche and, in what the papers back East referred to as the "emerging West," jobs were scarce for thirty-five-year-old ex-rawhiders who knew nothing but how to handle a rope and where to place a bullet so it will do the most good. I could always cheat on my expenses. Anyway, six years was a long time. Maybe Dakota had changed. And maybe elves lived in General Grant's beard.
It was mostly steamboat travel from Helena down the Missouri to the railhead of Bismarck. It would have been rail all the way had not the Panic ground construction and just about everything else to a halt five years before, but wishing didn't straighten out the bends in the river. My fellow passengers, aside from a group of close-mouthed prospectors on their way to the gold strikes in the Black Hills, included an aged Scandinavian with a two-word English vocabulary and a battered brass trumpet screwed constantly into his left ear, and a woman who was on her way to visit her husband, the adjutant at Fort Abraham Lincoln. Neither had much to say in any language, both were ugly, and the only thing we appeared to have in common was an all-consuming dread of our destination.
I didn't recognize the place when I got there. The tent town I had passed through riding drag for Ford Harper, then known as Carleton City, had given way since the coming of the trains and the gold rush of 1874 to a city of neat wooden and log buildings, every other one a saloon, complete with courthouse and the requisite number of churches. In my time the settlement had been a mile or so farther downriver, but when the railroad came through in 1873 it was decided to move the tracks north of the ford to beat the land-grabbers out of their profit. When it came to stealing, the Northern Pacific brooked no competition. The new location was dubbed Point Pleasant, but troopers from nearby Fort McKeen called it Whiskey Point for obvious reasons. Gold mines opening around Deadwood two hundred miles south brought in the rough element, and the city's bloodstained history dates from that time. Now, construction was going on everywhere and the streets were jammed with traffic, evidence enough that the much-vaunted Dakota land boom was more than a figment of some railroad magnate's imagination.
I picked out a likely looking hotel from the dozen or so that confronted me upon leaving my torture cell of the past several days and struck off in that direction carrying my valise. It was a hot day for June — in northern Dakota it was unprecedented. Stepping into the narrow coolness of the shallow lobby was like plunging fully clothed into a lake. The room was deserted except for a sallow youth who sat behind the desk flipping through the latest dime novel from Fargo. He didn't look up as I approached.
The thud of my valise hitting the floor from two feet up brought him lazily to his feet. He marked his place in the novel with a forefinger. "Yes?" He was younger than I'd thought. He had long, slicked-back dishwater-brown hair and a thin face mottled with clusters of pimples. His eyelids drooped insolently behind steel-rimmed spectacles. The gray suit he was almost wearing had to have looked better in the catalogue or the fellow who had worn it before him would never have ordered it.
I asked for a room. His upper lip curled.
"We're full up. Happens every spring, when the prospectors come in from Deadwood to pick up equipment. Try us in September." He opened his book and started to sit back down.
"Tell me something." I leaned my elbows on the desk. This put my grimy, unshaven face inches from his relatively clean one. He paused, knees bent. "What would you do if an important visitor from another country showed up without warning and asked for a room?"
The lip curled farther. I decided that was his smile. "Well, in a case like that, I suppose we could always scrape up something."
I eased my gun from its holster and laid it atop the desk. "This was made in London. We room together."
His eyes dropped to the gun, then roamed the lobby, looking for law. That made him fresh from the East. After a few months on the frontier you get out of the habit. I grunted, reached inside my breast pocket, and plunked the tin star down beside the gun. One glance was enough. He swung the big register around, dipped a pen into his inkwell, and handed it to me.
I scribbled my name and flung down the pen, squirting watered-down ink over the page. "Where's the nearest tub?"
"The Chinese Baths are just around the corner." He frowned at the spots on the yellowed cream paper. Then the lip curled again. "Of course, there's Amity Morgan's place on Third Street. If you're not too tired —"
"I'm too tired." I put away the gun and badge, lifted my valise, and headed toward the stairs, leaving him there with his mouth open. Apparently there were some things you didn't admit to in Bismarck, and being too tired for a roll between perfumed sheets was one of them. I was too tired to care.
The End of Track Saloon, located at the north end of Mandan Street, was as new as its name. Construction was still going on inside and the smells of fresh lumber and turpentine held their own against the more insidious odors of beer and sweat and brimming spittoons. It was dark inside, oil being sold at gold-rush prices out here where it was hard to get. I welcomed its cool interior even more than the hotel's, since the Chinese Baths had opened my pores and I was sweating freely beneath my clean clothes. Even at that early hour the place was packed. Gritty miners up from Deadwood literally rubbed elbows with fat land speculators just off the train and dusty troopers on leave from the adjacent Fort Lincoln. I shouldered my way up to the bar and shouted for whiskey over the clatter of the carpenters' hammers. A bartender with furry forearms and heavy Prussian features splashed amber liquid into an un-chipped glass, shoved it at me, and scooped up the coin I dropped without a wasted movement. I wondered if he was one of the immigrants a destitute Northern Pacific had lured there by naming the settlement after Germany's Iron Chancellor. If he was, it didn't look as if he thought he'd gotten the best of the deal.
Liquor in a new glass was too rare a thing to waste at a crowded bar. I had beaten two unsuccessful-looking prospectors to a freshly vacated table in the far corner and was toasting my good fortune when a pair of hand-tooled Mexican boots with a man standing in them stopped beside my chair. I ignored him and went on drinking. There was a good deal of Missouri River in with the Minnesota whiskey.
It was a declaration rather than a question. Something about the tone in which it was delivered lifted the hairs on the back of my neck. I raised my eyes from the glass as slowly as possible. That trick had saved my hide more than once, for the tension it created could usually be counted upon to force the hand of a would-be gunslinger before he was ready. If it didn't, then I was up against someone with experience, which was good to know. This time it didn't. I raised them past pinstriped brown pants and a well-fed belly over which was buttoned a vest and a hip-length coat, to a huge black handlebar moustache and a vulture's beak of a nose the color of raw iron. A pair of bright blue eyes glittered beneath the shade of a black hat so new it gleamed in the pale light filtering through the open front door. There being no holster visible, I looked to the next most likely place and noticed a familiar bulge beneath the man's left armpit. I noticed something else as well: two points of a star poking out from under the lapel of his coat.
"I'm Murdock. Who are you?"
"A. C. Hudspeth, federal marshal, Dakota Territory. I got a complaint you threatened a hotel clerk a little while ago with a gun."
"It got heavy in my holster. I put it on top of the desk to rest. Like this." I lifted the five-shot .45 from my lap and deposited it, still cocked, atop the table. His buzzard's beak turned crimson.
"Where's your badge?"
I flashed metal.
"Why don't you wear it?"
"For the same reason I don't paint a big red bull's-eye on the back of my coat."
"You need a lesson in good manners," he said. "Judge Flood's expecting you over to the courthouse. He's been waiting ever since we got word an hour ago you were in town. He don't like to be left hanging."
"Neither do most of the defendants in his court. But that doesn't keep them off the scaffold."
That was a shot to the groin. Abel Flood's record of hangings was no worse than that of any other judge in the territories, where prisons were a long way apart and lumber for building gallows came cheaper than armed escorts. But when they leave openings like that, I leap through.
All of Hudspeth's emotions showed in his nose, which was beginning to resemble a railroader's lantern. It was a knotted lump of flesh trussed like a rodeo calf with hundreds of tiny burst blood vessels. You saw a lot of noses like it in canteens throughout the West, not uncommonly on men who wore badges, but seldom on federal marshals, who, like cavalry officers, were usually selected for their heroic good looks and little else. I decided he was probably a pretty good lawman, because he certainly had nothing else going for him. I might even have admired him if he weren't such a pain. I let him stew while I tossed down the rest of my drink the way they do in the dime novels, in one confident jerk. You could do that when most of it was water.
His voice was choked, as if he'd emptied the glass himself. "If you're through, the judge wants to see you. Now."
I took just enough time leathering the five-shot and getting up to let him know what I thought of his implied ultimatum without seeming self- conscious about it. I found when I stood that he had a couple of inches on me and that I'd been all wrong in thinking him soft. Although he was thick in the middle, his weight was pretty evenly distributed upon a heavy frame, and solid. His eyes were as clear and bright as bullets fresh from the mold.
Excerpted from Stamping Ground by Loren D. Estleman. Copyright © 1980 Loren D. Estleman. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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*lays xavior in his crib n kisses him on duh forhead after feeding him *
Imagine Raymond Chandler writing a novel set in the Old West and you get an idea of the flavor of this book. Estleman has always been a pro at keeping the action going whether he's writing a PI novel or a Western. Sometimes the plot gets a bit implausible but you are probably rading this for fun so you won't be disappointed. The prose and style are very good and that is a bonus.