U. S. Deputy Page Murdock is ordered by Federal Judge Harlan A. Blackthorne to Cape Hell, Mexico, to verify a report that former Confederate Captain Oscar Childress is raising an army to take over Mexico City--and then intends to turn north to rekindle the Civil War.
Childress, it seems, has the weapons, wealth, and moral compass to do it. Unable to talk himself out of the mission, Murdock heads south on a steam train named El Espanto--The Ghost.
With only Hector Cansado, an engineer who can't be trusted and Joseph, a Native American fireman with a few secrets of his own, Murdock hurtles through the murderous desert of a foreign land toward a man bent on wholesale massacre . . . unless Murdock can stop him.
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About the Author
Loren D. Estleman is the author of more than fifty novels, including the Amos Walker, Page Murdock, and Peter Macklin series. Winner of three Shamus Awards, three Western Heritage Awards, four Spur Awards and many other literary prizes. He lives outside Detroit with his wife, author Deborah Morgan.
Read an Excerpt
By Loren D. Estleman
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2016 Loren D. Estleman
All rights reserved.
Halfway back to civilization, Lefty Dugan began to smell.
It was my own fault, partly; I'd stopped on the north bank of the Milk River like some tenderheel fresh out of Boston instead of crossing and pitching camp on the other side. I was worn down to my ankles, and the sorry buckskin I was riding sprouted roots on the spot and refused to swim. The pack horse was game enough; either that, or it was too old to care if it was lugging a dead man or a month's worth of Arbuckle's. But it couldn't carry two, especially when one was as limp as a sack of stove-bolts and just as heavy. I was getting on myself and in no mood to argue, so I unpacked my bedroll.
A gully-washer square out of Genesis soaked my slicker clear through and swelled the river overnight. I rode three days upstream before I found a place to ford, by which time even the plucky pack horse was breathing through its mouth. In Chinook I hired a buckboard and put in to the mercantile for salt to pack the carcass, but the pirate who owned the store mistook me for Vanderbilt, and then the Swede who ran the livery refused to refund the deposit I'd made on the wagon. So I buried Lefty in the shadow of the Bearpaws and rode away from five hundred cartwheel dollars on a mount I should have shot and left to feed what the locals call Montana swallows: magpies, buzzards, and carrion crows.
The thing was, I'd liked Lefty. We'd ridden together for Ford Harper before herding cattle lost its charm, and he was always good for the latest joke from the bawdy houses in St. Louis; back then he wasn't Lefty, just plain Tom. Then he took a part-time job in the off-season blasting a tunnel through the Bitterroots for the Northern Pacific, and incidentally two fingers off his right hand.
Drunk, he was a different man. He'd had a bellyful of Old Rocking Chair when he stuck up a mail train outside Butte and was still on the same extended drunk when he drew down on me not six miles away from the spot. I aimed low, but the fool fell on his face and took the slug through the top of his skull.
Making friends has seldom worked to my advantage. They always seem to wind up on the other side of my best interests.
It was a filthy shame. Judge Blackthorne had a rule against letting his deputies claim rewards — something about keeping the body count inside respectable limits — but made an exception in some cases in return for past loyalty and present reliability, and I was one. It served me right for not allowing for Lefty's unsteady condition when I tried for his kneecap instead of his hat rack. The money was the same, vertical or horizontal.
To cut my losses, I lopped off his mutilated right hand so I could at least claim the pittance the U.S. Marshal's office paid for delivering fugitives from federal justice. I packed it in my last half-pound of bacon, making do for breakfast with a scrawny prairie hen I shot east of Sulphur Springs. I picked gristle out of my teeth for fifty miles.
The money from Washington would almost cover what I'd spent to feed that bag of hay I was using for transportation. After I sold it back to the rancher I'd bought it from just outside Helena, I was a nickel to the good. I rode the pack horse in town until it rolled over and died. I wished I'd known the beast when it was a two-year-old, and that's as much good as I've ever had to say about anything with four legs that didn't bark and fetch birds.
I spent the nickel and a lot more in Chicago Joe's Saloon, picked a fight with the faro dealer — won that one — and another with the city marshal — lost that one — and would have slept out my time in peace if the Judge himself hadn't come down personally to spring me.
"You'd better still be alive," he greeted me from the other side of the bars. "This establishment doesn't give refunds for bailing out damaged goods."
I pushed back my hat to take him in. He had on his judicial robes, but the sober official black only heightened his resemblance to Lucifer in a children's book illustration. I think he tacked the tearsheet up beside his shaving mirror so he could get the chin- whiskers just right. His dentures were in place. They'd been carved from the keyboard of a piano abandoned along the Oregon Trail, and he wore the uncomfortable things only when required by the dignity of the office. It was unlike him to go anywhere straight from session without stopping to change, especially the hoosegow. I was in for either a promotion or the sack.
"How's Ed?" I asked. The city marshal's name was Edgar Whitsunday, but only part of his first name ever made it off the door of his office. He'd been named after a dead poet, but being illiterate he sloughed off the accusation whenever it arose. He was a Pentecostal, and amused his acquaintances with his imperfect memorization of Scripture as drilled into him by a spinster aunt: I think my favorite was "I am the excrement of the Lord."
"He's two teeth short of a full house," Blackthorne said. "I told his dentist to bill Grover Cleveland."
"That's extravagant. What did you do with the rest of the piano?"
He scowled. The Judge had a sense of his own humor, but no one else's. "You realize I could declare court in session right here and find you in contempt."
"And what, put me in jail?" I looked at my swollen right hand. "At least I used my fists. Ed took the top off my head with the butt of his ten-gauge."
"You should be grateful he didn't use the other end." He sighed down to his belt buckle; it was fashioned from a medal of valor. Just what he'd done to earn it, I never knew. Even scraping forty years off his hide I couldn't picture him scaling a stockade or leading a charge up any but Capitol Hill. Probably he'd helped deliver the Democratic vote in Baltimore. "You cost me more trouble than half the men who ride for me. A wise man would let you rot."
"You make rotting sound bad." I slid my hat back down over my eyes. "Find somewhere else to distribute your largesse. This ticky cot is the closest thing I've had to a hotel bed since I rode out after Lefty."
"You can't refuse bail. Marshal Whitsunday needs this cell. The Montana Stock-Growers Association is in town, and you know as well as I those carpetbaggers will drink the place dry and shoot it to pieces."
"Good. I was getting lonesome."
"Shake a leg, Deputy. You're needed."
That made me sit up and push back my hat. He wouldn't admit needing a drink of water in the desert.
He said, "I'm short-handed. Jack Sweeney, your immediate superior, went over my head to Washington and commandeered all my best men to bring the rest of Sitting Bull's band back from Canada to face justice for Custer."
"They gave that bloody dandy justice at the Little Big Horn nine years ago. What's the rush?"
"Sweeney's contract runs out in September, and there's a Democrat in the White House." He held up a key ring the size of Tom Thumb's head and stuck one in the lock. "Go back to your hotel, clean up, and report to my chambers at six sharp."
"Since when do you adjourn before dark?"
"I swung the gavel on the Bohannen Brothers at four. You've got forty-five minutes to clean up and shave. You look like the Wild Man of Borneo and smell like a pile of uncured hides."
"How'd you convict the Bohannens without my testimony? I brought them in."
"They tried to break jail and killed the captain of the guard. That bought them fifty feet of good North Carolina hemp without your help."
"Bill Greene's dead?"
"I'm sorry. I didn't know you were close."
"He owed me ten dollars on the Fitzgerald fight. I don't guess he mentioned me in his will."
His big silver watch popped open and snapped shut. "Forty-four minutes. If I catch so much as a whiff of stallion sweat in my chambers, I'll fine you twenty-five dollars for contempt of court."
"Collect it from the stallion."
"That's twenty-five dollars you owe the United States."
I swung my feet to the floor, stood, wrestled for balance, and found it with my fists around the bars. "What's so urgent? Did we declare war on Mexico again?"
He looked as grim as ever he had during damning evidence. "What have you heard?"CHAPTER 2
When the Judge and I entered Whitsunday's office from the cells, the marshal was sitting in a captain's chair on a swivel with a pitcher of chipped ice at his elbow to ease the pain of his missing teeth. His big face behind its waxed moustaches looked like raw meat; but that was a chronic condition, having nothing to do with our recent difference of opinion.
"I'm sorry," I said, when he got up to fetch my gunbelt. "I only wanted to break your nose." It had already been twisted into so many configurations I didn't think one more would offend him; in another incarnation he'd tried his hand at prizefighting under the company name Paddy O'Reilly, and displayed with pride a rotogravure of himself in tights on the wall next to the gun rack. It had been my hard luck, when it came down to cases, to choose fists over firearms; although the butt of his shotgun had seemed too much in his favor. But then the Marquess of Queensbury couldn't pass a bank draught in the territories.
"Your aim hasn't improved since Butte, I guess," Whitsunday said.
I'd nothing to offer for that. Even in this age of telegraphy I'll never understand how news travels faster than a man on horseback; I'd thought my arrangement with Lefty Dugan less important than the cost of a wire. But a tale's a tale, which is how history gets written. I spend my leisure time reading Scripture instead. No one can argue with the Word and win.
I stopped at my hotel only long enough to grab my town clothes. At the Cathay Gardens I soaked off the sweat of two horses seasoned with forty miles of tableland and caught a shave in the King Alexander Tonsorial Parlor, making use of Minos Tetrakokis, the Judge's personal barber; charging both bills to the court, with a nickel tip. Evidently I was still employed.
The room Blackthorne used for his chambers was a stuffy varnished-oak box with a tattered Mexican flag tacked to the back wall, a large-scale map of the territory plastering the one adjacent, and the cracked and thumb-worn legal books he'd carried on his back over the Divide piled on his leather blotter. He scowled when he smelled the Parisian soap they used at the Gardens, and at the evidence of Tetrakokis' art on my pink cheeks; but he took his revenge.
"I understand they never found your bullet," he said. "It passed through his brain, down the alimentary canal, and out through the seat of his trousers, true as the Katy Flyer."
I worked the mechanism of his mahogany-paneled cabinet — a Chinese box it had taken me a year to figure out — and poured us each a tumbler of the twelve-year-old whisky he imported from San Francisco by way of Aberdeen. I handed him his and put down half my portion in a gulp. "I killed a man. A friend. He pulled me out from under a mare in the Yellowstone and pumped a half-gallon of river water out of my lungs. You came that close to losing the best deputy marshal you ever signed on."
"That would be Cocker Flynn; but point taken. I always wondered just where you developed your antipathy to our noblest beast of burden. Now I know."
"You're thinking of those civilized geldings tied up to that circus wagon you ride here in town. You can't know how it feels to be outsmarted by a creature with a pecan-size brain and a heart like stove black. That damn buckskin cheated me out of half a year's wages."
He sipped from his glass, carving deep hollows in his cheeks; the Steinway-ivory choppers were stored securely in the iron safe in the corner.
"With one breath you eulogize a friend, and with the next you complain about losing the bounty on his head. Have you any code of behavior, apart from your continued survival?"
I slid the travel-weary pocket Bible from inside my frock coat and laid my palm on the limp leather cover.
"That's your fault, your honor. You sent me to Texas in a clerical collar, purely as a pose, but it got under my skin. I had to read the book to quote from it."
He switched subjects like a yard engine.
"Are you aware of the name Oscar Childress?"
"'Women and Children' Childress?"
"An unfortunate sobriquet, possibly unearned. However, he'll most likely bear it to the grave, alongside the innocents slaughtered in Springfield, Missouri."
Legend said Childress — who'd given up a colonelship with the United States Army in order to serve as a captain under Jefferson Davis — had stopped a trainload of civilians just outside Springfield and ordered his men to shoot them all as enemies of the Confederacy. After the war he'd led a company of volunteers into Mexico to fight alongside Juarez. This time he won. But instead of being named to high office, he'd dropped out of sight. Some said El Presidente himself had had him executed as a threat to his own job.
"He's resurfaced," I said then.
For the second time in an hour I'd made the old man jump. "In the Sierras," he said; "an almost impenetrable place. Once again I ask, what have you heard?"
I savored the Judge's fine whisky, knowing how bitter the chaser was bound to be. He saved the best for the men he wanted to seduce into something they'd never agree to sober.
"I've been six weeks breathing nothing but Montana topsoil," I said, "and hearing no news, short of how the wheat crop's doing. I made a joke about Mexico, which put your bowels on edge, and figured out Childress is back among the living, because you brought him up. Why bother otherwise? With respect, your honor, I'd admire to get you in a hand of poker."
He drained his glass and set it down with a thump.
"I find it interesting you should bring up the game," he said. "It's a form of war, purer than chess because of the element of chance involved."
"Not the way I play it."
"Precisely. The expedition I've in mind has no place for straight shooting and fair play. War is what I said, and war is what we're looking at if Oscar Childress and our invidious State Department has their way. He's raising an army to capture Mexico City."
"Again? That country changes hands like a Yankee dollar."
"This time he's doing it for himself. Once he has control, he intends to add the Mexican Army to his band of irregulars and rekindle the Civil War."
"Oh, that." I drank.
"Pardon me, Deputy Murdock, but am I boring you with this latest threat to the union?"
"We don't know if it's the latest until tomorrow morning. Every time I open a newspaper, someone's fixing to bring back Fort Sumter. John Wilkes Booth was seen riding a cable car in San Francisco just last week. I read about it in the barbershop."
"Some important people are taking this one seriously. I've had wires from the District, each one a brighter shade of yellow than the last. I can only assume the authorities in the border states receive them in greater frequency; however, I take it a compliment to my record that I'm included at all. No doubt there's an ambassadorship for me, in some Godforsaken country on the other side of the world, if I capture Childress."
"You mean if I do."
He unstopped the bell jar containing the bullet-shaped cigars he ordered from Cuba for six bits apiece and set one afire.
"How's your Spanish?"
"Better than my Greek. I picked up some French on the Barbary Coast, but all that did was snarl up what little Mexican I had."
He blew a smoke ring. "You're trying to talk yourself out of an assignment."
"Without success." I finished my whisky and got up to pour myself another. It was clear I wouldn't be drinking anything but tequila for a long time.CHAPTER 3
"Childress is an enigma," Blackthorne said. "Graduated West Point at the top of his class, and in the meanwhile published a slim volume of poetry that drew the attention of the eastern elite; not the helmet-headed, wing-sprouting type of epic you might expect of a warrior, but rather a deep thinker on the order of Emerson. I don't expect you to grasp the meaning of all these names."
"I read The Conduct of Life in a lineshack one long winter. Half of it, anyway. The hand who left it used it to start fires."
"Indeed. I can't imagine you got much out of it."
I let him have his head there. The truth was Emerson might have been writing in Chinese.
He sat back and contributed to the nicotine stain on the ceiling. "To the men who rode down there with Childress, and to not a few of the locals, he's something of a god; a man you listen to rather than discourse with, and feel yourself the better for the exchange, however you come away unenlightened by it. Before the war, there was talk of running him for the U.S. Senate.
"He's a savant, of sorts; we're just not sure what: martial, literary, political, or scientific: I'm told he submitted a treatise on galvanization to one of those boards that finds such things of interest. After Juarez's victory, he sent a letter to the U.S. State Department, recommending we exploit the peons' near-worship of our civilization to annex Mexico."
"No wonder he went underground."
"No doubt his comments led to the assumption he'd been executed. He was already under suspicion for switching his allegiance from Emperor Maximilian to the revolutionists. His success in the field spared him punishment, but once he was no longer needed —"
"That's the problem with being a born general," I said. "There isn't much call for it once peace breaks out."
"Evidently he agrees. He appears to have spent the last eighteen years assembling his own private army, comprised of former revolutionists, the remnants of his original rebel force, and the Indians who inhabit the Sierra Madre Mountains twenty miles south of the Arizona border. That's the report, in any case."
Excerpted from Cape Hell by Loren D. Estleman. Copyright © 2016 Loren D. Estleman. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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