In the spring of 1896, after thirty years spent dispensing justice in the territory of Montana, Judge Harlan Blackthorne expires, leaving Deputy U.S. Marshal Page Murdock, his most steadfast officer, to escort his remains across the continent by rail.
The long journeyinterrupted from time to time by station stops for the public to pay its respects and for various marching bands to serenade the departed with his favorite ballad, “After the Ball”gives Murdock plenty of opportunity to reflect upon the years of triumphs and tragedies he’s seen first hand, always in the interest of bringing justice to a wilderness he, his fellow deputies, and the Judge played so important a role in its settlement.
As the funeral train chugs through prairie, over mountains, and across rivers once ruled by buffalo herds, Indian nations, trappers, cowboys, U.S. Cavalry, entrepreneurs, and outlaws representing every level of heroism, sacrifice, ambition, and vice, Wild Justice provides a capsule history of the American frontier from its untamed beginnings to a civilization balanced on the edge of a new and unpredictable century.
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He died pronouncing sentence in a double-homicide. The defense kept the appeals process going for six months because no one could agree on which hit the bench first, his gavel or his head.
That spring of 1896, Harlan A. Blackthorne had been the law in Montana for thirty years, its first federal judge and the last to claim complete jurisdiction over a territory the size of Spain. His presidential appointment limited his authority to crimes committed against the United States: mail-train robberies, Indian depredations, murders of federal employees crowning the list. Within days of donning the robes, he'd expanded that responsibility to include domestic killings, claim-jumping, goldbricking, road-agentry, and rape. Few complained: certainly not the overworked circuit judges whose swollen dockets he'd plundered, or the peace officers who were paid by the mile to deliver their captives to the territorial capital in Helena, or the victims and survivors of victims who kept track of the long-term and death sentences the carpetbagger from Washington handed out the way a Christian charity distributed King James Bibles.
His rivals in Congress launched periodic campaigns — usually at election time — to unseat him for overstepping his boundaries and downright abuse of power (of both of which he was guilty), but he'd served two terms there himself, collecting markers from some colleagues. A well-placed wire plowed a path through carloads of taxpayer-financed letters to constituents, filled as they were with righteous wrath on their account, like a locomotive through bone china. In this way (and with a dollop of old-fashioned Yankee blackmail), the Judge sat secure in his seat under seven presidents.
The harassment didn't stop with politics. Broadsides sprang up throughout the frontier offering as much as ten thousand dollars for Blackthorne's head, pledged by an uneasy coalition of robber barons, big-time rustlers, bushwhackers, redlegs, copperheads, rumrunners, gunrunners, and a well-known Chicago meatpacker driven into receivership by the Judge's enforcement of the quarantine on Texas cattle. The brains behind the bounty belonged to a ninety-pound pimp nicknamed Little Great Falls, who'd conducted personal business dealings with all the parties involved; they anted up the reward from their own treasuries. Although it was posted anonymously, all their names were known to their quarry within weeks. The men Blackthorne had recruited to enforce his decisions maintained an effective network of river-rats and spies scattered throughout the outlaw world.
He did nothing about it personally. He didn't have to.
His first act after settling in was to rag Washington for the funds necessary to assemble a platoon of deputies to assist the U.S. marshal appointed by President Andrew Johnson in maintaining the peace. Conceived in idealism but carried out pragmatically, this company consisted largely of men indistinguishable from those they were charged to bring to bear; with some lawmen of legitimate experience leavened in to establish order and placate the press.
They were not men to let the grass grow.
Having read accounts in the daily journals of his fellow financiers shot to death while resisting arrest, and of the unexpected suicide of the personal representative of a Chicago magnate in his hotel room in Deer Lodge, Little Great Falls decamped in haste to old Mexico, where he was cut to pieces by a woman he'd gone into business with in a Sonoran bawdyhouse.
When the character of many of his centurions came to light, and the opposition press cried for an investigation, Blackthorne was sanguine: "It isn't sufficient merely to comb out the lice; the treatment to eradicate them is necessarily caustic." In time, when it was noted that the names of marauders that had become fixtures in the newspapers had fallen away through conviction, execution, and an excess of lead in their diet, the cries ceased.
Blackthorne was small but rangy, with a big head made larger still by a rich growth of black hair and a Vandyke beard, never allowed to gray. His suits were tailored and cut for a younger man — and a dandy at that — but he took care of them so that they made fewer demands on his salary than a mail-order rig built to withstand ten years of daily wear. Several attempts to expose him as an embezzler based on his finery dashed themselves to pieces against the solid rock of his meticulous bookkeeping; cavalier as he was about his exercise of power, when it came to money he was as scrupulous as a spinster aunt. He'd supported himself during his unpaid apprenticeship with a Philadelphia law firm working for blacksmiths and wheelwrights, and in the last year of his life, when he'd drunk enough of his good imported Highland Scotch whiskey, could still out-arm-wrestle a fit man half his age when challenged beyond ignoring.
He'd passed the bar on a course of his own study and still owned the thumb-soiled volumes of Blackstone he'd bought one by one with what he'd managed to save living in a coldwater flat and bringing his luncheon to work; no two of them belonged to the same matched set. They'd made the journey with him to Washington and eventually Montana Territory in his army rucksack. His only vanity apart from how he dressed himself was the set of ivory teeth he'd had made to take the place of the ones he'd lost to the fighting and the fare south of the border. (He insisted they'd been carved by hand from the keys of a piano abandoned along the Oregon Trail; but I'd seen the box he kept them in when he wasn't wearing them, and it bore the name of a pharmaceutical manufactory in Boston stamped in gold.) He was devoted to his wife, a plump beauty when they'd met, but who'd grown absolutely stout by the time I knew her. He himself maintained his own lean figure by walking the heels off any subordinate who was fool enough to join him on his daily constitutional.
The lawless population hated him with the passion of a religious zealot. The Montanans old enough to remember what the place was like before he came, a wild, wooded, virtually unsettled wilderness, full of deep gorges and dense growth made to order for vermin to seek cover in, worshipped him in like measure. Easterners thrilled to read of his marshals' bloody skirmishes and the swift thistled shock of his hangmen's ropes snapping the spines of the unredeemed in the wire columns of The New York Sun, The Chicago Tribune, The Boston Journal, and in Harper's Weekly, secure in the thousands of miles that separated them from the events. His rivals schemed around the clock trying to find a way to tear him from his roots, or at least keep him too busy defending himself to pursue his offenses against the organized system of justice, but that same vast distance took the edge off every swing they took; by the time they gathered themselves to react to his most recent outrage, it was weeks old. As well pot at a star hundreds of years after its latest twinkle.
What did I think of him? I, who'd worked with him hand-in-glove longer than all the rest, and who knew him better than anyone — including Mrs. Blackthorne? He was a first-class son of a bitch. But how many men have you known who were first in their class at anything?CHAPTER 2
I got the word while waiting my turn in the chair at the King Alexander, the Judge's own tonsorial parlor. I was fresh back from Idaho and one of his wild-goose chases. The years had taken their toll; every muscle I had was threatening to secede and after three soakings in the Cathay Gardens I still smelled like an old cracked boot. I was determined to draw my bonus by charging the works, lavender and all, to Blackthorne's account. The Independent was trying to work up an uprising in the Lapwai Indian Reservation for the purpose of boosting circulation, so the discussion between the barber and the man he was shearing came filtered through my reading.
"'Hanged by the neck until you are dead.' His last words, so they say. Not too much round the ears, Minos. You made me look like a Mormon last time."
Two other customers were ahead of me, one immersed in The Police Gazette, the other fiddling with a cigar. They, the man in the chair, and the barber, a burly Greek whose bald head resembled an egg resting in a nest of salt-and-pepper facial growth, looked my way when I crackled the newspaper.
"Whose last words?" I said; although there was only one man for five hundred miles who could claim clear title to the phrase. I'd heard it a couple of dozen times when duty forced me to attend proceedings in capital cases.
The man, a telegraph clerk I recognized but whose name I'd never heard, agreed. "Well, who else? Old Scratch will have to fight for his seat now."
Not everyone in town shared a good opinion of the Judge. He was impatient with incompetence and sloth and took no pains to conceal the fact, and I knew from experience the clerk couldn't spell cat with Noah Webster at his side.
"The hell you say."
"You calling me a liar?"
"I don't know you well enough to say either way. Who did it?"
That went over well with the audience. When the belly laughs receded, the clerk in the chair blew his nose on the sheet covering him. "Well, you can pin that one on the Almighty, if you can get Him into the dock. But who's to sit in judgment on Him with the old goat dead?"
I left the shop then. Even if Blackthorne's credit hadn't run out with his passing, there would be no entertainment in sticking his estate with the bill. I went from there to Chicago Joe's, drank a hole through the middle of the afternoon, and may have spent some time upstairs with one or two of the hired girls; but the day was such a swirl of aching joints, sour-mash fumes, shrill laughter (some of it maybe mine), and the hurdy-gurdy of a tin-tack piano with one dead key, I can't swear to anything; although I have a vague picture of the back of my hand stroking a raw patch where I'd scraped a powdered cheek with my stubble, and of adding a cartwheel dollar to the others on a chest of drawers by way of apology.
Was I sad, relieved, or just struck stupid? The last, definitely. Had the Judge outfoxed the Mexican Army, both houses of Congress, and the entire outlaw population of Montana only to fall victim to divine will, like any common mortal? It was like looking west and finding the Rockies gone, leaving open plain all the way to the Pacific.
But I was back in my room, relatively sober, when the messenger came from the Widow Blackthorne.
* * *
"Delaware?" I had to get it out of my mouth. It tasted strange.
Beatrice Blackthorne jerked a nod. Her wattles kept moving for a season after. "Delaware, yes. He was born there. His family plot is there, and it's where he intended to be buried; and I alongside, when it comes my time. Thirty years in this savage place are penance sufficient. Whatever his sins, eternity seems excessive, or don't you agree?"
It was my turn to nod, and let her take that as a sign of concurrence; although if she cared to untangle her own language it could just as easily go the other direction.
It didn't surprise me that she had no ambition to lay her husband to rest in Helena. She'd never made a secret of her contempt for the town or its citizens or the territory — now the state — where it was located. What took me back was the place of his birth. That the Judge was a Yankee was the commonly accepted wisdom in a community divided between diehard Southern sympathizers and Union loyalists; that he should have come from the first state to ratify the U.S. Constitution — and therefore the most Yankee of all the Yankee states — seemed like rubbing the nose of the Confederacy in the thoroughness of its defeat.
Although he was far from the most diplomatic of men, he'd parried all questions concerning his true origins all these years; there were even some who suspected he'd hailed from one of those border regions where to declare an opinion for or against States' Rights, or to hesitate over the subject, was to invite personal injury. I'd heard he was the son of an unlettered Missouri farmer; but people will spin a tale just to plug a gap.
To me it didn't signify. I'd fought for the Union and had put the war ten years behind when I came to serve the court, intending to drift on after eight or ten months, twenty-one years ago. I had to admire this fresh reminder of the almighty strength of his resolve. Apart from the odd itinerant repertory troupe or medicine show, the sole diversion in early days was to wheedle out the life story of every stranger who wandered into town. A holdout of ten minutes was regarded the record. Three decades of silence belonged to the fantastic romances of Mr. Jules Verne.
I assumed she was confiding in me this guilty secret just to pass the hour before it was time to leave for the Benedictine Brothers Mortuary to sit in vigil with the remains and greet visitors who came to pay their respects. (The contract to prepare and usually bury condemned parties and prisoners who'd died in custody belonged to Hieronymus Japes & Sons, Undertakers, at government expense; but the Widow Blackthorne would have none of that.) We were by no means on intimate terms. She kept her distance from everyone connected with the court, excepting Erasmus Callaway, the U.S. prosecutor, and his wife, Dorcas, with whom the Blackthornes had attended church services. I'd been surprised she'd ask me to escort her and accompany her throughout the ordeal, and that she'd even known my name.
We sat in the close twilit parlor of the house she'd shared with her husband on a hill overlooking most of the city, chockablock with hard shield-back chairs, pedestal tables, lamps, layers of figured rugs, a pianoforte with chaste pantaloons cloaking its legs, and the smell of moth flakes. Most of the furniture had come, like the owners themselves, partway by rail, then aboard steamboats, ferries, coaches, and freight wagons in the days before the Northern Pacific track gangs discovered the vast black rectangle that stood between Wyoming Territory and the Dominion of Canada. I doubted the Judge had spent much time in that room. His tastes ran toward deep horsehair armchairs, plain oak, good cigars, peaty spirits, and auld Scottish hymns played on the great pipe organ in St. Sebastian's Presbyterian Church.
"Harlan and I embark for Wilmington morning after tomorrow," she said, breaking a long silence punctuated by the dry tick-t-t-tock of a Regulator clock; its speech impediment stood my skin-cells on edge. "You will be at the station at eight-fifteen."
That cracked me loose from my stupor. "Nothing would please me more, ma'am, but the porters are more than capable of loading your luggage." Which would include the Judge himself, in a rough cedar box. A peacock in life, the old hypocrite had left instructions to be committed to the earth in the humblest of shells; as if the show of meekness would take in his Maker.
"I am sure they are. You will accompany me on the journey home."
I'd spent that stuffy conversational lull stewing over where I'd go and what work I'd take up now; the midget magistrates Grover Cleveland would likely appoint to fill the void offered no incentive to stay on, and if the truth be told I was tired of haring after felons. Blackthorne, half-teasing, had threatened more than once to put me up for U.S. marshal, but desk duty was worse than riding fence, which itself was no match for a bullet in the brain, inflicted by myself. On the other hand, the cattle business was a young man's work, and the choices there were narrowing by the day as eastern conglomerates moved in on what was left of the open range, making do with fewer hands at lower pay. I was too old to have a dog in that fight.
All that considered, Delaware had reckoned nowhere in the muddle. I was born in a trapper's shack high in the Bitterroots. Cold Harbor, Virginia, was as far as I'd ever wandered from there, and I'd been too busy dodging Confederate grapeshot to study the culture. I'd never learn the language.
"Thank you for your faith, Mrs. Blackthorne. Any of the other deputies would serve as well or better. Jack Truewell was employed by the Pinkertons as a bodyguard. He got Jay Gould through the Panic alive, and he reads poetry."
"I was not aware of Mr. Truewell or his virtues. However, he is not the man my husband requested."
"In his letter of intent, witnessed by Mr. Gottlieb, his bailiff, and placed in Mr. Callaway's safe, to be consulted in the event of his decease. Along with this." She drew an envelope from the drawer of the drum table at her elbow and held it out.
I took it, goose that I was. It was small, about four by three inches, made of the heavy rag bond he'd ordered to replace the stationery used by his predecessors, j.p.'s who requisitioned coarse wood-fiber paper from the local mill, charged the absentee territorial governor for good vellum, and pocketed the difference. Page Murdock was written on it in the Judge's jagged, slashing hand. I broke the plain wax seal with a thumb and unfolded the contents with the name of the federal court embossed on the letterhead. More of that same impatient script followed.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Wild Justice"
Copyright © 2018 Loren D. Estleman.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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Table of Contents
I. The Judge Heads East,
II. Deeper Toward Dawn,
III. The Court Adjourns,
Books by Loren D. Estleman,
About the Author,