Authors: Loren D. Estleman
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mi alma y mi salvaciÃ³n.
“These widows, sir, are the most perverse creatures in the world.”
âJoseph Addison (1712)
“Be wery careful o' vidders all your life.”
âCharles Dickens (1837)
had a grip that could crack corn and no chin at all under a beard that was like a fistful of nails fused together by rust. He had small sharp gooseberry eyes under straight brows, an aggressive nose, and fine hair plastered to his forehead in the classical style. He had on a fresh collar and there was something of the uniform in the way he wore his clawhammer coat and vest with no chain or decoration of any kind.
“Have a seat, Deputy. How is my old friend Harlan Blackthorne?”
“He's well, General. Your honor. He sends his regards.” The horsehair chair felt strange after the hard seats in the day coach. No Pullmans for a deputy United States marshal from Montana Territory.
The office was done up in that Spanish frontier style I'd gotten my first taste of the moment I crossed into New Mexico Territory and had my fill of long before I reached Santa Fe: brick-reinforced adobe, squaw rugs on a pine floor, and an oak desk as big as a porch with leather stretched drum tight across the top and secured with brass tacks the size of ten-dollar gold pieces. A walnut bookcase with glass doors contained mustard-bound law books, Bowdler's Gibbon, and at least ten copies of
At the window overlooking the plaza stood a beanpole in a ready-made suit, all elbows and Adam's apple, a big-eared, knob-knuckled Missouri farmer got up for Sunday with pomade in his hair and moustache. He was as red as a skinned rabbit and looked hard on fifty, which in that country meant he was closer to thirty. He regarded me with pale unfriendly eyes and made no move my way when Wallace introduced us.
“Page Murdock, this is Pat Garrett. Garrett's sheriff in Lincoln County.”
“Hard place.” I didn't recognize his name, although it was clear from the governor's tone I was supposed to.
Garrett said nothing. Wallace lowered himself into his leather swivel. “Mr. Garrett's here for my advice. Not as a politician or as a military man, but as an author. He's considering a book about his experiences and he has it in his mind I know something about the subject because of my little tale of the Christ.” He was being modest.
had been on sale barely a year and already shared a shelf with the Bible in most of the homes I'd visited.
I raised my brows politely. “Experiences?”
“Mr. Garrett shot and killed Billy the Kid last month down in Fort Sumner.”
I shook my head, feeling ignorant. Wallace stared, then sat back slightly and twitched his shoulders. “You wouldn't have heard of him up in your country, I suppose. The little bucktoothed killer put us through six kinds of perdition after that circus in Lincoln County.” He looked at Garrett. “Mr. Murdock rides for Judge Blackthorne up north. His employer and I served together in Mexico. He was a fierce campaigner then and if what I hear from Helena is true, he hasn't changed a great deal.”
Garrett was back looking out the window. I said, “He speaks well of your military record too, your honor. General.” What the Judge, who had also known the New Mexico governor when he was prosecuting the conspirators in the assassination of President Lincoln, had actually said was that as a lawyer Wallace proved a consummate soldier. He'd added that he couldn't write, either.
Wallace blushed exactly like a girl and fingered his whiskers. “I asked my publishers to send him a copy of the book. Did he read it?”
“Yes, sir. He said it was a splendid example of the current condition of American letters.”
“Yes. Well.” He cleared his throat. “Was there anything else, Mr. Garrett?”
The sheriff from Lincoln County said he guessed there wasn't and excused himself. His petal-soft Alabama drawl didn't go with the rest of him. He left without having spoken to me once and I never heard anything more from him until his book came out a year or so later. I read it and made up my mind there and then never to write one. One more promise I haven't managed to keep.
Wallace tugged a yellow telegraph flimsy out of a sheaf pinned to his desk by a bronze bust of Alexander and straddled his nose with a pair of egg-shaped spectacles to read it. “Harlan's wire says to expect you and to show you the same courtesy I would him. It says nothing else. I assume you're in Santa Fe on business.”
“Yes and no, General. Your honor.”
“âYour honor' is sufficient. I sent down the uniform after Appomattox. Which is it, yes or no?” He socked the spectacles into an oystershell case and snapped it shut.
“Well, it's business but not law business. I'm no longer in government service.”
“How old are you?”
“Forty next month.” I had to fish for it. I wasn't expecting the question.
“Only fancy men and laggards retire before age sixty. You don't dress well enough for the former and for a man who just spent forty-six hours on the rails you still move too quickly to pass for indolent. Were you dismissed?”
“Forty-eight,” I corrected. “We hit a cow. I handed in my badge and papers.”
“Differences, after all this time? Judge Blackthorne's wire says you've been with him six years. I'll warrant he's a difficult man, but surely by nowâ”
“Your honor, I'm too tired for tact. It isn't my strong suit when I'm fresh. I stand a whole lot less chance of tangling myself in my tongue if I speak directly.”
I sat forward, resting my forearms on the desktop. I saw then what he meant about not dressing gay enough to be kept by a woman with cash. The one good suit of clothes I wore for court and genteel travel needed brushing and my shirtcuffs were as raveled as old crepe. “Bear Anderson was a difficult man. You wouldn't have caught wind of him down here any more than I heard of your Billy the Kid. The Flathead Indians, what he left of them, were ready to stop hunting him and make him into a god when I pulled him down out of the Bitterroot Mountains four years ago and stood him on a scaffold. A one-eyed buffalo bull with a belly full of crazy weed and an arrowhead stuck under its tail is difficult. Judge Blackthorne is the cruellest, pigheadedest, most vindictive and contrary mother's son that ever trod cobble. That wasn't bad enough but some damn fool in Washington City saw fit to put a gavel in his hand and place him in sole charge of a territory bigger than most countries. It didn't improve his temperament.”
He might have smiled behind the beard. I couldn't tell for sure but there was humor in the sharp eyes, or what passed for it in that old-soldier circle. “And so you feel you've had your life's portion of Harlan A. Blackthorne and all his works.”
“It isn't just that. What with the war and trail herding and upholding the duly constituted law between Canada and old Mexico I've spent the best part of the last twenty years either too hot or too cold or too shot at, and most of it horseback. I'd like to try a town job for a while. I'm a fair hand with cards and I've been offered the chance to buy a half interest in a saloon down in Socorro County.”
“Congratulations, Deputy. That's good cattle country and they're prospecting for silver in the vicinity. You should do a fair trade. Unfortunately, I don't gamble and I've never trafficked in spirits. Just what is it you're expecting of me?”
“I'm not expecting anything, Governor. The Judge and I parted on friendly terms and he offered to put in a good word with you in honor of our long association. I'm told there's been trouble in Socorro County and the sheriff there has blocked the establishment of any new saloons until it sorts itself out. My partner, Junior Harper, doesn't feel that order will affect our transaction as the Apache Princess has been operating for six months, but the Judge thought I might benefit from a letter of reference signed by the governor of New Mexico Territory, just in case.”
“Attesting that you are a man of family and good character.”
“The character part, anyway,” I said. “I never did find tracks in that family country.”
He sat back again, not far, gripping the arms of his swivel. All those drills had pounded into him the posture of a Springfield rifle. “Word travels faster down here than you suppose, Deputy. Allow me to show you a popular item available at the mercantile down the street. I would that my book sold as well.” He took something out of the top drawer of the desk and placed it on top, square in the middle.
It was a pamphlet, bound in dirty yellow paper the size of a newspaper folded in quarters but not as thick. The cover bore a steelpoint engraving of a fierce fork-bearded jasper straddling a lathered horse. He had the reins clamped between his teeth and a hogleg belching fire in each hand. Ran the legend:
Being a True and Authentic Account of the Adventures of Page Murdock, the Lawless Lawman of Helena.
By Jack Rimfire
I grinned at the illustration. “I can't wear whiskers,” I said. “I tried but they come in all colors.”
“Are you acquainted with this fellow Rimfire?”
“Aaron Hookstratton's his right name. I ran him out of Helena last year after I shot Jordan Mercy. He was running a medicine show and seemed determined to foment a rebellion over Mercy. It sounds just like that counterfeit colonel to take his revenge in this way.”
Wallace sat silent for a long time. Then he jerked his head in a manner I took to be positive. “A good answer. Had you denied knowing him I might have assigned weight to his tale. There was either truth or bad blood behind it.”
“Does that mean you'll provide the letter of reference?”
“Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to grant Judge Blackthorne's request. It's a rare enough thing for him to make one.” He fished a gunmetal watch out of his vest. “Where are you stopping in town? I'll have the letter delivered tomorrow.”
“Don't trouble yourself, your honor.” I slid the cowhide wallet out of my coat, removed the letter the Judge had dictated, and spread it out on top of the nickel novel on the desk. It was damp from the long ride plastered to my ribs.
He put on his spectacles. “Indeed. Most glowing. I see he employs a type-writer. I had no idea the nineteenth century was so firmly entrenched that far north.”