Authors: Loren D. Estleman
For Louise A. Estleman:
September 13, 1918âJune 30, 2002.
A swell prim, and now with God.
The Double Eagle
I was killing
a conductor on the Northern Pacific between Butte and Garrison when my orders changed.
He wasn't a real conductor. They all have bad feet, to begin with, and the three-inch Texas heels poking out of his serge cuffs caught my eye just before he tried to punch my ticket with an Arkansas toothpick the size of a sickle. I was half out of my seat and used the momentum to grasp his wrist, deflect the blade, and butt him under the chin, crushing the crown of a good pinch hat and making him bite through his tongue. He bled out both corners of his mouth. I drew my Deane-Adams awkwardly with my left hand, jammed it into his crotch, and fired.
He fell on top of me, there not being any other place to fall in a sleeping compartment. I had several pounds on him and I'm not a big man, but deadweight is deadweight. I was still climbing out from under when someone knocked at the door. In the throbbing echo of the .45's report, he might have been tapping on a door at the other end of the train.
I was plastered with blood from collar to knees when I opened the door. The Negro porter paled beneath his deep brown pigment at the sight of the blood and the revolver in my hand, but he had an old scar on his cheek that looked combat-related, a saber cut, and in any case, they're trained by Pullman not to panic easily. He held out a Western Union envelope.
“Wireless for Deputy Murdock,” he said.
I holstered the Deane-Adams, tore open the flap, and read while he took in the heap on the floor:
RETURN TO HELENA AT ONCE STOP YOUR LIFE IS IN DANGER
“That man ain't a conductor on this train,” said the porter.
“I guessed that when he tried to hack me open. Is there a detective aboard?”
“No, sir. We ain't been robbed on this run all year.”
“When do we get to Garrison?”
He had a little trouble thumbing open the lid on his turnip watch. “Eighteen minutes.”
“The town marshal's name is Krueger. He knows me. Send someone to tell him I'll need help with this extra baggage.”
“I needs to tell the conductor.”
“If that's his uniform, you might have trouble getting an answer.”
He dipped a knee and turned the dead man half over on his side. Then he stood.
“Yes, sir. Mr. Fenady was missing that there third button this morning. You reckon this fellow kilt him?”
“He didn't strike me as the bargaining kind. What's that?” I pointed to something on the floor that glinted.
He bent and picked it up. “It must of dropped out of his pocket when I turned him over.” He handed it to me.
It was a double eagle, solid gold, the size of a cartwheel dollar. It threw back light in insolent sheets, and the edges of the eagle's wings were sharp enough to cut a finger. “See if there are any more.”
If I expected the porter to balk at the prospect of rifling a dead man's pockets, I was disappointed. He knelt again, and in less than a minute he rose, shaking his head. He was used to searching drunken passengers for their tickets to find out where they belonged.
I felt the coin, reading
, with the ball of my thumb. “Is your Mr. Fenady the kind to carry around uncirculated double eagles?”
“No, sir, he sure ain't. That, or he lied about not having the cash to replace that lost button.”
I pocketed the coin. He watched without expression. I said, “You want a receipt?”
“No, sir.” He turned to go.
I put a hand on his arm, stopping him. It was hard under the uniform sleeve, roped with muscle from carrying trunks and hoisting fat women aboard parlor cars.
“Thirty-sixth Infantry?” I asked.
“No, sir. Tenth Cavalry. Buffalo soldiers. I was too young to serve in the War of Emancipation.”
“That doesn't look like a tomahawk scar.”
He grinned joylessly. “Wasn't always the red man we was fighting, sir.”
“What's your name?”
“Edward Anderson Beecher.”
“Did you ever consider serving the law, Beecher?”
“What's the pension?”
“No pension. Congress covers the cost of your burial.”
“Thank you, sir. I reckon I'll go on taking my chances with Mr. J. J. Hill.”
“That's the problem. The good ones are too smart to serve for the money.”
He said nothing, saying plenty.
“Don't forget to tell Marshal Krueger about the double eagle,” I said.
That took a moment to filter through. This time when he grinned, the sun came out. “Yes, sir.”
“Did you think I intended to keep it a secret?”
“It ain't my place to think, sir.”
“I'm a killer, not a thief.”
“Stop calling me sir. I quit the army in sixty-five.”
After he left, I took the coin back out and weighed it on my palm. Its face value was twenty dollars. That bothered me more than the attack. I'd thought my life was worth a little more.
They found the
conductor, Tim Fenady, a twenty-year man with a wife and four minor children, in the baggage car wearing only his long-handles and lace-ups, with a single stab wound between his shoulder blades that matched a rip in the uniform the man I killed was wearing. They couldn't tell me the hired killer's name in Garrison. When his own clothes were found, the pockets were empty, which meant that either he was a professional or there had been one more crook aboard the train. By the time they dumped him into a hole in potter's fieldâburial cost two dollars out of my pocket, a policy of the U.S. District Court, Territory of MontanaâI was riding an express back to Helena, sitting up in a chair car. Apparently I'd lost my compartment privileges by not dying.
That season, Judge Harlan A. Blackthorne was smoking his cigars and studying his cases in a room at the Merchants Hotel, his chambers at the courthouse having been gutted by one of Helena's frequent fires. His desk had been rescued, albeit charred on one corner, and the room's bed had been removed to make room for it. When I reported there directly from the station, the clerk in the lobby told me the judge was in court, but that Marshal Spilsbury was expecting me.
Spilsbury was a Montana native, the son of a Scots farmer, and a decent man who had no liking for me. This wasn't entirely his fault. At the time of his appointment, he'd vowed to rid the federal service of killers, and placed me third on the list for termination. He'd found out quickly that Blackthorne didn't share his views. A bit less quicklyâletters of complaint to the White House in 1883 carried an average turnaround time of three weeksâhe'd learned that a United States marshal's position in that territory was redundant as long as Blackthorne ran the court. To Spilsbury's credit, he made no more attempts to circumvent recognized authority, and in fact listened attentively when the judge, with uncharacteristic patience, pointed out to him that if all the killers in the district court system were let go, the deputies who remained would be of insufficient number to deal with the throngs of homicidal parties who would suddenly have returned to the civilian population.
“Your Honor, these are jackals we're discussing,” he'd argued.
“Very true,” Blackthorne had said. “However, they are
I found the marshal studying his pocket Bible in a straight-back chair, the only place to sit in the room apart from the great overstuffed horsehair that stood behind the desk, another aromatic survivor of the courthouse fire. There was no indication that he'd even entertained the notion of changing seats in the judge's absence. He was a lay reader with the Presbyterian church, and although he could quote the gospel chapter and verse, he never did. His restraint carried the respect of the most blasphemous among the deputy marshals, who theorized that he was settling the account for the sins of some father on some haunted moor three generations back.
He raised his long narrow face from Revelations to greet me. He wore all black from neck to heels except for his white collar and the plain six-pointed star pinned to his broadcloth vest. He'd been in mourning three years for a wife dead of diphtheria in populous St. Louis, which may have explained his decision to decamp to a region less settled, and there was about him a quality of gentle brooding that caused men several years his senior, me included, to address him as an elder.
“I hope your journey back was more pleasant than the one out,” he said.
“The one out wasn't so bad, if you don't count the stretch between Butte and Garrison.” I didn't shake his hand. He didn't offer it. He wasn't being rude, just unhypocritical. You couldn't hate him for that.
“I suppose you had no other choice but to kill the man.”
“I might have. I wasn't thinking about choices at the time.”
He glanced down, saw nothing on that page to comfort him, and closed the Bible. He poked it into his watch pocket. Then he drew a fold of stiff paper from inside his coat and held it out. “Is this the fellow who assaulted you?”
I took the paper and unfolded it. It was a wanted reader issued by the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. I read the description and handed it back.
“Tobias Mimms,” I said. “It could have been. When you're on the scout, you're sure to lose a little weight. âWanted in Missouri.' Who isn't? He's too young to be a former guerrilla, but back there they serve that up with the beans and fatback. Murder, conspiracy to commit murder, and aggravated assault, which would have been a murder interrupted. Paid killer?”
“It doesn't say. But then there is no specific charge for that.” He put away the reader. “I understand you found a gold piece on his person?”
I fished out the double eagle and put it in his hand. He studied both sides as carefully as he read Scripture. “This was minted very recently. Gold stamping needn't pass through many hands before it begins to lose definition. Have you ever been to San Francisco?”
He looked at me for any sign of irony in the address. “Mimms has. He was seen there last month. Agents from the Pinkerton office there obtained a federal warrant and mounted a raid on the disorderly house where he was staying, but he'd disappeared. Ten days ago he resurfaced in Montana.” He returned his attention to the coin. “You were on your way to Bannack to identify a prisoner. Is there anyone who can perform that duty in your place?”
“Treadway was the deputy he made the break from, but he's on furlough. His wife is expecting.”
“Yes. Well, unless she's expecting something other than a child, I am of the opinion she can spare him. Nothing in his history says he trained as a midwife.”
I nodded. That made one more reason for Treadway not to buy me a whiskey on my birthday.
“There are other ways for a coin to make its way here from California,” I said. “It didn't have to be in Mimms's pocket. We don't know for sure it was Mimms on the train.”
“The day you left for Bannack, I received a wire from Sheriff Matthias in Granite County. Do you know him?”
“Only by reputation. He has a peg leg and his own private army of deputies to do his footwork.”
“Evidently an efficient system. One of them overheard a drunken conversation in a saloon in Phillipsburg, something about a number of law dogs fit for muzzling. Your name came up.”
“My guess is it comes up often in that kind of conversation.”
“The sheriff thought this one worthy of repeating. The fellow doing the talking is a notorious Copperhead. He was sentenced to hang for treason in seventy-two, but was pardoned by President Grant. He announced his retirement shortly afterward, but Matthias holds the opinion a case could be made for another trial based on his activities since.”
“There are plenty of people who won't let go of the war. They're about as much of a threat as these blowhards who still say the earth's flat.”
“It's a comforting analogy, but specious. Have you ever heard of the Sons of the Confederacy?”
I shook my head.
“They're a loosely knit organization, founded in Richmond in 'sixty-six, on the first anniversary of the surrender at Appomattox. The charter members were Confederate veterans, dedicated to electing Southern sympathizers to high office and effecting by peaceful means what four years of bloodshed could notânamely, the secession of states and territories whose leaders share their vision.”
“It seems to me the same thing was tried in sixty-one.”
“Hear me out. Today the group contains a significant number of noncombatants, many of whom were too young to serve; some, in fact, who were not born when the war ended. These youngsters are easily influenced, with emotions untempered in the crucible of cruel experience. Former spies like this fellow in Phillipsburg talk a good fight and fill their heads with poison. They could or would not take up arms, and so are content with persuading others to take them up in their stead. They have created a rift in the ranks between those who counsel lawful action and those who would spill blood yet again. In the last three years, the Sons of the Confederacy have accounted for twenty-seven murders, including the assassination of a Massachusetts senator and the ambush slayings of three peace officers attempting to arrest members upon various charges. Their aim is to spread panic and distrust in the Union and set the stage for a second war on behalf of states' rights.”
“I don't know what it has to do with Mimms and me. I don't make it a practice to arrest rebels. Not for being rebels.”
“That would be a salient point, if Tobias Mimms were not the fellow the Copperhead told to muzzle you.”
I found a growth of whiskers my razor had missed and scratched it. I can't get a decent shave aboard a moving train. “If they're that dangerous, why hasn't Chet Arthur sent troops into Richmond?”
“Virginia represents the peaceful element. The firebrands have taken up residence on the Barbary Coast.”
The smoke began to clear.
“You're proposing sending me to San Francisco to weed out the bad apples?”
“You're mixing metaphors, Deputy, in addition to being a damn fool. I'm sending you there to widen the rift.”
This was a new voice, or rather a new one in that conversation; harsher and more sardonic. Judge Blackthorne had entered, and now he took his place behind the desk with an air as if he were calling the court to order.