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. At the publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management software (DRM) applied.
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August 14, 1997
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Excerpt from Stamping Ground by Loren D. Estleman
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 bad 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."