Special U.S. Deputy Page Murdock rides into Breen, Montana, on the trail of a menacing and elusive outlaw. But before he can scout the saloons for his man, he is made town marshal in a territory heating up for the ugliest range war this side of hell. The big ranchers want a gunslinger marshal, and the small ranchers have their own hired gun. But the badge on Murdock's chest means law, and he'll enforce it the best way he knows...with a gun. At the publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management software (DRM) applied.
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October 01, 1997
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Excerpt from The Murdock's Law by Loren D. Estleman
The hearse was drawn by a pair of arrogant-looking matched blacks with coats that shone like stretched satin, plumed bridles, and the general appearance of never having been whipped up above a trot. Black bunting framed the casket between the side windows, an expensive affair of polished mahogany with gold-plated handles under a mound of lilies and hyacinth. The driver, a square, rough-handed Irishman whose nose glowed redder than the early spring chill dictated, looked bored and thirsty. The fellow beside him, rotund in a black cutaway, striped trousers, and a high silk hat screwed down to the eyes, looked inconsolable. I took him for the undertaker. The richer they get the sadder they look.
There was a respectable procession behind, led by a gray-whiskered preacher and a stout, middle-aged woman weeping behind a black veil, but before theyreached my end of the street I stepped inside to avoid having to doff my hat. After living in it for four days I wasn't so sure my scalp wouldn't peel off with it.
A bell mounted overhead jangled when I closed the door. Racks of rifles and shotguns lined the walls of the shop, their straight black barrels glistening smugly in the light streaming in through the big front window. Standing out from the walls, woodenframed glass cases containing more firearms in various stages of assembly formed a square within a square. The place smelled sharply of lubricating oil.
Behind the cases, at a bench littered with springs and rags and short screws and miscellaneous instruments, a scrawny old man was filing the rough edges off the inside of a rifle barrel clamped in a wooden vise. He said without turning that he'd be with me directly. His Swedish accent would sink a ferry.
"Who died?" I asked.
"Town marshal." The file rasped shrilly against the jagged steel.
"Choked on a piece of steak."
I wondered if he was joking. He didn't strike me as the type. "That must have come as a surprise in this town. I hear folks around here raise some hell from time to time."
"From time to time."
"Not that I've seen any evidence of it."
He squatted to peer inside the barrel. His profile was clean but beginning to blur under the chin. He wore a massive blond moustache streaked with whitethat swept to the corners of his jaw and appeared to have sucked all the hair from the top of his bald head.
"What'd you expect, shooting?" he said then. "All day long, every day, like you read in the penny dreadfuls? There ain't that much lead in Montana." He blew through the barrel and scraped a thick finger around inside. Apparently satisfied, he straightened and turned to face me. His gray-blue eyes took me in swiftly from dusty crown to caked spurs. "What's your business?"
"Page Murdock. I wired you last week from Helena looking for a Deane-Adams. You said you had one."
"Hell of a long ride just for a gun."
"I was coming anyway."
His eyes narrowed. "You some kind of law?"
"Does it show?"
"You could be on one side or the other, from the look of you. In this business I see my share of both."
"Maybe you've seen Chris Shedwell lately," I said. "My boss got a report he's on his way here. He's wanted for a mail-train robbery near Wichita two years ago."
He shook his head. "Thought you boys favored those." He indicated the Army Colt in my holster. "Deane-Adams only shoots five."
"I know. I used to own one."
"You only got four if you keep the chamber under the hammer empty," he pointed out.
"Shoot your foot off someday." He drew a ring ofkeys from his pocket and bent to unlock a drawer in the bottom of the case between us. From its depths he lifted a skeletal piece and handed it to me.
It was a slim, lightweight .45 with an octagonal barrel, a smooth cylinder, and a skinny butt showing no more curve than a spinster's bodice. It looked exactly like the one I had lost the year before somewhere on the tracks between Fargo and Bismarck, except that this one had a mother-of-pearl grip.
"Who ruined it?" I asked.
"Tinhorn from Minnesota. He won it at stud and paid me to fit the new grip. Never picked it up. Miner caught him shaving the ace of clubs and carved him up with a pocketknife. They buried him in pieces."
"How soon can I have it refitted?"
"Tomorrow. Be twenty dollars for the gun and the work. Half in advance."
I gave him ten and got a receipt.
After the comparative silence of the shop, the noise on the street was terrific. Once a mining town, Breen had died when the vein east of the Smith River played out, only to be born again as the cattle industry stretched into the foothills between the Big and Little Belt Mountains. Merchants had swarmed in armed with canned goods and coal oil and curtain material and all the other paraphernalia of eastern culture, just as they had in countless other boomtowns across the Northwest in the eighteen-seventies, so that you couldn't tell Helena from Sutter's Mill, Bismarck from Dodge. I washed the taste of civilization out of my mouth in one offourteen saloons that faced each other across a street as wide as a pasture and got directions to the marshal's office.
It was a solid affair built of logs, with weatherboard on the outside to give visitors the impression that it wasn't. A square of brown butcher paper was nailed to the door with GONE TO THE FUNERAL penciled across it in an educated hand. I waited.
After ten minutes or so a lean twist of hide in a frock coat and striped trousers strode down the boardwalk with a key in his hand. The face under a round-brimmed Spanish hat was leathern, cracked at the corners of the eyes and stretched taut across a very straight nose that came almost to a point. He wore a drooping black moustache and a gold star the size of a tea saucer attached by tiny gold chains to a nameplate on his vest. The nameplate was blank, but the words "City Marshal, Breen, M.T." were engraved on the star in the center of a lot of scrollwork.
I said, "You must be the new city marshal."
He stopped short, fingers dangling near the ivory butt of a Navy Colt on his right hip. I have that effect on people.
"You have the advantage." His voice was thin and tight, like everything else about him.
I gave him my name and got out the simple star that said DEPUTY U.S. MARSHAL, no chains or scrollwork. "It's not as nice as yours."
"You're the one wired Bram about Shedwell coming," he said.
"Abraham Arno." He sounded like a schoolmasterprompting a slow pupil. "We just put him in a hole north of town."
"Did he really choke on a piece of steak?"
"That's what his widow says. I think she poisoned him, but that's only the opinion of a temporary marshal." He unlocked the door and went inside, leaving it open. I closed it behind me.
There was clapboard on the inside, whitewashed and broken up only by the stovepipe, a gun rack, a single barred window looking out on the dusty street, and a sheaf of wanted dodgers tacked to the wall behind the desk, brown and curling. A partition across the back partially screened a row of unoccupied cells beyond. Over everything hung a heavy odor of boiled coffee and cigars.
"You ride for Judge Blackthorne." He pegged his hat next to the door, passed through a gate in an oak railing, and took a seat in a wooden swivel behind the desk. He looked younger with his abundance of black hair exposed, somewhere in his late twenties. "I hear when folks in Helena get bored they stick him in a pit with a grizzly just to see fur fly."
"That's him. What about Shedwell?"
He slipped an ivory comb from the inside breast pocket of his coat and glided it through his pompadour. I watched him wipe bay rum off the teeth with a red silk handkerchief before putting it away and calculated the depth of my dislike for him.
"No sign of him yet," he said. "I think someone was having fun with your boss."
"That'll be the day. Are you as much law as they got around here?"
He lost his good nature. His eyes were murkypools of no color you could put a name to. "You ride a fast mouth for one man."
"They give you deputies?"
It took him a moment to answer. His eyes never moved. "Two full-time. And the geezer that watches the place when there are prisoners. Why?"
"They all been looking for Shedwell?"
"They're deputies, aren't they?"
"Do they even know what he looks like? Do you?" When he didn't answer, I pulled out the soggy reader I'd had plastered to my chest for fifty miles and peeled it open under his nose. It featured a fair likeness of the man I was after from his night-riding days, under a line offering a thousand dollars for his capture. The marshal studied it a moment, then leaned back, squeaking his chair.
"Haven't seen him."
"He was pretty fresh when this was done," I pressed. "He's aged some since."
He shook his head. His expression was condescending. I said, "What do they call you?"
"Yardlinger. Oren Yardlinger."
I blinked. "And you let them?"
"What the hell's that supposed to mean?" Pale slashes showed on his cheeks like healed-over scars.
I placed the paper on his blotter. "Tack it up. Have your men look at it and let me know if he shows. I'll be around."
"Why should he?" Something of his normal color had returned. "I hear he's selling his gun these days. There's no business for him here."
"How many men did you bury last month?"
"Six, but what's that got to do with anything?"
"How many of them died in bed?"
"One." He hesitated. "He held on for two weeks after a crazy half-breed split his skull with an oak chair over at the Glory."
I tapped the bulletin I'd given him. "When you've got something you'll find me at the Freestone Inn. Room twelve."
I'd dropped my valise off at the hotel on my way into town. Returning, I got out my city clothes and a razor and went down to the bathhouse, where I spent a leisurely half hour scraping off the trail dust and the worst of my whiskers. Afterward I left my riding clothes to be laundered and mounted the stairs to my room, drowsiness spreading through me like the warmth from a shot of whiskey. But in the carpeted hallway outside I stopped.
You start to develop a sixth sense after you've been on the frontier a while. Camping in the desert, you know before you pull your boots on that there's a scorpion curled up in one of them. Riding along the trail, you feel a road agent waiting for you around the next bend. Those who didn't learn to detect the unseen signs of danger didn't last long enough to unpack their bags. That was how I was sure without opening the door that there was someone in my room.
And since whoever it was hadn't bothered to ask my leave, I could only assume that he felt it wouldn't matter much longer.