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Authors: Loren D. Estleman

Stamping Ground

BOOK: Stamping Ground

Praise for Loren D. Estleman
and his acclaimed novel Billy Gashade

“A pithy, punchy writer who can also deliver the action. . . .”

New York Times Book Review

“I smelled the horses in Loren Estleman's westerns—they're that realistic and alive.”

—Elmore Leonard

“A wizard piece of historical reconstruction, exciting as a gangster film but with a texturing of the characters and the times that rises well above the genre.”

Los Angeles Times Book Review

“A brilliant creation. The dialogue is magical, the prose poetic, the characters earthy and real.”

El Paso Herald Post

“Estleman seizes the reader's attention and never relinquishes it. He is as addictive as morphine in that one's craving is never satisfied for long, but always returns, hungering for that next novel. And the next. But for the time being, savor this one, for it is vintage work by the master of his trade.”

Amarillo Globe News

“As usual, Estleman brilliantly re-creates a period that may now be dead, but certainly isn't forgotten.”

AP Newswire

“His entire story is a song, lyrical and alive with biting wit, drama, and the grace of a fine tale well told. . . . Rousing and entertaining.”

Publishers Weekly
(Starred Review)

By Loren D. Estleman from Tom Doherty Associates

City of Widows

The High Rocks

Billy Gashade

Stamping Ground

This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are either products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.


Copyright © 1980 by Loren D. Estleman

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or portions thereof, in any form.

Cover art by Carl Cassler

A Forge Book
Published by Tom Doherty Associates, Inc.
175 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10010

is a registered trademark of Tom Doherty Associates, Inc.

ISBN: 0-812-53569-3
Library of Congress Card Catalog Number: 79-7673

First Forge edition: August 1997

Printed in the United States of America

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For Louise Baraksadic Stamenoff, my grandmother—
the last pioneer

From an Old Commander

As near as I can estimate, there were in 1865 about nine and a half million of buffaloes on the plains between the Missouri River and the Rocky Mountains; all are now gone—killed for their meat, their skins and bones.

This seems like desecration, cruelty, and murder, yet they have been replaced by twice as many
cattle. At that date there were about 165,000 Pawnees, Sioux, Cheyennes, Kiowas, and Arapahoes, who depended on these buffaloes for their yearly food. They, too, are gone, and have been replaced by twice or thrice as many white men and women, who have made the earth to blossom as the rose, and who can be counted, taxed and governed by the laws of nature and civilization. This change has been salutary and will go on to the end.

—General William Tecumseh Sherman to William F. Cody, June 29, 1887, as quoted in the latter's autobiography,
Life and Adventures of Buffalo Bill

Chapter One

“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
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 had 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.”

“Is that supposed to be an argument on your side? I'm supposed to drop everything and go to that privy-pit because you owe somebody a good turn? I thought you knew me better than that.”

“You wanted the truth. Besides, it can't be as bad there as you paint it. I understand the territory's going through the biggest land boom in its history.”

“The railroads can sell manure to hog farmers.”

That isn't exactly the way I said it, but a thing like that sounds better in person than it looks on the printed page. He rose. When he did that he lost a good deal of his authority. In a pair of high-heeled Texas boots he would still have had to stretch to see over a five-and-a-half-foot fence. It was his turn to sigh.

“I wish you'd be a little more co-operative about this, Page. You know how much I hate to pull rank.”

“About as much as a whore hates to charge.”

“You leave me no choice.” He donned his courtroom
scowl. “Page Murdock, I'm placing you under arrest for the murder last year of Lucas Church, the bounty hunter.”

That one took me by surprise. “It won't wash,” I said, after the shock had worn off. “You know as well as I do that that was a case of self-defense. He was trying to take Bear Anderson away from me for the bounty when I was bringing him in on the scalp-hunting charge. I turned in a detailed report at the time.”

“It will be introduced as evidence.”

“A case like that will take a week to unravel!”

“More like six. The wheels of justice grind slowly and exceedingly small.”

“What will I live on in the meantime?”

“Bread and water, most likely. That's up to the jailer. Of course, I could take another look at your report and reconsider the case.”

“While I'm in Dakota?” No answer. I glared at him. “Did you ever find out who your father was?”

“Be sure and pack your waterproof,” he said, plainly fighting off the return of the diabolic smile. “I'm told it's wet on the Missouri Plateau this time of year.”

Here I had the choice of complying or handing in my badge and being done with it. He had no case and he knew it. But I'd found my niche and, in what the papers back East referred to as the “emerging West,” jobs were scarce for thirty-five-year-old ex-rawhiders who knew nothing but how to handle a rope and where to place a bullet so it will do the most good. I could always cheat on my expenses. Anyway, six years was a long time. Maybe Dakota had changed. And maybe elves lived in General Grant's beard.

It was mostly steamboat travel from Helena down the Missouri to the railhead of Bismarck. It would have been rail all the way had not the Panic ground construction and just about everything else to a halt five years before, but wishing didn't straighten out the bends in the river. My fellow passengers, aside from a group of close-mouthed prospectors on their way to the gold strikes in the Black Hills, included an aged Scandinavian with a two-word English
vocabulary and a battered brass trumpet screwed constantly into his left ear, and a woman who was on her way to visit her husband, the adjutant at Fort Abraham Lincoln. Neither had much to say in any language, both were ugly, and the only thing we appeared to have in common was an all-consuming dread of our destination.

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