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Forty years have passed, and I still can’t look at a game of billiards without thinking that’s the game that got me shot in Canada. I don’t mind telling you it’s spoiled me for indoor sports.
In September 1881, Judge Harlan A. Blackthorne suffered a heart attack, the first totally selfish act I had known him to commit in his long tenure on the federal bench in Helena, Montana Territory. It happened while he was presiding over a case of rape and murder on the Blackfoot reservation. He was quiet in his habits, and his seizure was no exception; the opposing sides went on pleading their cases for several minutes until the prosecutor raised a point of law, and when Blackthorne didn’t rule right away, the lawyers noticed his slumped posture and gray coloring and after arguing about it for another minute sent for a doctor.
The Judge spent the next six weeks in bed, during which Chester Arthur replaced him with a carpetbagger named Kennedy, whose legal instructions resulted in more hung juries than had ever taken place in the history of the territory. (Four years later Grover Cleveland named him assistant secretary of the treasury.) In November, a reluctant Dr. Albert Schachter allowed his heart patient to resume his duties, on the condition that he abandon his practice of studying the docket on Sunday and seek lighter recreation. Blackthorne gave his word that he would.
I should have known right then that trouble was making my bed.
To pledge one’s word was never a light thing among frontiersmen, who knew that straying from it invited swift and bloody retribution. The Judge, who had no such fear, valued his honor as did few gentlemen born. (He was the son of a failed farmer and self-educated.) Anyone else in his position might have driven a couple of wooden stakes ninety feet apart in some town lot and started pitching horseshoes. Harlan A. Blackthorne, deciding that billiards were the thing, sent all the way to Chicago for the most expensive table and accessories featured in the Montgomery Ward catalogue. The shipment traveled by rail to the end of the line in western Dakota, where it was loaded aboard a wagon and freighted four hundred miles overland to Helena. This took another six weeks, the last part of it during the first blizzard of January 1882; one horse died from exhaustion and Dr. Schachter treated two members of the crew for frostbite. But the table and its equipment arrived intact.
At the time the order was placed, Blackthorne was not entirely himself, or he would have known where to put the table when it came. Since he had not used federal funds to make the purchase, he was loath to take up space in the courthouse, and the only room that would have answered in his house outside town contained his wife’s pump organ. This item would vacate the premises only in the company of Mrs. Blackthorne herself. At length he entered into an arrangement with Chink Sherman, manager of the Merchants Hotel: In return for allowing the table to occupy a guest room in the establishment, Sherman would have the use of the pump organ the first and third Saturday of every month to rehearse the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary Choir, of which he was master. Mrs. Blackthorne, a Presbyterian and the daughter of a thirty-third-degree Freemason, was rewarded for her assent with the gift of a Jewel stove, to be shipped from Detroit sometime in the spring. Observers who amused themselves with arithmetical problems concluded that the Judge’s heart attack had at this point set him back some eight hundred fifty dollars, not counting Schachter’s fee.
The owner of the billiard table, however, was satisfied. The hotel was no more than a brisk, doctor-approved walk from both the courthouse and his home, refreshments were available from the Merchants’ kitchen and bar, and he had a place to amuse himself when court was in recess. Not to mention the first and third Saturday of every month, when his house was invaded by tone-deaf Catholics.
It was a beautiful table, carved from Central American mahogany the color of oxblood, with mesh pockets and a green baize top as thick as the rugs in Chicago Joe’s whorehouse. The slate alone weighed three hundred pounds and had required six men to carry inside. The cues were made of white ash, hand rubbed to a golden finish and straight, the balls of enameled African ivory. Nothing had been seen like it in town since Uncle Abe Cotton, one of the first prospectors to tap into the lode, fell ill of pneumonia and ordered a custom coffin all the way from San Francisco; and in fact the Judge’s billiard set might have had the edge, although no one was willing to dig up Uncle Abe to make the comparison. Pierpont Morgan was said to have installed the same set in his Fifth Avenue mansion. There really was no reason, given the quality of the equipment and his frequent use of it, that Judge Blackthorne should have been the worst player west of New York and east of Hong Kong.
No man alive could get the better of the pioneer jurist in a battle of wills or wits. Reliable witnesses claimed to have heard him call Boss Tweed a crook to his face, at a time when a twitch of the Tweed eyebrow could have brought down the chief justice of the Supreme Court, and I was present in his courtroom the day he talked the defendant in a murder case out of the pistol he had snatched from the bailiff when none of the armed officers present dared risk a shot for fear of hitting the Judge. But the balls on that table were unimpressed by his reputation. He was incapable of making the simplest shot. Worse, he insisted upon attempting the most complicated banks, with results that ranged between pathetic and disastrous; a sternly worded letter from the State Department had been addressed to him after he bounced the four ball off the forehead of a visiting Russian grand duke. At that point the table had been in his possession three years, and he had been practicing almost daily. The game I’m talking about now took place three days after it arrived.
At that point he had played a couple of dozen games with deputy marshals and other employees of his court, most of whom had been hard put to lose to him. I should mention here that the American justice system never had a fairer man than when Blackthorne was on the bench. Although he hanged forty-seven men, a record for legal executions in the Northwest, a judicial review of those cases in 1901 found that the evidence presented would have held up in any proceedings in the country, and that in fact the Judge had in each case allowed the defense greater latitude than precedent required. Unfortunately, this balance did not always apply to his behavior once court was adjourned. He played favorites, stooped to nothing short of blackmail to work his will with associates and inferiors, and never forgave a humiliation, no matter how trivial. Most of all he hated to lose. He never ran out of ways to torture subordinates who forgot themselves and bested him in a game of skill.
I was the lone exception. I was a long way from his pet and would more than likely have hanged for his murder if I didn’t spend most of my time hundreds of miles from the capital, chasing fugitives and transporting prisoners; a lifetime of sudden justice hadn’t done much to develop my Christian understanding, and Blackthorne was as hard to get along with as a bad case of the shingles. However, there was no misery he could arrange for me that compared with what I faced most of the time I was doing my part to enforce the law in the territories. He must have sensed that early in our acquaintance, because after a couple of half-hearted attempts to make me plead for mercy he left off trying and contented himself with black looks and short-fused retorts whenever I managed to make him appear less than omnipotent.
Which wasn’t that often, except in billiards. He was the best and smartest man I ever knew, as well as the pettiest and worst tempered.
He rose in darkness and was seldom up after ten at night. This Sunday—the first since the table was delivered—was different. There were twenty inches of snow on the ground, a forty-mile-an-hour wind was whipping up twelve-foot drifts, and neither of us was in any hurry to wrap himself in his furs and go home until Montana decided to lie down for the night. His credit with Chink Sherman was good enough to swing us rooms in the hotel, but he wasn’t about to do that. I had beaten him six games in succession; he was determined to win one before we packed it in. I was just as determined not to let him, tired as I was. That kind of thing can become a habit. The frontier was a forest of wooden markers bearing the names of deputy U.S. marshals who had decided to show someone mercy. None of them was going to read PAGE MURDOCK because I broke my own precedent with a stick in my hands.
Blackthorne shot first after the break. He was in his vest and shirtsleeves, rare event. Almost no one saw him that way except when he was changing out of his robes into his Prince Albert coat, but we were both working up a sweat in the overheated room. Leaning across the table under the light of the hanging Chesterfield lamp, the Judge’s hair and beard were as black as onyx and his lips were compressed into a Mona Lisa smirk of intense concentration. His teeth fit poorly, and he seldom wore them when he wasn’t in court, but he was vain of his looks and didn’t want to show his gums when he smiled.
“Bliss and Whitelaw are in Canada,” he said, and shot. For once the ball went into the pocket.
“Wishful thinking?” I chalked my cue. His luck couldn’t hold.
He shook his head. “I got a wire this morning from an Inspector Vivian with the North-West Mounted. The gang hit a settlement on the Saskatchewan over Christmas, wiped out the population, and rode away with everything that wasn’t frozen to the ground. They weren’t in such a hurry they forgot to set fire to the town. There’s nothing left.”
I watched him line up his next shot. “If they wiped out the population, who identified Bliss and Whitelaw?”
“That’s what identified them.” This one missed the pocket by six inches.
“Could have been Indians.”
“The inspector doesn’t think so. Their beef is with the railroad. Anyway, Indians haven’t much use for gold.”
I waited for the cue ball to roll to a stop and studied the choice. “How much gold?”
“A few hundred. The settlement was made up of panners and their wives. Nobody was scalped. There were some throats cut, and some of the women were naked, probably stripped and raped, but there were bullet holes in most of the corpses, what was left of them. Indians aren’t that wasteful with their ammunition. Bliss and Whitelaw spend it like water.”
“Stakes seem low.” I made my choice and sank the shot. The cue ball bounced off a cushion and clicked against the eight.
“You’re forgetting they destroyed a village in the Cherokee strip for less. Tricky shot.”
I ignored him and pocketed the six. The eight tried to follow but ran out of momentum at the edge. I stopped holding my breath. “Bliss and Whitelaw it is,” I said. “What makes it our problem and not the Mounties’?”
“Eight banks in Wyoming and Montana, a train in Colorado, and thirty or forty dead across four territories, including mine. I’m sending a deputy up to advise the redcoats. He’ll supervise the extradition when they’re caught.”
I missed the next shot, a simple bank. “Not me. I’m on holiday.”
The grandfather’s clock in the lobby struck eleven. “Since eleven o’clock. You promised me a month off after I did you that favor in New Mexico Territory last year. I never took it.”
He took his turn and missed. “Damn. What are you going to do with a month off in the middle of a Montana winter?”
“Eat steak, drink whiskey, and loaf. Beat you at billiards. Read Ben Hur. Run up my bill at Chicago Joe’s. Cut a hole in the Missouri and hook bass. Take good care of the parts I’d just freeze off in Canada. The only reason anyone lives up there is Cornwallis lost.” I chalked my cue more energetically than usual.
“I could order you to go.”
“I could take off my badge.”
“You never wear it.”
“That’s not the point.”
He thumped the butt of his cue against the floor. “There’s a friendly way of settling this.”
I grinned. “What are you putting up?”
“Two months off,” he said. “Starting anytime you say.”
“This game, or do you want to start fresh?”
“This one will do. I believe it’s your shot.”
The game went back and forth twice and then I ran the table. At the end, the eight ball was in direct line with the corner pocket with the cue ball perched halfway between it and the opposite corner. A drunken Indian could have made it. I took my time and shot. The eight dropped in. The cue ball teetered on the edge and went right in after it. I threw down my stick with an oath my father used to use; he’d learned it from Jim Beckwourth.
“Scratch,” Blackthorne said. “I’ll wire Inspector Vivian to expect you.”
White Desert copyright © 2000 by Loren D. Estleman
Port Hazard copyright © 2004 by Loren D. Estleman