The Ballad of Black Bart: A Novel

The Ballad of Black Bart: A Novel

by Loren D. Estleman


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The Ballad of Black Bart: a riveting western novel from Spur Award-Winning Author Loren D. Estleman.

"Loren Estleman is my hero."—Harlan Coben

Between July 1875 and November 1883, a single outlaw robbed the stagecoaches of Wells Fargo in California’s Mother Lode country a record of twenty-eight times. Armed with an unloaded shotgun, walking to and from the scenes of the robberies, often for hundreds of miles, and leaving poems behind, the infamous Black Bart was fiercely hunted.

Between robberies, Black Bart was known as Charles E. Bolton, a distinguished, middle-aged man who enjoyed San Francisco’s entertainments in the company of socialites drawn to his quiet, temperate good nature and upper-class tastes.

Meanwhile, James B. Hume, Wells Fargo’s legendary chief of detectives, made Bart’s apprehension a matter of personal as well as professional interest.

The Ballad of Black Bart is a duel of wits involving two adversaries of surpassing cleverness, set against the vivid backdrop of the Old West.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780765383532
Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
Publication date: 11/14/2017
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 797,084
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

LOREN D. ESTLEMAN has written more than seventy books—historical novels, mysteries, and westerns. Winner of four Shamus Awards, five Spur Awards, and three Western Heritage Awards, his books include Ace & Eights, The Adventures of Johnny Vermillion, Alive!, and American Detective. He lives in Central Michigan with his wife, author Deborah Morgan.

Read an Excerpt


This is the story of bandit Black Bart; who used the gold country to practice his art. His brush was a shotgun, his canvas the road, as he painted his way 'cross the Old Mother Lode.

"Who do you like in the fight, Charlie?" Matt Leacock asked.

The gentleman seated across the table in the restaurant's small dining room smiled; at least his handsome set of salt-and-pepper handlebars lifted at the corners. He wasn't a grinner, showing pleasure only when something amused him. It struck Leacock that to him, Nob Hill's gang of glad-handers must look like gibbering monkeys. "What fight is that, Matt?" Charlie asked.

"Any fight; or the ponies. You've usually got something down on one or the other."

"Now, if I was to tell you that, and you put any store in my judgment, the odds just might shoot north of Sacramento, and where would that leave me? On the short end."

The third man at the table, Alec Fitzhugh, chuckled. He had his linen napkin tucked under his cutthroat collar and both hands busy cutting his prime rib into bite-size pieces, each one as red as a penny poker chip. "You are a close-mouthed man. I don't guess you would unbend far enough to tell me how you like the oysters."

"A mite chewy, since you ask." Charles Bolton slid a raw quivering lump of mollusk off the edge of a half-shell into his mouth, nibbled briefly, and swallowed, chasing it with mineral water. He ate more daintily with his hands than his companions did with knives and forks. He seldom had use for the napkin in his lap. "If it's your intention to invest beyond beef, I would avoid the market in seafood this season."

His listeners' amusement was leavened with thoughtful self-interest. The fellow from New York (or was it Boston? He was as tight with autobiographical detail as he was with general information) had a reputation for answering even a casual inquiry with an air of gravity, as if he'd given the matter a world of thought before committing himself to a response.

Everything about this man was reserved, from his table manners to his conversation to his dress, blacks and grays mostly, with a brief burst of green satin where the knot of his cravat nestled between the lapels of his double-breasted waistcoat. In San Francisco, whose mining barons, textile magnates, and dry-goods kings had made their fortunes off the rip-roaring camps of the Forty-Niners (and now from their widows), loud talk, fat cigars, and whiskey flasks the size of cavalry canteens were the norm. A man who drank rarely, smoked not at all, and spent his words as if they assayed out at sixteen dollars to the ounce, was regarded as some kind of sage. But for the chin-whiskers and pale blue eyes, Charles Bolton might have posed for the cedar red man standing sentry outside every tobacco shop in the U.S.

Leacock added a dollop of brandy from the cut-glass decanter to the milk in his glass. He suffered from the successful businessman's twin complaints, ulcers and gout, but also his disdain for absolute temperance. "I've noticed you don't spend much time around other mining men, Charlie. I make my living shipping cattle to the slaughteryards in Chicago, and Alec lights the lamps of New York City with whale blubber. Do you not like the company you used to keep?"

"I cast no aspersions on them. The last thing I want when I'm through inspecting the fields is shop talk." Bolton pushed away his plate of plundered shells and sat back, cradling his glass as carefully as if it contained French champagne. "I think from time to time of investing in the moneymaking end of the race game," he told Leacock. "Buy a nag of my own and run it round the circuit. What do you think?"

Leacock started to smile, but adjusted himself to the company. "I guess I've breathed in enough sweat off the tramps who ride the damn beasts to the railhead, and dropped enough at the track, to know a horse is good for only two things, raising blisters and running dead last. What do you want with those hay-burners anyway, Charlie? You can lose money just as fast on a sporting woman, and you don't have to feed her."

"I don't appreciate that kind of talk." Bolton rolled the glass between his palms, then moved a shoulder. "But I thank you for the counsel. I never had much use for the animal myself. Most places I go, I walk."

Fitzhugh frowned, dipped his napkin in his own water glass, and rubbed at a fresh stain on his shirtboard. "No one walks in this town, Charlie. That's what cable cars are for."

"God gave men legs for a reason. I reckon I will keep using mine till He tells me different."

A strange thing to say, Leacock thought, considering the man's obvious affliction.

Bolton stirred himself, as if the conversation were becoming uncomfortable. More likely he was bored. Truth be told, he seemed to have little in common with his companions except the incapacity to show concern when the check came. He separated a pair of notes from his soft kidskin wallet, laid them on the brass tray the waiter had brought, and rose, shaking hands with the others. "Good night, gentlemen."

"Odd fellow," said Fitzhugh, after he'd left.

"And not much of a tipper." Leacock finished counting the notes in the tray and laid them back down.

"They say the same about Vanderbilt."

Charles Bolton waited behind another patron before the check room, shifting his weight painfully from one foot to the other. The man was complaining about a pair of gloves missing from his coat pocket. Finally he left, and Bolton stirred his moustaches for the young lady behind the desk. She wore her hair in sausage curls and an ankle-length white apron, like a Harvey girl, and was flushed from the contentious encounter. She smiled in happy recognition and retrieved Bolton's Chesterfield overcoat and brushed bowler without asking for his check. He accepted them and handed her a nickel from the change pocket of his wallet, which bulged with notes.

She braved a smile. "Anything else, Mr. Bolton?"

He smiled back. This girl, so pale and quick to blush, brought him joy. From the wallet he produced a fold of foolscap and passed it across the desk.

She unfolded it and read silently, her lips moving: The versers pick their subjects, from urns to birds to oak; but the one I'd place my name to is the girl who checks my cloak.

Her cheeks flushed bright. "How wonderful! You should be a poet."

"Were I twenty years younger; and you of age."

She folded the poem into her apron pocket. "You know, you shouldn't carry so much cash around, Mr. Bolton. San Francisco isn't New York City."

"New York's no different, only a little bigger. I don't trust banks."

"Are you worried about Jesse James?"

His gentle face broke into creases. "A common thief? He isn't worth my time."

"The papers don't think he's common."

"Charge into a bank, shoot up everyone between you and the money, and gallop on out, gunning down strangers and trampling children in the street? I find that all too common."

"You're right, of course. If only everyone were as civilized as you."

He walked the few blocks to Post Street and the Webb House, a small, well-ordered establishment with a shallow lobby containing a rubber tree in a bronze pot and a scrap of Persian rug. The half-caste Chinese behind the carved desk handed him his key without being asked.

"Can you have the girl bring up a bucket of hot water?"

"Certainly, sir."

Bolton thanked him and ascended the broad floral-carpeted stairs to the second floor, leaning a little on the banisters; his feet were giving him more than usual discomfort. He blamed the oysters.

In his room, a comfortable corner one with a brass bed, a bath adjoining, and a pitcher and basin, he sat in the horsehair armchair and pulled off his boots, carefully peeling them away where he'd made cuts to accommodate his corns. When the knock came he shambled over in his stockings and opened the door for the old Chinese woman to come in and fill the basin with steaming water from her bucket. Her eyes brightened in their thicket of wrinkles when he gave her a dime for the effort.

Alone again, he knelt to slide his valise, a fine pale pigskin satchel turning brown at the corners, from under the bed and opened it on the mattress to extract a shotgun, sawed off to two feet and wrapped in an oily rag. His big toes when he rolled his socks off were less swollen than earlier in the week, thanks to his daily soakings. Perched on the edge of the bed and hissing through his teeth, he lowered his feet into the hot water. Sweat broke out on his forehead as he waited for them to adjust to the scald. After a few moments, the heat soothed, drawing the residual pain off toward the edges of the basin and away. There he sat until the water grew lukewarm. Waiting, he wiped down the shotgun with the oily rag, then set it aside and drew a sheet of stiff paper from the nightstand's marble top.

It was a stagecoach passenger's schedule, listing routes for the month of August 1877. He came to one beginning in Point Arena, terminating in Duncan Mills, and running through Sonoma County and climbing the foothills near the Russian River. Drawing a carpenter's pencil from his waistcoat pocket, he circled this, then selected a map from the stack on the nightstand and spread it open beside him. The road passed south of old Fort Ross. He licked the pencil's blunt tip, then circled this too, singing under his breath:

Come listen to my story, I'll not detain you long. A singing and a humming this simple silly song. 'Tis of the old ex-convicts, the men who served their time for robbing mountain stages of the Wells, Fargo line.


Now, Bart used no horses to gather his loot. He held them a bother, and bad luck to boot. So he trod California noons, evenings, and morns, bathing his bunions and cursing his corns.

He ate breakfast at daybreak and asked the waitress to prepare a bacon sandwich to take with him. She did so, between two thick slices of coarse sourdough bread, wrapped in a page of The Sacramento Bee. He put the parcel in a pocket of the sturdy miner's overalls he wore under his traveling duster, gave her an extra nickel for her trouble, and picked up his blanket roll. She noticed the twin barrels of a shotgun poking out the end. "The grouse are in good supply this year," she said.

"I aim to whittle down the population."

It was a fine day for a walk. August is a mild month in northern California, and the sun lay across his shoulders like a shawl. From time to time he changed hands on the blanket roll, heavy with the shotgun, a hatchet, and a full canteen. Such travelers as he encountered on the road outside town — people riding in carriages and buckboards and the occasional man on horseback — exchanged nods with the middle-aged man out rusticating, and if they noticed his weapon they assumed he was either hunting small game or prepared to defend himself against highwaymen. The stage roads in the locality provided the main route for gold dust on its way to the assay offices in Sacramento and, converted into notes, to the banks. Those who preyed on the coaches seldom bothered with individuals, but one could never be too cautious in mining territory.

By noon, he felt the first twinges in his feet, but kept going until he arrived at the spot identified on his map as Meyers Grade, with Fort Ross, deserted since the cessation of hostilities between eastern settlers, coastal Indians, and Russian poachers, five miles to the north. There he spread out his roll, took out its contents and laid them aside, folded the blanket, and sat on it to strip off his boots and stockings. He lowered both feet into a mountain stream so icy he felt the cold all the way to his teeth. He sighed relief, unwrapped his sandwich, and ate it, drinking from the canteen and reading a week-old news item stained with grease, headed ROUGH JUSTICE.

A man in Fresno had spoken too freely of his neighbors' wives and been hung by his heels by a gang of masked men in consequence. He was rescued some hours later on the verge of death, but was not expected to recover. Swift punishment was promised for the vigilantes.

Which pledge would be the end of the affair, and well served. Bolton shook his head and used a dry corner of the paper to wipe grease from his moustaches.

A few yards upstream, an ungainly looking bird, its head too big for its body and its feet too small, plunged from its station on a branch overhanging the water. It vanished below the surface less than half a second, then with an explosion of flapping wings emerged with a yellow perch clamped in its needlelike bill. Struggling against the fish's frantic resistance, it staggered on its cripple's feet to a flat rock and smacked its catch repeatedly against the stone until it stopped thrashing. Then the bird began eating, snatching up quivering chunks of flesh and jerking them down its throat.

"They don't call you kingfisher for nothing," Bolton said.

The bird paid him no attention, concentrating on its meal.

When it had eaten its fill and flown off, Bolton dried his feet with a handkerchief, put on his stockings and boots, crumpled the newspaper, buried it a few inches deep in the loose earth, and rose, rewrapping the canteen, hatchet, and shotgun, and picking up the roll.

The hill was everything he'd hoped, an inclined plane falling away steeply from where he stood, on a foundation of powdery red dust topped with a spill of pebbles and glittering shards of quartz: bonanza country, built on shifting sand by the patron saint of prospectors and pirates; especially pirates. Any horsedrawn vehicle would have to slow to a crawl to make the grade.

Shielding his eyes with his free hand, he noted the sun's position, confirmed the time by his turnip watch, and went to work.

He took out the hatchet, chopped four branches off a cottonwood, about an inch and a half in diameter, three feet long, and as straight as they grew, making the cuts square and stripping off the leaves with a clasp knife. He trimmed off the twigs and leaves and wedged one end of each between two rocks, one rock stacked on the other, spacing them a few yards apart, with the cut ends pointing down the slope. After examining the result, he repositioned one of the branches, stepped back for another look, and deemed himself satisfied. Then he bundled up his tools and descended, clutching striplings and handfuls of scrub on the way to maintain his balance. At a semi-level spot near the halfway point he turned and looked up the hill, reassuring himself as to the arrangement of the branches: four narrow cylinders with their ends tilted in toward that section of road.

He was ahead of schedule, having allowed for the unexpected and also the necessary periods of repose. He found a comfortable depression behind a large boulder on the side of the hill, spread the blanket again, and assumed a half-reclining position on the soft earth, propping his boots up on a smaller boulder, the shotgun across his lap and his bowler tipped forward over his eyes. In a little while the grosbeaks and flickers, who had ceased singing when the man appeared, dismissed him as a threat and resumed their warbling and wick-wicking.

The stage was late, but not excessively so; the driver would make up the difference on the flat. Bolton heard it coming for a mile, its harness rings jingling and the mud wagon creaking on its stiff leather straps, the wheels grinding through gravel, manufacturing yet more dust, and the driver shouting those singsong imprecations that any good team reacted to as if they were gentle encouragement.

As the noise increased, reverberating off the trunks of the titanic redwoods walling the sides of the road, he stood, working the kinks out of his muscles and pronouncing his feet sound, and took a flour sack from his bib pocket. He drew it over his head, hat and all, adjusted the holes he'd cut to line up with his eyes, and breathed in that smell of stone-ground grain that made his heart pound every time he came across it, even walking past a grist mill in the pose of Charles E. Bolton, mining magnate. The shotgun was a comforting weight in his hands.

The coach — built light like a military ambulance, with open sides and mounted for stability rather than convenience — was good enough for rough country, if nowhere near as comfortable or impressive as the fabled red-painted Concord, with its cradle-like suspension and dust-resistant side curtains. The driver was alone on the seat. No shotgun messenger meant nothing like a large shipment of gold dust; but Wells, Fargo barely broke even on fares. There would be enough in the express box to make this worthwhile, and less risk.


Excerpted from "The Ballad of Black Bart"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Loren D. Estleman.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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