On the run from some sore poker losers, gambler Lucas Stanton ducks into an office housing the “Great West Detective Agency”—followed by a client who mistakes him for a sleuth. Amanda Baldridge lives in one of Denver’s more well-to-do neighborhoods, and someone has snatched Tovarich, her Russian wolfhound puppy.
Unable to resolve this case of mistaken identity—and unwilling to refuse the up-front cash from such a lovely patron—Lucas agrees to find the purloined pooch. But what he believes to be easy earnings for an absurd request becomes a riskier proposition when Lucas finds himself in the crosshairs of the wealthy and powerful Jubal Dunbar, who has already set his sights on Colorado’s governorship—and on the missing mongrel…
Release date: October 7, 2014
Print pages: 272
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The Great West Detective Agency
Tonight he would get rich or die trying. Lucas Stanton looked across the table at the drunk rancher who had been bleeding money for the past hour. The more he lost, the more reckless he became. He had seen this before but seldom in a man who owned a ranch covering half of Middle Park, or so went the rumors.
He motioned to the bartender for another round. The rancher drank without regard for how the potent liquor dulled his good sense, if he had a whit. Lucas saw Lefty, the one-armed barkeep, deftly pouring two more shots, both from the same bottle, then stuffing the cork back in the bottle and bellowing for the drinks to be delivered. Two barely touched glasses of whiskey still sat in front of Lucas, but he would gladly pay for more. He was a professional gambler and knew his limits. What the rancher sought to prove tonight mattered less than cleaning him out. It wasn’t anything personal. It was just business.
A pretty waiter girl came over with the drinks and winked at Lucas, her long eyelashes fluttering just enough to look sexy. He smiled. Claudette might actually be from France. Not cosmopolitan Paris as she claimed but possibly from the southern part of the country. A farm? A harbor town? If he won big—and he already had most of the rancher’s poke in front of him—finding out her true origins might prove a pleasant cap for the night.
Lucas adjusted his cravat, then smoothed nonexistent wrinkles from the velvet lapels of his fine coat. It would have cost a hundred dollars or more, but the tailor had owed him for recovering money bilked from him by one of Denver’s cleverer confidence men. Outwitting a swindler had caused a small warmth inside, but that was nothing compared to what he felt now with close to a thousand dollars on the table and more to come.
“You ought to quit, boss,” a marmot-like man behind the rancher said. “You lost plenty already. And you know what the missus said about—”
“Shut up,” the rancher snapped. He knocked back the whiskey and glared at Lucas. He had to close one eye to focus properly. “I got him smoked. His luck can’t last forever.”
“Boss, you’ve lost most all of—”
“Get the hell out. Now. You’re not my conscience. I know what I’m doin’.”
Lucas watched the small cowboy nervously shift from one foot to the other, then retreat, running out the fancy etched glass doors imported from Europe just for the Emerald City Dance Hall and Drinking Emporium. Those had set back the owner more than five hundred dollars and were small works of art with fancy lettering and suggestive feminine silhouettes. The place was the pride of Denver and boasted the prettiest girls and strongest whiskey. Tonight the piano player actually hit the right notes as he hammered out “Sweet Sixteen.” That catchy tune had even the shyest wranglers paying a dime to many of the women for a dance. Boisterous laughter rolled like thunder off the Rockies from the dance floor at the rear of the saloon. Heavy smoke from both tobacco and poorly trimmed coal oil lamps swirled in the air, turning the interior into an imitation of San Francisco’s Barbary Coast on a foggy night. Men drank and propositioned the women, and Lefty carried a beer keg as easily as any man with two arms.
This was his milieu. This was his night. This was the night Lucas Stanton got rich.
Lucas did a quick count on the rancher’s chips, then pushed out that many and said, “I got to call, sir. You have the look of a man with a big hand, but my mama said I never had a lick of sense.”
“She was a smart woman,” the rancher said. He stared at the mound of money and chips, then said, “I’ll raise.”
Lucas rocked back and shifted to one side, wary of the man’s belligerent tone. He carried a Colt New Line .22 revolver in a coat pocket. The two-inch barrel allowed him to slip it easily, quickly into his grip, even if the small caliber didn’t afford much stopping power across a table. It worked better as a belly gun; ram it into the foe’s stomach and fire. If the slug didn’t stop the target, the muzzle flash might set fire to his shirt.
His cards lay facedown on the table, and his right hand hovered within inches of his hideout pistol. The rancher ran his fingers around the edges of his five cards, then tapped them.
“I’m raisin’ the limit.”
“You have nothing more to bet, sir,” Lucas said. He sat a little straighter in the chair. The raucous sounds around him faded. The spilled beer and tobacco and sweat no longer affected him. He even ignored how Claudette shoved her chest out and threatened to pop free of her low-cut dress as she bent over, trying to sneak a peek at the rancher’s hand.
“I got this. Deed to my ranch. It’s worth a hundred thousand dollars.”
“I don’t have enough to cover that. All I have is a few thousand.” Lucas knew to the nickel how much he had. Twenty-two hundred dollars.
“Then you lose.” The rancher reached out to pull in the pot.
Lucas moved like a striking snake and caught the man’s wrist.
“We were playing table stakes. Chips. Cash. If you put up a deed, I have to agree to it, and I won’t since I win the pot if you have to fold.”
Lucas wanted the money on the table. He would be five thousand ahead. The rancher had only to stand pat and the best hand would carry the day. From the way the man’s forearm tensed, he wasn’t inclined to let the hand play out like that.
“I’ll put up the deed against all you got on the table. And your coat. I took a fancy to that the minute I walked in.”
“You aren’t asking for my pants, too?”
The rancher looked a tad confused, then shook his head.
“Don’t want your fancy britches. All your money and your coat. Against the deed.”
“You must have a powerful hand to give odds such as those,” Lucas said. “A hundred thousand dollars against what cannot amount to more than three thousand. Those are odds even a greenhorn would reject.”
“I got the best hand and want to win as much as I can.”
Lucas looked around. Laughter still rattled the saloon windows, and the piano player had moved on to the raunchy “Honky-tonk Asshole.” But a couple dozen customers and almost as many of the working girls circled the table. The Emerald City saw its share of high stakes games, but nothing like this for some time. More than getting rich, Lucas could add to his reputation with a win.
The rancher might be drunk, but he was determined that his hand was the best. Even snockered the way he was, the man certainly didn’t think a pair of deuces would take the pot.
“I share your sentiments, sir,” Lucas said. “Winner takes all? Is that the bet? What’s in the pot plus your deed against all the money I have on the table?”
The rancher let out a whoop of glee and dropped his hand onto the table. A sigh went up from the crowd.
“I been working here for three years, and I never saw four aces show up like that before,” Claudette said. She heaved a big sigh, sent her ample bosoms shaking, and turned away. Her interest in Lucas disappeared in a flash of aces.
The rancher reached for the pot but again Lucas stopped him.
“You haven’t seen my hand yet.”
“Hell, man, you can’t beat me. You were careless and showed a trey. No matter what you got, you can’t beat me.”
“I was careless showing you the three,” Lucas said, lying. He had made sure the rancher saw the card. It was all part of the game’s ebb and flow, enticing the highest bets possible. “You neglected to see the other cards.”
Another gasp went up around the crowd.
“He’s got a straight flush, deuce through six of clubs.”
“You are beaten, sir.”
Lucas pushed the man’s hand away, scooped up the money in a pile, and then reached across the table to collect the deed to a ranch. Even if it wasn’t worth what the man claimed, Lucas knew he could parlay it into a considerable sum. A hint of a gold strike on the land would let him divide it up into hundreds of smaller tracts, each worth more than a thousand to an avid prospector.
“You can’t have the Rolling J!”
The rancher shot to his feet, staggered, and regained his balance, then had his six-shooter out and held in a surprisingly steady grip. Determination burned through the haze of alcohol.
“Please, sir,” Lucas said. He had no chance to draw his own weapon. Exchanging a .22 round with a .45 had to be a bad bet. Even if the situation had been reversed, his Colt New Line out and the rancher’s Peacemaker in its holster, he would have been at a severe—and deadly—disadvantage.
“I don’t know how you did that, but you cheated.”
“Sir! I did not.”
“You’re not taking the deed to my ranch!”
Lucas saw how the circle of customers around him widened. They were torn between getting close enough to see a gambler take a bullet in the gut and being in the line of fire themselves. Self-preservation won out for most of the crowd.
“My reputation, sir,” Lucas said, steering the rancher away from anyone who might overhear. The man pulled away so he could keep his six-shooter leveled at Lucas’s gut. “Please. Listen to me. Let’s talk this over.”
“There’s nothing to talk over.”
“I can’t just give you back the deed, not when everyone thinks I have won it fair and square. My reputation, my honor! Besmirched! Everyone would think they can lose to me and do nothing but ask for their lost wager to be returned. I cannot make a living that way. But I have no real interest in your ranch.”
“Then I’ll keep it and—”
“Please, understand, sir. I can’t give it to you. My reputation as a gambler would suffer.” Lucas moved around the table but didn’t get too close. The way the rancher’s finger whitened with tension on the trigger showed how close he was to dying. “You value your ranch, I value my reputation as much. However, I have a solution so we both come out winners. I have no desire to own a ranch. Why, I am unsure which end of a cow the grass goes in, though I do think I can find where the digested product comes out. Such a business has no appeal for me since I spend my nights swilling bad liquor and fending off soiled doves as I deal faro or indulge in a game of five-card draw.”
“I can keep my ranch?”
“And I will emerge with my reputation intact as a high-stakes gambler. I propose a single draw, high card wins. I will put the deed I have just won against your stake. You do have something more to bet?”
“No, it’s all there.” The rancher motioned with the pistol but his aim returned to dead center on Lucas’s chest. “I don’t have anything to put up.”
“Well,” Lucas said, pursing his lips and looking intent in thought. “That’s not really true. You have that fine six-gun. A brand spanking new Colt Peacemaker, isn’t it? You put it up against the deed, we draw, and high card wins.”
Lucas watched as the proposal rattled around behind the man’s bloodshot eyes.
“I’ll win? You can make sure of that?”
“I am a professional gambler. Knowing the odds is how I make a living.”
“All right,” the rancher said. “Let’s do it so I can get the hell out of this gin mill.” He spat toward a brass spittoon and missed. Only the cowboys getting chaw on their boots moved. More than one surged forward to get retribution, but the promise of a second act in the card game caused their partners to hold them back.
Lucas edged back around the table and then announced the wager loudly enough to draw back the crowd. He wasn’t surprised to see Claudette return. If she would stand behind him, her ample fleshy Front Range pressing outward might distract the rancher, but Lucas hardly needed that.
“The turn of the card will decide who wins the Rolling J Ranch. The deed is bet against about the finest six-gun I have ever seen.” Lucas motioned for the rancher to put the six-shooter on the table next to the deed.
He shuffled, pushed the deck across for the rancher to cut. The man made a big show of doing so, then pushed the deck across the table using a shaking finger. Claudette had placed a fresh shot of whiskey at his elbow. The rancher knocked the liquid popskull back. He tried to put the glass back on the table and missed. It hit the floor with a loud ringing sound and rolled away.
Other than the piano player continuing his assault on anything he played, there wasn’t a sound in the room. All attention focused on a single table. Lucas was aware of how the crowd sucked in a collective breath and held it.
He kept his eyes on the rancher. The man wobbled a bit and almost followed his shot glass to the floor, then caught himself on the table edge and pulled it closer. Lucas scooted his chair after the table. The nickel-plated Colt gleamed on the table next to the sweat-stained deed. The pile of chips and greenbacks had been shoved aside, as if mere money no longer mattered.
For Lucas Stanton it didn’t.
“Draw,” he said.
The rancher cut the deck and peeled off the top card. He flipped it over. A gasp went up. Jack of clubs. The rancher grinned ear to ear, and the crowd’s pent-up breath released in a huge gust like a chinook gusting off the Montana Crazies.
“Smoked you good.”
“My turn.” Lucas moved fast, cutting the deck and slipping a card to lay facedown. He slid a fingernail under the edge, then flicked his finger. The card stood on edge for a moment, then dropped.
The rancher gaped. Lucas moved like a striking snake, shoving the deed onto the pile of money and chips—and grabbing the Colt.
“I couldn’t lose! You said—”
“The queen of diamonds will beat you every time.” Lucas slipped his finger around the trigger as he hefted the gun. “Why don’t you leave now that you’ve lost?”
“You can’t take my ranch!” The rancher surged to his feet and leaned forward. He looked down as Lucas lifted the cocked six-shooter and aimed it at the man’s exposed chest.
“I’d offer you a drink as consolation, but you have had too many already. Good evening.”
“You haven’t heard the last of this!”
The rancher forced himself back and staggered away, shoving customers out of his way as he exited the saloon. Lucas waited until he had vanished before gingerly lowering the hammer and placing the six-gun on the table. The piano was still the only sound to be heard. Lucas knew what had to be done.
“Drinks for everyone. On me!”
Lefty had already begun pulling bottles of whiskey from a case under the bar. He knew as well as Lucas what had to be done to keep the peace in the Emerald City.
The gambler found himself pummeled as everyone wanted to slap him on the back, but this died down fast when Lefty began pouring at the bar. The only one remaining was Claudette. Her lips brushed his ear as she whispered all that she would do for him. Later. After they left the saloon and were alone.
Lucas had to laugh. What she had to offer was fine and he had wondered what it would take for him to find out, but the night was young, he had a pile of money and the deed to a big ranch, and there were so many in the saloon wanting to gamble. Lucas laughed heartily. Lady Luck was his whore tonight. Others would gamble with him—and he would win!
A few minutes after he lost the deed to the ranch to a merchant he thought was bluffing with his full house, Lucas also lost Claudette’s attention. She increasingly left his side to take drinks to others in the Emerald City and even ran an errand for Lefty that took her away for almost a half hour. In that time Lucas burned through the pile of chips with bets he shouldn’t have lost and had only a few greenbacks left. Not only Claudette but Lady Luck had abandoned him. He tried to be philosophical about it. He had quite a run before the cards turned against him. Memory of owning a huge ranch somewhere out in Middle Park would stick with him for quite a while.
After losing yet another hand to a cowboy with a knack for drawing to inside straights, he leaned back and looked around the saloon. He carefully took out his watch, opened the case, and as always, stared for a moment at the picture of the woman in the lid, before deciphering the time. Most of the painted roman numerals were gone, leaving him only the large brass hands and a few specks to guess at what was revealed.
“What time is it, Mr. Stanton?”
“Time for me to quit,” he said to the young cowboy. “It’s telling me if I stayed for just one more hand, you’d be in possession of what I have left.”
He squared up the stack of bills, riffled through them, and got an idea of his night’s profits. For all he had won and then lost, it was skimpy. He had begun with a hundred-dollar stake and now had only two hundred. Still, any profit was better than none at all.
“Lefty, see that my friend gets a drink on me.”
The barkeep inclined his head, then repeated the gesture. Lucas left the table, settled his elegant jacket across his broad shoulders, and carefully put his hands on the sticky bar to lean forward as Lefty whispered, “You owe me for the round you bought after you won.”
“A hundred dollars should cover it,” he said, counting out the bills onto the bar.
Lefty’s huge hand slapped down and snatched away the roll of greenbacks. With surprising dexterity, the one-armed barkeep counted out all but seven singles. These he shoved back toward Lucas. The gambler smiled ruefully, then tucked the bills into his vest pocket across from his watch.
“You owe me more but this will do if you come in and deal faro for a couple hours tomorrow night.”
“Not for free!”
They dickered until Lucas squeezed the promise of a fifty-fifty split from the man. Working halftime for the house wasn’t to his liking, but he stood to get back his stake and not end up a loser.
“You got a bonus comin’ for the work, too,” Lefty said. The man’s pale eyes glowed with an inner light that had less to do with a desire for money than lust. This told Lucas what he needed to know.
“When did Carmela get back to Denver?”
Carmela Thompson had a voice like a morning dove and a body to make it difficult for any man to notice her true singing ability. Lucas had crossed paths with her a dozen times or more, often spending as long as a week in the same emporium before she continued her concert tour throughout the West and he moved on to another cow town or boomtown where miners valued a moment’s thrill at the poker table over actually winning. For all the times they had worked under the same roof, he and she had never spent a night under the same blanket.
It wasn’t for lack of trying on Lucas’s part either. He knew he was a handsome man, dressed expensively, and preferred the finer things—when he could afford them. The last time he and Carmela had met had been in New Orleans. He had been flush and willing to spend lavishly. She was as willing to receive his largesse and had proven to be a witty conversationalist and a lady who would be as at home with the crowned heads of Europe as she was in a dive. Lucas cherished their time together, but somehow she had once more escaped his net of compliments and gifts intended to win a woman’s heart.
He remembered too well standing at the foot of Poydras Street, near the dock, watching as she took the captain’s hand to help her onto the riverboat going north to Saint Louis. The sternwheeler had rounded the oxbow crescent in the river and disappeared for more than ten minutes before he had shaken himself free of her spell and gone in search of company at one of the myriad cotillions always filling the Vieux Carré with uplifting music during the winter months.
That night he had found a willing Creole belle with midnight hair spun up in a fancy whirl dotted with pearls, a beguiling accent, and rouged lips that begged to be kissed. He had also found her lover, who carried a colchemarde. The sword cane had a wicked edge and an even deadlier tip, which Lucas avoided only through a spot of luck as the cuckolded lover slipped in the black loamy street in his haste to slay his paramour’s coxcomb.
After that he had seen Carmella twice again, the last time on the stage at the rear of the Emerald City Dance Hall and Drinking Emporium not six months earlier.
“Her tour isn’t going well?” Lucas asked.
“A sellout wherever she goes. I had to offer twice what I paid before,” Lefty complained, only there was no hint of outrage in his voice. Like Lucas, like so many others, he would pay any price to be in the same room as Carmela Thompson.
“Does she still travel with . . . what’s his name?”
“Her and the lawman had words when she was here before. I offered her a permanent job and to get rid of the marshal so he wouldn’t bother her again.”
“She turned you down, of course.”
“Yeah. She said being in one town too long gave her the collywobbles.”
“Moreover,” Lucas said, “she is more than capable of getting rid of unwanted bodies on her own.”
Lefty shot him a hard look, then laughed and slapped him on the back hard enough to rattle his teeth.
“You know her too well.”
“Ah, not well enough, but rest assured I will return to the Emerald City to deal faro and to appreciate her dulcet tones.”
“She sings pretty good, too.”
“Good night.” Lucas touched the brim of his bowler hat and strutted toward the rear of the saloon. The piano player sprawled across the bench with a pretty waiter girl’s head in his lap. Both had passed out.
Lucas considered playing a quick song to see if either of the dreamers stirred, then decided against it. He hopped up onto the stage and pushed through dirty curtains. He paused for a moment looking out over the mostly deserted Emerald City. When Carmela sang, they would be packed shoulder to shoulder. The waitresses would be working at a dead run to keep the thirsty men in whiskey and beer, and in the moment Carmela swept onto the stage in her lavish costume and struck a pose, for that moment there would be silence. Her smile would ignite catcalls and suggestions both heartfelt and improbable from her audience.
Then she would sing.
Lucas let the curtains fall into place, blocking off the room. He would be across the room at a faro table. His view of her performance might suffer, but her song always cut through the loudest of cheers. Quick steps took him behind the stage to the pair of dressing rooms. Lefty already had a crudely painted sign with Carmela’s name on it nailed to one door. He reached for the doorknob, then pulled away. He saw no reason to go into the empty dressing room now. And when Carmela occupied it, an invitation to enter was not likely to be forthcoming.
A man could dream.
Lucas settled his bowler hat at a jaunty angle and went out the back door into a long, narrow alley. The brick wall facing him belonged to another saloon, but he avoided the Points North because the owner was a son of a bitch and made no pretense of running an honest game. Lucas matched any other gambler’s dexterity and ability to deal seconds or pull any card from the deck he wanted, only he never cheated. It was beneath his dignity.
He pressed his hand against an empty coat pocket. The rancher had even lost in a fair high-card showdown. Lucas regretted not keeping the man’s Peacemaker. It had been a fine shooting iron. As clearly as if he still sat at the table, he played through the hand where he had lost it in a bet against eight dollars and a small leather pouch that might have held gold dust.
“I should have known two pair, jacks and eights, wasn’t good enough,” he chided himself as he came to the end of the alley and looked up and down the deserted street. Even in Denver’s wildest, most notorious sections along Tremont, 4 A.M. proved the boundary of human endurance for gambling, booze, and women.
“Hey, you! Stop!”
In the deserted street at this time of morning he knew better than to loiter. With two men shouting at him and pointing, he reacted instinctively. He walked briskly, then broke out in a run for the doors of the Erstwhile Saloon and Hotel down the street. Lucas skidded to a halt, then shot a look behind him. The two men who had lain in wait outside the Emerald City’s front door were still running for him. Worse, coming out of the Erstwhile Saloon and Hotel were two more men he recognized.
The rancher and his weasel of a sidekick pushed back their coats to expose six-shooters hanging at their hips. It hadn’t taken the man long at all to get another smoke wagon.
“You’re going to give it back!” The rancher drew the six-gun and cocked it. In the quiet night it sounded like a massive clockwork ratchet falling onto a cogwheel. “I’ll cut you down if you don’t stop!”
Lucas lived by his wits and figuring odds. Talking his way out of this predicament didn’t look like an appealing prospect.
“I lost it,” he shouted over his shoulder as he ran south along the side of the Erstwhile.
All the doors were secured for the night. He might bash in a window and try to enter that way, but the hotel had a reputation of dealing with unwanted guests that afforded him a slimmer chance of survival than avoiding the rancher and his hired hands.
He darted down a side street, only to find the two who had waited at the saloon were ahead of him. They had taken a side street to cut off his escape. With a deft twist, he changed directions and plunged into deep shadows and large piles of garbage. Lucas dodged the worst of the rotting debris, though he scared away some of the more cowardly rats. Two as large as house cats fixed red eyes on him, bared their fangs, and dared him to take away their early morning repast.
Vaulting a crate, he hit the pavement on the far side and slipped. Garbage on his boot soles turned every step into one on ice. He skidded about, caught himself, and found another alleyway cleaner than the first. He pressed into a doorway, heart hammering. Forcing himself to breathe in slow, deep drafts settled him somewhat and kept his pursuers from hearing heavy breathing. He reached into his pocket and drew the .22-caliber pistol. Against men hefting .45s, it seemed ineffectual, but the rosewood grips reassured him. A tiny bullet to the head ended a life as surely as a heavy 250-grain hunk of lead through the heart. All he had to do was make every shot count.
All he had to do. All . . .
He held his breath and pressed harder against the door when the rancher stopped at the mouth of the alley, looking around frantically.
“Dammit, he was here a minute ago. How’d you lose him?”
“How’d you lose him, boss? You was closer than Relf and me.”
For a moment Lucas thought escape would be easier than he anticipated. The rancher lifted his heavy .45, pointed it at his henchman, and cocked the weapon. The report as it discharged made him wince. But the ranch hand who had mouthed off to his employer still stood upright in the street. The rancher had fired past the man’s left ear.
“You deafened me. I cain’t hear nuthin’.” The man clapped his hand over his left ear and swung around. Lucas prepared to fire if the man saw him as he looked down the alley. The nearness of the rancher’s bullet robbed the henchman of concentration. He wasn’t in any mood to look for the quarry. He turned back, hand still covering his ear. “What’d you go and do that for?”
“To get your attention,” the rancher said. His words slurred. He hadn’t stopped drinking after he left the Emerald City. “Don’t stand around and lollygag. Find the bastard! Find him or I’ll fire you so fast yer ass’ll scorch!”
The deafened cowboy and his partner set out down the street, leaving the rancher and his whining co
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