The Great West Detective Agency

DOG DAY AFTERNOON

“Mr. Dunbar hasn't brought any dog home recently?”

He saw the woman's eyes widen and ducked, trying to avoid what he knew was coming. The club crashed down on his shoulder rather than his head. That was all the fight he put up before a fist like a mallet drove into his gut, doubling him over. In the far distance he heard the maid complaining. The answer she received quieted her. The back door closed. Lucas saw that through tears caused by pain. The roar of blood and the fierce hammering of his heart filled his ears.

He wished he had been totally deaf so he wouldn't have heard, “Kill him?”

PRAISE FOR

The Sonora Noose

“A sharp-edged tale about broken family bonds and honor . . . Jackson Lowry tells a hell of a good story.”

—Johnny D. Boggs, four-time Spur Award–winning author of
The Lonesome Chisholm Trail

Titles by Jackson Lowry

THE GREAT WEST DETECTIVE AGENCY

THE SONORA NOOSE

THE BERKLEY PUBLISHING GROUP

Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Group (USA) LLC

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014

USA • Canada • UK • Ireland • Australia • New Zealand • India • South Africa • China

penguin.com

A Penguin Random House Company

THE GREAT WEST DETECTIVE AGENCY

A Berkley Book / published by arrangement with the author

Copyright © 2014 by Jackson Lowry.

Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for having an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

BERKLEY® is a registered trademark of Penguin Group (USA) LLC.

The “B” design is a trademark of Penguin Group (USA) LLC.

For information, address: The Berkley Publishing Group,

a division of Penguin Group (USA) LLC,

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.

eBook ISBN: 978-0-698-14450-7

PUBLISHING HISTORY

Berkley mass-market edition / October 2014

Cover illustration by Bruce Emmett.

Cover design by Diana Kolsky.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Version_1

Contents

Titles by Jackson Lowry

Title Page

Copyright

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

1

T
onight 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.”

“Sir?”

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?”

“Yes.”

Lucas nodded.

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 books

False Impressions by Laura Caldwell
Rebel, Bully, Geek, Pariah by Erin Jade Lange
The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor
Brat and Master by Sindra van Yssel
Behind the Candelabra: My Life With Liberace by Scott Thorson, Alex Thorleifson
Judgment by Denise Hall
Fairytale of New York by Miranda Dickinson
White Liar by T.J. Sin
Casualties by Elizabeth Marro