The Brannocksby Matt Braun
Earl Brannock was a gambling man who fled the fires of the Civil War and found a boomtown called Denver—in a land being built on dreams, luck, and gold. Virgil Brannock joined him next, fresh from Lee's surrender at Appomattox, determined to rise to the top of the frontier's rough and treacherous business/b>/p>/p>/b>… See more details below
Earl Brannock was a gambling man who fled the fires of the Civil War and found a boomtown called Denver—in a land being built on dreams, luck, and gold. Virgil Brannock joined him next, fresh from Lee's surrender at Appomattox, determined to rise to the top of the frontier's rough and treacherous business world. Finally, Clint came riding a trail of revenge: a fiery young Brannock who dared to wear a badge...The three brothers were reunited once again. And on a frontier brimming with opportunity and exploding with danger, vicious enemies would test their courage—and three beautiful women would claim their love...
“Matt Braun is a master storyteller of frontier history.” Elmer Kelton
“Matt Braun is head and shoulders above all the rest who would attempt to bring the gunmen of the old west to life.” Terry Johnston, author of The Plainsmen series
“Matt Braun is one of the best!” Don Coldsmith, author of the Spanish Bit series
“Matt Braun has a genius for taking real characters out of the Old West and giving them flesh-and-blood immediacy.” Dee Brown, author of Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee
“Braun blends historical fact and ingenious fiction...A top-drawer Western novelist!” Robert L. Gale
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By Matthew Braun
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1986 Matthew Braun
All rights reserved.
Earl Brannock emerged from the Denver House. He paused a moment in front of the hotel, lighting a slim black cheroot. Then he turned and walked off along Larimer Street.
Springtime lay across the land with fiery brilliance. The earth shimmered under a late-morning sun, and the streets, knee-deep in mud only a week before, were now baked hard as stone. Far in the distance the snowcapped Rockies pulsed and vibrated as the sun neared its zenith.
Sauntering along the boardwalk, Earl proceeded downtown. His pace was unhurried and he puffed the cheroot with an air of easygoing good spirits. The Civil War was scarcely a month ended, and the close of hostilities had acted as a restorative on the people of Denver. A sense of celebration still lingered throughout the town.
A native Missourian, Earl had come to Denver in 1861. The menfolk of his family, including his two brothers, had rushed to serve under the Confederate flag. But he'd thought the war a senseless waste, the work of politicians and hot-tempered fools. He had traveled far enough west to outdistance the conflict, and the zealotry of both sides. Denver, while not neutral ground, had been largely untouched by the slaughter.
Four years later, in early May of 1865, the town was in the midst of a boom. Apart from mountain men, Anglos in large numbers first appeared in Colorado during the summer of 1858. A band of prospectors had discovered gold in the foothills of the Rockies, near the juncture of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek. The following year some fifty thousand men trekked westward at the height of the Pikes Peak gold rush.
By 1860, richer lodes of ore were discovered deeper in the mountains. There, scattered at random across the landscape, a dozen or more mining camps were established. The original discovery site, where gold quickly petered out, was transformed into a settlement of tents and crude log structures. The townspeople named it Denver, and a year later Colorado was granted territorial status.
On a level plain, situated beside Cherry Creek, Denver shortly became the principal supply point for outlying mining camps. Commerce and trade, as well as land speculation, created a thriving and relatively stable economy. By the end of the war, Denver's population was approaching five thousand, and upper Larimer Street was the heart of the business district. The town had a bank, several dozen stores and shops, a brick kiln, and one newspaper.
Still, for all its growth, Denver was very much a mountain settlement. While log cabins had given way to frame houses and brick buildings, there were no paved streets and the only trees were cottonwoods scattered along the creek bank. Boardwalks had been constructed in the business district, and more recently in the downtown sporting district; but spring and winter the side streets were a morass of mud, often impassable except on foot. The town was prosperous, bustling with trade, though far from elegant.
Earl Brannock considered it home. By profession a gambler, he made Denver his headquarters. He kept a permanent room in the hotel and occasionally he played poker in some of the town's gambling dens. Yet, for the most part, he was an itinerant, traveling the mountain circuit. Three weeks out of four were spent in the outlying camps, where miners and their gold dust were easily separated. He lived very well on his winnings, and he answered to no man. He came and went as it suited him.
A dapper man, Earl wore a black broadcloth coat, with matching vest, gray-striped trousers, and kidskin boots. One pocket of his vest held a gold watchpiece and the other concealed a blunt-snouted .50-caliber derringer. Beneath a low-crowned hat, his hair was wiry and red, and his eyebrows were a pale ginger. His manners were impeccable and his normal expression was one of amiable bonhomie. He gave other men a sense of false security, and they often misjudged his cold resolve. He had killed three of them over card-table disputes.
Crossing over to Blake Street, Earl entered the downtown sporting district. By local ordinance, all saloons, gaming dives, and hurdy-gurdy dance halls were restricted to a three-block section on the south side. One block east, on Holladay Street, another section was devoted to dollar cathouses and a handful of high-class parlor houses. As a whole, it was lusty and depraved, a carnival of vice. The revenue it generated from license fees was the town's major source of taxes.
Halfway down Blake Street, Earl entered the Criterion Hall. Unlike most gambling dens, the interior was paneled in dark wood, with ornate carvings and the floor waxed to a high polish. A gleaming mahogany bar occupied one entire wall, backed by a French mirror and rows of sparkling glasses. The gaming tables, including roulette and dice layouts, were situated along the opposite wall. To the rear four poker tables afforded a degree of privacy by their location. A piano provided the sole musical diversion.
A tall, rather dignified man stood alone at the bar. His gray hair and neatly trimmed mustache were in marked contrast to the somber elegance of his black cutaway coat. From a bone-white china cup, he sipped coffee laced with cognac while he watched three bartenders prepare for the noon-hour rush. His debonair bearing in no way detracted from his look of iron authority. The bartenders hustled about busily under his quiet scrutiny.
"Good morning, Henry," Earl greeted him. "I see you're still drinking up the profits."
Count Henry Murat turned from the bar. His sharp features creased in a congenial smile. "A proprietor," he said, lifting his cup, "needs constant fortification. The trials and tribulations of a gaming impresario are many."
"In other words, the hair of the dog that bit you. I take it you had a rough night."
"Long and tedious," Murat acknowledged. "A succession of pinch-penny players devoid of sporting blood. I drink to keep myself from crying."
Earl shook his head, grinning. "My heart goes out to you. It's a wonder you're able to keep the doors open."
"Well ..." Murat chuckled, eyes twinkling. "I'm hardly a candidate for the poorhouse. With luck, the good nights even out the bad."
"Luck, hell! It's the house odds that line your pockets."
Count Henry Murat was one of Denver's premier gaming operators. He claimed kinship to a noble of Napoleon's court, blithely sidestepping questions about his lack of foreign accent. He and his wife, Countess Katerine, were among the earliest settlers in Denver. The town's first American flag flew on the roof of their log cabin, sewn by the countess from red flannel underwear and a blue cloak. With a stake from a gold-mining venture, Murat had opened a classy saloon and gambling parlor some years past. The Criterion, so he said, was operated along the lines of a European casino. No one in town begrudged him the illusion.
"You're envious," Murat said now with heavy good humor. "Tell the truth, my friend. Wouldn't you prefer the house odds on your side?"
"I do pretty well on my own."
"Indeed you do! But the life of a vagabond cardsharp takes its toll. Don't you agree?"
Earl feigned a wounded look. "You do me an injustice, Henry. Educated hands aren't necessary to trim the suckers. Poker is a game of skill."
The point was well taken. Earl Brannock's reputation was that of a square gambler. He never resorted to cold decks or other cheating devices common to the profession. A keen mind and an intuitive grasp of human nature gave him all the edge needed. He seldom lost.
"I was jesting," Murat said lightly. "You're not a card-sharp in the literal sense. But admit it or not, you're very much the nomad."
Earl took a draw on his cheroot. Head tilted back, he blew a perfect smoke ring toward the ceiling. Then, waiting for it to widen, he puffed a smaller oval straight through the center. When he spoke, there was a sober tone to his voice.
"There are times," he confessed, "when it gets old. I'm headed for Central City tomorrow, and halfway wish I weren't. Lately, it's come to seem like a job."
"No challenge," Murat said. "All the spice gone from the game."
"Yeah, something like that."
"So, I was right! You do tire of the gypsy's life."
"One day ..." Earl paused, exhaled smoke through a wide smile. "When I put together a stake, I'll open a place that'll knock your socks off. The Criterion won't hold a candle to it."
"I wish you well," Murat said philosophically. "For most men in our profession, it's a pipe dream and nothing more. Perhaps you'll prove the exception."
"Bank on it," Earl said with a raffish smile. "All I need is the right time and the right pigeon — the big game."
"Speaking of which," Murat observed, "I've arranged a private game tonight. A Texas drover brought in a herd of cows yesterday. He's flush and eager to buck the tiger."
"Who's sitting in?"
"Jim Gaylord, Sam Boyle, and Jack Tracy. And, of course, myself."
"Impressive company," Earl noted. "How much to get a chair?"
"Table stakes ... twenty thousand minimum."
Earl slowly wagged his head. "Too rich for my blood."
Murat pursed his lips, nodded. "Perhaps another time."
"And a few more trips to Central City."
"You'll find your mark, my friend. No pun intended — it's in the cards."
Earl joined him in a coffee and cognac. He rarely drank before sunset, and never before breakfast. Today seemed like a good day to start.CHAPTER 2
Central City was some thirty miles west of Denver. Earl stepped off the stagecoach late the following afternoon. He swatted dust from his suit jacket and walked toward the center of town. As was his customary practice, he'd brought along no baggage.
Among local boosters Central City was called "the richest square mile on earth." It was no idle boast, for upward of a hundred thousand dollars a week was gouged from the mountainous terrain. Placer miners, who worked the streambeds, still accounted for much of the gold. But hard-rock mining, with shafts bored into the mountainsides, was now the major producer. Such wealth was a lodestone for hundreds of newcomers who arrived daily.
The town itself was scattered along a gulch almost two miles long. Surrounded by mountains, the frame buildings and log cabins were wedged side by side throughout the camp. Main Street was designed to provide places of business with a look of permanence. The illusion of a second story was created with false fronts, framework structures attached to roofs, often topped by cornices and complete with sham windows. The business district looked substantial and built to last.
Earl traded greetings with several merchants along the street. He was a familiar figure in Central City, generally staying over a week on each trip. Unlike Denver, where the town fathers had pretensions of respectability, there was no stigma attached to a gambling man in the mining camps. Cardsharps and bunco men operated at their own peril, exposure often resulting in sudden death. But an honest gambler was looked upon as just another businessman. His stock-in-trade was luck and chance, the odds of the game.
Nowhere was this tolerant attitude more evident than with the sporting crowd. Saloons and dance halls and gaming dens were liberally scattered among more legitimate businesses. Even whores were viewed with grudging acceptance, one of the mainstays of any mining camp. Girls employed by a saloon or a hurdy-gurdy also worked the backroom cribs where love for sale was priced by the minute. The respectable people of Central City viewed all this with broad-minded amusement. Miners, by nature, were a randy breed. And women for hire were simply a part of everyday life.
Crossing an intersection, Earl mounted the boardwalk on the other side of the street. He went through the batwing doors of the Metropole, one of the few two-story buildings in Central City. A combination saloon, dance hall, and gaming dive, it was his regular haunt while in town. With something to suit every taste, the Metropole drew large crowds. Liquor was four bits a shot, the girls were a dollar a dance, and the gaming tables offered a variety of ways to go broke in a hurry. Whatever a man's preference, he got his money's worth at the Metropole.
The interior was brightly lighted by coal-oil lamps. Opposite the bar were crude tables and chairs, with a cleared area for dancing. The customers' casual indifference to spittoons was marked by a floor stained dark with tobacco juice. Toward the rear, gaming layouts were ranked closely along one wall. On the other wall were several tables set aside for poker, and a twenty-one layout was positioned in the center of the gaming area. The woman behind the twenty-one spread was the Metropole's star attraction.
Her name was Monte Verde. She was compellingly attractive, with raven hair, bold dark eyes, and a sumptuous figure. She wore a green velvet gown, her shoulders bared and an emerald pendant suspended over the vee of her breasts. Her expression was at once sensuous and humorous, and her eyes danced with a certain bawdy wisdom. She gave Earl a dazzling smile.
"Hello there, stranger."
The evening rush hour had not yet begun. There were no players at the table, and Earl stopped directly in front of her. He smiled, looking her over with undisguised relish.
"Hello yourself," he said pleasantly. "How's tricks?"
"Another day, another dollar."
"Sounds downright boring."
She laughed. "Not the way I deal."
The statement was more truth than jest. The game of twenty-one originated in France, and vingt-et-un was reputed to have been Napoleon's favorite. Imported to New Orleans, the game became popular on riverboats and eventually made its way to the mining camps. It was fast, decided on the turn of a few cards, the closest hand to a count of twenty-one being the winner. Whether there was one bettor or more, every player was on his own and went directly against the house. Monte Verde was the only woman dealer in the camps, and men waited in line to try their luck. Her looks, and her joking manner, made losing almost a pleasure.
Earl was perhaps the only man in Colorado who knew Monte Verde's real name. Like him, she was a native Missourian, and as two wayfarers in a remote mining camp, they'd been drawn together. For the past three years he had shared her room upstairs, and her bed. He kept a spare change of clothes in her closet, and everyone in town considered her his woman. He was her confidant as well, and late one night she'd told him her darkest secret. Monte Verde was a woman with a past.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Missouri was divided in its sympathies between the North and South. But the state legislature, in the spring of 1861, voted to side with the Union. Shortly afterward the federal army established its headquarters at St. Louis. The city teemed with Confederate sympathizers, one of whom was the young kinswoman of a prominent Missouri politician. Her name was Belle Siddons.
Her social position was above reproach, and she soon developed many admirers among the officers assigned to Union headquarters. Her escorts squired her to military balls and various loyalist functions, and their wartime secrets were never secret for very long. In 1862, after arousing suspicion, she was arrested as a spy. Following interrogation, she confessed her guilt, proudly boasting that she had kept Confederate forces informed of Union troop movements. She was tried and convicted before an army tribunal.
Only the intervention of President Lincoln spared her the gallows. Sentenced to prison, she was released after four months, and much political dickering, on condition that she exile herself somewhere beyond the Missouri River. Traveling westward, she sought a new life in Colorado Territory and the gold fields. She changed her name, and with time and experience she became a skilled twenty-one dealer.
Among her clientele were outlaws, gunmen, prospectors, and the legion of adventurers who populated the mountain settlements. Yet, in those first few months, she kept her admirers at a distance, aware that personal entanglements and the business of gambling were a dangerous mix. No one questioned her past, for westerners considered any breach of privacy as the cardinal sin. She remained, instead, the lady with the strange name. And one of the great mysteries of the Colorado gold camps.
Excerpted from The Brannocks by Matthew Braun. Copyright © 1986 Matthew Braun. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Matt Braun is a fourth-generation Westerner, steeped in the tradition and lore of the frontier era. His books reflect a heritage rich with the truths of that bygone time. Raised among the Cherokee and Osage tribes, Braun learned their traditions and culture, and their philosophy became the foundation of his own beliefs. Like his ancestors, he has spent most of his life wandering the mountains and plains of the West. His heritage and his contribution to Western literature resulted in his appointment by the Governor of Oklahoma as a Territorial Marshal.
Braun is the author of more than forty novels and four nonfiction works, including Black Fox, which was made into a CBS miniseries, and One Last Town, which was made into a TNT movie called You Know My Name. Western Writers of America awarded Braun the prestigious Golden Spur Award for The Kincaids. He is also the recipient of the Cowboy Spirit Award and was inducted into the Cowboy Hall of Fame in 1999.
Matt Braun is the author of more than four dozen novels, and won the Golden Spur Award from the Western Writers of America for The Kincaids. He describes himself as a "true westerner"; born in Oklahoma, he is the descendant of a long line of ranchers. He writes with a passion for historical accuracy and detail that has earned him a reputation as the most authentic portrayer of the American West.
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