On a tawdry street in the heart of Denver, men crowd into the saloon for two reasons: cheap whiskey and Connie Dawson. The loveliest singer in Colorado, Connie has a golden voice and a brassy personality, but along with a crooked preacher, a hotshot gambler, and the fastest gunman in town, she’s about to find herself in a whole lot of trouble. All four owe the sinister Judge Prink a favor—and he’s ready to collect.
Prink has recently discovered the idyllic township of Powder Valley, home to Sheriff Pat Stevens and his faithful friends Sam and Ezra, and declared it ripe for the picking. With the help of his indentured gang of miscreants, he plans to strip the innocent little community bare. But when he meets Powder Valley’s courageous trio, Prink comes face to face with the law of the gun.
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A Powder Valley Western
By Brett Halliday
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1971 David Dresser
All rights reserved.
It was early dusk, the end of a drowsy Sunday afternoon in Denver, Colorado. Downtown Larimer Street was beginning to stretch itself and wake up, yawning as it shook off the somnolent lethargy of the afternoon. Gas chandeliers were lighted in the saloons, making deceptive blobs of cheery brightness along the tawdry street.
In the Black Angel Saloon, men who had been dozing comfortably in rickety wooden chairs against the wall awoke and rubbed their bleared eyes, glanced about defensively, and then slowly began eddying up to the bar for the cheap whiskey their bodies craved.
The swinging doors began to creak as darkness came on and newcomers sought the light and human companionship within. They were mostly a dreary lot: bearded miners from the hills above the city; booted cowmen at the tag-end of a weekend; the shuffling, pallid dregs of a young and exuberant metropolis — with a sprinkling of painted ladies who emerged from hiding with the coming of night and began circulating in and out of the Larimer Street saloons in search of men with money to spend on them.
The Black Angel was one of the more ornate drinking places of the district, offering, in addition to bright lights and cheap whiskey, what was boldly billed in window signs as "The Best Floor Show in the City FREE — Continuous Music and Entertainment."
There was a small raised platform in the back of the barroom, with a shabby black velvet curtain draped behind it as a backdrop. There were two wooden chairs in front of the platform, with a piano standing off to one side. As the early evening crowd began to thicken at the bar, the entertainers came out from the back to fulfill the promise made by the window signs. A wizened little man seated himself at the piano stool with a flourish, while an accordion player and a violinist took the two chairs. Both were young and both wore perfectly blank stares on their faces as they waited to begin "The Best Floor Show in the City FREE."
The wizened pianist rippled the keys and tinny melody came out. The accordion player and violinist went to work without enthusiasm, conscientiously making enough noise to filter out through the swinging doors in the hope of luring any passers-by inside.
No one applauded when they finished the number. No one paid much attention to them or to the music. Then the black velvet curtain parted and a girl stepped out onto the small wooden platform. She had a slender figure and wore a shimmering silvery dress that looked good against the black velvet. Blond hair was piled in small tight curls high atop her head, giving her a sort of regal appearance. In the soft yellow lights of flickering gas jets she looked young and vital. There was a little stir among the men at the bar as they nudged each other and turned to look, and they gave her the respect of near silence as she sang Comin' thro' the Rye with gestures. She had a small light voice, big enough for the saloon and good enough for that company. There was some applause when she finished, and she smiled and threw kisses out to them and sang My Old Kentucky Home for an encore.
This drew more applause, and she gave out with more smiles and a more generous assortment of thrown kisses.
A tall man separated himself from the others at the bar and went back toward her. He was bareheaded, with soft silvery hair and a benign, red-veined face. He had a bulbous nose and watery blue eyes and four of his front teeth were missing. He wore a rusty black coat over stooped shoulders, and he shuffled along in worn Congress gaiters.
Connie Dawson was half-turned to disappear between the velvet curtains when she saw him coming. She hesitated, with a frown making three deep wrinkles between her eyes. The musical trio was playing an uninspired version of The Blue Danube, and three or four couples began waltzing in the small space at the rear of the bar. Larimer Street night life had begun in earnest, and no one paid any attention to the singer and the tall man who was talking to her.
Connie Dawson said brightly, "Hello, Tim. I suppose your boss sent you over to see if he can hire me away from Brick Gleason!" She showed her white teeth in a smile, and her tone was brightly bantering but nonetheless hopeful.
Timothy O'Connor stopped beside the platform and shook his head. He was a hanger-on and general handy man at the Cambridge Hotel, a hopeless addict to alcohol and a familiar figure in that section of the city. He said, "I'm sorry, Miss Connie. The Cambridge could use your singin', all right, but the boss is old-fashioned, sorta. He don't hold with these new-fangled ways of gettin' business. Nope. The Jedge sent me."
The frown wrinkled Connie's face again. She blinked long eyelashes down to hide the fear that sprang momentarily into her eyes. "Judge Prink, Timothy? What does he want?"
"I dunno, Miss Connie. I was to tell you to see him when you're done here. About midnight. The Jedge has got a soot at the hotel," Timothy O'Connor went on importantly. "You know how he is when he's got big business up his sleeve."
"Yes," Connie said slowly, "I know." She caught her underlip between her teeth and looked tired and a little frightened. "All right," she agreed flatly, "I'll be there."
The well-dressed and well-bred congregation of the Park Hill Baptist Church was standing in the pews singing the second verse of the last hymn preceding the sermon. Shaded gas lights cast a rich soft glow over the interior of the church, giving colorful reflections back from the stained glass windows. His parishioners were the wealthiest in the city, and the rotund figure of the Reverend Ezekial Mathews exuded reverent satisfaction as he waited for the hymn to end so he could give his blessing to the important business of taking up the evening collection. He always enjoyed that part of the service, and he secretly prided himself on the rich resonance of the words he employed to help loosen the purse strings of his wealthy congregation.
A black-garbed figure stood at the rear end of each of the four aisles waiting for his benediction on the silver collection plates in their hands. The man at the left center aisle bowed his bald head as the hymn was ended. There was a fringe of very black hair around his baldness, and heavy black sideburns extended far down on his cheeks. He had stern features and thin, tight lips, and stingy parishioners had a way of quailing before his steady glance and putting more in the collection plate than they had intended to give.
Tonight Daniel Deever listened patiently and with the pleasure of a connoisseur while the Reverend Mathews sonorously told God (and the congregation) that he knew every one of them was eager to do his or her part in sharing the burden of the church's expenses, and explained how pleased he was with their generosity, and implored God to enter their hearts and cause them to give more freely in the Great Cause.
That would do it, Daniel Deever told himself happily as the minister concluded and the congregation sat down. He waited a moment to give those in the back row ample opportunity to get out their wallets and open their bags; then he stepped forward with a slight limp and handed his collection plate to the occupant of the first pew on his right.
The plate was passed on from hand to hand, while a second plate was coming toward Deever from the back row at his left, and a third one was making its way toward his aisle along the second row on his right.
There was thick silence in the church, broken only by the comforting sound of silver tinkling into the four collection plates as they were passed from hand to hand by the devout congregation.
Daniel Deever waited patiently until the first plate from his left reached him. There was a rather disappointing collection of dimes and quarters, with a few silver dollars and one bill. He took the plate in his hands and took one slow step forward while his nimble fingers abstracted two of the silver dollars, leaving the others and the bill for bait as he sent the plate back along the second row to his left.
He folded his arms genteelly, sliding the two dollars unobtrusively into the right-hand pocket of his black frock coat; then received the plate from the second row at his right. This time there were three bills and more silver dollars. One of the bills was a five. He opened that out and left it so it could be plainly seen, lifting one of the dollar bills and three silver cartwheels at the same time.
His manner was grave and impressively reverent as he continued this process, limping forward a step at a time and lightening each plate as it passed through his hands.
By the time Daniel Deever reached the front row, both side pockets of his coat were beginning to bulge a little, and the garment sagged comfortably from his broad shoulders. He waited impassively until his three fellow collectors were ready, then the four of them marched past the minister, pausing momentarily to show off their spoils, then proceeding to a small anteroom where all the plates were dumped and the evening receipts were totaled up.
In this totaling-up process, Danial Deever had his first chance at the farthest right-hand plate which had not reached his predatory fingers previously, and tonight he was lucky enough to palm a five and a ten- dollar bill which would otherwise have gone to further the Lord's work.
Altogether it was a good evening, and Daniel Deever was humming a scriptural tune about his many blessings when he quietly let himself out by a side entrance while the sermon was still in progress.
Timothy O'Connor was flattened against the side of the church when Deever emerged. Deever whirled on the indistinct figure and threw both big bony fists up in an attitude of unchristianlike defense when O'Connor took a tentative step forward. He relaxed when the barroom loafer whined, "It's only me, Dan'l. Old Tim. I been waitin' for you."
"Timothy?" Deever lowered his voice, restraining his anger. "You shouldn't come here. Suppose someone saw you speak to me?"
"No one seen me." Timothy fell into step beside the taller limping figure. "The Jedge sent me. He wants to see you tonight."
"The Judge? Can you refer to Judge Prink?"
"That's right." Timothy chuckled. "J. Worthington his ownself. He blowed into town this afternoon an' set his-self up in a soot at the Cambridge. Sent word for you to see him tonight."
"I don't need his help," Daniel Deever protested. "My feet have followed the path of righteousness unerringly. What does the fat old goat want of me?"
"I dunno. Got somethin' up his sleeve, I reckon. Should I tell him you'll come?"
"Tell him," said Daniel Deever with austerity, "that I am pleased to accept his invitation though I'm not in need of legal advice."
In a small iron-barred cell at the Denver city jail, Mr. Gut-Luck Lasher sat hunched forward on the edge of a canvas cot while he expertly rolled a brown-paper cigarette. Gut-Luck was depressed this Sunday evening. He had been in jail for a week and the future looked uncertain. His bail had been set at the exorbitant sum of one hundred dollars, and he was without money or friends.
All for a simple killing on Larimer Street. Denver was a funny place, he cogitated moodily. It had been a fair and square shooting. All the twenty-odd killings in Gut-Luck's past had been fair and square. He prided himself on always giving the other man the break. Let them reach first, by God. Any time he couldn't blast them in the belly quicker than they could draw and get him — well, that'd be the end of Gut-Luck. Up to now, during the first twenty-five years of his life, Gut-Luck hadn't run up against a man fast enough with his six-gun to accomplish that feat.
He had become a killer and gotten his nickname in a curious way. It happened when he was seventeen, in El Paso, Texas. He was a gangling cow-poke in from the Pecos country and awkwardly wearing a gun merely because a man felt undressed without one. There was a saloon altercation that ended with one of the fastest gunslicks in the border city calling him outside. Tom Lasher walked out to his destiny, dry-mouthed and weak- kneed with fear. While his opponent drew, the youth blunderingly dropped hand to gun-butt and unwittingly fingered the trigger.
He was more astonished than anyone else when the professional gunman vented a surprised grunt and collapsed, twitching, in the El Paso gutter. He didn't die for two days, but the slug in his guts had momentarily paralyzed him so he couldn't return the young puncher's lucky shot.
An old doctor who happened to be on the scene explained the phenomenon to Lasher, and thus changed the course of his life. "Always shoot for the guts, son," the aged physician advised him. "It's a big target, and a slug anywhere in the belly is something like a blow in the solar plexus. It knocks them out though it may not kill. You can take a bullet most any place else and keep on shooting, but not in the guts."
It was as simple as that. He cut the bottom out of his holster and mounted it on a swivel. A little practice taught him a downward sweep that would beat any draw, and the belly was too big a target to miss. So he became Gut-Luck Lasher. His first bullet always gave him plenty of leisure to finish off any man foolish enough to draw against him.
But he was a stranger in Denver, having just drifted up from Arizona, and friends of Lefty Breen had called the police after Gut-Luck calmly put a bullet through Lefty's head while the gunman was writhing on the ground with both hands clasped over a gaping hole in his intestines.
Gut-Luck sighed and lighted his cigarette. He didn't pay any attention when he heard a turnkey coming along the aisle toward his cell. He didn't know anyone in the city who might put up bail for him, and was resigned to wait for his trial.
He looked up in surprise when a key grated in his door. He got up eagerly when the door opened and a gruff voice said, "C'mon out, Lasher."
He grabbed up his battered black Stetson and rammed it down on his black hair and strode lithely out, afraid to ask any questions.
"Right down the hall," the turnkey told him cheerfully.
Two men were in the office at the end of the hall. One was the uniformed jailer and the other was a tall, stooped man with a mild face and the look of a confirmed alcoholic.
The uniformed man said, "You're going out on bail, Lasher. Mr. O'Connor here has put up the cash for you. Here's your gun." He laid a wide, leather gun belt with a swiveled, cut-off holster on the scarred pine counter in front of him. "We don't like your kind of shooting in Denver," he went on heavily. "Next time bail will be doubled."
Lasher was tall and slim-hipped, with dark, aquiline features and a look of lean hardness about him. He studied Timothy O'Connor curiously for a moment, taking in the man's seedy attire and his run-down appearance, then he shrugged and picked up his gun belt. He said, "I'm much obliged tuh you, stranger."
Timothy O'Connor smiled thinly. He waited until they were outside in the Denver night before explaining. "It wa'n't my hundred dollars that got you loose. I just planked it down for the Jedge."
"The Judge?" Gut-Luck stopped and stared at him. "How come the judge put up bail fer me? Yuh mean the one what was gonna try me in court?"
"Naw. Not him." Timothy laughed scornfully. "Jedge Prink."
Gut-Luck said, "I don't reckon I know the gen'leman."
Timothy looked at him incredulously. "You don't know Jedge J. Worthington Prink?"
"Never heard tell of him."
"Well, you are new in Denver. But you're gonna get to meet him right away. He wants you to come to his soot in the Cambridge Hotel."
"Where's that at?"
Timothy O'Connor gave the newly released gut-shooter directions for finding the hotel. "I'd show you but I got business to 'tend to," he ended importantly. "I'm on my way down to the Square Deal Casino to see a man right now."
Gut-Luck promised to visit the judge in his suite at the Cambridge Hotel forthwith, and they parted.
The Square Deal Casino occupied the ground floor of a rooming house on Arapahoe Street just off 17th. It was a quiet gambling establishment, known throughout the Rocky Mountain region as a place where a man could get a play for any kind of money he wished to lay on the line, and much patronized by mining men in the city for a brief fling.
The Square Deal was unique in those days in that none of the various games was directly financed by the house. Instead, each of the games was leased to a professional gambler who paid the house a percentage of his winnings for the privilege of operating there.
Excerpted from Midnight Round-Up by Brett Halliday. Copyright © 1971 David Dresser. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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