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.