When Doc and Kate ran off together ten years ago with a bag full of money, they expected lifelong love and contentment together. Little did they know that too much good luck is bad luck!
Doc Dailey is a handsome New Orleans gambler who makes his living in sporting halls and riverboats. But when Doc falls in love with Kate Dubois, the elegant hostess of the Natchez Queen―and wins $25,000 one night―he finds out that a man can be too lucky.
The riverboat owner hates having to fork out the money, and when he sees that Doc has stolen Kate―the woman he wants for himself―Doc’s jealous rival puts a bounty on his head.
Doc is a marked man, and must abandon his former life. He seeks refuge in the mountains above Wolf Table Colorado, and becomes known to the townsfolk as Gideon McCall.
After ten years of hiding, Doc finally comes down to live in Wolf Table, but disaster still threatens. A strange mountain man called the Prophet predicts that a woman will endanger Doc’s life, and that he’ll be dead within a year―unless he can resist her beauty and charm.
Somewhere on the Mississippi River
The steam whistle on the Natchez Queen sounded a long, low moan as she churned north up the Mississippi River. The paddle wheeler’s proud smoke stacks were sharply outlined against the moon-silvered river, and the golden light in her windows, and the faint music drifting out over the water, advertised that there was a party going on inside.
The brand-new paddle wheeler had been roundly criticized by some northern newspapers as “vulgar”, “tasteless”, “void of any redeeming qualities” and “pandering to the lower elements.”
But in New Orleans, where she was built, her gambling saloons were considered the last word in elegance, what with their red velvet curtains, rococo wallpaper, fringed chairs, and elaborate poker tables.
No matter that her abundantly opulent décor had been likened by some to “a French Quarter bordello.” Or that her employees’ red jackets and smart white trousers had been reviled as “a vulgar mockery of military uniforms.”
The Natchez Queen’s poker parlours had been a smashing success from the day they opened.
And while there was a certain amount of truth to the criticism that her patrons were “the sort of bottom feeding gamblers, slicks, and con men who always frequent such low places,” their detractors might have been surprised to learn that there was still one virtue the riverboat’s sporting brotherhood absolutely upheld:
A dark, bearded gent pressed his cards against his chest, took a puff of his cigar, and blew smoke up to the ceiling. He nodded towards the dealer. “Three cards, please.”
Doc Dailey watched as the player pulled the card in and added it to his hand. This time he was sure of it: the man had cards up his sleeve.
His hand shot out, and in a split-second he clamped the player’s wrist against the table as he pulled the card out.
Doc nodded his blond head toward it and announced: “He’s pulling cards out of his sleeve.”
The player tried to pull his hand back, but Doc’s grip held his wrist like a vise, and the half-drawn Ace of Diamonds remained clearly visible. The other players straightened up, and their narrowed eyes moved from the man’s hand to his face.
“Why you cheating son of a―”
“What do you take us for?”
Two of them pushed their chairs back and reached inside their vests, and things might have gone sharply south if a smiling young woman hadn’t placed herself smoothly between them and the ashen-faced cheater.
“Why, what’s going on, gentlemen?” she enquired, turning from one to another laughingly. “This is supposed to be a friendly game.”
One of the players gestured towards the guilty man with an engraved pistol. “That sidewinder’s a mechanic! He’s pulling cards out of his shirt!”
Another waved her away. “Step aside, Kate! Only one way to deal with a cheat!”
“Cheat?” she turned to look down at the terrified player. “That’s a serious accusation. Are you sure?”
“Doc caught him red-handed.”
Kate put up her hands in a calming gesture. “Gentlemen, please put away your pistols. I’ll fetch Judge, and he’ll deal with it, never fear.” She turned away, and then looked back over her shoulder.
“Please sit down.”
Kate’s mild tone, and the wry amusement in her eyes, had their effect. The two men grumbled but returned their pistols to their vests and sat down again.
Doc watched in admiration as Kate’s iridescent green gown swayed gently out of the room. Officially, Kate Dubois was the hostess of the Natchez Queen, but unofficially, the auburn-haired beauty acted as the ‘cooler,’ the calm hand and smiling feminine face that kept the play more or less civilized, and that drew male patrons to the riverboat’s gambling saloon by the wagon loads.
Doc took a pull from his own cigar. Kate was the best poker player he’d ever seen, as well as a dealer for the Natchez Queen, and he’d never caught her cheating. He still hadn’t decided if that was because she was truly honest, or if she was a sharp―and just very, very good at it.
It had become an increasingly intriguing question for him in the last few months, since he and Kate had embarked on a secret love affair. Kate hadn’t wanted Judge to know that she was seeing one of the saloon’s patrons, and he had bowed to her wishes.
It was always wise to be discreet.
Especially when a man as powerful as Judge had his eye on the same lady.
Doc blew a lazy smoke ring over the table, recalling their last midnight tryst, in the darkened sanctuary of a New Orleans church. It was practically the only place they could meet without fear of being seen by someone they knew.
Kate had turned to him, worry clouding her beautiful green eyes. Moonlight slanting through the stained- glass windows had painted her hair rose pink and red.
“He scares me, Doc. He throws things when he gets mad. He screams at everybody on the staff but me, but I almost wish he did scream at me. He scares me more when he smiles.
“And―he all but told me that I’d better sleep with him if I want to keep my job.”
Fury had surged up in Doc’s chest, but it would’ve been pointless to burden Kate with his rage. He pulled her close, and his arms closed around her. He rested his cheek on her hair.
“Leave then and come with me. I’m going out west after this cruise, where the gambling’s wild and wide open. Where no one man controls all the play.”
He looked down into her face. “Come with me, Kate.”
She met his eye and smiled. “All right,” she murmured, and traced his lips with a light forefinger. “When are you leaving?”
“The Queen’s due to arrive in St. Louis at midnight, day after tomorrow. We can leave together, as soon as the boat docks, and then take the train out to Denver.”
He gave her a slow, lingering kiss. “Then Judge can throw as big a fit as he likes,” he whispered and was gratified to see Kate’s worried look melt into a smile.
“He can throw furniture, and scream, and even toss a few of his employees overboard.”
He teased a soft, reluctant sputter from those beautiful lips, and they laughed together, and then kissed again.
Doc took a flat-faced gold ring off his finger and put it to her lips. “Give me some luck, Kate,” he teased and smiled to see her give the ring a tiny kiss.
“I can’t lose now,” he said with a smile and put it back on his hand. “And I’ll never take it off.”
Doc blinked back his memories, reached down into his pocket, and opened a tiny box. A diamond ring winked at him from its velvet cushion, and he smiled and closed it up again.
By midnight, he and Kate would be on their way.
The parlour door opened abruptly, and Judge Carter blew in, with Kate right behind him. Judge was a little shy of average height and stocky, a bad-tempered man with red hair, grey eyes, and a square jaw. He was mildly handsome and was unremarkable except for his angry expression.
But when Judge opened his mouth, the voice of a dragon jumped out. That deep, gravelly voice never failed to startle those who heard it for the first time, and Doc noticed that at least three men nearby flinched visibly.
“What’s the trouble here?” Judge growled.
Doc nodded toward the dealer. “I caught him pulling cards.”
Judge’s eyes challenged his. “Are you sure?”
The other men at the table answered for him. They half-stood and pointed angrily at the guilty man.
“We all saw it!”
“Doc caught him with the card half drawn!”
“What kind of a place are you running?”
A perfunctory smile creased Judge’s face. He held up his hands. “Now, now, gentleman,” he replied, “this saloon has no control over the actions of its patrons. But we have a strict rule on this vessel. No cheating!”
Doc was tempted to roll his eyes but maintained an expression of lazy interest as Judge snapped his fingers, and two big men appeared and dragged the unhappy man away. The rule on the Natchez Queen, and one that was strictly enforced, was that all known cheaters were tossed unceremoniously into the Mississippi.
Judge turned to face him, and Doc drawled: “I want a new deck and a new dealer.”
Judge waved towards Kate. “How about Kate? Is that all right with you gentlemen?”
They all nodded, and Doc watched as Kate smiled and settled in. Judge leaned over, placed an unopened deck of cards on the table, and whispered in Kate’s ear before leaving.
Anger whisked up in Doc’s heart like sparks. Judge never missed an opportunity to show every man in the room that he was laying claim to Kate.
Whether she liked it, or not.
His eyes bored into Judge’s back as he walked out of the room, but he consoled himself with the thought that after midnight it wouldn’t matter what Judge wanted.
Kate had made her choice. She was coming with him.
He lowered his eyes to see Kate dimple at him as she opened the pack of cards. “Well, gentlemen, are you ready to continue the game?” She cut and shuffled the cards expertly, and they rippled between her hands like running water. “Deuces are low, aces are high, and jokers are wild.”
She paused with the deck in her hands. She questioned the table with her eyes. “Who’ll start?”
A bearded man to Doc’s right nodded towards her. “It was my turn.” He took his cards and studied them intently.
To Doc’s amusement, Lady Luck smiled on him that night. In fact, she became increasingly more affectionate as the evening wore on: and by eleven thirty, a crowd of men had gathered around his table to watch as a fantastic sum of money teetered in the balance. Five tall piles of chips were stacked neatly on the table in front of him.
He had won almost ten thousand dollars―a record for that saloon, and a personal best for him.
The dark man was the only player who still had money enough to stay in the game with him. “One card, please.”
Kate slid a single card across the table, and the man stared at it impassively. But Doc saw a vein in his neck throb as he pressed his cards to his chest.
The man looked up at him, smiled, and pushed all his chips to the centre of the table. “I stand pat.”
Doc tilted his cigar up, studied his own hand, and pushed all his chips forward.
A collective gasp, and then incredulous laughter, greeted his words as the spectators watched breathlessly.
The dark man spread his cards on the table.
“King of Hearts, King of Clubs, King of Spades. Ten of Clubs, Ten of Spades. A full house.”
There was a roar of laughter, and Kate’s eyes flicked to Doc’s. Doc shook his head and smiled.
Every eye in the room turned towards him, and a hush fell on the crowd as he laid his cards on the table, one by one.
“Ten of Diamonds. Jack of Diamonds. Queen of Diamonds. King of Diamonds.”
A gasp and amazed laughter greeted him, and Doc looked into Kate’s eyes as he threw the last card down.
“Ace of Diamonds. A royal flush!”
The room erupted into chaos, and the dark man threw his hands up into the air, laughed, and shrugged. He extended his hand across the table, and Doc shook it.
“Lady Luck was certainly with you tonight,” the man told him.
“You’re a heck of a poker player, sir,” Doc told him.
Doc turned to Kate. Her eyes were shining, and she smiled as she said: “Well, that’s all for tonight! Mr Dailey, you may redeem your winnings at the teller counter. Congratulations on a game well played, sir!”
Kate rose from the table and retired from the room in a whisper of cologne and a hush of silk. Doc made his way through the congratulatory crowd and set the overflowing rack of chips on the teller counter.
But the teller on the other side of the grille looked less than happy. He took one look at the number of chips, and their colour, and smiled apologetically. “Wait just a minute, sir,” he mumbled. “I’ll be right back.”
There was a murmur of confusion among the spectators who had followed him to the window and muttering and speculation as they waited for the teller to return.
After a few minutes, Judge Carter appeared, with the teller trailing after him. “Well, congratulations, Mr Dailey,” he said tightly. “Your win tonight―twenty-five thousand dollars!―is a record breaking sum. Unprecedented, for any of my saloons!”
Laughter rippled across the crowd, but it changed quickly into indignant muttering when Judge added:
“I’m afraid the bank can’t pay out the entire amount.”
Doc straightened. “I beg your pardon?”
Judge flushed red and put up his hands for calm. “The Natchez Queen has never seen a winning sum quite so large!” he maintained. “But I will arrange to pay the full amount when we dock in St. Louis.”
Doc gazed at him coolly. “I’m afraid that won’t do,” he drawled. “I have come for my winnings, and I expect to receive them all, as promised, at the cessation of play.”
“That’s right!” a man at his elbow shouted, and the crowd buzzed angrily.
“A crooked dealer, and now a bank that won’t pay off! What kind of gambling hall is this?” another cried.
Judge glared, but the crowd was with Doc and against him.
“If the house pays out this entire amount tonight, it will have no cash to cover any other wagers until we dock in St. Louis!” he explained, but he was shouted down and finally had to motion to the teller, and the crowd cheered as the man began to count out twenty-five thousand dollars in crisp new bills.
When the amount was complete, and the cash neatly bundled and transferred to Doc’s elegant leather valise, the crowd cheered again, and someone cried: “Make way for Doc Dailey―the man who broke the bank on the Natchez Queen!”
Judge Carter slammed the door of his private office, then kicked it. He’d never been so humiliated in all his life, and he would’ve given another hundred thousand dollars to be able to ram his fist right into Doc Dailey’s sparkling white teeth.
Doc had busted one of his best dealers, a man who averaged ten thousand dollars a week for the house.
Then Doc had cleaned out the bank.
The whole bank.
It was impossible.
He glared out the window of his office. The Queen had just docked, and the yellow lights of St. Louis glowed in the night.
A soft knock made him turn his head.
“What is it?”
The door opened, and a very large gentlemen appeared in it, hat in hand.
“We waited outside his stateroom, just like you told us, Judge,” the man told him. “But he never came out. So we jimmied the door and went inside. There was nobody there, and his things was gone.”
“Have you searched the ship?”
“Yessir. Bow to stern. There’s no sign of him.”
Judge cursed under his breath and glared out the window. The blazing torches on the dock illuminated a handful of passengers as they walked down the gangplank. A row of hackney cabs waited for them, ready to whisk these rich visitors off to St. Louis hotels, bars, or saloons.
Judge studied the passengers, and his fury at Doc Dailey was momentarily replaced by a slap of unpleasant surprise. One of the passengers leaving the boat was―he moved closer to the window―Kate Dubois, he was sure of it.
Judge frowned. Kate hadn’t said anything to him about taking a day trip into St. Louis.
There was a uniformed riverboat employee walking behind her, a red-jacketed porter carrying several bags. A tall, broad-shouldered porter, carrying two carpet bags and a small leather valise.
He watched as a cab rolled up, and Kate climbed in. The porter handed up the bags and then jumped in beside her. The cabman whipped up the horse, and the rig clattered off.
Judge’s mouth dropped open; then fury roared up from the lowest depths of his soul.
It was impossible to break the bank of the Natchez Queen.
Unless you had a partner on the inside.
“Quick!” he cried to the staring man, “run down to the dock, all of you, and catch that cab! Kate and Doc Dailey have robbed us―and they’re getting away!”
The man gaped at him for a split-second, and then scrambled off to give chase. Judge swore furiously and scrabbled in his desk for his pistol. Once he had it in hand, he ran out of the office with murder throbbing in his every vein.
He burst out onto the top deck and shoved his way through the line at the gangplank. “Get out of my way!” he shouted and made the gangplank jump as he ran across it.
He waved furiously at a cabman and jumped up into the seat. “Did you see where that woman went―the one who just left with the porter?”
The man half turned. “They went up towards the hotel row,” he answered, in a tone of mild surprise.
“Follow her,” Judge barked, “as fast as you can! I’ll pay you a hundred dollars if we catch them!”
The cabbie whipped up the horse, and the hackney lurched sharply. Judge leaned forward, his eyes searching the gaslit streets. Even at midnight, there were still rigs on the main road through town, and he scanned them hungrily.
“Do you see them?” he asked the cabbie. “Where did they go?”
The cabbie nodded forward. “I think she’s in the first rig there,” he answered, “the one pulling up to the Hotel St. Louis.”
Judge leaned out of the cab and braced one foot on its metal step. He steadied his arm on the top of the cab and fired six shots towards the rig from his revolver.
“Hey!” the cabbie shouted. “Are you crazy?”
Judge shouted: “Keep driving! If you slow down, I’ll make you sorry!”
The cabman shrank away but kept driving, and when they neared the hotel, Judge jumped out and ran up to the rig parked at the hotel entrance.
“I’m going to kill you!” he roared and yanked the shadowed man around by the shoulder. But to his confusion, the man who turned to face him wasn’t Doc Dailey.
The man was six feet tall, looked like a miner, and wasn’t very happy to be threatened with murder.
“The devil you say!” he roared and fetched Judge a blow across the jaw that made him see stars, and then―nothing.
Judge woke to a splitting headache. He moaned and curled up in a ball of misery.
A dry voice asked: “Mr Carter, are you awake?”
He opened his eyes and looked up. The light hurt his eyes, but he could just make out the face of a shrewd-looking older man.
“Who are you?” he groaned.
“I’m Harwell T. Pierce, attorney-at-law,” the man replied briskly. “The court has appointed me your defence lawyer.”
Judge opened both his eyes. “What?”
He looked past the man, and to his outrage, he was in a jail cell.
The man’s eyebrows rose slightly. “You don’t remember what happened last night?”
Judge shook his head. “No.”
The man folded his hands primly across his knees. “You shot at a miner and his pregnant wife outside the Hotel St. Louis and threatened to kill them both,” he replied. “You also destroyed the hotel’s $500 custom window and a Chinese vase of great antiquity in the window of the shop next door. You also threatened to shoot a cabman.”
The older man pinched his lips together. “You’re lucky you’re not facing a murder charge, Mr Carter,” he sniffed.
“Get out,” Judge mumbled.
“I beg your pardon?”
Judge raised his head, and the look in his eyes made the attorney straighten in alarm. “I said get out. And tell the sheriff that I said I want him to bring me the chief officer on the Natchez Queen.”
“Very well,” the man replied tightly, and rose. “But I hope you can afford a very skillful lawyer, Mr Carter.
“Because the judge here has no love for riverboat riff raff!”
But Judge deigned no further reply. The memory of the last 24 hours was returning to him, and rage boiled up so hot inside him that he could barely see.
Doc Dailey had struck him like a lightning bolt. That slick pretty boy had robbed him of his best dealer, $25,000, his pride, and―Kate.
All in one night.
But one thing was certain: Doc’s day was coming. When he got bailed out of jail, he was going to put a bounty on Doc’s head so high that Doc wouldn’t be able to show his face in any gambling hall, anywhere on earth.
Or live anywhere, except under a rock.
Doc might’ve taken his money, but he was going to make good and sure that he never enjoyed one red cent of it.
And as for Kate―he licked his lips painfully―she was going to be sorry too.
She was going to regret running away from him. She was going to regret throwing Judge Carter aside for some wily New Orleans dandy.
Kate was finished, too. She just didn’t know it yet. But she’d find out.
They were both going to find out.
Judge rammed his fist into the wall, and then rammed it into the wall again.
Doc smiled and touched his champagne glass to Kate’s with a faint ting, but instead of drinking, they both leaned over the dinner table and kissed softly.
They were snugly ensconced in Doc’s luxurious private compartment, enjoying the last bites of a celebratory dinner. The remains of Lobster Newburg, red potatoes with butter and fresh dill, spring peas and pearl onions, and a tomato aspic covered the elegant table. Outside, Missouri farmland flowed by as the train made its way west.
Doc caressed Kate’s silky hair. “Tell me, darling―was it Lady Luck who kissed me at the poker table tonight, or was it you?”
Kate pursed her lips and looked down almost primly. “Why, I’m surprised at you, Doc,” she demurred. “I would never.”
Doc smiled and lifted an eyebrow, but his lady love refused to say more, and so he decided to believe her claim of innocence. He reached into his pocket for the little box he’d been hiding.
“This is for you,” he told her, and set the gift carefully on the table in front of her.
She looked up sharply, but he only smiled:
Kate put down her glass and smiled at him uncertainly. She picked up the little box and lifted the lid to discover a magnificent three-carat diamond ring nestled on the black velvet cushion. The stone winked and glittered with a thousand white sparks.
Kate’s startled eyes flew to his. “Oh, Doc!”
“Do you like it?”
Kate slipped the diamond ring onto her finger. It flashed there like the North Star as she turned her hand.
“Like it! Why―I don’t know what to say!” she gasped.
“Well, that’s easy,” he murmured. “Say yes, Kate.”
Doc reached out and took her warm hand in his, but to his surprise, Kate’s mouth crumpled up. He’d never seen her cry before. He laughed and rubbed her fingers with his thumb.
“Why, it’s nothing to cry about!”
Kate shook her head wordlessly and was overcome, and so he waited patiently for her to recover her composure.
“You know, you’re just full of surprises tonight,” he teased. “I didn’t take you for a sentimental girl.”
“Oh, Doc!” she cried, and he laughed again and got up and sat down on the seat next to her. She threw her arms around him and buried her face in his vest.
He put his lips to her ear. “Can I take that for a yes?” he whispered, and she laughed.
Kate lifted her face to his, and her green eyes shone like stars. She caressed his cheek with her hand and smiled.
“Yes,” she breathed, and kissed him. Doc closed his eyes and abandoned himself to the luxurious, silken pleasure of Kate’s kisses. His arms curled around her, and hers around him, and in short order they forgot about everything except one another.
He wasn’t sure how much later the train pulled into Kansas City station. It might have been five minutes, or five hours, but Kate had that effect on him.
At any rate, he remembered that the porter had walked past in the hall outside, crying: “Kansas City! Kansas City station!”
There was a soft knock at the door, and Doc disentangled himself from Kate’s embrace. “Yes?”
“Would you like me to clear away your dishes, sir?”
“Yes, you can come in.”
The porter opened the door, and the two of them had looked away and adjusted their hair as he cleared the dining table.
“What time is it?”
The porter looked at his watch. “Almost midnight, sir.”
He had turned to Kate then. “You’d better go back to your compartment and get some sleep,” he told her. “I’ll see you at breakfast.”
They had kissed again, and Kate had returned, slowly and reluctantly, to her own compartment next door.
The porter cleared the table, folded it back up against the wall, and unlocked and pulled down his bed.
“Have a nice evening, sir.” He smiled and left.
Doc stretched and pulled the curtain down over his window. He changed into a pair of linen pajamas, sat down on the bunk, and retired for the night.
He was generally not an early riser and had gotten to bed late, and so when he woke up the next day, Doc found that it was a bit past breakfast. But he’d purchased two tickets to Denver, and that was still two days away, so he could afford to be leisurely.
He got up and performed his morning toilette, read the paper that had been left outside his door, and ate a pleasant breakfast.
Then he dressed with more than his usual care, stuck the flower from his breakfast tray into his buttonhole, and sallied forth to greet Kate.
But when he knocked on the door of her compartment, there was no answer.
Doc stopped a passing porter and frowned: “Excuse me. Have you seen the lady in Compartment 2A this morning?”
The man nodded. “Oh yes, sir. She got off at Kansas City.”
Doc flinched as if he’d been punched in the stomach. He stared at the porter, and the man, seeing he was speechless, added: “She got off right after she left your room, sir.”
Doc frowned. “Are―you quite sure it was the same lady? Brunette, green eyes, in her twenties?”
“Oh yes, sir. The lady who had dinner with you last night.”
Doc watched the man as he walked away, feeling suddenly detached from his body. He drifted back into his compartment, closed the door behind him, and sat down.
He stared at his hands for a while, and then, just as a formality, reached under his bunk for the leather valise.
Of course, it was gone, but he’d had an absurd need to check, just the same.
Doc took a deep, painful breath, because his chest ached, but after a while, his cracked heart eased a bit, and his gambler insouciance returned.
In love, as in cards, you won some, and you lost some.
He reached inside his jacket, pulled out a slender cigar, and lit it. He inhaled deeply and blew a contemplative smoke ring.
Kate had robbed him, the little minx. He inhaled again and shook his head. He just hated that.
Because it was going to be a real shock to her when she opened the bag and found two bundles, instead of twenty-five. He’d given her the inadvertent gift of a little more than two thousand dollars. Doc blew another smoke ring.
Well, he told himself, at least it’ll get her back to New Orleans in style.
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