A Deal On A Handshake [Jeff McQuede Mysteries]
Click on image to enlarge.
by Vickie Britton, Loretta Jackson
Description: In these seven mysteries, Sheriff Jeff McQuede finds himself in the middle of a deal made on a handshake--where the result is murder. Set in the high country of modern-day Wyoming, the deal makers are speculators at an old-time mountain man rendezvous, traders vying over rare Indian pots, or two family patriarchs pretending to bridge a lifetime of feuding. Throughout the book McQuede battles his arch-enemy Ruger, who runs a host of illegal activities, but generally manages to evade McQuede's traps. In each of these stories McQuede, putting his own life on the line, relentlessly seeks out the dangerous men who have broken trust.
eBook Publisher: Whiskey Creek Press, 2010
eBookwise Release Date: May 2010
1 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [278 KB]
Reading time: 173-243 min.
5 out of 5 stars! "The Wild West still hasn't been all that tamed. "A Deal on a Handshake" is a mystery following Wyoming Sheriff Jeff McQuede as he presides the law over in rural society. Seven tales puts McQuede into a fun series of adventures certain to give those with a lust for mystery and the west a never ending supply of stories to enjoy. "A Deal on a Handshake" is a riveting collection and a top pick for mystery fans." Midwest Book Reviews
The Rendezvous Shootout
Jeff McQuede, sheriff of Coal County, Wyoming, found himself getting into the spirit of the annual Mountain Man Rendezvous. He had donned a battered Stetson and a red bandana, and for added effect, had strapped on his .45. The trusty six-shooter had been handed down to him by his great-uncle, the man whose name he bore, tough old Jeff McQuede, one of Wyoming Territory' s most famous lawmen.
McQuede even looked like his namesake, broad-framed and rugged. He stood just inside the plank gate, hand on the hilt of his gun, playacting like all the phony Indian chiefs and fur-clad mountain men. If not for the RV's and trucks in the parking area, he could be stepping back in time, entering an authentic 1800's fur trader camp.
Silvery gray eyes flitted across the circle of tepees and canvas tents where peddlers dressed in authentic costumes were in the process of setting up wares to lure the soon-to-arrive buyers and sightseers. Smoke from the blazing fire in the center of the camp hung over them, increasing the illusion of times long past.
Barry Dawson, one of the organizers of the yearly rendezvous, hurried toward him. " Howdy, partner." His exaggerated drawl sounded absurd coming from a man who looked exactly like what he was, a graying, bespectacled history professor. His gaze lighted on the .45. "You expecting trouble, McQuede?"
"Nope. I'm just here to join the fun."
"Fun? Doesn't sound like you."
"I'm taking a day off."
Dawson looked past the sheriff, mouth dropping open, eyes widening, as if he'd suddenly seen a ghost. "Would you look over there? Trader Dan has some nerve showing up here, after all the trouble he caused last year."
Whenever McQuede saw Dan Murphy, he thought of men like Jim Bridger, Joseph Redford Walker, and Jed Smith, hardy souls who braved the harsh winters trapping furs, men who answered to no one. Trader Dan, as he was called, was a regular, following the circuit from flea markets and gun shows to sites like this one, making a living off his antiques and uniques. A man who quickly made friends, especially with the ladies. He took what he wanted, and when it suited him, disposed of it just as quickly.
Last year, what he'd wanted had been Clayton Lowe's wife, and when Lowe had found out, all hell had broken loose.
"When you didn't show up last night, we thought you' d died," the professor called with feigned cheerfulness as Trader Dan abandoned unpacking his truck and sauntered over. "Almost gave your spot away."
"Ah, you knew I was bound to turn up sooner or later," Trader Dan replied, flashing a white-toothed grin.
"Old Jed Smith," Barry Dawson said, switching modes back to history professor, "surprised everyone by appearing at that 1829 rendezvous when rumor had it he'd died during the winter. You keep returning, just like him."
"More like a bad penny," McQuede responded. He couldn't help glancing toward the tepee where Dan Murphy's enemy, Clayton Lowe, with the help of his pretty Arapahoe wife, Tina, was setting up a display. Trader Dan gazed at them, too, smiling as Tina looked up at him. A beautiful girl, Tina today was clad in a buckskin dress, her charcoal hair braided, her rounded eyes, as always, looking pleased and startled at the same time.
Lowe, a thin, mustached man with the intent air of a gambler, didn't even glance toward them.
"One of our group won't be here today," Trader Dan said. "You probably heard, Spence Henning died last month. In fact, I just stopped by his place to barter with the old man's widow for his goods." His voice became edged with deep resentment. "But it seems Clayton Lowe got there first."
Trader Dan returned to his truck and began setting up displays, lining glass cases with relics from the past, with knives, guns, pelts, and Indian artifacts. As a final touch, he set a Sioux war club with a beaded handle beside a rusty rifle. When he finished, he ambled directly over to the stand of his enemy, Clayton Lowe. McQuede had broken up fights between these two before. Remembering all too well, McQuede followed a pace or two behind.
When Clayton Lowe's wife saw Trader Dan approaching, her dark eyes grew even larger, then she whirled around and ducked into the tepee. Lowe, absorbed in unpacking, continued unloading items from a camel-backed trunk.
"S. H.," Trader Dan bellowed, reading the initials on the trunk. "Spence Henning. You don't play fair, do you?" His voice rose accusingly. "You knew I was trying to make a deal with the old man's widow."
Lowe paused, wiping his hands on his dusty black T-shirt. The motion caused the string of bear claws around his throat to jangle. He stared at Dan Murphy acidly before continuing with his task.
Trader Dan's attention locked on an old sketchbook, and his eyes lit same as they had when they had fallen upon Tina Lowe. "Pretty good art work, eh? Think the old man drew this himself?"
"Not a chance," McQuede said as he stepped closer to the black and white drawings. "This isn't the work of an amateur."
Fascinated, Trader Dan flipped through the detailed sketches of a wagon train winding around jutting cliffs, an Indian hunting party, a gathering of fur trappers encamped along a river.
Trader Dan swung toward Lowe. "How much?"
"Not for sale," Lowe returned coldly.
"Then why the hell did you put it out on the table?"
Clayton Lowe responded to the belligerent question with stony silence, one interspersed with the zing of bullets from the shooting contest now in progress near the river.
"I'll give you fifty bucks just because I like it."
Lowe snatched up the sketchbook and tossed it rudely back into the trunk.
As Trader Dan strode angrily away, McQuede stared after him. Clayton Lowe wasn't the problem--the problem was that big loudmouth, Trader Dan, who enjoyed stirring the water and would no doubt end up ruining the whole rendezvous.
McQuede strolled around, attempting to amuse himself with the wide variety of merchandise, yet his thoughts remained on anticipated trouble. Try as he might, he couldn't prevent himself from being a lawman for a single afternoon.
After a while, McQuede wandered back over to Trader Dan's booth and idly lifted the beaded war club.
"You like that, huh?" Trader Dan boomed. "Make you a good deal."
"Don't want to talk deals now."
"What do you want, then?"
"To give you some friendly advice. Remember last year? I want you to stay completely away from Clayton Lowe."
Trader Dan's grin, showing strong, white teeth, seemed defiantly arrogant. "Better tell Lowe to stay away from me."
"No, I'm telling you, and I mean business."
"Don't take our little spats so hard, sheriff," Dan said, laughing off his warning. "Lowe and I have been sparring for years, every rendezvous. It's a game, really. Underneath it all, we're just two old chums."
Chums, for sure. The minute McQuede turned his back, they'd be fighting again. But what could he do except keep a close eye on him? McQuede walked along a row of canvas tents toward the center of camp, stopping here and there to browse, but close enough to keep watch on Trader Dan. In no time, Dan left his stand and cut across to Lowe's booth.
McQuede tensed, prepared to intervene, but Tina, not Clayton Lowe, stepped forward to meet him. Trouble, but not the kind McQuede had been expecting. Trader Dan hadn't changed his old tactics, but had waited until Lowe had left his post to sneak a visit with his pretty wife.
McQuede remained watching until Trader Dan returned to his own stand, then he continued to the permanent, log-framed structure that served as the hub of the rendezvous' activities.
The circle of wooden benches around the open-air bar buzzed with talk and laughter. Above the noise, an intercom blared: Shooting all day, primitive matches with rifles, shotguns, pistols. The next shotgun contest will start in five minutes south of the main gate.
McQuede stopped to study a poster of events and check on the times. He just might join the pistol competition himself, try to win a trophy in the name of Great Uncle Jeff McQuede. The thought lifted his spirits and caused some of his tension to fade. Tension that returned full-force as someone tugged on his arm.
"You've got to stop them!"
He swung around, face to face with Clayton Lowe's pretty wife. Her thin frame shook, and her smooth, tanned skin was ashen. Hell had indeed broken loose. Lowe must have witnessed what McQuede had a short while ago, Tina and Trader Dan engaged in a little rendezvous of their own. "What's happened?" he demanded.
Tina didn't answer, but rushed ahead of him, dodging around vendors and buyers, making it hard for him to keep up with her.
A heated argument had flared in front of Trader Dan's canvas tent. Clayton Lowe's voice had a raspy, deadly ring. "You're nothing but a rotten thief."
"How could I steal anything from you?" Trader Dan countered, a sardonic look on his face. "Whenever you leave, Tina guards your merchandise every minute!"
"What's the trouble, boys?" McQuede broke in. The two men had squared off as if for a fight. He looked from mountain man in fringed buckskin to old time gambler, with hollowed chest and black mustache.
Lowe pointed an accusing finger at Trader Dan. "He stole that sketchbook right out of my trunk."
Trader Dan looked skyward in exasperation. "I haven't even left this area, and you know it, sheriff. So if I stole it, it would have to be here. You're more than welcome to search."
Trader Dan held up his hands in a mocking way. McQuede did a quick check from heavy buckskin jacket to boots, then stepped back.
"Do you see any stolen goods here on my table?" Trader Dan taunted. "Be my guest. Look through the tent. Search everything."
McQuede obliged, but found nothing. Trader Dan was either telling the truth and hadn't stolen the sketchbook, or he'd passed it off to someone else.
"I know you took it," Lowe insisted.
"Then why isn't it here?" Trader Dan demanded.
"You'll need proof," McQuede said to Lowe, "or nothing can be done."
"Something can be done. Someday," Lowe hissed, aiming a finger at Trader Dan as if it were a gun, "you and I are going to have a showdown."
Then he abruptly swung around, bypassed McQuede, and stalked away.
"Did you see anyone suspicious around his place?" McQuede asked.
"Calamity Jane was hulking around," Trader Dan said with a chuckle. "And Professor Dawson, too, if you think he fits the bill. As for me, you found out for yourself I don't have it." Trader Dan flashed that toothy grin women found so appealing and shrugged innocently. "If you ask me, it's all in his head. Lowe will probably find what he's missing buried in that pile of junk over there."
Without another word, McQuede headed toward the main gate to talk to Professor Dawson about the sketchbook.
"Someone's been looking for you." Dawson laughed. "Lea Henning has you marked for husband number three."
"Or you," McQuede returned.
"My only love is history. So I don't plan to marry again."
McQuede never really understood a person like Dawson, so obsessed with collecting artifacts. He imagined his temptation, if he had any, wouldn't be women, or even money and jewels, but antiques, pottery, and bits of history.
"You going to join that pistol-shooting contest?" Dawson asked. "It' ll be a barrel of fun. This year in each category, a contestant can challenge a competitor until all but a final winner is eliminated."
"I intended to, but now a problem has come up."
"Can't you ever forget problems? Just join the fun and have a good time!"
"Wish I could, but that sketchbook Trader Dan was trying to purchase from Clayton Lowe has turned up missing. I understand Lowe bought it from Lea Henning after Spence died. Do you know anything about it?"
Dawson looked quickly away. "Only saw it once," he said, "but you could talk to Lea. She's here somewhere. I saw her come in a little after you did."
So, Lea Henning had been the one Trader Dan had seen near Lowe's booth at the time of the alleged robbery. She'd always accompanied her husband to the rendezvous dressed as Calamity Jane, although this year, right after Spence Henning's death, McQuede hadn't expected her to make an appearance. He might have known Lea had strength enough to carry on without him--strong, outdoorsy, much younger than her husband and attractive to boot.
"Any idea where Henning got this sketchbook?"
"I'm not sure," Dawson replied. "I think he bought it from a trader over at Green River."
"The only thing I'm sure of is the two men are going to end up at each other's throats. If not over the sketchbook, then over Tina Lowe."
"You're wrong there," Dawson answered. "Isn't that them drinking together over at the council fire?"
McQuede couldn't believe his eyes. But, sure enough, the two enemies were talking together affably, all smiles and camaraderie. And that to McQuede didn't add up. Lowe had been so hostile earlier. Though Trader Dan was the one most likely to pick a fight, Clayton Lowe, quiet and brooding, wasn't above retaliating.
"Those two are like a couple of kids," Dawson observed. "Brawling one minute, all buddy-buddy the next."
"Maybe I'd better find out what they're up to." McQuede headed directly to where Clayton Lowe and Trader Dan were sitting. "Looks as if you two have worked everything out."
"I just lost my temper," Lowe said contritely, setting down his beer bottle. "That sketchbook wasn't really much of a loss. Some two-bit shoplifter must have picked it up."
McQuede glanced at them skeptically. "Then I guess that settles that."
Trader Dan stood up with a smug grin. " Better get back to my booth."
"Don't forget our little competition," Lowe reminded him in an undertone.
"No worries." Trader Dan pointed his finger just as Lowe had done earlier, as if it were a gun. "We're still on."
McQuede didn't know what to make of this almost secretive message that had passed between them, but at least for the time being, peace had been restored. But not even McQuede's momentary relief was able to quell the growing apprehension plaguing his day off.
He glanced toward the high peaks of Black Mountain and took a deep breath of the pine-scented air. He loved Coal County, the deep canyons criss-crossed with creeks, the nearby Indian reservation. He needed to follow the professor's advice and just loosen up.
Even though it was necessary for a man in his early forties to follow his diet, today he decided to relax the rules. Ignoring the slight paunch beginning at his waistline, McQuede finished a thick slice of fry bread, savoring the taste of melted butter and honey. In the distance, he heard the shots from the target range. Soon, he'd mosey over and see who was top man so far, maybe even sign up for the pistol shoot later on this afternoon.
But first, he wanted to do a little bargaining himself. He ambled along, pausing to lift a tan Stetson. He considered it, then set it back down. He looked at the rows of moccasins, fur pelts, beads and silver, but nothing really caught his eye. He still sort of fancied that beaded war club he had watched Trader Dan unload that morning, and remembered Dan's promise to make him a good price. At Trader Dan's tent he found the war club, but not Trader Dan.
Gusts of wind had kicked up as McQuede cut across the dusty field toward the river where the shooting contests were in progress. A sense of foreboding gripped him long before he heard the jarring blast of a rifle shot. In front of him an eerie silence fell, one that made the fry bread petrify like cement in his stomach. A moment later, a woman screamed.
A big fellow dressed in buckskin sprawled face down on the ground. McQuede pushed through the crowd, knelt, and turned the man over gently. Blood oozed from a bullet hole in Trader Dan's chest.
McQuede checked his pulse, then looked up to where Clayton Lowe stood as if in shock, still holding the smoking rifle.
"What happened here?"
Clayton Lowe placed the weapon slowly on the ground. "I didn't want to shoot him," he muttered. "I had no choice. It was pull the trigger or die."
"You should have seen Trader Dan," Dawson, pale and shaken, spoke up. "He must have gone crazy. I was standing nearest them. The two had been bantering with one another, making the crowd laugh. Lowe said something to him I didn't hear, and Trader Dan swung the rifle toward him."
"What did you say to him?"
"I thought he was going to take aim at the target," Lowe said. "But when I saw that barrel shift in my direction, I realized what he intended. I was so startled, I could barely speak, but I managed to choke out, 'You're going to kill me!' The mad look in his eyes told me I was right," Lowe finished. "He turned the gun on me, and I fired."
"But why?" McQuede asked. "Why would he want to shoot you?" McQuede's silvery eyes traveled of their own accord to Lowe's wife.
Whatever had happened most likely involved Tina Lowe. McQuede got slowly to his feet and gazed down at Trader Dan. Dan was the troublemaker, not Clayton Lowe. Dan might have decided to gun down in cold blood the man who stood between Tina and him. If so, he'd intended to make a case for an accidental shooting--the gun going off unexpectedly when the two were just playing around, entertaining the crowd. And if that were the case, Lowe had been justified in shooting him.
Or it could be the other way around. Clayton Lowe could have carefully planned out every detail, killing Trader Dan in front of a crowd and claiming self-defense.
Deliberate, that's the way McQuede saw it. But how was he going to tell which man had set the other one up?
"He was going to kill me," Lowe said, "and that's a fact."
At least a half-dozen witnesses were all nodding and verbalizing their agreement.
McQuede placed a call to his deputy, Sid Carlisle. Sid took charge of the crime scene while McQuede brought Lowe to the department for questioning. He finally signed a statement, which differed little from his first account.
One of them had planned to murder the other, but which one and why? He still wasn't sure. McQuede put his money on the love triangle, unless that sketchbook, which had so intrigued Trader Dan, had played a major role. In any event, he intended to look through both the dead man's and Lowe's belongings to see if he could locate the sketchbook. Before McQuede returned to the rendezvous, he got a warrant to search through Lowe's possessions.
McQuede found Professor Dawson, looking physically ill, slumped on a bench close to the fire. McQuede sat down beside him.
"What will happen to Lowe?"
"He was booked for manslaughter. But when I left, he was already talking to a lawyer. No doubt he'll be released on bail right away."
"No jury will ever convict him," Dawson said. "What he did was justified, just like a shootout in the Old West."
McQuede still wasn't convinced of Lowe's account. "You didn't catch a word of what Clayton Lowe said to Trader Dan before the shot was fired?"
Dawson averted his eyes almost guiltily.
A strange question leaped into McQuede's mind. Dawson would be the one most likely to want the sketchbook, but he might not be the only one. He could be dealing with some conspiracy. "You told me earlier you'd seen that sketchbook Lowe bought from Henning's widow. I think you know more about that item, Dawson, than you're telling me."
The professor flinched as if McQuede had struck him. "Earlier today Lowe asked about the sketchbook. He wanted my opinion of its worth."
"What did you tell him?"
"I shouldn't have talked to him without doing the proper research. But I told him just what I told Spence Henning's widow--that it looked to me like the work of Alfred Jacob Miller, a very famous Western artist." Dawson lapsed into a long, almost remorseful silence. "This artist Miller was the first white man to explore this area, to paint the old rendezvous scenes. Often he didn't sign his sketches. If it is Miller's work, I told Lowe I thought he'd gotten his hands on a rare collector's item, one that might well be, if in the right hands, worth a small fortune."
McQuede had read as much in Trader Dan's expression as he'd watched him study and then try to purchase the sketchbook. Dan's interest in the item had prompted Lowe to seek the opinion of the local historian.
"Did you give this information to Lea Henning, too?"
"Yes, but by the time I found out the sketchbook was valuable, she'd already sold it." Dawson went on anxiously, "What if Lea came here today to purchase it from Lowe? What if he refused to sell it back to her?" He stopped short. "You don't think Lea would just take it, knowing Lowe would blame Trader Dan?"
"We can't jump to conclusions." But as McQuede spoke, he recalled Trader Dan calling Lea Calamity Jane and saying she had been around the booth about the time the sketchbook had disappeared.
Dawson rubbed a hand across his forehead. "Any way you look at it, this is all my fault. Trader Dan ended up dead today because of this, because of what I said."
"We can't be sure." McQuede calmed Dawson as best he could, then strode away in search of Lea.
McQuede easily spotted Lea Henning, looking attractive in a buckskin coat and breeches. A Calamity Jane-style hat perched jauntily on her head, a mass of golden curls escaping the brim.
"You're just the person I want to see," Lea said, her eyes lighting up.
She drew close to him, her hand tightly clutching his arm. She was tall enough to look him square in the eye. She reminded him of his high school sweetheart, Shelia, the woman he had almost married. He hadn't then and didn't now want a dominating woman to run his life, the kind his Aunt Mattie always tried to pair him up with at the dinner table. He needed someone independent, with goals of her own, a woman that would fit in with his lifestyle. One that he would probably never find in Coal County.
" I've been talking to Barry Dawson," he said. "He told me you sold some items to Clayton Lowe. Do you recall an old sketchbook?"
"Yes. I showed it to Barry, along with some other things in a trunk my husband brought back from Green River. Later, Barry called and told me he thought the sketches might be valuable, but, unfortunately, that was after I'd made the deal with Clayton Lowe. Why are you asking?"
"Someone took that sketchbook today."
Lea Henning's features remained unchanged, registering no sign of surprise. She hesitated. "All right, I admit it. After Barry told me I'd made a mistake selling the sketchbook, I decided to see if I could buy it back from Lowe today."
"But he wouldn't sell?"
"I thought I'd try again before I went home, and then...this happened." A hand, firm and strong for a woman's, tightened on McQuede' s arm. "Sheriff, about that shootout. It was planned, wasn't it? It was murder." Lea drew in her breath, then went on quickly. " You know, don't you, that Clayton Lowe and Trader Dan were having trouble over Tina?"
" So you think that Trader Dan tried to shoot Lowe on purpose?"
"No, not that. Barry and all the rest have it wrong. I was facing Trader Dan when that shot went off. I couldn't hear exactly what Clayton Lowe said to him, but I saw the expression on his face. That poor man looked horrified, as if he knew Lowe intended to gun him down in cold blood. And then that girl, Tina, screamed, as if she knew she was the one to blame."
"It wouldn't be the first time a man had been gunned down because of a woman."
Lea's hand tightened on his arm. " You never know what someone might do for love."
Regardless, McQuede couldn't shake the strong suspicion that this other business, this sketchbook, figured into it. He had to find out who had taken it or he'd never solve the mystery of Trader Dan's death.
McQuede spent the next half hour at Trader Dan's tent, making sure he hadn't overlooked the hidden sketchbook. As his gaze swept over the contents of the table outside, McQuede noticed the absence of the beaded war club he'd planned to buy, which had been lying beside the rusty rifle after Dan had left for the shooting competition.
Was the thief still at work, and was the thief Clayton Lowe? What if the sketchbook hadn't been stolen in the first place, and Lowe had been using this as a ruse to make trouble for his arch-enemy? Following this line of thinking, McQuede strode over to Lowe's tepee and handed the wide-eyed Tina the search warrant. Tina, always quiet, watched him with big, frightened eyes as he carefully reviewed the contents of the trunk and sorted through all the other items.
"What are you looking for?"
"The sketchbook I saw earlier."
"I traded it to Dan...for this."
Her words amazed him. Was it possible her husband hadn't told her not to sell the sketchbook to Trader Dan?
Tina reached behind her and lifted the war club with the beaded handle that McQuede had intended to purchase, the one that had been on Trader Dan's table right before the shooting.
He stared at Tina, astounded. She was lying. McQuede had specifically noticed the war club still at Trader Dan's booth after Dan had left for the shooting contest, from which he had never returned. Trading with Dan would be quite a feat, considering she'd have to have done it after he was dead.
In the silence, McQuede recalled right before the sketchbook came up missing, he'd seen Tina and Trader Dan talking together. That's when Dan must have told her what he knew about the sketchbook, and that's when Tina must have agreed with his scheme of transferring the valuable item from husband to lover.
"I'm going to pack up now, if it's all right with you," Tina said. "Clay sent word that he's on his way back here. He'll be here any minute and will want to leave."
McQuede realized this case called for quick action. Once the Lowes left the rendezvous, he'd never be able to track down the truth. He stared solemnly at her for a moment, then turned and walked away.
From a distance, shielded from Tina's view by the wall of a makeshift concession stand, he drank coffee and watched Tina box up merchandise. The death of Trader Dan had brought an end to the merriment, had cast a pall over the grounds. Many were already in the process of breaking up camp.
McQuede quickly set aside the paper cup. He saw Tina look around furtively and leave the stand, winding her way back into the forested area behind the booths. Where could she be going--to meet some conspirator, Lea Henning, or a knowledgeable one like Professor Dawson?
McQuede silently followed her. He stood in the cover of pines and watched her remove a packet from underneath a slab of rock. He knew without looking what was inside.
Trader Dan's death was the result of a conspiracy, all right, and it did tie into the sketchbook, the sketchbook that Tina had stolen.
McQuede stepped forward. Alerted by the crackle of his foot against the underbrush, Tina whirled around. Saying nothing, he outstretched his hand.
Tina backed away. She clutched the sketchbook tightly, knuckles as white and strained as her face.
As McQuede closed the space between them, she attempted to evade him, but he caught her arm and took the book from her. As he glanced through it, he noticed once again the touch of a master in the drawings of a caravan on the move, a procession of Indians returning from the hunt, a gathering of fur trappers along the river.
"Trader Dan recognized the worth of this book," McQuede said. "And he talked you into stealing it. You simply slipped it out of the trunk and hid it here until the two of you could safely retrieve it."
"Dan and I were in love!" she cried. "We were going to leave together and start a new life."
"With the help of this. Trouble is, your husband found out, and he didn't take too well to Trader Dan stealing both his wife and his fortune. So, Lowe set Dan up with that shootout. Your mistake was planting that war club in your booth and lying to me about the trade. What you claimed couldn't possibly have happened because the war club was still in Trader Dan's possession--not yours--after Dan left for the shooting contest. You took it from his booth after he died."
"I got scared after Dan was shot. I picked up the war club so I could tell Clay I traded it to Dan. I couldn't take the chance of him suspecting I had the sketchbook. Even with Dan gone, I was going to use the money to break free of him once and for all!"
Tears streamed from her tragic, dark eyes. "I hate him!" she said vehemently. "Clay deliberately shot down the only person in the world I've ever loved!"
McQuede guided the weeping girl ahead of him back to the tepee. Clayton Lowe had already started loading his belongings into his pickup. When he spotted McQuede, he whirled away from him. McQuede knew he was going for a weapon, one he must have stowed away in the camelback trunk.
This wasn't the pistol competition McQuede had expected, but he had to meet the challenge, to be fast and sure.
"Don't try it!"
But Lowe already had the trunk lid open.
Before he could reach inside, McQuede drew his .45 and fired. The bullet splintered thorough the old wood, leaving behind a gaping hole. The explosion caused Lowe to jump away.
"Just stay right where you are. Don't make a move."
Lowe's shoulders slumped and he said quietly, "I knew what the two of them were up to. This time, Trader Dan pushed me too far. He stole that sketchbook from me the way he stole Tina--by treachery. I was just taking back what was rightfully mine."
"How did you get Trader Dan to point the gun at you in front of witnesses?"
"I simply told him, 'I'm going to kill you now,' and he knew I meant exactly what I said. I gave him a fair chance. He realized this was the showdown I'd warned him about."
Showdown like at the OK Corral, McQuede thought, as he fastened the handcuffs on Lowe's wrists. Only one difference that Lowe hadn't taken into account--no matter how much it seemed to McQuede that he'd stepped back in time today, the law of the Old West no longer applied.