To win his freedom, a man must save a wayward woman in this Ralph Compton western.
Buck Fletcher is facing a twenty-year sentence for a murder he didn’t commit. But he just might have one chance at freedom. Senator Falcon Stark needs a man of Buck’s notoriety and gunfighting skill to travel to northern Arizona—and locate his missing daughter.
Estelle Stark has joined a doomsday cult led by the charismatic prophet known as the Chosen One—and she refuses to go home. To find her, Buck must elude a band of Apaches on the warpath before descending into the lair of a possible madman. But Buck’s got competition on the trail—someone who has set his gunsights on Estelle....
More Than Six Million Ralph Compton Books In Print!
About the Author
Ralph Compton stood six-foot-eight without his boots. He worked as a musician, a radio announcer, a songwriter, and a newspaper columnist. His first novel, The Goodnight Trail, was a finalist for the Western Writers of America Medicine Pipe Bearer Award for best debut novel. He was also the author of the Sundown Rider series and the Border Empire series.
As a little boy growing up in a small fishing village in Scotland, Joseph West enjoyed many happy Saturday mornings at the local cinema in the company of Roy and Gene and Hoppy. His lifelong ambition was to become a cowboy, but he was sidetracked by a career in law enforcement and journalism. He now resides with his wife and daughter in Palm Beach, Florida, where he enjoys horse riding, cowboy action shooting, and studying Western history.
Read an Excerpt
DO OR DIE
The Apache sprang at Fletcher, a low growl escaping his throat. He feinted to his left; then the bright steel blurred as he swung the blade blindingly fast to the right, leading with the razor-sharp edge, a cut designed to disembowel.
Fletcher was unable to block the blow, but he stepped back and knocked the Indian’s arm down, and the knife flashed past his belly, opening up a six-inch slash in the thick sheepskin of Fletcher’s mackinaw but failing to reach the skin.
The two men circled each other warily, Fletcher holding his Colt up and ready. With the forearm of his knife hand, the Apache wiped away blood from his mouth that ran in a scarlet stream from his smashed nose. But his black eyes glittered with hate and he showed no fear of the gun. Fletcher realized the warrior understood that he dare not shoot, so he was right in assuming there were others close by.
Around the men the land lay silent and snow drifted softly between them from the black canopy of the sky. The rock towered above their heads, a stony, unfeeling witness to a desperate fight that must soon end in death for one man and perhaps two.
A Ralph Compton Novel by Joseph A. West
Table of Contents
THE IMMORTAL COWBOY
This is respectfully dedicated to the “American Cowboy.” His was the saga sparked by the turmoil that followed the Civil War, and the passing of more than a century has by no means diminished the flame.
True, the old days and the old ways are but treasured memories, and the old trails have grown dim with the ravages of time, but the spirit of the cowboy lives on.
In my travels—to Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Arizona—I always find something that reminds me of the Old West. While I am walking these plains and mountains for the first time, there is this feeling that a part of me is eternal, that I have known these old trails before. I believe it is the undying spirit of the frontier calling, allowing me, through the mind’s eye, to step back into time. What is the appeal of the Old West of the American frontier?
It has been epitomized by some as the dark and bloody period in American history. Its heroes—Crockett, Bowie, Hickok, Earp—have been reviled and criticized. Yet the Old West lives on, larger than life.
It has become a symbol of freedom, where there was always another mountain to climb and another river to cross; when a dispute between two men was settled not with expensive lawyers, but with fists, knives or guns. Barbaric? Maybe. But some things never change. When the cowboy rode into the pages of American history, he left behind a legacy that lives within the hearts of us all.
Swollen by an unseasonable snowmelt across the Great Plains that early December of 1872, the Big Muddy threw itself against an arrow-shaped sandbar three miles downstream of Lexington, Missouri. The river was turned aside, white water foaming in angry impotence around the northern bank of the promontory. Frustrated, the Missouri channeled a swift torrent of brown water and ice around the bar and hurled it venomously into the path of the 212-foot stern-wheeler Rajah.
Rajah was firing hard, preparing to skirt the sandbar. Capt. Amos Buell, commanding, anxious to reach the city and unload his two hundred tons of freight and twenty-six passengers.
Rajah’s boilers were glowing cherry red, her exhausts hammering, but Buell called for more power to the boat’s two engines.
The river was coming at him fast and furious, challenging the stern-wheeler to reach its goal, no sure thing for a craft that drew just twenty inches and had 80 percent of her ramshackle bulk above the waterline.
The paddle wheel had been rotating at twenty times a minute. Now the cast-iron-and-wood monster, twenty-five feet wide and eighteen feet in diameter, churned faster, increasing its revolutions to twenty-three a minute. Startled fountains of foam were thrown up as high as the boiler deck as the wheel’s paddles dipped into the river 168 times every sixty seconds.
Captain Buell recklessly hurled his boat against the flood. Huge chunks of ice slammed into Rajah’s bow and banged against her iron sides, to be slowly washed astern. Her exhausts, located on the foam-lashed boiler deck, were pounding now, rattling the stabilizing hog chain that ran from the stern to the wheelhouse.
Time and time again Rajah made a few feet of headway, only to be driven back by the river, the powerful torrent twisting the boat’s bow violently toward shore.
Buell called for more power, but the Rajah had given all she had. There was nothing left to give.
The boilers would not take a pound more pressure than they were carrying, and the engineer warned that the boat was in danger of being blown apart.
Buell decided against another attempt to round the sandbar where the river narrowed and thus concentrated its mighty strength. He’d smash right through the bar, trusting Rajah’s weight and momentum to carry her through.
The captain reversed engines and Rajah backed up, going with the current, shuddering as huge slabs of ice thudded into her, threatening to buckle her thin plates.
Standing on the boat’s hurricane deck, Buck Fletcher watched all this with interest but little joy. He was familiar with the stately, floating palaces that plied the Mississippi, but this boat was smaller and slower. However, he knew enough of river navigation to piece together Amos Buell’s strategy and the thoughts running through the man’s head.
As Rajah continued to reverse, Fletcher guessed that the captain was going to let her pick up speed and meet the sandbar head-on.
He did not give much for their chances, especially if the boilers burst and blew them all to smithereens.
But then, a man shackled hand and foot, guarded by a nine-man infantry detail, had little to lose, including his life. He faced twenty years’ hard labor in the hell of the Wyoming Territorial Prison, and that was just another kind of death, slower certainly, but just as certain.
“What’s he going to do, Major?”
Fletcher turned as 2d Lt. Elisha Simpson stepped closer to him, his round, freckled face anxious, revealing the infantry soldier’s instinctive distrust of anything that floated on water. The boy was a West Pointer and looked to be about eighteen years old.
Fletcher’s bleak smile lit up his long, lean, and hard face, still brown from the sun and untouched as yet by the gray pallor of prison, his wide, mobile mouth revealing teeth that were very white under a sweeping dragoon mustache.
“I guess the captain is going to climb right over that sandbar ahead,” Fletcher said. “He knows he can’t buck this current and that’s the only way he can make Lexington this side of spring.”
Fletcher shook his head. “And Lieutenant, don’t call me Major. The War Between the States is long over.”
“Yes, Major,” Simpson said, only half listening as he studied the ice-studded river beyond the bow of the boat. The boy stood in silence for a few moments, his face screwed up in thought; then he turned his head and called out over his shoulder, “Corporal Burke!”
The corporal, a grizzled veteran in his early fifties, stepped smartly beside the young officer and saluted. “Yes, sorr.”
“Strike those chains from the major,” he said. “If we have to swim for it, I don’t want him weighed down by thirty pounds of iron.”
Burke’s face was a study in confusion. “Sorr,” he said, his Irish accent strong, “does the lieutenant think that’s wise?”
Such was the reputation of Buck Fletcher as a skilled and ruthless gunfighter and convicted murderer that the corporal was completely taken aback, an understandable reaction not unmixed with a certain amount of fear.
“Yes, Corporal,” Simpson said, “the lieutenant is sure.”
The officer studied Fletcher closely, taking in the amused blue eyes in the hard hatchet blade of a face. “Major, will you give me your word as an officer and a gentlemen you won’t try to escape if we have to swim?”
Fletcher smiled again. “Lieutenant, if this tub blows up, we’ll all be dead and it won’t matter a damn whether you have my word or not. If we have to swim, we’d last about two minutes in that freezing water, so it won’t matter a damn that way either.” As he saw doubt cloud the boy’s eyes Fletcher’s smile widened and he nodded. “Sure, Lieutenant, you have my word.”
That was all it took. The young officer didn’t question Fletcher any further. This man had once been a major of horse artillery in the army of the United States and he had given his word. That he might be lying did not, for even a single moment, enter into Simpson’s thinking.
“Corporal Burke,” the lieutenant said, “strike those chains.”
Grumbling under his breath, Burke unlocked the padlock that held the chains together, releasing Fletcher’s leg irons and then the manacles around his wrists.
The soldier gathered up the chains and laid them, clanking, on the deck. Burke gave Fletcher a sidelong glance, his black eyes ugly. “Sorr, permission to fix bayonets.”
The young officer hesitated for a few moments, then nodded, saying nothing, his cheeks reddening a little as he refused to look Fletcher in the eye. Burke gave the order and the detail fixed twenty-inch-long, spiked bayonets to their newly issued Springfield rifles. The young soldiers stood alert and wary, mindful that they were guarding a dangerous prisoner, a gunfighter who was said to have killed a dozen men in shooting scrapes from Texas to Kansas and beyond. Such men were deadly, certain, and almighty sudden, and there was no taking even the slightest chance with them, especially now that Fletcher’s chains had been removed.
Despite the cold, as he shivered in his prison-issue canvas pants and shirt, Fletcher was amused. He understood how the soldiers felt. Most of them were raw recruits, and he knew he’d feel the same way if he were in their shoes.
“She’s slowing,” Simpson said, looking back at the paddle wheel.
“Now the captain will order full speed ahead and challenge that sandbar,” Fletcher said. He rubbed his wrists where the manacles had chafed them raw, a small motion nevertheless noticed by Simpson, who threw Fletcher an apologetic glance.
“Better brace yourself, Major,” the young officer said. “When we hit, this boat could come to a mighty quick stop.”
Fletcher grasped the rail in front of him and spread his feet wider.
Rajah’s wheel was turning faster now, biting into the muddy water, propelling her forward. Thick black smoke and showers of sparks poured from her twin stacks, and her exhausts were thumping loud again.
Chunks of ice, some of them as big as river barges, slammed into Rajah’s bow and sides, and the little boat shuddered and recoiled under the impact. Up in the wheelhouse Buell blasted the whistle, defying the river to do its worst. The whistle’s screams echoed along miles of the winding river valley, penetrating even the dank, crowded back alleys of Lexington. The ship’s bell was pealing, adding its incessant clamor to that of the whistle.
It was said, Simpson yelled to Fletcher over the din, that Buell had melted five hundred silver dollars into the metal from which the bell was cast to improve its tone.
“Sounds like six hundred to me,” Fletcher said, but the lieutenant didn’t hear.
Rajah charged ahead, her paddles churning, shouldering aside ice as she rammed through coffee-colored water, the sandbar getting closer with every revolution of the wheel. . . .
* * *
“Life is just one big wheel,” Fletcher recalled warden Nathaniel K. Boswell saying to him just before he was taken under escort from the newly opened Wyoming Territorial Prison in Laramie two weeks before. “One day you’re on top of the world; then the wheel turns and you’re at the bottom again. That’s where you are, Fletcher, at the bottom, and you can’t get any lower.”
The man had not gone into details about why Fletcher had served only a month of his twenty-year sentence before he was dragged from his cell and told he was being taken under army escort to Lexington, there to meet a man he didn’t know.
“This man has a proposition for you, Fletcher,” Boswell had said. “I’m told there could be a great deal of danger involved, but I think you’d be very wise to take it.”
Boswell shrugged, scratched under his beard with the stem of his pipe, then waved an indifferent hand. Apparently bored, he added, “Take this man’s proposition or stay here and rot with all the rest. The decision is yours, and I don’t give a damn one way or the other.”
It was a choice of a sort, but really no choice at all, and Fletcher had jumped at it.
“Who is this man?” he’d asked. “And why in Lexington?”
Again the warden shrugged. “I have no idea, but he has considerable power and influence. I know that.” Boswell was a former United States deputy marshal and his eyes were cold and unforgiving. “If it was up to me, I’d pen you up forever, Fletcher, you and all your kind, paid killers and plunderers. But President Grant himself signed the order for your temporary release, and I can’t ignore that kind of authority.”
The warden nodded to the guards who flanked Fletcher. “Take him out of my sight until his army escort arrives.” As Fletcher was shuffling from the man’s office, his heavy leg irons clanking, Boswell had called out after him, “Do us all a favor, Fletcher. Get yourself killed.”
* * *
“A man could get killed this way, Major,” Lieutenant Simpson yelled to Fletcher above the roar of Rajah’s engines and her shrieking whistle, bringing him back to the present. “I’ve never had much love for boats.”
Fletcher nodded and placed his mouth next to the young officer’s ear. “Best you tell those boys of yours to find something to hold on to,” he said. “When she hits the bar some of those men could end up going over the side.”
Simpson half raised his arm in salute, then realized what he was doing and his face colored again. “Corporal Burke!” he yelled more loudly than necessary, covering up his mistake. “Get the men braced for a collision.”
Thirty seconds later Rajah hit the sandbar hard. She rammed through half the bar’s width and came to a jolting stop. Her wheel was still churning, throwing up high fountains of muddy water, black drops spattering Fletcher and the soldiers far forward on the hurricane deck.
Buell backed his boat off, readying Rajah for another try. It seemed that more ice was banging against her hull, driven by raging, ugly water, and now, adding to everyone’s misery, sleet began to fall, driven by a rising wind from the north.
It had gotten progressively colder since the day began, and as the gray afternoon slowly shaded into night, the temperature plunged, surely ending any hope of residents along both banks of the Missouri that the recent snowmelt portended an extended Indian summer.
Rajah charged the sandbar again, backed off, charged a second time. Then a third, and a fourth.
Finally, her straining hull plates groaning, threatening any minute to tear away from their rivets, the boat rammed through the bar. Rajah brushed aside the white trunk of a dead dogwood tree that angled up from the sand, its branches spread wide like thin, surrendering arms, and, as she cleared the bar, fussily straightened her bow like an old dowager straightening her bonnet. Then, gathering around her what was left of her shabby, rickety dignity, she floated into calmer water.
Buell nosed his battered craft into a Lexington wharf, vented Rajah’s steam, and tied her up. As Buell ran out the gangplank for the passengers, mulatto dockworkers were already scrambling on board to unload her cargo, and the captain, somber, thin, and bearded, left the wheelhouse to oversee the operation.
Lieutenant Simpson turned to Fletcher, his eyes miserable. “Major, I must . . .” The young officer stumbled, trying to find the words, and Fletcher smiled. “You have a duty to do, Lieutenant. Best you do it.”
Relieved, Simpson nodded and turned to Corporal Burke. “The shackles, Corporal.”
“There’s no need for that.”
Every head swiveled toward the tall man who had just stepped onto the hurricane deck. He wore a black overcoat with an astrakhan collar, his eyes shaded by the brim of his top hat. The man took a step toward Simpson. “We must be discreet, Lieutenant,” he said. “I don’t want this man brought to my home in chains.”
“I have my orders, sir,” the young officer said, his face stiff. “I was instructed to conduct Major . . . uh . . . this prisoner by train and stage to Missouri, join the steamship Rajah in Jefferson City, and when we disembarked in Lexington remove him in chains to the home of Senator Falcon Stark.”
“You’ve done well, Lieutenant,” the man said. “I am Senator Stark, and I will take custody of the prisoner.”
“Sir, I think I should provide an escort and remain with you until your business with the prisoner is concluded.”
“I’ll be quite safe, I assure you, Lieutenant,” Stark said. His voice was as smooth as watered silk but it was edged by impatience and not a little anger.
This, Fletcher thought, is a man grown well used to the arrogance of power, a man who cuts a wide path and expects lesser men to scramble out of his way.
A sleet flurry scattered wet drops between Stark and Fletcher and the others. Through this shifting gray curtain a man as tall as Stark but dressed in a wide-brimmed hat and sheepskin mackinaw, a red woolen scarf wrapped around his neck, stepped to the senator’s side.
The man’s cold eyes swept the green young soldiers, dismissed them as unimportant and irrelevant, then came to rest on Fletcher.
“Been a long time, Buck,” he said, without friendliness.
Fletcher nodded. “Wes Slaughter. You’re a long way from El Paso.”
The gunman shrugged. “You know how it is; in our line of work we go where somebody’s doing the hiring.”
“I don’t know how it is,” Fletcher said, his eyes changing from blue to a hard gunmetal gray. “In my line of work I meet my enemies face-to-face. What’s your line of work, Wes?”
The gunman was stung and he let it show. “Damn you, Fletcher. Someday I’m going to take great pleasure in killing you.”
Fletcher nodded, his smile thin and humorless. “You told me that same thing in the Sideboard Saloon in Cheyenne not two months ago. But when we came right down to it and the talking was done, you wouldn’t draw. I guess it will have to be in the back, a specialty of yours, I believe.”
“Cheyenne wasn’t the right time or the right place is all, Fletcher,” Slaughter said, refusing to be baited further. “If we ever meet again when the talking is done and it’s the Colts’ turn to speak, it will be face-to-face, all right. I’ve seen you draw, Fletcher, and on your best day you couldn’t come close to shading me.”
“The day I can’t shade a back-shooting polecat like you, Wes, is the day I hang up my guns for good,” Fletcher said, his eyes holding a challenge he knew the other man could not ignore.
Angry, Slaughter opened his mouth to speak again, but Stark waved an irritable hand. “Mr. Slaughter, if you wish to remain an associate of mine, don’t bandy words with a convicted criminal.”
He turned to Simpson, who seemed baffled by this exchange. “Lieutenant, surely you understand that I don’t want to attract the unwanted attention you and your men would cause by leading this prisoner to my home in chains. I have a carriage waiting, and I assure you Fletcher will be quite secure with me and Mr. Slaughter.”
“I have my orders, sir,” Simpson said, but this time he sounded uncertain.
“I’m countermanding them, Lieutenant,” Stark snapped. “Or do I have to go over your head to your commanding officer?”
Fletcher smiled. “His commanding officer is in Wyoming, Stark. I’d say that’s a fair piece from here.”
Stark turned on Fletcher, his face black with anger. “You will address me as senator or not at all.” Then to Simpson: “Captain Buell sails at first light tomorrow morning for Jefferson City. Make sure you and your men are on board.” His voice softened a little. “I will personally inform President Grant how well you performed your duty. Ah, what is your name, Lieutenant?”
Defeated by this man’s air of command, backed up by the real power and influence he wielded, the officer let his shoulders slump. “Well,” he said, “my orders were to deliver the prisoner to you, Senator. I guess I’ve done that. And my name is Simpson.”
“You’ve carried out your duty, Lieutenant Simpson, and again let me say most excellently.”
The young officer turned to Fletcher. “Major,” he said, “I’ve been meaning to tell you this before, but somehow I never quite got around to it. It was a long war and I guess you’ve no call to remember, but at Antietam your guns covered the retreat of a surrounded infantry brigade from the West Woods, despite the fact that you were under heavy fire yourself. You saved not only the brigade but also the reputation of the colonel in command.” He stuck out his hand. “That colonel was my father. It’s many years after the event, but on his behalf I wish to thank you.”
Fletcher took Simpson’s hand. “Lieutenant, there were a lot of woods and a lot of brigades in that war.” He smiled, a wide, warm smile that relieved the hard severity of his features. “But now I study on it some, I do recollect supporting a retreating brigade at Antietam. I was going backward myself that day, in what’s called a recoil retreat. I bet they didn’t teach you that at the Point.”
Simpson shook his head, and Fletcher continued: “You let your guns recoil and you reload and fire them from their new position. Then you do the same thing over and over again as long as you’re able. The cannons dictate the pace of the retreat, but the main thing is you keep your face to the enemy and continue firing.” Fletcher’s smile grew wider. “When you come right down to it, I guess we’ve all had our duty to do at one time or another.”
“This is all very interesting, I’m sure,” Stark said, in fact shrugging a complete lack of interest. “But we have to be going.”
The lieutenant ignored Stark. “Good luck, Major.” He was silent for a few moments, then added, “It’s been an honor.”
Fletcher stood with Stark and Slaughter, watching Simpson and his detail walk down the gangplank to disappear into the sleet-lashed gloom.
“Mr. Slaughter,” Stark said, nodding in Fletcher’s direction.
The gunman’s smile never reached his eyes as he opened his coat and drew a long-barreled .45 Colt from a cross-draw holster. He pointed the gun at Fletcher’s belly. “You,” he said, “git going.”
“Remember, Mr. Slaughter,” Stark said, “always discretion. Keep that weapon under cover until we get into the carriage.”
Stark at his side, Slaughter following a few steps behind, his gun concealed under his mackinaw, Fletcher left the Rajah and walked onto the dock, where a closed carriage stood waiting, its twin lanterns glowing orange in the darkness. A coughing, red-nosed driver was up on the seat, his breath smoking in the cold air, and the horse stamped, its iron shoes clanking loud on wet cobblestones.
“Just a word of warning, Fletcher,” Stark said as he ushered the gunfighter into the carriage. “One wrong move, even blink in a way I don’t like, and I’ll order Mr. Slaughter to shoot you.” He climbed into the carriage and sat beside Fletcher. “Do you understand?”
“Perfectly,” Fletcher said.
Wes Slaughter, his narrow, rodent face eager, sat opposite Fletcher, his Colt across his knees. “Do something the senator don’t like, Fletcher,” he said. “Give me the chance to kill you.”
After the cold of the boat deck, the carriage was reasonably warm. Fletcher settled back against the leather cushions and smiled.
“Go to hell,” he said to Slaughter.
Stark’s house lay on the outskirts of Lexington and the carriage clattered through streets almost empty of people, the cold and sleet driving everyone indoors.
Through a gap in the carriage curtains, Fletcher caught fleeting glimpses of candlelit, stately antebellum mansions that had somehow survived the ravages of war, including the battle that had been fought here in 1861.
The senator’s home was a sprawling, redbrick building with a wood front porch, and when Stark entered, a high-nosed butler in a liveried uniform helped him remove his coat and hat. The man took in Fletcher’s prison garb at a glance and sniffed disdainfully as he ushered him and Stark into a cozy drawing room where a log burned cheerfully in the fireplace.
Slaughter followed close behind Fletcher. The gunman had removed his mackinaw, and his Colt in its well-worn cross-draw holster was now in full view. Despite his reputation as a sure-thing hired gun who preferred to do his killing at a distance, Fletcher knew Slaughter was no bargain. The Texas gunman had faced his share of belted men in straight-up shooting scrapes, most recently in Wyoming, where he’d outdrawn and killed Noble Fagan, a gunfighter of reputation with six notches on the handle of his Colt.
That Slaughter had backed down from Fletcher in Cheyenne proved only that the man was a careful, hard-nosed professional. He would walk away from a fight if he didn’t like the odds, knowing that there would be other, more favorable days when he could even the score, preferably with a rifle shot in the back from ambush.
Slaughter was a skinny, lantern-jawed man, his full yellow mustache sweeping over a thin, hard mouth. His eyes were gray and ice cold and they spiked into Fletcher with hostility and malice as Stark waved the gunfighter into a leather wing chair by the fire.
“Are you hungry, Fletcher?” Stark asked. There was no kindliness or concern in the man’s voice. He asked that question as he would of a stray dog.
“I’m missing my last three meals, and the three before that were army biscuit and jerky and before that prison slop,” Fletcher replied. “You could say I’m hungry.”
Stark tugged on a sash beside the fireplace, and while the three men waited in silence, Fletcher had a chance to study the senator.
He looked to be about fifty years old and stood a good four inches over Fletcher’s own six feet, but he probably weighed about the same, no more than one hundred and eighty pounds.
His predatory, aristocratic face revealed a careless, self-centered arrogance that could easily harden into cruelty, and his blue eyes were harsh, judgmental, and intolerant. He was clean shaven at a time when most men went bearded or sported the dragoon mustache then in fashion, and his iron-gray hair was cropped close to his head.
Stark stood upright, his back straight, and he looked like a soldier, though Fletcher guessed that he’d never served in uniform. His kind of stiff-necked, imperious pride was not the sort to bow to authority, especially the mindless, military kind.
There was a moneyed air about Falcon Stark, and it was not new money. The man looked like he’d been born to a life of wealth, privilege, and power and had greatly increased all three since.
He was a respected United States senator, a close confidant of President Grant and influential enough to get Fletcher sprung from the Wyoming Territorial Prison, a place where only the dead left before their sentence was complete. But what could such a man want in return?
The question perplexed Fletcher and he had no answer for it, not even an educated guess.
The butler bowed his way into the room and Stark waved a careless hand toward Fletcher. “Tell Cook to bring this man something. She needn’t make a special effort; anything will do. Perhaps some cold beef.”
The butler nodded again. “Yes, sir.”
He gave Fletcher another of his disdainful looks and left, closing the door with practiced quietness behind him.
Stark sat in a chair opposite Fletcher and opened a silver box on the small table beside him. He selected a cigar, bit off the end, and spat it into the fire. Carefully, taking his time, he lit the cigar from the match Slaughter had hurried to hold for him.
The senator eased back in his chair and looked at Fletcher through a cloud of fragrant blue smoke. After a few moments he held up the cigar and studied it closely, not looking at Fletcher as he spoke.
“Mr. Fletcher,” he said, “you are scum.”
Slaughter giggled, and Fletcher, who’d been trying to ride out the tobacco hunger in him as Stark smoked, felt anger flare in him as the senator continued: “Oh, I’m not singling you out for that criticism. I’m talking about you and all your kind, hired gunfighters, men who will sell their services to the highest bidder.”
Fletcher jerked his chin toward the grinning Slaughter. “What about him, your associate? Last I heard, he advertised that he’d shoot any man in the back or cut him in half with a shotgun for a hundred dollars.”
Stark puffed on his cigar. He was relaxed, his voice unchanging. “Mr. Slaughter has reformed. He now works only for me, and I do assure you, I don’t want him to shoot anyone in the back.”
“Stark,” Fletcher said, “what do you want from me?”
“Senator. I told you that already.”
Stark waited for a few moments, then said, “Many of my business interests lie along the Missouri and Mississippi. That is why I maintain this house here in Lexington. The paddle steamer that brought you here is mine, and several others just like her. I also like to come here now and again to get away from the cares of Washington.”
“What do you want from me?” Fletcher asked again, his dislike for this man making it hard for him to be civil.
If Stark noticed he didn’t let it show. “President Grant has just begun his second term, which will be completed in 1877. I plan to step into his shoes and become the next president of the United States. I’ve been assured I will have the backing of both Grant and the Republican party.”
Stark waved his cigar, tracing a circle of blue smoke. “I plan to run on a law and order platform, pledging to rid the nation, especially the West, of both Indian savages and the lawless element.” He paused and smiled, a strained grimace that never reached his eyes. “Take men like you, Fletcher. I plan to hang your kind when I can, imprison them for life in the deepest, darkest dungeons when I can’t.”
“Is that why you brought me here, to tell me this?” Fletcher asked.
The senator shook his head. “No, that’s not the reason. Let’s just say, strange as it may seem, I suddenly find myself in need a man of your particular talents, a tough man who steps lightly and often over the line separating the lawful from the lawless.
“I’m told you’re a man who won’t back up for anybody, that fear doesn’t even enter your thinking. You are also said to be the best with a gun west of the Mississippi.”
“After me.” Slaughter grinned.
“Perhaps so, Mr. Slaughter, but I wouldn’t want to put the matter to the test,” Stark said. “Besides, you are now a respectable businessman, remember?” He looked up as someone knocked on the door. “Ah, here is Mattie with your food.” Then louder: “Enter!”
A plump, round-faced black woman stepped into the room, bearing a loaded tray.
She smiled at Fletcher and laid the tray on his lap. “You don’t look like you’ve been eating too reg’lar,” she said. “I declare, you’re as skinny as a bed slat.”
“Prison food doesn’t put fat on a man.” Fletcher smiled.
“Well,” Mattie said, “this here will put meat on them poor bones. I brung you a thick roast beef sandwich, coffee, and a big wedge of my apple and raisin pie. You eat hearty now, you hear?”
“I surely plan to.” Fletcher grinned. “And a special thanks for the pie.”
“That will do now, Mattie,” Stark said. “Leave us.”
The woman gave Fletcher a last, warm smile and left the room.
Fletcher ate slowly, enjoying the taste of his food, as only a very hungry man will do.
Stark watched him eat for a while, then asked, “Ah, where were we?”
Fletcher swallowed and replied: “You were telling me why you want the help of the very kind of man you plan to hang.”
“Ah, yes, that.” Stark nodded. He sighed deep and long, then said, “As I told you, I plan to run for president, and for that reason I can’t let the slightest breath of scandal taint my reputation. In fact, that’s why I had you brought here and not to Washington.” He hesitated, then said, “And that brings me to my daughter.”
Fletcher finished his sandwich, which was good, and started in on the pie. He swallowed, laid his fork on the plate, and asked, “Your daughter?”
Stark crushed the stub of his cigar into the ashtray beside him. “I’m a widower, Fletcher. My dear wife died five years ago and I have but one child, my daughter, Estelle. She’s almost eighteen and I plan to marry her well.”
“Oh, I get it now. You want me to marry her,” Fletcher said, smiling.
“Yes, very amusing, I’m sure,” Stark returned. “No, I want you to go to the Arizona Territory, the Tonto Basin country to be exact, and bring her home to me. Here, to Lexington.”
That made Fletcher sit up. “The Tonto Basin? Isn’t George Crook fighting a full-scale Apache war down there?”
Stark nodded. “He is, and that’s why I need a man with your gunfighting and tracking skills. Finding Estelle and getting her out of Arizona won’t be easy. I first engaged the Pinkertons, but, efficient as they were, I came to believe that this was more in your line of work.”
“Why is she in Arizona?” Fletcher asked, interested despite the alarm bells ringing in his head.
Stark exchanged a quick glance with Slaughter, then replied, “About a year ago, Estelle met a man in Washington. I never knew real his name, but he called himself the Chosen One.”
“Looks like Jesus in one of them pictures you see in the Bible.” Slaughter grinned.
“That will do, Mr. Slaughter,” Stark chided. He turned to Fletcher. “Estelle is a child, an impressionable child.She’s had a sheltered life and maybe that’s why she fell for this man’s story hook, line, and sinker. She up and ran away with him and, from what I was told by the Pinkertons, is now with him in the Tonto Basin.” He sighed. “She’s said to be helping that lunatic and his followers convert the Apaches. Estelle calls it fulfilling her mission from God or some such nonsense.”
Fletcher tried something then.
He moved in his chair, just a quick turn of the shoulders. But Slaughter caught it instantly and his Colt, which he’d held seemingly carelessly across his knees, came up fast, the muzzle pointing directly at Fletcher’s head.
Fletcher eased back in the chair, smiling slightly. There could be no escape from this house, at least not at the moment, with Slaughter watching him like a hungry hawk. If he tried to rise, the gunman would put three or four bullets into him before he could even get to his feet.
“What is the Chosen One’s story?” Fletcher asked Stark, accepting that he was pinned to his chair like a butterfly pinned to a card.
The senator had seen Fletcher’s movement, recognized it for what it was, but seemed to dismiss it as a thing of no consequence, at least for the moment.
“The Chosen One, as only he calls himself, is the leader of a doomsday cult,” Stark replied, his voice even. “He believes the world will end in a fiery holocaust nineteen hundred years after the death of the Savior, on March twenty-three, 1900, to be exact.”
Stark leaned forward in his chair. “The Chosen One believes, or says he believes, that he was appointed by God to convert the Apache savages to Christianity before the world ends.”
Fletcher smiled, his fingers straying from force of habit to the pocket of his rough canvas shirt. Disappointed, he dropped his hand and said, “I’d say he’s got his work cut out for him. The Apaches don’t take kindly to preachers, at least the ones I’ve known.”
Slaughter, a perceptive man, had seen Fletcher’s hand move to his shirt pocket. Like many Texans, Slaughter had picked up the cigarette smoking habit from Mexican vaqueros and, despite his intense dislike of Fletcher, he had the smoker’s natural empathy for another in dire need of tobacco.
“Here,” he said, tossing paper and tobacco sack to Fletcher.
Fletcher built a smoke and Slaughter threw him matches. The gunfighter drew deeply and gratefully, and said, “First one in many a week.”
“Man shouldn’t be without tobacco,” Slaughter said. “Might put him on edge and maybe make him try something he could regret.”
“A man might at that,” Fletcher agreed. He turned to Stark. “If I find your daughter and get her out of Arizona, and that’s a big if, what’s in it for me?”
“For you?” Stark asked, his right eyebrow rising in surprise. “Why, nothing except a few more weeks of freedom before you continue your sentence.”
Fletcher smoked in silence for a while, studying Stark, trying to determine whether the man really meant what he’d just said. He apparently did, because his face was set and determined and there was no give in his expression.
“That’s way too thin,” Fletcher said finally, stubbing out his cigarette butt in Stark’s ashtray, immediately beginning to build another. “I might just head for Arizona and keep on riding, maybe all the way to Mexico.”
“Try that, Fletcher, and I will do everything in my power to hunt you down wherever you are and see you hanged,” Stark said, his voice level. “A man with your reputation and penchant for violence doesn’t disappear easily, even in Mexico.”
The senator thought for a few moments, then said, “Still, you make a valid point, and perhaps I should up the ante. I will concede this much: Bring my daughter home and then prove to my satisfaction that you’ve forsaken the gun to take up the plow and I’ll see what I can do to have your sentence reduced.” He hesitated. “Perhaps five years in the territorial prison. No more than that.”
“The alternative?” Fletcher asked, lighting his cigarette.
“The alternative is that I send for the keen young Lieutenant Simpson right now and have you returned to Wyoming and your cell.”
“Stark,” Fletcher said, ignoring the man’s sudden flush of anger, “I was railroaded into that murder charge. I never shot a man in the back in my life.”
The senator shrugged. “A hick sheriff orders you out of his tumbledown Wyoming cow town. Later he’s found dead in the livery stable, a bullet in his back, and you’re standing over him, holding his own still-smoking gun in your hand.” Stark’s smile was cold. “I’d say it was an open-and-shut case, and so apparently did the jury.”
“The sheriff was dead when I got there. Someone else killed him, knowing I was on my way to the livery stable and was sure to investigate the shot. That’s why I picked up the gun.”
Fletcher saw Slaughter’s eyes flicker to Stark. The look was gone in an instant, but it spoke volumes. Did Slaughter know who the real killer was? And did Stark himself know?
At that moment Fletcher had no answers to those questions, and the very notion seemed wildly far-fetched, but it was something for a man to think about.
Stark was speaking again. “Whether you’re guilty or not isn’t my concern at the moment. Right now I need an answer, Fletcher. Will you bring back my daughter and give me your word that you’ll return here to Lexington with her?”
Fletcher smiled. “You’d take the word of a hired gun and plunderer?”
“I’m told that, despite your profession, you’re said to be a man of your word. Come now,” Stark insisted, the man’s patience obviously wearing thin, “what’s your answer?”
This time Fletcher did not hesitate. “I’ll bring her back,” he said. “After that, well, we’ll have to see how the cards fall. I reckon even five years in prison can feel like a lifetime.”
Fletcher had expected Stark to raise some kind of objection, but to his surprise the senator nodded his acceptance. “Just get Estelle back here and then we’ll talk. The clothes you wore when you were arrested are here, and so are your guns. I had them sent from the prison a few weeks ago.”
“A few weeks ago? You’ve been planning this meeting for that long?”
“I’m a methodical man, Fletcher,” the senator said. “And the cost was not much.”
* * *
Later, standing in Stark’s bedroom, dressed in his own hat, blue shirt, black pants and run-down boots, a red bandanna tied loosely around his neck, Fletcher began to feel human again. Stark had provided him with a sheepskin mackinaw and had replaced his Henry rifle with a new Model of 1873 .44.40 Winchester.
Fletcher strapped on his gun belts, a short-barreled Colt in a cross-draw holster, a second revolver with a seven-and-a-half-inch barrel at his hip. He opened the loading gate of this revolver and spun the cylinder. It was empty.
Stark smiled. “There will be plenty of time to load that when you and your horse are on the Katy heading south.”
“We ain’t so stupid, Fletcher,” Slaughter added, his gun leveled and unwavering.
“You have my horse?” Fletcher asked, surprised, ignoring the sneering gunman.
The senator shook his head. “No, not your horse, but one just as good. I have a big American stud in the stable out back. He’ll serve you well.”
The senator stepped to a dresser near his four-poster bed and reached into a drawer. He came up with a small canvas sack, pulled shut with a drawstring. “There’s two hundred dollars in traveling expenses in this bag,” he said, hefting the sack, letting the gold coins clink. “Use it wisely.”
Stark laid the sack in Fletcher’s palm and added, his cold, flat eyes suddenly animated, “Go to Arizona and bring back my daughter to me, Fletcher. She’s all I’ve got in this world and I love her very much.”
Fletcher stood and curled the brim of his hat, as was his habit when he had the Stetson in his hands and not on his head. “You sure believe in taking chances, Stark. I could take your money and your horse and just skedaddle.”
“You could,” the senator conceded. “But I don’t believe you will. I was told by a very highly placed person that despite the wild, lawless life you’ve led since the end of the War Between the States, he still considers you as he did when you were an officer of horse artillery under his command. He calls you a man of great personal courage, integrity, and honor.”
“Who told you that?” Fletcher asked, genuinely puzzled.
“Gen. Ulysses S. Grant,” Stark replied.
The boy beside him was dying. But he was dying too slowly, an arrowhead of strap iron embedded deep in his belly, shot from an elegant Apache bow of Osage orange wood.
The young trooper, who looked to be no more than seventeen, wore the blue of the Fifth Cavalry, and he was a boy making a man’s attempt to bear a pain that would soon become too much to bear.
“How is he?”
Al Sieber, Brig. Gen. George Crook’s chief of scouts, looked from the young soldier to Buck Fletcher, his eyes bleak.
Fletcher shook his head and Sieber nodded, saying nothing, knowing no words were needed.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Ralph Compton
“Compton writes in the style of popular Western novelists like Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey...thrilling stories of Western legend.”—The Huntsville Times (AL)