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Doomsday Rider-Ralph Compton

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Doomsday Rider
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Автор: Ralph Compton,

Жанр: Прочая старинная литература,

Серия: ,

Издательство: Penguin Publishing Group,

Язык: en

      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.

      Ralph Compton

      Doomsday

      Rider

      

      A Ralph Compton Novel

      by Joseph A. West

      

      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.

      —Ralph Compton

      One

      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,”

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