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Doomsday Rider-Ralph Compton.

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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