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Doomsday Rider-Ralph Compton.

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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?”