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Doomsday Rider-Ralph Compton.

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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.

      Two

      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

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