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Doomsday Rider-Ralph Compton.

Doomsday Rider-Ralph Compton. Электронная библиотека, книги всех жанров

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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

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