An icy wind cut into Alfred Stark as he stepped off the train in Cheyenne. He shivered and pulled his top coat tighter. The coat was a heavy broadcloth, but clearly it wasn't enough. Until now Mr. Stark thought it got cold in Dallas; he'd been wrong.
* * *
He hurried into the station and watched from beside a coal-burning stove as two men unloaded the baggage car. When they finished, Stark walked back out to the platform and said, "That one's mine." He pointed to an elegant goatskin valise. One of the porters pulled it from the pile and handed it to him.
"Can you give me directions to a haberdashery?" Stark asked the larger of the two men.
"Certainly, sir." Turning to the north side of the Union Pacific depot, the man said, "Just head straight toward the Capitol, then turn right on Seventeenth. There's one halfway up the block."
"I'm only interested in the very best merchandise," Mr. Stark said.
"Theirs is the finest, sir."
Stark tossed the man a coin and said, "Obliged."
Back inside the station, he took a key from his silk vest, inserted it into the bag's lock, and lifted out his ivory-handled Colt. He then pulled back his coat and snuggled the pistol into his tooled leather shoulder holster.
Stark never carried his gun on trains. He hated sitting for long hours with the weight of it pulling at him. Alfred Stark was a man who refused to suffer discomfort of any kind. He appreciated the finer things and assumed pleasure in life was his due.
Coming to Wyoming in February was not Mr. Stark's idea of pleasure. He'd grown up in the heat of south Texas and now, living in Dallas, he cursed the chill from November to March. Everyone in his acquaintance knew of Stark's hatred of frigid weather—Mr. Stark made all of his likes and dislikes known to everyone—but a man also had responsibilities. Stark's responsibility was redressing the grievances of his employer, Major William T. Carey, and to do that, this winter, he was forced to travel north.
He pulled his Stetson down a notch and ducked his head into the wind. He made his way up Capitol Avenue and around the corner on Seventeenth.
As manager of what Major Carey called the "Protective Department" of Carey Enterprises, Stark could have sent one of his operatives on this manhunt. He would have, too, except the Major had taken personally the transgressions of the man Stark hunted. John Randolf once had been trusted. For that reason, the Major wanted him located and dealt with.
Stark scanned both sides of Seventeenth, saw the shop, and picked up his pace. The wind, behind him now, pushed with icy fingers.
He understood the Major's being taken in. Randolf was smart. Very smart, indeed. He had come to work for the Major in the spring of 1909, and in less than two years he had doubled the profits of the Major's cattle-buying business. In '11, Randolf was placed in charge of all the Major's interests in north Texas: the freight enterprise, six feedlots, and two dozen cotton gins.
John Randolf moved up the Major's ladder fast, but he proved to have his loyalties confused. When he discovered the scales at every cotton gin had been set to read light, Randolf turned the information over to the sheriff, then left Dallas in a rush. It cost ten thousand dollars to quiet things down, and the Major was not happy. He wanted Randolf dead.
Once Stark arrived at the haberdasher's, he quickly stepped inside.
"May I be of assistance, sir?" asked a small man approaching from the back of the store.
"Yes," said Stark, his teeth chattering. "You can sell me something warm."
He would kill Randolf quickly and then get the hell out of this frosty climate.
Stark peeled off four ten-dollar bills to pay for the fleece-lined sheepskin coat he'd chosen. Forty dollars was a large sum, but Stark would accept nothing but the best, especially when it meant avoiding the cold.
After handing the bills to the clerk, he walked to the window. He frowned at the number of moto-cycles and automobiles that jostled up Seventeenth Street. The blasted machines were nearly as ubiquitous here as they were on the streets of Dallas. Stark hated what was happening to this country. He despised motorized vehicles. They were noisy and uncomfortable. He still rode only in carriages, but in Dallas, a proper carriage was becoming increasingly more difficult to find. That looked to be the situation in Cheyenne as well.
In the half hour it had taken to make his purchase, the weather had turned even worse. The temperature had dropped, and large flakes of snow now swirled into the street.
He shook his head in disgust. If he could take care of business that afternoon, he would be free to secure comfortable rooms, eat a fine supper, then catch the first train back to Denver the next morning. He hoped to be home in Dallas by the end of the week. But he was unfamiliar with the countryside, and there was no way he could locate Randolf's small ranch on Lodgepole Creek in this weather.
When Randolf left Texas, he had provided no clues as to his whereabouts, but he had family in Dallas, so Stark tracked down Randolf's nineteen-year-old brother. At first the brother was no help, but Mr. Stark was persuasive and skilled in the use of a leather blackjack. It required effort. Stark's arm still ached from the beating, but eventually—after Stark blinded his left eye—the kid had told him of Randolf's ranching operation north of Cheyenne. Stark smiled at the memory of how eager the kid had been to talk when Stark threatened to blind his other eye.
Randolf's choosing to hide in Wyoming was a surprise. Stark might have expected the man to head south to Mexico. But on second thought, it hadn't surprised him at all. John Randolf never did what people might expect.
As snowflakes piled on the window sill, Stark decided there was nothing to do but find lodging. If the storm passed, he'd locate Randolf in the morning.
He turned toward the sales clerk. "Where's the best rooming house in town?" he asked.
"Rooming house, sir, or hotel?" The haberdasher was a foppish sort. His suit was snugly cut, and he had thin, slick hair he combed forward across his brow.
"Rooming house." Whenever possible, Stark stayed in rooming houses rather than hotels. The best ones were much more comfortable, and the food was always superior to the food in hotel restaurants.
The clerk tapped a long index finger against his cheek. "Well," he said, "let me see. The closest would be—"
"I didn't say closest, mister," Stark interrupted. "I said the best."
"Oh, the best," said the clerk. "That would be Mrs. McPherson's, just past the courthouse." He pointed through the window toward the northwest. "About seven blocks."
Stark folded the old coat into his valise and buttoned his new one all the way to the neck. "Are you sure this McPherson's is the best?" he asked.
"Oh, absolutely, sir. Mrs. McPherson has the very best accommodations in all of Cheyenne."
His new coat was warmer, but still the cold wormed its way into Stark's bones. It was a relief to finally step onto the large stone porch of McPherson's Boarding House.
* * *
The preening clerk had been right. This was a fine, impressive place. It was three stories high and took up half the block. Etched glass windows flanked the massive front door.
Stark pulled a porcelain knob beside the door and heard a chime. A young woman in a maid's dress answered.
"Of course, sir, come in," she said after he'd explained what he wanted. She then led him into a high-ceilinged reception room and introduced him to the proprietress, Lottie McPherson.
Because she wore no ring, Stark assumed Mrs. McPherson was a widow. And a handsome widow at that. She was little more than thirty, with chestnut hair and a full, round figure. He promised himself to better their acquaintance later in the evening.
"You are fortunate, Mr.—"
"Stark," he said. He felt no hesitation at using his own name. He expected to finish his business here and be back in Texas long before anyone even discovered Randolf's body.
"Yes, Mr. Stark, you are fortunate. The legislature meets for forty days beginning in January, and they've just this week adjourned. So with the members returning to their homes, I have several vacancies."
"Excellent," Stark said. It was time he had some good luck on this damned errand. "I'll have your best rooms then, madam."
"My best? I'm sorry, sir, but my best rooms are taken. I've other very nice—"
"No," Stark said, raising a finger and cutting her short. "Your best is what I'll have. I'm prepared to pay you double your normal rate."
"But, sir, as I said, the rooms are taken." She walked to a desk in the corner, opened a ledger, and, running her finger down a column, added, "Yes, they were let just yesterday afternoon by a Mr. Frederick Perkins."
Stark thought for a moment, then suggested, "Perhaps if you would point the rooms out to me, I might visit with Mr. Perkins and the two of us could come to some arrangement."
Mrs. McPherson seemed to hesitate, but finally she said, "Very well, sir, if you wish." She walked him back to the foyer. "It's the first door at the top of the stairs."
He thanked her and climbed to the second level. He knocked at the door. From within the chamber he heard a muffled, "Come in."
Stark stepped inside and pushed the heavy oak door closed.
It was odd, but the main room was nearly dark. The draperies were drawn, and no lamps were lit.
"Hello," Stark said, wishing his eyes would hurry and adjust to the lack of light. "Mr. Perkins, are you there?"
"Yes, Mr. Stark," came a voice from behind, "I am."
Stark spun around, and as he did, something solid struck him hard across the forehead. His knees turned to sand, and he fell in a heap to the carpet.
When Stark came around, he had to squint against the light. The drapes were now opened wide.
"Welcome to Wyoming, Mr. Stark."
Stark raised his eyes and saw nothing but a blur. He shook his head and looked again in the direction of the voice.
"John Randolf," Stark said, not even trying to hide his disbelief.
Randolf, holding Stark's Colt, stared down at him from a large leather wing chair.
"Why do you look so disappointed, Stark?" Randolf asked with a smile. "After all, you did come to Cheyenne to see me, didn't you?"
When Stark didn't answer, Randolf leaned forward and said, "I don't like what you did to my brother, Stark. But I'm going to tell you something. You should've killed him on the spot. He wired me saying what you'd done, and that you were headed my way."
Stark started to stand, and Randolf said, "Stay where you are." Stark moved to get up anyway, and Randolf's boot lashed out and caught him along the jaw. Stark felt his head snap back as he was sent sprawling.
With a groan, he rolled to his stomach and pushed himself to a sitting position. He felt a string of saliva and blood curl onto his chin. Wiping it away, he said, "Randolf, never mind how you knew I was coming to Cheyenne. How the hell did you know I was coming to this rooming house—this room, for God's sake? I didn't even know it." He probed a molar with his tongue and felt it wobble.
"Simple, Stark. You've always been satisfied with nothing but the best." Randolf leaned back in the chair. "Sadly, though, you'll not be enjoying these fine accommodations. We're leaving."
"Leaving? Going where?" He was feeling uneasy.
"For a ride, Mr. Stark. I have two horses stabled behind the house."
"Take a look outside, Randolf. There's a damned blizzard."
Randolf turned to the window. "Yes, sir," he agreed. "It is getting nasty, isn't it?"
They'd been riding for over an hour. Stark tried to watch for landmarks, but all he could see was falling snow.
He considered digging his heel into the horse Randolf had provided, but he knew that was pointless. Randolf rode a strong young gelding, and he'd put Stark on a sway-backed nag. Stark wouldn't get a dozen yards before he was either caught or stopped by a bullet. Randolf carried Stark's Colt tucked into a belt around his jacket. His saddle scabbard held a scoped hunting rifle.
"Come on, Randolf," Stark said. "This is insane. It's freezing out here. Where are you taking me?"
"You'll see, Mr. Stark. You'll see."
As they rode, the snow continued to fall. After another half hour, Stark spotted something fifty yards up ahead, but he couldn't make out what it was.
"What's that out there, Randolf?" When Randolf offered no response, Stark stood in his stirrups and squinted. "Is that one of those—"
"It's a moto-cycle, Mr. Stark. An Indian Wigwam moto-cycle, to be exact. I bought it from a fella just yesterday with you in mind. I know how fond you are of the internal combustion engine."
"What the hell're you talking about?"
"It's only six years old, and a man with your excellent taste will be glad to know that in its day, it was the best machine that Springfield, Massachusetts, had to offer." With a chuckle, Randolf added, "Of course, the fella I got it from has modern ideas, and he's been using it to herd cows the last couple of years, so its current condition is a little rough, but it still runs. I rode it out here myself just this morning. Before the snow began to fall."
They came up to the long, black machine, and Randolf reined in his horse. He turned to face Stark and said, "Get down."
Stark's eyes took in the countryside and saw nothing but an empty expanse of prairie. "You don't mean to leave me here."
"You're wrong about that," Randolf said with a smile. He pulled Stark's Colt from his belt and repeated. "Now get down."
Stark stared into the pistol's bore, then reluctantly slid from the saddle. The snow covered the tops of his brightly polished boots. "I'll die out here," Stark said. "I'll freeze to death."
"There is that possibility," Randolf allowed as he took the reins to Stark's horse. "But I'm a fair man, Mr. Stark—more than fair, some might say. I'm leaving you this fine machine. If you can ride it out, then you'll survive." He checked the sky. "But I'd suggest that you get started. Once this snow gets another inch or two deeper, I doubt this cycle will carry you very far."
Stark looked at the white flakes building up on the Wigwam's brown leather seat. "I can't ride this thing," he said. "I don't know the first thing about it."
"Then I expect you're in a pickle."
Randolf turned his horse to leave, but stopped short, and again faced Stark. "One more thing," he said. "Strip."
Stark felt his eyes go wide. "What?" he asked. With the wind's howl, he wasn't sure he'd heard the man right.
"Take off your clothes. All of them. Every stitch."
Now Stark had heard, but he couldn't believe what he was hearing. "The hell with you, mister," he shouted.
Randolf aimed the gun and said in a low, even voice, "Do it, Stark."
"Never. You can shoot me, you bastard."
"All right," Randolf said, and pulled the trigger.
There was a burning slap, and Stark was knocked to the ground. He grabbed his right ear and felt an inch-wide bloody groove.
"Strip, Stark, or I'm going to shoot off pieces of you until I run out of bullets." He patted the side of his coat. "And I've got a whole pocketful of bullets."
Stark considered his options, then sat up and pulled off his boots.
"Socks too," Randolf said.
Stark took off his socks, then everything else except for his longjohns. "You wouldn't take a man's underclothes, would you?" he asked.
Randolf looked down into Stark's eyes. "I got another wire this morning," he said. "It's from a cousin of mine in Dallas. My brother died yesterday from the beating you gave him, so I reckon I'm not feeling too merciful right now."
He gave a hard stare but didn't say more. Stark unbuttoned his underwear and pulled them off.
"Wrap everything in that fancy sheepskin jacket," Randolf said, "and hand it up."
It was difficult. Where the snow clung to his bare feet, it was so cold it burned, but he did as he was told.
Earlier Randolf had tied Stark's goatskin bag to the gelding's saddle. Now he opened it and shoved the clothes inside. He looked down at Stark and smiled. "Been a pleasure, Mr. Stark," he said, and gave a friendly two-fingered salute. He put the heel of his right boot to the horse and started off. After ten yards, he stopped and wheeled around. He pulled the revolver from his belt and opened the chamber. He shook the cartridges into his palm and tossed the gun to the snow.
As Randolf rode away, he called over his shoulder, "I left one cartridge in, Mr. Stark. I guess I'm feeling some mercy after all."
Stark watched, shivering, until horses and rider disappeared. Already his bare feet had turned a light purple. The wind sliced into him like a knife through a melon.
He staggered toward the moto-cycle and brushed the snow from the seat. Wincing, he straddled the machine and lifted it off its stand.
There were pedals like on a bicycle, and he assumed that the motor would start by operating these pedals. He had never ridden a bicycle before, but he had seen children doing it, so how difficult could it be?
He dug the toes of his left foot into the snow and pushed off, but before he could get both feet planted on the pedals, the cycle canted to the left, came out from under him, and he crashed to the ground. Cursing, he climbed to his feet and tried again, but he achieved the same result.
Alfred Stark was a stubborn man. He did not rise to his position in life by being anything less. For more than an hour he made repeated attempts to ride the moto-cycle, but finally, exhausted and freezing, he admitted to himself that he could not do it.
The cycle lay there, black in the white snow, mocking him.
Furious, he lifted it up, and half rolling and half throwing, he shoved the infernal machine out away from him. It traveled a few feet, and with indifference, it toppled onto its side.
It was clear that Randolf had left it here only to taunt him. He'd known that Stark would never be able to ride it. If Stark lived to be a hundred, he would never master this God-damned machine.
And with that thought, Stark realized that he would not live to be a hundred. He would not live another day.
He stood shivering, clutching himself with frosted arms, and scanned the vast prairie. As he watched the inexorable snow fall in great, frigid curtains, his eyes landed on the place where Randolf had dropped the gun. The Colt was less than twenty feet from where Stark now stood. It was partially covered, but Stark could see it. The blue barrel stood out against the white.
That bastard John Randolf had left him only three choices. He could sit here and freeze to death. He could begin the long walk back toward Cheyenne, knowing he would be dead before he got half a mile.
Or . . .
He dropped to his knees and shoved his hand into the snow, forcing stiff fingers around the gun's ivory handle.
. . . there was choice number three.
As Alfred Stark brought the Colt's muzzle to his temple, he told himself over and over that the choice he was making was the best.