In the flickering light of the campfire, Mike Saunders read the single sheet of handwritten instructions one final time. Factual and concise, befitting a lawyer's words, Vanderman's letter clearly explained his assignment. Nothing to it, Saunders told himself; nothing more difficult than many of the errands he had run for the Cheyenne lawyer over the years. Oh, it had its special features, its complications, but to a man of his experience, they presented little challenge.
Holding the letter by its corner, Saunders touched it to the flame and watched the paper ignite and flare up. When the fire had consumed the letter, he secured the oilskin pouch containing the sealed envelope in his saddlebags where it would remain until needed.
The urgent summons from Vanderman had arrived at a good time. Work on his small ranch outside of Wheatland had quieted with the end of branding season, the cattle would graze the open range without his attention and other ranch chores could wait. So, he had caught, saddled and headed for Cheyenne.
"I have chosen you for a special assignment," Vanderman declared in the privacy of the lawyer's office. "The client and I have developed the scenario carefully. The operation must be performed exactly as planned." The broad smile Vanderman bestowed always made Saunders sit a bit taller in his chair. "As my top professional, you fit all my requirements."
As usual, Saunders didn't know the name of the man ultimately paying his wages. Nor did he know the reason behind the trip, an unnecessary detail. As a craftsman, expert at his trade, he needed to know no more than the contents of the paper he had just reduced to ash.
In his early years in the business, Saunders had craved the details Vanderman withheld, thirsting to know as much as he could about his work. Vanderman spoke of "compartmentalization of knowledge," flaunting his big lawyer words, but over the years Saunders had come to understand that Vanderman's secrecy formed the essential part of their arrangement and explained why the wad of greenbacks that ended in his pocket after each chore was so much thicker than in his freelancing days.
* * *
In the cattle town of Benton, Montana, asking around about hiring was natural for a roving cowhand, even one a bit long in the tooth for a range drifter. Spring came late to Montana north of the Missouri and round-up hiring was in full swing. Barkeeps agreed that the biggest spread near Benton was Rafter H, five miles up the road. Later, if anyone tried to think back about an outsider looking for Walt Harner, Saunders wouldn't stand out. He would be recalled, if at all, merely as one more shiftless drifter hungry for a few weeks' pay. That was the way he wanted it, the professional way.
Saunders spent the five days before round-up establishing himself with the other hands. Taking cards in evening games of bunkhouse poker, he displayed average skills but played to lose slightly. He joined in laughter at cowhand shenanigans but initiated none himself. He talked enough so that he would not be conspicuous for his silence, but nothing he said, about himself, his past, or about ranching, was remarkable. The men would forget the false name he used within a week of him drawing his time. After a month, they would forget about him completely, just another drifter no one noticed or remembered.
A professional looked after the small things as well as the big ones and took pride in delivering a polished performance. That's what Vanderman maintained, and Saunders believed it. The small things were what tripped a man up.
His playacting became easier once they moved into their first round-up camp. Gone were the days of preparation, the mending of tack, the camaraderie of the bunkhouse. For the next three weeks the sweaty chores of searching through the brush, scouring the side canyons, chousing out the hideouts, and manning the branding fire would fully occupy every hand's energy. Dawn to dusk were saddle hours. Dusk to dawn were for meals, for sleep, and for night herd.
Uncomplainingly, Saunders took to the saddle each morning and did his share of riding the scrub. If the foreman had been asked, he would have said Saunders didn't stand out, maybe an average itinerant hand, producing about as many head for the branding fire as others, sometimes more, sometimes less. That impression would be important, Saunders knew, in what lay ahead.
One day, after midmorning delivery of a dozen cows with their unbranded calves, Saunders turned his horse east. Riding round about to avoid other riders, he reached the ranch house unseen, finding it deserted as he expected. In five minutes, he had completed his business and was back in the saddle. His tally of cows that day was not his best, but anyone noticing it merely assumed he had drawn territory light on cattle. And this was not the critical day.
* * *
Before hooking up with Vanderman, Saunders had been a young, fresh-faced no-account, willing to do a chore for fifty a pop, enough to keep him in drinking and whoring money, which pretty much summed up the ambitions of many a twenty-year old. Looking back over the intervening decade, he could see how much he had grown. Now folks considered him a solid, if small, rancher, established in the community, a serious man, a man with a future. Vanderman had done that for him, first by signing him on and showing him where the real money lay, then by patient development, each year teaching him something new: how to work fast, how to work quiet, the best spot to slip in a quick blade, tricks of the trade that made him a more versatile workman, a top professional who could be sent in to deal with the toughest assignments. The increased pay that accompanied his enhanced skills had combined with the regularity of Vanderman's errands to provide the down payment on his ranch. The work came less often now; he was called from his ranch only on tasks that needed top-rate talent, but Vanderman paid accordingly and the investment in his ranch continued to grow. When he told Vanderman the past winter that demands at his Diamond S fought for his time and he needed to ease out of field work, the lawyer had been effusive in his congratulations. Still, when Vanderman had sent word he was needed, he'd not hesitated.
Sure, life was sweet now, but when Vanderman had found him, his future looked blacker than a Comanchero's heart. The unwanted sodbuster on Crazy Woman Creek had gone down easy enough but an unseen witness stepped forward to swear that Saunders slapped iron unprovoked. As the trial neared, Saunders' throat stiffened with the bleak certainty that a jury would condemn him. Then, only days before the trial, a lawyer appeared to handle his defense, seemingly an inexplicable act of charity, for Saunders had no money to pay the lawyer, nor any prospects of surviving to earn any. After the witness stopped a bullet on the eve of trial, Vanderman told him how he could pay his legal bills.
He'd no objection; cartridges were cheap and a proud man always paid his debts. A couple of pops, he figured, and he'd be on his way. But he quickly learned that Vanderman extracted full value from his bargain. During the next six months, Saunders pounded leather incessantly from Montana to New Mexico, his wrist bucked five time and his legal fees had been paid. More importantly, he had demonstrated his worth to Vanderman. He hadn't been surprised when Vanderman signed him on for continued work at prime pay.
That was ten years ago. He'd worked for the lawyer ever since.
* * *
There were times when Saunders let himself wonder about Vanderman and his business. Did he have a network feeding him work? How big was his operation? How did he keep the wrong people from knowing about him? He never asked Vanderman. He knew the lawyer's answer: "Compartmentalization of knowledge." And as long as the work kept coming, it didn't matter.
How Vanderman lined up his crew was no mystery. Saunders had his own experience. And he knew Vanderman still added to his stable. The past fall, poor Mort down at the Wheatland general store had made the fatal mistake of being in the street to witness a rancher getting taken down. When Saunders knuckled on the rear door after closing, Mort was surprised, but Saunders was a friendly customer so Mort swung the door open to give admittance. He didn't see the knife until it arced upward. A brutal thrust, a savage twist and Saunders had earned his pay. He emptied the cash box and the sheriff figured a robber had done for Mort.
Next week, the Cheyenne Ledger reported that Vanderman had won another case.
Him being a rancher came in handy for Vanderman, too, Saunders reflected. They had a simple understanding. Five or six times over recent years, a gun-hung hardcase had ridden in, sent by Vanderman to lie low, so each told him. When they swaggered in, some young and arrogant as he'd been at their age, others more hard of face, they dismissed him for a no-account rancher. So, he welcomed each man, roused him before dawn, and rode him out in his long johns to be planted.
Vanderman himself was as plain to read as a one-hour trail. He worked his men hard, showed no sympathy for slackards or failures, and valued a man solely for the money he could make. And who could complain about that? Each time Saunders went into the field, he felt pride-driven to live up to Vanderman's exacting standards. For a top man, it was a satisfying job.
As to those that didn't measure up, what happened to them didn't bother Saunders. Vanderman paid well for the risks, and if he ever let the day come he couldn't do his job, he'd deserve to be another man's payday.
But Saunders didn't plan on tangling his spurs. Not this time. Not ever.
Ten days into round-up, tempers were getting short, as Harner's impatient arrogance belittled any human weakness. Saunders particularly noticed the increasingly frequent exchanges of harsh words between Harner and his son. The lad, coming on to twenty, pulled his weight so far as Saunders could see, but a man wouldn't know that to hear Harner rant. Saunders speculated, could the kid be the client? Still, Harner rode folks hard. No telling how many enemies he had made.
With round-up more than half over, Saunders' chance came. Ambling back for a second plate of sourdough flapjacks, he steered himself past where Harner and his foreman were palavering. When he heard the rancher say that he would be spending the day at the ranch, Saunders passed on seconds, saddled, and rode out first that day, eager to get his business accomplished.
To begin, he located several head and steered them to a hollow from which they could not drift far. By mid-morning, he had gathered another bunch and driven them to the branding fire. Then it was time to go to work.
The ranch door swung open noiselessly. Slipping inside, Saunders eased the door shut, careful to permit no betraying sound. As his visit had told him, Harner's office was off the carpeted hallway, a few yards beyond the parlor. He hoped Harner would be working at the oaken desk. He needed to work fast.
As Saunders' tall form filled the doorway, the change in light caused Harner to look up from the papers spread out before him. Harner's arrogant face flushed in anger as he set down the pen. "Why aren't you out on the range?" he barked.
Saunders smiled respectfully to the rancher. Some men needed to be angry before they could do their work, so Vanderman told him. Not Saunders. He felt no animosity toward Harner, no more than toward a horse needing to be put down.
"Come in to say goodbye, Mr. Harner." He slipped into the room.
"Damnation, no cowboy quits my spread during round-up." Harner scowled. "If you leave me short-handed, don't figure on drawing your time. You'll not get a penny from me."
Saunders shook his head, sad but not surprised at Harner's blustering fury. That's just the way the man was made. "No need to get riled up, Mr. Harner," he told the red-faced rancher. "I'm no quitter."
"Man tells me he's leaving, I'd call him a quitter."
"No," Saunders corrected gently. "I said I was saying goodbye."
Harner looked at Saunders without speaking. It took him a moment, but as Saunders stepped toward the desk, the rancher's puzzlement was replaced by incredulity. Saunders had seen it before. Arrogant cock-of-the-walk men never figure it could happen to them.
The rancher's hand dropped to slide open a desk drawer. "Looking for this, Mr. Harner?" From the small of his back, Saunders drew the revolver he had purloined on his first visit.
"Who?" the rancher demanded as Saunders stepped forward. "Not Rollie?" he asked in disbelief. "No," he snorted disgustedly. "He don't have the gumption."
Saunders dropped the parcel he carried on a side table and moved around the desk to Harner's right side. Calmly he thumb-cocked as he raised the gun.
Harner's mouth opened, to plead, or to promise, or likely to curse, Saunders didn't wait to find out. He rammed the gun barrel forward into Harner's open mouth, choking off the rancher's final words. As Harner jerked back in reflex, Saunders pressed forward, finger taking up the trigger slack. His free hand fended off Harner's futile efforts to grab the gun. The strangled protests of a target meant nothing to Saunders; his mind screened them out as he ran through his mental checklist.
Just in time, he realized his near mistake. Standing over the doomed man, as he was, the bullet trajectory would be put the lie to the story. Saunders dropped his wrist, changing the angle, and gently caressed the trigger. The explosion filled the room, the back of Harner's head erupted, and the wall behind him stained crimson and gray.
Saunders stood for a moment, inhaling as the cordite cleared. Then, he reached down and grasped the limp hand, wrapping it around the gun. When he released the hand, the gun slipped to the floor just beyond Harner's dangling fingers.
Saunders quickly finished his work, removing the papers Harner had spread across his desk, stacking them neatly to one side. The notes Harner had been making might put the lie to the story, so he shoved them inside his shirt for later destruction. Then he unwrapped the oilskin packet. The stiff cardboard backing had kept the envelope and its contents unwrinkled so they looked fresh and new as Saunders placed them at the center of the desk. He observed that the stationery seemed to match Harner's. Count on Vanderman to be thorough. Across the front of the envelope, in large block letters, someone had printed "To the Sheriff."
From the door, he examined the scene a final time. Everything seemed right and in its place. Neat and professional. Vanderman should approve.
On the trail back, he let his chest swell with the manly rush that always went with a clean pop. As for the slab of cooling beef that had been Harner, Saunders never gave it a thought. No man should count on living when he was worth good money dead. That was the way of the world and it suited Saunders fine for the work it brought him.
Part way back he swung down long enough to burn Harner's notes and scatter the ashes. Then he located the small cluster of cattle he had collected earlier and herded them toward the branding fire. No one doubted that he had been range-riding all the time.
Later Saunders seemed to share the shock of the others when they learned of Harner's suicide. After the round-up, he drew his time, joining the crew in town for a good blowout. Then he rode south to Wyoming, with the current issue of the Benton Chronicle in his saddlebags.
The newspaper report was succinct and only young Harner cried murder, but the sheriff dismissed Rollie's accusations because of the note. In that final act, it seemed, Harner had confessed the swindle that eliminated his partner from ownership of Rafter H and declared that his guilt had become intolerable. The lawyer for Harner's former partner, not Vanderman of course, announced that the courts would be asked to award the ranch to his client.
Never before had Saunders known the name of the man who hired him. In less proven hands, that would be dangerous knowledge. No wonder Vanderman had sent for him, even after he had declared he was hanging it up.
Hanging it up? Saunders gave a short laugh. Why not admit it. He liked the work. He'd let Vanderman know that he could find time for a trip now and then.
Saunders looped the reins of his mare around the hitching rail in front of Trail's End Saloon and strolled the three blocks to the lawyer's second story office where no nosy passer-by could look in the windows. Their business required privacy.
The glazed-glass door bearing the stenciled legend "Junius Vanderman, attorney-at-law" yielded as Saunders turned the knob. Inside the lawyer's waiting room, a young cowhand lounged in one of the straight-backed chairs, his gloved hands playing idly with a pegging rope, a cigarette dangling from his lips.
Saunders stifled his annoyance. Resigned to delay, he pulled out the makings, rolled a cigarette, and settled down to wait. The current edition of the Cheyenne Ledger lay on a side table. Saunders casually scanned the news, pausing briefly over the mention of the homesteader outside Rawlins, just a typical "starter" job by a gunman described as "young, slender of build with a scrubby blond moustache." Saunders' eyes flashed speculatively at the man across the room, a sallow-cheeked colt in faded range garb, barely twenty, sprouting a wannabe moustache and staring back at him with sullen animosity. The kid had nothing to make a man notice or remember, the kind of workman Vanderman liked but with a brashness of youth the lawyer hadn't yet tamed, all the arrogance of two-bit gun trash. Probably the client Mort's testimony would have condemned, waiting for his payoff for the Rawlins errand.
Over the years, Saunders only met another of Vanderman's stable of hands at chore time. Vanderman didn't slip up on security, so Saunders knew the kid had paid his legal fees, showed himself to be second-rate talent and needed to be moved on. Just a quick pop; hardly enough work to justify a fee. Few men expected it when their time came; the kid would be no different.
Saunders turned to the paper's ranch news section. Beef prices in Chicago were up; maybe he'd ship a few dozen steers this fall. He was halfway through a reprint from the National Stockman touting the potential of a new strain of alfalfa when the door to Vanderman's inner office swung open. The lawyer emerged, calm, deliberate as always, a tall graying man dressed in a professionally-tailored dark suit. His eyes spoke his self-assurance. Few men could intimidate Saunders; Vanderman did so without trying.
"Ah, Mr. Saunders," the lawyer began. "Sorry to keep you. Please come in." He smiled patronizingly toward the throw-away kid. "Mr. Waters won't mind."
Vanderman stepped aside with ostentatious courtesy to let Saunders precede him into the heavily carpeted office. The furnishings had little changed over the years. Shelves with legal tomes lined one wall, filing cabinets another, and a strong box sat on a table behind the lawyer's desk. Saunders stepped around the familiar steamer trunk that always reminded him of the Denver assignment when the banker's carcass wasn't to be found where it bled. Carting the steamer trunk through downtown Denver hadn't attracted notice. Saunders eased himself into the client chair facing the desk and waited while Vanderman brought the crystal decanter from the sidebar and set it down between them. Saunders selected a shot glass, poured himself four fingers of the lawyer's premium-quality Kentucky bourbon, settled back and began his detailed report on the operation.
"Congratulations!" The heartiness of Vanderman's response echoed through the room as he raised his own glass. "A superb performance," he declared. "Neat and efficient." It was Vanderman's highest praise and Saunders let himself bask in the lawyer's approbation. He tossed off the whisky and leaned forward to pour a refill as Vanderman extracted a thick bundle of greenbacks from the strong box.
Saunders let the whiskey relax him as Vanderman began placing bill upon bill on the desk between them. Soon the stack had surpassed even last year's double outside Las Vegas, six hundred dollars and still the lawyer was counting. Vanderman always treated him right. Mesmerized by the accumulating mound of greenbacks on the table before him, Saunders barely listened as the lawyer's sonorous voice droned on.
"Over the years, I used you to conclude several lucrative specials," Vanderman was saying. "This time, when our client's needs became clear, I knew you were ideal for the operational phase." The lawyer's faintly apologetic smile seemed to dismiss any minor inconvenience the summons had imposed on his retired agent. "Such are the imperatives of our business."
Business, Saunders repeated to himself. That described it. Making good pay just for tossing a man on the discard heap. "Never thought one carcass could be worth that much." He gestured toward the money before him. "Got any more specials that pay like this, Mr. Vanderman, and I'll come lickety-split."
Vanderman wore his usual bland smile. "You've seen the newspaper article?" Saunders nodded. "Inevitably, the client's driving concern was my assurance of my agent's complete discretion."
Saunders proudly grinned at the tribute. "Thirty times and more, and never a runny mouth," Saunders said as he refilled his glass.
"Our special service augments my guarantee of secrecy with convincing certitude." While Saunders let the usual fog of the lawyer's convoluted speech roll over him, Vanderman smiled broadly and leaned back in his chair. "Most find the investment prohibitive, but your status as my foremost profit center, made yours a record price."
He meant pay.
Suddenly, a fire bell clanged urgently through the whiskey haze.
He couldn't mean . . .
In a flash, his own dangerous knowledge, the kid's unexpected presence, and finally Vanderman's words clicked into place. "Certitude!" Christ, no! Already lurching from his chair, the gunman's hand stabbed toward his holster.
A strand of pegging cord flashed in front of Saunders' eyes. The taut cord dug deep into the soft flesh of his neck. His fingers clawed at his throat. His body writhed desperately. His lungs convulsed as they struggled for breath. The unyielding cord drew tighter by the second, choking off sound, choking off life. Finally, Saunders felt his throat crunch in on itself and the end neared.
His vision dimming, the doomed man's eyes fastened on Vanderman, placid and faintly amused. The lawyer seemed satisfied with his new talent.
And why not? He had been neat and efficient.