Chris McKay was an unhappy man as he reined up at the old Farnsworth homestead cabin.
* * *
The three unsaddled horses in the dilapidated corral were two more than he expected. Then a tow-headed string bean
emerged from the barn. "They're waiting on you inside, Mr. McKay." The kid knowing his name, McKay didn't like that
either, not in his business. What was the Rawlings lawyer thinking?
Grandison, in his tailored wool suit, sat with a short, stocky hard-set man dressed for the trail, an open whiskey
bottle between them. At once, McKay felt an intense hostility to the stranger who would know part of his business,
up to now always kept private between Grandison and him and whoever the unnamed client of the day might be.
"Pete Collier," Grandison introduced. "He'll be working with you this trip."
McKay was uncompromising. "I work alone."
"That's what I say, too," Collier insisted. "What's the idea?"
"Our client has special needs," Grandison replied. He laid it out quickly. A nest of rustlers working their own small
spreads down in Brown's Park, Colorado, but riding out singly or in twos and threes into southern Wyoming to make
their gathers finally had gone beyond the limits of tolerance and now required professional attention. "Minor nuisances
at first, not grabbing many head each trip," Grandison reported. "But they keep at it. Finally, it's cheaper to solve
the problem than live with it."
Grandison opened his leather briefcase and produced a stack of envelopes which he laid on the table. McKay grabbed for
them, not letting Collier take control, not with them being worth good money. "I despise thieves," he said. "Cattle
thieves are the worst." He held up one envelope and looked questioningly at Grandison.
"All contain the same one-sentence message," the lawyer said. "Five days to leave Brown's Park or die."
McKay riffled through the stack. "There's over ten of them," he said. "That's a wad of money."
"You only punch two holes," Grandison explained. "Mail one letter at a time, any order you want. Give each man fair warning,
and if he doesn't run you do your work. After you've done two, you drop the rest of the envelopes in the post and come back
for your pay. Client figures the rest will scatter like leaves in the wind."
"Popping a simple cow-stealer a week, that ain't hard work." McKay flashed a hostile glance at the hatchet-faced man beside him.
"I don't need Sancho Panza here saddling my horse for me," McKay said, "splitting the pay."
Beside him, Collier's throat growled in resentment. Fine, McKay thought. If he had to be stuck with a sidekick, make sure the
runt knew who was boss.
"Client's idea, and he's paying. You get full price, both of you, whoever crooks his finger. Someone needs to scout the area
to find where the targets hole up. Client figures one of you doing the whole job would be too obvious." Grandison paused. "It
requires a subtle touch. That's why he's paying for my two highest-priced operatives."
The Brown's Park stop on the famed Outlaw Trail had a well-deserved reputation throughout the West as an ideal location for a
certain kind of enterprising man. Located just south of the Wyoming-Colorado state line, a few quick miles from the Utah border,
a fast horse could outdistance the jurisdiction of any meddlesome posse that ventured the seventy-five miles from the county
seat at Craig. At Brown's Park, men could rest, secure from pursuit, enjoy the fruits of their industry, and find partners for
upcoming work. With the Cold Spring Mountains to the north and the Diamond Mountains to the south, the long six-mile-wide valley
had a mixture of canyons and caves, ideal secluded campsites for men on the dodge, while the fingers of descending side ridges
formed pockets with natural boundaries for small ranchers seeking advantage from the good grass and reliable water.
* * *
Not all the residents in Brown's Park strayed across the fences built by citified types who plumped themselves in legislative
chairs or strode the streets with badges on their breast. But with little expectation of interference from a remote sheriff,
temptation without risk seduces susceptible men. Honest cattlemen built their herds by careful husbanding of the annual calf
crop, selling only the steers and holding the heifers back for future breeding. Ambitious men not given to patience could help
nature along. With little penalty for "borrowing and rebranding" Wyoming stock, more than one small rancher sought prosperity
through midnight round-ups.
There was no town in Brown's Park, merely a small cluster of buildings around Jarvie's general store and saloon which served the
needs of the farmers and ranchers of the area. Visitors on the dodge made it their social club. When a new man with a long-rider's
disdain for a razor bellied up to the bar one afternoon to wet his whistle, it was deemed a discourtesy to ask questions.
The man who called himself Chris McIntyre watched, observed, mainly he listened for the next three days, hearing names, matching
them to envelopes, and letting ranchers become accustomed to him. Those ranchers who steered clear of a hard-faced stranger, who
wanted nothing to do with a man likely carrying a dark secret, such men were not likely to have an envelope waiting for them. But
by the end of the week, McKay was sharing his bottle with a few men, the kind who might hire a hand for a night-time drive, and
he had learned where to find the cabin of Matt Rash. Collier rode to Vernal the next day to visit the post office.
Both men expected to be on the trail home in two weeks.
"Bad news," McKay told Collier as he swung down in their camp ten days later. "Turbot skedaddled so we got to send out another notice
* * *
"Already put one in the mail," Collier replied.
"Who we doing next?"
"Fellow named Isom Dart. Know him?"
"Had a couple of drinks with him. Friendly, easy-going fellow to swap yarns with. Kind of like him." McKay paused. "Never done it to
a black man before. Guess they go down the same."
"If you want, I can do it."
"Naw. Work's never personal. He chose to be a cow-stealer. Until the law shows up when it's needed and protects a man's property,
we just got a job that needs doing." McKay squatted down by the fire and reached for the coffee pot. "You dropped Rash. I should
pull my turn. Besides, I figure he'll let me get in close. Should be easy."
"You going to scamper like Turbot?" McKay asked Dart over a whiskey when the middle-aged cowman disclosed he had received warning.
"What do you think I should do?"
McKay didn't think long. A second man running and he would be on the road another full week. "Fellow shows his colors at a time like
this, Isom. Let folks see what you're made of."
"Fifty years, 'the man' been pushing me around, treating me like I was still someone's property," Dart said. "I sweated too many
years, but now I'm building my spread. I'm done running. Let the bastard try for me. I'll be waiting."
McKay raised his glass. "Manhood," he toasted.
When he was sixteen, men in blue coats had brought Isom Dart freedom. Freedom and a prostrate economy where there were no jobs for
man or boy, black or white. There were, however, uncounted unclaimed Texas cattle, the product of four calving seasons without branding irons.
* * *
And so Isom Dart entered the cattle business, learning that cows running free could, with the application of a growing man's muscle
and sweat, be transformed into what the Yankees called greenbacks. It was a valuable lesson; one he never forgot.
When the mavericks gave out, Dart turned to other sources of support—Mexican horses could be swum across the Rio and quickly
exchanged for a cattleman's cash. Cattle with brands could be sold to "nearsighted" butchers. Horses and cattle, cattle and horses,
became the core of Dart's life; in Texas, Colorado, Wyoming, even as far as Idaho; shot, jailed, but never hanged, year followed year
in the rhythm of his nomadic life. At length Dart traded in trail camps and bedrolls to settle in Brown's Park, first working as wrangler
for a cattle company and then building his own brand, using the talents he had learned in Texas. When asked, a Colorado jury said, "Not
guilty" and his path to respectability lay before him.
On his occasional trips to Wyoming, Dart assured himself that he was a man with modest ambitions, collecting—he never called it
rustling—no more cattle than one or two men could quickly drive home, not enough even to be noticed by one of those rich ranchers
running thousands of beef on unfenced range. What he took was no more than what the white ranchers owed him for the years his parents had
slaved without pay for other rich men.
Then came the damn letter, the unfair letter. He could point to neighbors with unquenchable appetites. Why him? Why not them? Matt Rash
had laughed off his warning and been killed, Turbot had run. But the drifter calling himself Chris McIntyre had it right. A man worth
the name stands his ground and fights.
Now, the day had come. As Dart stood in the doorway of his cabin, scanning the range in front of him, the hillside a mile away, the tree
line—Rash had been shot from trees—his eyes fell on a small dust cloud leisurely moving his direction. He reached for the
carbine leaning against the wall inside the door and prepared to give the bastard murderer an unexpected greeting.
Dart lowered the carbine when he recognized the approaching horseman. "Morning, Chris. Today's the day. You come to stand with me?"
"Something like that, Isom. Smells like coffee on the stove."
Inside McKay took the coffee and smiled at Dart. "Glad you didn't run, Isom; I miss my boys." McKay did his work, finished the coffee,
and rode back to help Collier break camp.
As the shadows fell, their world became a small circle circumscribed by the light of their flickering campfire. Now, with their work
behind them, and only one day out from the Farnsworth cabin and their pay, the month-long intensity of their job faces decompressed.
In a word, they relaxed. Collier pulled a flask out of his saddlebags, took a nip and passed it over to McKay.
* * *
"Didn't think I'd like working with a partner, Pete," McKay said as he returned the flask, "but we teamed well. I'll let Grandison know
he can pair you with me any time."
"Been a fine four weeks, Chris." Collier agreed. "Been good getting to know a stone-cold workman like you, a man who takes his job
serious and gets it done with no fuss." Collier took another swig from the flask and reflected on his career.
"Been an easy life," Collier reflected, "ever since the first chore I done for Grandison, when he pointed me toward some old geezer
past his prime, holed up in his cabin in the hills. Maybe worth his pay once, but by the time I popped him, nothing but a used-up
whiskey mill, judging from the number of empties he'd used for target practice. One hundred dollars was twice what I'd been getting
free-lance and I figured I'd hit the Comstock Lode, which shows how green I was." He took a pull from the flask and passed it over.
"You been doing it long, yourself?"
"Eight years." McKay felt the warmth of the whiskey slide down his throat, then passed the flask back. "Up in Buffalo, I got disgusted
watching juries ignore the evidence so I tossed my badge in the Judge's face. That's when Grandison showed me how rustlers could be
fought. Using a man's talent for something needful makes him feel proud of his life's work." McKay shoved aside the shadowy thought
that riding close to the line, necessary as it was, threatened to change him. Maybe he was less proud of that. You're still a lawman
in your heart, he reassured himself. He prayed it was true.
"We got us a good job," Collier said, "rustlers, squatters, who cares what. Give us a name and the sorry son's just a stack of
double-eagles on two feet." Collier chose to ignore McKay's grimace of disgust; no skin off his butt if a man chose to blind himself
to the brutal reality of how they made their money. Collier gave a lusty killer's laugh.
"Lots of good times me and my Smith and Wesson have had since I got my start." He took his pull on the flask and passed it back.
"Once Grandison started working me regular, I moved into the old man's cabin myself. Stay in town and folks wonder when you go on trips."
"My wife and me have a small spread outside Medicine Bow," McKay said. "No hands except for branding season, so when Grandison sends
me to administer justice, I'm not missed."
"She must know."
"She don't ask. I figure she knows." McKay's face was transformed as he thought of the joy Anna had brought into his life these six
years. "We got us a fine set of boys. Bright as buttons they are. Bill is growing up fast. He starts his schooling this year. Mickey
is a year behind him." McKay looked across at Collier. "The best part of the week is the time I spend teaching them how to ride a
horse or bring in a fish."
Collier felt the glow from McKay's pleasure. "You're a man who's found a core to your life. What do the kids think when you ride off?"
"Don't like to see me go, that's a fact. Leaving them is hard." McKay's eyes lit up. "But the best part is the excitement I'll see
when I ride into the ranch yard and they race to be the first I hoist in my arms." He took another swig of the flask. "Life's good,
Pete. Don't know what more a man could ask. They grow up fast, though, getting of an age where they start asking questions. Haven't
figured out yet how to deal with that."
"Couple of braggy kids in the schoolyard." Collier gave a chortle of remembrance of his own school days. "Back when I was in short
pants, I fisted shut any mouth trying to talk someone bigger than my Pa." He took his turn at the flask, as he considered the new
information. Relaxed and jovial, he lowered the flask. "Sure. That explains it."
"Why you're up."
McKay froze as Collier eased his revolver into view, casual and confident. "Never cared much about the whys, Chris. Not my business.
Still, we had the time and I wondered. Maybe the kids wouldn't blab, but likely Grandison figures it don't hurt nothing to make sure."
Collier shrugged indifferently. "Makes sense. You agree?"
It didn't matter whether McKay agreed, not to this man cheerfully contemplating another wad of greenbacks that would soon be stuffed
in his Levis. McKay didn't insult Collier's professionalism by begging away the bullet. And drawing against a filled hand would mean
to die like an amateur. McKay had always been a realist.
Collier continued in the same relaxed tone of voice he had used all evening, a man in control of his work. "You know how it goes,
Chris, forefinger and thumb on the gun butt and toss it clear or spend the night finding how much blood your gut can leak."
When McKay had defanged himself, Collier eased back on the hammer. "My flask is still near full and I never liked drinking alone,"
he told McKay. "Unless you're in a hurry."
By tacit consent, these two men experienced in the ways of life ignored the business at hand while the whiskey lasted. They reminisced
about past actions, laughed about near screw-ups and how they had pulled things off. They remembered how things were in the old days,
before the profession went all-to-Hell, the young kids these days satisfied with sloppy work. "All they think about is pocketing their
pay and getting back to the nearest saloon and crib, no sense of workmanship," McKay said. "They got no more bottom to them than that
scruffy cowhand we saw at Farnsworth's."
They talked about Grandison, about how he found a way to get rich providing a service that folks in a lawless world needed, grounding
his business on first-rate talent —"men like us." They talked about how trust seemed an outmoded concept, how the youngsters
were driving down wages. "I'm having none of it," Collier declared. "Not three months ago, I told Grandison I do a man's work, I expect
a man's pay. Five hundred dollars or I don't saddle up." He paused and reflected. "Likely I'd have done you cut-rate, since he was
already paying my travel time, but he didn't ask. The way I look at it, you and me ain't in the charity business, am I right?"
McKay had stretched out his time by barely wetting his lips when his turn at the flask came, while Collier was growing mellow and
relaxed. McKay handed back the flask. "Making top profit, first, last, and always, that's what drives him.
"He's slickered you good," Collier agreed with no hint of disrespect. "You never saw it coming." McKay's new-found wisdom led to
discussion of Grandison's single-minded management of his workforce. "Got to admire him," Collier said. "If a youngster works for
starter wages, he's happy to let some young kid ride out of your stall in his stable."
McKay gave a short, bitter laugh. "Grandison pinches the dollar so tight he finagles a top hand to work his last job for free." You
can learn from my story, Pete."
From there, inevitably talk turned to the new technologies in their trade; they compared Colt's newest model and the old Smith & Wesson
Collier favored; they debated whether Collier's Winchester or the new Remington model was better for distance work. They talked into
the night, just two men engaging in shop talk.
Finally, the flask was empty and the talk came to an end.
The lanky young cowhand he'd seen before was lounging hip-shot at the corral puffing a cigarette when Collier drew rein. "Mr.
* * *
The kid dropped his cigarette and booted out the ember. "He said to fetch him when you and Mr. McKay got back."
"McKay's not coming. Fetch Grandison." Collier swung down and turned his horse into the corral.
"Yes, sir. Soon as I curry and grain your horse."
Collier strode across the yard to the small cabin. End-of-trail after a piece of work always brought a relaxation of tension and
a thirst for pleasure and he was pleased Grandison had anticipated his needs. Collier uncorked the whiskey bottle on the sideboard
and went to work. The bottle would last long enough for the hand to ride to town and for Grandison to come back with his money.
The kid swung the door open. "Thought you was riding to—" Collier slurred. He tried to focus his eyes on the revolver in the
"Let's take us a walk outside Mr. Collier. No need to splash your mess around the cabin."
Collier struggled to his feet, grasped the edge of the table to help his balance. Stiff-legged he took two steps, reached out to
the wall to steady himself.
"You can take your time, old man. I won't rush you on your way." Collier wasn't sure what was worse, Grandison's brutal betrayal,
or the snotty condescending sneer of the young killer. He seemed to have his balance as long as he moved slowly. Collier stepped
toward the door. A clumsy stab toward his revolver would be laughable.
"That whiskey . . . " he began.
"Got a special bite, don't it, Mr. Collier? I used it before. You ain't even a fifty-dollar pop now," the kid said. "Not that I
won't take my full hundred."
Collier walked slowly across the yard. The corral was only fifty feet from the cabin, but it seemed like five hundred as he took
one step at a time. By going slow, he didn't stagger too much and he succeeded in staying on his feet all the way.
"I have my fun a mile into the hills," the kid was telling him. "I can start you now and let you bleed it out on the trail, or
you can swing to the saddle and I'll do you quick when we get there."
Collier braced himself on the corral rail and turned to face the killer. "You know, this ain't right," he appealed. "We're in
the same line of work."
"We were," the kid corrected. "Not no more. I figure you tangled your rope too often, and now you're just a spavined old nag
needing to be put down. The whys of it don't matter. You'll pay for my cribbing for a good spell."
Then, standing there by the corral, leaning against it, apparently struggling for his balance, Collier reached his free hand up
and removed his hat. Perhaps the kid thought he was about to make his final useless appeal. Or maybe it was a signal. Because
immediately the kid's shirt puffed out front and back, he crumpled and lay still.
Collier, his act set aside, nodded as McKay rode in. "You're right. Remington's new model has better penetration than my old Winchester."
Sheriff Tidwell and Dr. Burke looked down at the jumble of bedclothes and the form within them, seemingly shrunken now that
it had been deprived of the vitality of life.
"Looks like natural causes to me, Doc," Tidwell said.
Dr. Burke stepped forward and ran his hands down the dead man's face, closing the eyes that stared upward in panic. The
bruises showed the imprint of a man's rough hand grinding into the lawyer, cutting off nose and mouth for the several
minutes Grandison took to die. The bedclothes revealed the desperate struggle, the handprints on the bruised ankles showed
where another man had pinned Grandison in place while the work was completed.
"In his line of business," Burke said, "it's natural enough."
Meanwhile, at a small ranch outside Medicine Bow, Chris McKay held his wife tight and wouldn't let go. "I'm home for good."