Apparently the Carlton has been hosting a cattlemen's convention. Two of the men have made their way to Paladin's suite and are pacing around, explaining why they want Paladin to go after an old bounty hunter, Jess Larker. Larker had been on the Cattleman's Association's payroll, more or less, for years, hunting down various rustlers that they had put a bounty on--and usually not troubling to bring them back alive. Now, however, times are changing. Perhaps some of the men in the Association have developed consciences, although it seems more likely that they have developed a desire for "respectability". Whatever the reason, Jess Larker and his methods are no longer welcome. Larker has apparently notified them that he is closing in on a man named Cabell, whom the Association had set a $500 bounty on two years previously--and then forgot about.
There are a lot of stories about the cattle wars. Sometimes the "rustlers" were merely smallholders who got in the way of the big cattle barons. Paladin, of course, would be aware of such stories, and he regards the cattlemen with contempt. This is made evident by the fact that he remains seated while his guests are on their feet. In fact, the way he's stretched out makes it seem as though he's ignoring the men. He's quite certain that they want him to kill the old man, and the older of the two men indicates that he wouldn't mind if Paladin did so. The fact that they could forget putting a bounty on a man's life shows how casually they arranged for men to die. The younger man, however, tries to make it clear that they want to stop all the killing, and somehow he manages to persuade Paladin.
Paladin quietly rides up by a campfire where an old man is sitting. Without turning his head, the man bids Paladin to "step down" and share his meal, and the men introduce themselves. Like Paladin, Jess Larker acts in a friendly manner. He calmly accepts the news that the Association has hired Paladin to "help" him bring in Cabell. Although he prefers to work alone, he doesn't try to argue or get nasty about it. He does, however, casually reach for his shotgun, and Paladin instantly draws. Convinced that Paladin has the edge over him, Larker seemingly resigns himself, accepting Paladin's offer to share the duck he had hunted and cooked previously. (Considering the number of times we've seen Paladin munching on beans, it's not surprising that he would welcome a change of pace, and probably Larker as well.) Off-handedly, Larker mentions a boarding house a day's ride distant. He's been told that it's a good place to rest up and get a decent meal before settling down to business.
Paladin and Larker stand out as they enter the quiet, genteel Madison House. Mrs. Madison does not like dealing with "transients" and she does not greet her new customers with much courtesy. It's fun to watch the three of them interact, with Paladin overriding Larker every time he tries to distance himself from Paladin. Mrs. Madison states that she cannot give them adjoining rooms. Presumably she's just trying to establish her authority, because when Paladin makes it clear that they will have adjoining rooms, and extracts a bill from his wallet, suddenly the rooms become available. Larker hastens upstairs while Paladin signs in. A few moments later, Larker is nowhere to be seen. Paladin tosses his saddlebags in his own room and goes hunting. Finding access to an attic, he climbs up for a look around. Larker is hiding up there, but Paladin doesn't seem to see him. As soon as Paladin leaves, Larker jumps up and goes to the trapdoor. He really should have waited a few minutes, at least. Larker is the only one surprised when he finds Paladin standing around the corner. Since Larker could have slipped out the attic window, Paladin deduces that Cabell is actually inside the boarding house, and Larker had hoped that Paladin would leave the house to look for him. Larker is annoyed, but still amiable enough, and they go downstairs for a meal.
There's quite a few people staying at the boarding house, introduced by the expedient of passing a bowl of mashed potatoes. Perhaps potatoes are already being regarded as fattening; none of the three women at the table partake, although most of the men do. When Larker takes the bowl, his hands are trembling noticeably, and the shakiness becomes more evident as the scene continues. Paladin surveys the silent group, and essays a comment about the weather. Mrs. Madison immediately informs him that her late husband had never approved of mealtime conversation. This might have simply been Mr. Madison's way to avoid possible arguments and unpleasant subjects, rather than any concern about overworking the digestive system. Paladin quickly gets around her with a simple compliment on her cooking. (The heads of the boarders flip back and forth during their dialogue, like watching a tennis match.) From there he begins sounding out the people at the table, trying to learn their names and what they do. One man is a travelling salesman, another a store owner. Oddly, when Paladin mentions that a third man looks like he might be a trail boss, the man acts as though he's about to leave the table. This, presumably, was a not-too-subtle attempt to focus our attention. Larker suddenly tries to bring Paladin's questions to a halt, knowing perfectly well what he's trying to do. Paladin promptly changes tactics, announcing to the room at large that Larker is a hired killer. The man he's after is there at the table. Paladin makes some rather obnoxious comments about Larker's nature. Larker responds slowly, but finally gets riled enough to stand up and state that, for all his fancy talk, Paladin is the same sort of man as Larker. At this point, Paladin lets that observation slide by without any noticeable reaction. After Larker leaves the room, Paladin makes it clear that if Cabell, whoever he is, wants to stay alive, he had best come to Paladin, who will bring him safely in for trial.
Later than evening, hearing a steady tapping noise, Paladin gets up and goes to Larker's room. Larker tucks his shotgun alongside his leg, under the table. The tapping noise was caused by his shaking hand, rattling his glass of whiskey against the bottle. Paladin inquires about Larker's habit of killing his bounties rather than bringing them in. Larker's answer is simple; he got into the game when he was well on in years, and he just couldn't afford to take chances. For some reason, Paladin does not mention that the Association is no longer going to be offering bounties. He also does not mention Larker's shaking hands, alluding rather to elderly tigers who turn to mankilling when they lose their speed and strength. With his fading abilities, Larker is either going to go too far with Cabell, earning himself a hangman's noose, or he will leave Cabell an opening to kill him. Larker brushes him off, but when Paladin leaves, quickly returns to his drinking.
The following morning at breakfast, Paladin finds that the young married couple, the Allysons, are missing. Mr. Allyson had gone out early for the day. A moment later, they see Larker standing at the desk, flashing a wad of cash and wanting to settle his bill. Paladin wants to know where the money came from, but Larker just chuckles, telling Paladin that they will meet again someday, and Larker will tell him a good joke. Paladin does not try to force him to talk. After Larker leaves, Paladin asks for the Allysons' room number. Mrs. Madison tries to evade him, but Paladin is in no mood for it. Cowed, she gives him the number. Mrs. Allyson is rapidly packing. She had given Larker all the money they had as a bribe to leave them alone; she has no more for Paladin. Anyway, her husband had been tried and acquitted. Startled, Paladin learns that Allyson is, in fact, their real name. They had assumed that Allyson was the man Larker was after, and offered the bribe, which Larker gladly accepted. Paladin makes an odd comment about this having given Larker a "free hand". I don't see how this would have made him any freer than he was previously. Before he can say more, a shot rings out.
Paladin rushes downstairs and past the frightened boarders, to find Larker lying in the dining room, shot in the back. You can clearly see the barrel of a rifle poking through the side door. Apparently Cabell thought that he might pull things off and keep going as he had, because he made no attempt to shoot Paladin while Paladin tended to Larker. As with the attic, Larker had moved too fast, instead of waiting and thinking things through. He's in no hurry to tell Paladin which of the men Cabell is. He wants to get his joke across--that Paladin, in spite of his intelligence, skill, fancy manners and what all, is the same sort of man as Larker. Paladin hears him out, but again does not seem to react too much; he's too anxious to find out who Cabell is. Although Larker says, "You guess" with his dying breath, he also looks behind Paladin and gestures. Paladin immediately dives sideways, comes upright, and fires. The man that slumps through the doorway is one of the nameless, speechless men Paladin had not gotten around to the night before.
Mrs. Allyson enters the room, staring at the bodies. Paladin extracts the wad of money she had given Larker and returns it to her, suggesting that she might consider paying for his funeral, although there is no reason why she should. Mrs. Madison silently hands him his hat from the rack in the corner, and he quietly makes his way through the crowd clustered around the door. One man comments that "that" kind of man expects that sort of ending, and Paladin finally reacts, pausing with a troubled look on his face, before going on his way.
Personally, I don't think Paladin has that much to worry about. He's well paid, he habitually travels with letters of credit totalling three thousand or so, and there is evidence that he has business investments. With his vast knowledge and skills, he will surely be able to pay his way when the time comes to hang up his gun. It is a question, of course, of knowing when that time has come. Larker did not. And Paladin has to face the sad knowledge that, no matter how often he denies it, the general public looks on him as nothing more than a hired gun.