Paladin doesn't always work for money, but the fee he accepts this time is quite unusual: a valuable edition of Keat's poetry, signed by the author. Paladin naturally has to find out why Winston Ainslee wants to hire him. Arriving in Carson City with a thoroughly drunk companion, Matt Baker, Paladin and Baker quickly discover that Baker's brother Andy had been killed by Ainslee--one of a long line of men who had attempted to knock Ainslee from his place as top gunman of Carson City. Paladin and Baker are both surprised to find that Ainslee is a rather small, dapper, soft-spoken man. Paladin is probably not surprised, however, to learn that the people (and sheriff) of Carson City, while regarding Ainslee with fear and disgust, have no interest in stopping him. Gunfights provide a lot of interest and a chance to gamble. The cultured, intellectual Ainslee reveals to Paladin that he had taught himself to be a gunman solely in order to escape the constant harrassment he had suffered as a scholarly "sissy". He's now trapped by his own skill--men keep coming to test themselves against him, and no one will allow him to quietly hang up his gun. And now Matt Baker will be coming after him to avenge his brother's death.
Ainslee wants Paladin to shoot him in his gun hand, thereby forcing his retirement. Paladin is a little leery of the whole business--so much could go wrong. Ainslee tests his speed, not with a practice draw, but by bringing him out to a spot where rattlesnakes are known to lie up. The two men take turns kicking over rocks, ready to shoot if a rattlesnake is lurking underneath. Paladin ends up shooting a snake who no doubt would have preferred to leave well enough alone, and Ainslee is satisfied. Ainslee's daughter is not, but she can't think of a better way to get her father out of this mess. They put the word out that Paladin is in town to kill Ainslee. Matt Baker, however, is determined to kill Ainslee himself--and not by fair means.
Paladin is disgusted to find the townspeople gleefully preparing for the big shootout--setting up sandbagged barriers behind which they can hide and watch the fun. Ainslee and Paladin step out into the street, but a sudden sound alerts Paladin, and he and Ainslee dive out of the way as Baker begins shooting. Ainslee is trapped behind a horse trough that is steadily leaking water--once it's empty, it will no longer be a safe barricade from Baker's gun. Ainslee quickly runs out of bullets and tosses his gun to Paladin, who reloads it from his gunbelt. (Ainslee, who is used to one-shot faceoffs, apparently doesn't keep spare bullets on his belt.) Preparing to toss the gun back, you can see the thought cross Paladin's mind, and he deliberately throws the gun short. It takes Ainslee a few moments to get the idea, then he stretches his hand out for the gun and promptly gets his hand shot. Paladin springs out from his hiding place and deals with Baker.
Now that Ainslee has been reduced from feared gunfighter to helpless old man, the town is now prepared to give him their protection, and they order Paladin away. Paladin, seeing that Ainslee can no longer use his gun, is certain that the man who hired him will be satisfied.
It's an interesting psychological story, but the whole thing is still rather...well, stupid. The whole town of Carson City now believes what Paladin has always been at pains to deny--that he is simply a killer for hire. Ainslee only needed an excuse to retire--why on Earth didn't he simply ask (or bribe) the local doctor to announce that he was suffering from arthritis or rhuematism or whatever? It certainly would have spared him a great deal of expense and pain--not to mention the fact that he might have lost the hand completely. If a bad infection set in, he could even end up dying from it. The whole situation was unnecessarily complex.