It happened a year after the unfortunate events that led to the death of Robert Gustav on the Dorothy Ranch. The seasons once more swung back the way of the cultivator; it was once more time for Carter to return to his ranch for the summer months, to give Valdez his orders and reinvest in new staff.
What with his bonuses from the Second Mars Mission and the FSD Moon Landings, Carter had made the decision to aim for a higher yield in that year. He invested in new machinery, which arrived on the back of big trucks and in large vans. The fliers he distributed around the local towns and settlements offered more work, sometimes better paid and much easier to apply for than before. Something in him had reawoken; some enthusiasm that he must have first felt when purchasing the ranch twelve years before, but that had somehow become dormant following his ventures into the void and other missions. He once more wanted to see the hustle and bustle of a working ranch, with men heaving crops and tools and each other to and fro, back and forth. With greater productivity would come greater yields, and thereby greater profits. It would all go into a nest-egg; something nice for himself. Then he wouldn’t have to go through the tribulations of selling the ranch when he retired, and could simply leave it to Valdez.
The first weeks of the summer period had passed smoothly and without much incident. Men had turned up as ever in search of money, and he had given jobs to all of them. Many had been slack-jawed, some had even been illiterate. With Valdez at his side, he somehow managed to deal out contracts to the lot of them, and more were coming every day. It wouldn’t be long before he had a veritable army of workers on the ranch. In the days where no better entertainment presented itself, Carter would take his 4x4 or walk out onto the North Field and the surrounding plots, where multiple teams would be at work. Valdez as ever would be leading the cultivating, up on the high seat of the machine. Others would redistribute seed, bury any trash, straighten the mounds, and towards the end of the virtual assembly line, heave the sacks of grain or whatever into the barn or onto a trailer. There it would stay until the markets came, or the corporations who bought Carter’s produce sent trucks down. Very little stayed on the ranch, or went to Carter himself. He was satisfied with the local convenience store.
It was the third week, as workers were still arriving to sign on for work, that the group of men appeared at the door. Carter thought he recognised two of them instantly. They were of the big-eared, thick-lipped variety; the locals who sipped moonshine on verandas while plucking sitars and banjos. Except that they were young, in their twenties, and had strange expressions on their faces. The time they arrived coincided with a lull in the employment rush, and Carter found himself alone in his office with the men; five or six of them stood in the doorway. Valdez was out on the North Field. Carter stood, as he always did, and held out his hand to the men he recognised.
“See you guys came back. Good of you. Those who don’t know me, I run the ranch; names David Carter, and if you’re looking for work, you came to the right place. I’m taking on more workers this year than ever. You guys interested?”
The men had nodded, and seated themselves on various items of furniture in the office, as Carter discussed with them the procedures and contracts that he discussed with every new man. Those returning he simply handed the contracts to, and they were thrust upon the desk in front of him with signatures and contact details. The others took more time to focus on the bigger words in the contracts, but the returners stuck around regardless. Soon, each man was ready. That was when it happened.
Either the man had forgotten the ultimatum that Carter through Valdez had made to the workers the previous year, following the accidental death of Robert Gustav; that the death should not be discussed with anyone or mentioned ever again, or he simply chose to ignore it. Nonetheless, he spoke in light-hearted tones.
“So, Mr. Carter, what in hell ever happened ’bout that Gus who got stuck under the tractor?”
There was an icy silence as Carter froze. His back had been to the men as he filed their contracts in a ring-binder, and after a second of motionless tension, he snapped the folder shut and slotted it into its niche on the shelf. There was no expression on his face as he turned to face the speaker.
“What you say, boy?” he said.
“That Gus, Mr. Carter. Word he got mangled under the tractor. One of the guys told me; happened when I was off sick, it did. What ever happened about that, sir?”
“I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about, son. Who is this Gus?” Carter stared at the young man, willing him to quail. But the yokel chortled on regardless.
“Local cracker. Son of old Jackie Gustav, who here runs the North Saddle Bar. Old friend of mine, in fact, sir. Never found out what happened to him. Guy said he was here.” The man’s face was impervious to Carter’s stare. He had no idea of the trouble he was causing.
“He must have been mistaken,” Carter answered, trying to keep his head, “Don’t remember no Gus. Last year, you say? Think I’d remember if it was last year. Yeah, we had some problems with the cultivator at one point, I remember. Had to send the workers home, or to their quarters, I don’t know. Machinery glitch, you get me? Don’t remember no Gus though.”
“But I ain’t lying, Mr. Carter, sir. Billy told me he got mangled. Tractor reversed over him. Guy’s not been seen in town ever since. You telling me that guy never existed. Known him damn near my whole life, Mr. Carter. You say he never worked here. Billy swears by it, sir. And he ain’t no liar neither.”
Gradually realising that the yokel was brighter than he had first thought, Carter nodded slowly. It had come to this. The worst case scenario. But he couldn’t let it come to that. Not yet. Not unless he had no other choice.
“The rest of you want to go get moved in. Show them to their quarters, boy. You, son, what’s your name?” The other men moved off out of the office and towards the ranch lands, and the speaker stepped forwards.
“I’m Randy, sir. Randy Alban. Says so on that contract of yours.”
“Indeed it does, Randy. I’m David. Why don’t we go through to the kitchen and have a drink? Perhaps we can come to an agreement, an understanding, you follow?” Carter banked on it being a hot day, and gambled on the sweat pouring off of the man’s forehead, and got his reward as Randy nodded. He showed him through to the kitchen, and fixed some lemonade for both of them.
“Now, Randy, I say I don’t remember no Gus, but I can’t be certain. Lots of folk work here, right. I can check the files and see if there was one. But I think I know the man you were talking about. ’Cept we called him Robert. That was his name. I remember because his sister Tina came around to ask of his whereabouts, like you just have. I had to tell her he never showed up to work, which he hadn’t, you see. No, Robert came for his interview and everything, but never showed. Turns out he was a drug-dealer and a gun-runner. You understand, when I found this out, I tore up his contract. Ain’t no criminals going to work here for me.”
“Tina… Tina Gustav. That’s his sister. I think your Robert and my Gus are the same person, Mr. Carter!” Randy exclaimed, his eyes lighting up, “You say he came, but never worked?”
“That’s right, Randy. I was ready to give him a chance, and all, but he never showed. The North Field was a real struggle that year, so I never got a chance to chase him up. He never came back. Tina did say he may have crossed the border into Mexico. That’s all I know, son.”
“Alright.” The man looked downcast, and stared at the floor, as Carter opened a cupboard to replace his glass. Then he looked up, as if appearing to remember something.
“Then what about what Billy told me. The tractor. What happened about the tractor?” Carter, still with his hands in the cupboard, sighed inwardly.
“What if you never saw Gus because he went under the tractor, Mr. Carter. Is it possible? Did one of your men kill…” Randy flew backwards across the kitchen and crashed into the sideboard. It was a few sticky seconds before he slid onto the floor. Red seeped from a wound beneath his shirt and trickled onto the floor tiles.
Annoyed, Carter waved away the smoke from the end of the shotgun, and replaced it in the cupboard. To fit, he had had to have the end of the shotgun sawn off and modified in a local gun store. It was supposed to make the weapon more powerful, and that was how he knew that Randy Alban was dead. Knowing it wouldn’t be long before someone else showed, Carter tried to staunch the bleeding from the man’s wound and carried him upstairs, taking care to leave no trace of blood on the kitchen or office floor. He stashed the body in the attic-room, behind an old chest. As he turned to head back down, he heard voices in the office, and the closing of a door. When he stepped back into the room from the stairwell, he saw the men who had just signed up, three of them, and they asked after Randy.
“Boy just took off!” Carter exclaimed, breathless, “Pulled a gun and ran the fuck out that way. Told me not to follow. I just called the sheriff’s office…” He pointed back the way he had come, where Randy’s body was hidden.
“What you mean, sir? He just pulled his gun? That’s not like Randy…”
“Started hollering something about being ‘on to him,’ something like that. I could barely understand him. Was scared shitless…” Carter leant against his desk and took a few calming breaths. Then he strode to the window and peered out.
“No sign. He’s gone. Dammit! What am I going to tell the sheriff?!” Carter whacked a hand against the wall and sat violently behind his desk, causing the chair to slide back. He took another calming breath.
The men continued to stand there watching him. As Carter looked up at them, one of their faces twisted into a smirk. Another snorted behind him, apparently unable to stop himself.
“Something funny, guys?!”
“You ain’t called no sheriff, Mister,” the guy at the front answered, reaching beneath his tunic, “And you can put on all the little performances you want, but the fact is, we just came to knock when we heard your little conversation through this here window.” The redneck pointed to the kitchen window, which was open a crack.
“He was threatening me!”
“So you say, Mister. Only, then we heard a gunshot, and though my hearing ain’t so good, Buddy here can hear a raindrop fall a mile away, and he swears on his momma that he heard a double-barrelled shotgun round. Now how in the hell was Randy carrying a shotgun. Up his sleeve, huh? Anyway, I happen to know the kind of gun Randy owned; a little Derringer, that his momma gave him. Now, unless he overpowered you and got a hold of your shotgun, can you tell me how in the hell he was the one doing the threatening? I assume he fired that round as a warning. Yet I see no damage to your kitchen’s wall, ceiling or floor. I’m damn sure those shells didn’t fly through that crack in the window either, before you stoop to that, or Buddy here would now be in heaven with our Lord. You can imagine our curiosity was then aroused, as we peered in through that there window to see a man looking very much like yourself Mister dragging something that looked very much like our Randy out the kitchen and up them stairs. Or perhaps our eyes did deceive us? What do you say, Mister? Huh?”
Carter looked from one man to the other. None of the men looked particularly unhappy that Randy was dead; in fact, the two others were still grinning, and had that look of madness about them. The speaker looked briefly at his fingernails, his other hand still buried in his tunic. Carter didn’t doubt what he was holding.
“You’re from the sheriff’s office, then?” Carter asked.
“That’s about right, Mister. We heard a few rumours about a certain man getting caught up in some machinery, heard ’em a few months ago, and thought it best to check it out, have a look see. Little Randy tagged along; he actually wanted a job, I think. Lucky I didn’t ask my deputy to question you, Mister, or you’d have just committed a serious federal offence. Perhaps it would be best if we took a ride out into town, stop off down the station, and have a little chat about this here ranch, Mister? Perhaps that would be best for both of us.”
Carter sighed, inwardly, and reached under his desk.