For a change, we find Paladin in mid-assignment; he's escorting a prisoner, Blandings. Blandings is a well-spoken gentleman who's been living the high life on some money that he stole. He speaks wistfully of sleeping until noon in a place where an emperor slept, breakfasting off silver dishes brought by young girls (who provided other services, perhaps?), cool drinks and total relaxation. Paladin listens courteously; he understands Blandings' love of luxury all too well. The difference, of course, is that Paladin earns his luxuries honestly.
Reaching the ferry at the river Strada, both men are puzzled to find no one waiting. The ferry itself is floating out in mid-stream. Paladin walks down to the dock to draw the boat in--and then notices a hand sticking out from underneath. I'd love to know how they planned that shot; you can see minnows nibbling at the hand--very realistic. Paladin spins around to find that there is, indeed, someone waiting, armed with a shotgun.
There's an irritating point here that should have been fixed; how did the man know that Paladin kept a hidden derringer? There are other ways he could have discovered the gun without looking like he was clairvoyant. The man, Devereaux, looks like a stereotypical French fur trapper. He also looks as though he's greatly enjoying his work, and directs Paladin and Blandings into the ferry house.
There are three others already inside: a woman accompanied by a man, and a young man who looks as if he might have been a soldier. Devereaux makes it clear that he is holding the group on behalf of "someone". It has been said that if you were to send telegrams to ten people at random saying "Flee, all is discovered", nine out of the ten would high-tail it out of town. All of these people have something to fear. Even Paladin, probably more than the others, has potential enemies--he just doesn't dwell on them. Blandings, of course, is a thief who probably has any number of angry victims in his background. The woman, Sarah, is a runaway wife with her lover, Carl. It's hard to say if we should really feel sorry for Sarah or not. Her first complaint about her husband is not that he criticizes her and is a drunken wastrel (that comes later). She doesn't like the fact that he comes home smelling of the garbage that he hauls. (Well, someone's got to do it.) Later, in the midst of this tense situation, she starts to rhapsodize about pretty clothes. It may well be that she is simply a frivolous, self-centered woman who was not ready for the responsibilities of marriage. When Carl suggests that she tell her husband (assuming that it is he who is coming after them) that he, Carl, had taken her away against her will, Sarah immediately assumes that he doesn't really want her, when it sounded as though he were trying to protect her by taking all the blame.
Sarah and Carl are a rather silly pair, but Morgan is another matter. He's certain that Black Foot, a white man living with the Black Foot Indians (gee, what an original name to pick!) is coming after him. Faced with Paladin's questions, the confession starts to spill out of him. There was the matter of Black Foot's squaw...what sounds like a sordid intrigue turns to murder--he killed the woman when she found him stealing from her husband. Morgan makes out that it's all the woman's fault that she got herself killed.
Devereaux, meanwhile, has been listening to all of this with great amusement, but his real interest is the tall, dangerous looking man who is keeping so quiet. He stopped the other men from making a combined attack on Devereaux by pointing out that the shotgun would take them all out at such close range. Wanting to pit himself against Paladin, Devereaux suggests that Paladin attempt to retrieve his gun, while Devereaux holds his hand back from his own. This leads to perhaps the best scene in the episode. Paladin knows that Devereaux would not try anything unless the odds were firmly on his side, but he prepares to risk his life on behalf of this rather sorry bunch of people. As he's done on other occasions, he works on Devereaux's nerves, talking at him, telling him that the odds may be with him but there's still that small possibility...Paladin's ploy is clearly starting to work, but they're interrupted by the sound of horses. Carl instantly pushes Sarah behind him. This display of gallantry delights Sarah no end.
The group watches in confusion as a big, blind man comes in. In a nice touch, we can see Blandings looking relieved as he sees the man is no one that he knows. The relief doesn't last long. The man, Gunder, is convinced that one of them killed his son, Willie. His other son, Daniel, claims to have seen the killer travelling in the direction of the ferry. Sarah is the only one who cannot be a suspect. Gunder must have moved incredibly fast to hire Devereaux, because the hired killer is positive that no other men could have slipped by without his catching them.
Gunder's relationship with his sons is a common one in movies and television--favoring the wicked ne'r-do-well over the sober, industrious one. He is contemptuous of Daniel's wife, claiming that she is trash. Gunder demands that Daniel point out the killer to him. Daniel is hesitant, but points at Blandings, whom Paladin knows could not be the killer. Blandings panics (his cultured speech starting to slide) and Devereaux shoots him--at which point Daniel becomes certain that Blandings was the man. Paladin instantly understands what's really going on, and his icy contempt flows. It's not stated, but the fact that the innocent ferryman was murdered at the onset would make it clear to Paladin, if no one else, that none of them are going to get out of this even if Gunder was satisfied that the killer had been found. Paladin's restrained fury finally prompts Daniel to admit that he was the one who killed his brother. It's implied that he did so because Willie was messing around with Daniel's wife. At least, let's hope that he had a legitimate reason. Morgan makes a grab for the gun that the shocked Gunder threw aside, and Devereaux shoots him. Paladin instantly dives for him, pinning him behind the table and then clubbing him with a table leg. (Presumably this killed him, because we don't see him again.) Paladin stands up, looking rather shaken, as his fury and adrenalin ebb away.
Gunder's arrogant self-assurance has been broken. Preparing to drive home, Daniel drapes a blanket around his father. You would expect Gunder to contemptously shrug it off; instead, he slowly reaches to gather it close, like a frail old man. For Sarah, the experience has taught her that she is not suited to play an adventuress, and will return to her husband. (One wonders how her husband will react.) Paladin rides his horse across a shallow section of the river.
A lot of these episodes seem to last a lot longer than half an hour. This one was the opposite--it seemed to go very fast.