I guess when you're in the mood to play chess, you play chess, regardless of the circumstances. Paladin apparently could not find any prospective partners on this particular day, so he's reduced to playing against himself. I suppose it's a way to keep in practice. Hey Boy, handing Paladin his newspapers, stands looking at the board with a "yeah, right" expression. Paladin's attention is caught by a very large headline over a small article: "Fred Horn Strikes Again". Judge O'Reilly had been back-shot with a shotgun, just as Sheriff Ostler had been killed the previous week. The article states that a third man is scheduled to be killed, as well. If the newspaper knows that much, it would be interesting to know if Paladin's name was listed further down in that article. Paladin had captured a young killer named Mordain, the sheriff had arrested him, and the judge had presided at the trial that sentenced Mordain to death. It's clear to Paladin that Mordain's father has hired this Fred Horn to murder the men he blames for his son's death.
The whole matter of Fred Horn is odd. No one knows who he actually is, as it is his habit to kill without giving his victims a chance to defend themselves. Unarmed, from behind, or even while they sleep. Problem is, under those circumstances, how do they know that Fred Horn did it? Does he leave a calling card on the bodies? Does he send letters or telegrams to lawmen or newspapers, announcing, "Hey, I just killed someone else. Spread the news." Paladin, of course, is not going to wait to be shot from behind, and sends off his business card to Mordain, with the succinct note, "I won't wait."
Mordain is apparently a wealthy and influential man in his own sphere; he has a town named for him, and it is here that Paladin comes on a chilly day for the showdown, stopping at the local hotel. The hotel manager, Droggan, is surly, not even looking up to acknowledge a customer, and muttering that Paladin can tend to his own horse if he wants it done. A moment later, he realizes who Paladin must be. Mordain had informed him that Paladin would be arriving. Presumably he knows something about Paladin, for he quickly changes his mind about looking after Paladin's horse. A young woman keeps darting looks at Paladin, and Droggan offers to have her fetch Paladin some hot water. This is a nicely subtle point: children watching this episode would likely accept the line as stated (and in fact she does bring him hot water), but adults would be aware that the offer was for more. It's hardly likely that Paladin would allow himself to be distracted from the business at hand anyway, but he doesn't like Droggan's attitude, and he's seen the girl's apprehensive expression. He winds up giving Droggan a cold stare.
Upstairs, Paladin is interrupted while washing up. He's had the foresight to lay his gun immediately to hand, but it's only the girl, Mary, using extra towels as an excuse to talk with Paladin. Paladin denies that he brought in Mordain's son for money. He implies that he did it as a public service, a thing that needed to be done. On the other hand, a short while later Mordain will imply that Paladin did the job for $1000, his usual fee. In fact, when Mary asks about the work he does, Paladin states that he's well paid for it. However, on learning that Mary, having naively taken up with a travelling salesman with a charming manner, had been sold to Droggan for fifty dollars, Paladin agrees that this is a job that needs to be done. However, first things first. Mary leaves, convinced that Paladin is going to get himself killed and she'll be left trapped in her situation.
Paladin sees Mordain and two other men arrive, but before he can go downstairs, the gun salesman--the only other guest in the hotel--pokes a gun out of his door at Paladin, and Paladin reacts as you might expect. The drummer, having just missed getting shot, shakily calls out that the gun was not loaded. An incredibly stupid thing to do, something you might expect from a juvenile, but hardly from a mature man. Paladin recognizes the man as an ex-gunfighter named Starrett. Coming down for supper, Paladin finds Mordain, his companions, and Droggan already ensconced. (There's only one other place laid at the table--did they expect that Paladin or the drummer would be dead by now?) Mordain, who cannot accept that his son was fairly caught and tried for murder, coldly introduces his men: Abe Huston, a big man whose life Mordain saved in the war, and Walt Dunne, his ramrod, who has worked for Mordain for years and is unquestioningly loyal. Plus, there's Starrett, an ex-gunfighter who does not like being an ex, and would like the chance to get back into the game. Any one of the three would be glad to kill Paladin, but Paladin only has to worry about one--the one who is actually Fred Horn.
The timing, from this point, gets a little odd. We see Paladin sitting in the lobby of the hotel, trying to keep awake--which would seem to indicate that it's fairly late. Perhaps he's simply tired from the trip, however, as everyone else seems to be up and wide awake. Paladin springs up as Huston comes downstairs. He calmly informs Paladin that Mordain has told him to kill Paladin, which he will do, even though he doesn't like it. He has Paladin disarm, and they set to with a very vicious fistfight. (Richard Boone's stand-in is rather noticeable at one point, but the rest of the fight is pretty well done.) Despite Huston being taller and heavier, Paladin manages to get the better of him. He's certain that Huston is not Fred Horn, but the badly battered man will not--or cannot--tell Paladin which of the other two men is the killer. Paladin staggers up to his room, followed by Mary, who snatches up his coat and gun (he must have been pretty shaken up to forget that!) Deduction number one: Fred Horn would not have allowed himself to get beaten up like that; he would have pulled a gun--and Paladin would have been ready with his little derringer. Obviously, Mordain didn't just lie about Fred Horn. He claimed that Paladin only had Horn to worry about, yet Huston also tried to kill him.
Some time later (so how late is it?) Paladin comes down for a bottle of whiskey. It doesn't seem likely that he'd let his wits and reactions be slowed by alcohol. Perhaps he was hoping that someone would think that he had. Droggen informs Mary that the drummer upstairs wants "towels". Paladin holds her back, and hands Droggen fifty dollars as well as the price of the whiskey. Droggen coldly orders Mary to be gone the next morning. Paladin also gives Mary some money of her own as a stake, but Mary is certain that if Paladin is killed, Droggen will not allow her to leave. Dunne, who has silently drifted into the room, promises that he will see Mary on her way if Paladin cannot. Mary goes upstairs to pack her things, giving Paladin a starry-eyed look. Paladin accepts this, not having time to deal with infatuated young women at the moment. Dunne comments on children like Mary, driven out into the world too soon by various circumstances, the boys ending up with a gun, the girls as drudges or prostitutes (or both).
Paladin spends the rest of the night in the lobby, disappointed that no one else tried to kill him. He's determined to figure out who Fred Horn is, and heads upstairs to confront Starrett. Starrett candidly admits that Mordain offered him $5000 to kill Paladin. It's fascinating to watch Paladin standing there at Starrett's back. He stands straight and still, baiting Starrett--but his gun hand is twitching like crazy. Starrett claims that he was faster than Paladin is, but a still faster gunman had humiliated Starrett rather than killing him, leaving Starrett broken. Starrett is finally goaded enough to turn on Paladin, who promptly cracks Starrett's arm with his gun butt. Paladin's demeanor changes instantly; he sounds quietly apologetic. Deduction number two: Fred Horn would never have dared to try and draw on Paladin in such circumstances. He leaves Starrett nursing his arm and his shame.
Walt Dunne is calmly waiting for Paladin downstairs. He seems to already know that Paladin has figured things out. Although he's carrying a gun at his hip, it's not the gun that he kills with, and Paladin orders him out to the barn to fetch it. Mordain arrives for the showdown, and Paladin gives him a silent look before stepping outside.
Now that Paladin knows what he's dealing with, he seems less jumpy, but still tense and watchful. He springs away from the hotel to face the barn door, then holsters his gun as Dunne/Horn emerges with his shotgun dangling at his side. It's rigged up with a carrying strap. Dunne/Horn claims that he's facing Paladin out of respect--he has come to like him. Paladin has no such feelings in return for this backshooting killer. The shootout itself does not quite come off--it needed to be cut just a little tighter. Horn clearly has his gun up and aimed before Paladin even reaches for his gun, yet Paladin gets his shot off first.
Mordain is left sagging in defeat and muttering, "Next time". This part I don't understand at all. Mordain admitted, to Paladin and other witnesses, that he hired Fred Horn to kill Paladin. Huston and Starrett also stated that they had been asked to kill him. The newspaper article indicated that they knew exactly why the sheriff and judge had been killed. Surely there's enough evidence to have Mordain arrested and tried for conspiracy to commit murder. If he's allowed to go free simply because he's not the one who pulled the trigger, then everyone would be hiring men to murder for them, and get away with it. In "The Naked Gun" Paladin pointed out that if he had handed his gun over to Monk so that he could kill two men with it, he himself would be an accessory to murder. Mordain may have trouble finding another Fred Horn, but that doesn't mean that he won't be looking.
Paladin acquires a horse for Mary to ride (perhaps it's Fred Horn's) and prepares to escort her to another town where she can make a new start. Bringing him his coat, which he seems to have forgotten, Mary coyly suggests that he needs a woman to look after him. Courteously loaning her the coat, as she doesn't have one herself, Paladin gently but firmly makes matters clear to her before they ride away.
Mystery, revenge, tension, action, a damsel in distress--what more could you want?