No doubt, over the seasons, Richard Boone and Co. had gotten lots of letters asking about Paladin's background. It didn't seem likely that Paladin was his real name, especially as he didn't seem to have a first (or was it a last?) name. How would such a well-traveled, well-read, sophisticated gentlemen end up as a gun for hire--even if the hiring is strictly on his own terms?
Paladin seems to be in a breezy mood as he heads for his hotel room. Not having seen any of seasons 4 & 5, I don't know if they'd shown some alterations to his living arrangements previously, but the room is not the same as from the first three seasons. It's on the other side of the hall, for one thing, and it gives the impression of being a lot smaller. On the other hand, it's possible that Paladin's suite has more than one door opening on the hall, and at that hour of the evening, he chose to come straight into the bedroom rather than his sitting room. Someone's waiting for him. The viewer can see him in the standing mirror, but in fact it looks as though Paladin turned and actually saw him--perhaps he heard a sound. Ducking out of the way as the shot is fired, he makes a spectacular dive at the intruder. There's a short, but intense, fight, with both of them nearly tipping out the window. Experience prevails, and Paladin picks up the boy's gun and demands an explanantion.
The boy, Roderick Jefferson, listlessly begins to identify himself. (The Mitchum men, with those sleepy eyes, project "listless" very well.) He's a rather typical wild youth, sowing oats with reckless abandon, but tonight he's been forced to face the consequences of his actions. Bad luck in gambling has left him in the hole for ten thousand dollars, and no way to pay it--unless he performs a little service for someone. The only other option is jail and disgrace. Paladin quietly informs him that he had once been in a similar hole himself....
I think they would have been better off not mentioning the specific time of ten years past. There's mention of the war, and it seems reasonable to suppose that it's the Civil War being referred to--but several people who knew Paladin in the war knew him as "Paladin". One cavalryman (see the episode "Commanche") in fact knew him before he started growing the mustache. In addition, the current Paladin seems a trifle too mature to have been a mere youth just ten years previously.
Oh, well. The youth (we don't get a name) has been gambling with a man named Norge at the Carlton Hotel. (It's not clear whether he was living there at the time, or just there for the game.) He has not yet acquired his considerable skill at poker, nor has he learned to gamble only with what he has. He is stuck for fifteen thousand dollars. He is, however belatedly, wise enough to realize that Norge deliberately encouraged him to write I.O.U's rather than leave the game. Norge is a nasty one (William Conrad could play characters like this in his sleep) who has a grudge against the world, disliking people for being attractive, in good shape, or merely for existing. He likes having power over people, and once had great power in the town of Delta Valley, owning the land, the animals, and the people. An aging, ill gunfighter, Smoke, wanted in 12 states, had stumbled into the town, whose people nursed him back to health. Smoke apparently had enough of a conscience that he wanted to pay the town back for its kindness to a stranger. He started by facing down Norge's guards, but rather than killing the unarmed Norge himself, simply told him to leave or die. Norge is determined to reclaim his kingdom, and carefully selected the youth for his war record as well as his skill in dueling. Not to mention his sense of honor, for despite his reckless behavior, and some youthful pecadillo that left him an outcast from his family, with a monthly remittance, this young man keenly feels the disgrace that will come to him and his family. Killing a wanted criminal in exchange for clearing his debt doesn't seem like a bad bargain.
He heads to Delta Valley, and we can see another difference between then and now: Paladin has learned to travel light, with everything necessary packed in two saddlebags or fastened to his saddle. The youth, on the other hand, is leading a fairly well-laden pack horse. His approach is observed by a man dressed in black, with a shiny chess emblem on his holster. (More on this later.) War record or no, this youngster hasn't learned much in the way of caution, coming straight to a riverside for a drink. It's a simple matter for the black-clad stranger to knock him out. He comes to in a narrow, high-walled canyon, with the entrance blocked off with a high gate of sharpened logs. A light, drawling voice calls to him, making it clear that this is not the first time Norge has sent someone against Smoke, although this seems to be the first "gentleman". It would be interesting to know the whys and wherefores of this enclosure. Did Smoke bring all of his opponents here, or did he make use of a pen used by the town for corralling wild horses or cattle? Despite his obvious disadvantange, the youth boldly challenges Smoke, who starts to laugh--a laugh than ends in a painful cough. The youth seems concerned in spite of himself, while Smoke seems annoyed at having his weakness pointed out. Tuberculosis, perhaps, like Doc Holliday. Smoke accepts the challenge from this young Paladin, but he will set the time, place, and circumstances. After Smoke strolls away, young Paladin investigates for himself the thousand foot drop at one end of the enclosure, before attempting to scale the gate. In fact, he climbs it without too much trouble--only to find that Smoke is already on the other side, with his gun. Smoke's booming laugh once again dissolves into a hacking cough.
They did a marvelous job making up Richard Boone as Smoke. The voice is unmistakeably Boone (as is the nose) but the mustache is gone, with the hair blond, grey, or white (hard to tell) and they did something to the face. It really doesn't look much like him. Smoke seems to regard himself as another paladin. Either that, or he has a fancy for chess knights. Personally, I don't think they should have shown him with the embossed holster--that should have been Paladin's own insignia, chosen to accompany his new persona.
Smoke has left young Paladin with some of his supplies. The next morning, he seems to be twisting a piece of rope (??) when Smoke calls out again, saying with mock pity that it would be like killing a child. The youngster, of course, does not like being likened to a child. When Smoke demands that he draw his gun, he conceals his trepidation with bluster. Smoke has no intention of shooting at the unarmed boy, however--he just wants to see how experienced he is. Young Paladin fumbles with his holster, which has a folding cover with a snap to protect it from the elements. Smoke allows this clumsiness to speak for itself, although young Paladin still isn't ready to listen. Smoke is unwilling to draw on a boy whose dueling experience is strictly formal, either with swords or with dueling pistols already held in the hand. Tossing down a knife, he urges young Paladin to alter the soft holster to make it more practical. After again demanding that they shoot it out immediately--and being refused--young Paladin finally heeds the sensible advice, spending the rest of the day fixing the holster and practicing his draw. That night, he lies awake, listening to Smoke coughing.
Another day of practice goes by, and then Smoke pops into view again, having spent the day watching young Paladin and becoming impressed by his improvement. Young Paladin, however, is still anxious to get things over with, and when Smoke counsels patience, angrily states that Smoke knows that they will have to confront each other, because another death is already lying in wait for him. Smoke reacts to this--perhaps it's too close to the truth--and exasperately points out that he doesn't even know if young Paladin can shoot straight, even if he can now draw fast. He sets a bullet on a branch to use as a target, before tossing down one bullet and moving out of range. Young Paladin swiftly and expertly blasts the bullet off the branch, drawing a startled look from Smoke. In a splendid moment, young Paladin grips the gun in exultation--after several days of humiliation, he has finally shown the old codger something! Rather grimly, Smoke agrees to a meeting at daybreak.
It's interesting to speculate on Smoke's behavior. One can understand how this skilled old man would not want to simply kill an inexperienced boy, but he seems to have a genuine affection for his "noble Paladin". Does he see himself in this boy? Has the year he has spent serving as protector of Delta Valley made him appreciate goodness, and is he hoping to turn the boy to that path? He knows that he is dying--the town is going to need a new defender sooner or later.
Preparing his fire that night, young Paladin puts on too much of something, and gets a faceful of smoke. Coughing, he suddenly looks thoughtfully upwards. The next morning, Smoke declares the apprenticeship at an end, and tosses down one bullet. He also makes a move that we've seen dozens of times with Paladin--he reaches up and tugs his hat forward and level. Young Paladin quickly puts a large armful of brush onto his fire. Standing back, he complains that Smoke has deliberately positioned himself to put the sun in his opponent's eyes. Smoke's expression makes it seem that he doesn't think that there is anything to complain about, but he nevertheless changes his position and sets himself--just as the heavy billows of smoke reach the ledge. I rather think that Smoke recognized what his not-so-noble Paladin had done. The older man reacted faster, but the smoke and the cough affected his aim, only nicking young Paladin in the arm--which did not affect his return shot, dropping Smoke into the enclosure.
The dying Smoke tries to make clear the enormity of what young Paladin has done. He may have cleared his debt, but by doing so he has endangered an entire town. It's not enough to perform difficult deeds for money--there has to be a good reason, as well. And there's plenty of good reasons out there. Always another dragon loose. The end of this scene is technically superb. I've often seen shows using one actor for two parts, and it's easy enough to do--shoot from one camera angle, then reset and shoot from another, use a stand-in shot from behind, etc. In scenes where both characters are on screen, there is always a clear space between them, where the separately shot film is fitted together. But here, in one seemingly smooth shot, Richard Boone reaches out to close Richard Boone's eyes. Marvelous.
Smoke's body is brought in to town for burial, and the whole town shows up for the funeral. They, and the young Paladin, listen as Smoke is praised for his unselfish act of chaining the dragon safely away from the people. Norge had, in fact, explained the situation to young Paladin without any attempt at making himself look good, but presumably the feckless youth wasn't paying too much attention, concentrating on his own ill fortune, because at the funeral he listens in some surprise--and then stands in shame as the town turns to look at him with contempt. This gentle town, however, makes no attempt at retaliation. They just quietly follow the coffin to the burial ground, leaving young Paladin choking in grief as he finally accepts what he's done.
Someone--perhaps young Paladin--informed Norge of the outcome, and he lost no time coming to reclaim his kingdom. Rather oddly, he brought no guards with him. A voice shouts at him from above, and he looks up to see Smoke--but not Smoke. Paladin stands there, dressed in black, looking quietly out at the horizon before his gaze slowly, contemptuously, comes back to the dragon. I do wonder if Paladin brought Norge in to Delta Valley, or if he left him to be found. I rather think that at this point the young Paladin would want it to be known that he had made some restitution. Young Roderick Jefferson has listened to the tale, no doubt as fascinated as the viewers. He agrees with Paladin that it's possible to atone for past mistakes, and he begins by giving Paladin the name and address of the man who wanted Paladin dead. He promises to start polishing up his own rusty armor--perhaps we're seeing another Paladin starting out on his own quest. The world definitely needs more paladins. Despite his promise, he is startled when Paladin casually returns his gun, before turning his back on the boy and walking out the door.
This is a wonderful, wonderful episode, even while it leaves you wanting to know more.