It is not made clear if Paladin is heading for a job or on his way home. He's in cold country; he's warmly dressed and has allowed his beard to grow. He comes across an Indian who has apparently paused to cook himself a bite to eat. Startled at the sight of Paladin, the Indian snatches up some things, leaps on his horse, and flees. Understandably curious, Paladin investigates, finding a bandana and a poke--a small leather bag filled with gold dust, stamped with a J inside of a circle. He also, with endearing practicality, pulls off a mouthful of the cooking meat before backtracking the Indian's trail.
Having found no one at the camp he found upstream, Paladin finds a sign pointing to Borrasca Bend and heads in that direction. This is a region where men pan gold from the water. Borrasca Bend is a sort of town set up in the middle of things so that the men can get supplies without having to make the 13-mile trek to Juniper, the nearest established town. It's the weekend, and the miners are taking a break--which includes enjoying the weekly fight between the Watson brothers, which generally starts up around noon.
The fight concluded, the men all cluster around Paladin--something new and interesting. Paladin learns that the circle and J on the poke stand for Circle Jibes, one of the miners. The men keep perfectly straight-faced, allowing Paladin to find out for himself that the man is dead. Paladin no sooner starts to explain why he's there when they all pounce on him and immediately put him on trial for murdering Jibes. Another man has been killed as well. Paladin defends himself with perfect rationality, but this kangaroo court is having none of it. Things are looking bad for our hero, when fate intervenes--a man pulls up in a wagon, shouting that there's a woman up in Juniper. I loved the expression on Paladin's face as his erstwhile jury hastily abandoned the trial. (Did we mention that there's a woman in Juniper? A real, live woman? With yellow hair!)
Paladin is left alone with "Judge" Wesson, who dismisses the case and nonchalantly mentions that he knew Paladin was innocent the whole time. Papers in Paladin's saddlebag showed that he was in Santa Barbara at the time the first man was killed. Apparently every time a stranger passes through Borrasca Bend, he's put on trial, purely as entertainment. It just happened that in Paladin's case there had actually been a crime committed. Paladin, perhaps wisely, doesn't ask if Wesson would have allowed him to be hung, regardless. Paladin's ready to leave, but two things hold him back--there actually does seem to be a killer on the loose, and there's the little matter of Jibes' poke--he had no family to leave the money to...Paladin bargains for half the poke if he can find the real killer.
It's an interesting crew at Borrasca Bend--fighters, drunks, pickpockets, bigamists. Paladin learns that the man with the wagon, Sugie, had been a former grubstaker until he learned that he could make much more money serving the other miners. He also banks the men's money for them, all the men apparently having implicit faith in his honesty. The following morning Sugie hauls all the hung-over, passed-out crew back, and has Paladin help him toss them off--into the river. After all, sleeping men can't buy whiskey. Watch for the moment when one of the men aims a kick at Paladin and sends himself off the wagon, over Paladin's head, and into the water--poetry in motion. Paladin had been counting on the killer to have slipped away while at Juniper, but every one had come back. Sugie points out that that means nothing--he had helpfully tossed all the unconcious men onto the wagon and brought them back whether they wanted to or not.
A casual comment by Sugie brings Paladin up short--the camp he had investigated had not belonged to Jibes, after all--Jibes' camp was downstream from Borrasca Bend. Sugie amiably agrees to go with Paladin to the upstream camp. (He'd have to wait for the men to get themselves on their feet, anyway.) Searching the camp, Paladin finds two empty pokes--one with the sign of Hernando, a man who had simply disappeared some time previously. Sugie, who knows every man's stake, tells Paladin that this camp belongs to Jackson. We could have guessed it--Jackson is the mean little man who was most anxious to get Paladin hung.
Coming back to the town, Sugie shows the evidence to the Judge, who, for a change, has a legitimate case to deal with. The hung-over Jackson quickly trips himself up, but attempts to escape. Paladin knows that the old, poorly made gun Jackson aims at him will not work well--plus it got a dip in the river. The gun explodes, and Paladin, rather oddly, proceeds to shoot and wound Jackson. It really didn't make any sense--Jackson wasn't going anywhere. The other men swarm around him, and haul him off for his own trial. Wesson and Sugie seemed to be the only two "Benders" who understood the seriousness of the situation--for the others, it was just a good climax to what turned out to be an exciting weekend. Paladin collected his share of Jibes' poke and left, no doubt thankful to get the heck out of there.
It's an interesting view of the casual, but not quite anarchistic life of a mining town.