It starts quite oddly, with a young girl child slowly stating a plea to a curtain behind which Paladin is lurking. Her grandfather stands anxiously behind her, willing the words out of her mouth. Just how did they get into Paladin's suite? Paladin is not the sort to walk away from a guest in his quarters and close the door, so to speak. He is already acquainted with the grandfather, Wagner, and aware that Wagner wants his help, but he is completely taken aback when he whips the curtain aside and confronts a little girl. Paladin had every intention of leaving for Denver in the morning, and is well aware that Wagner is shamelessly playing on his sympathies...and it works. He promptly kneels down, no doubt aware that his height might be intimidating. The little girl, Anne Marie, is still mentally affected by a traumatic experience two years past. A wagon train had been attacked, and her parents and everyone else killed. She herself had had her back sliced up (one long, deep scar is visible when Paladin opens the back of her dress). Possibly more had been done to her before she managed to slip away and hide in some bushes. The attack, although it apparently looked like the work of Indians, had been led by a white man, Rusty Doggett.
This is the flaw: if Anne Marie was the sole survivor, how do they know that Doggett was involved? With her mental trauma, even if she had been able to testify, which seems doubtful, her testimony could not be considered valid. She's quite young now, and even younger when it happened; not likely that she would be aware of adult names, or other information that will come out later in the episode. It would have been better if they'd tossed in a line about one or more of the others living long enough to tell Anne Marie's rescuers what happened. Oh, well. It still makes for a very effective opener, and we don't even need to see if Paladin agrees. In light of later happenings, he obviously gathers up some more information before heading out. As usual, there is no indication of how long he was out on the trail, but eventually he tracks his quarry to the town of Juniper Springs. A sign at the town limit, rather than welcoming visitors or boasting of its amenities, makes the curious request for visitors to "stay below the deadline". Paladin doesn't seem to take much heed of this as he goes by. He heads, almost by reflex, to the town saloon (called the Bide-a-Wee; someone has a sense of humor), but then, looking about, he suddenly heads purposefully to the other side of the street. A man getting prepped for a shave outside watches as Paladin checks the saddle of a horse there. (Perhaps Paladin had previously learned a description of Doggett's horse.) The saddle has the letters "R.D." embossed on the leather. The man casually inquires, using vocabulary even fancier than Paladin's, if Paladin wishes to buy the horse. Paladin isn't quite so casual as he makes it clear that he's interested in the owner. When the man, Dallas Burchfield, claims to own the horse, Paladin's temper slides surprisingly fast. He's in no mood for banter; he wants Doggett. Burchfield advises Paladin to take care; the lady preparing to shave him, Cayatana, had, some time previously, decapitated her own father and is prepared to defend Burchfield. (No mention of her motive for doing so.) Burchfield is quite willing to betray Doggett--for a price, of course. Paladin gives him enough to purchase the vintage Amontillado (shades of Edgar Allen Poe) that he had ordered but had been unable to pay for. Burchfield gives him precise directions to Doggett's room at the Bide-a-Wee.
Paladin stalks into the saloon and pauses. I'm not sure why. The saloon is well filled, but so have many saloons in the past. Perhaps what startled him was the fact that, in spite of all the people, it was relatively quiet. The bartender moves to intercept him, but Paladin coldly puts him in his place and heads upstairs. Kicking in the door, he quickly gets the drop of Doggett, who has been lounging on the bed (even though Doggett had cautiously positioned himself facing the door). As they head back to the stair landing, Paladin freezes. Every man in the room below (and possibly the women, as well) has a gun aimed at him. Paladin's protest that Doggett is a criminal and he has the papers to prove it provoke a hearty burst of laughter. They get around the matter of Paladin's little derringer by having Doggett "know" that Paladin is the type to have a hidden gun. Paladin tosses his guns down, and Doggett instantly attempts to stab the unarmed man. Paladin blocks him, tosses him over the stair railing, and dives after him. Although Doggett is considerably bigger than Paladin, Paladin wins out. However, any hopes that Doggett's cowardly behavior would win the crowd to Paladin's cause are short-lived. A man seated at the bar, without even bothering to turn around, slowly presents a thumbs-down. (I learned a while back that the notion that the Roman "thumbs down" gesture meant to kill the person in question derives from modern culture and attitudes about death. The thumbs-down, in fact, meant to spare the person, and conveyed a kind of insult, in that the man was unworthy of the honor of death in combat.) The bartender breaks a bottle and advances on Paladin, who braces to defend himself. Another man abruptly knocks him out from behind.
Paladin awakens in Burchfield's room. Cayatana is matter-of-factly binding up his arm, presumably slashed by Doggett's knife. Clearly the townspeople didn't consider him dangerous enough to need killing right away; more fun to play with him. Burchfield won him in a raffle. Paladin brushes off his surprise; he's more interested in the fact that his quarry is probably miles away by now. Burchfield informs him, to Paladin's astonishment, that Doggett is still in town. Whatever his crimes, he's safe in Juniper Springs as long as he stays below the deadline. The deadline marks the difference between virtue and sin, with Juniper Springs coming down firmly on the side of sin. Burchfield goes on to say that other towns have similar lines, they're just less obvious. William Schallert does a great job here; his expression makes it clear that he's fallen afoul of such a line, even before he speaks of it. He's a former schoolteacher (which we could have guessed from his vocabulary), from a town named for his own family. Perhaps that fact is why the town reacted so strongly to his pecadillos, whatever they were. Alcohol, perhaps, although that might have been a result of the situation, not the cause. Perhaps, like Socrates, he was teaching the impressionable youth things that their parents disapproved of.
Paladin doesn't much care; he only wants Doggett, and he's going to get him. He heads back towards the saloon, staggering as he goes. Obviously that was a major crack to the skull. A man seated in a buckboard watches him with amusement. This is Teague, who presumably gave the thumbs-down on Paladin and apparently runs the town. (Various signs in his name can be seen around.) Teague makes it clear that Doggett, as an acknowledged outlaw, enjoys sanctuary in this town. Paladin wants the chance to prove that Doggett is too low a character even for Juniper Springs. Burchfield comes strolling up at this point, casually swinging a flat, curved stick. (I get the impression that this is some sort of sports equipment, a memento of his school, perhaps, but I'm not much up on sports.) He admires Paladin's eloquence, similar to his own, and suggests that Paladin have the chance to use it. Paladin should have the option of leaving quietly now, without hindrance, or staying and pleading his case before a jury selected by Teague--with a hangman's noose awaiting him if he fails. Teague seems delighted with the idea.
This plot has been compared with the famous short story "The Devil and Daniel Webster". In the case of the story, however, Webster was trying to win back the soul of a man who admitted to selling it in the first place, while Paladin is trying to convince a town of the damned that Doggett is even more damned than they are.
Doggett seems a little surprised as he is escorted into the saloon, although he will indicate that he knows what is going on. If Paladin loses, he gets the fun of hanging him, and has the noose right there to hand. The jury is seated behind the bar. At least one of them is a woman. Perhaps Juniper Springs is in Wyoming, which gave women the right to sit on juries in 1870, but it still seems a little odd. Paladin opens the proceedings with a calculated risk--he candidly states that the town is a shelter for outlaws and "social pariah", which isn't likely to endear him to anyone. His point is that even this town must have some standards as to whom they let in. Are they really willing to grant asylum to a degenerate who has forfeited the right to be called a human being? It's no surprise that Paladin's eloquence is countered with Burchfield as council for the defense. Burchfield pried into Paladin's belongings after he won the raffle; he presents Paladin's card as proof that he is a gun for hire, although I'd like to know just how he knew that Paladin commands "princely" fees. He accuses Paladin of being a lowly bounty hunter. Paladin doesn't deny this, although he normally does. Nor does he mention that he's very choosy about just what jobs he will take on. He simply assures the court that he is not being paid anything for this job (which is a little surprising). Burchfield scoffs at this; what other reason could he have? Paladin counters with a reply we would never expect to hear from his lips: Vengeance. Not justice.
Paladin's at a disadvantage here, and not just in the obvious way. Rather than reason, his whole argument is based on emotion, and he's facing a very tough audience. He does his best, however. He starts out by giving some evidence to the court as to the sort of man Doggett is, using the facts that he must have gathered in San Francisco. Doggett's hand is badly scarred, which Doggett claims came from fighting during the war. Not so, Paladin states. Doggett had been imprisoned, ready for court-martial, and had escaped by ripping his hand out of the manacles that bound him. His crime had been robbing dead soldiers, from both sides. There is a flicker of distaste all around as this comes out. Paladin points out that no one really cares about what happens to Doggett one way or the other. Their only reason for protecting him is to strike back at the society that rendered them outcasts. Burchfield protests that he is there by choice. Paladin disagrees. He's just like his client, the only difference being that he has only murdered one man--himself, and a pitful, no-account victim it was, to be sure. Burchfield leaps up in rage, gripping his stick, all his insouciance gone. When Paladin invites him to come ahead and strike, he glances helplessly about, and sags into his chair, sobbing. Some of the onlookers stare at him, stunned.
Paladin now gets to the meat of the business. Doggett had been hired as wagonmaster to the small wagon train, but later was fired for drunkenness. (Doggett implies that he was abandoned in the middle of nowhere, which makes me wonder just how Paladin knows of this. If it had taken place at some outpost of civilization, however small, there would have been witnesses.) Doggett later returned with a group of Indians (I didn't catch the name) and slaughtered them, taking their scalps, something the Nez Perce (the tribe accused of the outrage) do not do. He also took the life of a child. Doggett takes this as proof of Paladin's lies--everyone knows the girl escaped alive. (Did she, in fact, escape from him, or did he leave her as not worth bothering with?) Paladin quietly, but intensely, states that the girl did not die, but her life was taken away, although it might possibly be restored to her in the future. Right now her mind is locked away and out of reach. Doggett yells that Paladin has offered no proof--which is the crux of the matter. Teague, as judge, points out that Doggett is perfect right in this. He looks rather troubled as he does so, as though he himself is convinced of Doggett's guilt, but still has to abide by the rules. Paladin, with nothing left to him, falls back on a purely emotional appeal--Doggett's guilt is in his face. Teague reasonably states that you can't condemn a man for being ugly. Paladin makes one final--and still emotional--appeal. He had thought that even such people as these might have a spark of decency left to them, but obviously not. Teague seems certain of the jury's verdict, not bothering to send them out to deliberate...but perhaps the defence council has some final words. Council does, indeed. Burchfield stands up and offers himself to die in Paladin's place. Paladin is, perhaps, too stunned to react to this incredibly noble act. Doggett is infuriated, thinking that it's some sort of trick. His insouciance back at full force, Burchfield mildly comments that he's getting himself out of hell--and away from the likes of Doggett. Doggett leaps forward and stabs Burchfield. Completely ignoring the fact that Doggett might hit him next, Paladin grabs Burchfield and carefully lowers him to a table, aided by Cayatana. Killing Paladin was probably next on Doggett's list, but Teague appointed himself executioner as well as judge, and shot him. His argument would probably have been that it was in retaliation for the attack on Burchfield. He quietly bids Paladin to go--he's on the wrong side of the deadline.
Paladin hoists up Burchfield and moves out. Game to the end, Burchfield makes some reference to "Kayron" or "Cayron" or some such, which I've been unable to trace, so far, but Paladin, of course, understood it. As Cayatana followed after, one of the onlookers, with an odd formality, presented her with Burchfield's hat. One can hope that Burchfield survived and went on to better things, but in any case, he has redeemed himself. Cayatana seems aware of this, looking after him approvingly before continuing on.
Excellent episode, as I said, in spite of the flaw. Everyone does a fine job, but Richard Boone and William Schallert really shine.