It's pure chance that Paladin's in the town; his horse's bridle has been damaged and needs repair. It only takes moments for him to see that something deadly is going on. A woman strolling happily with her husband or beau suddenly screams in outright terror and flees. Paladin watches narrowly as the townspeople scramble in all directions, all but one slit-eyed man who slowly steps into the street and arcs his hands out, waiting. Another man emerges at the end of the street and begins to approach. Paladin enters the general store, but he just can't concentrate on the business at hand--like the storekeeper and the rest of the town, he just has to look at what's happening outside. The tension bursts with two quick shots.
One man lays dead; the slit-eyed man is clutching his arm, his gun lying in the dust. The townspeople approach cautiously, but when they see that the survivor is wounded in his gun arm, the excitement starts to build. Doggie Kramer is hurt. Doggie Kramer can't reach his gun. Doggie Kramer can't hurt them. Like rats attacking a wounded lion, they start to close in. Kramer stands them off by sheer force of will, but he knows it can't last; he moves away, calling to the doctor to attend him. Paladin trails after them.
Before allowing the doctor to touch him, Kramer purchases (on credit) a small shotgun and cartridges, and makes the storekeeper bind the gun to his good arm so that he cannot drop it. Paladin enters and is instantly confronted. Stating that he's simply there to make a purchase, Paladin displays his card. Kramer doesn't seem much impressed, and leaves the store. Making his purchase, Paladin learns that the sheriff had apparently made a point to avoid the altercation in the street, possibly at Kramer's orders. As Paladin prepares to leave, Kramer yells at him to come up to his hotel room, loosing off a shot when Paladin balks. Annoyed, Paladin goes to the room, but has no intention of doing anything for Kramer. Kramer is well aware of the danger he's in; the men of the town are gathering, building up their courage to kill the man that has been the town nemesis for so long. He wants Paladin to escort him safely out of town--for $200. It would be safest to leave at once, while the men are still working themselves up, but Kramer is just starting to react to the trauma of his wound, and needs time to rest. Paladin is not interested in the slightest.
Stopping at the saloon for a drink, Paladin finds the place jammed full of men. Very few are drinking; Paladin has a hard time squeezing through and obtaining a bottle for himself. They're all placing bets on when Doggie Kramer will be killed. There's not so much betting as to who will do the killing--the odds seem to favor Terry Gallagher, the dead man's brother. (Someone presumably raced out of town with the news.) Paladin seats himself well away from the proceedings. I was surprised that he didn't leave the premises. The sheriff strolls in, and Paladin is startled to find that he knows the man; Jim Toby. Toby used to be a fine sheriff, but he has aged and has a bad case of the shakes--and knows it. He would retire, but knows that they can't get another good man in. The town is poor (not too poor to bet, though). He looked the other way while Kramer gunned down a weak opponent, and now he will look the other way when the cowards of the town swarm over the weakened Kramer.
Paladin's sense of justice, not to mention sheer humanity, override his other impulses, and he returns to the hotel to offer his services--on his own terms. He will take Kramer out at 4:30 in the morning. Sheriff Toby meets up with him and urges him to reconsider--Kramer isn't worth risking his life for. Kramer may be a worthless specimen of humanity, but Paladin can't let him be killed at the hands of a mob. Or perhaps he's trying to save the mob from a hideous act that they will have to live with for the rest of their lives. Toby retreats, but not before warning Paladin about an especially dangerous townsman; the man who got Kramer's gun. This leaves Paladin with the unpleasant fact that his friend not only did not attempt to stop the gunfight, he sat right in that hotel room and watched it happen. Kramer, for his part, makes his own plans. He still has the shotgun strapped to his arm, and carefully conceals a derringer in his sling.
Paladin is apparently one of those people who can set an internal alarm clock and wake up just when they want to. At 4:30, he fetches Kramer, making it clear that he is taking Kramer as a prisoner. They slowly exit the hotel. (Apparently there is either no back door, or Paladin knew that it would be pointless to attempt a stealthy exit.) Despite the late hour, there's still a bunch of men out waiting. Paladin, despite his warnings, is forced to shoot one, while Kramer shoots the man who had taken his gun. Kramer claims that the man was going for his gun, but there's something in the way he says it...no one else says otherwise, and the feeble sheriff says that maybe he was. Kramer clearly has a lot of power over the sheriff, and enjoys wielding it. Everyone is cowed by the gunfire, and the two men leave without further incident. Although Sheriff Toby had left his badge in Paladin's room, Paladin calls to him to come and pick up Kramer in Santa Fe as a properly arrested prisoner.
Once clear of the town, Paladin separates Kramer from his shotgun. Kramer tells him to his face that he will kill Paladin the moment he no longer needs him. I'm reminded of the fable of the scorpion, who killed the animal who assisted him simply because it was his nature--even though the killing meant that the scorpion himself would die. En route, they come across Terry Gallagher, who quickly guesses who Kramer is. Paladin warns him off, but Terry can be patient--and he demonstrates that he is a much faster gunman than his brother. Paladin points out that he may even be faster than Kramer. He tries to show Terry that following the course he has set himself will turn him into the sort of man that Kramer is. Terry is outraged. Kramer, interestingly enough, participates in Paladin's lesson by telling Terry that he had started his own career by avenging his father's death. He then proves how low he is by taking a shot at the off-guard Terry. Stupid, too--he seems to have totally forgotten the armed man sitting right next to him. Kramer's shot is poor, but Paladin's is right on target.
Terry offers to take the body back to the town. Paladin suspects that boy plans to take credit for the killing, which will be just as bad as actually doing so in the long run. Even if he doesn't claim credit, the town will probably give it to him anyway; it will sound better in stories than Kramer's being killed by an impartial stranger. Terry and Kramer's names will be linked together forever. Perhaps somewhat nauseated at that thought, the boy thanks Paladin for saving him from himself, and rides off--leaving Paladin to deal with the body, but then, he was wounded after all.
I suspect that Paladin knew all along how the situation would turn out. He's a great student of human nature.