At the Carlton, we see a first for the series. Paladin has rapidly--very rapidly--made the acquaintance of a lady performer who has been on a worldwide tour; a singer or actress, most likely a singer. She has come to San Francisco, but only for one night. Although Paladin already has a job lined up and was preparing to leave at once, it occurs to him for the first time that the job can wait for a little while. There have been a number of situations over the seasons where Paladin could have put pleasure before business. Securing the lady's promise to have dinner with him after her performance that evening, Paladin summons Hey Boy (only a few feet away), bespeaks a private room at a local restaurant, and hands him his card, with a message already written on it, to be sent to his employer-to-be. As Hey Boy scans the message, we can see Paladin and the lady heading up to his suite, apparently to indulge in some pre-performance entertainment. That man certainly operates fast!
Paladin travels to San Antonio and arrives at a mansion. A butler escorts him to the study of Samuel Keel, a man who seems unduly concerned with drafts.
The focal point of the room is a large board with an astrological chart carefully marked on it. Keel eagerly begins explaining what he wants from Paladin. A smaller board has been set up, with a series of names in a pyramid formation. Paladin identifies it as a tontine pyramid, a kind of lottery. I had always thought of a tontine as an investment among a group of men, the proceeds of which fell to the last survivor, but this seems to be something a little different. A half million will go to the winner, which Keel is certain will be Seth Carter. Paladin points out that there are three people higher up on the pyramid, but Keel brushes this off. His reasoning seems to be astrological, laced with a good dose of numerology. Gemini is in opposition to Taurus, and both of them point to Scorpio--the tenth month. Seth Carter's name has ten letters in it. Oh, well, that makes perfect sense. Carter will win the lottery--but Keel was the one who paid to have Carter placed in the pyramid in the first place (on account of those ten letters, you know) and therefore, the prize money should come to him. You would think under those circumstances that Keel would have kept careful track of Seth Carter's whereabouts, but apparently not. He does, however, have the names of three people who are familiar with Carter, although he only has a rough idea of where one of them is--Shaffner works in a carnival. Paladin is curious as to why Keel should fork over one thousand dollars when he could track the three down himself more easily than Paladin could. Keel cites astrology again--he is an Aries. He carries a watch fob with a ram design on it, as well as a ram statue on his desk. Something about a Babylonian Triangle makes this Keel's "Year of Shadows", and he apparently is spending the entire year in the safety of his study, not daring to venture outside. Although Paladin has displayed his usual competence in the esoteric subject of astrology, he clearly has little interest in it personally. However...perusing the paper with the names written on it, he holds out his free hand, palm up, and keeps it there as Keel digs into his wallet. This is one of the few times ("Mark of Cain" is the only other example I can think of) where Paladin is working for purely mercenary reasons.
Paladin tracks down the carnival, which is presented in all its squalid splendor. Battered looking signs and tents, worn equipment, a general air of seediness--yet for the local inhabitants, a wonderful, colorful interruption to their lives. Especially (for the men, at least) "Little Cairo" a scantily dressed exotic dancer, who gets nearly all the men in the vicinity under her spell with just a few wiggles. The cosmopolitan Paladin looks on in amusement as he accosts the barker as he is finishing up his spiel. The barker naturally assumes that Paladin is a creditor. Paladin, playfully stroking Little Cairo's cheek and giving her his signature tap on the nose, assures the barker that he is merely looking for a man called Shaffner. Shaffner is just in the next tent over--he's the Living Corpse, who is scheduled to be buried alive in just a few minutes. Shaffner is played beautifully by Jack Elam, whose protuberant eyes and gaunt face fit his role to perfection. Shaffner is an alcoholic, with a bottle hidden in his glass coffin, and he's not pleased to see Paladin--at least not until he considers that Paladin is a potential source of more alcohol. Paladin promises him some money--after he answers some questions. Shaffner knows nothing about Seth Carter's whereabouts; he had thought--or hoped--that he was dead. He had not seen him since he served time in Yuma. He would like to kill Carter, but bitterly acknowledges that he wouldn't have the steadiness of hand necessary, even if he had the gumption. He had first seen Carter when he was stationed at Fort Currant, a first lieutenant in the cavalry. Carter had originally been a drummer, selling worthless blankets to the army, and then somehow managed to secure the position of Indian agent for the local area. He and Shaffner had both been involved in the massacre at Green Tree Fort, but Carter had somehow managed to avoid culpability at Shaffner's court-martial. Shaffner does not recognize the name of Simon Parsons, but he does recognize Carl Wellesley--in fact, he had just seen the man recently when the carnival played in Virginia City. The barker enters the tent at this point; it's time to start the show. Shaffner has pulled off his robe, revealing a skeleton costume, and had darkened his eyes and whitened his lips before pulling a skull hood over his head. He clambers into the coffin with the ease of long familiarity. His hidden air hose is in place, and Paladin assists the barker to close the lid and clamp it down. Paladin moves away as the crowd begins to enter and the barker launches into his spiel. It's hard to say how long such a performance would have lasted--surely the audience would get bored after a while, just looking at a man lying in a coffin. In this case, the performance is interrupted as Paladin hears frantic, muffled cries from the coffin. The barker seems to be trying to ignore them, but stops talking as Paladin forces his way to the front. One of the onlookers observes that there is a snake in the coffin. There are some feminine screams as Paladin breaks through the glass. He uses some caution putting his hand in, but with incredible foolishness grabs the snake by its tail. The snake could have looped around easily and bitten him. Paladin draws it out and presumably kills it by whipping it against something, but it's too late for Shaffner.
Next stop, Virginia City. Paladin enters a basement shop, filled with birds, animals, and plants. A jolly, bustling little man (who somehow put me in mind of Captain Kangaroo) comes from the back, where he has been feeding some of his specimens. He assumes that Paladin is there from the local Agricultural Society, come to observe his pest-eating insects. (This seems like a remarkably modern ecological notion.) The man boasts that his insects will devour a great number of plant pests. Paladin finally gets his attention, addressing him as Carl Wellesley. The little man instantly denies this; his name is Wells, and Paladin will please get out of there. Paladin holds firm, and the story comes out, quite jumbled and barely coherent. He does know of Seth Carter--Carter is Satan incarnate. Wellesley had been a missionary for the Eurma (sp?) Indian tribe. He somehow discovered gold on the Indians' land, and informed the Indian agent, Carter. This is a little confusing. Why would he tell Carter instead of the Indians he was ministering to? Had Carter already begun corrupting Wellesley, just on the chance of such an opportunity coming up? Or was Carter corrupting him just for the fun of it, and then grabbed the opportunity when it arose? Carter needed someone in authority to declare the Eurma Indians as hostile, which would lead to their land being confiscated and put up for sale. Simon Parsons was that authority--but Paladin will not be able to question him; he's dead. He committed suicide when he found what SHE had done. SHE was apparently Wellesley's corrupting influence. She, being under Carter's influence, was set to seducing Wellesley. Shaffner (and possibly Parsons) was going to get some of the gold in exchange for cooperating in Carter's schemes, but Wellesley was not interested in gold; he was supposed to get the woman. The Indians were duly designated as hostile, and Shaffner undertook to chase them off the land, which led to the massacre of Green Tree Fort. The woman, not Carter, then purchased the land. The woman just happened to be Katherine Parsons, Simon Parsons' wife. At this point, something went wrong. Shaffner was arrested and court-martialed, with Carter somehow getting away. Parsons presumably learned of his wife's betrayal and, perhaps combined with guilt over the massacre, killed himself. Carter apparently abandoned Katherine, and Katherine, rather than turning to Wellesley, decided to become a saloon girl. (Presumably she had turned over the Indians' land to Carter.) As Paladin pries this information out, Wellesley becomes more and more agitated, and finally snaps completely in a hair-raising performance. I was a little disappointed with Paladin's reaction at this point; it would have been natural to show a little horror at what his questioning had led to. Instead, he views Wellesley's screaming rampage rather as he would look on a little boy's tantrum. Wellesley finally dashes upstairs to spread the word of everyone's damnation. Paladin only follows when he hears a crash and screaming. The tormented little man has finally found peace. The driver of the wagon that knocked him down insists that he could not stop in time. Interestingly, he also insists that Wellesley, while looking frightened, had never actually seen him coming, which leads one to think that Wellesley, rushing up to the street, had seen something--Satan, perhaps?--that froze him in his tracks in the path of the wagon.
Paladin, at this point, must be aware that matters are seriously off-kilter, but his curiosity pushes him on to locate Katherine Parsons. The saloon she works at looks quite clean and well-lit. The heavy-set owner (or manager) angrily snatches a cigarette away from one of the girls. She doesn't want the reputation of her place being lowered. Spotting Paladin, and recognizing quality when she sees it, she extends a warm welcome. Paladin is only interested in speaking with Katherine Parsons, although he is, as always, courteous about it. Looking a bit irritated, she yells upstairs for Katherine. The smoking saloon girl, apparently seeing Paladin as a better bet than the man she was sitting with, tries to engage his attention, to no avail. A shot rings out, sending Paladin leaping up the stairs as everyone else sits frozen. He passes by Katherine as she stiffly approaches the top of the stairs, but the killer has presumably escaped by a window. He comes back and eases Katherine down as she collapses. Katherine is utterly bewildered; why had he shot her? She loved him. She had tried to hold to him even as he was shooting her. Paladin manages to confirm, more or less, that it was Seth Carter who killed her. Laying her back on the stairs, he pulls an object from her dead fist. A watch, with a fob attached to it with a ram design. Things are clearing up for Paladin; he pulls his gun and runs outside, but obviously Seth Carter wasn't going to wait for him.
The camera cut was rather poorly done at this point, it gives the impression that Paladin leaped from in front of the saloon to the door of Samuel Keel's study, where he burst in and unceremoniously shoved the butler back out of the way. Keel, perfectly affable, was expecting him. Any news of Carter? Yes--but at the expense of three murdered people. (Paladin is stretching it here; one could say that Carter was responsible for Wellesley's death by causing him to freeze, but he did not murder him directly.) Paladin is convinced that Keel is Seth Carter, and Keel accepts this, promptly pulling a gun. This is where things get confusing. Just what did he need Paladin for? Obviously he was not confined to his study because of his "year of shadows", so why didn't he track his people himself? Was he setting Paladin up as a scapegoat, just in case? And just why did he need them dead? He had obviously become a wealthy man, was this from the gold from Green Tree Fort? And if so, then what was the money that Paladin was keeping him from? I can think of two possibilities. Carter had distanced himself from the massacre by changing his name, and now, after a suitable amount of time had passed, he proposed to go after the gold on the Indians' land, first getting rid of the people who might try to claim a share. Or...Carter actually had, long before, gotten involved in the tontine pyramid, under his own name. Winning such a large prize would put him in the public eye--thereby risking the attention of Shaffner, Wellesley, and Parsons. I wish they had been a little more specific.
Paladin responds to the threat as only Paladin can. Calmly facing Keel/Carter's gun, he announces that Keel is doomed, no matter what, and glibly spouts some astrological gibberish that presumably spells this out. He was taking quite a chance. Keel might have been using astrology simply to provide motivation, in which case Paladin's threats would have been meaningless. On the other hand, Keel did seem to believe strongly in astrology, in which case you would think he would be constantly studying and updating his horoscope, and would recognize Paladin's bluff for what it was. However, Keel just can't resist taking a quick peek at the board behind him--just long enough for Paladin to snatch his gun. Keel does get a shot off, which looked as though it should have caught Paladin in the leg. Paladin's shot, as always, was more accurate. Keel spurns Paladin's attempt to assist him; after all, the stars have spelled out his death. Paladin peruses the horoscope and mildly proclaims that--oh, dear!--he had been mistaken. It was Mercury, not Neptune, the sign of good fortune. Not to mention long life, which is a trifle ironic under the circumstances. Paladin marches out of the room, leaving the dour butler (who, by the way, had made no attempt to force his way into the room before or after the shots) to cope with the situation.
A very exciting, enjoyable episode, in spite of the questions.