The teaser, as often happens, provides a light touch prior to the grimness of the remainder of the episode. Paladin, for a change, is being wooed rather than wooing, to the strong disapproval of Hey Girl, who is up on the stairs looking across at them. The young woman seems convinced that she has met Paladin somewhere in Europe. Paladin shakes his head to her suggestions, but eventually they kiss (in public! Tsk, tsk!) at which point the girl seems certain that she remembers now. Paladin recites several lines in French, which earns him a slap in the face before she indignantly flounces off. Hey Girl finds this very amusing, but diplomatically conceals this when she approaches Paladin. "A good liar should have a good memory" is not exactly a line calculated to enhance romance. One has to wonder why he would say such a thing at such a time. Notice, also, that when he spoke the words, it was not in a seductive tone, nor a teasing one. He looked her full in the face, and spoke the words very distinctly. It may be that he simply prefers to seduce, rather than be seduced, or else found the lady lacking in some respect and chose (perhaps unconciously) to push her off. Being the gallant gentleman he is, he would give her the opportunity to walk away first.
Hey Girl has found a newspaper article certain to interest Paladin. The McPhater brothers had been indulging in a drunken orgy (the discreet newpaper leaves the details to the readers' imaginations) and ended up murdering two deputies who were merely trying to get them to quiet down. The people of Soledad, justifiably outraged, have pooled a hefty sum to give to anyone who can capture them.
As usual, there's no indication of how long it took Paladin to track them down. He comes silently up behind Bud McPhater, hunched up and sullenly reading a book, and bids him to disarm himself--carefully. When Paladin tells him to wake up his brother, McPhater sneeringly tells him that he's dead. There's not a mark on him to be seen. McPhater triumphantly tells Paladin that, despite a lifetime of running, his brother has beaten the authorities; he's died a natural death. Paladin isn't too impressed; he merely states that they will take the body with them and drop it off at the next town before proceeding to Soledad. A shallow river runs outside the town limits of Soledad. Paladin and McPhater find that the bridge has been barricaded at both ends. Assuming that there is some damage to the bridge itself, they start to ford the river, only to be shouted back by a man on the far side. He knows who Paladin is--Paladin had sent a telegram from the previous town. There has been killing sickness on their side of the river, which might be diphtheria. Soledad's doctor has gone to investigate--which will include examining McPhater's dead brother. Until they know what the illness is, no one will be allowed in Soledad. They will, however, provide food. Paladin accepts this and prepares to make camp at riverside. McPhater, who presumably has been keeping quiet up to this point, abruptly lunges at Paladin, to be stopped cold by a hard fist. Paladin then drags him to the river and tosses him in, then hauls him back out. McPhater spouts Bible quotations, then says that he has now been given a sign that Paladin will never take him to Soledad. Paladin grimly assures him that he will.
Some time later, Paladin and McPhater are having a meal when a covered wagon comes up. Seeing the barricade, the driver and his daughter decide to pull aside and find out what's going on. Leaving his daughter on the wagon, the man, Strickland, approaches. He's a little nonplussed to find them chained together. (So am I. Under the circumstances, you would think that Paladin would have chained him to a tree and kept him at a distance.) Paladin explains about the quarantine, and two more join the party. Jody, like most women on this show, finds Paladin easy to talk to, and passes some time by telling him her life story, more or less. Paladin, of course, listens with his usual courtesy. Jody, apparently, has been the moving force behind them leaving their farm to seek a better life in San Francisco. She mentions, rather indifferently, that her father hadn't wanted to leave because her mother was buried on the farm. Her father cringes a little. Jody wants to enjoy life for a change and wear pretty clothes, but she doesn't seem too concerned about how she is going to achieve this. Her attitude suggests that she might go looking for a rich protector. In point of fact, she flirts outrageously with Paladin, considering that her father is sitting just inches away. Perhaps it's to provide a distraction that Strickland suddenly turns on McPhater. Presumably Paladin told him about McPhater; he is incensed that such a man should be reading the Bible. Paladin might have pointed out that a sinful man surely has more need of the Bible than a righteous one. McPhater claims that he is reading about the terrible fate awaiting Strickland, which infuriates Strickland even more. Paladin quietly, but firmly, intervenes when Strickland would have snatched the Bible away. McPhater doesn't care; he has it memorized, supposedly. Jody changes the subject by leaning closer to Paladin and asking him to tell her all about San Francisco.
More time passes, and another traveler approaches. He has "official business" in Soledad, but that means nothing against the quarantine. McPhater seemingly offers hospitality to the newcomer, then careens off into a loud and confusing Biblical babbling. Why he waited until now, I don't know, but he asks Paladin if he will tell the others, or let McPhater do it himself. Paladin, as undramatically as possible, tells them that McPhater's brother died of a fever. The fear starts instantly, however. I was surprised that Strickland didn't rail at Paladin for having them all sit so closely together without warning them. Paladin tries to assure them that they don't know that it is diphtheria, not yet. Starting to clutch at his throat (diphtheria obstructs the breathing) Strickland ominously states that he had seen a man die from it before. Paladin angrily tries to quell him, but the newcomer chimes in, saying that once in Witchita he had seen the bodies stacked up like cordwood. Paladin tries again to stave off their panic, saying that he had seen men let their fears drive them to their deaths, without any real cause. Taking advantage of Paladin's distraction, McPhater hits Paladin hard, but not hard enough; after tossing the key to the chains into the water, Paladin drags him to the river and once again dunks him, this time holding his head under long enough that McPhater probably started to panic.
Some time later, the newcomer, (Paladin already knows his name is Gaunt) comes to the river and dips up a teacup of water. McPhater instantly tells him that the Lord has tainted the water. (I was surprised that Paladin didn't tell him that he had tainted the water by throwing McPhater in it). Gaunt tips the water back out, to McPhater's amusement, and walks back to where he has bedded down next to the bridge. Paladin immediately goes after him, ignoring the fact that McPhater, perforce, has to come along, too. Paladin tells Gaunt that he ought to know that the water is pure, and Gaunt agrees, then starts fumbling with his pack, disclosing a hangman's noose. Presumably he wants to get back at McPhater; he matter-of-factly lists off his various trades, including that of executioner. There is someone to be hanged in Soledad. Presumably it's McPhater himself; the town could have wired him after they got Paladin's telegram. He's in no real hurry, however; he doesn't like hanging people. McPhater is bitterly scornful of him. Gaunt candidly admits that he does it for the money; he's not too good at his other trades, and I would assume that any town that didn't have a lawman to do the job for them would pay a good price to keep the blood off their own hands. (Lynchers, of course, are another matter.)
Strickland points out to Paladin that the river is not that well guarded, and they could split up and make their way across. Paladin sensibly answers back that one or more of them may have been exposed to the highly infectious diphtheria. There are children in Soledad, and they cannot risk exposing them. When Gaunt wanders back to the river's edge, McPhater calls out that he's not looking well. He's quiet, too, that's a sure sign of the fever. McPhater seems to have a good understanding of men's fears and how easily they can be fed; Gaunt uneasily wipes at his forehead, then begins a quiet coughing. Jody throws herself at Paladin's feet, asking frantically if he's really ill, but Paladin cannot reassure her, not now.
The following morning, Strickland approaches Paladin while McPhater seems to be asleep. McPhater is the only one known to have been exposed to a sick man (he forgets that Paladin was, too) so why not get rid of him and be done with it? When Paladin points out the small matter of the chains, Strickland says he will cut the chains--afterward. Why not before? Given Strickland's state of fear, it would not surprise me if he scampered off and left Paladin chained to a dead man. It's a moot point, of course, Paladin will not kill his prisoner. Not for anyone's sake, even his own. At this point, McPhater drawls that Strickland (although he could just as easily have been referring to Paladin) talks to much, which is a sure sign of the fever. Paladin points out that this flatly contradicts his statement to Gaunt the night before. This quiets McPhater, but only temporarily. Spotting Jody, who has come to the river's edge to freshen up a bit, he asks her, quite civilly, for a drink. Jody hesitates, but common decency wins out and she brings him a cup, kneeling down gingerly and waiting with clasped hands. Apparently something in his gaze unnerved her; she abruptly twists away, but he snatches her into his arms and plants a long, hard kiss on her. Paladin and her father both spring up and wrestle them apart. Paladin lands an incredibly vicious punch full on McPhater's mouth (which must have hurt both of them considerably); when McPhater wobbles back up into view, his whole mouth is dripping blood. Paladin is thoroughly fed up with McPhater; he growls that he will give this "brave man" two free hands and a gun, and snaps at Gaunt to fetch his hammer and chisel. McPhater's act was one of the most cold-bloodedly vicious I've ever seen; he shouts at Jody that when she is dying of the fever she can infect Paladin in her turn, with a kiss. Jody collapses in her father's arms, weeping with despair.
Gaunt, as he had said, is not much of a hand with the chisel. It is Strickland, the farmer, who must be able to turn his hand to anything, who takes over the job. In the meantime, one of the guards has crossed the bridge with a basket of food; he views the situation and quickly retreats. Once free, Paladin has Gaunt give McPhater his gun. The draw is a foregone conclusion, but Paladin only wings McPhater. He intends to bring him alive to Soledad.
I'm wondering if perhaps there was some more dialogue with Gaunt that was edited out. Presumably an executioner hired from outside would only meet up with the condemned shortly beforehand; it must have been unnerving to interact with his future victim for so long a period. Perhaps it gave him too much time to think. In the evening, Paladin approaches Gaunt (who remains camped quite distant from the rest of them). Gaunt is fingering the noose; is he perhaps contemplating using it on himself? Paladin is obviously aware that something is troubling the man. He quietly points out that everyone has the will to live, to die, and, if necessary, to kill; Gaunt is not alone. Apparently satisfied that he made his point, Paladin bids him goodnight.
The following morning (presumably) a voice hails them from across the river. Whatever the illness was, it was not diphtheria or any other highly contagious disease; they're free to cross over. (So what the heck was it?) Strickland wakes his daughter and tells her the joyful news. They quickly tear down the barricade on their end and prepare to make the crossing. All the fight has gone out of McPhater; learning that Paladin was by far the better gunman probably had something to do with it, but also, with the threat of diphtheria passed, he no longer has anything to torment the others with. Gaunt and Paladin are philisophical about the nature of fear (and Paladin, despite his calm demeanor throughout, must have been as frightened as any of them at the thought of catching the dread disease). Paladin reflects that, now that their fears have passed, they will quickly forget that they had them in the first place. The quarantine at Soledad's bridge will become an interesting story to tell. He and Gaunt turn away to their respective duties.
A very intense episode.