Odetta, the lady who plays Sarah Gibbs, was apparently a well-known singer in her time. Her speaking voice is lovely, very gentle and soothing. Except to sing, she does not raise her voice once during the episode, which begins with her seated next to a mule, which shows faint signs of life. They are in the middle of a rather arid plain. She sings softly to the mule, stroking him all the while.
Paladin is on his way back to San Francisco (possibly from the race of the previous episode?) Naturally he is not going to pass by; he offers his assistance. Sarah tells him that she is on her way to Dunbar, which seems to startle him for some reason. Perhaps he knows something of the place, and doesn't see this woman fitting in there. He quickly determines that the mule is beyond mortal aid. Not wanting to see the mule suffer, Sarah promptly gets up and fetches a rifle from her small wagon. Paladin spares her the anguish of shooting her long-time companion, silently taking the rifle. Sarah looks steadily on, only turning aside when the shot rings out. Paladin points out that there is no use trying to bury the mule, as the coyotes and other scavengers will dig it up again. Sarah shrugs this off; the mule is no longer concerned with his remains. A man, however...a man's remains ought to be disposed of with some ceremony, no matter what sort of man he was in life. This, as we've seen throughout the seasons, is a matter on which Paladin concurs. Sarah offers him a ten-dollar gold piece that she has long kept by her, in exchange for helping her to reach Dunbar, where she will take charge of her husband's remains. She hands Paladin a paper. (They do not indicate whether or not Sarah was able to read the paper herself, or if she had had to get someone to read it for her.) Paladin reads the formal proclamation, stumbling a bit as he realizes that Aaron Jedediah Gibbs is to be hanged. The circumstances have caused the law to forbid anyone--anyone--from being in contact with the condemned. Sarah does not think that this could possibly include her, but Paladin does not agree. Sarah is overwhelmed to think that she could not even say goodbye. Looking at her quiet, imploring face, Paladin agrees that they can at least try. As he turns to get his horse, Sarah pulls out what looks like a pendant or brooch from her trinket box. As he looks at it rather incomprehendingly, she goes on to say the only other thing of value she has is a comb that her husband once carved for her. Recovering himself, Paladin says awkwardly that the ten dollars is more than enough.
Hitching his horse to her wagon, Paladin and Sarah travel on. They reach the camp-cum-town of Dunbar. There is an outstretched pole which probably has the name-sign swinging from it in ordinary circumstances, but which now has three nooses dangling from it; an unpleasant sight to greet visitors. Dunbar seems to be a strange place. It is a mining town, and we will learn further on that it is at least a year old, and probably older, but it shows no real signs of permanance. Instead of cabins, there are tents. Even the Marshall's office is a tent; albeit one a little more sturdily built. The saloon (indispensable part of any town) is nothing more than a bar set up under a small grove of trees--although it is attended by saloon girls in appropriate dress. Everything comes to a dead stop as Paladin drives the wagon through and stops a little way beyond the Marshall's tent. The marshall is seated at a table outside. Behind his tent is a tall stockade, and there are two armed deputies to hand. Sarah remains anxiously in the wagon as Paladin steps out to confer with the marshall.
Paladin quietly hands over his card. One of the deputies, who has a twisted foot, limps over and belligerently informs him that gunfighters are expected to move on after a meal and a sleep. Paladin and Sarah arrived on the day of the hanging, which is scheduled shortly, at two o'clock. The marshall repeats the injunction against anyone seeing the prisoners, and Paladin learns that Aaron Gibbs and two others, seeking to steal the miners' payroll, had set off a charge of dynamite that caused a cave-in, resulting in fourteen deaths. Fourteen husbands, fathers...and brothers. None of them had had any chance for a final farewell, so none of the killers deserve any such privilege. The marshall quietly but firmly sends the deputy, Jim Harden, on an errand, and tells Paladin that Harden's brother, one of the fourteen, had rescued Jim when he was injured in a previous mining disaster, climbing down a mine shaft and bringing his brother back to the surface. Understandable that Jim Harden would be upset about losing his brother. Paladin can empathize, but he can also feel for a woman about to lose her husband. The marshall tells him that the town, up in arms over the tragedy, had nearly torn the three would-be thieves apart when it happened three months ago. He had had to call in state lawmen, and even then it had been a near thing. It becomes clear that the injunction was not set to punish the three men with solitude, as Harden seems to think, but to protect them from being murdered. (Not to mention protecting the grief-stricken townspeople from paying the penalty for interfering.) Possibly no one had thought that any relatives would come to Dunbar. Paladin does not try to argue against the hanging itself, but punishment is not the same as vengeance. He could have pointed out that depriving Sarah a few last minutes with her husband would hurt Sarah the most, who had done nothing wrong. The marshall doesn't want to rouse up the town any more than it is. On the other hand, he had the courage and the compassion to protect the three men rather than leaving them to the mercy of the mob. He agrees to arrange a quick meeting. There is a creepy, almost "Twilight Zone"ish moment here. There are quite a few people gathered around, some close by, others more at a distance. Not everyone could have heard the marshall's words, but, as one, everyone starts slowly walking toward the stockade.
The marshall bids his second deputy to keep everyone else out, and steps inside the stockade. The deputy, full of self-importance, orders Paladin to keep clear. Paladin, with Sarah now beside him, coldly states that he had no intention of trying to get inside--and the deputy had really better point his gun elsewhere. Eyeing his expression, the deputy wisely does so. Sarah confesses that, now that the moment is at hand, she's not sure if she can face her husband. At this point, all Paladin can offer her is the comfort of his presence. Harden returns and demands to be allowed inside. Looking at his expression, the other deputy allows as how the marshall surely didn't mean him.
Paladin might have persuaded him, but the marshall makes it clear (to himself, perhaps, as well as Harden) that this is his own doing. Harden goes back to the argument that his brother Frank had had no chance for any last words (well, that could be said of anyone dying unexpectedly) nor a chance to know that someone cared. (Um, he didn't know that his own brother cared?) The marshall tells him of a dog he owned that had attacked him in a rabid state. (Either the marshall had had a VERY well padded arm, or the dog was suffering something other than rabies; it's not too likely that the marshall would have survived otherwise.) He had killed the dog, but shown it a final kindness before doing so, and surely a man would deserve at least as much. The three prisoners are chained to the far wall of the stockade, and all three are showing different reactions to three months confinement and their imminent demise. One man reacts in terror to the marshall's approach. Another is indignant; he has created a small sundial with odds and ends, and he angrily points out that it is not yet two o'clock. He demands confirmation of the frightened man, who responds by frantically ripping apart the sundial and provoking a brief fight. Aaron Gibbs is quiet, but looks almost childish, working on a turkey-like image made from a pine cone and scraps. It turns out, however, that he is the calmest and most resigned of the three. When the marshall orders him up and fastens the chain to his own arm, Gibbs merely thinks that they are going to be hanged one at a time, and he is first. The frightened man is certain that the marshall has knuckled under to the mob, and they are going to be brutally done to death rather than quickly hanged. Harden moves in to restore order, and the marshall sharply makes it clear that he is not to indulge in any private vengeance himself. Outside, Gibbs is stunned to see his wife. Presumably he had arranged for notice to be sent to her, but he had not expected her to come. He gives her a kiss, and gives her the pine-cone bird, unfinished, as a keepsake. Sarah quietly asks what he had done. One of the widows jumps in; he had killed her husband by dynamiting the mine. Gibbs does not protest his innocence, or plead for mercy, he simply wants his wife to know that none of them had had any idea that their ploy to slow down pursuit would end up killing anyone. The crowd all starts to yell in protest, and Paladin bellows for them to all back off. At odds of fifty to one or so, they all meekly shut up and back away. Aaron Gibbs gives his wife the only legacy he can, telling her to use his name to obtain a job in a sorting shed. The time is at hand; he slowly moves off with the marshall, reciting part of the Twenty-third Psalm. (I'm wondering if part of that was edited out; he just starts midway.) Sarah breaks down, but only a little, calling out his name. Gibbs turns and asks her to bury him beside their son. Paladin stands at Sarah's back, listening as she speaks of her husband. I'm wondering if perhaps he was not a former slave; Sarah mentions that he had come down to being a field hand after having known better work. (Perhaps that was what drove him to try larceny.) Despite his own exhaustion from the work, he had gently tended their son in his illness. As with her mule, Sarah looks on steadily as the three men are prepared, only looking away after the wagon drives out from under them. (With rather unpleasant attention to detail, we also hear the thudding sounds as they hit the bottom of the ropes.) She silently draws her shawl up over her head, and immediately turns to the next business at hand, and Paladin quietly goes to fetch the wagon.
The three bodies are, at least, decently covered with blankets. The marshall seems a little taken aback when Paladin requests Gibbs' body, as is Sarah's right by law. Harden, however, has no intention of letting her have it. None of the others had received a proper burial; he points this up to a couple of the bystanders, and they wincingly agree. The bodies should be dumped like garbage. Exasperated, Paladin points out that the men are past caring what becomes of them; it is only Sarah who will be hurt by this. Harden refuses to listen, screaming at the others to throw the bodies up on the wagon, his hand hovering ominously over his gun holster. Paladin approaches him, not even touching his own gun, and Harden quickly pleads his hurt leg, although one does not use a leg to pull a gun out of a holster. Paladin, with his knowlege of human nature, knows that Harden has been using that leg to excuse a lot of things. Harden seems to think that he is the only person who has ever suffered anything. Harden looks about him, at Sarah Gibbs, killer's widow, at the townspeople, who have lost husbands, sons, fathers and brothers, and slowly limps away. The widow who had earlier spoken up (beautifully played by Peggy Rea) approaches Sarah, tears in her eyes. She tries to speak, but ends up mutely holding out her black shawl, and together they cover Gibbs' body with it. The body is loaded into Sarah's wagon, and the second deputy, rather diffidently, suggests to the marshall that they should take the other two to the "burying hill".
Paladin and Sarah slowly drive out, beneath the three cut-off ropes, as Sarah softly croons a hymn.
A truly fine episode; one of the best.