Have Gun - Will Travel

Season 4 Episode 8

The Killing of Jessie May

Aired Saturday 9:30 PM Oct 29, 1960 on CBS

Episode Fan Reviews (1)

Write A Review
out of 10
8 votes
  • I can see why this is considered one of the best episodes in the series. Strong story, excellent acting all around, and fine direction. Kudos.

    Hey Girl is considerably different from Hey Boy, and not just in the obvious sense. I have an impression that she might be a first-generation American, rather than an immigrant. Rare for a Chinese woman of that class and that era, she seems quite well educated. Rarer still is her attitude. Chinese women were supposed to be meek and deferential. They might not have felt that way, but they darned well showed it in public. Hey Girl treats Paladin with great familiarity, being sometimes affectionate, sarcastic, or scolding. Here she lectures him on the need to get married, even citing Benjamin Franklin, although we don't quite get to hear ol' Ben's views on the subject. (ol' Ben, by the way, had only a common-law marriage himself, which he abandoned when it became inconvenient. Not one of the things we are usually taught about the Founding Fathers.) Hey Girl may feel quite safe expressing herself, because Paladin is absorbed in his newspaper and deaf to outside distractions. Some ten or twelve years previously, the father of Jessie May Turnbow had been brutally executed by twelve men for an act of treason against the Union. It sounds as though the only reason it was not called a mob action is that it happened in wartime. Jessie May was not quite ten at the time. Now, seven of the twelve are dead, and the article seems to have no doubt that Jessie May is responsible. Joseph Ergo, one of the twelve, has refused to raise a hand against the boy. However, the newspaper openly sides with another of the twelve, Abraham Sinclair, who is working to hunt Jessie May down. The lecture and the article end, and Hey Girl exits, feeling pleased with herself, and leaving Paladin wondering what the heck she was talking about. He pulls out one of his cards, and after three plus seasons, there is no doubt as to which man he is sending it to.

    Three day's hard travel bring Paladin to a campsite with three of the remaining men. Ergo is with Sinclair, and Paladin sharply asks him if he's changed his mind about Jesse May. Ergo slips the question off on Sinclair. Sinclair admits that he doesn't hate the boy, he's frightened of him, and has tried six times to get him. Paladin repeats his question, and Ergo admits that he has, because a short time before, Jessie May, while looking to kill one of the twelve, found him not at home and therefore killed his seventeen-year-old wife, instead. The third man, Lenzer, starts to imply that he raped or tortured her as well, but Sinclair angrily refutes this. Ergo tells Paladin that he went to the scene and found the shanty blown apart by Jessie May's homemade "automatic shotgun". This slides right past Paladin, because at the moment, it's just words to him. (Nothing is said about whether Jessie May went back later and picked off the husband, or the last of the twelve men.) A terrifying laugh suddenly echoes down the hill, and the night erupts with gunfire. Ergo has a sudden turnabout again, remembering the little boy he'd always liked. Pulling loose from Paladin, who had sensibly told him to stay still, he tries to climb up the hill and talk with Jessie May, who answers by blasting him back down. A few moments of silence leads Sinclair to believe that the gun was being reloaded, and he and Lenzer jump up to fire. Either it was a ruse, or Jessie May reloaded very fast, because both of them were knocked down moments later. Paladin is left viewing the carnage with a horrified expression, such as I've never seen on his face before. He repeats the words, now with understanding: "Automatic shotgun...!" Above him, a mocking whistle is heard, to the tune of "The Minstrel Boy".

    Seven days later, Paladin comes upon a camp. This seems to be an established, semi-permanent camp, with a good-sized tent as well as a lean-to and various suppies and equipment neatly laid out. Two men are waiting, not aggressive, but expectably wary, just as Paladin is. I'm not sure how many black actors had been showing up in full guest roles at that time, but there can't have been too many, and Hari Rhodes does a beautiful job of it. Paladin is quickly invited to stay. One of the things I love about the man is that, just as he is invariably charming to all women, he also treats all men with equal respect, until they indicate that he should do otherwise. He treats both George Jondill and Ansel James just the same. Jondill, we will learn, used to be a bronc buster, and it was presumably a bronc that left him with a lame foot. James was presumably a former slave, although not necessarily. Paladin tactfully waits until after a satisfying, laughter-filled meal before stating his business, mentioning no names, only that ten men and a woman have died. Jondill and James eye each other uneasily, and James mentions seeing a fortyish saddlebum come by. Paladin is good at reading people, so it's probable that he knows that something is up, and elects to let it be. After Jondill leaves the tent, James learns that Paladin has never actually seen his quarry. Hearing a stealthy footfall, both men react instantly, Paladin putting out the lights. James relaxes when a voice rings out, and says that it's one of their own men. Paladin stands watchfully as the boy strolls casually in, oozing good fellowship, and Jondill relights the lamp. The instant the name Jessie May Turnbow emerges, Paladin has his gun out. Jessie May evidences shocked, innocent surprise, and Jondill shouts that he has the wrong man, but Paladin is having none of it. He has James fetch in the chains he brought along to put on Jessie May--he's not lowering his gun for an instant. Jessie May openly admits that his father had been whipped with barbed wire before finally being shot in the head like a dying steer, but makes no other admissions. James wants to know if this "bounty hunter" is actually going to take Jessie May back for a trial. A fair trial? For the first time on this series, Paladin not only admits that he cannot guarantee a fair trial, he doubts that one is even possible. (Between the newspapers howling for blood and a dead seventeen-year-old female bystander, this is not surprising.) After Paladin takes the boy out to the lean-to for the night, James comments that he hates to see men in chains, the one statement that makes it probable that he was a slave.

    We're left not knowing just what Jondill and James believe. Do they think that sweet little Jessie May couldn't possibly have killed anyone--despite the odd coincidence that all his father's killers have died by violence recently? Or, more disquietingly, do they think that he's justified in what he's doing? If that's the case, learning of the dead girl should have rattled them somewhat, just as it did for Ergo and Paladin. Paladin has made a careful search for the automatic shotgun, to no avail. Jondill fetches blankets for Paladin and Jessie May, then tells Paladin very simply that if he tries to take the boy in the morning, he and James will kill him. He has known Jessie May for three years, and likes him. Shakespearean scholar Paladin might have countered with "One can smile, and smile, and be a villain...." He turns instead to Jessie May, who is an enigma. He is perfectly friendly to Paladin, despite being accused and manhandled and chained. Gun? You took my gun, mister, don't have any other. Paladin leads him to talk of his father. Jessie May, whose mother died at his birth, and whose father never remarried, has a typical small boy's adulation for a parent trying to do two jobs at once. Paladin asks if his father were a traitor, and Jessie May responds, "He was a Southerner." In certain places and times, that would have been enough for a killing--on either side, mind you--but the particular brutality of it makes me think there had to be more to it. Jessie May stated that he thought his father had done what they said, but after all, you don't call it treason for a man to be fighting for what he believes in. If, however, he pretended to northern sympathies to get information for the south, that would justify a charge. Perhaps Jessie May's father was not the "kingly" person he seemed to his son. Paladin tries jumping back abruptly to the gun, but it doesn't work; Jessie May don't know nothing about no gun, and he don't want to see no more killing. He starts singing a song--not "The Minstrel Boy", and Paladin leaves him, exasperated. I was surprised that he didn't ask the boy the obvious queston: if he didn't kill all those men, who did?

    I was also surprised to see that Paladin had relaxed to the extent of falling asleep, although his hand was right next to his gun. James calls him away from the lean-to, then informs him that Jondill is across the river, with a rifle aimed at Paladin's gut. All James has to do is drop his hat. Resignedly, Paladin hands over his gun and the key to the chains. James and Jondill have already saddled up Jessie May's horse with supplies. Paladin ominously informs him that he will be coming after him, to which Jessie May gives no answer. Once Jessie May is gone, Paladin calls to Jondill to come out, not from across the river, but from behind the tent. He knew, but he didn't want to kill either of the men. James realizes that Paladin is not the cold bounty hunter he thought that he was.

    As Paladin prepares to mount up, the eerie notes of "The Minstrel Boy" suddenly float on the air. If you look closely, you can see James' eyes suddenly widen. Paladin hoarsely bids them take cover, and slaps his horse away. Jessie May Turnbow has shown his true colors. A killer, most definitely. Twisted by years of obsession and hate, surely, but not mad, not entirely. He knew enough to carefully hide his weapon and to lie about it, he knew enough to dissemble and to cleverly get around Paladin's skillful questioning. And while he might have twistedly justified killing the girl by saying he wanted her husband to suffer as he had suffered as a child, there was no way to justify what he did here. These men liked him, believed in him, helped him to escape. All he had to do was wait. A day, an hour, even fifteen minutes, and Paladin would have been safely away from his friends. But perhaps he would not have had such a good vantage point, so his friends were discarded without a thought. Jondill, with his lame foot, had no chance, spinning helplessly about before finally crashing down. James ducked behind the supply barrels, and Paladin took a long, clean dive into the river. After spraying chaos about, Jessie May grabbed a tool (possibly a regulation shotgun tool, or else an icepick or screwdriver) and quickly popped out the spent cartridges and slammed in fresh ones. Paladin knew perfectly well that his gun was soaked and useless, but he had to try. It accomplished something more, which (being Paladin) he was probably aware of; he made himself a clear target, and Jessie May, with a growl, hauled his gun around in Paladin's direction. James promptly seized the opportunity and shot him.

    Quite possibly it was the first time Ansel James had ever killed anyone. He stepped away from where he had taken cover, dropping his gun and hat. Picking up the ugly, horrifying weapon, he finally realizes all that Jessie May has done. He had known that it was Jessie May whistling, just as Paladin did. "The Minstrel Boy" had been his father's favorite tune. Paladin steps up beside him, offering the rough, wordless comfort that men tend to offer to each other in Westerns.