It starts out rather oddly. We learn that Hey Boy is not the only member of the staff who considers Paladin his favorite guest; a whole bevy of kitchen personnel bustle around his table, anxious to please. The chef's zucchini-blossom dish (plucked fresh that morning) is interrupted by an agitated Hey Boy, and a brief, multi-lingual squabble commences, which Paladin quickly deals with. Paladin's friend, Charlie Blackburn, has apparently made free with Paladin's suite and is snoozing on his sofa--without even bothering to take off his boots. For some reason, Paladin elects to transfer his meal up to his suite, and we're treated to a mini-parade, as the staff hastily gather up the appurtenances and trot after Paladin.
This next scene leaves a lot hanging. It takes Paladin several moments to realize that Blackburn is dead, not asleep or drunk, so he must have been killed in a relatively discreet fashion. Just how did he die? And how did he get in Paladin's suite? Paladin is a permanent resident, and the rooms are full of his belongings, including a quantity of art works. Doesn't the man keep his door locked? Was Blackburn placed in the room by his killer, or was he killed while snoozing on the sofa? Paladin takes it on himself to escort the body back to Alima, where Blackburn owned property. He learns from the sheriff that Blackburn wasn't too well thought of. Clearly Paladin knows something of the situation, because he takes the body to the home of the Lorings--Blackburn's enemies.
Hampton Fancher did a fantastic job as Keith Loring. A handsome young man, well dressed, soft spoken, almost too courteous--and yet there's...something...not quite right. Learning that the boy's father is not home--he's in San Francisco--Paladin leaves the body for burial and makes a quick exit.
The sheriff (Harry Carey Jr, in another good performance) is anxious for Paladin to leave. More of the background comes out in their conversation. Charlie Blackburn's property, a stand of timber, somehow came with no access to the roads, so that if he wanted to cut and sell his timber, he had no way of legally moving it. His choices were to sell out (to Loring), pay a heavy transport fee (to Loring)--or simply sneak the timber out, which was considered piracy. Paladin had counseled him to be patient and use legal means to deal with the situation, but Charlie had refused to wait, to his cost. The Sheriff suddenly starts praising Win Loring for the way he looked after his son--many fathers would have washed their hands of such a boy. Paladin must have noted something odd about Keith Loring, because he listens to all this without showing any surprise or curiousity.
Paladin apparently hangs around for a day or two, judging by a comment that Keith Loring makes later. Investigating the saloon where Blackburn had laid his plans, Paladin finds it empty--in fact, it looks as though it's been deserted for months. Getting a surprise win from a one-armed bandit, Paladin tosses the coins on the counter and helps himself to a drink. (Not a very good one, judging by his expression.) Keith Loring abruptly walks in, accompanied by another man with a gun. Keith admires Paladin's gun--what he can see of it. He asks if he can hold it, with just barely a hint of that something in his voice. The other man, Simms, instantly draws his gun and tells Paladin not to touch his. Paladin is scornful--until he learns that Simms is there to protect Paladin from Keith, not the other way around. The saloon had been deserted since a violent shoot-out some time previously, in which six men had died. Keith is very matter-of-fact about it. Presumably more men would have died if he'd had more than six bullets in his gun--which he had taken from Simm's predecessor right before killing him.
The sheriff unobtrusively directs a gang of men to follow Paladin. Confronting him, they "encourage" him to return to San Francisco. A mob against one man, it still took a blow from behind for them to get the better of Paladin. Paladin comes to at the foot of a sign showing "San Franciso 42 Miles" with his hat perched cheekily on top. Paladin views this with (no doubt) sour appreciation, and discovers that they have left his gun with his horse...after taking all the bullets. Paladin's well prepared, however--he keeps a secret stash of bullets in his saddlebag.
Win Loring finally returns home, and finds the body still where Paladin had left it. He orders that it be buried, admitting to his son that he's responsible for the man's death. Keith and Simms start to remove the coffin from the wagon, while Loring goes inside. He finds Paladin waiting for him. There's a very subtle hint in this scene. Paladin admires the decor, and Loring states that it is due to his late wife--the furniture had been imported from Europe, at no doubt considerable cost. However, he does not say that his wife was a woman of taste, he instead says that she was a "particular" woman, which could be read several ways, including some that are not complimentary. He also states that she was killed by a bullet meant for him. I wonder if he saw who pulled the trigger? Might it have been someone closer to home? Paladin's attempts to learn the truth about Blackburn are interrupted by Keith, who saunters in, still full of courtesy, although that "something" is becoming a bit more apparent. We learn that Simms is not Keith's first nursemaid; there have been two previous ones--both dead. Loring angrily asserts that one of the men died defending Keith. Keith only killed one of them. Paladin is incredulous. He only killed one, so that's all right? Keith loftily informs his father that Simms is also dead, killed while moving the coffin. It was "almost" an accident. Paladin gets the drop on Keith, but the protective father knocks Paladin down. Father does have some dregs of conscience in him--in spite of the fact that he would probably prefer Paladin dead, he prevents his son from killing him. Apparently he has been protecting Keith, keeping him home instead of in an asylum, because of a promise to his dead wife. Keith leaves, and Paladin attempts to follow, but is hampered by Loring, who takes him on in a remarkably vicious fist-fight. (They really should have done something about the hair of Richard Boone's stunt double; being black and wavy instead of Boone's brown and curly, it was painfully obvious where the double was used.)
Paladin tracks Keith back to the saloon, finding, horribly, bodies strewn in Keith's wake, with no sign that they were anything but simple bystanders. Paladin hears the sheriff's voice. Although he had been presented as a rather shabby character, and apparently in Win Loring's pocket, he shows considerable courage, facing the young psychopath who is ready for the novel experience of killing a friend. Paladin, knowing that the town is a fraction away from total carnage, does not hesitate to shoot.
Faced with his dead son--his loved, feared, and perhaps hated son--Loring crumbles and confesses to killing Blackburn, which Paladin had guessed at all along. Interestingly, Paladin doesn't wait to see if the sheriff will do his duty and arrest Loring--perhaps he too recognized that the sheriff has his good points.
A very intense episode.