It's a rather typical opening, but they frame the shot to make it seem different. Paladin appears to be quietly taking his ease with a glass of wine when the knock on his suite comes. Hey Boy is there, armed with a telegram and prepared to help Paladin pack up for a trip. Paladin firmly declines the offer, then looks at the telegram. (Note that the envelope is already open--Hey Boy's been peeking The announcement that General Crommer's impending demise might be to Paladin's financial benefit if he attends the man first makes Paladin crumple the telegram in disgust--but then he starts looking thoughtful. He turns, and only then do we see that he has been entertaining yet another young lady. It's hard to say if Paladin's interest was caught more by the money or the General, but either way, the young woman can't hope to compete. She knows it, too. After Paladin escorts her to the door and hopefully suggests that they might get together later, her stiff departure makes it clear that Paladin has wrecked yet another relationship. Ruefully, Paladin calls for Hey Boy, who of course was waiting a short distance away.
Paladin arrives at a chaotic household. Beauregard Crommer (wonderfully played by Hampton Fancher) is an arrogant young fop who, presumably, is first in line for the General's wealth, as he seems to be nominally in charge. He scornfully orders Paladin to be taken to the stables in order to freshen up. Paladin's expression indicates that only his curiosity about the situation is keeping him from leaving. Some time later, he learns that the household is filled with relatives of all sorts, all eating, drinking, and making merry while they wait for the General to die so they can get their hands on his money.
General Crommer is propped up in bed, looking very feeble. We quickly learn that Paladin had saved the General's life back in the war. Crommer does not like owing a debt to anyone, although a simple "Thank you" would probably have sufficed. Instead, he used Paladin's tactics during the rescue as an excuse to have Paladin court-martialed. Paladin, whose courtroom skills are undoubtedly as good as anything else he undertakes, defended himself so skillfully that Crommer found himself cashiered and under threat of jail--a threat that he presumably bought his way out from. Crommer turns to another subject. He wants Paladin to go and see a man named Caterall--a man who had once been his partner. He admits quite candidly that he attempted to murder Caterall, only to be shot himself and left for dead. Nevertheless, Crommer now wants to forgive Caterall as well as Paladin, as a way of wiping the slate clean before his death. He says that he cannot notify Caterall by wire, as his town does not yet have the telegraph. Paladin reluctantly undertakes the mission--but not for a mention in Crommer's will, no matter how substantial. $5000 will do--in cash. Crommer summons the fop, who has been hovering outside the door, and orders him to give Paladin the cash. He indicates his utter contempt of Beau as he does so, but Beau, of course, has the wit to keep silent.
Arriving at Caterall's town, Paladin naturally heads for the saloon to pick up information. The barman is friendly, but not very forthcoming, and suggests that Paladin wait--Caterall's bound to show up sometime. It doesn't take long for someone to slip out of the saloon and pass the word to Caterall that a stranger is looking for him. Caterall sends for Ronson, a local gunman. Mention is made of several other men sent to see Caterall, whom Ronson had dealt with. Ronson is a rather shabby looking old man, but a canny one--he figures that after three men, Crommer will have sent a more skillful man, and so he ups his price accordingly. The two confront Paladin, Caterall pretending to be his own foreman as he does so. Paladin can't understand what all the fuss is about--he just has a message to deliver. After Caterall has left, Ronson returns and threatens to kill Paladin if he doesn't leave town quickly. Paladin's getting more confused, but of course he doesn't allow the old man to rattle him. Ronson attempts to get Paladin to draw on him, but Paladin knows that even he can't outdraw a man who already has his gun out. Looking perplexed, Ronson shakes tobacco all over Paladin's meal, expecting that this will anger him enough to draw. No dice. If Ronson wants to shoot, it will be cold-blooded murder, with witnesses. Ronson indicates that he will be waiting for Paladin, and exits the saloon. An instant later, everyone else in the room is placing bets on the gunfight. Paladin eyes this askance, but makes no comment; undoubtedly he's seen the same sort of thing many times. One of the gamblers, seeking to give himself an edge, warns Paladin that Ronson never uses his handgun in a gunfight--that's just to throw his opponent off. He'll come armed with a sawed-off shotgun loaded with buckshot.
Paladin counters this by renting the longest barrelled shotgun available at the store, with two cartridges. Outside, he bellows at Ronson not to come any closer to him. With the longer barrel, he doesn't have to be close in order to hit Ronson. Ronson keeps edging closer. Paladin, who really does not want to kill Ronson just so he can deliver a message, warns him back again, even though he had stated that he would shoot if Ronson came any closer. Ronson, for his part, will not back down. His reputation is all he has going for him at his age. He takes a rush at Paladin, who steps sideways as both men fire. We don't actually see Paladin hit--that probably would have been a difficult effect to pull off. Ronson is blasted into the ground, and a moment later we see that Paladin has caught the edge of the spray of buckshot. Both hands and the side of his face are riddled with holes. Paladin's been hit more seriously before, but those were not nearly so graphic. The men who have been eagerly watching come out and surround Ronson before picking him up and carrying him off. Interestingly, no one goes near the wounded Paladin.
Caterall sneaks up as Paladin is having the buckshot picked out. Paladin is understandably aggravated, but when Caterall mentions that Crommer had sent him warning telegrams--to a town that supposedly had no telegraph--things start to clear up, and Paladin settles in for a long conversation.
The following scene is splendid. Crommer's butler comes down the stairs to answer the bell, looking expressionlessly at Beau, who's standing right near the door, but who of course could not be troubled to do anything so menial as open a door. The butler welcomes Paladin warmly. Clearly, in the short time Paladin had been in the house, the butler had learned to like him. Beau derides Paladin for not having his gun. The bandaged Paladin points out that it's dangerous to wear a gun that you can't shoot. Beau has decided to take exception to Paladin's previous behavior--and I really can't see what he would have had to complain about, unless Paladin said something off-screen. Paladin is fed up with the arrogant twit, and knocks him cold in spite of his injured hands. He tells the butler (who is looking quietly pleased) that he will take up Beau's challenge in San Francisco, with a side bet of ten thousand, as he can't be bothered to deal with the annoying pest for anything less.
The final scene opens with an absolutely superb shot of Paladin silhouetted in the doorframe. Caterall is still alive, and so is Paladin. The three previous men who had been sent to Caterall (no doubt with a promise of something in the will) had all been men who had gotten the better of Crommer somehow, at some point in time. Crommer could not bear to be bested by anyone. Nor could he bear the idea of forgiveness, either forgiving or, even worse, being forgiven, for that would indicate that he'd been in the wrong. Paladin tells Crommer that Caterall has forgiven him, and that he himself has forgiven him. (The tone of Paladin's voice puts this somewhat in Crommer has not won anything. He's left with a house full of vultures waiting to swoop. No love, no fellowship, nothing good and lasting and of any worth. Under the lash of Paladin's words, Crommer shrivels up and dies. Paladin perhaps reflects on the sheer waste of it all, as he stands framed in the doorway again before quietly walking away.