It begins, as usual, at the Carlton. It's presumably quite late, judging by the cleaning lady on the stairs. Hey Boy, rather than Paladin, is reading a newspaper, with the desk clerk reading over his shoulder. Pandemonium breaks out, as an elegantly dressed and very angry young woman stomps down the stairs, followed by a surprisingly flustered and somewhat disheveled Paladin in his smoking jacket. (Hey Boy quickly darts up the stairs to the landing and hides--sort of--behind the paper.) The lady is making her feelings very plain, almost--but not quite--cussing. We don't find out just what Paladin did to set her off, but I suspect that Paladin, for once, underestimated the amount of persuasion the lady would need and tried to move in too fast. Unable to get a word in edgewise, Paladin resorts to the time-honored method of grabbing her and holding her close. His endearment sounds like it was forced out between clenched teeth, but the lady quiets down long enough for him to whisper in her ear. The effect is miraculous; she instantly calms and gives him a delighted smile. Her change in manner only goes so far, though; she still leaves. Paladin looks as though he just avoided getting scalped. Hey Boy is curious as to what he told the lady (as was, I am sure, the entire viewing audience), but Paladin prefers to keep his lady-taming methods secret, lest they lose their effectiveness. Hey Boy then shows Paladin the newspaper article that had caught his eye. Denton, Texas is begging for the assistance of anyone courageous enough to bring in the Wilder Brothers for justice. They are wanted for murder, but their extensive gang, made up of family members and close associates, have always contrived to keep them out of the hands of the law, as well as terrorizing the law-abiding citizens of four states. The brothers are currently is custody, but of course it's only a matter of time before the gang breaks them loose. Is there anyone capable...? Hey Boy is developing a flair; he drops Paladin's card onto the newspaper.
It's not pleasant weather even for an uneventful trip; it's been snowing. (The patches of snow are rather too neatly placed, and look like paint, but we won't quibble.) Paladin's prisoners, Dave and Sim Wilder, are already mounted up and thoroughly chained. Sim looks a little uneasy, but Dave, the elder, is complacently certain that they will be freed. The marshall invites Paladin to double-check the chains, and is not offended when Paladin takes him up on it. It had been sheer luck that got the Wilders into jail; the marshall came across them while they were sleeping off a drunk. The marshall was well played. He's oversized and looks easy-going, and wryly amused at how he made his arrest, but the fact remains that he did arrest them and held onto them, and I think he would be quite formidable if the need arose. He recommends that Paladin take the prisoners straight to Derby, where he can get a train that will take them into Texas, sparing Paladin three weeks travel in rough weather, with the threat of ambush. He offers Paladin his shotgun, but Paladin prefers go with his own rifle, and they head out.
The weather worsens, and they take shelter for the night in an abandoned cabin. Dave is quite talkative, but Paladin is largely unresponsive. Wilder shows off a fancy pocket watch, and cheerfully states that he killed a man, a Scot, for it, although he claims that he offered the man five dollars for it first. Sim shows a little irritation--he wants to sleep--but Dave quickly quells him. He now starts digging at Paladin. Someone is out there, waiting. Maybe more than one. Waiting for a clear shot. There will be more in Derby, his children and his friends. How will Paladin tell which are bystanders and which gang members? It could be anyone, anywhere. Waiting. On the other hand, if Paladin sets them free...Paladin coldly tells him to shut up. He wants to rest, but clearly he's going to have to forgo actual sleep for the time being.
They slowly enter the town of Derby. As Paladin observes the people out in the street, he orders the other two back into close formation, and pulls out his rifle. An Indian is loading a buckboard, but he tosses a bale of hay on board in such a way as to look like a barricade, although a few moments later he rearranges it while stowing more gear. Paladin heads them towards the station, threatening to kill them if they make a move out of turn. A man bursts out of the saloon, and Paladin instantly cuts him down, then whirls to take out the Indian who has snatched up a gun. Sim throws his chains around Paladin's neck and drags him off his horse. This is one of the few times we've seen Paladin actually come close to death, as he could have been strangled in a matter of moments. (I don't count gunfights--you know how those will turn out.) Paladin managed to jam his hand between neck and chain, slowing things down a trifle. Unable to pull Sim off his horse, he finally draws his gun, pokes it behind him, and fires. This did not look like a killing shot, but Sim falls dead in the street. If any other gang members are in the vicinity, they quickly disperse. Dave looks a little stunned, but then, oddly, asks Paladin if he's going to take Sim along with them. Presumably Paladin is getting paid to bring Wilder bodies, alive or dead, to Texas, because he is going to bring it. Dave insists that he wants the body embalmed, with a proper casket, which he will pay for. Paladin will be paying, too, in time.
The snow has changed to a cold, driving rain, as Paladin and Wilder enter the station. A young, fancily dressed woman is there already, as well as an elderly black gentleman, and a young cowboy, who seems most intent on braiding up the cord attached to the window blinds. Paladin prevents the chilled Wilder from approaching the stove. Wilder mockingly asks if he's starting to sweat, yet. Can he tell which one of them belongs to him? Or perhaps it's all of them. Paladin knocks him down into a seat, then slowly looks over the people. Paladin spins around, then relaxes--slightly--as a middle-aged Indian woman enters, carrying two large wooden cages (although I could not tell what, if anything, was inside them). Paladin bids the old mother take a seat. Paladin, perhaps, IS getting a little nervous; he nearly gun-butts Wilder as he plaintively asks again if he can approach the stove. Wilder doesn't have much use for the Indian woman; he feels that women should be done away with at the age of thirty, so their appearance won't offend his eye. He prefers them young--like the girl who's looking at him apprehensively. Paladin comes to the stove, and Wilder suggests that they might as well be friends. He also insists that Paladin is worse than he is, because he kills for money. Paladin simply looks at him grimly, not attempting to explain or defend himself. No doubt he knows that any attempt at self-justification will prove that Wilder is getting under his skin. The undertaker enters. The embalming has been completed (just how long were they at the undertaker's before coming to the station, anyway?) and the casket is outside. Wilder wants it brought in, despite the sensibilities of the people in the room. Paladin threatens to chain him to the casket out in the cold and wet. Wilder, with an odd meekness, agrees to this if necessary, and quietly states that it's a matter of respect. Paladin always has a lot of respect for the remains of the dead, and perhaps he wasn't looking forward to standing outside in the cold to keep an eye on Wilder. He agrees to let the casket be brought in--and notice that he didn't ask the other people what they felt about it. The casket is wheeled in and set on the floor. The girl asks Paladin what Wilder had done, and Wilder, with a grin, says that he eats little girls. The cowboys casually states that he will stomp Wilder, chains or no chains, if he insults the girl again. Wilder mildly insists that he meant no offense. The girl thinks that he's got a nasty mouth; he reminds her of one of her brothers. Wilder quickly suggests that he was her favorite, and she grudgingly concurs. Wilder seems to be familiar with the feminine penchant for liking rogues. She asks again what Wilder had done, and Paladin states the case succinctly: he killed people. In hot blood and cold, sometimes for gain and sometimes for nothing at all. A short time later, the stationman bursts in the door with an armful of wood, and stops dead, with Paladin's rifle nearly up his nose. (All those jerking reactions are hard on the constitution; Paladin must be getting rather exhausted.) The stationman dumps the wood, observes the situation, and asks Paladin if they're all together. Paladin requests tickets for Texas, including the casket. Although he has to pay full fare, the casket will have to go in the baggage car. Paladin gestures Wilder to accompany him to the ticket counter. Wilder hesitates, but under Paladin's cold stare, complies. He tries to get in another dig at Paladin, but it dies away as Paladin points his gun under Wilder's jaw. Paladin asks about the other people in the room, but the stationman briskly states that he isn't nosy. Paladin casually sets his rifle on the counter, but the stationman isn't frightened. Admiring his courage, Paladin candidly states that he needs the man's help, and the man reluctantly tells what he knows. The girl is simply a saloon girl, in from a farm somewhere and heading to San Francisco after only three months on the job. He doesn't know the Indian woman well, but apparently this isn't the first time she's tried to get on the train without buying a ticket. Paladin wonders if perhaps she's the wife of the Indian he killed in the street, but the stationman can't answer that. The old man is Moses, also heading for greener pastures after two months of work, in a coat that's too thin for the weather. The cowboy is a drifter, who only lasted a month at a local ranch before deciding to move on. (Three months, two months, one month--was there a point to this symmetry?) The stationman himself has been there five years--but there's no one in the room that can prove that.
Apparently not liking the way Wilder keeps staring at the girl, Paladin abruptly yanks him across the room and hangs his chained wrists over a coat hook fastened to a post. Moses gazes at him silently. When Paladin challenges him, he responds, very politely, that only a devil would put a man in chains. He himself would not reach out for the devil's hand. Wilder instantly unhooks himself from the post, and offers Moses a handful of coins. Moses immediately reaches out and accepts them, to Wilder's amusement. Apparently killing people is not as bad as chaining them. Paladin irritably hangs Wilder back up on the post.
Everyone sits or stands still, not looking at each other, not speaking a word. Finally, the train whistle blows. Wilder gloatingly teases Paladin; any minute now. Paladin ignores him. Wilder and the stationman go to the casket. Paladin quietly asks the cowboy, whose name is Bill Wren, to hand over his gun; he thinks it will be safer for Wren, but when Wren refuses, he does not press the issue. He first sends the girl outside, then the Indian woman (although she's not going to get on board without a ticket, whatever she may think). The stationman is too small to handle the casket. He wonders the same thing I did: why didn't the undertaker leave his wheeled cart with the casket until it was loaded on board? Wilder suggests that Wren assist, but Paladin silently gestures the stationman aside and approaches. They get one good lift before Wilder staggers and drops his end. Paladin icily orders him to try again. Wilder starts to put his hands around the casket, then suddenly springs. Paladin knocks him flying, and Wren rushes forward. Paladin instantly draws--but does not fire; Wren had not reached for his gun. (Now, that's control!) Wren stops, shaking with terror, for a long moment. I had had my suspicions the moment Wilder insisted on having the casket inside, and I was right--behind Paladin, the casket starts to crack open. Wren, still shaking, blurts out, "There!" and dives sideways. I think Paladin must have had his suspicions, too. That "look, behind you!" is such an obvious ploy, but Paladin whipped around without hesitation and caught the man as he started to rise. The man was holding a shotgun. He'd have been better off with a handgun; he could have poked that out through the crack. Instead, he had to stand to bring up the gun, which bought Paladin precious moments. The sudden flurry of activity is over. In a nice touch, Wren can be seen helping Moses to his feet and carrying his satchel for him, as Paladin instructs the stationman to summon the undertaker. He doesn't point out the obvious fact that the undertaker had to have been in on the trick, even if it was no more than accepting a bribe to allow a live body to be put into the casket. Perhaps he's trusting that the stationman will notify the authorities after they're gone. Meanwhile, he had paid to have Sim Wilder shipped to Denton, Texas, and he expects to have the body on the next train out. Wilder, with a rather hollow laugh, suggests that there will be more of his children waiting along the journey to Texas (which could have been a set up for a Part Two; it sounded quite ominous) but his mouth twists down as he passes by the body of what might be his son. Paladin follows him into the cold night.
In one of the episode guides for this series, it's pointed out that this one doesn't have a hint of the humor that often softened the grim episodes. (Obviously he didn't count the teaser.) It's a taut, powerful episode that keeps you on the edge of your seat.